Wk.32- Home is Where the Hard Court Is
Back "home" on the hard courts of North America, a comeback by any other name smells just as sweet... if you're Jada's Mom, that is.
Twelve months ago, the eventual 2009 U.S. Open champion returned to the WTA tour in Cincinnati after an absence of more than two years. As a wild card, she reached the quarterfinals to kick off a hard court summer that would end with her lifting her second career grand slam singles trophy. All around the world, she was lauded for deciding that her athletic career need not be over forever simply because she'd become a mother. Well, not really. That would have been the sensible and respectful way to address her accomplishment. Actually, she was essentially portrayed as some sort of alien being with superpowers beyond all reason, and some acted as if her feat was the most spectacular in human history -- even though it'd been done before in tennis, and even more finely-tuned track athletes had spectacularly returned to form after having children before her, as well.
Ah, but I've come not to bury Elke's Sister, but to actually praise her. For the most part, at least.
The Original Belgian Comeback in America+1, so far, looks even better than the first installment. While Maria Sharapova was garnering more media ooh's and ahh's during the week, it was the Squeegee Queen who was the steady presence throughout. Well, at least until she faced Sharapova in the final.
And what a mothernature of a final it was, too.
Not that it started out that way, for as has troublingly been her way far too many times in big matches in the past past, the Belgian Barbie didn't really seem as if she'd ever left her hotel room for the tournament grounds. The 1st set wasn't a pretty one by either player, but Sharapova won it resoundingly 6-2 after BB lost the last four games after serving up 40/15 at 2-2 and losing the game in which she hit three double-faults in all. In the 2nd, the Russian edged toward a quick straight sets win that seemed as if it would signal something of a return of the onetime Supernova to the forefront of big time WTA tennis. But once The Former Easy-Bake staved off three match points at 5-3 to hold serve, then saw the match interrupted by a seventy-four minute rain delay, everything changed.
When the pair returned to the court, Justine's Countrywoman was a different player. She joked afteward that during the break she's retrieved her serve from her hotel room, but the fact is that she may have rediscovered something even more precious. Her desire to win. All season, its presence within her has been something of a question, as was so often the lament in her career's first go-round. It might have been an illusion, but she even seemed to noticably pull out her patented splits slide more often after having cut back on it at least a tiny bit in order to preserve her body (it'd be easy to wonder here whether this says something about the inner workings of her mind when it comes to decisions about her career's future beyond '10, but that's something to discuss some months down the line, I suspect). While Cincinnati provided the backdrop for Barbiella's original comeback last summer, the one that took place in this year's final was a tad more tangible to the naked eye.
After the three saved match points, the '06 Open champ saw her opponent serve for the match at 5-4 in the 2nd, and then go up 3-0 in the 2nd set tie-break. But it didn't matter. The Belgian's game was crisper and more forceful, and she took control. She won the tie-break 7-4 to knot the match (even while trailing 23-11 in winners), then went on to carry her momentum through the 3rd set to put away a 2-6/7-6/6-2 win that could do as much good for her psyche as it might do damage to Sharapova's over the next month. Even that it took five match point to finally wrap up the victory, much like her pair of nearly-gave-them-away wins over Justine Henin earlier this year, turns out to be something that works in her favor in the end.
Whatever doesn't kill her spirit makes her stronger.
It's odd. Brian's Wife has had a fairly lackluster year. She rose to the occasion in matches against countrywoman Henin, but her near double-bagel exit in Melbourne, near-disasterous clay/Fed Cup season and disappointing grass campaign has provided a more realistic framework for a season that has been something of a letdown after her quick return to prominance last summer. But, still, her Cincinnati title gives her three crowns on the season -- a total which leads the tour through thirty-two weeks. Talk about "lies, damn lies and statistics" playing tricks with your head.
Not surprisingly, though, all three of those titles came on hard court. That fact IS important, and could be telling.
