Friday, September 02, 2011

US.5- Still Waiting for Proof of Supernovic Life

Everything in Maria Sharapova's immediate future must have looked so rosy to her back in the spring. She won a big title on red clay in Rome, then reached the semifinals at Roland Garros (and was actually disappointed by the result) and her first Wimbledon final since 2004. At the start of her spring run, she stated, "This is just the start of everything."


"The future ain't what it used to be." - Yogi Berra, former New York Yankee catcher

I guess we can forgive Sharapova for jumping the gun a bit concerning her ability to return to the slam-winning circle of women's tennis. After all, super success came fast for her (a slam title at 17), and the last slam she played before she suffered her rotator cuff injury ('08 Australian) had been a virtual fantasyland in which the Russian ran roughshod over her opponents, never dropping a set over two weeks. Ever after three years of wandering in the WTA wilderness, she HAD to believe that she'd found her way back. She had a new coach, a new fiance, a new Top 5 ranking and a post-shoulder surgery serve that was finally not providing the double-fault explosives that tended to take out the legs of her entire game. With something resembling confidence in her #1 weapon, everything HAD to be about to fall into place. She'd always come out on top of things in the end. Why wouldn't it happen this time, too?

Even being destroyed in the Wimbledon final by Petra Kvitova didn't get her TOO down. The Czech had played such ungodly good tennis on the day of the final that no one really looked at the loss as being one to put on Sharapova's shoulders (no pun intended). Serena pummeling her on hard court in Stanford? Hey, it was Serena. Losing to #135 Galina Voskoboeva in Toronto? Well, she overcame it and won a title in Cincinnati the next time out. Even after she stumbled and bumbled her way through the Cincy final against Jelena Jankovic, the smile on her face when it was over showed that she reallly did believe that the Open might still be the place that would serve as the setting for the REAL coming out (again) party for the former Supernovic Hordette.

Through all this, I've often openly questioned whether Sharapova was yet back being capable of holding her game together well enough for seven straight matches over two weeks in order to win her fourth career slam. But SHE was so outwardly confident that she could, that I always kept the door open a crack for being wrong about the whole thing, even after she struggled past Heather Watson in the 1st Round the other day. I wasn't wrong, though. Not yet anyway. The Russian's confident aura turned out to be proven to be an illusion by the end of Day 5. Still, it needn't be a delusion.

Patience is just going to have to continue to be a virtue for Sharapova.

Today, in her 3rd Rounder against Flavia Pennetta, Sharapova's game was once again frighteningly inconsistent -- not just her serve, but her forehand, too. Ragged, really. Still, she managed to battle through to force a 3rd set against the Italian veteran, but it didn't take long to see that her clean 2011 record in three-setters was in serious jeopardy. A frustrated Sharapova was broken in the second game of the deciding set, then fell behind 3-0 although she'd held game points in all three games. After climbing out of a 15/40 hole to hold for 3-1, the confident former slam-winning Russian inside Sharapova probably felt that the match had just turned in her favor. When she broke Pennetta to close to within 4-3 -- crushing a volley to end a scrambling rally -- everyone else likely felt the same way. When Sharapova held to knot the set a 4-4, it was now time for Pennetta to fold, just like so many of the other twelve straight times Sharapova has won in three.

It didn't happen, though.

Pennetta held for 5-4, then it was Sharapova who folded. She opened the tenth game with back-to-back double-faults, and her game crash-landed after that. Pennetta broke her at love, crushing a second serve return winner on match point to win 6-3/3-6/6-4. Sharapova, after committing over fifty unforced errors against Watson in Round 1, ended with sixty this time.

Even confidence -- legit or otherwise -- will only take a player so far. Sharapova will likely say all the right things between now and her next slam experience in Melbourne in January, but what she DOES Down Under will be all that matters. She's shown everyone what she can do in the past, as well as give a taste of the old flavor on occasion this spring and early summer. I thought I might be able to soon dust off her old 'novic moniker a few months ago. But no. That'll have to wait. Who knows for how long, or even if forever.

She may never be Supernovic again. Unless she is, of course. Just don't listen to her when she SAYS she will be. She'll always FEEL like a champion and believe it's possible. That's why she became one in the first place. Everyone else, though (well, at least ME)? We're going to have to be thoroughly convinced.

And it won't be as easy a conversion as the one she so effortlessly brought into reality seven years ago, either.

...two years ago, Sharapova defeated a seventeen year old Christina McHale in a 2nd Round U.S. Open night match on Ashe. Today, it was McHale who was playing in a featured 3rd Round evening session match hours after Sharapova's ouster from the tournament. Still, though, the New Jersey native (she grew up thirty minutes from the complex), faced off against a Russian named Maria. This time it was #25 seed Kirilenko.

McHale, the youngest teenager in the Top 100 (she'll soon be passing that honor off to Sloane Stephens the next time the WTA releases the rankings), didn't have the night of her dreams. She was noticably tentative in the 1st set, and it took part-way into the 2nd before she seemed to have become comfortable. She almost made a match of things, too, but couldn't push the contest into a 3rd, which could have become interesting since Kirilenko was trying to fight off an onset of cramps in her right thigh (she was pausing to flex the leg often... sometimes in the MIDDLE of rallies). The Russian won 6-2/6-3, but McHale's progress this summer should prove to be a big step toward a possible push for the Top 25 by this time next season. of the other Bannerettes who starred in the early rounds of this Open was 21-year old Irina Falconi. The memory of her post-match point celebration after her defeat of Dominika Cibulkova will live on, but her stay in this slam came to an unceremonious end on Day 5. After her 2nd Round victory leap brought to mind one of those from Jimmy Connors during his remarkable run to the semis twenty years ago, Falconi's loss today to Sabine Lisicki came on precisely the 20th anniversary of Connors' dramatic 39th birthday Labor Day weekend win over Aaron Krickstein. If you blinked today, you missed even the knowledge that the Lisicki/Falconi match was happening. I was watching Sharapova ultimately going down in flames, then when that match ended began to wonder when THIS match was going to start. I looked at the completed matches and saw IT WAS ALREADY OVER. Lisicki won in fifty-two mintues, 6-0/6-1. The German converted six-for-six break point chances, and had a 1st serve win percentage of 80% (Falconi was at 31%).

