Tuesday, January 25, 2011

AO.9- The Art of Thrilling Fans and Influencing a Dane

In a face-off of the WTA's charm bracelet vs. its rosary beads, more than a few wonderful things happened.

Through the first week of the 2011 Australian Open, top-seeded Caroline Wozniacki has been serenely taking care of business on the court, not dropping a set en route to the quarterfinals. So unbothered by the inherent to-do of being the #1-ranked player at a grand slam, the Dane has spent much time the previous few days practicing her fledgling cricket game and discussing press room antics such as directing both ends of her own Q&A session and her successful telling of a kangaroo-related tall tale. Meanwhile, her Final 8 opponent, #6-seeded reigning Roland Garros champion Francesca Schiavone has struggled to escape the first, then entered Day 9's match after having survived an Open era record 4:44 match in the Round of 16 against Svetlana Kuznetsova, nervily saving six match points and winning a 16-14 3rd set.

There was so much reason to think that the 30-year old Italian would have little athletic reserve remaining for today's match, or at least not enough to put up another grand fight against a player a decade her junior, that her suspected INability to win became the predominant logline for the contest. Thing is, Schiavone wasn't buying it. We should always know to never underestimate the size of the heart of a player who plays with heart as a simple matter of course, but we always seem to take the shortcut of doing just that. Even the young Dane seemed to fall into the line of thinking.

It very nearly cost her dearly, too. We learned in Paris last spring that "nothing is impossible," and such a sentiment seemed to be well on its way to being proven correct again at Rod Laver Arena on Tuesday. But then something even more unexpected happened... Wozniacki joined Schiavone in upsetting expectations.

All the pessimism about Schiavone's ability to rebound from her marathon victory seemed well-grounded early in the match. Through her first two service games, she double-faulted twice. But then she proceeded to remind everyone why she won Roland Garros last season. Already seemingly without a capacity to show fear on the court, the Italian flashed another inability in Melbourne on this day -- to simply settle for "the usual" when unpredictability is so much more fun. Not to mention successful. While her topspin-loaded groundstrokes are a know quality of Schiavone's game, her constant variety and willingness to do the unexpected have come to define her late-career surge.

When facing an early break point against Wozniacki, Schiavone chose to charge the net, tempting a suddenly-on-her-heels Dane into committing an error when she tried to hit a passing shot for a winner (unknowingly foreshadowing her own mid-match metamorphosis). On a point that saw her pull out, on back-to-back strokes, a drop shot and a lob winner, Schiavone held serve and immediately signalled that she was going to be far more than just a stepping stone into the semifinals. She saved break points and held in Games #5 and #7, too. Up 4-3, Schiavone carved out her own first break points of the match, converting after stretching to get back a series of deep Wozniacki backhands until the Dane finally put back one of her retrievals into the net (getting a taste of the medicine she usually dishes out to HER opponents). Up 5-3, Schiavone served for the 1st set in a match that most felt she would barely find the strength to show up for.

Displaying a knack for pulling her counterpart around the court with well-placed shots, Schiavone flashed her backbone when she dug out of a love/30 hole with an ace, then saved two more break points, causing Wozniacki to slam her racket in frustration. C-Woz appeared to be in full "flummox mode," echoing the no-answers-found situation she'd failed to overcome while being ridden out of several recent slams in inglorious fashion after having previously coasted into the deep creases of the tournament. Schiavone would soon save a third break point in the game, then complete an unexpected serve-and-volley combo to get her first set point. She hit an ace, but it was taken away via a foot fault. But, in response, she didn't curse out a linesperson, she simply played the next point... and rushed the net and put away a deep volley to win the set 6-3. Having been outplayed and out-thought through nine games, Wozniacki appeared troubled. As she left the court to get her thigh wrapped by a trainer, one was left to peruse her 1st set stats. She'd been credited with just one winner (Schiavone had 14), and was 0-for-6 in break point attempts (the Italian was a perfect 1-for-1).

This wasn't how this was supposed to go.

The 2nd set began with more of the same. Schiavone climbed out of a 15/30 deficit, holding serve with an ace for 1-1. One game later, a Schiavone shot bounced off the net cord and hopped over Wozniacki's racket to give the veteran triple break point. A Wozniacki error gave the Italian a 2-1 lead. With her game in a comfortable Paris-resembling groove, the Italian was painting a beautiful fresco of a match on Laver. Her game was reaching classic heights in terms of shot placement, angles, volleys. forehands, sweeping one-handed backhands, lobs and drop shots. Her fantastically-constructed points were consistently reminiscent of those of Martina Hingis when the then-#1 Swiss Miss would cheekily toy with her opponents with angles and cute-but-viciously-effectively drop shots with a big grin on her face as she slowly twisted the proverbial knife into the back of nearly every woman who faced off against her on the other side of the net. Schiavone's arsenal was enough to make your head spin, and it seemed to be having the same effect on Wozniacki. The confused look on her face was a priceless as Da Vinci's lifetime works, but it wasn't unfamiliar. Her 2010 slam defeats had elicited the same expression as she was unable to find answers for her opponents' mistake-free outings. Obviously, something had to be done.

