AO.4- Early Kim is Pretty Nice (and, yes, I REALLY mean it... I guess)
Four days in, and Barbie hasn't worn out her Backspin welcome yet.
=EARLY ROUND AWARDS - 1st/2nd Rounds (Days 1-4)=
TOP PLAYER: Kim Clijsters/BEL
...she's looked virtually untouchable so far. And she gets the player she couldn't touch a year ago in Melbourne -- Nadia Petrova -- next.
(RU: Samantha Stosur/AUS... the real pressure is about to land squarely on her shoulders)
RISERS: Ekaterina Makarova/RUS & Peng Shuai/CHN
...the conquerors of the Serbs, AnaIvo and JJ, respectively. Peng has a golden opportunity for a run to the QF, where she could face Clijsters. Makarova could get Clijsters in the 4th Round. (RU: Victoria Azarenka/BLR... still no Serena in sight)
SURPRISES: Vesna Manasieva/RUS & Barbora Zahlavova-Strycova/CZE
...the Last Qualifier -- and the Last Zahlavova -- Standing. (RU: Chanelle Scheepers/RSA... she's starting to become a 3rd Rd. slam regular)
VETERANS: Li Na/CHN & Justine Henin/BEL
...Oz '10 semifinalist Li is quietly slipping through, while Henin now faces her first loud test in Svetlana Kuznetsova in the 3rd Round. (RU: Venus Williams/USA... she's still here, barely)
FRESH FACES Petra Kvitova/CZE & Anastasia Sevastova/LAT
...the Czech now enters into a battle of nerves against Stosur. Meanwhile, the LAT-vian took out WICK-mayer, and could get C-Woz soon. (RU: Monica Niculescu/ROU & Simona Halep/ROU... two unseeded Swarmettes are in the Final 32)
COMEBACK: Alize Cornet/FRA
...hey, look what the wind blew in -- Alize in the 3rd Round. (RU: Svetlana Kuznetsova/RUS... she's in it with her heart and body, as of Day 4. We'll see if her soul is still around after Day 5.)
DOWN: United States
...the U.S.'s fortunes have looked brighter recently, but that 2-10 1st Round record at this tournament, and with just a hobbled Venus still surviving from the original American Dozen in the 3rd Round, you'd have a hard time finding evidence of it in Melbourne. (RU: Jelena Jankovic/SRB & Dinara Safina/RUS... still #1's no more)
*BEST IMPRESSION OF A FORMER #1 WORKING HER WAY BACK*
1st Rd. - Makarova d. Ivanovic 3-6/6-4/10-8
...AnaIvo lost in the best women's match of the tournament, but the way she fended off five match points (including three from down love/40 on her own serve) gives reason for hope.
*WORST IMPRESSION OF A FORMER #1 WORKING HER WAY BACK*
1st Rd. - Clijsters d. Safina 6-0/6-0
...the worst loss of her career. First it was Dinara's head, then her back. How much longer before it's her heart that provides the "last straw?"
*WORTHIEST IMPRESSION OF A FORMER #1 WHO REFUSES TO GIVE UP*
2nd Rd. - V.Williams d. Zahlavova 6-7/6-0/6-4
...she's got no groin that'll pull her down, make her retire or create a frown.
WORST DEBUT, but it probably doesn't matter: 17-year old American Lauren Davis made her pro debut, losing 6-1/6-1 to Sam Stosur
WORST START, and it probably does foreshadow something: Maria Sharapova opened the tournament by hitting back-to-back double-faults in her first game. She defeated Tamarine Tanasugarn in straight sets, but it's obvious that "the questions" haven't yet been answered.
WORST REPLAY FOR A RACKET MANUFACTURER: the sight of Agnieszka Radwanska's racket breaking off at the handle in mid-swing and flying through the air in her match against Kimiko Date-Krumm.
FIRST SEED OUT: #28 Daniela Hantuchova/SVK (lost to Regina Kulikova)
UPSET QUEENS: The Russians
...Kulikova knocked out #28 Hantuchova, Manasieva took down #15 Marion Bartoli and Ekaterina Makarova outlasted #19 Ana Ivanovic
REVELATION LADIES: The Czechs
...the second-only-in-numbers-to-the-Hordettes contingent of Czechs riding high in the 3rd Round include Petra Kvitova, Iveta Benesova, Lucie Safarova and Barbora Zahlavova-Strycova. Meanwhile, Sandra Zahlavova -- the cousin of BZS's husband -- pushed Venus to the edge.
ZOMBIE QUEEN?? (1r-2r): Venus Williams seemed certain to retire from her first slam singles match in 257 outings, but instead came back to reel off back-to-back sets to take down Zahlavova in the 2nd Round.
CRASH & BURNER (1r-2r): Jelena Jankovic. Ol' Chaotic Serb ain't what she used to be, ain't what she used to be, ain't what she used to be.
