Tuesday, May 24, 2011

RG.3- "Stages on Life's Way" *

Being a former grand slam champion doesn't always mean the same thing for every player. Just look at Maria Sharapova and Ana Ivanovic.

Both opened their 2011 Roland Garros campaigns on Day 3, but only one will be sticking around to play a second match. Guess which woman it is. Yep, while Sharapova turned a 3-2 1st set deficit into a 6-3/6-0 win by claiming the final ten games of the match against blast-from-the-past (but back in the Top 100) Mirjana Lucic, a Wimbledon semifinalist back in 1999, Ana Ivanovic turned a dominating 2nd set against Sweden's Johanna Larsson into quite possibly yet another loss that will send her tennis career into a sorry tailspin.

Ivanovic came to Paris as one of only three former women's RG champions in the draw. No one really mentioned her as a contender, but you suspect that in the back of her mind she had to be telling herself, "I can do this." Once again, she was wrong. After losing a tight 1st set in a tie-break, she surged back to dominate the 2nd, winning it at love. In the 3rd, though, she far too closely resembled the same player who has caused so many to ruefully shake their heads at her play since she was this tournament's titlist back in 2008. With her game falling apart all over the court, AnaIvo was broken at love to end the match, losing 7-6/0-6/6-2 to a player in the 22-year old Larsson who came in with a career 1-8 record against Top 30 players and just one career slam match win (last year in Paris).

Larsson's no Julie Coin... but this is still a very bad loss for the Serb.

Sharapova and Ivanovic were born just seven months apart back in 1987. Both are in the books as grand slam winners, with their initial wins, at the time, considered to have come "earlier than expected" in their careers. Sharapova's came at Wimbledon in 2004, when she 17, while the site of AnaIvo's was Paris four years later, when she was 20. Both were very "marketable" champions, and took advantage of the opportunities presented by their victories. But that's where the favorable comparisons end. They really couldn't be more different types of players. And it has nothing to do with their style of play, either. It's all about the intangibles... and what separates true champions from merely promising talents.

When the Russian won at SW19 seven years ago, she took out THE "big fish" across the pond to win her title -- Serena Williams. And she was emboldened by the experience. Later that season, she won the WTA Championships (again, defeating Serena in the final), and thirteen months after she'd won Wimbledon she was christened as the game's new #1-ranked player. Her string of Top 5 finishes reached four years, and her title in Rome earlier this season gives her nine consecutive seasons with at least one tour singles title, a streak more than twice as long as the second-best stretch currently on tour. In 2006, she "exquisitely" won the U.S. Open. In 2008, she took the Australian Open in dominant fashion (even handling world #1 Justine Henin with ease). Then, at 20, just as she was seemingly ready to become the dominant force in the game, she was felled by an injured shoulder. After playing with the misdiagnosed injury for months, she was finally forced off the tour for nine months beginning in August '08, undergoing surgery that threatened to alter -- or maybe even end -- her career from that point forward.

Just as Sharapova's fortunes were heading south for the first time in her career, those of Ivanovic's surged upward during the spring of that 2008 season.

"There are, as is known, insects that die in the moment of fertilization. So it is with all joy: life's highest, most splendid moment of enjoyment is accompanied by death." - Søren Kierkegaard

While Sharapova had stepped from the crowd to wrestle away her first slam title, Ivanovic essentially had her's fall into her lap. Just weeks before the start of Roland Garros in '08, clay court queen Henin abruptly retired from the sport, turning that year's RG (and most every one afterward, as it's turned out) into a free-for-all amongst players who might not have otherwise contended for the crown. Sharapova had briefly inherited Henin's #1 ranking, but it was Ivanovic who stepped into the vacuum on the clay. When she met her countrywoman Jelena Jankovic in the semifinals, the winner was assured of claiming the #1 ranking from Sharapova no matter what happened in the final.

Ivanovic didn't know this fact, as her protective inner circle had insulated her from the news, fearing what such stakes might do to her game. That should have sent a warning shot over the bow of anyone invested in the Ivanovic ship. AnaIvo won that match, as well as the final against Dinara Safina (her first of what would be three slam final losses over a year-long stretch). A few weeks later at Wimbledon, Ivanovic barely escaped an early upset bid as the #1 seed in that "Kiss of Life" match against Nathalie Dechy in which a net cord on match point turned out to be her best friend, but rather than feel relieved and unpressured, an even more "tight" AnaIvo was dumped out of the tournament two days later. At the U.S. Open, she lost in the 2nd Round to qualifer Coin (at world #188, pulling off the biggest numbers upset in the tournament's history). Her results continued to tail off that season. She fell from #1 and finished the year at #5, one spot below her '07 finish and behind the same player she'd defeated in the Paris semi to claim the #1 ranking -- Jelena Jankovic, who was year-end #1 in '08.

