AO 11.0 - A Peaking Chinese and a Piquing Vika
Hold off on the coronation. Or, at least, just change the name engraved on the trophy.
One day after Serena Williams went off into the good Melbourne night for 2013, many were prepared to hand this year's Australian Open title to Maria Sharapova without a fight. Turns out, nothing could have been further from the truth. By the end of Day 11's women's semifinals, the two leading contenders who've lived the most under-the-radar existence over the past week and a half have turned out to be the final two woman standing.
While Serena's conqueror, Sloane Stephens, had to attempt to take down world #1 and defending AO champ Victoria Azarenka one day after the biggest moment of the 19-year old's career, Sharapova first went up against veteran Li Na, a former finalist in Melbourne ('11) in the day's opening singles match.
When Carlos Rodriguez, ex-coach of Justine Henin, joined up with Li last summer, it felt like an intriguing combination. When Li, who's surged in the immediate aftermath of a coaching change before, won her first event (in Cincinnati) with Rodriguez "officially" aboard, the potential excitement seemed legitimate. Perhaps more than any other player on tour, Li's offseason was looked at the key to her season. Would the enthusiasm for her new coaching setup continue to grow, stoking her confidence and leading to the belatedly successful follow-up to her career season of 2011, or would the experience ultimately fail? Well, after she won a title in Week 1, then reached the a semifinal in Week 2, the new worry was that Li might peak TOO soon to have a true impact on the Australian Open, which has traditionally been the slam at which she's performed the best.
Well, toss away all the worry. It was unfounded. For while Rodiguez knows something about preparing a player to peak at the end of the second week of a slam (Henin won seven, after all), Li also looks to have totally "bought in" to the idea of following his gameplan, from his "crazy" (Li's words) workout sessions to his confidence-building advice, to maybe her greatest success yet. Even after age 30.
Against Sharapova, who entered the semifinals having dropped fewer games (9) than any woman ever had through the first five rounds of a slam, Li was the best player on the court from the first game until the last. Having not faced true pressure from an opponent, save for a few games against Venus Williams, this season, when Sharapova was tasked with handling an aggressive and in-form Li, the Russian had no real answer other than to wait for the Li in-match "fade" that never came. Instead, the Chinese woman consistently trumped the Russian the match's biggest points. It didn't help that Sharapova's serve, continuing a trend over the last two matches (in which she had five double-faults each), wasn't in top form, by any stretch. In fact, she BEGAN the day by hitting a double-fault.
It was an omen of bad things to come. For, though Sharapova was always just a few points on the scoreboard from possibly turning things in her favor, she was never able to do it.
Sharapova had a second DF in the first game, in which she was broken. Holding for 2-0, Li grabbed hold of the momentum of the match and never really allowed Sharapova in, aggressively taking the Russian's shots early and punishing her with deep-landing forehands that forced Sharapova into awkward errors. With a gameplan that seemingly depended on Li's sometimes-faulty forehand to break down, when the opposite began to play out in the match, all Sharapova's top move was to stare angrily at coach Thomas Hogstedt, former coach of Li before Maria swiped him away before the '11 season, in the stands. Never one to employ a "Plan B" backup, Sharapova was a raft adrift at sea, constantly falling victim in crucial moments to a peaking Li.
Li used a big return game to break for a 4-1, two-break lead. She gave one break back for 4-2, but used her deep shots to force a Sharapova error and get it right back for 5-2 before serving out the set. The 2nd set mostly played out like the first, with Sharapova walking herself up to several big points, but losing pretty much all of them, largely due to the strength and consistency of Li's forehand. Just as the 1st set had ended with a 6-2 scoreline, so did the 2nd. Thing is, of the twelve games that Li won, Sharapova actually held game points in eight of them.
With Li having advanced to her second AO final in three years, all that was left was to see who she'd be playing, DC Azarenka, or Stephens, the social media queen of the WTA who's been the talk of the sports world over the 24-hours since her career-changing win over Williams.
