Thursday, May 26, 2011

RG.5- "From the Papers of One Still Living" *

Not that we needed the reminders, but no thing and no one is a "sure thing" at this Roland Garros. Just ask Kim Clijsters and Arantxa Rus. And Caroline Garcia and Maria Sharapova, too.

"Truth always rests with the minority, and the minority is always stronger than the majority, because the minority is generally formed by those who really have an opinion, while the strength of a majority is illusory, formed by the gangs who have no opinion—and who, therefore, in the next instant (when it is evident that the minority is the stronger) assume its opinion... while Truth again reverts to a new minority." - Søren Kierkegaard; The Diary of Søren Kierkegaard, part 5, sect. 3, no. 128 entry from 1850

Or, in other words, just because nearly everyone was picking either Clijsters or Sharapova to win this slam's championship five days ago, there was no reason for any one of those people to stand up and declare such opinions to be indisputable. After today, one of those possible outcomes on the final Saturday definitely ISN'T going to come to fruition, while some -- well, I -- might think there was enough evidence presented on Day 5 to believe that the OTHER won't, either. Of course, as my long-dead Danish friend Søren noted, while one of my one-time minority opinions proved true, my other current one might not.

Clijsters surely looked like she was going to survive her 2nd Round match with 20-year Rus of the Netherlands. Oh, she was tossing in strings of error on this blustery day -- as is her wont, but she led 6-3/5-2 and held match point in one of Thursday's first matches on the schedule. But who could have guessed that the backhard error that came off Clijsters' racket on that match point would kick off a string of seven consecutive points lost by the Belgian, the winner of the last two slam titles? Or that she'd fail to convert a second MP, or badly frame a shot at break point down at 5-4 in the 2nd set? Or that fifty-three minutes after she'd held that first match point that she'd be dumped out of this Roland Garros by a 3-6/7-5/6-1 score, dropping eleven of the match's final twelve games as her prospective "reign of terror" in yet another slam degenerated into a "rain of errors" instead?

Just as the match seemed unwinnable, Rus began hitting harder and with more accuracy, but Clijsters' uncontrollable slide took hold mainly due to her own inability to forestall it. On a day on which she admitted to having something of a crisis of confidence in her own clay court game (seriously, though, she's had that on the dirt for about a decade, when it's really mattered), Clijsters' only answer for the situation was to attempt to hit the ball harder. Needless to say, it was a tactic that didn't work -- her misses just sailed longer distances. Rus' eight winners were coupled with twenty-two errors, but that was a number dwarfed by the Belgian's sixty-five errors in the match. Clijsters surely had opportunities to reel the match back in against the 2008 Australian Open Girls champion, but she was 0-for-5 on break point chances in the 3rd, and double-faulted to break herself at one point. Down 4-1, her inability to convert one of two break points on Rus' serve proved to be the last straw, as she went out earlier than she has in any slam since the 2002 Wimbledon.

In truth, this is a great result for the WTA. Clijsters winning this Roland Garros title would have been a real indictment of women's tennis. Remember, she was player coming into this event with wrist/shoulder injuries and an injured foot after a wedding dance mishap, who hadn't played a match in months and hadn't started practicing until two weeks ago, who hadn't played at Roland Garros since 2005, had played just one match on clay in her comeback and only three in total over the last five years heading into Paris, and who has always felt that the surface was her least favorite as well as least conducive to success for her style of play. If THAT player were to win against the field what would it have said about the field?

Not too many good things.

While Clijsters would have been placed upon a pedastal, the rest of the women would have been slimed. Serena Williams can come into a slam and work magic like that, but it can always be chalked up to the fact that she's simply the most awesome physical specimen to ever grace a tennis court. With Clijsters, no matter how good she's sometimes been in KC II, it would have made everyone else look bad.

Later in the day, with the scent of the exit of Clijsters still lingering in the air, the bottom half of the draw's OTHER bigwig nearly bit the dust, as well. Facing off against 17-year old French wild card Caroline Garcia (#188), Maria Sharapova had the opportunity to experience a little of what Serena felt when the then-17 year old Russian jumped her in the dark alley known as Centre Court Wimbledon seven years ago. Well, at least Sharapova got to feel that way for almost two sets, anyway.

