Thursday, January 27, 2011

AO.11- Clijsters & Li... as it should be

Kim and Na... they shall meet again.

At the start of this Australian Open, there was a thought that the final weekend of the tournament could bring about a rematch between Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin, two Belgians with a long on and off-court history, not to mention being two of the only women in the draw with experience at winning grand slam titles. As the last two weeks have progressed, though, things have changed. What might have been the TWO Belgians' tournament quickly was reduced to one, as Henin bowed out in the 3rd Round with little fanfare (and then, days later, the sport entirely with a bit more recognition, albeit unfortunate timing), while 2010 AO semifinalist Li Na slowly but surely rose to greater and greater prominance with each passing round. Clijsters began the tournament by double-bageling an opponent, while Li moved through the draw in quieter fashion, but more consistent excellence, as the remaining Belgian experienced more than a few minor hiccups along the way.

Both married (and Clijsters a mother), the pair has projected the more adult and mature (since those two words don't ALWAYS go hand-in-hand) mindset that has come to dominate the tour in recent years as, much as ghas been the case with the men's tour for years now, teenagers have been less and less present in the latter stages of the major events that they used to overpopulate. But the "unofficial duel" between the two veterans, who met in the final of the last pre-AO event in Sydney (with Li climbing out of a 5-0 1st set hole to win the title), wasn't confined to match stats. While Clijsters made headlines by choosing Hall of Fame former doubles star-turned-TV-interviewer Todd Woodbridge as her comic foil via that "Is Kim pregnant?" text message he sent to Rennae Stubbs, Li has made quite a few fans the past week while lovingly putting down her husband/coach Jiang Shan, calling him out for wrongly believing tennis is "easy" and, after her SF match, saying he caused her to have a largely sleepless night because of his incessant snoring.

On Day 11, in back-to-back semifinal matches, Li and Clijsters took out the world's #1 and #2-ranked players, respectively, to reach the Women's final, where Li will seek to become the first-ever Asian grand slam singles champion and Clijsters looks to win her first slam title outside of New York. And the way things have worked out in Melbourne, in a rare moment in women's tennis where things play out in something resembling a coherent working order, that's exactly how it should be.

Slightly exchanging their more recent roles in Melbourne on Thursday, it was Li who experienced drama in her match with top-seeded Caroline Wozniacki. Clijsters against #2 Vera Zvonareva... not so much.

In a rematch of their uncompetitive U.S. Open final from last September (though Zvonareva DID get big stage wins over KC last year at Wimbledon and the season-ending championships), the pair traded breaks in the opening two games of the match. The Russian was the one who grabbed a 1-0 lead, and it was the only lead she'd enjoy the rest of the afternoon. After holding serve in a series of games, Clijsters broke Zvonareva for a 5-3 lead, then, served out the set at 6-3. In the 2nd set, she again grabbed and early break. She never relinquished it. Down 3-4, Zvonareva had one final chance to make a match of things, holding double break point on the Belgian's serve. But she couldn't convert. Clijsters held for 5-3, and won the match 6-3/6-3 to advance to her eighth career slam singles final.

Unlike at Flushing Meadows, this wasn't a case of Zvonareva having a frustration-fueled emotional collapse on the court. Clijsters was simply the better player, from the second game of the match until the last. Suddenly, she looked once again like the favorite for the title that nearly everyone (including me, for the first time in eight years in a slam) thought she was two weeks ago.

Li's trip to the final was far more adventurous. In fact, she had to dance with the proverbial devil in the pale moon light (or the bright Melbourne sun... you go with what you've got, I guess) in order to pull it off.

In the opening set, Li had chances to grab big points, but consistently failed to do so. She sailed errors that were somewhat shocking considering her always-keeping-her-senses play through the first five rounds, save for the back-to-back 0-2 holes in which she found herself in the 1st and 2nd sets against Andrea Petkovic in the quarterfinals. She committed six errors in the first two games alone. A Li double-fault on break point handed Wozniacki a 4-2 lead, and the Dane's error-light game coasted to a 6-3 opening set win. In the 2nd set, another Li double-fault broke her own serve, putting Wozniacki up 2-1. At 6-3/4-2, the Dane looked to have a free pass in hand to her second career slam final, and she wasn't going to have to resurrect her aggressive mindset from her QF win over Francesca Schiavone to do it, either.

