Monday, January 24, 2011

AO.8- One More Down, Just One Standing

At least one Russian woman has reached the semifinals at twenty-four of the last twenty-seven slams. After Day 8 in Melbourne, the task of adding to that stat will fall solely on the shoulders of one woman.

Night 8's match-up between #3-seed Kim Clijsters of Belgium and unseeded Hordette Ekaterina Makarova was one of a player who has shown over the past year and a half that she's capable of winning the multiple slam titles in her post-retirement career that her nerves often prevented her from claming before her sabbatical against a 22-year old who has started to make a name for herself on the WTA tour over essentially the same eighteen/nineteen-month time span while winning a title in Eastbourne last year (with five wins over Top 20 players) and upsetting two seeds (Ana Ivanovic & Nadia Petrova) at this AO. Prior to the match, the possibility existed that Makarova would show herself ready to succeed on such a big stage as that of the Australian Open, perhaps even claiming the biggest scalp yet at this slam, or that Clijsters' experience would overwhelm the young Russian and turn their QF meeting into something that needed to be watched through the spaces between your fingers as you tried to shield your eyes from tennis horror.

As it happened, the reality ended up being somewhere in the middle. Makarova didn't manage to "Rock the Rod" during the night session, but she did handle herself pretty well. She didn't win the match. Clijsters did. But the veteran didn't totally outclass her less experienced opponent,either.

Things began on an ominous note, as Clijsters broke Makarova in the first game of the match, and then solidified things with a hold for 2-0. A lesser player might have struggled to gain her footing and end up just hoping to get a face-saving single game on the scoreboard. Makarova did far better. She quickly got the break back and kept things level throughout the opening set, even staving off three break points to hold for 4-4.

Makarova had opportunities to edge ahead of the Belgian, but continually missed match-bending shots by THIS MUCH, often just overhitting seeming would-be winners by a inch when she'd have been able to put Clijsters in a few stickier situations had she managed to reel back her enthusiasm in the moment just a tad. At 4-4, the Russian missed an open down-the-line shot which would have given her two break points. Instead, Clijsters notched two quick points to hold for 5-4. Sticky situation avoided. At 5-6, after going up on serve 15/love, only to play three loose points and suddenly be down 15/40, Makarova was forced to collect herself. As she had earlier in the set, she did so again. She saved two set points, then watched as a Clijsters error gave HER a game point. Playing the big points better, Makarova held serve and kept herself viable in the set by forcing a tie-break.

In the breaker, Makarova quickly grabbed a mini-break lead on the first point. But a bit of Clijsters fortune -- namely, a topped forehand miss-hit in the middle of a rally that managed to have enough momentum behind it to sail out of the Russian's reach -- gave the Belgian a 2-1 lead that she wouldn't relinquish. She went up 4-1 when Makarova, trying to keep the ball out of reach of a lunging Clijsters, once again slightly overhit a shot to the corner that slid out rather than catching the edge of the line. The Belgian's swinging volley error, failing to give herself a handful of set points, inched the score to 5-3, but it was as close as Makarova would get. Clijsters won the tie-break 7-3.

In the 2nd, Makarova immediately found herself in scramble mode again. She fell behind love/40 on serve in the first game. But, one more time, she pulled herself out of it, holding serve as Clijsters' break point opportunity numbers fell to 1-for-10. But all the Russian's toil went for naught two games later, as one of her shots bounced off the net cord and hopped out of bounds, breaking Makarova and giving Clijsters a 2-1 lead. For the rest of the match, Makarova tried to hang on by her fingertips, hoping to avoid dropping off the proverbial ledge that a two-break disadvantage would resemble. It worked for a while, but then she finally ran out of rabbits to pull from her magician's hat after falling down love/30 on serve in Game #7. Clijsters' break gave her a 5-2 bump (and, no, not the imaginary pregnancy kind), and she served out a 7-6/6-2 victory one game later.

Makarova's loss leaves just one Hordette -- #2 seed Vera Zvonareva -- left to add to Russia's still-growing list of slam semifinal appearances. The back-to-back slam runner-up defeated Iveta Benesova 6-4/6-1. Meanwhile, #25 Petra Kvitova overcame a slow start to put down #22 Flavia Pennetta 3-6/6-3/6-3 to reach her second slam quarterfinal in the last seven months.

Zvonareva gets Kvitova next, and things could get interesting really fast in that one, especially if Kvitova finds herself in the position to slap the same sort of potentially game-changing winners that Makaraova missed on against Clijsters. The Czech is surging, and Zvonareva might be the one favorite in the quarterfinals who'll have to pull out something special in order to reach the semis. Maybe Makarova will lend her that magic hat of her's?

One thing is for sure... the fate of Mother Russia (at least at this Australian Open) all depends on Vera.

=DAY 8 NOTES= the other Round of 16 match of the day, Peng Shuai finally ran out of 3rd set lives. Agnieszka Radwanska single-handedly cut in half the number of Chinese women remaining in the draw with a 7-5/1-6/7-5 victory.

