Monday, May 28, 2012

RG.2- 36 the Really Hard Way

Go ahead, Aga. Scream. Scream all you like. No one will care.

For a little while on Day 2, it looked as if all of Agnieszka Radwanska's hopes and dreams were going to come true. Victoria Azarenka was going to lose. It just seemed like a certainty. Turns out, though, it wasn't the case. But if the Belarusian's win #26 of 2012 was a crazy experience back in Miami, then #36 in Paris was downright frightening. After a 1st Round scare that would have set a new precedent for failure for a top-seeded woman in Paris, the world #1 can now go about getting down to business at Roland Garros. Truthfully, though, Vika's very lucky that she'll get that chance. For Alberta Brianti seemed to have her Parisian fate dead to rights.

But she didn't. And maybe Azarenka has Dominika Cibulkova, and that early evening thriller in Miami back in March, to thank for that fact.

Brianti played well in this match, but it was pretty clear that Azarenka was "off" from the start. She just wasn't herself. Not her recent self, at least. Vika was an error machine, and she didn't like it, either. Mid-way through the 1st set, she was already bouncing her racket in frustration (it ricocheted off the court as high as her head) and eliciting boos from the crowd. It was like we'd traveled back in time. Long before Azarenka won the Austrailian Open, reached #1 or put together her 26-match winning streak at the start of this season. Maybe it was the dress? After making her slam name in trademark shorts, Nike gave her a dress to wear for Roland Garros. Even Chris Evert noted on ESPN2 how different an image Azarenka presented as she walked out onto Chatrier Court than she had on Laver. Gone were the hoodie, ear buds and confident strut. In was a more composed, "professional-looking" champion.

Thing is, Azarenka isn't Roger Federer. He's a naturally elegant athlete, from his clothes to his style of play. Vika has a bit of a brawler in her. MMA by way of a tennis court. It works for her, just like Federer's more classic ways fit him. She's reached new career heights coming onto the court looking like she might go for a heavy workout at the gym later, and not even have to change her clothes. Even the whole working with Amelie Mauresmo thing makes one (slightly) raise an eyebrow, no matter how good the pairing sounds. At least at Roland Garros, Mauresmo never had good "mojo" working for her. And it didn't take long for Vika to look as if she taken up the Frenchwoman's disappointment-in-Paris mantle. But the Belarusian didn't have the whole she's-beloved-by-the-French-fans thing going for HER, and things looked like they might turn ugly.

And I'm talking "the earliest exit by a #1 seed at Roland Garros" -- ever -- ugly, too.

Brianti quickly took a 4-2 lead in the 1st. Azarenka, even while hitting twice as many errors as winners, still pushed things to a tie-break. She fell behind 4-1, but saved two set points. It seemed it was one of those moments where, if Azarenka could grab the set while playing her "C" game, she'd end the match pretty quickly in the 2nd. It was just a matter of whether or not she could get herself turned around in time to book that workout in the gym later in the afternoon. But on the Italian's third set point, Azarenka sailed a shot long (she had 28 errors to 13 winners in the set), and Brianti nearly did what it was assumed that Azarenka would have done had SHE claimed the 1st.

Brianti jumped to a 4-0 lead in the 2nd set. Azarenka was overreacting to her slide and going for too much on her shots, which was simply creating more errors. I was readying an "It's Gotta Be the Dress!" headline as Brianti wrestled with two break point opportunities to take a 7-6/5-0 lead, and the sound that could be heard in the background of the Paris skyline was Radwanska screaming in delight at the prospect of not even having the possibility of going 0-7 against Vika this season in the semifinals late next week.

(Cue the Miami flashback here.)

Against Cibulkova, Azarenka trailed 6-1/4-0 before finally finding a way to work herself past an amazing performance by the Slovak. As good as Brianti was playing, it was nothing compared to what Cibukova was doing back in March. Still, Vika won that match. It's surely a better memory to call upon than her own loss from a 6-4/4-0 advantage against Serena in Melbourne back in 2010. Then again, maybe the two sort of worked together, hand-in-hand.

Azarenka knew which experience she wanted to repeat.

So, Azarenka proceeded to pull the match back from the brink. She jumped into a phone booth (if they still had those, that is) and came out wearing a cape and kick-butt, thigh-high boots... sort of like Serena did against her in Melbourne. After having a poor 2nd serve all day, something that has been a trend with her this clay season, Vika faced down a 2nd serve on break point... and hit an ace. On Brianti's second break point chance, Azarenka pulled off a potentially-risky drop shot. She held serve. And, just like that, it was pretty much over.

Azarenka got an easy break for 4-2 one game later. It was soon 4-4. She ended up winning the final six games of the set to tie the match. Brianti got an early break to take a 1-0 lead in the 3rd, but it was just a blip. Vika won six of the next seven games to win 6-7/6-4/6-2 despite maintaining a nearly two-to-one negative ratio (60-to-32) when it came to errors and winners for the match.