FIRST VICTORY: Olivia Rogowska got into the AO draw by winning the final match in Tennis Australia's Wild Card Playoff tournament. As it turned out, though, she was the first player to exit on Day 1, losing to Evgeniya Rodina.
LAST SHEILA STANDING: For the second straight year, Sam Stosur is the home nation's last woman to root for. Slingin' Sam alone has produced a Laver night session for the Aussies, who have watched their men and women go a combined 1-3 through four nights.
LAST QUALIFIER STANDING: Backspin's Q-Player of the Week from the qualifying rounds, Vesna Manasieva, lived up to her billing. She's the only of her kind to advance to the Final 32.
IT GIRL (for today): Ekaterina Makarova/RUS, who'll get her shot at instant stardom -- and Clijsters -- in the 4th Round if she can get past countrywoman Petrova next
IT GIRL (for tomorrow): Bojana Jovanovski/SRB, who didn't take down Vera Zvonareva in Round 2, but will hopefully have more similar chances in slams before the end of 2011
=DAY 4 NOTES=
...I'm even more bullish now on my preseason pick of Bojana Jovanovski being the surprise player of 2011. Her career trajectory has sort of slipped into the jet stream the last few months, and I was looking forward to see what would happen if she met #2 Vera Zvonareva in the 2nd Round on Thursday. She did, and the 19-year old Serb showed why she's a player to keep an eye on, as she jumped on the Russian early, blasting winners down the line and grabbing a quick service break. Then another. She led 4-1, and took the set at 6-2 in a composed manner that we rarely see from teenaged players on tour these days.
Of course, BoJo IS still a teenager, and experiences like the one she failed to conquer in the final two sets will hopefully make her a better player. As her play dropped off a bit, Zvonareva's improved and the Russian took control, winning 2-6/6-3/6-1. Jovanovski's stinging groundstrokes remind me a bit of Jelena Dokic's when she first popped up on the scene a decade ago. Dokic's undoing was always her inability to make her serve a complimentary weapon that would serve to increase the lethalness of her forehands and backhands, and Jovanovski will need to work to make sure she doesn't fall into the same trap. As Pam Shriver noted during ESPN2's coverage of the match...
(Well, what little of it there was, since someone at the network decided that watching Jo-Wilfried Tsonga struggle to put away a straight sets victory was more compelling than watching the #2 women's seed have to dig herself out of a hole against an exciting new star that the network programming directors will one day complain that nobody recognizes, conveniently neglecting ESPN2's own complicity in keeping players such as Jovanovski "anonymous" -- I know I would likely have never become a fan of Dokic back in '99 if HBO hadn't had the sense to air pillar-to-post coverage of her upset of Martina Hingis at Wimbledon that year. Moments when a young player first stands out on a big stage are when fans are often made, but ESPN2 continually seems to think that no one will watch a tennis match unless they already intimately know the players. Of course, not that that stops it from ever doing everything humanly possible to not air a compelling women's match if it happens to be taking place opposite a men's match. Any men's match, since it rarely matters who's playing in such circumstances.)
...Jovanovski could stand to train a bit more, as well. She's is good shape, Shriver noted, but she's still got a "teenager's body." I'm assuming she means she needs to get stronger and more cardiovascularly sound, as BoJo seemed to tire a bit down the stretch.
In the end, Zvonareva, who's still staring at a potential QF match-up with Sam Stosur (who she's 0-5 against), might be thankful to Jovanoski for putting her into the position of having to find her footing in this event by threatening to push her out of it. The Russian's quick dispatch of Wozniacki, who seems to be getting better with each match (she nearly double-bageled Vania King the other day), in Hong Kong hasn't seemed to carry over at all in regular tournament play.
...elsewhere, ummm, Jelena Jankovic lost 7-6/6-3 to Peng Shuai. While Peng is quickly becoming a nice success story in this young season, where she's already reached two semifinals, JJ slipped just a big deeper into the shadows. Her loss here was marked by the same wild swings of momentum that occurred in her opening round match. Two days ago, she won the opening set 6-0, then quickly fell behind 0-4 in the 2nd. On Day 4, she jumped up 4-1, only to lose twelve of the final seventeen games. I don't have the heart to come down too hard on Jankovic, and she's correct when she says that she's just happy that she's finally healthy and has a chance to be competitive again. But her career is clearly in a different place now than it was as recently as two Januarys ago.
