Friday, September 10, 2010

US.12- Dark Alleys & Dead Ends

Even the most deceptively entertaining grand slams can take a sharp right turn down a dark alley at the last moment, and that's what the 2010 U.S. Open did today.

On the women's side of the draw, this tournament began with hard-wringing, but proceeded to surprise as a truly grand ending seemed highly possible. Now, though, as a result of today's semifinals, it almost seems destined to end with a shrug. While the final slam tennis weekend of the year will likely focus around a potentially monumental Federer/Nadal clash that could play a large part in the ultimate legacy of both players, the remaining side of the singles competition will be left with an Open final that is yet another blown opportunity for the women's game to seize an important moment. No matter the outcome (even though one scenario seems far more likely) of tomorrow night's match, it will be largely an afterthought, a dinner mint ignored while everyone digests the probable Rafa/Roger afternoon appetizer before the main course on Sunday afternoon.

Oh, things could have turned out so differently. Unfortunately, they didn't.

This was supposed to be Caroline Wozniacki's U.S. Open, and for eleven days it was. But while the 20-year old Dane has walked, talked and thought big for the past month, but came up pretty small today against Vera Zvonareva on Day 12. The Russian was more forminable, prepared and adaptable in every phase of the game in their semifinal matchup. While the #1-seed was headstrong and progressive for the past nearly-two weeks at Flushing Meadows, she was tentative and regressive today. In the face of an unwavering Zvonareva, she turned into a yo-yo on Ashe court. But not the kind that snaps back up with the flick of a wrist. No, instead, she was the kind that resembles a feebly spinning object at the end of a twisted length of twine. No matter how much charm she might possess, it couldn't make up for the lack of answers she had at precisely the moment at which she was supposed to solidify her championship reputation.

Everything that needed to be known about this first semifinal match was apparent in the first 20 minutes of play. In the opening game of the match, Zvonareva carved out a break point on Wozniacki's serve. She didn't get the break, but she did two games later against a hestitant Wozniacki who seemed to still be feeling the effects of her windswept victory over Dominia Cibulkova even though today's conditions were nowhere near as treacherous as those on Wednesday night. In Game #4, Zvonareva saved a break point, and held for a very important game, seizing upon a short C-Woz shot and hitting a winner off it and throwing in an ace, for good measure. Meanwhile, the Dane was not taking the initiative during rallies and looking nothing like the player who'd withstood the power of Maria Sharapova and failed to drop a set coming into today. Steady throughout, and not seeming a bit nervous, the Russian ended Wozniacki's Open set streak at ten, winning 6-4.

For a brief moment, Wozniacki gave the impression of a player who might have discovered her focus early in the 2nd set. Well, either that or she displayed a total lack of focus, as she stopped play in the middle of a point -- serving down 15/40 -- because she saw a wrapper flying around the court out of the corner of her eye. She ended up gathering herself to hold serve, then got a break point on Zvonareva's serve in the next game. A turning point in the match seemed near, but it didn't occur. The Russian held, then broke the Dane in the next game. Wozniacki got the break back one game later, but then settled for simply spinning serves into the service box when she'd needed to begin to assert herself more. Within moments, she was down love/40 and half-way in the lockerroom. An error handed the break to Zvonareva, and the Russian rolled from there. After committing just fifty-six errors in her first five matches, Wozniacki ended her Open run by hitting her 31st of this single match (and 21st on her forehand side) at match point down.

Final score: Zvonareva def. Wozniacki 6-4/6-3.

With her father not allowed to come on court provide her a lifeline, tactical or emotional, to pull her back into the match, Wozniacki remained adrift all day. Considering her impressive summer run and '09 Open final appearance, there was really no excuse for the Dane's lackluster performance today, especially not against the same player she'd handled fairly handily in the Montreal final a week before this tournament began. Of course, this ending was strikingly similar to C-Woz's exits in Paris and London, where she'd played very well until one match in which she didn't... and when she went down, she went down hard, with seemingly no answers for her opponent's game. Of course, if Wozniacki couldn't gather herself to put forth her best effort in a SF match against Zvonareva, I suppose there would have been even less chance that she'd have been up to coming up with anything better in the final against a multiple slam-winning opponent. At least this loss spared her an even bigger, and more public, pratfall. Thing is, though, with Serena Williams' return date up in the air, Wozniacki still might get to #1 before the end of the season. But now she'd do so without having won a slam title. She had a chance in NYC to erase most of the doubts about her that linger in the minds of many and move onto the next phase of her career. Now she'll have to wait, with a few more fresh questions heaped onto the pile that had finally started to shrink a few days ago.