For quite a while in this second semifinal, Stephens seemed a bit overwhelmed to be having to come back so quickly after the win over Williams to attempt to take down another huge presence on the tour. With Azarenka having racked up a slew of easy set victories (save one vs. Svetlana Kuznetsova) since her near loss to Jamie Hampton last week, the Belarusian has been streaking through the draw in the shadows of Serena and Sharapova. And, for the most part, THAT Vika showed up to play Stephens on Thursday.
Much as was the case in the earlier match, Stephens walked herself up to big points, but couldn't put them away against the relentless attack of Azarenka. In the 1st set, Stephens converted just one of ten game points on her own serve, dropping the set 6-1. In the 2nd, the American began to get her footing, but still fell behind an early break at 2-0. It was then that Azarenka seemed to stumble while running along the baseline, and began to sport an occasion limp. But it wasn't a repeat of the Serena Williams situation yesterday, as Azarenka seemed to have shaken off the injury long before she served for the match at 5-3.
But then things got a bit interesting.
After reaching match point, Azarenka's forehand suddenly had a hard time finding the court, and the her mind started to go, as well. After failing on MP #2, Vika's anger surfaced when she smacked a ball with her racket after losing the point. On MP #3, she sailed a forehand WAY out. Forehand errors also squandered MP's #4 and #5. With Stephens picking up on the increasingly frustrated Azarenka's tightness, the American began to go for her shots more. A Stephens forehand down the line got the break for 5-4.
Then things got interesting again.
It was then that Azarenka took a double-time injury timeout, with the medical crew saying it was for an injured rib and knee. While Vika was off court for ten minutes, Stephens sat still in her chair in the changeover area, choosing, as she had during Serena's medical attention, to not practice serves to stay warmed up. When Azarenka finally returned, Stephens, who'd been able to hold her serve just twice in the match, had to hold now or else see her AO run come to an end.
It didn't happen. Azarenka, looking less frazzled than she'd been fifteen minutes before, calmly hit a backhand return winner to get to 30/30, then a short put-away shot gave her MP #6. When Stephens' backhand went long, Azarenka had won 6-1/6-4 to advance to her second straight slam final, as well as a second straight Australian Open final.
And then she opened her mouth and opened herself up to scrutiny.
During her on-court interview, when asked about her medical timeout, Vika said nothing about any rib or knee injuries. Instead, she talked about how crazed she felt after what was "almost the choke of the year" when she'd lost those five match points on her own service game. Saying she "couldn't breathe" and was "having chest pains," like a "heart attack," which sounds pretty much like an anxiety attack, she'd taken the break to calm herself down.
Naturally, the ESPNers covering the match, rather than focus on the fact that Azarenka was the better player through nearly the entire contest, even while obviously playing with some sort of physical ailment that at least briefly somewhat limited her movement, chose to focus on the "lack of sportsmanship" (or, in this case, sportswomanship) of Azarenka's double-injury timeout right before Stephens served to stay in the match. Sure, she sort of opened herself up to it all by virtually admitting to taking the timeout because she was so upset. But, let's be honest, this discussion was mostly because it was an American on the other side of the equation.
It wasn't the only instance of such wobbly commentary during the match, either. When Azarenka was seemingly injured early in the 2nd, Shriver characterized the situation not by expressing concern over another top player being hurt, but by saying excitedly, "This could be a great break for Stephens." All I could think was, "Oh, so this is how it's going to be now, huh? Earlier in the the five-MP game, Shriver didn't note that Azarenka had another opportunity to convert a MP and reach the final, but that "Stephens needs to fight off another match point." You see, this sort of subtle thing is why I so often have tended to root against most American players at the slams over the years, as the rampant favoritism is a tad untidy.
