Wednesday, June 29, 2011

W.9- Wimbledon (almost) Postscript: The Curious Case of Caroline Wozniacki & other Intriguing Questions

On the eve of the women's semifinals, Day 9 is one to ponder what's turned out to be a pretty eventful Wimbledon, as much for the questions it's raised as for the action that's taken place.

Once upon a time, I'd begin every season by examining a list of "Intriguing Questions" for the upcoming season. That practice has somewhat gone by the wayside, so I thought I'd (sort of) bring it back -- maybe as a regular quick-hit slam feature -- for moments such as this. Usually, some of these types of things would be talked about AFTER the tournament. But, I figured, why wait?

Is the "Williams era" over?
Certainly not, silly. It's just in the final few chapters, and will soon peacefully (well, most of the time) co-existing with the future rulers of the kingdom wishing to finally exile the Sisters on Elba... or at least in Miami. Serena will be back to add to her slam legacy, at the very least. She'll win at least one slam over the next year. As for Venus... umm, I'm up in the air. I think she can still contend for a deep run at Wimbledon for a couple more seasons, but I don't expect to be predicting a title for her again at the outset of play at the All-England Club. At some point, time and the ability to play consistently for seven straight matches catches up with a player. I have no notion that that's the case with Serena, but I'm at least finally open to the suggestion when it comes to Venus. I do hope she can make one final title run, though. If not in the slam, then on the grass for another Olympic Gold next summer in London.

Have we almost seen the last of Kim Clijsters?
The sand is almost out of the hour glass. A year from now, she'll either already be retired for good or will be waiting to play her final event at the Olympics. A string of injuries was the one thing that was going to threaten her reconsideration of her career (and the possibility that all her slam success might lead to her stick around longer than she'd planned in KC II), and that's precisely what's happened. I'd think this year's U.S. Open will be her last. No matter when she hangs up her racket again, be it as early as tomorrow or as late as eighteen months from now, I don't think anyone will show an ounce of surprise when she walks away. She returned. She conquered. Three times, in fact. I'm not sure she really feels the need to accomplish anything else on the court.

Has the tide finally turned and the next generation will now "take over" women's tennis?
Now hold yo' horses there, pardner. What's happened at this Wimbledon has been great, as all the critics who have enjoyed spitting on the current group of early twentysomething as the "worst" generation of players in tennis history is getting a bit of spit in the eye BACK as not one, or two, but THREE 21-year olds have taken the proverbial reigns of their careers and created a big moment for themselves at a slam. Especially considering the injury histories of Victoria Azarenka and Sabine Lisicki, though, one can't expect this same group of three to do this at every slam. Hopefully, they'll continue to contend, and their accomplishments will inspire -- and shame? -- the others of their generation to pick up their preparation and fitness in order to keep up and match or better their success.

I will say now, though, that Petra Kvitova will win at least one Wimbledon title and be ranked #1. So far, with every season, she seems to be improving her ability to handle big moments well (she in no way resembles the same player who looked like she was going to cry while blowing a match against Melanie Oudin in Fed Cup play a couple of seasons ago). And as she gets into even better shape, ala Lindsay Davenport in the latter half of her career, any liability that her on-court movement might present will become less and less an issue. That lefty serve is such a rare weapon, and barring injury she's going to win a lot of titles -- and more than one slam -- on the back of it. And unlike a certain player-who'll-be-named-in-a-moment, Kvitova doesn't sit back and wait for her opponent to make a mistake. As she said the other day on ESPN2, she likes to "go for the winners." It's a dangerous style but, Tennis Gods bless her, I'd never criticize a player too heavily for playing to win rather than just survive. Sure, she sometimes needs to play a bit smarter and take a little off her shots, but that's a learnable skill -- and something which she's taken to doing more and more as the season has gone on.

