Monday, April 08, 2013

Wk.14- Caution! Don’t Poke The Serena

In the land of unintended consequences, Chaos is Queen. But Serena is the champion of Charleston.

A few years ago, Jelena Jankovic's defensive-minded, rally-heavy game worked well enough to get her to #1, but she was never able to generate enough power in her game (especially on serve) to get over the hump in slams against the sort of power players that have dominated the majors since the Williams Sisters arrived and changed the face, present and future of women's tennis. But while the speedy Serb's game had its limits, even when she was in top form, JJ was usually still competitive against those players, using her consistent groundstrokes to force errors and keep things close. When Jankovic tried to re-make her game by adding muscle, the balance of her style was overturned and she's been sliding down the rankings the past few years. She fell all the way out of the Top 20 by the end 2012, and many began to wonder just how much longer the tour's "most entertaining" player might be around to enjoy.

But something wonderfully surprising has happened of late, as Jankovic has slowly rediscovered herself. We saw signs of it last year, as she led the Serbian Fed Cup team to its first-ever final. She and her teammates came up short in the Czech Republic, but JJ has carried over the spirit she showed then into 2013. Finally having improved her serve after years of effort, her results have improved markedly, returning her to the Top 20. In February, she won a title in Bogota, her first since 2010. Coming off a semifinal result in Miami, she continued her run of good results by reaching the final in Charleston against Serena Williams. Actually, Williams and Jankovic have a pretty competitive history, including the very underrated U.S. Open final in which the two faced off in 2008 (a tight 6-4/7-5 win by Serena), and their Charleston match would prove to be no different.

Well, for a while... until JJ -- or was it Queen Chaos? -- decided it was time to tempt fate a little earlier that it might have naturally turned on its own accord, that is.

In the 1st set of the final, Jankovic's game was hitting on all cylinders. She was opportunistic, serving well, and winning most of the rallies, while Williams (0/5 on break points) wasn't rising to the occasion on big points. JJ won the set 6-3, and opened the 2nd on serve.

But then it happened.

Serena has had issues in the past with how quickly Jankovic sometimes serves, leading her to occasionally hold up her hand to stop a JJ serve because she wasn't yet ready to receive. In Rome in 2010, Serena spoke up about it during a match, then made a point after the match to tell Jankovic that it was nothing personal, letting her know, "I'm not Justine," referencing Justine Henin's "wave off" (then failure to admit it when Williams hit a fault) of a Serena service motion during a match at Roland Garros a decade ago. Here, in the first game of the set, Serena got into her returning crouch, then put up her hand as Jankovic began her service motion. Williams' stoppage was rather late, but chair umpire Kader Nouni allowed it, and sided with Serena when Jankovic objected.

JJ and Serena exchanged words at the time, as Jankovic said Williams looked like she was ready (she even imitated her crouching position). But Serena was having none of it. "Honestly, you got a problem? I'm not the one," she said. Losing her focus and dropping serve in a game she'd led 40/15, Jankovic carried on the conversation/argument with Nouni as the players changed sides of the court after the first game, asking him if there were "different rules" (the returner is supposed to play "at the server's pace," as the much-discussed -- recently, thanks to Vika Azarenka holding up her hand before Serena's serve in Doha -- WTA rules state) where Williams was concerned. Nouni didn't provide credence or objections to Jankovic's assertions, but the Serb didn't let the moment pass, either.

Her bad.

Whether the rules of tennis really are "different" or not when Serena is around (history tells us that it more likely depends on who's sitting in the chair or manning the lines, I think... just ask Serena when she arrives in New York for the Open in August), the rules of THIS MATCH were most definitely different from that point on. While challenging Williams in public was "brave," it was also risky. Jankovic emerged the worse for it, too. To borrow some words from Petra Kvitova, if you poke "The Serena," you get the claws. JJ had lost her focus, while Serena had found hers. Said Williams, "I think after that I just got really relaxed and I was like, 'Honestly, Serena, you've got to kind of chill out and not get crazy.'"

She didn't. Except on JJ's game.

After that, well, you know what happened. Serena blitzed Jankovic in the final two sets, dropping just two games and defending her Charleston crown with a 3-6/6-0/6-2 victory, coming back to win from a set down in a final for the second week in a row. Sure, Williams might have internally adjusted that "focus button" herself before the 2nd set was over, but JJ made is easy on her by doing it for her. The resutl: chaos ensued for Jankovic, while clarity reigned for Serena. How long the condition will last is the question that emerges from this match. For both players.

Jelena is probably still cursing her lack of caution. In a few months time, with the entire clay court season still to play out, one wonders if the rest of the tour might end up cursing her actions in Charleston, too. Sometimes when you poke The Serena, there are a great deal of "innocent," unintended victims that get injured down the line.

