Monday, April 18, 2011

Wk.15- 6:04, A Fed Cup Odyssey

I know I sound like a broken record (or whatever the technologically-updated term would be that is equivalent to that time-worn cliche), but while the main women's tennis topics currently revolve around who isn't playing (and, last week, how they were recklessly dancing at weddings, and what they were wearing) the sport once again stepped up this weekend to produce some great moments on the court in what continues to be a very enjoyable season.

I was actually expecting to be disappointed by Week 15's Fed Cup action. I guess I should have had more faith. For, on this second FC weekend of 2011, it was an old Backspin buddy who took her turn in the constantly-shifting spotlight. Yep, enter Queen Chaos.

Heading into the weekend, Jelena Jankovic wasn't even scheduled to play singles in Serbia's World Group Playoff tie with the Slovak Republic. Oh, but the Tennis Gods had something big in store for her. Those little devils! First, Bojana Jovanovski, who'd single-handedly carried Team Serbia through a tie in February without the assistance of either Jankovic or Ana Ivanovic, lost the opening match in three sets to Dominika Cibulkova in front of the Slovak crowd. Ivanovic knotted things with a win on Saturday, but then was forced to retire in the 2nd set on Sunday with an abdominal injury (the same ailment that bothered her all the way back in Week 1 in Perth) against Cibulkova as the Serbs fell behind 2-1.

It was at this point that Serbia FC coach Dejan Vranes fired up the old JJ Signal. Sort of like the fabled Bat Signal, I suppose, but rather than shine a Batman logo in the sky it reads "QC." At that point, like the superhero version of herself that we still see in those WTA tour commercials where she darts down the street toward a person in need of her superhelp, Jankovic came to the rescue. Maybe if she'd known how hard -- and long -- she'd have to work to accomplish her goal she might have hid out in some underground cave. But, knowing Queen Chaos, probably not.

With her team one loss from elimination, Jankovic first took to the court to face Daniela Hantuchova, winning 6-2/3-6/7-5 in 2:47 to knot the tie at 2-2 and keep Serbia's hopes alive. Oh, but her work was no where near finished, though. Later in the day, she and her young charge, Girl Wonder Robin... err, I mean Alexandra Krunic, took to the mean streets against Hantuchova and Magdalena Rybarikova. Things didn't start well, as the Slovaks grabbed a 6-2/5-1 lead, and Rybarikova served with two match points at 5-4. But JJ and Krunic persevered.

The Slovaks got a break of serve to go up 6-5 in the 3rd, but the Serbs wouldn't give up or give in. In the end, they won 2-6/7-5/9-7 in 3:17 to advance Serbia back into the World Group final eight for 2012. All it took was six hours and four minutes of match time for SuperJelena... in one day.

Take that Francesca & Svetlana. And the same goes for you, Isner and Mahut. Queen Chaos can play that game, too.

Ah, JJ. She makes craziness like this seem, well, quite honestly, anything but a comic book fantasy. In fact, it's sort of become her enduring legacy.

Wink-win, QC. Nice to have ya back. Maybe the Tennis Gods DO have a soft spot in their hard hearts for you, after all.

1. The Hordettes, one round after stumbling out of the gate against France, storming back into a Fed Cup final by shutting out two-time defending champions (though in name only) Team Italia in the semifinals
2. Barbora Zahalavova-Strycova avoiding the "goat" role by the skin of her teeth, coming back from a winless (0-2) turn in singles to team with Iveta Benesova to claim the deciding doubles match against Belgium and send the Czechs to their first Fed Cup final since 1988 (as Czechoslovakia), nine years after the Slovak Republic won its one and only FC crown since the then-combined nation's 1989 "Velvet Revolution"
3. Patty Schnyder, immediately after disappointing in her farewell trip to Charleston, leading the Swiss team past Sweden in the Group II Playoffs
4. A Clijsters & Henin-less Belgian team still putting up a heated fight against the Czechs, and a seemingly severely-underwomanned Ukraine going to Australia without a Bondarenko and taking down the Aussies in the weekend's biggest FC surprise