This summer has become something of a watershed one for Zvonareva, though. She's jumped back into the Top 10, reached back-to-back slam finals and erased the memory of her Open breakdown of a year ago. She's essentially picked up where she left off when she injured her ankle in Charleston in the spring of '09 after having reached the Australian Open semis earlier in the year. She's emotionally in control on the court, and her new-found patience has allowed her varied game to flourish without her own negative impulses causing it to come crashing down around her feet.

But the good vibes surrounding Zvonareva are trumped by the frustration of Wozniacki's departure. This Open had the chance to be "important" because of her. The Dane winning this title would have not only been a great thing for her, but a very big deal for the sport, as well. It's difficult not to naturally link C-Woz's personal/professional/public trajectory to that of Sharapova's, whose media presence grew exponentially after (and largely because) she won Wimbledon in 2004, stamping herself with an all-important "champion" label that legitimized her marketing persona in a way that fellow Russian Anna Kournikova had never been able to accomplish during her playing days. Over the last two weeks, Wozniacki has been picking up many new fans, and her face and name have become more known because of this tournament than even last year during her run to the final. The sport needs a young personality around which to revolve after the Sisters are gone and/or Sharapova is further minimalized, and the sooner she's found the more time she has to settle into the role. C-Woz could, and likely will, still turn out to be that player (at least temporarily), but coming up short allows outside forces to control the spin of her career's perception until at least next January, and puts more pressure on her shoulders to find a way to "validate" herself in '11. Recently, Wozniacki has made no bones about wanting to have a similar off-court presence as those two Russians, even bringing up Kournikova as a role model (though there are so many ways that that is precisely NOT the way she should probably be leaning if she wants to be seen as an ATHLETE first -- as Sharapova was able to pull off -- and THEN as an endorser/personality/fashionplate/model).

Not winning this Open opens the door for the proverbial (off-court) marketing cart to be placed before the (on-court) horse, and there's nothing that will stop the forward momentum that has already begun. The more difficult and challenging mountain is still left there to climb, while Wozniacki's offseason will likely now be preoccupied with ascending all those non-tennis related, and more easily conquered, hills. Others have tried to execute similar end-runs, and pretty much all of them, from Hantuchova to Harkleroad to Ivanovic, have failed to hold up the tennis end of the bargain. Maybe Wozniacki will break that mold, but this single loss has already stacked the odds just a bit more against her.

Wozniacki will likely be even more known by the time next year's U.S. Open begins, but it might not be for all the preferred reasons. Not that the WTA will know the difference.

The first semifinal was a thoroughly frustrating affair, but at least it was easy to feel good for Zvonareva. The second match of the day, though... well, it simply made me angry.

There's nothing worse in sport than when something great goes from being so possible, then anticipated, that it's suddenly expected... and then everything goes haywire at the last moment and you're left with the booby prize that remains. Even with Zvonareva in the final over Wozniacki, the presence of Venus Williams in the U.S. Open final still possessed the ability to raise the level of consciousness of the women's game outside of the clique of fans who can smile while stating that "Yaroslava Shvedova represents Kazakhstan, but she used to be a Russian" to someone who'd just stare back blankly, then, after a few moments, ask, "Hey, isn't that where Borat is from?"

Early on, it looked like Venus was going to be Saturday night's saving grace. Her serve was on, she was moving fluidly toward the net with aggression and pulling out shots that looked like a collection of a "The Best of Venus" Wimbledon DVD. It was as if we'd magically traveled back to Williams' "Summer of Venus" runs in 2000-01 when she twice swept SW19 and NYC in succession. She seemed destined to be playing for an Open title while Serena watched from the stands of Ashe Stadium, just as Venus had done when Serena won her first slam title back in '99.

Stepping onto Ashe on Day 12 without her previously flashy trimmings, Venus wore a fairly plain black tennis outfit. No sparkles. No see-thru fabric. It was simple. No nonsense. Business-like. Just as Venus was on the court.

