Monday, January 17, 2011

AO.1- The Inchworms of Melbourne

"Inchworm, inchworm
Measuring the marigold..."

There were no "earthshaking" moments on Day 1, just what turned out to be psuedo-tremors. Just when you thought that maybe something big might be about to happen, sanity would quickly regain its footing. As it turned out, the top seeds in action on Monday were content to inch along to the next round.

Maria Sharapova, without an Australian Open match win since she won the title in 2008 (she was the first seed ejected a season ago), didn't exactly begin the 2011 version of Oz looking to be in fine form. She opened with back-to-back double-faults against Tamarine Tanasugarn, losing her serve at love. Sure, she then won six straight games to take the set 6-1, but her 2nd set start wasn't promising, either. The Thai vet had break points for a 4-1 lead in the set, but wasn't able to convert. Even while tossing in a total of ten double-faults in the match, Sharapova managed to win it 6-1/6-3. A win is a win, but it should be noted that every time the Russian has lifted a slam trophy she's been in front-running form from Round 1 until the final. She surely wasn't that on Monday.

Meanwhile, Justine Henin once again battled her service demons, but managed to gut out a close win over Sania Mirza that very easily could have gone the other way if a few points had been different. Hmmm, sounds a little like her run to the '10 AO final, doesn't it? Here, the Belgian opened looking shaky, not being able to hold serve and falling behind 3-1. Still, she served for the 1st set at 5-4, but was broken. At 5-6, she was broken again to drop the set. Up 7-5/3-4, Mirza held break point, but didn't convert. It was the turning point of the match. Henin held for 5-3, and went on to win eight of the final nine games of the match. Henin still has a little "La Petit Taureau" in her blood, and even when her game isn't in top form she can find a way to scrape out a victory against most foes. She has to now be even more thankful for that AnaIvo injury that gave her a chance to play that tight additional match against Bethanie Mattek-Sands in Perth in Week 1, for it likely didn't hurt her confidence in the clutch here. But unless your name is Serena, this isn't the best way to carve out a path to a slam title.

Actually, maybe the best performance from a "contending seed" on Day 1 came from the past slam winner that might have been seen as the most likely opening day upset victim -- Venus Williams. Playing on a slow Hisense Arena court, Williams was broken by scrambling Italian Sara Errani to fall behind 1-2 early on. It was just a slight blip on the radar, though, and Venus held serve in an important long game to lock away the 1st set on a nice looking volley that Errani could barely get a racket on. Venus won 6-3/6-2.

It's been easy to discount Williams' Oz chances over the years since she hasn't reached a final in Melbourne since 2003. So much so that it's made it also easy to forget how good she was looking at this tournament last year until she stumbled down the stretch in her quarterfinal match against Li Na. Williams led 6-2/5-3, served at 5-4 and was two points from a semifinal meeting with Serena. Granted, Venus has never been able to win a slam when Serena wasn't in the draw (make of that what you will, since it might say a great deal about their relationship), and only advanced as far as the semis once in such a slam (at last year's U.S. Open, when she was within a poorly-played tie-break of a straights sets win over eventual champ Kim Clijsters), but might she be able to work herself into shape over the course of this slam, ala her sister, and pull off something? As noted by ESPN2 commentators during her match, the slight lack of the normal muscle tone in her legs revealed that she wasn't able to train quite as hard while nursing her knee as she generally would before a slam. Serena has shown that, as far as she's concerned, the best training ground for a Williams might just be Melbourne Park. Might the same hold true this year for Venus?

While these three didn't stop to admire what they did right, they also likely won't linger too long on what they didn't, either (even if maybe Henin and Sharapova SHOULD worry about their service games). And, for now, that's fine.

"...Seems to me you'd stop and see
How beautiful they are."

=DAY 1 NOTES=, the Australian time difference is a killer for this slam. The best matches take place between midnight and 8 a.m., U.S. East Coast time. In order to try to be on top of things, a good alarm clock, a DVR and an ability to take successive cat naps are essential.