But, I guess it goes with the territory. Be careful what you wish for when it comes to wanting to see another American contender, because it also gives the likes of ESPN the chance to easily fall back into its old patterns, after having shaped up a bit in recent seasons with the rise of so many high-level, non-U.S. born women on the WTA tour "forced" the Powers That Be to give them their due.
Still, Azarenka, on a 13-0 run in Melbourne, and Li get the "last laugh." Both have proven yet again that it doesn't really matter how well a player is playing in the first week of a slam. Not when how they're playing at the end of the second week can make the difference between winning a title or going home empty-handed.
So, we get an Azarenka-Li final. Not the one most were expecting, for sure. But, from here, assuming both continue their recent forward moment, it could be quite the "ripper" of a match.
=DAY 11 NOTES=
...well, I guess The Radwanska emerges from this AO stronger than It entered. And It didn't even need Aga to win anything. After all, if The Rad gains power though the disappointment of Sharapova, based on the look on Maria's face at the end of this day, It just got a huge boost of energy.
If The Rad reads Shakespeare, It might be saying, "Expectation is the root of all heartache." I might just say, "The bigger they are, and the higher they fly... the harder they fall."
No matter what happens in the final... well-played, Rad. Well-played, indeed.
...of note, Li, with a win over world #2 Sharapova under her belt, is now one more victory away from also knocking off the world #1 in the same event. The feat has been accomplished five times in the last four seasons -- twice last year by Serena, as well as one time each by Kim Clijsters, Elena Dementieva and Svetlana Kuznetsova since 2009.
Sharapova's loss takes her out of the running for the #1 ranking at the end of this AO, but Serena is still alive. If Azarenka defends her title, she'll remain in the top spot. But if she loses, for the second straight season, a woman (this time, Williams) ranked #3 with leapfrog the #2 spot in the rankings and assume the #1 position next Monday.
...while the Aussie women were long gone from this AO in singles, there are actually three still alive in doubles. The Super-Cinderellas team of Aussies Ashleigh Barty & Casey Dellacqua advanced to the Women's Doubles final the other night, and will face #1-seeded Errani/Vinci. On Day 11, Jarmila Gajdosova (w/ Matthew Edben) advanced to the Mixed Doubles semis.
...in junior play, one season after both Taylor Townsend (AO) and Eugenie Bouchard (Wimbledon) swept the Girls singles and doubles at a single slam, Croatian Ana Konjuh is the only girl alive in both draws with a chance to match the feat in Melbourne. She and Carol Zhao (CAN), the #1 seeds, are in the doubles final against #6 Oleksandra Korashvili/Barbora Krejcikova (UKR/CZE). Meanwhile, #3-seeded Konjah advanced to the singles semis today with a victory over, yet again, Krejcikova. Konjuh will meet unseeded Hordette Elizaveta Kulichkova in one semi, with #2 Katerina Siniakova (CZE) facing #10 Anett Kontaveit (EST) in the other.
Wouldn't you know it, after having spotty results with my junior slam picks over the years, the one time I didn't post them, I actually got three of the final four players right, with both my finalists (Konjuh & Siniakova, with the Czech winning) still alive, as well.
Of course, by saying that, I suppose that means that Kulichkova and Kontaveit will now reach the Girls final.
...in wheelchair action, #1 seed Aniek van Koot (NED), top-ranked in the absence of her fabulous countrywoman Esther Vergeer, nearly was upset today by yet another Dutch player, Marjolein Buis, winning 1-6/7-6(6)/6-3 to advance to the final against #2-seeded Sabine Ellerbrock (GER).
...DAY 11 "LIKES":
-- that ESPN now gets a Vika-Li final after spending the last two weeks acting as if the only players in the women's draw were Serena and Sharapova, and then belatedly, Stephens.