Can they already hear the footsteps in Paris?

S: Serena Williams/USA def. Jelena Jankovic/SRB 3-6/6-0/6-2
D: Mladenovic/Safarova (FRA/CZE) d. Hlavackova/Huber (CZE/USA)

S: Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova/RUS def. Angelique Kerber/GER 4-6/6-2/6-4
D: Babos/Date-Krumm (HUN/JPN) d. Birnerova/Tanasugarn (CZE/THA)


...once again, Serena opened up her '13 clay court season by setting 'em up and knocking 'em down in Charleston, dropping just the opening set in the final to JJ (she's now 17-3 in three-setters since 2011) all week en route to a title defense that landed her career crown #49. Soon heading off to Europe on an eleven-match winning streak, looking to end the EuroClay season by erasing the memory of her '12 1st Round loss in Paris (although Serena already claims that it never really happened), Williams stands one win away from having put together at least one 12-match run for a third consecutive season (she'd join Azarenka as the only two plays able to say they've done it). Just a hunch... she'll get that win, and add more than a few more to her streak, too. Last year, Williams was on a 17-0 clay court run before losing to Virginie Razzano at RG, and she's already dropped hints earlier this year about wanting to make her sole '02 trophy from Paris a little less lonely. Serena might have needed JJ to poke her a bit to wake her up this weekend, but she won't likely need such extracurricular assistance in a few months time.
RISERS: Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova/RUS & Angelique Kerber/GER
...just when you start to overlook Pavlyuchenkova, she wins a title and makes you ask why she doesn't do it more often. Of course, if the Hordette played in Monterrey EVERY week, maybe she would. Her title there this weekend, the fourth tour singles crown of her career, was her third at this same tournament, having also won there in 2010 and '11. Still a work-in-progress, especially outside of Mexico, Pavlyuchenkova can at least say that she's re-entered the Top 20 this week, though. It was the top-seeded Kerber that A-Pav defeated in three sets in the final, as the German's questionable playing schedule finally saw her reach her first final since last summer in Cincinnati, highlighted by her semifinal win over Maria Kirilenko. Her four wins in Monterrey were as many as Kerber had at her previous four events, when she played on despite a lingering back injury, combined. Maybe there is SOME light at the end of the scheduling tunnel for Kerber, though. After all, she isn't in Katowice for Week 15's sole event, despite sporting Polish heritage (her grandparents were born in Poland) and a main draw that the would seem to put her in the mix for a chance to end her now year-long title drought.
SURPRISES: Stefanie Voegele/SUI & Kristina Mladenovic/Lucie Safarova (FRA/CZE)
...Voegele, 23, is putting up a sneaky good season. Having already reached a tour semifinal earlier this year in Memphis, Voegele did it again in Charleston. Not only that, but she did it by notching her three biggest wins of the season, a pair of Top 20 victories over Carla Suarez-Navarro and Caroline Wozniacki and another over #30 Julia Goerges, before pushing #18 Jelena Jankovic to three sets in an eventual defeat. Voegele finds herself with a new career-best ranking of #57 this week. Elsewhere in Charleston, Mladenovic and Safarova teamed up in doubles for the very first time and ended up walking off with the title without dropping a set. And they were tough in a pinch, too, erasing a 3-1 1st set deficit in the final against Hlavackova/Huber, then saving five set points in the second in the duo's straight sets win. It was the Pastry's second title of the season, and fourth of her career, while it's the Czech Maiden's second. The other came at this same Charleston event a year ago, when Safarova also reached the singles final. She dropped a rematch of that one -- vs. Serena -- in the QF this time around.
VETERANS: Venus Williams/USA & Kimiko Date-Krumm/JPN
...while Venus' week in Charleston ended in quiet fashion with a rather faint performance against Serena in the semifinals, the end came after a week full of high points, even if all the time she was forced to spend on the court did likely give her little chance to compete when her sister showed up. Williams opened with a three-set win over Monica Puig, then had to knock out a pair of Americans -- Varvara Lepchenko (another three-setter) and Madsion Keys -- in a single day on Friday after rain had played havoc with the schedule the day before. At #22, Venus is just 15 points away from climbing back into the Top 20. In Monterrey, Date-Krumm won her second doubles title of the season, teaming with Timea Babos (who won the singles title in '12) for the fifth tour doubles title of her long, two-chapter career. Four of those titles have come since KDK returned to the tour after more than a decade in retirement, and all five have now been won with five different partners. At 42, Date-Krumm is ranked #73 in singles, one slot above Annika Beck, the teenager who won the Girls title at Roland Garros a season ago.
COMEBACKS: Jelena Jankovic/SRB & Bethanie Mattek-Sands/USA
