Saturday, January 22, 2011

AO.6- Being Human

On Day 6, Kim Clijsters and Samantha Stosur proved that they were, indeed, human. Only one of them still managed to win, though.

Thus, the Belgian Doomsday Device is still ticking.

Playing a 3rd Round match against Alize Cornet on the Pastry's 21st birthday provided Clijsters with yet another opportunity to build her "street cred." Already at this Australian Open, she'd shown little mercy against Dinara Safina and Carla Suarez-Navarro, double-bageling the Russian and keeping the Spaniard pinned behind the baseline with penetrating shots all day while giving up just four games. Then, she topped off her second Melbourne victory by putting a little friendly embarrassment on Todd Woodbridge in front of a stadium full of fans and milliions of television viewers worldwide. Saturday's match gave the Belgian the chance to put a beatdown on a "birthday girl."

It didn't happen, though.

Oh, Clijsters won 7-6/6-3, but her level of play wavered throughout as her old inconsistency reared its ugly head and refused to allow her to keep any momentum for very long. Essentially, it was a mini-version of the player who built up a 5-0 lead on Li Na in the Sydney final last weekend only to go on to lose the match (and, perhaps, prompt Woodbridge's infamous text to Rennae Stubbs), as well as a sliver of the player who was nearly double-bageled herself on her way out of this tournament a year ago.

Is this match reason for the rest of the field to not have to think about quaking in KC's wake? No, probably not. Even while Clijsters has been more on top of her game in big moments in her 2.0 career than in the underachieving 1.0 one, she's still the player to beat in this slam. True, other players now have been reminded that she's still susceptible to "one of those days," but it's also good to remember that the last time she had one in Sydney it was her next opponent who paid the price for it.

I suppose that means Ekaterina Makarova should watch her back, and only send text messages to family.

Meanwhile, later on on Saturday, Samantha Stosur wasn't as fortunate as Clijsters. I've sort of been trying to corner the market the last few weeks when it's comes to staking out a claim for how little chance the Aussie had to win her home slam tournament, so I've been somewhat amused in recent days by how many times commentators have mentioned her as one of the favorites to become champion. I've continued to feel that while those opinions did have a basis in reality when it comes to the quality of Stosur's game, it was really only addressing half the story. That fact it, Stosur's game has been looked at as being capable of slam success for a few seasons, but the only place where she's really had much of it has been Paris, which probably would have been the slam where many might have thought she'd be the least effective. In others words, figuring out Slingin' Sammy has been -- and still is -- all about making your way through a funhouse-full of mirrors to discover the real Stosur.

As it turns out, I was right to think that the real Sam simply wasn't the player who was going to be able to hold up well enough over two weeks to withstand all the inherent pressure of trying to win her home nation's slam when the last woman to do so did it thirty-three years ago. That sort of level of expectation would be enough to potentially do in even players far mentally strong than Stosur. She's made great strides in better dealing with her nerves in recent seasons, but it's delusional to think that it's not an ongoing issue with her (even in Paris, when she couldn't follow up upset wins over Henin and Serena by winning the title she was suddenly favored to take). When countrywoman Anastasia Rodionova kicked off things a month or so ago by saying that she thought Stosur could win the AO, I figured that pretty much killed any chance she had of winning. Needless to say, I couldn't quite grasp how many -- as ESPN2 put it -- felt that the Aussie was the "heavy favorite" to even win her 3rd Round match against a very tough Petra Kvitova. And it was right to question such beliefs, because Stosur did indeed see her '11 Oz Open end when she went out to the Czech 7-6/6-3 on "Australia Night" on Rod Laver.

Of course, Kvitova had something to do with it, too. I looked at this match as a LITERAL "battle of nerves," as Kvitova has had her own issues with dealing with pressure in the past. I can still remember the sad, broken look on her face when she blew a big lead against Melanie Oudin in Fed Cup action two seasons ago. And after her Wimbledon SF run of '10, she had a difficult first few months handling all the new expections heaped upon her, as well.