So she tore the tape off her thigh.

It wasn't a case of her angry "inner Caroline" being suddenly unleashed, but something DID seem to change at that point. Immedately after the tape removal, Wozniacki saved a Schiavone game point at 30/40. The Italian managed to hold two points later for a 6-3/3-1 lead, but the tide was about to turn in a far more noticable way. With her back to the wall, out of sheer necessity, Wozniacki needed to try to do more, or else she'd soon live to regret it. But would she realize it before it was too late? Would she go against her perceived character and forcefully attempt to seize the match?

Yes. And she did.

With her '11 AO run hanging in the balance, Wozniacki finally decided to attack. Just as Schiavone had earlier in the match, the Dane rushed the net, challenging the Italian to hit a winner past her. Schiavone did just that, knotting the score at 30/30, but Wozniacki wasn't deterred by that single failed sorte. She had established a new pattern. Frankie loves drama, but Caroline likes to win, too. Sensing what legit #1's should always understand in such dire situations, Wozniacki knew she had to go for broke from here until she reached the match's finish line. After double-faulting on game point, Wozniacki got an important hold to inch to 3-2 on the scoreboard.

And then the wheels suddenly came off the Schiavone bandwagon. In the sixth game of the 2nd set, unforced errors rained down on her game. Three straight put her in a love/40 hold, then she broke herslf with a fourth on a missed forehand volley. Tied at 3-3, Wozniacki suddenly caught the scent of a victory that only moments earlier had seemed to nearly be out of range. As Schiavone's game dipped, Wozniacki's took off. She held for 4-3.

There was simply more THERE there in the Dane's game and demeanor.

She reached double break point with a running baseline forehand that clanged off Schiavone's racket on a volley attempt, then broke for a 5-3 lead with a net put-away. Serving out the set at 6-3, she'd managed to run off five straight games just when things had seemed most bleak. You know, like prospective champions are supposed to do when they're fighting for their grand slam life.

As the 3rd set began, Schiavone's prior masterpierce by now resembled a car traveling down the road with parts flying off at every turn. She was broken for a third straight time to open the deciding stanza. The Italian seemed to get a bit of a second wind as she immediately broke Wozniacki back, only be broken yet again one game later. With Schiavone holding a break point in Game #4, Wozniacki managed to hold for 3-1 just when it appeared that the "chugga-chugga-chugga" sound of the Schiavone train might faintly be heard around the bend, getting louder with every point. But the final kick of the Little Italian That Could was shut down by the Dane before it reach full speed once more.

Schiavone missed on a drop shot to set up break point in Game #7, then Wozniacki managed to athletically get her racket on a smash attempt, sending it back over the top of an outstretched Schiavone at the net. Wozniacki broke for a 5-2 lead. Oh, but that didn't mean that the Italian was going to give in. She saved three match points and scraped out a break for 5-3, but couldn't maintain her momentum in the next game. On the final point of the match, Schiavone seemed to have saved a fourth match point with a shot that went past Wozniacki, was called out by a linesperson but quickly overruled and called in by the chair umpire, then challenged by Wozniacki. Seconds later, the replay showed that the ball had sailed out.

Just like that, the match was over. The Dane had finally put Schiavone down, with a little assist from technology. Wozniacki won 3-6/6-3/6-3.

While Schiavone lost on this day, the tour -- as was the case in Paris last year -- should be once again counting its prayers for the "rosary beads" player of the WTA. The Italian has really all you could ever want in a player: style, verve, pluck, heart, intensity, intelligence and a sense of self after her wins or loses that is as likely to make you chuckle as shake your head in silent agreement with the matter-of-fact statements she sometimes utters that have far more depth than even she realizes in the moment. This isn't the sort of player who'd flame out and retire at 20, or at 23 or 25 only to un-retire two years later. Schiavone is the sort who just puts her head down and goes. One is sometimes surprised at how much can be accomplished simply by performing that single workman-or-woman-like task. She came into this match with a ready excuse to not compete at her best, but she would never give a thought to such a thing.

Not every player on tour could say the same, not even some of those who might possess even more natural talent that Schiavone. Oh, if only more players could replicate this woman's love of the game and the thrill (and honor) of competition, no fan would ever want again. Schiavone has become fond of reminding us how young she actually is at 30 years of age. Lucky us. Hopefuly, we'll have her around for quite a while longer.