-- kudos to Lindsay Davenport on Tennis Channel's -- on the replay of yesterday's Stephens/Williams match -- for being overhead calling Azarenka the "favorite" to win this AO after Serena lost. Imagine that, the world #1 and defending champion. Listening to ESPN2 yesterday after the match, you'd have thought Sharapova's name had already been engraved on the champion's trophy. Of course, after Vika was shortchanged in the network's marketing of the event (thanks to Diane the other day for noting how she's barely present in the catchy ads being run during the last two weeks), and never given a night session slot on Laver, either, I guess it's no great surprise.
-- Li, when asked about her age by Rennae Stubbs during her on-court interview, telling her, in typically charming Li style, "The truth is, I'm younger than you."
...DAY 11 "A DAY LATE AND A DOLLAR SHORT":
-- after failing to show Stephens' on-court interview conducted for Australian TV after her win over Serena, ESPN2 managed to actually show the live post-match talks on the court of both Li and Azarenka. Too late, ESPN. As wonderfully charming as Li is and as probably-too-honest-for-her-own-good as Vika was in their respective interviews today, missing out on the immediate reaction of an American player who'd upset Serena in a slam is unforgivable, especially for a network which has bent over backwards to ignore foreign-born players not named Maria, and played favorites with a slew of non-contending U.S. players (another James Blake match -- hippee!) for years in its coverage. Too late.
...DAY 11 "REALLY? WHERE HAVE I BEEN?":
-- so Redfoo, ever-present in Vika's players box, is actually named Stefan Kendal Gordy? And he's the son of Motown Records founder Berry Gordy, Jr.? Really? How did I not know THAT until Pam Shriver said it on ESPN2 tonight? Geez.
...and, finally, Carla contacted me from Brazil and wants me to remind everyone about her lovely pre-tournament selection of Li Na to win this title. After Carl correctly picked Vika to win last year, she's really looking to get her prediction year off to a good start by squishing her new husband's pick (which was Sharapova over Azarenka for this AO).
*WOMEN'S SINGLES FINAL*
#1 Victoria Azarenka/BLR vs. #6 Li Na/CHN
*MEN'S SINGLES SF*
#1 Novak Djokovic/SRB def. #4 David Ferrer/ESP
#3 Andy Murray/GBR vs. #2 Roger Federer/SUI
*WOMEN'S DOUBLES FINAL*
#1 Errani/Vinci (ITA/ITA) vs. Barty/Dellacqua (AUS/AUS)
*MEN'S DOUBLES FINAL*
#1 Bryan/Bryan (USA/USA) vs. Haase/Sijsling (NED/NED)
*MIXED DOUBLES SF*
Peschke/Matkowski (CZE/POL) vs. Hradecka/Cermak (CZE/CZE)
Shvedova/Istomin (KAZ/UZB) vs. Gajdosova/Ebden (AUS/AUS)
*GIRLS SINGLES SF*
Elizaveta Kulichkova/RUS vs. #3 Ana Konjuh/CRO
#10 Anett Kontaveit/EST vs. #2 Katerina Siniakova/CZE
*BOYS SINGLES SF*
#8 Filippo Baldi/ITA vs. #3 Nick Kyrgios/AUS
#11 Borna Coric/CRO vs. Thanasi Kokkinakis/AUS