But this showed that she may have put all that behind her.

Kvitova got an early break in Game #3 against Stosur, and the two stayed largely even throughout the set. Stosur broke back for 3-3. The Czech lefty's return was often able to neutralize Stosur's big wide kick-serve that sets up so many of her forehand winners against righties. Still, Stosur edged close to grabbing the advantage in the match, coming within two points of taking the 1st set on Kvitova's serve at 6-5. She couldn't do it, though, and they went to a tie-break. The Aussie went up 3-0, with two mini-breaks, there, as well, as the Czech dropped three of her first four serve points. Again, Stosur came within two points of the set, leading 5-3.

She wouldn't get any closer. Kvitova's power shots from both sides, combined with her wide-tracking lefty serve (oh, did that bring back memories of another left-handed Czech from the 1970's, and 1980s, and 1990's... and, umm, I guess the 2000's, too), allowed her to withstand the pressure of the moment, as the anxious Aussie crowd was itching to be pulled into the match and push Stosur to victory. But it was Kvitova who put away the final four points of the break, punctuating her first set point with an ace to win 7-5.

In the 2nd set, Kvitova nearly went up another early break. Stosur rescued a serve game from a love/40 hole in Game #2, but when she couldn't convert her own mid-set break points she finally cracked just a bit mentally and showed her anger. Usually, that's enough to send Stosur down the wrong path (maybe she should go back to wearing those dark glasses even when the sun isn't out -- they might sort of act as blinders for her and might help her keep her focus), and that was indeed the case this time. She was never quite the same. Kvitova won eleven straight points to take a 5-2 lead and put away the match by pulling yet another weapon from her quiver -- a stinging volley that zipped out of reach of Stosur's racket.

That final point gave Kvitova sixteen winners for the 2nd set. Over the same period, Stosur had none. Yep, ZERO. I guess that stat alone makes it pretty apparent which player stood up tallest under the pressure and won this particular battle of nerves. Truthfully, I don't think the result was anything resembling the "shock" that ESPN2 announcers wanted to make it out to be. I picked it before the tournament, and had seen nothing through the first two rounds to dissuade me from believing it had a better-than-average chance of becoming reality.

Kvitova has made quite a climb over the past two years. From that painful loss to Oudin, to her saving five match points against Kaia Kanepi in last year's Wimbledon QF, and right up to today. As of now, she's busy building a case that, at just 20 years of age and on the cusp of entering the Top 20, she's a player who could have a few REALLY shocking wins very soon. Maybe even at this slam. Her smooth, but still powerful, game is really a joy to watch (of course, I do admit to having a "Czech tennis" thing), and all Kvitova really needed to begin to fly up the rankings was match toughness.

Somewhere along the way, she seems to have found it.

...with the losses by Stosur and promising young men's player Bernard Tomic on Night 6, the Aussies finish up their participation in Laver night matches with a 1-5 record at this AO.

...after defeating Lucie Safarova 6-3/7-6(9) on Day 6, Vera Zvonareva talked about her playing too passively at times in parts of the match. She allowed the Czech to have the opportunity to take the necessary chances to win control of many points, rather than beat her to the punch by doing so herself, she noted. Eventually, she said, she turned her game around and starting doing the things she should have been doing all along. Because of the delay, though, the Russian took quite a bit longer (2:00, actually) to win this match than she might have otherwise (though you never know when Safarova will play like a champion, and she was THIS CLOSE to pushing Zvonareva's back against the wall in the long 2nd set tie-break). Still, she advanced after absorbing some pretty good shots from her opponent, once again managed to fine tune her approach in mid-match, and continues to exist well below the radar in this tournament despite playing in the last two slam finals.

Problem is, it's been when the lights have been brighter -- and right on her -- that Zvonareva has crumbled in those slams. But at least now she won't have to worry about that 0-5 career mark against Stosur.