That was about to change, though, as the 28-year old Li assumed the role that the 20-year old world #1 had one round earlier.

Down 3-4, love/40 on Wozniacki's serve, Li began to awake. She got the game to deuce, then hit a big unreturnable forehand winner to get a break point. She converted it to knot the score at 4-4. But she was broken in the next game and the Dane, serving at 5-4, held a match point one game later at 40/30. In the point, Wozniacki was content to allow Li to make the error, though, rather than "pull a Serena" and impose her will upon the biggest moment of the match. Hanging back and hitting tentative shots, Wozniacki saw Li take the initiative with a down-the-line forehand that went off the Dane's racket, then break her serve by running Wozniacki wide with one shot, then putting away a forehand winner behind her with the next. 5-5. In the next game, Li expanded her repertoire by sneaking to the net to swat away a crisp volley. Suddenly, she led 6-5.

Serving to stay in the set moments after she might have been celebrating a victory, Wozniacki went up 30/15, and got within one point of forcing a tie-break, only to see Li smack a decisive winner on her return of a weak second serve. As the normally error-free Wozniacki began to commit errors with still-tentative putback shots rather than tactically-sound defensive gets, the Dane double-faulted on break point to hand the set to Li at 7-5. The Chinese veteran had broken her serve three straight times to knot the match.

Wozniacki went up an early break at 2-1 in the 3rd, only to be broken back at love in the next game. Down 3-2, Wozniacki took a 30/love lead on her serve, only to double-fault and begin a slide that she never really was able to stop. Li scored on a deep-landing passing shot after bringing Wozniacki in toward the net with a short ball, then she broke her with a swinging volley winner to jump up 4-2. Wozniacki managed to break back for 4-3, but then had her own serve broken yet again to fall behind 5-3 when Li's backhand crosscourt shot forced an error. For the second straight set, Li had managed back-to-back-to-back service breaks with the match on the line. Li served out the match for an it-seemed-improbable-an-hour-earlier 3-6/7-5/6-3 win. In the final set, Wozniacki recorded zero winners (Li had 15), and notched just ten for the match.

One day, we might look back at Wozniacki and say, "Remember when?" From this point forward, it'll be up to her whether or not that phrase has good or bad connotations. Will we remember the wasn't-it-novel era when she was #1, or look back at video of this match and realize how much a different -- and better -- player she is a year or two from now? This match made it even more apparent that while the Dane can hold the #1 spot and winning numerous tour titles playing just as she does now, her game of trying to elongate points until her opponent goes for too much, thus "creating" an error with her defense, probably is only going to ever get her SO far in a slam. The QF, SF, and an occasional final.

On Tennis Channel, even Martina Navratilova said she now realized how much C-Woz "forces" mistakes because her opponents begin to believe they need to "do more" to win the point outright, and then commit an error in the process. In effect, Wozniacki has a knack for forcing opponents to beat themselves, Navratilova said, much like how Chris Evert would do to HER when she and Navratiova ruled the tour in the late 1970's and early 1980's. Of course, Navratilova was humble enough to leave out the part that once SHE became the best player she could be, and morphed into the most ultra-aggressive player in the women's game, Evert rarely ever beat her at all (except in Paris) in the back-half of their long rivalry.

So, the question remains whether or not Wozniacki will be willing to alter her approach enough to take the next logical step in her career. Players might not be as net-rushing aggressive as Navratilova, but equipment improvement and the more-athletic nature of the tour as a whole make up for that. While Navratilova and a few others stood out for their ability to seize control of games two decades ago, racket and training technology make more and more women's players potentially lethal and able to physically seize matches with their offensive groundstrokes from baseline and mid-court positions. Li isn't the most devastating hitter in the game, but even she was able to take this match from Wozniacki, forcing the Dane into uncharacteristic errors by pressuring her into going to more... only on LI's terms, not her's. In the 2010's, there are multiple types of players who can do what Li did to Wozniacki, and HAVE at some point in every slam she's played to this point in her young career. The world #1 is just 5-13 against Top 5 players (2-5 in slams), and has won only two total sets in eight meetings with Clijsters and the Williams Sisters. But they aren't the only players Wozniacki has to find a way past to lock away her first slam. Since the start of 2010, she's lost decisively (maybe excluding today) in slams to Vera Zvonareva, Francesca Schiavone, Petra Kvitova and Li (twice).