For a while during the Sharapova/Garcia match, it looked like a new star was being born. Garcia got an early break to go up 2-0 and, after exchanging a few more breaks of serve, held in a long game #5 to take a 4-1 lead. It wasn't a Clijstersarian case, either, as the Pastry was consistently beating Sharapova -- who wasn't playing poorly -- to the punch by stepping inside the baseline to take balls early and putting them away for screaming (off her racket, not out of her mouth) winners. Essentially, she was kicking the Russian's skinny butt.

Garcia won the 1st set 6-3, and Andy Murray, who'd just finished his match, Tweeted that "the girl playing Sharapova" was "going to be #1 one day." The hyperbole felt sincere, even if it was a bit premature for a player who's barely played enough tour-level matches to fill a three-ball can of tennis spheres, and when the French teen raced to a 4-1, two-break lead in the 2nd set it looked like the Scot was going to forever assume a role in the first paragraph of Garcia's career biography.

But then Garcia remembered that she was 17... and that she wasn't Sharapova. Sharapova, in turn, remembered that SHE was.

While Clijsters had failed to convert break points at 4-1 in what was her last chance to get back into the match, the Russian did just that in game #6. Once Garcia had been unable to get to 5-1, her spell on Sharapova was broken. Battered, really. Obliterated, to be brutally blunt. The teenager didn't win another game, dropping eleven in a row as Sharapova survived with a fierce, come-from-behind 3-6/6-4/6-0 win.

To her credit, Clijsters hadn't blamed HER loss on the weather -- far different from the hot, dry conditions that played to big hitters like herself on Days 1-4. No matter, there was enough re-writing history commentary sprinkled in during ESPN2's coverage today in an attempt to explain it to make up the difference. Her movement wasn't up to snuff. She had injuries. She was lacking in match play. Not that any of that really explains away the way Clijsters lost today. Truth is, throughout her career, and even since her comeback (remember Petrova in Melbourne?), the Belgian has shown the propensity to be overcome by errors like she was today. Against Rus, her opponent upped her game in Clijsters' decline, and the world #2 couldn't stem the tide as her game totally fell apart. Afterward, she expressed no regrets about venturing to Paris to at least give things a try... and I suspect my philosopher friend would commend her for that. As shall I, I suppose.

This sort of match, on her less-than-favored clay, is precisely why I was dubious about Clijsters' chances of winning this event. Knowing full well her feast-or-famine track record at slams in KC II, I DID pick her to reach the semis, but I've been pretty open about that pick being more of a "hedge against looking stupid" than any real belief that Clijsters would learn to ♥ Paris over the next two weeks. I'm sure she'll be sporting an "I ♥ NY" t-shirt come the end of summer, though. Well, as long as she swears off attending anymore weddings between now and then.

As for Sharapova, it says much of her reputation and history that she was almost "anointed" as a co-favorite for Roland Garros based on one single week of good play in Rome after nearly two years of spotty production, very little of it on clay. I considered picking her, but was leery to do so because of her recent history, and I'm thinking I'm still feeling fine with that after today, no matter that she battled back to get the victory. While ESPN2's Darren Cahill was lauding the Russian as the "toughest competitor" in the women's game (thankfully, Patrick McEnroe had sense enough to remind him that Serena is still an active player, and until that's no longer the case her name is written in ink atop any "Toughest" list out there) after today's win, I look at what happened and think that she's vulnerable.

To date, she's never been the sort of player who's picked up steam en route to a slam title, gaining traction after nearly losing early and building an unstoppable momentum. That's the purview of the Sisters, not Sharapova. As her old Supernova self, she was either dominating from the start of a slam or she was going home without a title. Maybe that will change post-shoulder surgery, and "Supernova II" will consist of Serena-esque "survivor" runs to slam victory circles. It remains to be seen. There's one caveat about limiting Sharapova's chances of winning RG because of her near-miss today, though. She wasn't losing because she was beating herself, or because her serve was out of whack.