I kneel on the throne of God Goolagongis that Lisicki's injury troubles are over, because she's really injected more life into the proceedings at this slam than any up-and-coming player in some time. Her four-straight-pounding-serves rescue against Li in the 2nd Round might be the highlight of the entire tournament. Her game is exciting, and her laugh/smile infectious. Living in the U.S., she's open and great in English-conducted interviews (Kvitova is more shy and a bit less comfortable with the language), and if she were to manage to win this title the story of her personal letter to the Club asking for a wild card after her long, injury-related time of woe will go down in Wimbledon lore... and at what other tournament does the word "lore" ever see the light of day? Azarenka lives in Arizona, and is also very good with the media. Her on-court intensity, while sometimes being a double-edged sword for her, is a slap directly in the face of critics who dismiss some women's players for not being driven enough to succeed. The only problem is that her on-court shrieking (moaning, really) is always going to get an outsider's attention before anything else (if she plays Sharapova in the final, many will try to make their "battle cries" the #1 story of the day). That's still the case with many "insiders," who I've always felt should really try harder to not simply follow the crowd by parroting back the "easy" story. That said, Monica Seles was famous for the same sort of thing when she first came up, and just the topic put the sport on the table for discussion in various circles. If the "distracting" player is also a winner, then it's a case of a rising tide lifting all boats. If you win, Vika, pull a Wozniacki and "don't care" what anyone says about anything.

The dominant nature of Kvitova's game when she's in consistent form. Lisicki's likablity. Azarenka's (noisy) intensity. Oh, and Sharapova's potentially overwhelming star power and, now, successful comeback story. Like I said, considering the storms of criticism that have hovered over the tour for a while now, I think this is my favorite slam semifinal group in quite some time. It's important that this happened now. We'll have to see over the next year just how important, though.

Will the rise of players from her generation close Caroline Wozniacki's window of opportunity to win a slam?
This subject came up the other day in the comments section of a post, and though I didn't bring it up in a Daily Backspin before, I do admit to wondering the other day when Wozniacki dive-bombed out of the 3rd set against Dominika Cibulkova just how long I was going to give the Dane before I threw up my hands and said "no more -- I'm not even going to waste time discussing the possibility of her winning a slam any longer." I've reached that point with Samantha Stosur, for sure, but not with Wozniacki.

Just hitting on a few points that I mentioned in the comments, I'm once again say that I'll stick with the timetable I set at the start of the season when I said I thought her best chance at a slam would come in 2012 rather than 2011. But that thought was based on a "static" WTA where younger players of her generation hadn't begun to make their moves and, more importantly, Wozniacki herself had continued to make the progress she showed late last summer. After her loss, I mentioned that she should look at video of how she played last summer in North America, just as a starting point. Back then, her game wasn't a finished product, but at least she seemed to be making an effort to be more aggressive and develop some sort of hybrid offensive/defensive style. We haven't seen THAT Wozniacki in 2011, and I still wonder just how much her offseason preparation (or lack of it) really set her back from the get-go this year. She had a busy offseason as the new world #1, then started slowly, and it's like she's been trying to furiously catch up ever since. Throw in her overscheduling (Bastad... really?) and she never has a chance to take a breath and regroup. I don't think it's a coincidence that the best shape her game's every been in, as far as coming close to resembling that of a contender to win a slam, came in the months after she had a bit more time off to practice (because of her injury during the clay court season and a few resulting early-round losses) and hit the ground running with a slightly revved-up game in North America last summer. She was playing so well (though probably too much, as usual, leading into the slam) that I actually picked her to win the Open.

Wozniacki needn't WIN a slam soon to not be deemed "irrelevant" at slam time, even as she holds the #1 ranking, but she does need to show progress toward either adding some punch to her shots and/or changing the mindset that so often allows her to pull back and passively wait for errors in big stage matches against aggressive players. If Wozniacki were losing those sorts of matches because she was actively trying to work a different style into her game, experiencing the expected growing pains of such a tactic, it'd be fine. The problem is that when she's losing it's often because she's not doing that at all. By giving up even the notion of attempting to dictate, she lets her opponents control the outcome of the handful of big points that determine a match. That sort of thing might work in Copenhagen against a lesser field, and even on occasion against an aggressive-but-inconsistent player in a big event, but in the full field of a slam she's going to eventually get slapped down by a player who DOESN'T miss since she always gets beaten to the punch. Kvitova says she likes to "go for the winners," but Wozniacki tends to "wait for/try to force the errors." Barring some extraordinary circumstances, that's not going to win a slam. She needs to be more fearless, and the confidence to be that way in crunch time -- like in the 3rd set vs. Cibulkova, or on match point against Li in Melbourne -- will only come through repetition. First on the practice courts, and then in matches. All matches. As she gets more defensive in her answers to questions regarding the situation (especially the whole "I don't care what people think or say or do" one from the other day) I wonder if the one thing that gave me confidence that she'd figure it out in the long run -- her intelligence -- might get muddled and lost in the mess, replaced by stubborness in the face of time slipping away. I'll still hold onto the fact that she CAN change enough to win a slam, but if she doesn't do it (or at least come close, breeding encouragement that can extend her window longer) within the next five slams I really doubt if she ever will.