...meanwhile, although Agnieszka Radwanska was a question mark to even play in this event, she now stands just a win away from reaching the QF after her victory today over Simona Halep. Peng Shuai (another 3-set win, over Ayumi Morita) and Iveta Benesova (def. Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova) made it three unseeded women in the eight remaining players in the bottom half of the draw. Elsewhere, Flavia Pennetta won a long one over Shahar Peer, and Ekaterina Makarova took down another big name, outlasting Nadia Petrova in an 8-6 3rd set and preventing a rematch of the near-bagel win that the veteran Russian put on Clijsters in Melbourne last year.

...with the singles Round of 16 set, there are some interesting facts about those involved. Here are a few:

* - Four of the Final 16 women (Benesova, Makarova, Peng & Sevastova) are in their first career slam 4th Rounds

* - Caroline Wozniacki is in her seventh consecutive Round of 16 at a slam, the longest current streak on tour

* - Only one of the Final 16 women -- Peng Shuai -- has never won a tour singles title

* - No teenagers -- there are three 20-year olds, though -- are still alive in the draw

* - As usual, Russia leads the way with four women remaining

* - And, contrary to the story that Dick Enberg and Pam Shriver were trying to convey both before and after the Kvitova/Stosur match, there are NOT three lefty Czech women still alive in the women's 4th Round. There are two. Makarova (who they identifed as Czech) was born in Moscow, so I'd say that she's about as Russian as a Russian can get. I suspect that Enberg, who was the first to talk about the "three," got Makarova mixed up with the lefty Czech Lucie Safarova, who lost to Zvonareva. I can certainly understand making one mistake like that, then mentioning it many times, only to realize later that, oh, "I guess I looked at that wrong." But Shriver shouldn't have made the same mistake, and you'd have thought that at least one person on the ESPN2 crew would have mentioned the mistake to one of them to avoid them repeating the error later, even while an on-screen graphic showing the Final 16 match-ups clearly identified Makarova with the Russian flag. Oh, and here's a good time to mention how during Tennis Channel's coverage the other day, Martina Navratilova said something in error and it took literally less than five seconds for her to pipe in that her producer had just told her in her earpierce that she'd been wrong about that, so she correctly herself and moved on with the call of the match. That would never happen on ESPN2.

Also, looking at the Final 16 in both the men's and women's draws, something odd very nearly happened that I don't remember being the case anytime recently. We very nearly had the women's Round of 16 made up by a certain group of nations, and then the men's Round of 16 made up of players from ENTIRELY different nations. In total, twenty nations produced the final thirty-two singles players alive -- ten nations make up the women's field, while eleven are represented in the men's. Only the Czech Republic -- two women, one man -- have a player left in BOTH draws.

#1 Wozniacki d. Sevastova in TWO
#23 Kuznetsova d. #6 Schiavone in TWO
#30 Petkovic d. #14 Sharapova in THREE
#9 Li d. #8 Azarenka in THREE
Peng d. #12 Radwanska in THREE
#3 Clijsters d. Makarova in TWO
#25 Kvitova d. #22 Pennetta in THREE
#2 Zvonareva d. Benesova in TWO

...and, finally, NOW it has been revealed what it takes for women's tennis to finally break through the ESPN SportsCenter glass ceiling and have segments about it teased throughout the episode -- a player has to talk about her boobs.

Thank you, Kim Clijsters. Well, I guess.

Clijsters' on-court calling out of Todd Woodbridge the other day about his text to Rennae Stubbs asking whether KC was pregnant again because she "looks grumpy and her boobs are bigger" got a lot of play yesterday all over ESPN. An interview with Woodbridge, the former slam-winning doubles player (who also had a bit of singles success, reaching the Wimbledon SF in '97 before losing there to Pete Sampras), was teased throughout the early evening broadcast.