1. Team Australia. Even with the Sheilas playing without Sam Stosur (preparing for the clay season... a smart me-first decision, I'd say) or Jelena Dokic (who pulled out citing fatigue, a decision which will be judged after we see what she does this week in Morocco), they seemed a good bet to cruise through their hosted WG Playoff tie against a Sisters Bondarenko-less Ukraine. Nope. Jarmila Groth went 2-0, but Anastasia Rodionova had exactly the opposite weekend experience that JJ had. She was reduced to tears on Saturday after losing her first singles match to a player ranked fifty-nine places below her, then was forced to come back the next day and re-live the agony. With the Aussies up 2-1, she lost again in straight sets in a pair of singles tie-breaks. Then, in the doubles decider, she and Groth took the opening set at love against Olga Savchuk and Lesya Tsurenko, and held two match points on Rodionova's serve. They lost again, and now there'll likely be more than enough blame to go around Down Under until '12.
2. Team USA. The Bannerettes were FC finalists the last two years, but have now gone a full year without winning a tie. Mary Joe Fernandez's charges, minus an injured Bethanie Mattek-Sands, lost a third straight FC tie, this one to Germany by a 5-0 score, winning just one set all weekend.
3. Team Italia. The two-time defending champions deserved better than a 5-0 thumping in the semis without the services of either Flavia Pennetta or Francesca Schiavone. The only set the Italians won all weekend came via a tie-break.
4. Teams playing at home in deciding doubles matches. Three (Belgium, Australia & the Slovak Republic) of the four national teams that found themselves in such situations lost. Only Slovenia emerged with the ability to celebrate in the backyard with its home-grown fans.

Belarus powered through Estonia in the Group II Playoffs, winning 5-0 and barely needing the services of Victoria Azarenka. The world #5 did open the weekend by extending her current winning streak to twelve matches, tying Kim Clijsters for the longest streak on tour in '11, but it wasn't necessary to put her through any additional paces. Belarus won 24 of 26 games played on Saturday, and never allowed more than five total games in any of the five matches contested. Of course, considering the Estonians were playing without Kaia Kanepi, who pretty much IS Estonia tennis, such a result was expected. Credit Azarenka for even bothering to show up, as she's scheduled to be back in action this week in Stuttgart after having gone into last week on the heels of back-to-back title runs on two different surfaces AND continents.


*WEEK 15*

Russia def. Italy 5-0
Czech Republic def. Belgium 3-2
=World Group Playoffs=
Germany def. United States 5-0
Spain def. France 4-1
Serbia def. Slovak Republic 3-2
Ukraine def. Australia 3-2
=Group II Playoffs=
Belarus def. Estona 5-0
Slovenia def. Canada 3-2
Switzerland def. Sweded 4-1
Argentina vs. Japan (postponed until July 16-17)

[Semifinal MVPs]
Vera Zvonareva/RUS
...she opened things with a love set against Sara Errani, then clinched the victory in Match #3 with a quick win over Roberta Vinci.
Petra Kvitova/CZE
...she pretty much had to hoist all the Czech team's singles duties on her back yet again, and once more she went 2-0, including a big win over Yanina Wickmayer that might welcome her back into the season's conversation after she's sort of receded into the shadows since winning in Paris.

[WG Playoffs MVPs]
Jelena Jankovic/SRB (Overall Player-of-the-Week)
...with BoJo losing and AnaIvo getting injured, JJ forcefully reasserted her role as the leading lady in Serbian tennis. I expect her to don a flowing cape when she walks onto the court in Stuttgart this week.
Andrea Petkovic/GER
...she went 2-0 against American youngsters Melanie Oudin and Christina McHale. This week, she stays in Germany with the chance to try to carry over the celebration in Stuttgart.
Maria Jose Martinez-Sanchez/ESP
...MJMS never allowed the Pastries to gain the sort of traction they did against Russia in the 1st Round. She opened Day 1 with a victory over Virginie Razzano, then put a lid on France's momentum by opening Day 2 with a win over Aravane Rezai after the Opinionated Pastry had knotted things with a win to end Saturday's action.
Olga Savchuk/UKR
...she lost 1 & 1 to Groth to begin the weekend's action, but defeated Rodionova in two tie-break sets (the second went to 14-12) when the Aussies were just one win from wrapping up the tie. In doubles, she and Tsurenko saved two match points and pulled off the upset.

