Friday, September 03, 2010

US.5- The Tennis Queen of Sparkly Things

Serena Williams finally arrived at the 2010 U.S. Open on Night 5, but it's Venus who's poised to make the bigger headlines the rest of the tournament.

Coming into Flushing Meadows having not played a match since Wimbledon, and apparently only practicing the last two weeks, after nursing a knee injury over the balance of the summer, Venus' form for this slam was a total mystery. After watching her wince and flex her left knee during her 1st Round match, and give it so much attention prior to her 3rd Rounder, there is still a chance that it could turn out to be the spoiler for any chances of her having truly great success before the end of next week. But assuming that that doesn't happen, Venus' course toward something special in NYC is looking more and more possible with each round as she works her tennis game back into shape and sees the possibility ahead for a great close to her frustrating summer.

With Venus busting out a brand new semi-sheer black dress decorated with an elaborately-sparkly sequin design, the American's 24-year old qualifier opponent, Luxembourg's Mandy Minella, had to have blinked when she first caught sight of Williams. Before this week, Minella had never won a main draw tour singles match... and she'd most definitely not played against a woman who was literally sparkling under the lights until Friday night.

As a period of adjustment to the oh-so-different, windier conditions of Day 5 gave the match an odd early tone, Venus tossed in three double-faults in her first service game and was broken to knot the score at 1-1. In six of the first seven games of the match, the server failed to hold. Venus finally corrupted that stretch by holding to take a 4-2 lead, then never really looked back. She won 6-2/6-1.

With every round, Venus is rounding into form. Just like her little sister, who arrived "fashionably late" and took her seat in the friends box for this match, has done so often in slams past. Facing a veteran with little huge stage experience in the 1st Round, then back-to-back qualifiers, has helped Williams hone her rusty game. She gets another break in the Round of 16, as Flavia Pennetta, who has a fine knack for taking Venus out of draws, won't be around as an obstacle. Shahar Peer is no slouch, but the difference in her opponent's respective pasts is likely not lost on Williams.

Venus' post-match victory dances on Ashe have already produced some of the more memorable images of this Open (even if they probably can't match the "funkiness" of Andrea Petkovic's this week), and they just might go on for a while. When Pam Shriver asked Williams after the match if she might wear seven different outfits (she's already debuted three in three rounds) in this tournament, Venus was noncommital... but you sort of got the idea that she's got more than half a dozen originals safely tucked away, just in case they're needed.

Venus hasn't won a hard court slam since 2001, or reached a non-grass slam final since '03. But that might mean nothing at this very different U.S. Open. Serena has often prevented Venus from raising more than her current seven slam championships trophies, but she can't this time around. In fact, she's in Venus' corner. Considering the special circumstances, this might actually be Venus' last best chance to win her third Open crown. If her knee holds up... well, far stranger things have happened. It was eleven years ago that Venus watched from the stands in New York as Serena became the first Williams to win a slam singles title. Next Saturday, could the roles be reversed as Venus lifts her eighth?

Maybe. Maybe not. But... so far, so good.

...well, we got a delay in play because of Hurricane Earl on Day 5, but we didn't get a single three-set women's 3rd Round match. All eight matches were straight set victories by the higher-seeded player.

The most unfortunate of the losers has to be Flavia Pennetta, though you could pretty much forecast an early exit at this Open at month ago when she continued to play each and every week in what felt like a concerted effort to build up pre-Flushing Meadows points (her success rate was largely hit-and-miss) to make her upcoming ranking hit a bit less one year following her 2nd place finish in the U.S. Open Series and QF result in New York. Pennetta finally ran out her string this evening, losing 6-4/6-4 to Shahar Peer.

...I know I didn't believe in Sam Stosur at all at the start of this tournament. I didn't even list her in the "Power Rankings" for her quarter, figuring she'd pull her usual Open disappearing act and lose in the first two rounds. She hasn't, though. Could it be that Slingin' Sammy is starting to believe? Maintaining her focus and avoiding questioning her own ability to accomplish what she's capable of on the court has quite often held her back in the past. She's managed to move past all that in Paris, but her results in the other slams have continued to suffer, even though her talent says she SHOULD do better than she has. Coming into this Open, her best result in Flushing Meadows was a pair of 2nd Rounds (one of which was six years ago). She had a 2-6 career mark, and had lost six of her last seven matches in NY. She wavered in her 1st Round match against Elena Vesnina this week, and very well could have hung her head and gone down meekly after falling behind a set and a break. But she didn't (facing the Shakespearean Russian probably helped her odds), and you have to wonder if that moment infused her with the confidence she'd always lacked in this tournament. She suprisingly easily handled Anastasia Rodionova in the 2nd Round, then allowed just five games to Sara Errani today. If her head is right, and it at least LOOKS like it might be, Stosur could be a force to reckon with in the bottom half of the draw. She'll face Elena Dementeiva (def. Daniela Hantuchova) next.

I'm not sure I believe in Stosur's realistic chances in this event yet, but if she knocks out Dementieva I might be a whole lot closer to being persuaded into it.

...meanwhile, Francesca Schiavone allowed a "whopping" six games to Alona Bondarenko today after allowing a total of just four in her first two matches, but she won 6-1/7-5. Getting her entertaining edge back after her long summer of post-Roland Garros celebration, she even hit a Federeresque between-the-legs shot for a winner today. She'll face Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova (def. Gisela Dulko), who'll be trying to reach her first career slam QF.

In the other two women's 3rd Rounders today, what looked at first to be competitive matches turned out to be anything but in the end.