Does this win bode well for her U.S. Open title defense attempt? Well, the comeback does, but the sleepwalking start most definitely does not. During the course of this match I went from "no way" to "yes way" (hey, an old "Wayne's World" movie just broke out) as far as the Waffle's chances to win in New York (and maybe went the opposite way with Sharapova) next month. Of course, the truth probably lies somewhere in between the two extremes, depending on Serena Williams' condition and temperament at Flushing Meadows. The Top-Ranked Belgian likely won't get another well-timed assist from Mother Nature as she did in Cincy, but maybe with her experience in Ohio in her recent memory bank she won't need one.
In a hard court summer where it's been difficult to determine anything for certain, Leo & Els' Devoted Daughter is the perfect poster child for the upcoming deuces-are-wild U.S. Open. As good as she can be (see '06 and '09 in NYC), she can be just as bad (see Oz '10) if her head's not totally in it.
Two weeks to go before the first ball is struck in anger, and the season's final slam gets interestinger and interestinger.
*WEEK 32 CHAMPIONS*
CINCINNATI, OHIO (Premier+ $2m/hard outdoor)
S: Belgian Barbie def. Maria Sharapova 2-6/7-6/6-2
D: Azarenka/Kirilenko d. Raymond/Stubbs
PLAYER OF THE WEEK: Jada's Mama/BEL
...a year after playing the first tournament of her comeback in Cincinnati, Brian's Wife actually managed to improve upon her QF result of a year ago. The fast North American hard courts are most definitely her favorite -- and most effective -- stomping ground... and that she now makes a home of things there to be near her American in-laws only serves to make the environs even more Barbie-friendly. Last week's wins over Safina, Ivanovic and Sharapova gives her seven victories over former #1 players this season, nearly double the players with the next two highest amounts (Sam Stosur and Alisa Kleybanova with four each) combined, career title #38 moved her one past current #1 Serena Williams' 37, and her new #4 ranking is her best since she originally retired from the sport back in 2007.
RISERS: Marion Bartoli/FRA & Maria Kirilenko/RUS
...Bartoli opened up the '09 U.S. Open Series by winning a title in Stanford, but never advanced past the 2nd Round the rest of the summer. She hasn't had the same sort of early success this time around, but her quick takedown of Caroline Wozniacki in the 3rd Round in Cincinnati to reach the QF -- her second such result in three weeks -- was a nice step toward something resembling consistency. Meanwhile, after winning the doubles crown in San Diego last week with Zheng Jie, Kirilenko claimed the Cincy title with Victoria Azarenka this week. She's up to #12 in the doubles rankings.
SURPRISE: Madga Linette/POL
...the 18-year old Pole from Poznan claimed the $25K challenger in Vermsmold, Germany with a victory in the final over Swarmette Irina-Camilia Begu. It's Linette's third circuit title this season, and her second of back-to-back crowns the last two weeks.
COMEBACKS: Maria Sharapova/RUS & Ana Ivanovic/SRB
...Sharapova had another good week in Cincinnati, becoming the first Russian in 2010 to reach a "Premier 9" final, but her inability to neatly close out matches is producing a one step forward, two steps back tango that threatens to push back any legit belief that her slam "rebirth" will take place anytime before the calendar turns over to 2011. At times, the Russian looked great and her serve in fine working order as she made her way past Svetlana Kuznetsova, Andrea Petkovic, Agnieszka Radwanska and Marion Bartoli en route to the SF. But her difficulty putting away La Trufflette in the closing stages of their previously-routine QF match ultimately foreshadowed what would happen to her over the weekend. Sharapova made it past fellow Hordette Pavlyuchenkova in three sets to reach the final, and carved out three match points for a straight sets victory over the Squeegee Queen in the final. But she couldn't put the match away, then had to wait out a long rain delay. She served for the match again in the 2nd, but was broken. She led 3-0 in the tie-break, but lost it. Coach Michael Joyce tried to settle her down in between sets, but his efforts only partly worked. A call for the trainer to look at and wrap her heel and a slide that couldn't be stopped later, and what seemed like her biggest title/win in ages became one of the biggest ones she's ever let slip away. Still, Sharapova is now just 70 points outside the Top 10, has reached back-to-back finals and played in the deciding match in three of her last four, and four of her last six, events. She's only won a title in Strasbourg during that stretch, though, in Week 20. Sharapova is moving in the right direction, but she might not yet to be ready to be back to "normal" next month in New York. Meanwhile, maybe Ivanovic should play with a chip on her shoulder more often. After initially being denied a wild card into this week's Montreal event, AnaIvo started play in Cincinnati peeved and had enough in-your-eye venom later in the week to turn down the WC after the Rogers Cup powers that be belatedly decided that she was worthy of entry. In between, she ran off a string of wins over Victoria Azarenka, Yaroslava Shvedova and Elena Vesnina to reach her third SF of the season. Alas, she injured her foot against the Belgian Barbie and had to retire just two games into the match to fall to 0-3 in that trio of '10 semifinal appearances. Still, it has to be a positive sign that there still lurks inside this Serb a player worth having some faith in. Well, at least until she has another of THOSE matches that got the former #1 into the position of being able to be denied a wild card two weeks before the start of a grand slam in the first place, that is.