Against the Belgian Barbie, the script didn't seem to be willing to be altered, either. Venus managed one break point in the 1st set, and she seized upon it like a champion should. A deep return forced Jada's Mama into an error and Williams led 4-3. At 5-4, after jumping out to a 40/love lead, she took the set at the end of a long rally on her first set point. Venus allowed just five points on her serve in the opening stanza.

In the 2nd, Brian's Wife got an early break for 2-0 and was a point from 4-1, at 40/15 on her serve, but Venus started rushing the net and produced a series of classic overhead slams and volleys, breaking the Belgian to get to 3-2 and edging closer to a straight sets win. But Williams' forehand began to break down ever so slightly, and she gave back the break in the next game. Have no fear, though, for Lleyton's Ex knew how this thing "needed" to go. Serving at 5-3, Barbie wasn't able to secure the set and instead handed the match to Venus on a silver platter with a string of errors. But the seven-time slam champ refused to accept it.

After tossing in a double-fault before putting Game #12 away to force a tie-break, it was almost as if someone had yelled in a snowy mountain valley and set off an avalanche. In the tie-break, Venus hit back-to-back double faults to fall behind 3-0, then missed a slam at the net to go down 5-1, then hit another error to make it 6-1. Barbie won the tie-break 7-2, with Williams losing all four serve points. Suddenly, the match that seemed fated to be over soon was now tied.

Venus continued her downward spiral.

After hitting another double-fault in the opening game of the 3rd set, Williams had five for the match -- but four had come in the stretch that included Game #12 of the 2nd, the tie-break, and Game #1 of the 3rd. She hit another in Game #3 as the match slipped through her fingers as her game's previous crispness and classic look quickly became stale and hardly-vintage. After getting a break in that third game, the Belgian soon went up 4-2. She again gave Venus one final shot, hitting back-to-back double-faults and committing an error on a swinging volley to be broken and knot the score at 4-4.

But, as I said, Venus wasn't in the gift-accepting mood.

Another Williams double-fault gave Barbie a break point. Then, after charging the net to hit a volley deep into the backcourt, Venus hestitated in the service box, waiting to see if her shot had landed in. If you snooze, you lose. That split-second of indecision was enough to allow Jada's Mama to loft a lob over Venus' head just far enough for her to not be able to retrieve it. She broke Williams to go up 5-4, then served out the match to win her twentieth consecutive U.S. Open match and reach a second straight final, 4-6/7-6/6-4.

Honestly, I don't know what happened after that. I was pretty much finished with it all at that point. After watching the player who'd been the tournament's best before today fail to show up in the SF, then the game's most experienced slam player allow her form to crumble down the stretch in a slam that had set up oh-so-perfectly for her to win, I was left to wonder why anyone would really care about what happens to conclude the women's side of this tournament Saturday night... and why I should, as well. The "edge" has officially been taken off this Open in the women's competition, leaving a dulled, anticlimactic, underwhelming final match-up that might as well be played in front of an empty stadium without television cameras for all the importance it will be annointed by the masses.

Thank goodness for Zvonareva, for her presence at least opens the door (however slightly) to hope for a heartwarming moment could occur on Ashe tomorrow. Even if the Russian did defeat the Belgian at this year's Wimbledon, though, I'm having a hard time seeing it happening again in New York. A Wimbledon final redux, with Zvonareva leaving the court while trying to hold back her disappointment, seems far more likely. And, as far as I'm concerned, I can think of no less palatable a grand slam final than another expected NYC coronation party for the fair-haired Belgian. She may yet turn out to be the "perfect blonde" of this tournament, and while I'll "be there" to record the moment, I won't attend such a gala as a willing suitor.

Vera's going to have to give me a reason to not decide to file this one away as a "lost" final, one that caps what has suddenly dissolved into another failed opportunity for the WTA to carve out any sort of positive moment from what will be the last women's tournament covered with any real gusto by the worldwide sports media until everyone gathers in Melbourne in January. Actually, considering that even a "moment-saving" Zvonareva victory wouldn't manage to register as even a minor blip on the American sports radar on the Sunday/Monday after the huge college football/NFL Week 1 weekend, I supposed the opportunity has already been wasted. There really is not "evolutionary" and/or "sport-lifting" moment left to be had.

