Tuesday, September 07, 2010

US.9- Slouching Toward the Semis

To serve well is divine, but nobody ever said you had to be perfect to reach the U.S. Open semifinals.

With a nagging 12-15 mph breeze persisting throughout most of the day, punctuated by gusts of up to 20 mph, it was obvious that consistently holding serve was going to be an issue. When the first of the two quarterfinals on Day 9 finally began in the early evening, 30-year olds Venus Williams and Francesca Schiavone walked onto Ashe and set the tone for the first half of the women's final eight.

Williams was on the attack from the start, breaking Schiavone to begin the match. It was the bright side to Venus' game on this day. At times, when she rushed the net and used her tremendous wingspan to its fullest advantage to put away power volleys for winners, you would have sworn she was bounding around on Centre Court at Wimbledon. At certain times of need, such as when she was serving to stay in the 1st set at 5-6 and found herself two points from dropping the opening stanza, she even pulled out big serves to get her through. In the opening set tie-break, too, she grabbed an early lead and held on to grab the advantage in the match.

But Venus could never quite push Schiavone's back against the wall and make their match as breezy an affair as the day's weather conditions. Part of that reason was the Italian herself, for she never came close to giving in, and often used her fabulous athleticism to pull herself back into the match just when it seemed like it might be getting away from her. But Venus played her part, too.

For instance, after getting that break in Game #1, Venus herself was broken in Game #2. After breaking for 3-2, she gave her edge back when she double-faulted on break point to knot the set at 4-4. In the opening set tie-break, she went up 4-0 only to see her own unforced errors (combined with Schiavone's hustle) bring the tie-break back into play. Soon, it was 5-5. Venus won the final two points of the 1st set, but the trend continued in the 2nd. There, Williams went up a break at 3-1 and led 4-2, but she and Schiavone then traded breaks in four consecutive games. Serving for the set at 5-3, a Venus double-fault produced a Schiavone break of serve to close the lead to 5-4. Williams won the match with a final break for a 7-6/6-4 score, but it was the second match (along with the Shahar Peer contest in the Round of 16) in which Venus had a difficult time holding serve in the breezy conditions.

Consistent ability to hold her serve aside, all in all, Venus' good outweighed her bad. She showed great movement and no sign of her knee injury, as well as a knack for knowing when to close in on the net (a sure sign that she's feeling good and spry). Unlike Maria Sharapova against Caroline Wozniacki yesterday, Williams used her aggression wisely and put it to use on big points against Schiavone. It's enough to make one wonder if we might be closing in on a "Williams Moment."

Serena has made a career over the last few years of coming to a slam that is looking for a heroine and making it her own. Might this Open finally be providing Venus with a chance to put her own unique spin on the by-now-typical Williams slam exploits somewhere other than at the All-England Club? She hasn't won the U.S. Open since 2001, or appeared in a hard court slam final since 2003, but on Friday she'll find herself one win from eliminating one of those demerits from her current "she can't do it because" list. It'll be only her second hard court slam semifinal (U.S. '07) since she reached the Australian Open final in '03.

With each round that passes, the possibility of a classic Williams-lurking-in-the-weeds scenario becoming a reality grows. It's not often that a Sister fails to seize an opportunity to win a slam that presents itself like a well-wrapped gift. This Open is there for someone to take, and Venus now stands just two wins away from claiming it as her own. As has been the case ever since a 17-year old from Compton showed up at Flushing Meadows for the first time and made it all the way to the final in her first attempt thirteen years ago, it's time for the rest of the field to start to sweat.

The Search for the Perfect Blonde continues, but there's at least one non-blonde spoiler who will only get more and more dangerous the closer we get to Saturday night.

...today's loss officially ends Schiavone's wild trip through 2010's final three slams over the spring and summer. After winning the final women's match at Roland Garros, she was the first seed to exit at Wimbledon. In New York, she was the first player to move into the 2nd Round with a victory on Day 1. As it turned out, Schiavone matched her career-best Open result of '03 with a second QF at Flushing Meadows. But who would have thought at the start of the year that such a result would be looked at as something of a "disappointment" for the Italian vet, who before her title-run in Paris had only reached the final eight at a slam three times in her career (and only once in the previous six seasons).

