Friday, September 02, 2011

US 4¾ - A Super-Duper Serena... and it's still early

I guess we should have known that all sorts of odd things were going to happen at this U.S. Open, considering the grounds at Flushing Meadows experienced a one-two punch from Mother Nature in the form of an earthquake AND hurricane in the week leading up to the start of play.

Have no fear, though, something more powerful than nature is prepared to bring things to a more level-headed conclusion at the end of next week.

So, while the novelty of none of the reigning '11 women's slam winners lasting long enough to be around for the 2nd Round was wild, and the possibility of five American woman (three of them 21 years of age or younger!) reaching the 3rd Round wasn't on anyone's radar a week ago (though I WILL take a little credit for at least picking Christina McHale to reach the Round of 16), all of that will likely be forgotten come the final weekend.

By then, the force that often seems greater than nature (even after we've learned over the past year that nothing could be farther from the truth) will probably have totally transformed the first week discussion into a second week coronation. That force, of course, is Serena Williams. She entered this tournament as the #28 seed AND the near-unanimous choice (my "friend" Carl went against the tide, at least... but he's, well, you know, CARL), and after two rounds she's quite possibly looked EVEN BETTER than anyone anticipated. Williams speaks as if she's more dedicated than ever to her tennis career after her health scares, and envisions "a good five or six years" of prime slam-winning seasons in her future. She's working with a boxing trainer to get into EVER BETTER shape, too. The immediate result: she's yet to be beaten by ANYONE since Wimbledon.

Is it possible for a thirteen-time slam champion who'll soon turn 30 to be BETTER than she was before? If it is, then bet on Serena creating the template.

Really, if this thing plays out long term, you've got to feel sorry for all the young players looking to make their slam marks, as well as the vets hoping for one final (or first) moment in the slam spotlight. The notion of a super-duper-charged, "rebuilt" and extra-resilient Williams prowling the WTA landscape is a powerful -- and scary -- sight for the rest of the field to ponder. It surely would be awesome to watch, though. At the end of this Open, we just might get our first sighting of this magnificent, hard-to-believe-true creature.

Of course, natural events could change the course of this Open yet again. But, really, is nature any match for a SuperSerena?

=EARLY-ROUND AWARDS - 1st/2nd Rounds (Days 1-4)=
TOP PLAYER: Serena Williams/USA
...if anyone tries to tie a possible Williams title run into any sort of slam against the rest of the women's field, it's time for them to wake up and admit that Serena is simply one of those ridiculously "special" athletes that we sometimes see in sports. Andy Roddick hit it right on the head the other day when he mentioned how many people have taken Serena (and Venus) for granted, and when how they're gone we'll all realize just how honored we all should feel for having been able to witness their careers. Why fight it? Just enjoy it.
RISER: Victoria Azarenka/BLR year after collapsing on court in the 2nd Round, Azarenka made good on her do-over rematch with Gisela Dulko in NYC. She's had some squandered slam moments in the past against Serena, and now gets another chance to change her luck and shock the world. It probaby won't happen... but this HAS been an odd Open. (ALSO: The Germans... they've got the best group win percentage -- 9-2 -- at this Open, and with Lisicki facing one of the Bannerettes, Petkovic in line to face Wozniacki, and Goerges one round from Sharapova, their biggest moments in Queens could be yet to come)
SURPRISES: Carla Suarez-Navarro & Silvia Soler-Espinosa/ESP
...the Americans are understandably getting much attention for placing multiple women in the Final 32, but these two -- along with AMG -- are, for once, more than holding up their end of Spain's tennis success (after the nation's male players have successfuly navigated the slam landscape.for years). (ALSO: Vania King/USA... the least talked about of the Americans left in the draw, King destroyed Jarmila Gajdosova 6-2/6-0 in the 2nd Round. By the way, she's STILL the only U.S. teen since a 17-year old Serena at the Open in '99 to win a tour singles title. And that title came five years ago.)
VETERAN: Francesca Schiavone/ITA
...Schiavone, moving through the draw in workwomanlike fashion, is one round away from a potential rematch of her wild Cincinnati contest against Jankovic. (ALSO: Anabel Medina-Garrigues/ESP... there aren't too many opportunites to tout AMG's slam results, but she's actually been pretty good at this Open. No, really. She HAS.)
FRESH FACES The Bannerettes
...Feeding off the success of one another, Christina McHale, Sloane Stephens, Irina Falconi, Madison Keys and Coco Vandeweghe have each made their presence felt at this Open. McHale has even managed to wrestle away an Ashe Stadium evening match slot for Night 5 from one of the big name players who hogged the spotlight the first four days. (ALSO: Monica Niculescu/ROU... her countrywomen made more noise in the 1st Round, but the Romanian who was the very first woman to win a 1st Round match at this Open is the only Swarmette still standing in the Final 32)
COMEBACK: Svetlana Kuznetsova/RUS never knows which Sveta will show up each round, but if the "good" one sticks around a little while longer in NYC she might actually have a shot at the sort of huge result that makes her nagging lack of interest in her craft all the more frustrating. (ALSO: Flavia Pennetta/ITA... she's been good in the Open spotlight before, and she'll next face Sharapova. If she can pull off the upset, a Final Four result isn't out of the question for the Italian in what would suddenly be a very spotty quarter of the draw.)
DOWN: Petra Kvitova/CZE & Li Na/CHN
...never before had both the Wimbledon and Roland Garros champions been dumped out in the 1st Round of the U.S. Open. Well, at that was until Days 1 and 2 had been concluded in Flushing Meadows.
(ALSO: Agnieszka Radwanska/POL... as expected, her week in Carlsbad was her summer highlight. She DID get familial bragging rights after taking out sis Urszula in the 1st Round, though.)