As Kim Clijsters had difficulties adjusting to the windy conditions, Wimbledon semifinalist Petra Kvitova went up a double-break at 3-0. The Czech was broken for 3-1, but had break points to immediately get the double-break advantage back for a 4-1 lead. She failed to take advantage and push the Belgian's back against the wall, though, and Clijsters went on to win the final twelve games in the match for a 6-3/6-0 win. Later, Ana Ivanovic came from behind to win the 1st set against Virginie Razzano, then strung together nine straight games in a 7-5/6-0 victory. Afterward, she flashed her patented held-close-clenched-first that we used to see so often. After "officially" beginning her downward spiral in New York two years ago when she suffered the worst lost, ranking-wise, ever for a #1-seed at the Open (losing to #188 Julie Coin in the 2nd Rd.), AnaIvo, after matching her best U.S. Open result ('07 4th Rd.), has a shot to place her name in lights once again when she faces Clijsters in the Round of 16.

...Serena Williams, in the friends box at Ashe during Venus' match, joined John and Patrick McEnroe to broadcast the 1st set of the Nadal/Istomin match on ESPN2 tonight. Things we learned:

1) Serena didn't know that Jimmy Connors, like her and Venus, was coached by his mother
2) Serena liked Venus' sparkly black outfit better than Nadal's black-and-gold number, but admitted that she was a bit biased. She was enjoying his gold/lime shoes, though.
3) Serena thinks she and her sisters all look good in red, which Serena herself was sporting quite fabulously tonight in a most decidedly eye-catching dress

...and, finally, with ESPN2's Saturday lineup filled with college football's opening weekend games, Tennis Channel gets to air the night session on Ashe. The schedule includes Djokovic/Blake (we all must pay penance, I suppose), but also, in a bit of a surprise, Kuznetsova/Kirilenko, which will be the second match up. What with the schedule-makers favoring THE biggest names so far when it comes to the nighttime slate, one would think either Sharapova/Capra or Wozniacki might have been given the slot. But those matches will take place during CBS' opening day of coverage. Actually, the match-up between the two Russians could end up being a pretty good affair (Jankovic/Kanepi would have been a nice option to go with, too), something which hasn't come close to being the case with the other women's night matches this tournament. Ah, but don't think the schedulers are getting cagey... they probably REALLY only put a potentially competitive women's match on Ashe tomorrow evening because they think the all-Russian meeting is perceived as one of the LEAST interesting to casual fans who might tune into the night session matches regularly shown on ESPN2. With the "second tier" Tennis Channel getting the national coverage block, they likely went with what is considered a "second tier" match-up when it comes to television... and then put it up second, so viewers could turn the channel after Djokovic/Blake, if they wish. Somehow, I doubt that the schedule would be as it is now if ESPN2 was in the mix. But, for once, the cynacism of scheduling "television-friendly" tennis line-ups might actually work to our advantage this time.

Of course, after saying all this, Kuznetsova/Kirilenko will most assuredly now turn out to be a straight-sets, open-and-shut match finished in barely an hour. Naturally.

#6 Francesca Schiavone/ITA vs. #20 Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova/RUS
#16 Shahar Peer/ISR vs. #3 Venus Williams/USA
#5 Samantha Stosur/AUS vs. #12 Elena Dementieva/RUS
Ana Ivanovic/SRB vs. #2 Kim Clijsters/BEL

AO: Russia
RG: Australia
WI: Czech Republic
US: Taiwan
[US Open]
2004 Russia
2005 United States
2006 France
2007 Russia
2008 China
2009 United States
2010 Taiwan

AO: Germany
RG: Germany
WI: Romania
US: North America
[US Open]
2006 Russia
2007 Ukraine
2008 Slovak Republic
2009 Belgium
2010 North America

AO: Maria Sharapova, RUS (lost 1st Rd. vs. Kirilenko)
RG: Dinara Safina, RUS ('08/'09 RU, lost 1st Rd. vs. Date-Krumm)
WI: Francesca Schiavone, ITA & Samantha Stosur, AUS (RG finalists, both out in 1st Rd.)
US: Victoria Azarenka, BLR (collapsed and retired vs. Dulko in 2nd Rd.)
[US Open]
2007 Maria Sharapova, RUS ('06 champion, lost 3rd Rd. vs. A.Radwanska)
2008 Ana Ivanovic, SRB (#1 seed, lost 2nd Rd. vs. world #188/Q Coin in worst Open loss by #1 seed)
2009 Elena Dementieva, RUS (US Open Series champ, lost 2nd Rd. vs. Oudin)
2010 Victoria Azarenka, BLR (collapsed and retired vs. Dulko in 2nd Rd.)

28...Andre Agassi
25...VENUS WILLIAMS (2010: 2-0)
24...Jimmy Connors
20...Serena Williams
20...Pete Sampras
17...Andy Roddick
16...Martina Navratilova
16...John McEnroe

TOP QUALIFIER: Michelle Larcher de Brito/POR
TOP EARLY ROUND (1r-2r): #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
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 both in 3rd Rd.]
IT GIRL: [Nominee: Beatrice Capra/USA in 3rd Rd.]
CRASH & BURN: #10 Victoria Azarenka/BLR (retired after collapsing in 2nd Rd. vs. Gisela Dulko/ARG)
ZOMBIE QUEEN: [Nominees: Jankovic/SRB - 1st Rd. - Halep served 5-3 in 3rd; Petkovic/GER - 2nd Rd. - Mattek-Sands 3 MP in 3rd]

All for Day 5. More tomorrow.


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