AO 8.0 - It's a Slam, So I Have to Talk About Caro at Least Once... so, here it goes
On Monday, the second half of the women's Round of 16 was completed. In the most intriguing match-up, two women tried to reclaim what had once been their own. In the end, though, only one would find what she'd been looking for in Melbourne.
Caroline Wozniacki used to be the #1-ranked player in the world, but has never won a slam. Svetlana Kuznetsova has won two slams, but never been the #1-ranked player in the world. So, of course, the Dane and the Russian were forced to meet to attempt to eliminate one another and emerge as THE comeback player of this Australian Open.
The Rad... so, so, clever.
A week after getting a win over Wozniacki in Sydney, ending the Dane's four-match hegemony over her, Kuznetsova, back after missing the last half of '12 with a knee injury, carried over her momentum by getting an early break of serve. She threatened Caro's serve over and over again in the 1st set, in fact. After failing on a shot to go up 4-1, the Russian eventually got her due with a break two games later for a 5-2 lead. Kuznetsova served out the set, and seemed serious and focused. It looked like she might have a quick day.
Umm, nope. This IS Sveta, after all. Even before missing time with the knee, Kuznetsova had a tendency to follow-up great sets with bad ones, and vice versa. Here, it happened again. Wozniacki quickly went up 3-0 in the 2nd, Sveta double-faulted to break herself for 5-1, and then the Dane matched Kuznetsova's 6-2 set with one of her own.
The 3rd set, though, was where the push and pull of both players came to the forefront. Kuznetsova broke for a 2-1 lead with a forehand winner, then Wozniacki immediately had chances of her own one game later. After failing on one, she slammed down her racket and, for one of the first times in a while, it was apparent that Wozniacki actually cared about winning a big match. After spending much of 2012 fighting against critics, changing coaches, possibly diverting her attention to too many off-court endeavors, and, all the while, also struggling to win matches as her ranking plummeted, the Wozniacki that lost matches last year and then seemed to shrug it off with an "it's not the end of the world" nonchalance looked to be a thing of the past. For the moment in the match, too, her flash of anger seemed to help. She ended up breaking Kuznetsova to level things at 2-2.
Of course, what happened the rest of the match will test the Dane's mettle over the coming weeks and months. After Kuznetsova took a break to have the blisters on her feet -- always a problem for her -- tended to, Wozniacki had, but failed to capitalize on, opportunities to turn the set to her favor. Up 3-2, she went up 40/15 on the Russian's serve. Albeit bordering on petulant, not to mention wrong, even Wozniacki's overreaction to Kuznetsova being given a point on a serve that the Dane had swung at (and hit into the net) simultaneously as it was called out, then overturned on replay, was a sign that she truly WANTED to win this match and was willing to fight to do it. After questioning it at times last season, I do believe now that Caro TRULY cares about winning again.
It's a start.
Unfortunately, for her, she wasn't able to on Monday. Instead, it was Kuznetsova who won out in many of the extended rallies that developed in the 3rd set. Rather than Wozniacki's defense eventually leading to an error, the Russian was able to put games away. After fighting off those previously mentioned break points, she held for 3-3. At 5-5, Kuznetsova went up 40/love on the Dane's serve and, on her third break point, whacked a big forehand return that Wozniacki couldn't get back, achieving the break of serve and getting the chance to serve out the match herself at 6-5.
Oh, there was always the chance that Kuznetsova would choose now to drive her game into a ditch, but she didn't this time. Instead, with little drama, she routinely served out the match, finishing things off with a half volley winner to win 6-2/2-6/7-5.
Of course, as Kuznetsova moves forward, with no one -- probably even Sveta herself -- quite sure which version we'll see next time out, it's always fun to focus on the Dane at least once during a slam. So, here's that moment for this Australian Open, I guess.
While Wozniacki HAS gotten much fitter, and her old consistency has returned, with a slightly better serve and an occasional offensive flourish, she still hasn't developed the mindset needed to be the player she never could be when she was #1 (her previous matches in Melbourne, especially against an error-prone Sabine Lisicki in the 1st Round, showed that she's still too naturally inclined to play just-get-it-back defense, and allow her opponent to dictate points, for good or bad, if they can). Her return to having her father become her coach again, after the likes of Thomas Johansson perhaps spoke a bit TOO truthfully last year about how much work and time was needed to make the Dane a true slam contender, effectively is a "step back" to a past that, while it led to her being #1, also came up short of the sort of goals that a #1 player should realistically have. Now, it also means Wozniacki is on course to possibly climb back up the rankings over the next few months -- with the Top 5 maybe in her sights at some point in 2013 -- if the return of her consistency, as it should, means she won't go title-less until autumn, as she did a year ago. That's a good thing, as it means Wozniacki, although her recent headline-grabbing offseason might make it seem out of character, will make more news for her generally good results on the court than for all the other things she might do or say off it.