Wozniacki simply needs to be willing to do more early-in-and-throughout matches in order to win a slam, and never even allow Li a chance to get back into the match. She flashes the ability to do it, and has won matches (QF vs. Schiavone) by utilizing those skills in key moments. One thought that she might have been shaken into that reality in the last round, but no such luck. Thus, we continue to wait.

While Wozniacki's game still has a little growing up to do, it'll be the more "adult" pair of veterans who'll decide this Australian Open championship. May the best woman -- on Saturday, at least -- win.

...hmmm, when was the last time a slam final was contested between TWO married women?

...while Li is the first Chinese woman to reach a slam singles final, the Asian influence is actually fairly widespread at this AO. There is still a chance for four Asian-based champions in Melbourne. Aside from Li, Chan Yung-Jan (TPE) is the Mixed Doubles SF, Mahesh Bhupathi & Leander Paes (IND) are in the Men's Doubles Final, while a pair of Japanese juniors (Eri Hozumi & Miyu Kato) are in the Girls Doubles Final.

And if you want to extend the thought to the "grand slam of Asia/Pacific" notion, while Anastasia Rodionova lost via a walkover in the Mixed Doubles QF, fellow Aussies Luke Seville (Boys Singles SF) and the team of Ben Wagland/Andrew Whittington (Boys Doubles Final) are still alive for titles, as well.

...some news items: U.S. Open flash Beatrice "It's a Wonderful Win" Capra has signed a letter of intent to play tennis at Duke in the fall, and Serena Williams will appear in a Mercedes Benz ad during the Super Bowl. Also, Mary Joe Fernandez said on ESPN2 yesterday that she has had contact with Serena, who told her she is making herself available for Fed Cup play in April, and hopes to have the boot removed from her foot in February. At the very least, even if she can't play FC in the fall, just making herself available is part of the process of being eligible for Olympic tennis next year in London, so one would have to think that it's a good sign that Williams is still thinking about her future in tennis. junior action, #2 An-Sophie Mestach, #5 Monica Puig, #8 Caroline Garcia and #14 Eugenie Bouchard all advanced to the semifinals in straight sets. Mestach is also in the Girls Doubles final. Meanwhile, I'm still wondering if Puig -- from Puerto Rico -- would count as a "technical" American junior champ if she'd win the title... since, you know, I have to keep track of all those pre-season predictions, after all.

...meanwhile, we'll have to wait a little longer for anyone to have eat their words about Roger Federer, since we was defeated in a second straight slam by Novak Djokovic on Night 11. Thus, a rare occurrence -- a Roger/Rafa-less slam final -- will take place in Melbourne this weekend. At least one had appeared in twelve consecutive slam finals, and in 25-of-28. They'd won four straight, and 21-of-23. Of note, of the four slams finals in the last twenty-nine in which they were not finalists, three of them have been Australian Opens ('05, '08 and '11, along with the '04 Roland Garros).

...AWARDS UPDATES: Li Na wins the "Ms. Opportunity" award. It's her second straight such crown in Melbourne, having shared it with Zheng Jie last year when they both reached the semifinals. Also, the group of Japanese girls who have made some big moves in junior action collectively receive the "Junior Breakout" honor. Aside from the team of Eri Hozumi & Miyu Kato being in the Girls Doubles Final, it should be remembered that qualifier Kanami Tsuji upset #1-seeded Daria Gavrilova, and Emi Mutaguchi knocked off #10-seed Tang Hao-Chen, as well.

The winner of the Girls Singles title -- no matter who wins, she'll be a first time junior slam finalist/champion -- will get the "It Girl" award, while the "Doubles Star" race still has a few twists and turns left. The only two players alive in both the Doubles and Mixed draws -- Maria Kirilenko & Katarina Srebotnik -- drew each other in the semis in both. Kirilenko and Victoria Azarenka have beaten Srebotnik and Kveta Peschke in the Doubles SF, so if the Russian sweeps her way into the Mixed final, as well, she'll get the nod. If Srebotnik does, then there might still be some work that needs to be done, and things could open up for a team such as Dulko/Pennetta (which has never won a slam) to win.

...and, finally, I'll finally give Justine Henin a proper (second) send-off next, since there aren't any singles matches to contend with on Day 12, and tomorrow's Daily Backspin will be pretty light in content.