[Group II MVPs]
Olga Govortsova/BLR
...with prized Belarusan Azarenka placed on the shelf after the first match, Govortsova sat in the captain's seat for the remainder of her nation's 5-0 cruise control win over the Kanepi-less Estonian team. Obviously, feeling frisky, Olga double-bageled Margit Ruutel to end Day 1.
Polona Hercog/SLO
...Hercog was the only player with a hand in three FC match wins over the nine total ties. She went 2-0 in singles (def. Rebecca Marino & Eugenie Bouchard) and 1-0 in doubles in Slovenia's 3-2 victory
Patty Schnyder/SUI
...proving that her tank isn't quite dry yet, Sneaky Patty went 2-0 in front of the Swiss faithful, crushing Sofia Arvidsson 1 & 0, then outlasting Johanna Larsson in three sets.

Timea Bacsinszky/SUI
...while Schnyder allowed fourteen games in her singles matches against Arvidsson and Larsson, Bacsinszky lost just eleven games in HER matches against the Swedish pair.

Eugenie Bouchard/CAN
...the junior star's win in Match #4 over Masa Zec-Peskiric allowed Canada to push the Group II Playoff tie with Slovenia to the deciding doubles match.

Lesya Tsurenko/UKR
...she lost to Jarmila Groth, but got a big win over Anastasia Rodionova and was part of the doubles team that faced down two match points and came back to win the tie-deciding contest to pull off the weekend's biggest upset.

Iveta Benesova/Barbora Zahlavova-Strycova, CZE
...a good example of why it's good when players from the same country team up as regular doubles partners. This pair has already won two tour titles in '11, so after BZS faltered in singles action to put the Czechs in elimination jeopardy there had to be a measure of comfort for her knowing that she could still pick up the pieces with her doubles partner before the curtain came down.
Katarina Srebotnik, SLO assuming the Liezel Huber-esque doubles-ringer roll for the Slovenian team, Srebotnik teamed with Hercog in the deciding match to take out Sharon Fichman and Rebecca Marino in straight sets to secure a 3-2 victory in the tie.

Sabine Lisicki/GER
...Petkovic was the star of Germany's winning weekend, but Lisicki's comeback quietly took yet another step with her singles win over the recently-on-a-roll Christina McHale. Cross your fingers for her.
Aravane Rezai/FRA
...Rezai still hasn't won two singles matches at an event since July, and I wondered last week if the French team was painting itself into a corner by depending on her to deliver this weekend. Well, apparently, the Pastries WERE hoping she'd come through. It was a pipe dream, but the Opinionated Pastry DID account for France's only point in a 4-1 loss when she defeated Anabel Medina-Garrigues in Match #2 on Saturday and sent everyone to bed believing that they might actually have a shot against the Spaniards.

Anastasia Rodionova/AUS
...oh, Anastasia. This weekend was where all her Fed Cup dreams crashed down on her head. Dokic's (somewhat) late pull-out thrust her into important singles action, and nothing went well. As bad as losing to Tsurenko (ranked 59 spots below her) felt on Saturday, her failure to close out the tie against Savchuk on Sunday after Team Australia's coach had expressed confidence that she could do it must have felt worse. But failing to convert two match points in the doubles, too? She needs to move on, and fast.
Sofia Arvidsson & Johanna Larsson, SWE
...these two have been solid FC contributors in the past, but not this time. Combined against Switzerland in the Gorup II Playoffs, they went 0-4 in singles (Arvidsson managed just five games in her pair of matches), while their team's only point in the 4-1 loss came in the doubles, when neither of the Swedish squad's two best players were on the court.

ITF PLAYER: Valeria Savinykh/RUS
...going into the weekend, the 20-year old Hordette (world #204) was essentially the ITF version of her countrywoman Elena Vesnina. Savinykh had reached four challenger finals in her career, but sported a 0-4 record. All that ended in the $100K event in Johannesburg, South Africa. Defeating four seeds -- three of the top four, including #1 Anne Keothavong -- along the way, the Russian finally lifted a singles crown when she downed #2-seed Petra Cetkovska in the final. She also reached the doubles semis with Nina Bratchikova, but the competition was cancelled due to too much rain and the resulting flooding.