So, the first "Zombie Queen" nominee for this Roland Garros has been born.

I guess that Miami match against Cibulkova WAS a good thing. She succeeded in her comeback attempt there and, even in some slight way, maybe it made this one easier to pull off. Or maybe it's bad that it HAS turned out to be necessary to look back on it at all? Azarenka lost to Marion Bartoli one match later in Florida, and she hasn't quite been the same Vika since. She's still not great on the clay, might be nursing a shoulder injury, and has already proven to be (nearly) beatable just one round into this slam. But at least it's all good today.

But not for everyone.

That scream (hey, she can't do THAT -- it might interfere with someone playing tennis!) of delight of Radwanska's changed its pitch as the Azarenka match went on. As it turned out, for her, maybe NOTHING has changed.

Go ahead, Aga. Scream. Scream all you like. No one will care.

=DAY 2 NOTES=, while Azarenka was saving her Parisian soul on Chatrier, who do you think was having an easy time of things over on Lenglen? Naturally, it was Dominika Cibulkova. The Slovak put on a clinic against young Pastry Kristina Mladenovic, winning 6-2/6-1 and staying on course -- mostly thanks to Vika -- for a Round of 16 rematch of the "26 the Hard Way" match.

...elsewhere, something must be up with Mona Barthel. The German has been a revelation in '12, winning a title and twice facing off with Azarenka in three-hour battles this season. But she's gone out rather meekly in recent outings, especially last week against Alexandra Panova and today against teenager Lauren Davis. The American won 6-1/6-1, using her great movement advantage to full effect on the terre battue, making #30 Barthel the "First Seed Out" at this Roland Garros.

Something's surely up with Davis, too. But in a good way.

Coming out of the Evert Academy, she burst onto the scene at the end of '10, winning a slew of consecutive matches in junior and ITF competition and taking the U.S. Wild Card Playoff tournament to gain entry into the '11 Australian Open. She turned pro early last season. Coming off back-to-back first-ever WTA qualifying runs in Strasbourg and Paris, the 18-year old now has her first career slam match win.

Something's surely up with the Bannerettes, too. So far, ALL of them.

With about 1/4 of the 1st Round to be completed, the American women have yet to lose. And Serena (oh, and Jamie Hampton, too) hasn't even played yet. Ten -- TEN! -- of ten U.S. women have advanced into the 2nd Round, twice as many as any other nation. Today alone, six won, including the ever-improving Sloane Stephens (def. Ekaterina Makarova) and the improving-again Bethanie Mattek-Sands (def. Sabine Lisicki, who'll have to content herself with "improving" upon her 2011 RG performance by simply not having to be carried out on a stretcher, a sobbing mess of blown opportunities and tears).

Christina McHale, who left Paris a year ago after admitting to experiencing "panic" after blowing a 5-0 3rd set lead to Sara Errani and losing to the Italian, had a rather "interesting" time again against Q-Player of the Week Kiki Bertens, who entered their match on an eleven-match winning streak. The Dutch woman, who won a title in Fes a little while back, went up a set and a break against McHale. But the American battled back, and took break leads in the 3rd. Even while pulling off a running forehand down-the-line winner that's one of the shots of the tournaments so far, McHale had a hard time solidifying her advantage, though. Still, she served for the match at 5-4. Bertens got to break point, but McHale fought it off to win 2-6/6-4/6-4.

Even if the U.S. manages to get twelve women into the 2nd Round -- and it's a decent bet -- the entire dozen can't last into the 3rd Round. There could be three all-American matches next round, as McHale will face Davis, Mattek-Sands goes up against Stephens and Serena and Hampton are lined up to face each other next. Needless to say, the Bannerettes are going to get SOME award for this Early-Round performance. Either (or both?) the "Revelation Ladies" or "Upset Queens" will be wearing American red, white and blue sashes in a few days.

Other nations in the running: Kazakhstan, with a pair of players still alive (including Sesil Karatantcheva, who got into the draw today as a Lucky Loser for injured Vera Zvonareva, and promptly blitzed Timea Babos), and France, who saw Marion Bartoli win today, of course, but have also seen the likes of Mathilde Johansson, Irena Pavlovic, Stephanie Foretz-Gacon and Claire Feuerstein notch victories, too.

On the opposite side of the ledger, the "Nation of Poor Souls" would seem to be down to two competitors: Great Britain, which has produced the "First Player Out" (all DIFFERENT players, too) at three of the last four slams. Anne Keothavong and Heather Watson remain to play tomorrow to try to avoid another 1st Round goose egge for the Brits (0-2). The other nation in contention is Romania. The likes of Irina-Camilia Begu and Alexandra Cadantu are still to play, but the Swarmettes are a combined 0-4 in Paris through two days. other matches:

Jelena Jankovic finally got her first post-Fed Cup win, but she had to come back from a set down against Patricia Mayr-Achleitner to do it. JJ's countrywoman Bojana Jovanovski managed to get to the grounds without an unfortunate detour, but maybe she SHOULD have just decided to take a path less traveled. A-Rad allowed her only one game for her troubles.