But the fact is that she WAS being blown off the court by an in-form 17-year old for a set and a half. Even without Clijsters, the bottom half is still filled with players with similar built-for-battle skills -- from Petra Kvitova to Victoria Azarenka to Andrea Petkovic. They've all shown the ability this spring to be able to do just what was Garcia was going today, but they're not 17-year old tour neophytes whose games will be pushed over like a house of cards because of one lost game. Not usually, anyway. They're a bit more battle-tested than the Pastry.

None of them are as accomplished as Sharapova, though. Now, with the Belgian gone, NO ONE is as accomplished in this draw as her. That might be enough for her to complete the final leg of her career Grand Slam. But, until or if that day comes, I'm afraid I'll have to remain in the minority when it comes to seeing things playing out precisely that way.

* - Thanks again, Søren.

...well, Anabel Medina-Garrigues did nothing in Paris to break free of her hand-in-hand career-long walk with Anna Smashonova, losing today to Jarmila Gajdosova in their 2nd Round match and once again failing to reach her first career slam QF. Remember, with the Spanish veteran's tenth career singles title in Estoril earlier this season, she matched the feat of the Russian-born Israeli Smashnova, who won double-digit tour singles titles but never reached a slam singles quarterfinal. No other women in WTA history can say as much. other Day 5 action, perhaps in a haphazard "tribute" to her 1st Round opponent Ana Ivanovic's inability to achieve follow-up success, Johanna Larsson couldn't back up her previous upset, losing her 2nd Rounder today to Ekaterina Makarova. Meanwhile, late in the day, Victoria Azarenka nearly double-bageled Pauline Parmentier, winning 6-0/6-1 and officially "crowning" Marion Bartoli as the "Last Pastry Standing" as the 3rd Round is set to begin tomorrow. And, after five Romanians reached the 2nd Round, only one managed to advance to the 3rd. It was already assured of happening, though, as Alexandra Dulgheru and Sorana Cirstea faced off to determine a winner/survivor. Cirstea was it, as her Paris advancement to the Final 32 matches her top slam result since her very best one when she reached the Roland Garros QF in 2009.

Petra Kvitova wasn't bothered by Thursday's blustery conditions, taking out Zheng Jie 6-4/6-1. I mention this score because I noticed that Kvitova also has a LOSS to Zheng in her column at this tournament, as she and Sergiy Stakhovsky lost in the opening round of Mixed Doubles to Zheng and Mahesh Bhupathi.

...speaking of odd singles/doubles results links. In the 1st Round of singles, Anastasia Rodionova knocked off Nadia Petrova. Today, the pair -- joined together as a doubles team -- won their opening match in Paris over Nuria Llagostera-Vives and Arantxa Parra-Santonja. No hard feelings, I guess. In another Doubles match, Vania King (who also won in singles, again in three sets) and Yaroslava Shvedova took down the big-named duo of Svetlana Kuznetsova and Vera Zvonareva as the Ameri-Kazakh pair continue their quest for another slam title. If they were to claim this RG crown, they'd head to Wimbledon, where they won their first, as the reigning Doubles champions at three of the four slams. Not a bad year's work for a team that didn't even really exist around this time last year.

...unfortunately, Amelie Mauresmo was denied a place in the Mixed Doubles draw with Michael Llodrea when the French Tennis Federation wouldn't allow it because she, having been retired and all, has not been entered in the ITF's anti-doping program. Oh, well. It was a nice thought, at least. Maybe she'll rectify that situation and show up in a slam Mixed draw somewhere down the line.