Thanks, Caroline. Thanks, Venus. For, well... nothing, really.

...Venus is now 52-2 at the Open when she wins the 1st set. Both losses, naturally, have come against Leo & Els' Devoted Daughter.

...the Bryan Twins won the Men's Doubles, defeating the Bopanna/Qureshi (IND/PAK) team in the final. It's the brothers' ninth career slam title (2nd all-time for men behind Woodbridge/Woodforde's eleven), and extended their all-time ATP doubles title mark with #65. Bob Bryan won two titles at this Open, having earlier claimed the Mixed crown with Liezel Huber.

27..Serena Williams (13/12/2)
21...Venus Williams (7/12/2)
16...Roger Federer (16/0/0)
16...BOB BRYAN (0/9/7)
14...Leander Paes (0/7/7)

61...Todd Woodbridge/Mark Woodforde
57...Peter Fleming/John McEnroe
57...Bob Hewitt/Frew McMillain
11...Woodbridge/Woodforde, 1992-00
9...BRYAN/BRYAN, 2003-10
5...Eltingh/Haarhuis, 1994-98

Huber, too, has a shot at two titles. She and Nadia Petrova advanced to the Women's Doubles final today. They'll face Vania King & the aforementioned Shvedova in the final.

...meanwhile, the junior singles semifinals are set. In the pre-season, I picked Daria Gavrilova, Sloane Stephens and Yulia Putintseva to win three of the four slam junior championships this year. Up to now, I've been shut out with those three. But all three advanced to the final four of the Girls singles today, along with Ons Jabeur. So I guess that means I should go ahead and congratulate Jabeur on her title, huh?


#1-seeded Gavrilova (the '09 Roland Garros Jr. RU and '09 US Open Jr. semifinalist) will face #15-seeded Stephens. Stephens has already defeated two of 2010's junior slam champs at this tournament, having knocked off RG champ Elina Svitolina in the 3rd Round and AO champ Karolina Pliskova in Day 12's QF, and is also still alive in the Doubles Final with partner Timea Babos. Jabeur, a Girls finalist at Roland Garros in June, will go up against Putintseva.

If Hordettes Gavrilova and Putintseva both win and face each other in the final, it'll be the third all-Russian junior slam final. The last time such a match-up occurred was at Wimbledon in '02 (Dushevina def. Sharapova), while it's been eleven years (Krasnoroutskaya def. Petrova in '99) since it happened at Flushing Meadows.

...and, finally, since Williams debuted at Flushing Meadows in 1997, losing in the final to Martina Hingis, she's either won the title or lost to the eventual champion in all but two trips to New York ever since. If Lleyton's Ex wins the title, the numbers will become even more overwhelming:

[gold = won title]
1997 lost to Martina Hingis in Final
1998 lost to Lindsay Davenport in SF
1999 lost to Martina Hingis in SF
2000 Champion
2001 Champion
2002 lost to Serena Williams in Final
2003 DNP
2004 lost to Lindsay Davenport in 4th Round
2005 lost to Belgian Barbie in QF
2006 DNP
2007 lost to Justine Henin in SF
2008 lost to Serena Williams in QF
2009 lost to Belgian Barbie in 4th Round
2010 lost to Belgian Barbie in SF

So, I think we probably know what's going to happen tomorrow night, huh?

Hmmm, maybe it'll rain all night in New York and the match will be delayed until Sunday, then I'll just watch the NFL games and not really have to devote full attention to this one at all.

Vera, it's all up to you. Otherwise, as far as the women go, this Open is already over.

#7 Vera Zvonareva/RUS vs. #2 Barbie/BEL

#1 Rafael Nadal/ESP vs. #12 Mikhail Youzhny/RUS
#3 Novak Djokovic/SRB vs. #2 Roger Federer/SUI

#6 King/Shvedova (USA/KAZ) vs. #2 Huber/Petrova (USA/RUS)

#1 Bryan/Bryan (USA/USA) def. #16 Bopanna/Qureshi (IND/PAK) 7-6/7-6

#1 Huber/B.Bryan (USA/USA) def. Peschke/Qureshi (CZE/PAK) 6-4/6-4

#1 Daria Gavrilova/RUS vs. #15 Sloane Stephens/USA
Ons Jabeur/TUN vs. Yulia Putitintseva/RUS