Usually, some of the hosts pretty much whip past the women's slam results, unless a Williams, Belgian or Sharapova loses early, that is. As far as the others players, well, they'll lucky to just not have their names mangled, and even if they ARE pronounced correctly, some of the talking heads always make the effort to pat themselves on the back (or, if they don't, their on-set partner does) for not screwing up a name. The other day, it was Radwanska who got that treatment. What makes that little act especially annoying, though, isn't really that they occasionally miss on the names -- it's that many of the ESPN heads simply don't make an effort to even act as if they care if they get the women's names correct, even though the surnames often originate from the same areas of Europe from which so many NBA and NHL players emerge from. And the ESPNers surely would never dare to say THEIR names incorrectly, or else they'd be considered to be embarressments to the ESPN brand.

It's all about priorities and professionalism, and when it comes to tennis the ESPN monster, even while airing all four slams, still chooses to not even impress upon its newsreaders that women's tennis players deserve to have their names pronounced correctly as much as male basketball and hockey players, and even Tour de France riders, do. Alas, as so many of the male ESPN heads are often suspended or fired for the sexual harrassment and/or questionable judgment used around their female co-workers, I figure this is a "battle" that will not be won anytime soon.

So, reading between the lines, maybe that the biggest story of the first week of the AO on the greater ESPN landscape involved Clijsters mentioning her boobs isn't really all that surprising, is it?

4...Russia (Kuznetsova,Makarova,Sharapova,Zvonareva)
2...China (Li,Peng)
2...Czech Republic (Benesova,Kvitova)
2...Italy (Pennetta,Schiavone)
1...Belarus (Azarenka)
1...Belgium (Clijsters)
1...Denmark (Wozniacki)
1...Germany (Petkovic)
1...Latvia (Sevastova)
1...Poland (A.Radwanska)
20...Caroline Wozniacki
20...Anastasija Sevastova
20...Petra Kvitova
21...Victoria Azarenka
21...Agnieszka Radwanska
22...Ekaterina Makarova
23...Andrea Petkovic
23...Maria Sharapova
25...Peng Shuai
25...Svetlana Kuznetsova
26...Vera Zvonareva
27...Kim Clijsters
27...Iveta Benesova
28...Li Na
28...Flavia Pennetta
30...Francesca Schiavone
#1 Caroline Wozniacki
#2 Vera Zvonareva
#3 Kim Clijsters
#7 Francesca Schiavone
#9 Victoria Azarenka
#11 Li Na
#14 Agnieszka Radwanska
#16 Maria Sharapova
#25 Flavia Pennetta
#26 Svetlana Kuznetsova
#28 Petra Kvitova
#33 Andrea Petkovic
#46 Anastasija Sevastova
#49 Ekaterina Makarova
#54 Peng Shuai
#60 Iveta Benesova
=WTA Titles=
40...Kim Clijsters
22...Maria Sharapova
13...Svetlana Kuznetsova
12...Caroline Wozniacki
10...Vera Zvonareva
9...Flavia Pennetta
5...Victoria Azarenka
4...Li Na
4...Agnieszka Radwanska
4...Francesca Schiavone
2...Iveta Benesova
2...Petra Kvitova
1...Ekaterina Makarova
1...Andrea Petkovic
1...Anastasija Sevastova
0...Peng Shuai
=Slam Rounds of 16=
23...Kim Clijsters
21...Svetlana Kuznetsova
20...Maria Sharapova
14...Francesca Schiavone
14...Vera Zvonareva
10...Agnieszka Radwanska
9...Li Na
9...Caroline Wozniacki
7...Victoria Azarenka
7...Flavia Pennetta
4...Petra Kvitova
2...Andrea Petkovic
1...Iveta Benesova
1...Ekaterina Makarova
1...Peng Shuai
1...Anastasija Sevastova