=EARLY ROUND AWARDS - 1st/2nd Rounds (Days 1-5)=
TOP PLAYER: Samantha Stosur/AUS
...quietly taking care of business in the top half. The less pressure of expectation the better.
RISER: Petra Kvitova/CZE
...if Sharapova had gone out, she might have assumed the "favorite" role in the bottom half, not that THAT's worth anything. (ALSO: Victoria Azarenka/BLR... but can her body last the tournament?)
...the winner of back-to-back three-setters, and still the only American teenager to win a WTA singles title (in 2006) since Serena at the Open in 1999 (ALSO: Chan Yung-Jan/TPE... the qualifier is the next to test Sharapova's mettle)
VETERAN: Francesca Schiavone/ITA
...isn't it funny how no one ever mentions the defending champ as a possible winner? (ALSO: Nuria Llagostera-Vives/ESP... the qualifer is surrounded in the draw by Russians and an ex-Hordette)
FRESH FACE Arantxa Rus/NED've got to like Rus' willingness to let go of her shots when her back was against the wall vs. Clijsters. (ALSO: Caroline Garcia/FRA... even in defeat, she made a name for herself)
COMEBACK: Sorana Cirstea/ROU
...does this mean the Wimbledon schedulers will be giving her preferential treatment again? (ALSO: Anastasia Rodionova/AUS... the ex-Hordette seems to have put her Fed Cup collapse behind her)
DOWN: Kim Clijsters/BEL her comeback, she's pretty much been either celebrated ('09-'10 US, '11 AO) or chagrined ('10 AO, '11 RG). (ALSO: Ana Ivanovic/SRB... not how she wanted to leave Paris)
UNDERRATED: Ekaterina Makarova/RUS
...the most dangerous unseeded player in the bottom half. (ALSO: Bethanie Mattek-Sands/USA... feeling good, she might give JJ a real go in the 3rd Round)

2nd Rd. - Zvonareva d. Lisicki 4-6/7-5/7-5
...down 5-2 in the 3rd and a match point, Vera kept her head while her opponent was losing HER head of steam (before being carried off on a stretcher after crumpling to the court with painful leg cramps... and probably even-more-crippling emotional anguish).
1st Rd. - Larsson d. Ivanovic 7-6/0-6/6-2
...who knew the '08 RG final between AnaIvo and Safina would be looked back upon so soon with such "what the hell happened?" confusion. When those two faced off for the first post-Henin title, they still hadn't yet reached their ultimatle #1 rankings. Now... well, it's not a good sight.

1st Rd. - Errani d. McHale 6-7/6-2/9-7
2nd Rd. - Sharapova d. Garcia 3-6/6-4/6-0

...McHale led 5-0 in the 3rd. Garcia was up a set and two breaks. They both lost. McHale seems heady and reasonable enough to learn from her errors. Hopefully, Garcia will, too.
THE POTENTIAL FOR PERIL: Julia Goerges won Stuttgart this spring, and has beaten world #1 Caroline Wozniacki twice in recent weeks. She came back from a 6-2/4-2 deficit to win her 1st Round match over Lucie Safarova. One would think she'd be brimming with confidence, right? Well, the other day she said, "I don't think I'm a player who can win here. I haven't reached past the 3rd Round here. I don't count myself." Hmmm, Julia is either dangerously (and career-hinderingly) naive, or absolutely brilliant.

FIRST VICTORY: Simona Halep defeated Alla Kudryavtseva to get RG 2011's first victory (then she lost in Round 2 to the player who got the second win of the tournament -- Sam Stosur).
FIRST SEED OUT: #19 Shahar Peer (lost to Maria Jose Martinez-Sanchez)
UPSET QUEENS: The Romanians
REVELATION LADIES: The North Americans
CRASH & BURNER (1r-2r): Kim Clijsters. Her 2nd Round exit is her worst at a slam in nine years.
ZOMBIE QUEEN?? (1r-2r): since Arantxa Rus (saved 2 MP vs. Clijsters) isn't likely to contend for the title, I guess Vera Zvonareva (down MP vs. Lisicki) is the best contender so far through two rounds.
LAST PASTRY STANDING: Marion Bartoli is in the 3rd Round
LAST QUALIFIERS STANDING: Nuria Llagostera-Vives and Chan Yung-Jan are in the 3rd Round
LAST WILD CARDS STANDING: Iryna Bremond, Caroline Garcia and Pauline Parmentier all reached the 2nd Round
JOIE de VIVRE: Virginie Razzano, for not hiding from the reality of life, swallowing hard and coming to play in Paris a week after the death of her fiance/coach Stephane. Said Razzano after losing her 1st Round match to Jarmila Gajdosova, "I felt a lot of pain on court today. The pain is permanent within me. It's very hard, but it felt good to be surrounded by so many people and to be here. I tried to play tribute to Stephane today. It was a "mission impossible," but I did my best."