2004 Fabiola Zuluaga, COL
2005 Nathalie Dechy, FRA
2006 Martina Hingis, SUI
2007 Serena Williams, USA
2008 Daniela Hantuchova, SVK
2009 Vera Zvonareva, RUS
2010 Li Na & Zheng Jie, CHN
2011 Li Na, CHN

2007 Madison Brengle/USA
2008 Jessica Moore/AUS & Arantxa Rus/NED
2009 Ksenia Pervak/RUS
2010 Karolina & Kristyna Pliskova, CZE
2011 Japanese girls

16...Serena Williams (13-3)
14...Venus Williams (7-7)
4...Maria Sharapova (3-1)
4...Svetlana Kuznetsova (2-2)
3...Ana Ivanovic (1-2)
3...Dinara Safina (0-3)
2...Vera Zvonareva (0-2)
1...Francesca Schiavone (1-0)
1...LI NA (0-0)
1...Marion Bartoli (0-1)
1...Jelena Jankovic (0-1)
1...Samantha Stosur (0-1)
1..Caroline Wozniacki (0-1)
ALSO: 12-Justine Henin (7-5)

*OLDEST FIRST-TIME SLAM WINNERS, w/ Li's potential place in history*
29y,11m - Francesca Schiavone, 2010 Roland Garros
29y,9m - Jana Novotna, 1998 Wimbledon
29y,5m - Kerry Melville-Reid, 1978 Australian Open
[ Li Na - 28y,11m ]
26y,11m - Amelie Mauresmo, 2006 Australian Open

[through SF]
9-2...China (Li)
9-3...Belgium (Clijsters)

[multiple matches]
3-0...Novak Djokovic, SRB
2-0...Kim Clijsters, BEL
2-0...Andrea Petkovic, GER
2-0...Stanislas Wawrinka, SUI
2-1...Rafael Nadal, ESP
1-1...Roger Federer, SUI
1-1...Samantha Stosur, AUS

#9 Li Na/CHN vs. #3 Kim Clijsters/BEL

#7 David Ferrer/ESP vs. #5 Andy Murray/GBR
#3 Novak Djokovic/SRB def. #2 Roger Federer/SUI

#1 Dulko/Pennetta (ARG/ITA) vs #12 Azarenka/Kirilenko (BLR/RUS)

#1 Bryan/Bryan (USA/USA) vs. #3 Bhupathi/Paes (IND/IND)

Mattek-Sands/Tecau (USA/ROU) vs. Chan/Hanley (TPE/AUS)
#3 Kirilenko/Zimonjic (RUS/SRB) vs. #2 Srebotnik/Nestor (SLO/CAN)

#5 Monica Puig/PUR vs. #14 Eugene Bouchard/CAN
#8 Caroline Garcia/FRA vs. #2 An-Sophie Mestach/BEL

#1 Jiri Vesely/CZE vs. #4 George Morgan/GBR
#6 Roberto Carballes/ESP vs. Luke Seville/AUS

#6 An-Sophie Mestach/Demi Schuurs (BEL/NED) vs. Eri Hozumi/Miyu Kato (JPN/JPN)

#3 Ben Wagland/Andrew Whittington (AUS/AUS) vs. #2 Filip Horansky/Jiri Vesely (SVK/CZE)

TOP QUALIFIER: Vesna Manasieva/RUS
TOP EARLY ROUND (1r-2r): #3 Kim Clijsters/BEL
TOP QUALIFYING MATCH: Q1: Sloane Stephens/USA def. Liana-Gabriela Ungur/ROU 7-6/1-6/8-6
TOP EARLY RD. MATCH (1r-2r): 1st Rd. - Ekaterina Makarova/RUS d. #19 Ana Ivanovic/SRB 3-6/6-4/10-8 (on 6th MP, 1:31 3rd set)
TOP MIDDLE-RD. MATCH (3r-QF): 4th Rd. - #6 Francesca Schiavone/ITA d. #23 Svetlana Kuznetsova/RUS 6-4/1-6/16-14 (Open era record 4:44, saved 6 MP)
TOP NIGHT MATCH:: 3rd Rd. - #25 Petra Kvitova/CZE d. #5 Samantha Stosur/AUS 7-6/6-3
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)
LAST QUALIFIER STANDING: Vesna Manasieva/RUS (3rd Rd.)
COMEBACK PLAYER: #12 Agnieszka Radwanska/POL
CRASH & BURN: #7 Jelena Jankovic/SRB (2nd Rd. - lost to Peng/CHN)
ZOMBIE QUEEN: #6 Francesca Schiavone/ITA (saved 6 MP vs. Kuznetsova/RUS in 4th Rd.)
LAST SHEILA STANDING: #5 Samantha Stosur/AUS (3rd Rd.)
LADY OF THE EVENING: #30 Andrea Petkovic/GER
JUNIOR BREAKOUTS: Japanese girls