VETERANS: Akgul Amanmuradova/UZB & Flavia Pennetta/ITA
...#114-ranked Amanmuradova qualified in Cincinnati, then got main draw wins over Kimiko Date-Krumm, Bojana Jovanovski and top seed/defending champ Jelena Jankovic (her first career Top 10 win) to reach the QF. Pennetta, who finished tied for 2nd in the U.S. Open Series race in '09, has played well so far this 3rd Quarter, but she's having a hard time living up to her own past accomplishments this time around. She got wins in Cincy over Zheng Jie, Monica Niculescu and Vera Zvonareva, and played a tight QF match with Elke's Sister, but her '10 summer continues to resemble a melting ice cream cone (still tasty, but a bit of a mess in comparison to the previous version). Even with a whopping seventeen matches (13-4) under her belt this quarter, her ranking has fallen to #20 and more than a few big names are threatening to knock the former Top 10er down further in coming weeks. Worse yet, all that play makes one worry that she'll be too tired to match her QF U.S. Open run from a year ago, as well. She DOES have Montreal this week, though. Is it an all-or-nothing situation for Madame Butterfly?
FRESH FACE: Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova/RUS
...more than half a decade ago, Anastasia Myskina proved to be the player who rode the leading edge of the Russian tennis revolution in the post-Anna era as she became the first Russian woman to win a grand slam singles crown. Well, it's 2010, and another Anastasia looks be seeking out the lead role in the next wave of Hordettes crashing onto the WTA's shores. 19-year old Pavlyuchenkova was the #1-ranked junior in the world just a few years ago, and over the last year her improvement has continued unabated. Last week in Cincinnati, she rode a nine-match winning streak into the SF by impressively stringing together wins over a handful of accomplished players -- Hantuchova, Dementieva, Peer and Wickmayer -- in either dominating fashion or by winning in come-from-behind style. She couldn't take out Sharapova in their first-ever meeting, but she pushed things to three sets and fired a nice warning shot over the bow of the players ranked ahead of her. That number of players continues to shrink, too, as she's now up to #22 and is the youngest player ranked in the Top 40 (and one of only three teenagers in the Top 80). I dubbed that first Anastasia "Czarina Myskina" back then, but with that streaky Russian's unique charms now but an unfortunately "distant" memory it's time to dust off the old moniker and bestow it upon the next deserving Hordette. Hail the new Czarina.