#10 Denis Kudla/USA vs. #8 Agustin Velotti/ARG
(WC) Jack Sock/USA vs. #2 Marton Fucsovics/HUN

#3 Babos/Stephens (HUN/USA) vs. Mestach/Njiric (BEL/CRO)

#3 Beretta/Quiroz (PER/ECU) vs. #4 Golding/Vesely (GBR/CZE)

16...Serena Williams, USA (13-3)
14...Venus Williams, USA (7-7)
12...Justine Henin, BEL (7-5)
4...Maria Sharapova, RUS (3-1)
4...Svetlana Kuznetsova, RUS (2-2)
3...Ana Ivanovic, SRB (1-2)
3...Dinara Safina, RUS (0-3)
2...Elena Dementieva, RUS (0-2)
1...Francesca Schiavone, ITA (1-0)
1...Marion Bartoli, FRA (0-1)
1...Jelena Jankovic, SRB (0-1)
1...Samantha Stosur, AUS (0-1)
1...Caroline Wozniacki, DEN (0-1)

1969-70 Margaret Smith-Court
1971-72 Billie Jean King
1975-78 Chris Evert
1983-84 Martina Navratilova
1986-87 Martina Navratilova
1988-89 Steffi Graf
1991-92 Monica Seles
1995-96 Steffi Graf
2000-01 Venus Williams
NOTE: Belgian Barbie won 2009 title, in 2010 final

45...Jana Novotna, CZE (Wimbledon '98)
39...Francesca Schiavone, ITA (Roland Garros '10)
[Vera Zvonareva in 31st slam]
31...Amelie Mauresmo, FRA (Australian Open '06)
29...Jennifer Capriati, USA (Australian Open '01)

6...Chris Evert, USA
5...Steffi Graf, GER
4...Martina Navratilova, USA
3...Margaret Smith-Court, AUS
3...Billie Jean King, USA
3...Serena Williams, USA
2...Tracy Austin, USA
2...Justine Henin, BEL
2...Monica Seles, YUG
2...Venus Williams, USA

unseeded/wild card - Belgian Barbie, BEL (2010)
#9 - Svetlana Kuznetsova, RUS (2004)
#7 - Serena Williams, USA (1999)
[Vera Zvonareva is #7 seed]
#6 - Virginia Wade, GBR (1968)

4...Russia - (GAVRILOVA, Khromacheva, PUTINTSEVA-2)
3...Czech Republic - (Ka.Pliskova, Kr.Pliskova-2)
2...Great Britain - (Robson-2)
2...Tunisia - (JABEUR-2)
1...China - (Tang)
1...Croatia - (Njiric)
1...Japan - (Ishizu)
1...Ukraine - (Svitolina)
1...United States - (STEPHENS)

TOP QUALIFIER: Michelle Larcher de Brito/POR
TOP EARLY ROUND (1r-2r): #1 Caroline Wozniacki/DEN
TOP MIDDLE-ROUND (3r-QF): #1 Caroline Wozniacki/DEN
TOP QUALIFYING MATCH: Q1: Laura Robson/GBR d. #2q Jelena Dokic/AUS 6-1/6-4
TOP EARLY RD. MATCH (1r-2r): 1st Rd. - #4 Jelena Jankovic/SRB def. Simona Halep/ROU 6-4/4-6/7-5
TOP MIDDLE-RD. MATCH (3r-QF): 4th Rd. - #5 Stosur/AUS def. #12 Dementieva/RUS 6-3/2-6/7-6
TOP NIGHT MATCH: 4th Rd. - #5 Stosur/AUS def. #12 Dementieva/RUS 6-3/2-6/7-6 (saved 4 MP, ended at 1:35 a.m.)
FIRST WINNER: #6 Francesca Schiavone/ITA (def. Ayumi Morita/JPN)
FIRST SEED OUT: #8 Li Na/CHN (lost to Kateryna Bondarenko/UKR)
UPSET QUEENS: The Taiwanese
REVELATION LADIES: The North Americans
LAST QUALIFIERS STANDING: Mandy Minella/LUX & Lourdes Dominguez-Lino/ESP (3rd Rd.)
IT GIRL: Beatrice Capra/USA
COMEBACK PLAYER: Francesca Schiavone/ITA
CRASH & BURN: #10 Victoria Azarenka/BLR (retired after collapsing in 2nd Rd. vs. Gisela Dulko/ARG)
ZOMBIE QUEEN: Samantha Stosur/AUS (down set and a break vs. Elena Vesnina/RUS in 1st Rd.; down 4 MP vs. Elena Dementieva/RUS in 4th Rd)