Ninety mintues of sleep. Half-hour of some combo of skimming/live viewing. Rinse. Repeat. I'm just sayin'. other matches of note on Day 1, Marion Bartoli served Tathiana Garbin a hearty breakfast, 6-0/6-0, and #5 Francesca Schiavone (vs.Parra-Santonja), #20 Kaia Kanepi (Magdalena Rybarikova) and #29 Dominika Cibulkova (Angelique Kerber) all narrowly avoided being the first women's seed dumped from this event, winning early three-setters. Meanwhile, world singles #1 Caroline Wozniacki bested world doubles #1 Gisela Dulko 6-3/6-4. The final match stats for the pair couldn't be more illustrative of their game styles and maybe why one has generally succeeded in singles while the other has not -- Wozniacki's winner/unforced error ratio was 15/15, while Dulko's was 35/38. the first night match at Laver Arena, two players who had hopes of slipping into the second week faced off in Round 1, with #21 Yanina Wickmayer defeating Aussie Jarmila Groth 6-3/2-6/6-4 under the lights. Two years later, Groth's loss makes you realize just how difficult what Jelena Dokic did in '09 really was. In her quarterfinal run then, Dokic thrived in the pressure-filled atmosphere of the night in front of the Aussie fans living and dying on every shot, giving her best just when things seemed darkest. Groth has big groundstrokes and a huge serve (not to mention a hot temper, at least when husband Sam is concerned, if their Brisbane incident was any indication), but she is STILL looking for the first AO main draw win in her career. She found herself down 6-3/2-0 in this one before running off six straight games to knot the match. It is there that Dokic would have carried over her surge into the 3rd in '09, but it was Wickmayer who edged ahead in this match down the stretch. Groth saved two match points on her serve, but the Belgian served out the match one game later.

An ironic, eyebrow-raising moment occurred after the match when Pam Shriver interviewed Wickmayer. Remember, at the U.S. Open in '09, Shriver (intentionally or not) somewhat derisively referred to "WICK-mayer" as Wozniacki's semifinal opponent following the Dane's QF victory, eliciting immediate boos from the New York crowd. This time, while telling Wickmayer that her next opponent would be Anastasiya Sevastova, Shriver noted that Sevastova was from "LAT-via" in that familiar "can you believe it?" tone. It slipped by without notice, but it made ME smile. Oh, Pammy.

...three qualifiers won 1st Round matches, as (Q-Player of the Week) Vesna Manasieva defeated Laura Pous Tio, Arantxa Rus upset Bethanie Mattek-Sands (so much for that great start, and a knowing nod to maybe playing TOO much heading into a slam) and Anne Keothavong advanced past fellow qualifier Arina Rodionova. The Rodionova Sisters were the only pair of siblings in this draw, so now we have just one Williams, Bondarenko, Radwanska and Rodionova each still remaining.

Meanwhile, Jelena Dokic (a quick straight sets win over Zuzana Ondraskova, who the Aussie beat in a challenger final in Bucharest last summer) was the sole wild card that advanced from the two who took the court on Monday. The other six play on Day 2. So far. Dokic is the only Aussie who has advanced to the 2nd Round, as well. Her countrywomen went 0-2 on Day 1. Dokic seemingly caught a break, as well, when her expected 2nd Round opponent #17 Aravane Rezai lost to Barbora Zahlavova-Strycova 6-0/3-6/7-5. Surprisingly, though both have been simultaneously bouncing around the tour for nearly a decade, Dokic and Strycova have never met as professionals.

Rezai was one of two women's seeds to fall on Monday, but she wasn't the first. That would be #27 Daniela Hantuchova, an AO semfinalist in 2008. Playing while still nursing an Achilles injury, the Slovak lost in probably the best overall match of the day to Russia's Regina Kulikova, 7-6/3-6/9-7.

...and, finally, ESPN2's Carillo-less televised coverage kicked off, and played out in the usual hit-and-miss fashion. Women's matches were hardly seen or updated, unless Venus or Sharapova were playing. Meanwhile, the audience was treated to every American men's player that anyone could throw a net around. You want Sam Querrey, 1st Round loser in ten of fourteen slams? You got him. Roddick and Fish? Sure. James Blake? Sorry... he's not in Melbourne. I wonder if Pammy is glad?

For a little change of pace, ESPN2 chose to go with the perennially underachieving Gael Monfils for almost an entire five-set match. The women's world #1? Not so much. Timely on-screen score updates running on a ticker at the bottom of the screen (ala Tennis Channel, or every other single ESPN channel known to humankind)? You're out of luck there, too.