...and, finally, I thought I was going to be able hold to my promise to myself that I wasn't going to waste the effort every day blasting ESPN2's coverage of this event. Thankfully, through the first four days, the addition of Mary Carillo (and her always-great teaming with Martina Navratilova) to the Tennis Channel crew has provided the between-the-results marrow that has allowed me to hold together all the Daily Backspins so far. I'm still intent on staying true to my promise, but I couldn't let Day 5 go by without at least mentioning the oh-so-typical move the network pulled off today. After Carillo and Navratilova were so obviously lamenting that the Sharapova/Garcia match was going to last beyond TC's coverage window, going so far as to talk right up until the last possible second at the top of the hour and telling viewers that they could watch the conclusion of the match live on ESPN2, it was "the usual" tin ear regarding the ebb-and-flow of a grand slam that reared its ugly head just seconds later. As ESPN2 came on air, it noted that the Sharapova/Garcia and Nadal/Andujar matches were going on simultaneously (TC wasn't even airing the Nadal match, maybe because it wasn't allowed to, but also -- I hope -- because the powers-that-be realized that the REAL story was taking place in the women's match)... then rather than pick up action with Sharapova serving at a key point in the match at 4-4 in the 2nd, ESPN2 chose to air the end of the 3rd set of the Nadal match, a contest in which Rafa was up two sets to none and was down 5-1 in the 3rd.

Coverage ended up switching back and forth later, but Sharapova's service game at that point was THE key moment in the match, as it was apparent that Garcia likely needed a break to avoid seeing the match pretty much slip away even though it wasn't yet even "officially" tied. As it turned out, the women's match completed the 2nd set, and Sharapova raced to a love win in the 3rd before the Nadal/Andujar 3rd set was even completed, as the Spaniard compellingly came all the way back from his deficit to win in a tie-break and wrap things up in straight sets.

I've gotten really tired of doing this every slam, so I'll go back to making this an ESPN2-free zone starting tomorrow, but I have to at least raise the usual eyebrow here about what professional is in charge of an event's coverage who couldn't understand that that ten-minute part of the women's match might turn out to be THE most important ten minutes of the entire women's tournament when things are all said and done? Showing Nadal is fine, but just wait a few minutes and actually cover the tournament. Yep... again, I'm going to have to assume it's that travelling band of chimps that always seem to find their way into the feces-spattered ESPN2 production truck that are are to blame.

Man... and to think that ESPN/ABC/Disney is trying to wrestle away coverage of the Olympics from the broadcast networks. Of course, I suspect the Games couldn't be covered any worse than how (why-show-it-live-when-taped-coverage-can-fit-into-a-coverage-window?) NBC has been doing it for the last decade or so.

Aaaaaaannnnnnnnd, scene.

[women + men, through 2nd Round]
7...Russia (6+1)
6...Spain (1+5)
5...France (1+4)
4...Argentina (1+3)
4...Serbia (1+3)
3...Australia (3+0)
3...Germany (2+1)
3...Italy (2+1)
3...United States (2+1)
2...Belgium (1+1)
2...China (2+0)
2...Croatia (0+2)
2...Czech Republic (1+1)
2...Poland (1+1)
2...Switzerland (0+2)
2...Ukraine (0+2)
1...Belarus (1+0)
1...Brazil (0+1)
1...Canada (1+0)
1...Colombia (0+1)
1...Denmark (1+0)
1...Estonia (1+0)
1...Great Britain (0+1)
1...Netherlands (1+0)
1...Romania (1+0)
1...Slovak Republic (1+0)
1...Sweden (0+1)
1...Taiwan (1+0)
[women + men, by continent/region]
48...Europe (22+26)
6...South America (1+5)
6...Asia/Pacific (6+0)
4...North America (3+1)
0...Africa/Middle East