Anabel Medina-Garrigues knocked off Lucky Loser Laura Robson (in for Silvia Soler-Espinosa), moving her three wins from removing her name from that list that ONLY she is on along with Anna Smashnova. I won't mention that whole history here, though. Not yet. I'll wait until AMG loses before she gets those three wins... which she surely will do.

Qualifier winners on Day 2 included Davis, Yaroslava Shvedova and Chan Yung-Jan. Feuerstein was a wild card.

Back in the States, the NCAA Women's Championship finals are set. In singles, it's an all-Stanford battle between #3 seed Nicole Gibbs and #5 Mallory Burdette. In the doubles final, Gibbs & Burdette will go up against Georgia's Chelsey Gullickson and Nadja Gilchrist for the title.

...Comeback Kid Brian Baker's run continued with a win over Xavier Malisse.

...the whole Roger Federer Chasing Down Jimmy Connors' Record thing took a weird turn today. As I noted before the tournament, Federer had 232 career slam match wins. Tied with Connors' career number, he needed just one to pass Jimbo for the most all time in men's tennis. When ESPN2 came on the air at 5am, that was the story being told there, too. Then, when Federer actually got win #233 a few hours later, ESPN2 said, without explanation, that he was suddenly tied with Connors at #233 all over again and still needs a victory to pass him.

What gives? I know Connors was an indefatigable force on the court, but how did he earn a victory twenty years after his career ended? Well, pretty easily, as it turns out. It's a case of the right hand not knowing what the left hand is doing.

You see, I got my numbers from an "official" source, but just the wrong "official" source. It all comes down to conflicting results showing how many matches Connors won in the Australian Open in 1975. He only played the event twice, winning in 1974 and reaching the final in '75. In the latter event, the ATP Tour site (the one I use or, rather, that and the printed ATP/WTA OFFICIAL Guide) says he went 4-1, while the Australian Open site says it was 5-1. They only had six rounds in the event at the time, so (unless a walkover is factored in) it's the difference between Connors being 10-1 (232 slam wins) in his AO career or 11-1 (233). Apparently, somehow all this info was thrown around the offices of ESPN between 5am and later in the day and, suddenly, it was "1984" and the past had been altered to fit the present. "Oceania is at war with Eurasia and has always been at war with Eurasia." But not Eastasia. Ever. And ESPN2 never said Connors had 232 wins, either. He always had 233.

Oh, well. No matter things got there, the numbers ARE true.

Since all the details are there for the AO site (i.e. the score of an actual fifth match win, which isn't listed in Connors' activity bio on the ATP site), it looks like the AO site's numbers are correct and the ATP's own stats for it's own tour are wrong. So, the true congrats for Federer will have to wait one match longer than I'd anticipated. For the ATP OFFICIAL site and OFFICIAL guide? Well, I guess the congrats will never come for them.

...oh, and there was ANOTHER stat issue that popped up on ESPN2 today, too. I mentioned in the RG Preview about Azarenka being a slam #1 seed for the first time, and how few first-timers have won the title in their maiden slam at the top of the draw since the end of the Navratilova/Evert era. I also noted that Evert herself hadn't won in HER first slam as the #1 seed. But there was Darren Cahill today mentioning to Evert that she'd won the title in her first slam as a #1 seed. Hmmm, I wondered. Didn't I just go through all that research the other day to try to determine that issue, since I didn't know off the top of my head and couldn't make a mistake by THINKING something was correct. So, off I went to investigate.

The two slams in questions come in 1974, when Evert was the #1 seed in Australia and France. I determined last week that Evert had her first #1 seed at the AO, and her second at RG. She won RG, but was runner-up in the Australian. I wondered if I had gotten the whole December/January thing with Oz confused, as the tournament has changed its start date a couple times over the years. But further reseach today showed that the AO in question was apparently held from December '73 to January '74, while the RG was in May/June '74. So I think I WAS correct on that one. Maybe Cahill was thinking that Evert won in her first slam as #1 in Paris.

Who knows. Maybe by tomorrow Evert will have "magically" won two or three more slams and finally broken her twenty-plus year (seeming) tie with Martina Navratilova for career slam titles. After today, one never knows.

Of course, none of this is important. But it just grates on my nerves. I surely won't jump on a certain Tennis Channel host today for calling Azarenka a "Ukrainian," or Pam Shriver for saying that Barthel hadn't played in a month (MJF semi-immediately corrected her, anyway, saying that Barthel had actually played two tournaments during that time), so I don't know why I get ticked off about having one little stat I mentioned only in passing (possibly) wrong... but I just can't help myself.