*GIRLS DOUBLES FINAL*
#1 Konjuh/Zhao (CRO/CAN) vs. #6 Korashvili/Krejcikova (UKR/CZE)
*BOYS DOUBLES FINAL*
Marterer/Mielder (GER/AUT) vs. Andrijic/Mousley (AUS/AUS)
*WOMEN's WC FINAL*
#1 Aniek van Koot/NED vs. #2 Sabine Ellerbrock/GER
*MEN's WC FINAL*
#1 Stephane Houdet/FRA vs. #2 Shingo Kunieda/JPN
*WOMEN's WC DOUBLES SEIMFINALS*
#1 Griffioen/van Koot (NED/NED) vs. Montjane/Di Toro (RSA/AUS)
Ellerbrock/Walraven (GER/NED) vs. #2 Shuker/Buis (GBR/NED)
*MEN's WC DOUBLES FINAL*
Olsson/Kellerman (SWE/AUS) vs. #2 Jeremiasz/Kunieda (FRA/JPN)
*CAREER SLAM FINALS*
2012 Australian Open - def. Maria Sharapova
2012 U.S. Open - lost to Serena Williams
2013 Australian Open - vs. Li Na
2011 Australian Open - lost to Kim Clijsters
2011 Roland Garros - def. Francesca Schiavone
2013 Australian Open - vs. Victoria Azarenka
*WTA SLAM FINALS*
[Career - Active Leaders]
18...Serena Williams (15-4)
14...Venus Williams (7-7)
7...Maria Sharapova (4-3)
4...Svetlana Kuznetsova (2-2)
3...VICTORIA AZARENKA (1-1)
3...LI NA (1-1)
3...Ana Ivanovic (1-2)
[2010-13 - by nation]
5...United States (5-S.Williams)
1...Czech Republic (Kvitova)
[AO Finals - Career]
5...Serena Williams (5-0)
3...Maria Sharapova (1-2)
2...VICTORIA AZARENKA (1-0)
2...LI NA (0-1)
TOP QUALIFIER: #1q Lesia Tsurenko/UKR
TOP EARLY ROUND (1r-2r): #2 Maria Sharapova/RUS
TOP MIDDLE-ROUND (3r-QF): #2 Maria Sharapova/RUS
TOP LATE ROUND (SF-F): xx
TOP QUALIFYING MATCH: Q1: Cagla Buykakcay/TUR d. Tamarine Tanasugarn/THA 4-6/6-2/10-8
TOP EARLY RD. MATCH (1r-2r): 2nd Rd. - Laura Robson/GBR d. #8 Petra Kvitova/CZE 2-6/6-3/11-9
TOP MIDDLE-RD. MATCH (3r-QF): QF - #29 Sloane Stephens/USA d. #3 Serena Williams/USA 3-6/7-5/6-4
TOP LATE RD. MATCH (SF-F/Jr.): xx
TOP LAVER NIGHT MATCH: 2nd Rd. - Laura Robson/GBR d. #8 Petra Kvitova/CZE 2-6/6-3/11-9
FIRST VICTORY: #2 Maria Sharapova/RUS (def. O.Puchkova/RUS)
FIRST SEED OUT: #32 Mona Barthel/GER (lost to K.Pervak/KAZ in 1st Rd.)
UPSET QUEENS: Russia
REVELATION LADIES: United States
NATION OF POOR SOULS: Australia (1-6 in 1st Rd.; 1-7 overall)
LAST QUALIFIERS STANDING: Lesia Tsurenko/UKR & Valeria Savinykh/RUS (3rd Rd.)
LAST WILD CARD STANDING: Madison Keys/USA (3rd Rd.)
LAST AUSSIE STANDING: #9 Samantha Stosur (2nd Rd.)
Ms. OPPORTUNITY: #29 Sloane Stephens/USA
IT (Fortysomething): Kimiko Date-Krumm/JPN (at 42, oldest AO MD match winner)
COMEBACK PLAYER: Svetlana Kuznetsova/RUS
CRASH & BURN: #9 Samantha Stosur/AUS (lost to J.Zheng in 2nd Round; led 5-2 in 3rd and served for match at 5-2 and 5-4)
ZOMBIE QUEEN: #10 Caroline Wozniacki/DEN (down 3-0 in the 3rd set vs. Lisicki in 1st Rd.; had lost back-to-back 1st Rd. slam matches)
LADY OF THE EVENING: Laura Robson/GBR (def. Kvitova in 2nd Rd.; third win over former slam winner at last two slams)
DOUBLES STAR: Nominees: Errani/Vinci, Barty/Dellacqua, J.Gajdosova
JUNIOR BREAKOUT: Nominee: A.Konjuh
All for Day 11. More tomorrow.