Three years later, the not-quite-ready-for-primetime Ivanovic has never really been the same. Her RG win was her seventh career title. She won her eighth in Linz later in '08, but it would be two full years before she'd win her ninth. After never exiting in the 1st Round of a slam through her first nineteen appearances, her loss to Larsson today gives her four one-and-out results in her last seven slams, including two in a row and three of the last four. After raising the Coupe de Suzanne Lenglen with a slam title, two runners-ups, semifinal and quarterfinal results on her resume, she's not had another QF-or-better mark at any major since. Now, just three years after she proved herself capable of winning the game's biggest titles, it's difficult to consider her even a slam contender any longer. She left today's press conference in tears, and she's never shown herself to be a player with good "bounce back skills."

Before she won a slam, Ivanovic was considered a promising player who was nearly ready to win a slam. She'd already been in two major finals. But, in retrospect, Henin's retirement derailed the gradual climb to the top that AnaIvo was putting together. Ironically, Henin's disappearance and Ivanovic's surprise RG title did her career a huge disservice. She just wasn't yet ready for all the pressure that came with being #1, and it's hard to imagine her ever getting a second chance to "get it right." In contrast, Sharapova always seemed fated for something great. In fact, it was almost as if "Champion" was in her DNA.

"Life has its own hidden forces which you can only discover by living." - Kierkegaard

Sharapova, who after several fits and starts, finally began to look like her old "Supernova" self while winning the Rome title a few weeks ago, might be staring directly into a total renewal of her career by the end of this summer. Much like the similarly media-savvy Andre Agassi, who'd already put together a Hall of Fame bio when he completed his career Grand Slam in Paris in '99 at age 29, the Russian, too, could have a whole lot of big moments left in her future if she can spark a revival of her own. At 24, she's looking to complete HER career Grand Slam with a Roland Garros title. Heck, even their birthdays are similar -- Agassi was born on an April 29th, while Sharapova was on an April 19th. Agassi's legend grew to epic porportions AFTER he'd won titles at all four slams (he'd go on to win four more major titles), and so might Sharapova's. The American's late career was helped along by his more stable off-court life with wife Steffi Graf, so it's interesting that Sharapova's future is now looking brighter again as she's been travelling through Europe with fiance Sasha Vujacic, also another athlete (just like Graf), as he plays basketball for the Los Angeles Lakers. If her shoulder -- and resulting confidence -- is indeed sound, Sharapova's words after winning Rome might prove to be more than prophetic.

"This is just the beginning of many things to come. This is the start of everything" - Sharapova

If Ivanovic had said such a thing, it'd be hard to escape the thought that she was kidding herself. With Sharapova, you tend to want to believe it because SHE seems to. And her actions have so far backed it up. It's noteworthy that she began this Roland Garros in great form, because at each of her past slam title runs she's been very good from beginning to end. Early difficulties have never proven to be good omens for Sharapova's slam fortunes. So far, so good.

Of course, all this doesn't mean that Sharapova will DEFINITELY soon be back on the grand slam stage as a champion, nor that Ivanovic will NEVER have a shot to come close to doing the same again. But, sometimes, we have to seek to learn from individual players' histories. And, right now, the histories of these two say that they are once again acting as ships passing in the night... but this time it's AnaIvo who is the one falling farther and farther behind.

* - Thanks again, Søren.

...the biggest story of the day turned out to be the Rafael Nadal/John Isner match, as the five-time RG champ was forced to play a five-setter in Paris for the first time in his career. With all the talk of the new Babolat balls helping big servers, there was reason to believe that this could be an interesting match-up, and for a while it looked like the American might actually pull off the upset, winning back-to-back tie-breaks to take a two-to-one lead in sets by smashing a forehard service return winner on set point. Nadal eventually wore him down, though, winning 6-4/6-7/6-7/6-2/6-4 to better his career mark at the tournament to 39-1. Afterward, he celebrated this FIRST ROUND win with more vigor than he's often done with matches far later in the tournament. Hmmm, maybe his confidence was shaken a bit by how easily Novak Djokovic dispatched of him in those clay finals a few weeks ago?

Might this result make that potential Djokovic vs. Juan Martin del Potro meeting in the 3rd Round even MORE intriguing?