Anyway, now onto something that DIDN'T anger me today:


Lauren Davis' composure and well-thought-out answers during her on-set interview with Chris McKendry, Pam Shriver and Chris Evert. She showed a seriousness not seen from the likes of a young player all that often. Maybe she was just nervous, though. If so, she hid it very well. When the talk turned to her soccer past, though, she finally sound a little more like a teenager ("I'd loooove that," she uttered, when the group suggested maybe she could play soccer with Rafa sometime). Davis loves to play on the clay, and loves to simply compete in the sport. Her legs are a huge asset and, despite her diminutiveness, she has some surprising power. Hmmm... at least a few of those things would make a certain Belgian smile. And, thus, it makes a certain Backspinner smile, as well.

...and, finally, Chris, Chris, Chris.

There McKendry was today, making the first nails-on-the-chalkboard reference at this slam to a men's "Big 4," though she DID say that around Paris it's just the "Big 3." No, Chris, EVERYWHERE it's just the Big 3. Andy Murray has no business being involved in that grouping. I imagine that by the end of the year, surely if things continue to go how they've gone since January with the Scot, he'll be looking for yet another new coach, too. Ivan Lendl won't stand for the likes of Murray for much longer unless things change fast.

Anyway. I'll give McKendry a pass on that one. After all, she's heard others utter that horrid phrase before, so... well... she JUST DIDN'T KNOW WHAT SHE WAS DOING. That's my story (for now), and I'm sticking to it.

Oh... Chris, Chris, Chris. You're making it difficult to use your name as a way to sneakily bash Hannah Storm. Psst... don't blow this. I sort of like this deal.

2005 #25 Dinara Safina/RUS (lost to Razzano/FRA)
2006 #18 Elena Likhovtseva/RUS (lost to Sprem/CRO)
2007 #31 Severine Bremond/FRA (lost to Krajicek/NED)
2008 #15 Nicole Vaidisova/CZE (lost to Benesova/CZE)
2009 #19 Kaia Kanepi/EST (lost to Shvedova/KAZ)
2010 #10 Victoria Azarenka/BLR (lost to Dulko/ARG)
2011 #19 Shahar Peer/ISR (lost to Martinez-Sanchez/ESP)
2012 #30 Mona Barthel/GER (lost to Davis/USA)

306...Martina Navratilova
299...Chris Evert
278...Steffi Graf
233...Roger Federer (post-1st Rd)
233...Jimmy Connors
224...Andre Agassi
222...Ivan Lendl
211...Serena Williams (pre-1st Rd)
211...Venus Williams (post-1st Rd)

1962 Wimbledon 1st Rd. - Margaret Court (lost to Billie Jean Moffitt)
1979 Australian Open 1st Rd. - Virginia Ruzici (lost to Mary Sawyer)
1994 Wimbledon 1st Rd. - Steffi Graf (lost to Lori McNeil)
1999 Wimbledon 1st Rd. - Martina Hingis (lost to Jelena Dokic)
2001 Wimbledon 1st Rd. - Martina Hingis (lost to Virginia Ruano Pascual)
Earliest at RG: 2nd Rd. - Justine Henin '04 (lost to Tathiana Garbin)
Earliest at US: 2nd Rd. - Billie Jean King '66 (lost to Kerry Melville), Ana Ivanovic '08 (lost to Julie Coin)

TOP EARLY-ROUND (1r-2r): xx
TOP QUALIFYING MATCH: Q1: #1q Kiki Bertens/NED d. Annika Beck/GER 6-1/4-6/9-7
TOP EARLY-RD. MATCH (1r-2r): xx
FIRST WINNER: #6 Samantha Stosur/AUS (def. Baltacha/GBR)
FIRST SEED OUT: #30 Mona Barthel/GER (lost 1st Rd. to Lauren Davis/USA)
IT: xx
ZOMBIE QUEEN: Nominee: #1 Azarenka (down 7-6/4-0, BPs for 5-0 to Brianti in 1st Rd.)

All for Day 2. More tomorrow.


Blogger Zidane said...

"Even if the U.S. manages to get twelve women into the 2nd Round -- and it's a decent bet [...]"

Note to myself: considering Todd's ability to jinx players, you can bet with him any time!

To follow in the footsteps of your narrative, some player named Aga must wonder why these things only happened to the Marias of the world.

Tue May 29, 03:58:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Fanalistas said...

Hi Todd

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Tue May 29, 04:40:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Todd.Spiker said...


Well, I did say that, when it comes to Serena and Roland Garros, it's always SOMETHING. ;)

I guess today counts as SOMETHING, right? :D

Tue May 29, 06:58:00 PM EDT  

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