JUNIOR STARS: Kyle McPhillips/USA & Gabby Andrews/USA
...while the youngsters on the American Fed Cup team were stuck in neutral, these two only progressed another step forward in the Grade B1 Easter Bowl event in Rancho Mirage, California. Both McPhillips (16's) and Andrews (14's) won titles at the tournament a year ago, and they met in the final to determine the highest-level champion this time around. #13-seeded McPhillips, 17, ultimately walked away with the title, her first at an ITF Grade 1 event, but 14-year old #9-seed Andrews surely deserves to share the spotlight. She knocked off three seeds, including #1 Grace Min, and won the doubles title with Taylor Townsend, defeating McPhillips and Chanelle Van Nguyen in the final. As usual, Colette Lewis has a great recap of the Easter Bowl final over at Zoo Tennis.

1. WG PO - SRB/SVK #5: Jankovic/Krunic d. Hantuchova/Rybarikova
The Slovaks led 6-2/5-1, and Rybarikova held two match points on her serve at 5-4 in the 2nd. The broke to take a 6-5 advantage in the 3rd, as well. But there was no escaping the Serbian Surge, as Jelena became a star once again and Krunic suddenly became a "somebody." Back in the World Group for 2012, if they throw in a healthy AnaIvo (knock on wood) then Serbia might be a player for the big prize with a team that is now far deeper than it was three or four years ago.
2. WG PO - UKR/AUS #5: Savchuk/Tsurenko d. Groth/Rodionova
I won't add any more to Anastasia the Not-So-Great-This-Weekend's pain. Oops... come on, that doesn't count. It was just a tribute to Anastasia's former Russian countrywoman, Czarina Myskina herself, after deciding the other day that I think I'll use her '04 RG title as the subject of a "Time Capsule" next season. Really. Myskina WAS on my mind. Well, enough so that I at least thought to try to lessen Rodionova's hurt. Wink-wink.
3. WG PO - SRB/SVK #4: Jankovic d. Hantuchova
When this one wrapped up after 2:47 of action, what are the odds that JJ thought it'd be the SHORTER of her two matches on Sunday? A superhero's work is never done.
4. FC SF - CZE/BEL #5: Benesova/Zahlavova-Strycova d. Flipkens/Wickmayer
Truthfully, it wouldn't have surprised anyone had the sometimes-flighty Czechs collapsed here and wasted Kvitova's efforts in singles. But, wonders never cease, it didn't happen. For the first time since Communism (and a state-controlled-to-the-point-of-strangulation tennis establishment) ruled in eastern Europe, the Czechs have a shot at a Fed Cup championship.
5. WG PO - UKR/AUS #4: Tsurenko d. Rodionova
See above.
6. WG PO - SRB/SVK #3: Cibulkova d. Ivanovic
...6-4/3-3 ret.
The 2011 season is slowly but surely getting away from AnaIvo.
7. FC SF - CZE/BEL #3: Kvitova d. Wickmayer
A little lost with the Czechs' tie-clinching doubles win was Kvitova's rather nice victory here in a match-up of players who've both reached slam SF in the last year and a half (give or take a few weeks). Kvitova held her nerve on the road after the losing the 1st set, with the team in danger of going down 2-1 if she couldn't turn things around. Of course, recent history told her she could come back against the Belgian. In the Paris QF, she reversed a 5-3 3rd set deficit to ride to victory over Wickmayer and, eventually, the biggest moment in her career so far when she knocked off Clijsters in the final.
8. $25K Casablanca Final - Galina Voskoboeva d. Mervana Jugic-Salkic
Voskoboeva's comeback continues with an ITF singles title. Play it again, Galina.
9. $10K Antalya Final - Daria Gavrilova d. Ksenia Lykina
In an all-Hordette match-up, 17-year old '10 U.S. Open Girls champion Gavrilova claimed her first career challenger title.
10. $10K Caracas Final - Adriana Perez d. Amanda McDowell
The 18-year old from Venezuela, ranked #628, now has a pair of challenger titles this season. She won the doubles, too.