DOWN: Jelena Jankovic/SRB & Elena Dementieva/RUS
...Jankovic won the Cincinnati title in 2009, but as the defending champ and #1 seed this season the Serb ultimately played second fiddle to countrywoman AnaIvo. The two might have squared off in a QF match, but JJ's 3rd Round loss to qualifier Amanmuradova prevented it from becoming a reality, provided her ranking with a hit (she fell to #3, barely ahead of the Belgian Barbie at #4 and the still-out-of-action Venus at #5) and gives her a 2-3 record in her Open tune-up events this summer. Meanwhile, Dementieva was crushed 1 & 3 by Pavlyuchenkova in the 2nd Round in Cincy after receiving a 1st Round bye. She's 1-2 in her return to action following her calf injury, has fallen to #8 in the rankings, and doesn't look like a very good bet to hold onto too many of her championship points in her return to Canada to defend her '09 Rogers Cup crown.
ITF PLAYER: Anna Lapushchenkova/RUS
...in the final of the $50K challenger in Kazan, Russia, Lapushchenkova, a WTA semifinalist in Stuttgart earlier this season, defeated countrywoman Vitalia Diatchenko 6-1/2-6/7-6 to claim her fourth ITF circuit crown of 2010.
JUNIOR STAR: Eleanor Dean/GBR
...in the Wimbledon Girls competition, the 14-year old Yorkshire native knocked off Gabriela Dabrowski by winning the final twelve games of the match (3-6/6-0/6-0) in the 1st Round, and defeated Ksenia Kirillova in the 2nd, before finally losing to eventual champ Kristyna Pliskova. Last week in the Luxembourg Outdoor Junior Championship in Esch-Alzette, Dean swept the singles and doubles titles, defeating Germany's Katharina Lehnert in the final. For all the hits the LTA has taken in Britain, there sure are a lot of young British teens popping up around the tennis landscape huh?
1. Cincy Final - Squeegee Queen d. Sharapova
...2-6/7-6/6-2. Like so many of the "best" WTA matches in 2010, this was hardly a masterpiece when it came to technical proficiency. But the drama of the battle was evident, as the courses of two players' summers -- and maybe a slam? -- may have drastically altered course mid-match. Come a month from now, we might look back at this one for clues that foreshadowed or stoked what we'll have just witnessed on Ashe.
2. Cincy 3rd Rd - Pennetta d. Zvonareva
...6-4/6-3. Well, at least Vera didn't blow a match point (or six) THIS time around.
3. Cincy QF - Pavlyuchenkova d. Wickmayer
...7-5/3-6/6-1. The Russian "enjoyed" falling behind 1-5 in the 1st set so much that she did it in the 2nd, too. Her comeback attempt didn't work as well the second time around, though. No matter, she defeated the OTHER Belgian in the Cincinnati draw anyway.
4. Cincy 1st Rd - Sharapova d. Kuznetsova
...6-4/1-6/6-2. Will this loss signal a return to bad form after the Contessova's title in San Diego, or simply a "rest day" in between another nice run this week in Montreal?
5. Cincy 2nd Rd - Elke's Sister d. Safina
...7-5/6-2. Last season, the Belgian lost to Safina in the QF in the first stop in her comeback. Please, no one utter that cliched "what a difference a year makes" line to Dinara, though.
6. Cincy 3rd Rd - Amanmuradova d. Jankovic
...7-6/6-4. In the matchup of qualifier vs. defending champ, the qualifier put up twelve aces to zero double faults and pulled the upset.
7. Cincy 1st Rd - Vesnina d. Oudin
...6-2/6-3. Oudin is 1-8 (0-6 in WTA matches) against Hordettes since her glorious 4-0 run at last year's Open. Pavlyuchenkova, Dementieva, Sharapova, Petrova... it seems even more unlikely in retrospect, doesn't it?
8. $25K Tallinn EST Final - Elena Bovina d. Anne Keothavong
...6-4/4-1 ret. The Russian Who Never Quits notches her second ITF title of the season.
9. $10K Itaparica BRA Final - Roxane Vaisemberg d. Ana-Clara Duarte
...7-6/6-3. #2-seeded Vaisemberg might have hurt #1-seeded Duarte's feelings with this win, but the relationship was likely saved by their teaming to win the doubles title in Itaparica.