It's been a very strange year.

...did someone say "strange?" Well, then I guess that means it's time to talk about Kim Clijsters vs. Samantha Stosur. If you thought the Venus/Schiavone match was a test of one's nerves, then you probably needed to rest your eyes after watching Night 9's Women's QF match. (Rolling them so often can be tiring, you know.)

This match was one of those contests which, at some point, you realized wasn't really going to be WON as much as it was going to be lucked into. Neither player could keep up a head of steam for long, and held service games were as rare as an unstrained Hannah Storm hosting moment.

In all three sets of this match, Stosur grabbed early leads only to fail to show that she was prepared to use this Open as her non-Paris proving ground as a slam contender. Up a break at 4-3 and seemingly in control of the 1st set, the Aussie's game drifted off course and she suddenly found herself down love/30. Trying to take the initiative, she made a good decision to shake things up with a serve-and-volley point. Clijsters set her up with an easy volley, too, but Stosur dumped her attempt into the net. The Belgian got the break for 4-4 and went on an eleven-out-of-twelve points won run, breaking Stosur one more time to claim the set at 6-4 with a forehand passing shot. In climbing out of a 4-2 hole, Clijsters lost just five points in the set's final four games.

In the 2nd set, Stosur got a break for 1-0, then gave it back three games later thanks to back-to-back double-faults. Clijsters then showed her own charitable side and gave Stosur back her advantage by double-faulting on BP to give the Aussie a 5-4 lead, setting off an avalanche of service breaks that wouldn't end until mid-way through the 3rd set. Over a stretch of ten games, the two had their serves broken nine times (an especially alarming occurrence for Stosur, who came into the match knowing she was going to need to depend on her serve if she was to have a chance to upset the defending champ). The one service hold in the stretch came off as more of a fluke than anything, as Stosur got it to lock things up at 7-5 when she put away a volley to secure the first set she's ever won off of Clijsters.

Once Clijsters finally broke the spell and held serve at 4-3 in the 3rd, you could sense that the tide had turned in the Belgian's favor. Sure enough, Stosur found herself down three break points one game later. When she stretched high to get to an overhead to cut the score to 30/40, there was a small hope that she might yet dig herself out of yet another hole on Ashe Stadium and make this final set something to remember for the second straight match. But once she missed her first serve, I said, "Now she'll double-fault." Guess what she did. Yep, she double-faulted and gave Clijsters a chance to serve for the match at 5-3.

Elena Dementieva might not have been able to close out Stosur the other night, but Clijsters had no such problem. She did, winning 6-4/5-7/6-3 to notch her 19th consecutive U.S. Open singles victory.

She'll next play Venus, who she defeated in victory #11 in the Round of 16 a year ago. Whether one, both or neither will actually play a complete match is anyone's guess.

...in junior action, a Pliskova "pulled a Pliskova," as did a highly-seeded Russian. Naturally, it was the Russian that I'd picked to win. #3-seed Irina Khromacheva went down in the 2nd Round on Day 9 to Tunisia's unseeded Ons Jabeur, the same girl who went all the way to the Roland Garros Girls final without the benefit of a seed, as well. She even upset Khromacheva in Paris, too, in the SF. Meanwhile, Pastry Caroline Garcia knocked off #7-seed Kristyna Pliskova, who won the Wimbledon junior title in July.

Because of some early upsets, the section of the draw that would have included Beatrice Capra (she'd drawn a spot there as the #14 seed before withdrawing) is already as seed-less as those less annoying grapes you buy in the supermarket. A semifinalist will emerge from a group of players that includes three unseeded girls (Jabeur, Garcia and Canada's Eugenia Bouchard) and a wild card (American Sachia Vickery).