As it is, the task is only getting more difficult. Over the next year's worth of slams, she now has to contend with three hard-hitting and aggressive 21-year olds made more confident by reaching a slam semifinal, AND probably a few other young players who'll join the fray after being inspired by what THEY did (even if those three can't immediately repeat their feat), AS WELL AS a reinvigorated 24-year old Sharapova, a looking-to-reclaim-her-honor Serena, maybe Kim Clijsters on hard courts for a few final go-arounds, and late-blossoming players like Marion Bartoli, who might not be a bad bet to make a push for a first slam title in the very near future. That's an awful lot of weeds to hack through, especially if you're using the dull blade that Wozniacki usually sports.

Who am I going to put the inadvertent hex on by picking them to reach the Wimbledon final tomorrow?
Umm, Sharapova and Kvitova. And not just because they're the final surviving members of The Five that I listed at the start of the tournament as the only players who could win the tournament. But I do sort of still hold to the Rule of the Five since I don't think either Lisicki or Azarenka will come through and win in the final unless they BOTH pull upsets tomorrow and face each other on Saturday. Both the Russian and the Czech had dominant wins over their semifinal opponents earlier this season, and I think the same could happen again this time.

Of course, Sharapova and Kvitova could both prove to be their own worst enemies on a bad day, but they've managed to avoid it so far this fortnight. Sharapova's serve has been solid, and as long as the wind doesn't kick up I'll go with her to win by by 7-5/6-3 type of scoreline; while I think as long as Kvitova's built-for-the-grass game doesn't go on an extended walkabout that virtually gives away a set to Azarenka, she can get through by something like 6-4/6-4 or thereabouts.

While we're at it, how about the U.S. Open Final four?
Hmmm, off the top of my head, I'll say Serena and Sharapova, with confidence. Annnnd... I guess Clijsters (assuming full health.. if not, maybe Bartoli?) and one of the three 21-year old semifinalists from Wimbledon. A nice mix of old and new.

There. Now I've got all that out of my system.

...of course, the biggest news of Day 9 was the stunning collapse of Roger Federer after taking a two sets to none lead over Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. So, after reaching seven straight Wimbledon finals, one year after losing to Tomas Berdych in four sets in the quarters, he's out in the same round again. It's the first time Federer has even lost a match in a slam after leading by two sets. Of note, after his Wimbledon defeat last year, Federer won 29 of his last 33 matches and ended the season by defeating Rafael Nadal in the ATP World Finals championship.

On ESPN2, Patrick McEnroe made a passing comment about how Federer played too passively as Tsonga was making his comeback, allowing the Frenchman to seize control of the points. I thought, hmmm, that sounds kind of familiar... were Roger and Caroline dining at the same restaurant in London this week?

By the way, kudos to a brilliant little piece on ESPN2 today by Tom Rinaldi about the one and only Pete Sampras/Roger Federer career meeting, which took place in the Wimbledon Round of 16 ten years ago and ultimately served, in Rinaldi's words, less as a match than "as a crease in time." Rinaldi is a unique case in his work for ESPN2. He's got such a great voice for voiceover work in the short pieces -- which look amazing, too -- he does for the network, but when he's standing on air with a microphone that same great instrument is amazingly distracting because the tone of his voice doesn't lend well to on-air discussions with other members of the ESPN2 crew or even to wrapping up the very segments he narrates so well. But, seriously, he squishes NBC's Jimmy "Are you missing Bud Collins again?" Roberts like a roach in the setting-things-in-historical-perspective business.

...uh-oh, there was a Pippa Middleton sighting in the Royal Box today. At least she wasn't wearing that hat she wore at the William/Kate wedding, though.

...meanwhile, Bernard Tomic put up quite a fight against Novak Djokovic, losing in four sets but threatening to press things to a 5th. The six-foot-four 18-year old Aussie -- the fifth-youngest player to reach the men's QF, and the youngest since Boris Becker in '86 -- has room to get far stronger and better. Maybe Australia FINALLY has another big-time men's champion waiting in the wings. Now, if only TA could find -- or rent -- a young female who could fit the bill for the women's tour.