Meanwhile, Wozniacki, the "charm bracelet" of the WTA, has nothing to apologize for, either. Oh, for a while there, in the wake of her press room shenanigans and cricket practice this week, she looked like she might have some explaining to do on this day. But the would-be face of the tour, who'll stay #1 as a result of this win no matter what happens with Vera Zvonareva and Kim Clijsters, needed to show grit on Laver on Day 9 in order to hold her head high as the top-ranked player in the world. She did that, as well as confirm the presence of an innate sense to know what wasn't working in the match and change things up mid-stream (importantly, without a coaching timeout with her father, too).

As with a wristlet full of trinkets, there is more substance under the surface of Wozniacki's sometimes-shiny, always charming outside than meets the eye. The Dane DOES have the curiously-unidentified spunk and desire that are often missed through casual glances. Charm, with a side of Harm. We saw a little of that Harm today, and I know I loved it. She changed what was going to be the prevailing story of this quarterfinal match had she not found a way through it, and maybe nudged herself in the right direction in the process.

Wozniacki's still not on the roll she was heading into last year's U.S. Open, but it's possible that this match shook her up enough to get her to recall how she did it then. As she showed against Schiavone, she CAN be more aggressive. She CAN be more forward. She CAN try to take points and force mistakes THAT way, rather be content to pull back and hope to do so over the long haul and even longer rallies. She needn't do it ALL the time, but as her Italian opponent showed, variety is not only the spice of life, but it's also what slam champions can be made of.

Can THIS Wozniacki carry over to the remainder of this AO? Maybe, maybe not. But, if nothing else, maybe her ability to "un-flummox" herself in the middle of this match will be a useful skill the rest of this week. It's now a part of her skill-set, and it needs to be utilized more than once. Sure, she got some help today when Schiavone essentially blew out her tires in Game #6 of the 2nd set. Who knows how slam history might soon be altered because of that one game. But finding a way to win a match is sort of like crabgrass... once it gets a foothold, it has a tendency to bloom with uncontrollable tenacity.

Whether it does in this case, though, at least on some level, will only be determined by Wozniacki herself.

...in the day's other women's quarterfinal contest, a certain "sameness" overcame the match. In both sets, Li Na's serve was broken in the first game, then she fell behind 2-0 when Andrea Petkovic solidified her breaks with holds in both Game #2's. But in both instances, the 28-year old Chinese vet took control of the proceedings almost immediately afterward.

In the 1st, Li pulled off three consecutive breaks of the German's serve, winning six straight games to take the set 6-2. In the 2nd, her failure to take advantage of a few chances she had on Petkovic's serve allowed the scoreline to remain closer down the stretch, but the ultimate result of the match never really felt in question. Li won 6-2/6-4 to move into her second straight Australian Open semifinal.

As this tournament has moved along, Li has quickly become something of a breath of fresh air. From admitting that Serena's absence has opened the door for players such as herself to finally win a slam (you wouldn't think such an obvious admission would make her unique, but it does), to grin-inducing comments about her husband/coach's erroneous belief from his seat in the stands that tennis is "easy," to jokes about credit cards, it's starting to become easy to ignore that she is not leaving many loose threads ON-court in her matches (unlike, say, Kim Clijsters has the last two rounds) for opponents to pull and unravel her game. The early breaks of her serve against Petkovic have probably been her biggest sin, and one that might come back to haunt her if she does the same again in the semis and beyond. Still, her shot selection has been outstanding (Tennis Channel's Martina Navratilova could really only think of one mistake in her choices in this match), and she's still been the most consistent player of the now six women remaining who harbor dreams of winning this AO title.

...in Night 9's Doubles grudge match, Liezel Huber (and Nadia Petrova) defeated Cara Black (and Anastasia Rodionova) 6-1/6-4 to advance to the semifinals ahead of her former doubles partner and co-#1. Petrova's victory gives Russia (1-4) its first Laver night session win of the tournament, while Rodionova's loss drops the Aussies' won/lost mark to 1-6. Tonight, wild cards Sally Peers and Carsten Ball will try to get a rare home nation win under the lights in a Mixed Doubles 3rd Round match against Sara Errani and David Marrero.

After Day 9's doubles carnage... err, I mean action... only two women are still alive in both the Doubles and Mixed draws. Katarina Srebotnik (w/ Kveta Peschke, and Daniel Nestor) and Maria Kirilenko (w/ Victoria Azarenka, and Nenad Zimonjic) are in the running to become double-Doubles champions if they can move beyond their current positions in the Doubles SF and Mixed QF.

...AWARD UPDATES: Petkovic might now be out of the tournament, but she picks up the "Lady of the Evening" (a "loaded" title, for sure, but her sense of humor would likely get the double-meaning nature of the joke) award for this AO on the back of her two night sessions wins over a pair of past slam champions, Venus Williams and Maria Sharapova. Plus, the German is a natural for this award, since she not only plays winning tennis in the evening, she also has the ability to pull off a star-turn in a dance club later in the night.