...later in the day, Kim Clijsters finally made her first apperance at Roland Garros since 2006, as she returned to the court after her shoulder and wrist injuries, as well as the too-bad-THAT-wasn't-caught-on-camera ankle and toe maladies she suffered while dancing (and then, apparently, not-so-successfully trying to escape the dance floor without being stepped on the by other guests... yeah, THAT must have been a sight to see) at her cousin's wedding.

Not unexpectedly, she looked a bit rusty at times against Anastasiya Yakimova. Her serve was broken three times, but she essentially went through to the 2nd Round without a hitch, only really having a hairy moment when she served for the match at 6-2/5-3 and fell down love/40. She ultimately save four break points before closing out the match.

Speaking of "hairy," Clijsters was sporting a shorter hairdo than usual today. I liked it, actually. It sort of makes her more resemble Jada, I think. Also, the pink-and-purple color combo of her outfit was a nice change, too.

...Victoria Azarenka, back from her latest retirement, defeated Andrea Hlavackova 6-3/6-3, and she mentioned after the match on Tennis Channel, as was talked about yesterday, that the new balls are making the terre battue play similarly to the surface in Madrid. In the Madrid final a few weeks ago, Azarenka lost to Petra Kvitova. They could meet again in Paris in the quarterfinals.

Something I noticed in the new rankings: Azarenka is the only player in the Top 11 who's never reached at the least the semifinals at a grand slam.

...with Pauline Parmentier's win late on Day 3, three of the players who were given wild cards into the main draw took advantage of their opporunity and advanced to the 2nd Round. Parmentier is joined by her WC-given countrywoman Iryna Bremond and Caroline Garcia in the Final 64. In Melbourne, three wild cards also advanced past the 1st Round -- Alicia Molik, Jelena Dokic and, yet again, Garcia. They all three lost in Round 2.

...after the first two days of play in Paris saw one American stage a nice comeback (Mattek-Sands), and two others crumble in the face of success (McHale & Vandeweghe), the same basic good-and-bad happened on Day 3. Vania King battled back from dropping the 1st set to defeat #22-seed Dominika Cibulkova (a former RG semifinalist) 6-7/6-3/6-2. It was possible that she'd next face another Bannerette in the 2nd Round (which would have been the second all-American women's match-up in the Final 64), but when Q-Player of the Week Sloane Stephens lost her 5-3 opening set lead against Elena Baltacha, that plan came to an end. The Brit eventually won 7-5/6-2.

...with the 1st Round complete, not surprisingly, it can now be said that there are more Russians (8) remaining in the Final 64 than women from any other nation. You'd probably have a hard time guessing which nation is tied for second-most, though. If you guessed Germany, you'd be wrong... it's Romania, with five, the same number as host nation France. A few other tidbits: four Americans remain, and the success of the women from Germany (4-2), China (3-1), Canada (2-0) and Great Britain (2-1) was notable in the 1st Round. Not so good: Austria and Ukraine both went 0-3 (and the Bondarenkos, already 0-2 in singles, lost their opening round Doubles match today to Lisa Raymond & Liezel Huber).

...a new Early-Round Award Updates:

* - the "Last Pastry Standing" is down to the aforementioned five contenders, along with Bremond, Garcia and Parmentier, the likes of Marion Bartoli and Alize Cornet remain amongst the Pastries.

* - the "Last Qualifier Standing" is a heated competition. With Silvia Soler-Espinosa winning today, there are eight qualifiers in the 2nd Round. In Melbourne in January, five qualifiers won their 1st Round matches, but only Vesna Manasieva (now Dolonts) was able to lock away a second slam match win.

* - the "Upset Queens" and "Revelation Ladies" are coming into view. Right now, the two winners will probably come from the group of nations that includes the USA (Mattek-Sands, Craybas, King & Lepchenko) , Romania (Dulgheru, Cirstea, Begu, Halep & Gallovits-Hall), Germany (Petkovic, Goerges, Lisicki & Barthel), Great Britain (Baltacha & Watson), Canada (Marino & Wozniak) and France.

* - so far, the only real "Zombie Queen" contender is Sara Errani, who overcame that 5-0 3rd set deficit and match point against Christina McHale.

* - the "Crash & Burn" race might have a few more nominees soon, but AnaIvo surely placed her name into the hat when the '08 champ went down today against Larsson, exiting Paris with her worst-ever Roland Garros result. Considering what happened to her at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open in '08 after she WON the title in Paris, one can only imagine (or maybe it'd be best to NOT do it, actually) what she'll do there this summer after THIS.