All for Day 11. More tomorrow.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

If Caro just read your blog she'll learn something. I agree in most of your points. I actually hoped that she would fail because everything is going too quick for Caro and that's a little dangerous. This will make her think and it's true when she says that she has to get back on the training field to change her game - she's somethimes way too hard with herself and can be training the same damned thing for 2-3-4 hours before she's satisfied and then repeat it all over again the next day and the ..... I hope Na Li wins it would be great to "little" China to get a slam winner. What I hope we will see in 2011 is - I hope - some changes to the WTA tour now Caro has taken seat in the players council - have an eye on that. The next thing I'm looking forward to is when Caro release her first single in February (around the middle). It's a charity single with a title Oxygene (as far as I know) made to help the wheelchair players in Poland and Denmark. I' m also fearing it a little bit - because people might misunderstand why she's doing this. One thing I can tell you is that it's not for fame and money but because she has a big heart.

Thu Jan 27, 04:43:00 PM EST  
Blogger Todd Spiker said...

I guess the work of a world #1 is never done, both on AND off-court. :)

Fri Jan 28, 09:24:00 AM EST  
Blogger Steen said...

During the last 6 months or so I've seen several fans, journalists and bloggers (including Todd I believe, though I haven't got time to look back through the old posts to check) advise Caro to start developing her game AND to accept that it might mean taking one step backwards to take two forwards later on and that it would necessarily entail some unpleasant defeats.
Good advice, which Caro seems to have taken. In this tournament she has clearly been working on her forehand (hitherto her weakest side) and her net game,which used to be a "cow on ice" kind of thing. As predicted it has also meant taking a step backwards in other respects - she hasn't been able to play the more agressive game, she was developing at the end of last season together with it - and it did indeed end in unpleasant defeat.
But now I see fans journalists, fans and bloggers, including some of those previously advising such a move, going "Oh God, she lost - she is going down - she will never win a slam - she is going to be the next Safina!" And this is where I would say, Stop a moment. Caro has been playing at something like 80% of her capacity at the AO, and it still was enough to take her to a slam semi and pretty close to winning it - to get her best ever season start and best ever AO-result. If that is slumping, it's doing it at a pretty high level.
So as a fan I am not unduly worried. Of course, I'm not claiming that anything is proven yet - she has yet to show that she can integrate these new features with the agressivity of last fall, and one has heard of players whose attempts at developing their game has only led to spoiling the game they already had. All I am saying is that the 'doom and gloom'-predictions, that I'm also seeing in Todd's post, are somewhat premature. Give the girl a chance.

Fri Jan 28, 06:17:00 PM EST  
Blogger Todd Spiker said...

I don't disagree with you, Steen. I've said all along that her game is a work in progress, and that that "natural progression" probably means, assuming she continues to improve a bit each season, she'd be more in line to be "slam-worthy" in 2012 or '13.

It's that #1 ranking that's causing the problem. It shines that harsh light on what she HASN'T done yet, rather than whether she might be capable of it down the line. That's why I said last fall that her winning the Open RIGHT THEN would save her SO MANY of the potential headaches that we're only really seeing become bigger issues now.

My issue, on some level, has been that she's so taken to being the #1 player, and all the opportunities that go with it, that I wonder if she might be willing, at least for now, to rest on her laurels and continue to play the game that got her to #1. She says she "has time," but you never know if that's the case.

I also noted at some point recently, I believe, that it IS something of a balancing act, considering how Jankovic hurt her slam chances by trying to do too much too soon with her game.

I think Wozniacki is capable of doing it right, though. I just wish she'd be a BIT more forward on a regular basis than she often was at this slam, just to prove that the progression is still going on. Although, I suspect once she returns to full-time training for the rest of the season, that is precisely what her father will be stressing in practice.

Fri Jan 28, 11:21:00 PM EST  

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