All for Day 12. More tomorrow.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

That's it and that's that - sorry for C-Woz. My thought is that it was her body saying no and a bit on the mental side. She will come back and perform for us again. I like both Zvonareva and Caro for not looking back, I wish the critics were able to do the same and judge the players on their day form. Sometimes it's rediculous what journalist are asking the players, Listen to what they say: Tomorrow is a new day, a new game if I'm doing well I can win if not then I try to improve for next time. Why are they asking Vera about last year ??? She definitely thought it was rubbish. Hope she defeats Jada's mom.

Sat Sep 11, 04:54:00 AM EDT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Caroline totally wasted such opportunity.

I don't know what to expect from Vera. At least she doesn't have to worry about another match, maybe there's still hope.

Sat Sep 11, 09:20:00 AM EDT  
Blogger TennisAce said...

I dont know whether I will be tuning in to watch the US Open women's final. I did not tune in last year as a sign of protest. I am trying very hard to hear the voices of those who will be calling Jada's Mom a One Surface Slam Wonder (but I will not hold my breath). Copious amounts of years on Tour and the only place she can win is in New York. I am hoping that Vera can save us from the constant chatter and picture taking with the only woman in the WTA with a viable womb who was able to give birth and continue to work, but I doubt that will happen.

Vera said she was anxious in the Wimbledon final. Let us hope that she leaves the anxiety aside and plays like she knows how.

Come on Vera, the future of real working mothers everywhere are depending on you.

Sat Sep 11, 09:54:00 AM EDT  
Blogger 224jax said...

I was and am disgusted with Venus. She plays Serena like a demon and with everyone else she plays like a qualifier who got into the tournament as a lucky loser. I lost interest anyway after Venus handed Kim ("Kimmy" to the commentators) the Semi-final title. It seems that everyone knows Venus is a champion - except Venus. She is so talented but something is missing.

C Woz was not tested until Cibulkova. The matches she played in the earlier rounds were against players no one has ever hear about.
Vera outplayed her. Now if Vera can continue her outstanding tennis she will beat Kim. Kim did not beat Venus...Venus beat Venus.

Sat Sep 11, 11:04:00 AM EDT  
Blogger Diane said...

I felt terrible for Venus last night. It's a shame, by the way, that the Tennis Channel feed wasn't the live one. Chris and Martina called the match.

The tour's hyping of Wozniacki came back to bite them. She's young, though, and may still figure it out. And--while I have my issues with her--I do appreciate Kim's post-retirement U.S. Open performances.

In short--bring on the dinner mint!

Sat Sep 11, 11:31:00 AM EDT  
Blogger jo shum said...

i didn't watch any really, ok a bit of caro/vera in first few games. i can't say i was very surprised by the loss of caro, so far all her season she didn't really run into very strong players. she is still very consistent, but she never has the edgy spark of tennis displayed yet. she has talents, may still come.

venus, what do we expect, she always manages to lose at inappropriate times this year. and yes we all know she could be such an amazing player.

oh well oh well. i really didn't watch much since serena and justine withdrew. serena is serena, you can always expect great things from her. justine is still a fun player to watch with her shots.

i can't wait for next year.

last thing, vera, can you make it this time? i have a little bit of faith, just seeing her making 2 finals of the slams is still a great achievement, maybe underrated with expectation about 'other' players. it will be great testimony of her, well to see if she can hold her nerves and play a great game? (but, i am not going to watch, so will check scores in a few hours time.)

Sat Sep 11, 02:12:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Jeppe said...

Tennis is a sport, and the best woman wins the match on any given day. If you want everything to go according to the perfect 'script', then watch wrestling:-) I, too, badly wanted Caroline to go all the way, but she played a poor SF and got knocked out by a very fine player, which doesn't make me like her any less.

Congratulations to Vera and Kim!

Sat Sep 11, 05:29:00 PM EDT  

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