Speaking of that, I'm not feeling Petkovic's "The Diesel" moniker (given after she'd joked about getting off to a slow start in a match the other week), especially since she more resembled a sports car today with her fast start against Li. Maybe "Discovic" to address her dancing ability? Anyway, I guess the nickname is still pending.

Meanwhile, with Black's exit at the hands of Huber, the deck has been pretty well cleared for Agnieszka Radwanska to pick up this AO's "Comeback Player" award for her post-injury surprise run to the quarterfinals (at least...well, not really, since it's hard to imagine she's going to go any deeper into the draw unless Clijsters is bitten by a kangaroo or something).

...the Japanese girls continued to make noise in the Junior draw on Day 9. Qualifier Kanami Tsuji, who upset #1-seed Daria Gavrilova yesterday, advanced to the 3rd Round with another win over Britain's Jennifer Ren. She'll play Christina Makarova (of the U.S., not Russia) next. Another player from Japan, Emi Mutaguchi, also got a victory Tuesday over #10-seeded Tang Hao-Chen of China.

...and, finally, it's a good thing Wozniacki came back to win that QF match on Day 9, because if she'd lost prior to the semis at the same time that her suddenly ever-present Proactiv ad is running during the AO coverage this week it would have been difficult not to try to make out some tangible link between a #1 player maybe spending a little too much offseason time becoming a hawker of products and said player maybe not spending enough time working on the skills that put her position to be able to now collect endorsements like new apps for her iPhone. But she won, so I won't be a jerk and try to construct that sort of connection.

(Yeah, I'm rolling MY eyes, too.)

2010 US: Venus Williams, USA
2011 AO: Andrea Petkovic, GER

2007 Serena Williams, USA
2008 Zi Yan/Jie Zheng, CHN
2009 Jelena Dokic, AUS
2010 Justine Henin, BEL
2011 Agnieszka Radwanska, POL

45 - Jana Novotna (1998 Wimbledon)
39 - Francesca Schiavone (2010 Roland Garros)
[ Vera Zvonareva - in 32nd career slam ]
31 - Amelie Mauresmo (2006 Australian Open)
29 - Jennifer Capriati (2001 Australian Open)
28 - Kerry Melville-Reid (1978 Australian Open)
26 - Lindsay Davenport (1998 U.S. Open)
OTHERS LEFT IN DRAW: Petra Kvitova (11th), Li Na (19th), Agnieszka Radwanska (19th), Caroline Wozniacki (15th)

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
[ Vera Zvonareva - 26y,5m ]

27...ROGER FEDERER (active streak)
27...Jimmy Connors
14...Ivan Lendl

#1 Caroline Wozniacki/DEN def. #6 Francesca Schiavone/ITA
#9 Li Na/CHN def. #30 Andrea Petkovic/GER
#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
#3 Novak Djokovic/SRB def. #6 Tomas Berdych/CZE
#2 Roger Federer/SUI def. #19 Stanislas Wawrinka/SUI

#1 Dulko/Pennetta (ARG/ITA) vs.#3 Huber/Petrova (USA/RUS)
#12 Azarenka/Kirilenko (BLR/RUS) vs. #2 Peschke/Srebotnik (CZE/SLO)

#1 Bryan/Bryan (USA/USA) def. #6 Melzer/Petzschner (AUT/GER)
Butorac/Rojer (USA/CUR) def. #4 Kubot/Marach (POL/AUT)
#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)
Errani/Marrero (ITA/ESP) or An.Rodionova/Bhupathi (AUS/IND) vs. #2 Srebotnik/Nestor (SLO/CAN)

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 Kuznetsoav/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 5 MP vs. Kuznetsova/RUS in 4th Rd.)
LAST SHEILA STANDING: #5 Samantha Stosur/AUS (3rd Rd.)
LADY OF THE EVENING: #30 Andrea Petkovic/GER

All for Day 9. Middle-Round Awards tomorrow.


Blogger Diane said...

Remember when Roddick went out in the first round of the U.S. Open, and they kept running that Roddick looking for his mojo ad over and over? The best part was, after Sharapova won a tough match, someone asked her how she did it, and she said "I guess I found Andy's mojo."

Did you see Dance Party in the bubble? That was a funny moment. (That actually looks like fun, but the way I've been injuring myself lately, I'd probably pop it with my eyelash and swallow 20 gallons of chlorinated water.)

Tue Jan 25, 05:17:00 PM EST  
Blogger Todd Spiker said...

Grrr. No, I missed that with Petkovic. I saw the kids in them earlier, and Shriver mentioned how she'd like to get a couple of those to tire out her kids and give herself a break. :)

I DID get to see all the Vegemite sampling that went on during ESPN2's broadcast last night, though. The most singularly horrifying tasting thing ever, by the way.

Wed Jan 26, 11:28:00 AM EST  

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