Rafael Nadal (19 consecutive SW19 wins) and Andy Murray both won to set up a hugely anticipated semifinal on Friday. Oddly enough, Nadal could defend his Wimbledon title and STILL lose the #1 ranking to Djokovic if the Serb knocks off Tsonga to reach the final.

So, as it turns out, while the women have NO Top 4 players -- but they do have Top 4 SEED -- in the semis, the men didn't quite get ALL four of the ATP's top ranked men into a slam Final Four for the second straight major, either. Doubles, Sania Mirza and Elena Vesnina, the RG runners-up, were the first team to reach the Women's semifinals. As Shuko Aoyama & Rika Fujiwara (who defeated them in the final round of qualifying) try not to cringe, lucky losers Marina Erakovic and Tamarine Tanasugarn became the second SF team by upending #3-seeded Liezel Huber and Lisa Raymond. Elsewhere, almost giving the middle finger (while sporting a smile, though, I'm sure) to the Tennis Gods' Injury Division staff, Lisicki is still alive in doubles, as well. She and Sam Stosur are in the QF.

In juniors, my apologies once again to Alison van Uytvanck for picking her to win the Girls title. The only time she ever loses junior matches seems to be when I pick her to win. She lost in three sets to American Krista Hardebeck in a big 2nd Round match-up on Day 9. "Carl's" pick, Madison Keys, is still kicking around in the draw, though.

...and, finally, with Lisicki commenting the other day about how she's felt so much better (and been healthier) as her results steadily improved since she began to follow the same gluten-free diet that Djokovic credits for getting him into the condition to make his now 48-1 run possible, one has to wonder just how long it'll take before SOMEONE tries to make some money off this situation by putting together a quick diet book that'll shoot up the bestseller lists.

#5 Maria Sharapova/RUS vs. (WC) Sabine Lisicki/GER
Victoria Azarenka/BLR vs. #8 Petra Kvitova/CZE

#1 Rafael Nadal/ESP vs. #4 Andy Murray/GBR
#12 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga/FRA vs. #2 Novak Djokovic/SRB

Lisicki/Stosur (GER/AUS) vs. #6 Petrova/Rodionova (RUS/AUS)
(LL) Erakovic/Tanasugarn (NZL/THA) def. #3 Huber/Raymond (USA/USA)
#4 Mirza/Vesnina (IND/RUS) def. Llagostera-Vives/Parra-Santonja (ESP/ESP)
#8 Peng/Zheng (CHN/CHN) vs. #2 Peschke/Srebotnik (CZE/SLO)

#1 Bryan/Bryan (USA/USA) vs. #5 Melzer/Petzschner (AUT/GER)
Cerretani/Marx (USA/GER) vs. #6 Llodra/Zimonjic (FRA/SRB)
#8 Lindstedt/Tecau (SWE/ROU) def. Clement/Dlouhy (FRA/CZE)
Kas/Peya (GER/AUT) def. (WC) Fleming/Hutchins (GBR/GBR)

#15 Liam Broady/GBR vs. (Q) Robert Kern/GER
(WC) Jason Kubler/AUS vs. Julien Cagnina/BEL
#8 Mate Pavic/CRO vs. Kaichi Uchida/JPN
Joris de Loore/BEL vs. #16 Luke Saville/AUS

[through QF]
20-15...Russia (Sharapova)
14-10...Czech Republic (Kvitova)
9-5...Germany (Lisicki)
7-7 = FRA, ITA
7-12 = USA
6-2...Belarus (Azarenka)
6-3 = SVK
5-4 = CHN
4-1 = BUL
4-3 = AUT
3-1 = DEN
3-2 = BEL
3-3 = JPN
3-5 = ESP
3-6 = ROU
3-7 = GBR
2-1 = HUN
2-3 = CAN, SRB, UKR
2-4 = AUS
1-2 = CRO
0-2 = SWE