2008 Svetlana Kuznetsova, RUS (lost 3rd Rd. to A.Radwanska/POL)
2009 Venus Williams, USA (lost 2nd Rd. to Suarez-Navarro/ESP)
2010 Maria Sharapova, RUS (lost 1st Rd. to Kirilenko/RUS)
2011 Jelena Jankovic, SRB (lost 2nd Rd. to Peng/CHN)

#1 Caroline Wozniacki/DEN vs. Anastasiya Sevastova/LAT
#23 Svetlana Kuznetsova/RUS vs. #6 Francesca Schiavone/ITA
#30 Andrea Petkovic/GER vs. #14 Maria Sharapova/RUS
#9 Li Na/CHN vs. #8 Victoria Azarenka/BLR
Peng Shuai/CHN vs. #12 Agnieszka Radwanska/POL
Ekaterina Makarova/RUS vs. #3 Kim Clijsters/BEL
#22 Flavia Pennetta/ITA vs. #25 Petra Kvitova/CZE
Iveta Benesova/CZE vs. #2 Vera Zvonareva/RUS

#1 Rafael Nadal/ESP vs. #15 Marin Cilic/CRO
(Q) Milos Raonic/CAN vs. #7 David Ferrer/ESP
#4 Robin Soderling/SWE vs. Oleksandr Dolgopolov/UKR
#11 Jurgen Melzer/AUT vs. #5 Andy Murray/GBR
#6 Tomas Berdych/CZE vs. #9 Fernando Verdasco/ESP
#14 Nicolas Almagro/ESP vs. #3 Novak Djokovic/SRB
#8 Andy Roddick/USA vs. #19 Stanislas Wawrinka/SUI
Tommy Robredo/ESP vs. #2 Roger Federer/SUI

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)
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.)
CRASH & BURN: #7 Jelena Jankovic/SRB (2nd Rd. - lost to Peng/CHN)
LAST SHEILA STANDING: #5 Samantha Stosur/AUS (3rd Rd.)

All for Day 6. More tomorrow.


Blogger Zidane said...

Another weird thing I noticed, when checking the nationalities of the last 16 women standing in the draw: only two continents are represented (Europe and Asia, and even there, for people who consider Russia more European than Asian, only Na Li represents Asia).

Sat Jan 22, 11:59:00 PM EST  
Blogger Zidane said...

I'm crying. Not literally, but close (Kuznet being currently my favourite player on tour). SIX match points and the help of a rule I didn't know the most obscure ramifications until this morning, and she still can't make it.

You were clearly right in your pre-season comment about Schiavone. She still had a lot of fun left to bring to the sport!

Sun Jan 23, 04:16:00 AM EST  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sorry for you Zidane but she was part of one of the finest games of tennis i've ever seen setting a fantastic record too with almost 5 hours play. There should be a special price for the particpants of such a game - could be after the final where the top game of the tournament is revealed. The danger for Schiavone is that she's tired when she is going to play the quarter final - well that's life. But Kuznetsova is back on the right track and I guess she'll be able to win on Roland, but a pity she's out.

Sun Jan 23, 11:50:00 AM EST  
Blogger Todd Spiker said...


Hmmm, Schiavone. You don't think she could...? Nah. Probably not.


You know... after Isner won that marathon at Wimbledon, he lost his next match. I'm sure you know who Francesca plays next. :D

Sun Jan 23, 04:02:00 PM EST  
Blogger Diane said...

Wozniacki has the best luck of any player I've ever seen. This sort of thing--a gift in a big round--has happened for her repeatedly. I'm sure Schiavone will try to play, but of course, she won't have much to offer.

ESPN's general lack of respect for women's tennis is a constant irritation. On the other hand, it's Tennis Channel that did features on "Chris Everett" and that chose to retain a staff member who has engaged in repeated misogynistic speech. In general, I find TC more offensive toward women (with regard to tennis), but during coverage of the majors, they have it all over ESPN.

Sun Jan 23, 05:11:00 PM EST  

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