So, while it'll be nice to have Caro back in 2013, it looks like she's only going to be a slightly better version of her old self, not the new-and-improved one she'd need to be in the current WTA to take the big steps that she never could when she was #1. And that's okay, as long as she doesn't act as if the world is against her when it's pointed out to her over the course of this season.
=DAY 8 NOTES=
...the other women's Round of 16 matches on Monday were about one player reminding everyone that she's STILL here, one proving that "her day" is coming soon and, oh, yeah, there was Serena, too.
Victoria Azarenka def. Elena Vesnina 6-1/6-1
...while the likes of Serena and Maria (and even Aga) have been garnering all the attention, the world #1 and defending champion has been flying below the radar all week in Melbourne. Well, at least she was until she nearly lost in her last match. It was pretty clear that Vika was intent on reminding everyone who and what she is on Day 8. Azarenka, back after her near-miss at the hands of Jamie Hampton, never really let Vesnina into this match. She quickly jumped up 4-0, and won 6-1/6-1 in 57 minutes. Although, she again had more double-faults than she should be comfortable with, as well as issues winning points on her second serve. If those things continue to nag her game, be it against Kuznetsova or Serena, she might not be getting a shot to play to defend her title this weekend. Well, I should say, the MIGHT only gets attached to the Kuznetsova QF match... she'd have NO chance against Williams if she doesn't tighten that stuff up.
Sloane Stephens def. Bojana Jovanovski 6-1/3-6/7-5
...in the last women's 4th Round match of the day session, Stephens played Jovanovski, the last surviving Serbian woman in the draw, in a match-up of the two youngest women to reach the Round of 16. Current Sloane, the #29 seed, was not only playing to reach her first career slam QF, but she was looking to assure herself of her first Top 20 ranking at the conclusion of this AO. One need not have access to a time machine to easily to see the 19-year old American coming on fast over the last year or so. The one missing ingredient to her hard-hitting and athletic game has been her battles against taking a step back in crucial moments in big matches, suddenly letting her opponent's fortune determine the match rather than try to take the victory herself. It's led to a number of come-from-ahead losses against higher-ranked opponents.
Today, Stephens entered as the favored player against unseeded BoJo. Early on, she looked like it. Grabbing a quick break, she cruised to a 6-1 win in the 1st set. But then the bad side of Current Sloane that has prevented her from moving closer to being Future Sloane cropped up again in the 2nd. She began to pull up, playing way too much punch-less defense, and allowed the Serb to dictate the action. Jovanovski took the 2nd set to level the match, and went up a break at 2-0 in the 3rd as Stephens persisted in playing a winners-free brand of tennis despite having the shots to TAKE the match.
As BoJo began to show a few nerves, Stephens took advantage, getting a break for 2-1, though she gave it back one game later to fall behind 3-1. But then the first images of Future Sloane flashed on the hard court surface of Hisense Arena. Stepping up at long last, Stephens reeled off eight straight points to break and hold at love. After not converting a break point in game #7, a few games later she found herself serving to stay in the match at 4-5. Stephens did so, too. Emphatically, sticking her only ace of the match on game point for 5-5.
It seemed to light a fire under her.
Suddenly going for her shots again, Stephens raced to a 40/love lead on Jovanovski's serve, then broke with her second forehand winner of the game. Serving for the quarterfinals, on match point, she used another big serve to secure the win and prove, on a somewhat smaller scale than she'd like to see in her future, that she CAN win a "big one."
Afterward, naturally, Stephens had all the answers in her post-match on-court interview. Well, really, it's inaccurate to say she's ever BEING interviewed, because it's pretty clear that she's come prepared with a full arsenal of one-liners ready to be pulled out of her brain at a moment's notice. On Day 8, it was talk of not wanting to "be old and broke," about how the tightness of the match "put on a show" for the fans, and that Serena recently told her that she didn't grunt enough on court. When told that Jovanovski was still louder (and I never notice such things... but, this time, I did -- BoJo IS rather loud) than she was, Stephens noted that at least she had SOME sound coming out now, so all was good.