TOP EARLY-ROUND (1r-2r): #8 Petra Kvitova/CZE
TOP MIDDLE-ROUND (3r-QF): #5 Maria Sharapova/RUS
TOP QUALIFYING MATCH: Q3: Alexa Glatch/USA def. Galina Voskoboeva/KAZ 3-6/7-6/12-10
TOP EARLY-RD. MATCH (1r-2r): 2nd Rd. - #23 Venus Williams/USA def. Kimiko Date-Krumm/JPN 6-7/6-3/8-6 (2:55)
TOP MIDDLE-RD. MATCH (3r-QF): 3rd Rd. - #9 Marion Bartoli/FRA def. #21 Flavia Pennetta/ITA 5-7/6-4/9-7 (3:09)
TOP UNDER-THE-ROOF MATCH: Nominee: 2nd Rd. - V.Williams d. K.Date-Krumm 6-7/6-3/8-6 (2:55)
FIRST WIN: Kimiko Date-Krumm/JPN (def. O'Brien/GBR)
FIRST SEED OUT: #22 Shahar Peer (1st Rd. - lost to Pervak/RUS)
NATION OF POOR SOULS: Australia (1-3 in 1st Rd., losses by Stosur & Dokic)
LAST BRITS STANDING: Elena Baltacha, Anne Keothavong & Laura Robson (2nd Rd.)
Tamira Paszek, AUT
A junior
Victoria Azarenka, BLR
Petra Kvitova, CZE
Sabine Lisicki, GER
Sabine Lisicki, GER (s/d)
Nadia Petrova, RUS (s/d)
Maria Sharapova, RUS
Samantha Stosur, AUS (doubles)
A doubles player
CRASH & BURN: #15 Jelena Jankovic/SRB (1st Rd. loss to Martinez-Sanchez/ESP, worst slam result since '05 RG)
ZOMBIE QUEEN: #9 Marion Bartoli/FRA - down 3 MP vs. Dominguez-Lino in 2nd Rd., won 9-7 3rd set vs. Pennetta in 3rd Rd., saved 3 MP vs. Lisicki to force 3rd set in QF
Erakovic/Tanasguarn, NZL/THA
Liezel Huber, USA
Sania Mirza, IND
Nadia Petrova, RUS
Lisa Raymond, USA
Katarina Srebotnik, SLO
Elena Vesnina, RUS

All for Day 9. More tommorow.


Blogger Steen said...

I know I'm late in commenting here, but I simply haven't had time before. But since I had part in causing your assessment of Caro's situation, I feel I should stick in my oar, even if it comes a bit late.
I fear, though, that we won't get beyond agreeing to disagree, since it is mostly about different interpretations, gut-feelings and beliefs. You see the defeats she has suffered this year and the tendency to return to a more defensive style as signs of a player, unable or unwilling to make the necessary changes to her game. I see the defeats as the unpleasant, but inevitable price of making changes, because I know, not just from observation, but from the statements of her camp, that they are indeed working to change a number of things: Forehand, serve, netgame, court position and more. But while these changes are steps towards ultimately acquiring a more agressive game, it does in fact make sense to return to her former, more defensive style during the transition period. For all the success the more offensive game of last fall brought her, it had hardly yet become instinctive – to try to graft so many changes on top of it might be a recipe for disaster. Rather take a step back for a time and then return to the offensive, when the changes are in place.
Of course, there is no guarantee that it will work – that the right changes have been chosen, that Caro can implement them and that she can make them work with the more agressive style of last fall. But I think it way to early to proclaim failure. The first quarter was too early in the process, and the second quarter is all about clay and grass, surfaces that still don't come natural to Caro. Still, in spite of some setbacks, she has in fact had the best first AND second quarters of her career, measured by points earned and titles won – that's hardly the characteristics of a player on her way down (the one thing where I don't understand you at all is when you claim she 'started slowly' this year. Sure, she lost her first match, but her next four tournaments brought two Tier I titles, a premier final and a slam semi – how much more would you demand?).
The other main disagreement is on the competition she is facing. You apparently see it as toughening – I, as I said in my last comment, see it as more or less the same, with some players on the rise and others on the wane. If some player showed signs of beginning to dominate the tour I might grow worried, but while Kvitova, Azarenka, Sharapova and Li Na have had some splendid results, they have also had as many or more embarrassments as Caro. As to some of the risers being her own generation, I find that pretty immaterial. It might have shaken her confidence if she had been universally acclaimed as the star of her generation, but that has certainly not been the case. Indeed, reading the comments after Miami made me realize that a lot of the pundit scepticism towards her has to do with being sore at her for being so succesful, when they had predicted Azarenka to be the next big thing (the comments went roughly to the tune of: ”There you see, didn't we tell you she is awesome? What you say, Wozniacki won Indian Wells? Well, nice for her, I suppose”).
Once again, sorry for the lateness of my comment – and even more for its inordinate length. But that's what you get for taking a genuine interest in Caro: Long-winded, monomaniac Danes clogging up your comment section.

Fri Jul 01, 08:46:00 PM EDT  

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