There were some good moments, though. The discussion about Sharapova's future caught my ear. Much like I've been saying over the last six months or so, the ESPN2 crew pretty much agreed that if Sharapova determines that she's not going to be a slam contender she might not be long for the sport. She's not playing to be ranked #11-20 and struggle to reach slam quarterfinals. Also, for one of the first times I can recall, that Roger Federer's first language isn't English actually registered during his interview with Chris McKendry and Brad Gilbert. When the discussion turned to Federer talking about how he had greatly improved his ability to swing over the top on his backhand returns, rather than simply be content to slice them back, McKendry asked him how great it felt to still be able to "master" another stroke this far into his career. For a moment, he didn't understand that by "master" she meant to "improve," or "expert." He quickly figured it out in a split-second but, still, it was one of those moments where you realize that he's so fluent in English that you sometimes forget that he wasn't raised in America or Britain.

It took hours for Pam Shriver to show up (some might think that's a good thing, though), and I guess Mary Joe Fernandez -- who's actually become my favorite ESPN2 announcer -- is going to be the queen of, or wherever ESPN is sending more "serious" viewers to see matches that the viewers should be kept up to date on via the ESPN2. Yeah, as if "casual" viewers are going to be watching 1st Round matches from Australia in the wee hours of the morning in the U.S.

Oh, well. At least the aforementioned Gilbert is still around. To occasionally grate on one's nerves, yes, but also to at least bring a bit of "excitement" to an otherwise snore-inducuing production. I mean, WHO ELSE was going to casually bring up in conversation that unfortunate "urination incident" with a ball boy in last year's Donald Young 1st Round match, seem to be visibly straining to hold back a chuckle of disbelief -- even while enjoying her spirit -- when Wozniacki said on set that what racket she uses doesn't really matter very much, or make an effort to give a goodbye fist-bump to every single pro player he interviews on camera, whether they really want to bump him back or not?

We need BG around just for things like that, even if they might make people uncomfortable, or at the very least rolls their eyes a bit. Actually, he needs to be around simply BECAUSE they might. This IS supposed to be entertainment, after all.

2005 #16 Ai Sugiyama/JPN (lost to Sucha/SVK)
2006 #9 Elena Dementieva/RUS (lost to Schruff/GER)
2007 #25 Anabel Medina-Garrigues/ESP (lost to Vesnina/RUS)
2008 #32 Julia Vakulenko/UKR (lost to Vesnina/RUS)
2009 #23 Agnes Szavay/HUN (lost to Voskoboeva/KAZ)
2010 #14 Maria Sharapova/RUS (lost to Kirilenko/RUS)

*AO "FIRST 1st Rd. WIN"*
2009 Patricia Mayr/AUT (def. Schruff/GER)
2010 Dinara Safina/RUS (def. Rybarikova/SVK)
2011 Evgeniya Rodina/RUS (def. Rogowska/AUS)

TOP QUALIFIER: Vesna Manasieva/RUS
TOP EARLY ROUND (1r-2r): xx
TOP QUALIFYING MATCH: Q1: Sloane Stephens/USA def. Liana-Gabriela Ungur/ROU 7-6/1-6/8-6
TOP EARLY RD. MATCH (1r-2r): xx
FIRST WINNER: Evgeniya Rodina/RUS (1st Rd. - def. (WC) Olivia Rogowska/AUS)
FIRST SEED OUT: #28 Daniela Hantuchova/SVK (1st Rd. - lost to Kulikova/RUS)

All for Day 1. More tomorrow.


Blogger Diane said...

I didn't stay up to watch Groth and Wickmayer. I was disappointed that that was a "middle of the night" match. Reading your report, though, I really wish I had seen Shriver--that's pretty funny. It would have made my day (or middle of the night).

Tue Jan 18, 12:02:00 AM EST  
Blogger Todd Spiker said...

Poor, Pammy. I guess she can't help it... it's just the way she talks. :)

Dokic plays first up on Laver tonight. I feel like I have to always watch her live in a slam if a can, since you never know how many more opportunties there'll be. So... 3am, here I come.

Tue Jan 18, 01:20:00 PM EST  
Blogger Diane said...

You don't think Shriver was maybe sending herself up? That's the first impression I got. One way or the other, it's funny.

Tue Jan 18, 08:57:00 PM EST  

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