As I've been saying for a while now, when Stephens finally gets "there," we won't be able to stop thinking about her. Because, you know, she's going to be EVERYWHERE.
After this match, and her start to the '13 season thus far, that day is getting closer and closer all the time.
Serena Williams def. Maria Kirilenko 6-2/6-0
Later, amazingly, Serena made her FIRST appearance on the nighttime Laver Arena schedule (although, how surprising is it when the world #1 and defending women's champ STILL hasn't played under the lights?), playing Maria Kirilenko.
And, well, since I suspect that Ms. Kirilenko, through no fault of her own, as she didn't play poorly at all, will prefer to move past this one as if never happened, I'll just mention that Serena played one of the most remarkable matches she's ever played. So much so, in fact, that she might have single-handedly lowered The Radwanska Threat Level from "Paranoia" to "Calm" all by herself in the span of a single hour because, there's no way anyone's getting anything off Williams at this event if she's going to play anywhere near this good this coming week. Not Vika. Not Maria. Not even The Rad... and I don't mean Aga -- I mean the actual, honest-to-badness Rad.
Just a few tidbits from this one: in the match's fourteen games, Serena had 22 winners, just 6 unforced errors and served at nearly a 90% clip.
Hmmmm, maybe Future Sloane can use that time machine to save Current Sloane the possible fate that awaits her in the quarterfinals?
...even without Kuznetsova's win making her an additional possibility, with Maria Sharapova and Ekaterina Makarova once again meeting up in an AO quarterfinal, we were already assured of one Hordette reaching the semifinals for the 31st time in the last 36 slams, going back to when Anastasia Myskina (who was in attendance during Makarova's Round of 16 win over Angelique Kerber) became the first Russian slam singles champ at Roland Garros in 2004. A Russian will now have reached the semis at eight of the last nine Australian Opens, as well.
...in doubles, Kimiko Date-Krumm's run at this AO was ended when she and Arantxa Parra-Santonja lost their 3rd Round match to Varvara Lepchenko & Zheng Saisai. Cara Black was sent packing, as well. One day after losing in the Mixed to a team that included former doubles partner Liezel Huber, Black & Anastasia Rodionova lost to Nuria Llagostera-Vives & Zheng Jie today.
...in ITF news, Canada's Sharon Fichman gets the Circuit Player of the Week for her title run in a $25K challenger in Port St. Lucie, Florida. The 22-year old from Toronto defeated Tadeja Majeric, preventing the Slovenian from winning her third straight ITF event. This is Fichman's eighth career ITF title, and the fourth she's won in Florida.
The "Junior Star" for Week 3 is Anna Danilina from Kazakhstan. The 17-year old, the #10-ranked girl, won the G1 Aussie Open junior competition tune-up at Traralgon, defeating Germany's Antonia Lottner in the final (and, of note, Sara Tomic in the QF). All three of those players were in action on Day 8 in 2nd Round Girls singles play in Melbourne. #7-seeded Danilina defeated American Jamie Loeb in three sets, while #4 Lottner took out Tomic in another match that went the distance.
In another junior match of note, France's Fiona Ferro upset #6-seed Carol Zhou (CAN).
...DAY 8 "LIKE":
-- all the ads being run on ESPN2 for the network's nightly Australian Open coverage. From the "Tennis Down Under" graphics, with "Down Under" shown upside down, to the "It's a long way to the top, if ya want to rock and roll" string of lyrics from the old AC/DC song, it's a catchy, big step up from past campaigns.
...DAY 8 "THE POWER OF POTENTIAL":
-- during Tennis Channel's Day 8 coverage, a poll result was show on the screen for a question asking which lefty would be the next to reach a grand slam final -- Angelique Kerber, Petra Kvitova or the mysterious "other." Martina Navratilova was expecting Kerber to be leading with around 60%, but the poll showed Kvitova with 89% of the vote to the German's measly 10%. I wonder what the result would have been had the poll been taken a little earlier... say, BEFORE Kerber was ridden out of the tournament by Makarova?
...and, finally, time for a trip down "Fashion Lane." After making such a deal about the casual comfort of Vika Azarenka's sleeveless top and shorts outfit during her title run in Melbourne this year, I wonder if the "Clothes Make the Man/Woman" argument works the opposite way, considering how often Vika has been pulling and yanking as that seemingly sometimes-uncomfortable dress the last few days?