10. Cincy 3rd Rd - Bartoli d. Wozniacki
...6-4/6-1. C-Woz still managed to climbed back to #2 in the rankings. If by some amazing turnabout Serena were to miss the Open, with her New Haven title defense no factor since it takes place after the Open draw, the Dane would likely be in position to be the #1 seed in NYC. How weird would that be?
HM- Montreal 1st Rd - Rezai d. Kvitova
...6-7/7-5/6-3. The unfortunate post-SW19 beat goes on.
**2010 WTA FINALS**
5...MARIA SHARAPOVA (2-3)
4...Venus Williams (2-2)
4...Justine Henin (2-2)
3...Serena Williams (2-1)
3...Caroline Wozniacki (2-1)
3...Elena Dementieva (2-1)
3...Samantha Stosur (1-2)
3...Vera Zvonareva (1-2)
3...Flavia Pennetta (1-2)
3...Victoria Azarenka (1-2)
**2010 "Premier 9" CHAMPIONS**
Dubai - Venus Williams, USA
Indian Wells - Jelena Jankovic, SRB
Miami - Brian's Wife, BEL
Rome - Maria Jose Martinez-Sanchez, ESP
Madrid - Aravane Rezai, FRA
CINCINNATI - BRIAN'S WIFE, BEL
**ALL-TIME LEADERS - HIGHEST LEVEL/non-slam TOUR TITLES**
[all-time Tier I + "Premier 9" titles]
10...Justine Henin *
10...Serena Williams *
8...Venus Williams *
7...ELKE'S SISTER *
7...Maria Sharapova *
[Tier I / "Premier 9" titles - active]
10...Justine Henin [10/0]
10...Serena Williams [10/0]
8...Venus Williams [6/2]
7...ELKE'S SISTER [5/2]
7...Maria Sharapova [6/1]
6...Jelena Jankovic [4/2]
5...Dinara Safina [3/2]
["Premier 9" $2m+ titles, 2009-present]
**2010 - DEFEATED TOP SEED/DEFENDING CHAMP - DIDN'T WIN TITLE**
Eastbourne - Aravane Rezai, FRA (1st Rd. def. #1/DC Wozniacki, to 2nd Rd.)
Bad Gastein - Alize Cornet, FRA (2nd Rd. def. #1/DC Petkovic, to SF)
CINCINNATI - AKGUL AMANMURADOVA, UZB (3rd Rd. def. Jankovic, to QF)
**TEENAGERS IN TOP 100- as of Aug. 16**
#22 ANASTASIA PAVLYUCHENOVA, RUS (born July 3, 1991)
#44 Melanie Oudin, USA (September 23, 1991)
#46 Polona Hercog, SLO (January 20, 1991)
#84 Chang Kai-Chen, TPE (January 13, 1991)
#87 Petra Martic, CRO (January 19, 1991)
#97 Simona Halep, ROU (September 27, 1991)
NOTE: #163 Ajla Tomljanovic/CRO (May 7, 1993) is youngest in Top 200
**WEEKS IN TOP 10 in 2010**
[of 33 weeks]
BOLD - currently in Top 10
MONTREAL, QUEBEC ("Premier 9" - $2m/hard outdoor)
09 Final: Dementieva d. Sharapova
10 Top Seeds: Jankovic/Wozniacki
#5 Leo & Els' Beloved Daughter d. #10 Azarenka
#15 Pennetta d. #11 Kuznetsova
#5 Leo & Els' Beloved Daughter d. #15 Pennetta
...I didn't really expect to get last week's Cincinnati pick correct (and certainly not in the way it happened on Sunday), so I'm sure I'm poking the Tennis Prediction Gods in their collective gut by going with the same player to win again. But she's got the best draw and the fewest questions about her form and/or history against the players she'll probably have to go through to get to the final. Anyway... if she does go on to lose this week I'll just look at it as the scales of fate tipping the other way and leveling off after "stealing" a win with her overcoming three match points against Sharapova. If she wins -- hey, I got it right again.
All for now.
COMING SOON: Backspin Time Capsule: 2006 U.S. Open - "Drama for Drama's Sake"