"I just remember I lost, and that I got really popular; a lot of people were telling me I was, like, super cool, that they never saw me so intense.." - Serena Williams, unsucessfully (so far) trying to make her '09 "incident" with a U.S. Open lineswoman a non-issue two years later

2nd Rd. - Falconi d. #14 Cibulkova 2-6/6-3/7-5
...the American's running-into-the-changeover-area, angled flip shot winner on match point, and the resulting explosion of Connors-esque proportions is THE image of this Open's early rounds. Fittingly, it came twenty year's after Jimmy Connors' energy-filled jaunt into the semis at age 39. Falconi's comeback from a 4-1, two-break deficit in the 3rd is a fact... but it's the memory of the image of her joy that will last forever.

1st Rd. - V.Williams d. Dolonts 6-4/6-3 the Broadway diva many have sometimes (and usually wrongfully) painted her to be over the years, Venus' opening night win on Ashe proved to be a "One Night Only," skip-it-and-you-missed-it performance on the grand stage. Dolonts barely made it to town from Russia in time to make the match, then two days later Venus pulled out of her 2nd Round match with Sabine Lisicki less than an hour before it was slated to begin, making this her earliest-ever exit from Flushing Meadows since she debuted in '97 and went all the way to the final. Announcing her diagnosis of Sjogren's Syndrome, an autoimmune disease that causes fatigue and joint point, Williams gave herself another obstacle to overcome in a career that she says is NOT over. Hmmm, the Sisters are usually pretty good when it comes to overcoming obstacles.

1st Rd. - Dulgheru d. #5 Kvitova 7-6/6-3
1st Rd. - Halep d. #6 Li 6-2/7-5

...ummm. Yeah, I can't think of a thing.

FIRST VICTORY: Romanian Monica Niculescu was the first woman to reach the 2nd Round with her early Monday win over Patricia Mayr-Achleitner. She wasn't the first into the 3rd Round, but she DID take down fellow Swarmette Alexandra Dulgheru, who'd taken out the biggest seed in the 1st Round.
FIRST SEED OUT: #5 Petra Kvitova, CZE (lost to Dulgheru)
UPSET QUEENS: The Romanians. Not only did Dulgheru take out Wimbledon champ Kvitova, but Simona Halep upset Roland Garros winner Li Na, too.
REVELATION LADIES: The Americans, who put as many women (8) into the 2nd Round as the Russians and, of the five who still remain in the 3rd, three are age 21 or younger.
NATION OF POOR SOULS: One slam after the Czech Republic took the women's singles (notching 16 total match wins), and halves of both the doubles and mixed titles at Wimbledon, the Maidens came to New York and went 2-5 in the 1st Round (and one of the two winners, Petra Cetkovska, pulled out of the tournament before her 2nd Rounder)
CRASH & BURNERS (1r-2r): Kvitova and Li sort of became the posterwomen for the final destruction of 2011's previous slam winners (as AO champ Kim Clijsters, the two-time defending U.S. champ, didn't even make it to NYC due to injury). In fact, of the six slam finalists slots that have been filled this year, only Maria Sharapova (SW19 RU) and Francesca Schiavone (RG RU) remain in the Final 32.
ZOMBIE QUEEN CONTENDERS (1r-2r): in the 1st Round, Sloane Stephens saw Reka-Luca Jani twice serve for the match in the 3rd set; while, in the 2nd Round, Irina Falconi was down 4-1 and two breaks in the 3rd against Dominika Cibulkova, and Andrea Petkovic successfully stared down a 6-3/3-0 deficit against Zheng Jie.
LAST AMERICANS STANDING: Serena Williams, Vania King, Christina McHale, Irina Falconi and Sloane Stephens are in the 3rd Round
LAST QUALIFIER STANDING: Silvia Soler-Espinosa/ESP has reached the Final 32
LAST WILD CARD STANDING: Sloane Stephens, one year after reaching the Girls SF (and sharing Backspin's "Junior Breakout" award) at last year's Open

[through 2nd Rd., with walkovers]
13-10...United States
3-6...Czech Republic
2-0...South Africa
=no longer with a player in draw=

Russia...Kirilenko, Kudryavtseva, Kuznetsova, Pavlyuchenkova, Petrova, Sharapova & Zvonareva
United States...Falconi, King, McHale, Stephens & S.Williams
Germany...Goerges, Kerber, Lisicki, Petkovic
=The Rest=
3 - ESP (Medina-Garrigues,Soler-Espinosa,Suarez-Navarro)
3 - ITA (Pennetta,Schiavone,Vinci)
2 - SRB (Ivanovic,Jankovic)
1 - AUS (Stosur)
1 - BLR (Azarenka)
1 - CHN (Peng)
1 - CZE (Safarova)
1 - DEN (Wozniacki)
1 - ROU (Niculescu)
1 - RSA (Scheepers)
1 - UZB (Amanmuradova)

=U.S. Open=
2002 (Week 1 POW) Serena Williams, USA *
2003 (Week 1 POW) Jennifer Capriati, USA
2004 (Week 1 POW) Serena Williams, USA
2005 (Week 1 POW) Maria Sharapova, RUS
2006 Maria Sharapova, RUS *
2007 Maria Sharapova, RUS
2008 Venus Williams, USA
2009 Serena Williams, USA
2010 Caroline Wozniacki, DEN
2011 Serena Williams, USA
AO: Kim Clijsters, BEL *
RG: Samantha Stosur, AUS
WI: Petra Kvitova, CZE *
US: Serena Williams, USA
* - won title

All for now. More on Day 5.


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