*FED CUP FINALS - since 2000*
2000 United States def. Spain
2001 Belgium def. Russia
2002 Slovak Republic def. Spain
2003 France def. United States
2004 Russia def. France
2005 Russia def. France
2006 Italy def. Belgium
2007 Russia def. Italy
2008 Russia def. Spain
2009 Italy def. United States
2010 Italy def. United States
2011 Russia vs. Czech Republic

*FED CUP FIELD - for February 2012 ties*
=World Group=
Czech Republic
=World Group II=
Argentina or Japan (determined July 16-17)
Slovak Republic
United States

12...VICTORIA AZARENKA, March-April [11-0 WTA / 1-0 FC] (current)
12...Kim Clijsters, January-February [10-0 WTA / 2-0 FC]
11...Li Na, January [11-0 WTA]

STUTTGART, GERMANY (Premier $721K/red clay indoors)
10 Final: Henin d. Stosur
11 Top Seeds: Wozniacki/Zvonareva
10 Doubles Champions: Dulko/Pennetta

Petkovic d. A.Radwanska
#4 Azarenka d. #2 Zvonareva
#4 Azarenka d. Petkovic

...not to be defeatist about it, but I have a Zippo lighter of a chance (hence, the Zippo logo above) to even come close to picking this tournament correctly. I can hear the draw taunting me now. Sure, I got seven of my nine Fed Cup tie picks right this past weekend, but that and this are entirely different animals. I mean, come on, a loaded draw filled with the world #1 and #3, a Roland Garros finalist with a week of rest (Schiavone WAS in the draw, but pulled out), the tour's hottest player at the moment and a bundle of top players fresh off Fed Cup action from all corners of the world over the weekend? This is like trying to walk across a river on the backs of crocodiles. Wozniacki's section alone -- as in one small 7-player part of a 28-player/4-bye field -- contains her, Petkovic, Jankovic and Kvitova (Wickmayer was there, too, before she withdrew). Just give me a blindfold and cigarette now and be done with it, I say. So, just for kicks, I'll go with Azarenka and, following the pattern of recent weeks, expect C-Woz to win since I didn't predict her to do so.

UPDATED: Naturally, now Kvitova has pulled out of this draw, as well. Why do so many players schedule appearances at events days after Fed Cup participation? You know most of them aren't going to show up anyway. I mean, why do they do it OTHER than it allows the tour/event to sell tickets using their name up until their name is no longer in the draw, of course.

UPDATED AGAIN: So, although it was reported, Schiavone DIDN'T pull out. She exited rather quickly at the hands of A-Rad, though. Well, I guess I still have faith that 2011's smooth road won't finally hit a pothole in Week 16... but small signs like this ARE a little ominous.

FES, MOROCCO (Int'l $220K/red clay outdoors)
10 Final: Benesova d. Halep
11 Top Seeds: Rezai/Shvedova
10 Doubles Champions: Benesova/Medina-Garrigues

#6 Dokic d. #7 Halep
#2 Shvedova d. #3 Dominguez-Lino
#6 Dokic d. #2 Shvedova

...hey, if I'm going to do down in flames again in this section before that I-Picked-Kim-in-Oz jinx is finally over, I may as well do it with the player I WANT to see win, right? Thing is, I actually DO sort of like Jelena's chances here. She's had a week off (two, really, since she lost early her last time out) and isn't suffering from jetlag since she skipped that long FC trip back to Australia, and the top-seeded player in her section is Aravane Rezai, who hasn't won two matches in a tournament since last summer (she'd have to win two here to get to Dokic). I need SOMEONE to break this string and get The Wedding Crash-Lander out of my head. Please, Jelena... for old time's sake?

UPDATED: Naturally, Dokic pulled out with a viral illness, so the glorious run continues in this space. I guess I'll now go with Halep to return to the final, and Shvedova to become the first woman representing Kazakhstan to win a tour singles title (she's previously been a champion, but as a Russian).

The first of two pre-RG "Time Capsule" editions -- '87 Roland Garros - Lendl vs. Wilander, before Seles-in-1991 follows in a few weeks -- will arrive later this week. All for now.


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