Friday, January 14, 2011

AO Preview, Pt.1: "Dr.Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Barbie"

Narrator: For more than a year, ominous rumors have been privately circulating among high-level WTA leaders that the tiny nation of Belgium has been at work on what is darkly hinted to be the ultimate weapon: a tennis doomsday device. Intelligence sources have traced the site of the top secret Belgian project to a perpetually water-surrounded wasteland below the equator, some 1366 miles from the Auckland Islands. What has been constructed and why it should possibly be detonated in a place on the "other side of the world" no one can say. But everyone at Backspin Headquarters believes that it very well could be about to occur.

All right. Bear with me here. Admittedly, I arrive on the scene for this Australian Open preview with seemingly cross-purposes in mind when it comes to mapping out a potential scenario for the first grand slam event of the 2011 season. I want to be right in my forecast... but what I'm feeling in my gut might be about to happen isn't necessarily something that I've ever "pulled for" or even thought realistic in my long-held "WTA world view." Essentially, I strive to construct slam previews to act as tournament "War Rooms" from which battle plans are drawn up and, once in a blue moon, even followed through to the letter over the following two weeks. Granted, more of these self-contained pre-event flights of fancy have turned out to be elaborate sand castles built just before high tide (alas, poor, Caroline... I had hoped to know her at last year's U.S. Open, Horatio) -- personal favorites of mine, but often relegated to the "if only" section of the Backspin archives -- than held up as intriguing foreshadows to tennis history.

This Australian Open preview, though, is something different. It's an oddball combination of "first strike," mea culpa, feat of pulling a proverbial rabbit out of a worn-out hat, attempt to get a step ahead of a natural "adversary," chore of grinning through clenched teeth while trying to find a way to make the entire process as whimsical as possible. This is the War Room, and you can't fight in here, but somehow I think there will be a mighty squabble taking place within HQ walls by the end of this opening salvo in my 2011 AO preview... probably because I'll be trying to fight off the urge to be physically and philosophically at odds with myself.

Anwyay. So, throwing caution to the wind, here it goes...

This year in Oz, it's not just the heat that'll be hovering over Melbourne Park that leaves things looking hazy. While the likelihood that either Roger Federer or Rafael Nadal will emerge as the men's champ seems to be something stronger than the odds-on favorite ending on the men's side of the draw, the same dose of "certainty" is nowhere to be found in the women's half. For one, there's no "Soul Survivor" to latch onto. Serena Williams might be busy designing her own blueprint for re-taking the tour, but she and her foot won't be anywhere near Australia. Meanwhile, as much as a Justine Henin comeback slam win would be a great tale, believing it to be about to happen feels more like fool's gold than a sure thing. Not at this slam, not after the '10 AO runner-up missed the final six months of last season with her own injury (elbow). Caroline Wozniacki's yellow-bricked road to slam glory looked like it might be perfectly laid out in New York City last summer, but her path to #1 "legitimacy" has always felt bumpier in Oz -- and that was before she opened '11 by being obliterated by Vera Zvonareva in a Hong Kong exhibition, then taken down in straight sets by Dominika Cibulkova in Sydney. The Dane suddenly becoming "The Wizardess of Woz" is a neat idea, but it's a scenario that doesn't look to be destiny's darling.

Maria Sharapova? A return to form would be great for the women's game, but her fortunes appear to be running in quicksand in her attempt to reclaim her spot atop the game after shoulder surgery. Jelena Jankovic? She had her moment. It appears to have passed. Ana Ivanovic? She looked ready to rebound at the end of '10, but losing a full-time coach and a badly-timed injury in Week 1 in Perth has made her readiness for a great start in '11 look more than cloudy. Sam Stosur? Too much pressure. Venus Williams? She's never been at her best in Oz, and isn't fully back from her own (knee) injury issues. Additionally, Victoria Azarenka, after almost taking out Serena in the last two Australian Opens, is still looking for her slam breakthrough moment. How easily she was ridden out of Sydney makes her AO ceiling feel to be somewhere in the QF/SF range, at best. The aforementioned Zvonareva, quite possibly the best player in the world without a slam title, is looking better and better (her early loss in Sydney can likely be viewed as a meaningless pre-slam anomaly), but she's failed to mentally and/or physically show up in the finals of the last two slams, though she DOES get tremendous accolades for reaching those deciding matches in London and New York. After first failing in multiple attempts, that particular hurdle becomes more and more of a doozy.