Elsewhere, qualifier Robin Anderson got another nice win, taking out fellow American Kyle McPhillips. She'll face Laura Robson in the 3rd Round.

...without the Williams Sisters in the doubles draw, Gisela Dulko and Flavia Pennetta got the #1 seeds for this tournament. Neither has ever won a slam title of any kind, so after their hard court performance this summer you'd have thought they might have a good shot to get one in New York, right? Umm,no. They lost 6-3/6-3 today to #6-seeded Vania King and Yaroslava Shvedova, the Wimbledon Doubles champions who had to overcome match point earlier in the tournament against Benesova/Zahlavova-Strycova just to get here.

...here's yet another awards update:

Kaia Kanepi, EST

...all right, this one's been wrapped up. Kanepi was the only player to reach the QF without having already reached a slam SF in her career. It's her second consecutive slam quarterfinal appearance. Plus, Wozniacki (US '09) and Schiavone (RG '10) have already been "Ms.O" winners in the past twelve months, so I figured it was time to spread the wealth.

Venus Williams, USA

...if Stosur had added a win over the defending champ to her "match of the tournament"/Zombie Queen-crowning victory from the other night, she'd have been hard to deny this. Venus was 2-0 in night matches at this Open, and has the most all-time women's wins under the lights at Flushing Meadows. History says she should be the very first winner of this award. And so it shall be.

Cara Black, ZIM
Dominika Cibulkova, SVK
Lisa Raymond/Rennae Stubbs, USA/AUS
Meghann Shaughnessy, USA (seeking 1st career slam Doubles title)

...a tough one to get a hold on. Considering she reached a slam SF just a season ago, Cibulkova was a fallback choice, then moved way up in the line after contenders AnaIvo, Sharapova and Kuznetsova all lost in the Round of 16. Black is alive in the Doubles while partnering Anastasia Rodionova, not Liezel Huber. Huber is, as well, with Nadia Petrova. Since the break-up of their on-court partnership, Huber has lifted two trophies with other partners, while Black has won one outside of Mixed competition. If Black outlasts her fellow doubles co-#1 here, and surely if she and Rodionova win the title, she might be a good choice. Raymond/Stubbs last won a slam title as a pair in 2001 at Flushing Meadows.

Cara Black/Anastasia Rodionova, ZIM/AUS
Liezel Huber, USA (alive in Mixed SF and Doubles QF)
Bethanie Mattek-Sands, USA (alive in Mixed SF and Doubles QF)
Kveta Peschke, CZE (seeking first career slam title in Mixed)

Vania King, USA (the best singing voice in tennis is seeking back-to-back Doubles slam titles)
Andrea Petkovic, GER (her big show was closed down after just one night because of stage fright)
Francesca Schiavone, ITA (for her show-stopping through-the-legs shot & brilliantly off-the-cuff comments)
Venus Williams, USA (for her dance moves, and never-wear-the-same-thing-twice outfits)

...it's there for King to win if she and Shvedova take the title. If not, I'll likely choose between Schiavone and Petkovic, barring something "Broadway-worthy" happening in the next few days.

still too early to tell

...let me see, how much money did ESPN spend to get the rights to the U.S. Open? Don't they have any additional funds to hire a better host than Hannah Storm? Seriously, the network plays musical chairs with its hosts all tournament, and SHE'S the one who's tapped to hold down the lead seat during the second week of night sessions? There's NO ONE from the seemingly millions of SportsCenter and/or ESPNEWS "heads" who could do the job without Storm's patented insincere, I'll-raise-my-voice-and-pause-a-moment-in-between-every-word, just-to-try-to-convince-you-that-I'm-invested-in-this, annoyingly grating tone? No one?

Sheesh. All right. If you say so.

...and, finally, he's Brad Bloom and he loves tennis. Ah, I've been waiting for a week to satisfy the urge to use that line here... considering I always repeat it aloud -- in my best "Brad Bloom voice" -- every time I see that Tennis Express ad on television. Which is, like, seemingly every other break on Tennis Channel and ESPN2, and sometimes even more often than that.