A-Rad led 4-1 in the 3rd, but the 25-year old Peng battled back to hold two match points on her own serve at 5-4. Radwanska won the final three games, though, to advance to her fourth career slam quarterfinal.

#1 Wozniacki d. #6 Schiavone in THREE
#9 Li d. Petkovic in TWO
#3 Clijsters d. #12 A.Radwanska in TWO
#2 Zvonareva d. #25 Kvitova in THREE

...I went 6-2 in my Round of 16 picks (and six of my pre-tournament Final 8 -- all but Henin and Kleybanova -- DID advance to the QF), with the two misses, Kuznetsova and Peng, both losing despite holding a combined total of eight match points. Oh, well. For the quarters, I actually feel pretty good about all the picks, except for maybe Zvonareva over Kvitova. I'd like to pick the Czech, but figure that Zvonareva will simply find a way to advance. Zvonareva, Clijsters and Li were all in my pre-tournament semifinal picks, so I guess that plays a part, as well.

...there isn't a Women's Singles match scheduled on Laver for the Day 9 night session, but there is a very intriguing Doubles QF match-up. One year after Cara Black and Liezel Huber lost in the AO final to the Williams Sisters, they'll meet up again in Melbourne with different partners. Neither has won a slam Women's Doubles title since their contentious split, so both has to want this one with an extra order of relish. Black is teamed with Aussie Anastasia Rodionova, so she'll have the crowd on her side, while Huber is teamed with Russia's Nadia Petrova.

Not that it means anything, but here is where I note that after Makarova's loss to Clijsters, Russians are 0-4 under the lights on Laver this AO.

...speaking of doubles, at the end of Day 8, there were still seven women alive in both the Women's Doubles and Mixed Doubles draws (see below). With Victoria Azarenka's QF loss the other day, none of the remaining doubles contenders are also still playing in the singles draw.

...since it might mean something, keep an eye on Puerto Rico's Monica Puig, the #5 Girls seed in Melbourne, at this slam. She enters AO play after having swept the singles and doubles titles in the G1 junior event in Traralgon, Australia. Of note, she knocked off AO #1 seed Daria Gavrilova 2 & 3 in the semfinals, and #4 AO seed Yulia Putintseva 2 & 4 in the final.

The loss surely carried over for Gavrilova, who has immediately lost in Melbourne in the 1st Round to Japanese qualifier Kanami Tsuji, 6-4/6-3. So much for that AO pick, I guess.

While Puig was preparing for the AO by playing in a junior event, #6 Girls seed Zheng Saisai was reaching the final of a $25K challenger event in Muzaffarnager, India. She lost to Slovenia's Tadeja Majeric, Week 3's ITF Player of the Week. a few updates on the nominees for the remaining AO Awards:

Li Na, CHN (soon to be the first CHN slam finalist/champ?)
Andrea Petkovic, GER (at #30, lowest-seeded woman in QF)
Agnieszka Radwanska, POL (questionable to play, reaches QF)
Anastasia Rodionova, AUS (last best chance for AUS champ -- in Doubles QF and to play Mixed 3rd Rd.)
Francesca Schiavone, ITA (following up "career year" with...???)
Caroline Wozniacki, DEN (can she leap the last hurdle?)
Vera Zvonareva, RUS (if C-Woz loses in QF, still a shot to be #1 after AO)

A Junior Girl
Petra Kvitova, CZE (she's already won an "It" award at '10 Wimbledon)
Sally Peers, AUS (as WC, in Mixed Doubles QF)

Cara Black, ZIM (especially if knocks off ex-partner Huber in Doubles QF)
Agnieszka Radwanska, POL (questionable to play, reaches QF)
Meghann Shaughnessy, USA (in Doubles QF and Mixed QF)

Cara Black, ZIM (in Doubles QF and to play Mixed 3rd Rd.)
Chuang Chia-Jung, TPE (in Doubles QF and Mixed QF)
Maria Kirilenko, RUS (in Doubles QF and to play Mixed 3rd Rd.)
Bethanie Mattek-Sands, USA (in Doubles QF and Mixed QF)
Anastasia Rodionova, AUS (in Doubles QF and to play Mixed 3rd Rd.)
Meghann Shaughnessy, USA (in Doubles QF and Mixed QF)
Katarina Srebotnik, SLO (in Doubles QF and to play Mixed 3rd Rd.)

Kim Clijsters, BEL (2-0 in evening session play)
Andrea Petkovic, GER (2-0 in evening session play)

VERY early nominee: Kanami Tsuji, JPN (Q, def. #1 Gavrilova)

......and, finally, though it IS getting tiresome (even for me), I feel to continue obligated to provide a blow-by-blow account of some of more ridiculous ESPN2 programming decisions for this AO. Naturally, the shoddy production continued on Day 8. And I'm not even talking about the sometimes-amateurish nature of the on-set discussions, either... though I do admit to enjoying the Brad Gilbert/Pam Shriver tete-a-tetes just because they're often both so full of crazy that the careening-downhill-at-100-mph nature of the moments are priceless, at least in theory.

First, less than twenty-four hours after the Schiavone/Kuznetsova match carved out a place in tennis history, the network opened its evening coverage with a recap of the previous day's action. The first result that was addressed? Well, Andy Roddick's straight sets loss to Stanislas Wawrinka, of course. Naturally.