It's not exactly a wonderment of choices. The Pickens are indeed Slim. So, barring a Francesca-like run from a player (say, '10 semifinalist Li Na?) not currently featured prominantly in the potential champion conversation, the player sporting the best overall form, not to mention momentum, would seem to be the "safe" choice.

[My Backspinner Conscious: "Hey, I'm not liking the way this appears to be going."]

Ah, but there's the rub. By going with the safe choice, my usual full-proof "fail-safe" at every slam other than the U.S. Open the last couple of years is violently corrupted. Perhaps it's a water fluoridation conspiracy to sap and impurify all of our precious bodily fluids that has shaken the long-held sturdiness of my "truce" with the Tennis Gods. Maybe not. Either way, at this slam it's obvious that the battlefield has changed, and a new tactic must be employed Say, let's call it "Wing Attack Plan R," for lack of a better -- or even comprehensible -- title. It's time to head off tennis history at the pass. For, there she is, standing tall amongst the decaying, defoliated, questionably-stable forest that is the '11 Australian Open women's singles draw... one Kim Clijsters. Barbie.

["No!!!!!!!! Not her!!!!!!"]

Yeah, her. Gulp.

Yep, we may be about to approach a moment of truth both for ourselves as human beings and for the life of our tennis nation. Now, truth is not always a pleasant thing. But it is necessary now to make a choice, to choose between two admittedly regrettable, but nevertheless "distinguishable," post-Oz environments. One in which Clijsters has proven all her doubters -- well, at least one that I know of -- wrong, or one in which her rise to total power, however brief it might turn out to be, was both braced for and, in fact, forecast before it became reality.

For a player who failed to answer so many questions during the first segment of her career, Clijsters seems to be hounded by remarkably few of them at the moment. She won in New York early in her return to the court, went 3-0 against longtime nemesis Henin last year, backed up her hard court dominance by winning in NYC again, then added a little icing to her cake by handling Wozniacki in last year's Tour Championships, keeping her career record against the world #1 unblemished. She's breathing down Zvonareva's neck for the #2 ranking in the world, has reached three straight finals dating back to Flushing Meadows and is riding a 22-3, three-title stretch of success since last August. Barring injury (and lacking a healthy Serena... who she actually went through to win the U.S. Open in '09), it seems clear that at the moment an in-form Clijsters is the best player in the world. Right now, the only nit to pick in Clijsters' game is that she's never really been at her best on the hard court in Melbourne. She DID note the other day, though, that blue courts in Australia -- similar to the Home-Is-Where-the-Hard-Court-Is North American surfaces -- seem to be allowing her to see the ball better than ever. At this point, the memory of her near-double bagel at the hands of Nadia Petrova at last year's AO is looking like it could be an ironic (not to mention absurd) prelude to something far different that could be fated to happen one year later. As much as I'd prefer to pick at all the old Barbie scabs, I'm not really seeing any right now.

["Hey! Are you forgetting that NOT picking Clijsters to win slams outside NYC is a 'fail-safe' position for a REASON? It just doesn't happen, and probably never will.]

I tell you something else, if this thing turns out to be half as important as I figure it just might be, I'd say that Barbie is in line for an important promotion and personal citation when this thing's over with. Before this season began, I said with an unsteady but resolute voice that we might actually see Clijsters re-brand herself in 2011 as something forever opposite the underachieving, begging-for-affection champ she was before her '07 retirement. Defending her U.S. Open title was a huge, potentially career perception-altering development. She's now won more slam crowns in the year and a half of KC 2.0 than she did in the near decade-long period that spanned her initial go-round, and her ability to win the season-ending championships in November after not playing for two months not only speaks well for her ability to carry over her momentum into this AO, but a case could be made that the feat was somewhat "Serena-esque." If she were to win a third straight Open title this summer, she'd cement herself as one of the greatest champions EVER in the tournament's history... but what if she wins another slam before them?