Then again, after her match against Vesnina, Vika DID alleviate a few fears during her off-court interview on ESPN2 when Tom Rinaldi referred to the fact that she was wearing two different color shoelaces on her shoes. Of course, Azarenka said it was just her little way to express her "funky" personality.
Let Vika be Vika, and there's a better chance that things will work out well. If nothing else, we at least learned that last year in Melbourne.
*WOMEN'S SINGLES QF*
#1 Victoria Azarenka/BLR vs. Svetlana Kuznetsova/RUS
#3 Serena Williams/USA vs. #29 Sloane Stephens/USA
#6 Li Na/CHN vs. #4 Agnieszka Radwanska/POL
19 Ekaterina Makarova/RUS vs. #2 Maria Sharapova/RUS
*MEN'S SINGLES QF*
#1 Novak Djokovic/SRB vs. #5 Tomas Berdych/CZE
#4 David Ferrer/ESP vs. #10 Nicolas Almagro/ESP
Jeremy Chardy/FRA vs. #3 Andy Murray/GBR
#7 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga/FRA vs. #13 Milos Raonic/CAN or #2 Roger Federer/SUI
*WOMEN'S DOUBLES QF*
#1 Errani/Vinci (ITA/ITA) vs. #12 Williams/Williams (USA/USA)
#4 Makarova/Vesnina (RUS/RUS) def. Soler-Espinosa/Suarez-Navarro (ESP/ESP)
Pavlyuchenkova/Safarova (RUS/CZE) vs. Barty/Dellacqua (AUS/AUS)
#7 Llagostera-Vives/J.Zheng (ESP/CHN) vs. Lepenko/Sai.Zheng (USA/CHN)
*MEN'S DOUBLES QF*
#1 Bryan/Bryan (USA/USA) vs. Bracciali/Dlouhy (BRA/CZE)
Cabal/Farrah (COL/COL) vs. Bolelli/Fognini (ITA/ITA)
Bellucci/Paire (BRA/FRA) vs. #13 Granollers/M.Lopez (ESP/ESP)
#11 Marrero/Verdasco (ESP/ESP) vs. Haase/Sijsling (NED/NED)
*MIXED DOUBLES QF*
Peschke/Matkowski (CZE/POL) vs. Hsieh/Bopanna (TPE/IND)
#3 Mirza/B.Bryan (IND/USA) vs. Hradecka/Cermak (CZE/CZE)
xx vs. xx
xx vs. xx
*WOMEN'S FINAL 8*
[by career slam QF; career QF at AO]
35...Serena Williams (8)
19...Maria Sharapova (6)
13...Svetlana Kuznetsova (3)
9...Victoria Azarenka (3)
7...Li Na (3)
7...Agnieszka Radwanska (4)
2...Ekaterina Makarova (2)
1...Sloane Stephens (1)
[current long slam QF streaks]
[current long AO QF streaks]
[by preseason "Grand Slam Master List" rankings]
1 - Serena Williams
2 - Maria Sharapova
3 - Victoria Azarenka
5 - Li Na
6 - Agnieszka Radwanska
22 - Svetlana Kuznetsova
28 - Ekaterina Makarova
30 - Sloane Stephens
*WOMEN'S CAREER SLAM FINAL 16's - ACTIVE LEADERS*
*WOMEN'S SLAM QF - ACTIVE LEADERS, since 2010*
*AO "COMEBACK PLAYER" WINNERS*
2007 Serena Williams, USA
2008 Zi Yan & Zheng Jie, CHN
2009 Jelena Dokic, AUS
2010 Justine Henin, BEL
2011 Agnieszka Radwanska, POL
2012 Maria Sharapova, RUS
2013 Svetlana Kuznetsova, RUS
TOP QUALIFIER: #1q Lesia Tsurenko/UKR
TOP EARLY ROUND (1r-2r): #2 Maria Sharapova/RUS
TOP MIDDLE-ROUND (3r-QF): xx
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): xx
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: Nominees: N.Li, E.Makarova, A.Radwanska, S.Stephens
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: Nominees: L.Robson, M.Sharapova
DOUBLES STAR: xx
JUNIOR BREAKOUT: xx
All for Day 8. More tomorrow.