Once again, by the way, ESPN2 made like Lisicki didn't exist. Even with Falconi being involved in the match, I suspect because the rout was so obviously on so early, the main on-air broadcast pretty much ignored this result altogether. Lisicki faces #2-seed Vera Zvonareva next, so I wonder how the network is going to avoid showing at least SOME of that one, though. Then again, that match will probably air on CBS... so even if the German wins, it might be quite some time before she gets her due on the event's main carrier.

Speaking of Zvonareva, she advanced rather quietly today over Anabel Medina-Garrigues, finally ending (though a round of two later than expected) the Spaniard's latest quest for a first-ever slam quarterfinal berth. Okay, here's where I'm obliged to once again note that AMG is STILL linked in history with Anna Smashnova as the only players to ever win double-digit WTA singles titles but never reach a slam Final 8. There, that's one Daily Backspin slam ritual checked off the list.

...and, finally, with Peng Shuai's defeat of Julia Goerges today, the Chinese woman will next face off with Pennetta. The winner there will meet the victor of the Monica Niculescu/Angelique Kerber all-unseeded tilt, assuring that this Open will have at least one first-time slam semifinalist, and one seeded no better than #13. The comparably-loaded bottom quarter will produce a Final 4er from the last woman standing after the Zvonareva-or-Lisicki vs. Kirilenko-or-Samantha Stosur (def. Petrova in a tight 7-6/6-7/7-5 match tonight) survivor is determined.

Hmmm, could Carl have been onto something with his pick of Lisicki to reach the final? Oh, I know I'd never hear the end of it.

xx vs. xx
xx vs. xx
xx vs. xx
xx vs. xx
Monica Niculescu/ROU vs. Angelique Kerber/GER
#13 Peng Shuai/CHN vs. #26 Flavia Pennetta/ITA
#25 Maria Kirilenko/RUS vs. #9 Samantha Stosur/AUS
#22 Sabine Lisicki/GER vs. #2 Vera Zvonareva/RUS

[Monthly/Quarterly winners]
JANUARY: Kim Clijsters, BEL
FEBRUARY: Flavia Pennetta, ITA
MARCH: Jelena Dokic, AUS
1Q...Kim Clijsters, BEL
APRIL: Iveta Benesova & Barbora Zahlavova-Strycova, CZE/CZE
2Q CLAY...Li Na, CHN
JUNE: Daniela Hantuchova, SVK
2Q GRASS...Kveta Peschke & Katarina Srebotnik, CZE/SLO
JULY: Anabel Medina-Garrigues, ESP
AUGUST: Liezel Huber & Lisa Raymond, USA/USA
[2011 Weekly Award Wins]
5...Peschke & Srebotnik
5...Francesca Schiavone
5...Roberta Vinci
4...Li Na
4...Anabel Medina-Garrigues

[Monthly/Quarterly winners]
JANUARY: Agnieszka Radwanska, POL
FEBRUARY: Svetlana Kuznetsova, RUS
MARCH: Maria Sharapova, RUS
1Q...Maria Sharapova, RUS
APRIL: Sabine Lisicki, GER
MAY: Maria Sharapova, RUS
2Q CLAY...Maria Sharapova, RUS
JUNE: Sabine Lisicki, GER
2Q GRASS...Maria Sharapova, RUS
JULY: Serena Williams, USA
AUGUST: Jelena Jankovic, SRB
[2011 Weekly Award Wins]
3...Sabine Lisicki
3...Casey Dellacqua
3...Dinara Safina
2...Aravane Rezai
2...Maria Sharapova
2...Galina Voskoboeva

TOP EARLY ROUND (1r-2r): #28 Serena Williams/USA
TOP QUALIFYING MATCH: Q3: Alexandra Panova/RUS def. #6q Andrea Hlavackova/CZE 3-6/6-2/7-6(7)
TOP EARLY RD. MATCH (1r-2r): 2nd Rd. - Irina Falconi/USA d. #14 Dominika Cibulkova/SVK 2-6/6-3/7-5
FIRST WINNER: Monica Niculescu/ROU (def. Patricia Mayr-Achleitner/AUT)
FIRST SEED OUT: #5 Petra Kvitova (lost to Dulgheru/1st Rd.)
NATION OF POOR SOULS: Czech Republic (2-5 in 1st Rd., Cetkovska walkover in 2nd)
LAST QUALIFIER STANDING: Silvia Soler-Espinosa/ESP (in 3rd Rd.)
LAST WILD CARD STANDING: Sloane Stephens/USA (in 3rd Rd.)
IT: xx
CRASH & BURN: Wimbledon champ, #5 Petra Kvitova/CZE (1st Rd./lost to Dulgheru) & Roland Garros champ, #6 Li Na/CHN (1st Rd./lost to Halep)
ZOMBIE QUEEN: Nominees: Stephens/USA (Jani twice served for match in 1st Rd.), Petkovic/GER (down set and 3-0 vs. Zheng in 2nd Rd.)
BROADWAY-BOUND: Nominee: V.Williams ("One Night Only")

All for Day 5. More tomorrow.


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