Later, with just two main draw singles matches taking place at one time -- one men's, one women's -- the one that got point-by-point treatment was, without fail, whichever men's match was being played. While the Soderling/Dolgopolov match was shown in nearly its entirety, the Kvitova/Pennetta match wasn't joined until Pennetta was serving down 3-5 in the 3rd. Especially humorous was the rush to try to get the on-screen biographical details of the players (age, rank, round-by-round results, etc.) up before the match ended. Later, after Zvonareva and Benesova moved into the 2nd set, coverage was immediately switched after a commercial break to Murray/Melzer, which at just a couple of points into the first game of the match... because nobody would want to miss that crucial first game of a best-of-five contest.

While ESPN2 generally finds a way to muddle through during its coverage of the other three slams (the U.S. Open production was actually pretty good), it continually punts its AO responsibilities (only the coverage of the night session gets a good grade, largely because there's only one match to choose from... though I suspect tonight's Women's Doubles match won't be aired). I can understand the need for the singles SF/F to be on a more wide-covering network (ala NBC w/ Roland Garros and Wimbledon), but it's really difficult to find a reason why most --if not all -- of the early coverage shouldn't be assigned to Tennis Channel, which provides both better commentary, as well as more-balanced match-airing decisions that -- get this -- actually focus on the most interesting match, even if it involves a female player who isn't a Williams, a Belgian or a Sharapova.

33...Venus Williams
31...Serena Williams
19...Justine Henin
13...Maria Sharapova
11...Svetlana Kuznetsova
9...Nadia Petrova
7...Jelena Jankovic
7...Dinara Safina
7...Patty Schnyder
6...Kimiko Date-Krumm
5...Ana Ivanovic
5...LI NA
4...Jelena Dokic
4...Daniela Hantuchova
Other '11 AO Quarterfinalists: Petra Kvitova (2), Andrea Petkovic (1)

[2010-11, CAPS in '11 AO]
6...United States
Nations with 1: Belarus, Bulgaria, GERMANY, Kazakhstan, POLAND, Serbia, Slovak Republic

[through 4th Round, w/ remaining players]
25-18...Russia (Zvonareva)
14-8...Czech Republic (Kvitova)
8-7...Italy (Schiavone)
7-2...China (Li)
7-3...Belgium (Clijsters)
7-4...Germany (Petkovic)
4-0...Denmark (Wozniacki)
4-0...Poland (A.Radwanska)

#1 Caroline Wozniacki/DEN vs. #6 Francesca Schiavone/ITA
#30 Andrea Petkovic/GER vs. #9 Li Na/CHN
#12 Agnieszka Radwanska/POL vs. #3 Kim Clijsters/BEL
#25 Petra Kvitova/CZE vs.#2 Vera Zvonareva/RUS

#1 Rafael Nadal/ESP vs. #7 David Ferrer/ESP
Aleksandr Dolgopolov/UKR vs. #5 Andy Murray/GBR
#6 Tomas Berdych/CZE vs. #3 Novak Djokovic/SRB
#19 Stanislas Wawrinka/SUI vs. #2 Roger Federer/SUI

#1 Dulko/Pennetta (ARG/ITA) vs. Grandin/Uhlirova (RSA/CZE)
#3 Huber/Petrova (USA/RUS) vs. #5 Black/An.Rodionova (ZIM/AUS)
#12 Azarenka/Kirilenko (BLR/RUS) vs. Chuang/Hsieh (TPE/TPE)
#8 Mattek-Sands/Shaughnessy (USA/USA) vs. #2 Peschke/Srebotnik (CZE/SLO)

#1 Bryan/Bryan (USA/USA) vs. #6 Melzer/Petzschner (AUT/GER)
#4 Kubot/Marach (POL/AUT) vs. Butorac/Rojer (USA/CUR)
#8 Llodra/Zimonjic (FRA/SRB) vs. #3 Bhupathi/Paes (IND/IND)
#5 Fyrstenberg/Matkowski (POL/POL) vs. #2 Mirnyi/Nestor (BLR/CAN)

(WC) Peers/Ball (AUS/AUS) vs. Mattek-Sands/Tecau (USA/ROU)
#4 Black/Paes (ZIM/IND) or Chan/Hanley (TPE/AUS) vs. Chuang/Norman (TPE/BEL)
Shaughnessy/A.Ram (USA/ISR) vs. #3 Kirilenko/Zimonjic (RUS/SRB) or Arvidsson/Petzschner (SWE/GER)
Errani/Marrero (ITA/ESP) or An.Rodionova/Bhupathi (AUS/IND) vs. #2 Srebotnik/Nestor (SLO/CAN) or Govortsova/Matkowski (BLR/POL)

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)
ZOMBIE QUEEN: #6 Francesca Schiavone/ITA (saved 5 MP vs. Kuznetsova/RUS in 4th Rd.)
LAST SHEILA STANDING: #5 Samantha Stosur/AUS (3rd Rd.)

All for Day 8. More tomorrow.


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