#1 Caroline Wozniacki/DEN vs. Dominika Cibulkova/SVK
#31 Kaia Kanepi/EST vs. #7 Vera Zvonareva/RUS
#3 Venus Williams/USA def. #6 Francesca Schiavone/ITA
#2 Kim Clijsters/BEL def. #5 Samantha Stosur/AUS

#1 Rafael Nadal/ESP vs. #8 Fernando Verdasco/ESP
#25 Stanislas Wawrinka/SUI vs. #12 Mikhail Youzhny/RUS
#17 Gael Monfils/FRA vs. #3 Novak Djokovic/SRB
#5 Robin Soderling/SWE vs.#2 Roger Federer/SUI

#6 King/Shvedova (USA/KAZ) def. #1 Dulko/Pennetta (ARG/ITA)
#9 Black/An.Rodionova (ZIM/AUS) def. #14 Vesnina/Zvonareva (RUS/RUS)
#7 Chan/Zheng (TPE/CHN) vs. #15 Mattek-Sands/Shaughnessy (USA/USA)
#5 Raymond/Stubbs (USA/AUS) vs. #2 Huber/Petrova (USA/RUS)

#1 Bryan/Bryan (USA/USA) vs. #12 Granollers/Robredo (ESP/ESP)
Schwank/Zeballos (ARG/ARG) vs. #16 Bopanna/Qureshi (IND/PAK)

#1 Huber/B.Bryan (USA/USA) vs. #4 Mattek-Sands/Nestor (USA/CAN)
Peschke/Qureshi (CZE/PAK) def. Groenefeld/Knowles (GER/BAH)

AO: Zheng Jie, CHN & Li Na, CHN
RG: Francesca Schiavone, ITA
WI: Tsvetana Pironkova, BUL
US: Kaia Kanepi, EST
[US Open]
2004 Shinobu Asagoe, JPN
2005 Elena Dementieva, RUS
2006 Tatiana Golovin, FRA
2007 Svetlana Kuznetsova, RUS
2008 Jelena Jankovic, SRB
2009 Caroline Wozniacki, DEN
2010 Kaia Kanepi, EST

Justine Henin (2007)
Maria Sharapova (2006)
Maria Sharapova (2008)
Justine Henin-Hardenne (2006)
Serena Williams (2008)
Amelie Mauresmo (2006)
Justine Henin (2007)
Dinara Safina (2009)
Nadia Petrova (2006)
Dinara Safina (2008)
Elena Dementieva (2009)
Flavia Pennetta (2009)
Venus Williams (2010)
Venus Williams (2009)
Serena Williams (2007)
Justine Henin (2007)
Anna Chakvetadze (2007)
Ana Ivanovic (2007)
Venus Williams (2007)
Dinara Safina (2008)
Jelena Jankovic (2008)
Shahar Peer (2009)
Agnes Szavay (2010)

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
TOP MIDDLE-RD. MATCH (3r-QF): [Nominee: 4th Rd. - #5 Stosur/AUS def. #12 Dementieva/RUS 6-3/2-6/7-6]
TOP NIGHT MATCH: [Nominee: 4th Rd. - #5 Stosur/AUS def. #12 Dementieva/RUS 6-3/2-6/7-6 (saved 4 MP, ended at 1:37 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
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 & Night 9. More tomorrow.


Blogger TennisAce said...

Todd, if you are a Venus fan, please do not jinx her. I am a big Venus fan and I am clasping my fingers, hiding behind the couch, under the bed and just trying my best not to hope too much.

I am hoping she can take out Kim tomorrow and that the crowd will finally look beyond popularity, go for partisanship and pull Venus over the finishing line. I am liking her chances. I really am.

Wed Sep 08, 04:04:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Todd Spiker said...

I'll try not to. :)

Wed Sep 08, 04:14:00 PM EDT  

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