Well, the resulting super-successful "extra time" of her second career would forever bulk up her all-time resume, making it immune to certain Backspinning jabs, and totally eradicating the memory of her younger, less accomplished self in a way we haven't seen since Andre Agassi lost his hair and grew from disrespectful punk into respected veteran. And why SHOULDN'T this game-changing moment happen two weeks from now in Melbourne? THIS Clijsters has been at her best in big matches, going 4-0 against Henin and Serena, and came into '11 with a spotless 6-0 record in finals since she returned to the WTA tour.

["Hold on, hold on. You think you're serious, don't you? Did you not see Barbie blow that 5-0 lead against Li in the Sydney final? Or how she lost a 3-1 tie-break advantage en route to dropping thirteen of the final seventeen games? How does THAT speak to her strong mental foundation in 2.0? Oh, I see. You're probably going to say that you already had this preview mostly written BEFORE that match, aren't you? And that Clijsters losing in such a grand fashion was just a "test" by the Tennis Gods or some such hooey, right? You just didn't want to regain your sanity and re-write this preview! If you changed your mind at the last second, she'd win this little "make.believe" battle you've imagined in your head. Hmmm. I DO see your screwy logic. But, come on, this just isn't the sort of stuff I expect -- or want -- to hear you espouse. Frankly, it scares me. What would La Petit Taureau think?"]

I've only predicted Clijsters to win a slam on one occasion (in Melbourne, way back in the naive 1.0 days of 2003), but I honestly don't feel as if I have any other choice than to do so for a second time here. Why fight it? It's time time to cut losses. At this moment in time -- a moment that might only last for this two-week period, only time will tell -- I realize that it's time to lay down my weapons, learn to stop worrying and "love" Barbie.

And if she doesn't win... well, then it'll be all HER fault. (Sorry, old habits die hard, and will likely linger no matter what happens in Melbourne... "Dr. Strangelove" was a satire, after all.)

["Aha! I knew it! That's what all that cross-purposes junk at the start was about, huh? You're trying to carve out a "no-lose" situation for yourself. If she wins, you'll crow that you called it. If she loses, you'll crow about that, too. Sneaky. I'm actually a tiny bit impressed, but I still think it's stupid. When it comes down to it, I KNOW you won't be in Barbie's corner. You'll be behind Justine, or Caroline, or maybe even Maria or someone else. You're probably secretly hoping that KC loses her 1st Round match against Safina, and if she does you'll go all "Same Old Kim" on her butt, won't you? Please say yes."]

Sometime over the next two weeks, at least one of us is going to be able to rise up and shout, "I can walk!" By jumping, however temporarily, onto the Barbie Bandwagon right now, if Kim is the one raising her voice, then I'll be able to do so, too.

Title Card: It is the stated position of the Backspin Air Force that its safeguards would prevent the occurrence of such events as are depicted in this preview. Furthermore, it should be noted that none of the characters portrayed in this preview are meant to represent any real persons living or dead.

Oh, if it were only true. Nevertheless, we'll meet again, my Belgian antagonist.

(And, at least as far as I'm concerned, that is how you stare down the Tennis Gods and say, "Your serve.")

["Ha! I knew it. You just wanted to deconstruct "Dr. Strangelove" and there was no stopping you, right?"]

I'll never tell.

All for now. To be continued (without all the bells and whistles provided by Stanley Kubrick & Co., or the voice in my head) in Part 2 of the AO Preview.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Todd

lol As always funny. I hope you get over your Barbie complex. If she winns it's a deserved win. The wizzard of WOz - well still think she will surprise us. It's a very fine statement she has come with (I think) I don't have to prove anything! She's perfectly right why prove when she is on top???? And then she takes it from there and all other well their problem! - cool!
Let the games begin,
let's see Caro win,
if she doesn't - no big sin!

Sat Jan 15, 12:44:00 PM EST  

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