[through 2nd Round]
14...Russia (14-8)
6...Australia (6-2)
6...Germany (6-4)
6...Romania (6-6)
6...United States (6-7)
6...France (6-10)
5...China (5-2)
5...Spain (5-6)
5...Italy (5-5)
4...Czech Republic (4-8)

2004 Ukraine
2005 France
2006 United States
2007 Romania
2008 Czech Republic
2009 Kazakhstan (ex-Russians)
2010 Australia
2011 Romania

2006 France
2007 Italy
2008 Czech Republic
2009 Australia
2010 Germany
2011 North America

2008 Serena Williams, USA (lost 3rd Rd.)
2009 Elena Dementieva, RUS (lost 3rd Rd.)
2010 Dinara Safina, RUS (lost 1st Rd.)
2011 Kim Clijsters, BEL (lost 2nd Rd.)

2008 Alize Cornet & Emilie Loit (3rd Rd.)
2009 Virginie Razzano & Aravane Rezai (4th Rd.)
2010 Marion Bartoli & Aravane Rezai (3rd Rd.)
2011 Marion Bartoli (in 3rd Rd.)

US: Ahsha Rolle, USA (3rd Rd.)
AO: Jessica Moore, AUS (2nd Rd.)
RG: Mathilde Johansson/FRA & Olivia Sanchez/FRA (2nd Rd.)
WI: Zheng Jie, CHN (SF)
US: Severine Bremond, FRA (4th Rd.)
AO: Jelena Dokic, AUS (QF)
RG: Olivia Rogowska, AUS (2nd Rd.)
WI: Elena Baltacha/GBR & Michelle Larcher de Brito/POR (2nd Rd.)
US: Kim Clijsters, BEL (W)
AO: Justine Henin, BEL (RU)
RG: Jarmila Groth, AUS (4th Rd.)
WI: none to 2nd Rd.
US: Beatrice Capra/USA & Virginie Razzano/FRA (3rd Rd.)
AO: Jelena Dokic/AUS, Caroline Garcia/FRA & Alicia Molik/AUS (2nd Rd.)
RG: Iryna Bremond/FRA, Caroline Garcia/FRA & Pauline Parmentier/FRA (2nd Rd.)

0 - W
0 - RU
0 - SF
0 - QF
3 - 4th
9 - 3rd
9 - 2nd (w/ 2011 RG)
15 - 1st (w/ 2011 AO)

TOP QUALIFIER: #21 Sloane Stephens/USA
TOP EARLY ROUND (1r-2r): #8 Samantha Stosur/AUS
TOP QUALIFYING MATCH: Q1: Ekaterina Bychkova/RUS d. Lindsay Lee-Waters/USA 3-6/7-6/10-8
TOP EARLY RD. MATCH (1r-2r): 2nd Rd. - #3 Vera Zvonareva/RUS d. (Q) Sabine Lisicki/GER 4-6/7-5/7-5
FIRST WINNER: Simona Halep/ROU (def. Alla Kudryavtseva/RUS)
FIRST SEED OUT: #19 Shahar Peer/ISR (lost to Maria Jose Martinez-Sanchez/ESP)
UPSET QUEENS: The Romanians
REVELATION LADIES: The North Americans
LAST QUALIFIER STANDING: Llagostera-Vives & Chan in 3rd Round
LAST WILD CARDS STANDING: Iryna Bremond/FRA, Caroline Garcia/FRA & Pauline Parmentier/FRA (2nd Rd.)
CRASH & BURN: #2 Kim Clijsters/BEL (lost in 2nd Rd. to #114 Arantxa Rus/NED after leading 6-3/5-2 and holding 2 MP; worst slam result since 2002
LAST PASTRY STANDING: #11 Marion Bartoli/FRA (in 3rd Rd.)
JOIE DE VIVRE: Virginie Razzano/FRA

All for Day 5. More tomorrow.


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