...and, finally, here she comes again. Reports are that Anna Kournikova will join the cast of the weight loss competition show "The Biggest Loser," becoming the official replacement for trainer Jillian Michaels, who left the show last year. Even if you don't watch the show -- as I don't -- you've probably seen Michaels and her washboard stomach in an ad SOMEWHERE, since they've been sort of hard to miss over the last year. So, I guess that means Kournikova, after living in the shadows of celebrity in recent years, will begin to once again have a larger presence starting this fall.

I could have mentioned this news yesterday, but waited since I wanted to see if there'd be any cracks made about Kournikova with this announcement. Not that I've searched them out, but I've been a little surprised I haven't really heard any. You know, something that'd take the usual swipe at her tennis career -- like, "Well, she certainly could never be featured in anything called "The Biggest Winner." Oh, well. I'm sure there's still time between now and the season debut for all the old knives to be sharpened once again... but then she'll slip into her trainer's attire and those people will probably be too distracted to even remember she ever played tennis in the first place.

Apparently, Kournikova is finally over her last ill-fated attempt to cash in on her fame via television. Surely, you haven't forgotten her misbegotten career as an "interviewer" a few years ago. If you have, or were fortunate enought not to see it, then consider yourself lucky. Hopefully, this new job will be a better fit. Get it? Better fit... fitness trainer? Hey, it's better than nothing.

[through 1st Round]
= 8-6 - Russia =
...Dolonts, Dushevina, Kirilenko, Kuznetsova, Makarova, Pavlyuchenkova, Sharapova, Zvonareva

5-2...Romania (Begu,Cirstea,Dulgheru,Gallovits-Hall,Halep)
5-6...France (Bartoli,I.Bremond,Cornet,Garcia,Parmentier)
4-2...Germany (Barthel,Goerges,Lisicki,Petkovic)
4-3...Spain (Llagostera-Vives,Martinez-Sanchez,Medina-Garrigues,Soler-Espinosa)
4-5...United States (Craybas,King,Lepchenko,Mattek-Sands)
3-1...China (Li,Peng,Zheng)
3-2...Australia (Gajdosova,Rodionova,Stosur)
3-4...Italy (Errani,Schiavone,Vinci)
3-6...Czech Republic (Hradecka,Kvitova,Safarova)
2-0...Canada (Marino,Wozniak)
2-1...Belarus (Azarenka,Govortsova)
2-1...Belgium (Clijsters,Wickmayer)
2-1...Great Britain (Baltacha,Watson)
1-0...Argentina (Dulko)
1-0...Bulgaria (Pironkova)
1-0...Denmark (Wozniacki)
1-0...Estonia (Kanepi)
1-0...India (Mirza)
1-0...Netherlands (Rus)
1-0...Poland (A.Radwanska)
1-0...Slovenia (Hercog)
1-0...South Africa (Scheepers)
1-0...Taiwan (Chan)
1-1...Sweden (Larsson)
1-2...Japan (Morita)
1-2...Serbia (Jankovic)
1-2...Slovak Republic (Hantuchova)
0-1 = Croatia, Georgia, Greece, Israel, Kazakhstan, Latvia, New Zealand, Switzerland, Uzbekistan
0-2 = Hungary
0-3 = Austria, Ukraine

TOP QUALIFIER: #21 Sloane Stephens/USA
TOP EARLY ROUND (1r-2r): xx
TOP QUALIFYING MATCH: Q1: Ekaterina Bychkova/RUS d. Lindsay Lee-Waters/USA 3-6/7-6/10-8
TOP EARLY RD. MATCH (1r-2r): xx
FIRST WINNER: Simona Halep/ROU (def. Alla Kudryavtseva/RUS)
FIRST SEED OUT: #19 Shahar Peer/ISR (lost to Maria Jose Martinez-Sanchez/ESP)
LAST QUALIFIER STANDING: 8 qualifiers are in the 2nd Round
LAST PASTRY STANDING: 5 French women are in 2nd Round

All for Day 3. More tomorrow.


Blogger Todd Spiker said...

Hmmm, sorry about saying Agassi was 24 when he completed his careeer slam in Paris in '99. We're about the same age, so you'd think I'd have caught that one earlier. (I think I looked at his career-high ranking date instead of his birthday, and I never closed the logic gap.)

I fixed it, though, so it's all right now for the kids to go back into the water.

Wed May 25, 06:43:00 AM EDT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As a Dane I should have read Kierkegaard but never did, but the way you're using his thoughts I'm beginning to like him. Nah I'm never going to read his books they are a bit too dry to me but relevant quotes like you bring I like. Keep up the good work as usual an interesting read.

Wed May 25, 12:46:00 PM EDT  

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