The Serb's run to the top of the game sort of came out of nowhere, as she jumped from a "second-tier" player to #1 in the blink of an eye a few seasons ago. To her credit, she hasn't completely fallen off the board after her rise, ala the likes of Ana Ivanovic or Dinara Safina. But she seems to have found, or is in the process of rediscovering, her appropriate "level" in the sport's hierarchy -- as a player who'll generally be ranked between #8-12 and win a couple titles a season. She's a good player who can pull off big wins, but she's not a "slam champion" type of player, though she had a brief opportunity to "steal" a major title a while back. That said, maybe there is a Francesca-like "dream run" in her future, but if it is it'll be a one-time amusement park ride. It's too bad. I love the thought of her to death, and when she retires the moment will give birth to a lot of smiles at Backspin HQ thinking back about how much fun she's been to have around, but her career has turned the corner into its "prelude-to-the-beginning-of-the-end phase" now. At the moment, she seems to be caught between the "rock" of the best players of her generation still competing at a top level as they approach age 30, and the "hard place" of all the young up-and-comers (like countrywoman Bojo, who beat JJ late last year) who are just about to reach their prime.
...meanwhile, Alisa Kleybanova's string of AO's where she loses to the "story of the tournament" ended on Day 4. Well, that is, unless Simona Halep (6-4/7-6) is about to pull off something that no one can see coming as of right now.
...and, finally, Kim Clijsters actually made me smile today. Yes, it IS possible, and no, it wasn't because of the "Green Hornet" outfit she wore for her give-no-inch win over Carla Suarez-Navarro today, either. No, it was because of what happened AFTER the match. While being interview by Todd Woodbridge on the court for Aussie TV, she hilariously interrupted his question to get to the bottom of a text that the reporter had sent to Rennae Stubbs about her. Clijsters pushed him to tell everyone what he texted, then offered up the answer himself. Apparently, he asked Stubbs if Clijsters was pregnant, because she looked "grumpy and her boobs are bigger." As Woodbridge jokingly tried to avoid having this moment be the "end of his career," Clijsters finally came off as the funny, Nice (and NOT pregnant, she insisted) Kim that so many have talked about for year.
Or maybe this "learning to love Barbie" thing is just messing a little TOO much with my head?
*AO "REVELATION LADIES" NATIONS*
2011 Czech Republic
*AO "UPSET QUEENS" NATIONS*
2007 Czech Republic
*AO "LAST QUALIFIER STANDING" WINNERS*
2006 Olga Savchuk, UKR (3rd Rd.)
2007 Kremer/LUX, Kudryavtseva/RUS, Paszek/AUT, Vakulenko/UKR, Voracova/CZE (2nd Rd.)
2008 Marta Domachowska/POL, Hsieh Su-Wei/TPE (4th Rd.)
2009 Elena Baltacha/GBR, Alberta Brianti/ITA, Sesil Karatantcheva/KAZ (2nd Rd.)
2010 Yanina Wickmayer/BEL (4th Rd.)
2011 Vesna Manasieva/RUS (to 3rd Rd.)
NOTES: wild cards lasted longer than qualifiers in 2009 (Dokic/AUS - QF) and 2010 (Henin/BEL - RU)
*AO "LAST SHEILA STANDING" WINNERS*
2008 Casey Dellacqua (4th Rd.)
2009 Jelena Dokic (QF)
2010 Samantha Stosur (4th Rd.)
2011 Samantha Stosur (in 3rd Rd.)
*WOMEN'S FINAL 32 - BY NATION*
Russia: Kuznetsova, Makarova, Manasieva, Pavlyuchenkova, Petrova, Sharapova & Zvonareva
4...Czech Republic (Benesova/Kvitova/Safarova/Zahlavova-Strycova)
1...Slovak Republic (Cibulkova)
1...South Africa (Scheepers)
1...United States (V.Williams)
*WOMEN'S OVERALL WON/LOST - BY NATION*
[through 2nd Round]
Argentina, Hungary, India, Luxembourg, Slovenia, Taiwan, Thailand, Uzbekistan
TOP QUALIFIER: Vesna Manasieva/RUS
TOP EARLY ROUND (1r-2r): #3 Kim Clijsters/BEL
TOP MIDDLE-ROUND (3r-QF): xx
TOP LATE ROUND (SF-F): 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): 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): xx
TOP LATE RD. MATCH (SF-F/Jr.): xx
TOP NIGHT MATCH:: 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)
UPSET QUEENS: Russians
REVELATION LADIES: Czechs
LAST QUALIFIER STANDING: Vesna Manasieva/RUS (in 3rd Rd.)
IT GIRL: xx
MS. OPPORTUNITY: xx
COMEBACK PLAYER: xx
CRASH & BURN: Early Rounds: Jankovic only Top 8 seed not to advance to Final 32
ZOMBIE QUEEN: Early Rounds: Venus Williams survives groin injury to def. Zahlavova in 2nd Rd.
LAST SHEILA STANDING: #5 Samantha Stosur/AUS (in 3rd Rd.)
LADY OF THE EVENING: xx
DOUBLES STAR xx
JUNIOR BREAKOUT: xx
All for Day 4. More tomorrow.