...first came the Bogota (title), then came Miami (SF). Now, here comes Jelena pushing QC in a baby carriage. Well, sort of. (Sorry, couldn't resist.) No matter how the weekend concluded, Queen Chaos made a few appearances last week during JJ's run to the final in Charleston, and that's something to be celebrated in this space. There was QC saving match points (vs. Garcia) in the 2nd Round, and knocking off a total of three qualifiers and two unseeded opponents before being forced to face off with world #1 Serena... and winning the 1st set. There was QC falling to the green clay and wiping herself off with a towel, but making sure to put on an impromptu "towel dance" as she dried her back, much to the delight of the fans. Sure, we also got a bit of JJ verbally questioning Serena, and ultimately paying for it on the court -- oh, QC, you crazy kid -- but such is the price of existence when you're the WTA's most chaotic recurring character. No matter. It's just nice having both of Backspin's old friends -- JJ AND QC -- back at the party. Thing is, will Jankovic use her recent run of results as a stepping stop to challenge for a return to the Top 10, or was what happened in the final the beginning of her stepping on a slippery slope that will see her recent gains amount to far less than some of us would like? The tour is a much more fun place with JJ in the mix of things, so hopefully it'll be the former. Meanwhile, Mattek-Sands played the longest match of the season in her 3:42 1st Round win in Charleston over Anastasia Rodionova, then put up one of the bigger wins of the tournament a day later when she defeated Sloane Stephens love & 2.
FRESH FACES: Madison Keys/USA, Eugenie Bouchard/CAN & Jessica Pegula/USA
...further proof of the resurgence of North American tennis. Four of the final eight players in Charleston were from the continent, and Keys and qualifier Bouchard were two of them. Qualifier Pegula went out in the 3rd Round against Jankovic, but only after impressive wins over Garbine Muguruza and Mona Barthel. Bouchard's run was even more impressive, as she took out friend Laura Robson, then was "fortunate" enough to have Sam Stosur's return from her calf injury halted when the Aussie was forced to retire in the 2nd set of their 3rd Round match. Meanwhile, Keys -- the highest-ranked of the trio at #62 -- got wins over Alexandra Cadantu, Grace Min and Bethanie Mattek-Sands, as well as garnering some headlines when her Miami post-loss sweet tooth binge became public.
DOWN: Sloane Stephens/USA & Francesca Schiavone/ITA
...maybe we should have Citizen Anna lead a search party to find Stephens. I mean, you know your results aren't in a particularly good place when you're getting advice, as happened last week with Sloane, from Melanie Oudin about how to navigate the pitfalls of early-career success. It's not a huge surprise that a young player such as herself is having a hard time dealing with all the new expectations and time-consuming responsibilities that go with the aftermath of knocking off Serena to reach a first career slam semi in Australia, but until last week in Charleston Stephens had, for the most part, simply reverted back to her pre-AO ways, i.e. having chances to win matches, but fumbling leads and stumbling down the stretch. But against veteran Bethanie Mattek-Sands, less than 24-hours after the American had won a 3:42 match, it was the "fresher" Stephens who barely showed up for their 2nd Rounder, losing love & two to drop her record to 2-6 in the matches she's played since she upset Williams in January. But at least she's taking her mind off things by picking up some pet turtles. On the other end of the chronological career spectrum, might the current EuroClay season turn out to be the last in which we'll see the likes of Schiavone? Soon to be 33, the Italian has made little impact this season (she's 5-9), and last week in Charleston dropped her 1st Round match to Silvia Soler-Espinosa. The last time Schiavone, the '10 Roland Garros champ who's got a tour-best string of fifty consecutive slam appearances going as Paris appears on the horizon, finished a season ranked outside the Top 50 was in 2000. As of today, her ranking has slipped all the way down to #48.
ITF PLAYER: Laura Siegemund/GER
...last season the 25-year old German won three ITF challenger events, but her win in the $25K event in Jackson, Mississippi this weekend is her first of 2013. Wins over the likes of Alexa Glatch, Arantxa Parra-Santonja and Allie Kiick got Siegemund into the final, where she took out Argentina's Florencia Molinero 6-4/6-0 to take her sixth career challenger crown.
...the 17-year old grabbed the title at the Grade 1 USTA International Spring Championships in Carson, California. Not dropping a set all week, Hibi notched wins over Americans Christina Makarova and, in the final, Jamie Loeb. Loeb prevented the Japanese teen from sweeping both the singles and doubles titles, though, joining with Maegan Manasse to defeat Hibi and Denise Starr in the championship match.

1. Chas 1st Rd. - Mattek-Sands d. An.Rodionova 6-4/6-7/7-6
Chas 2nd Rd. - Mattek-Sands d. Stephens 6-2/6-0
at 3:42, Mattek-Sands' win over Rodionova was the longest WTA match so far this season, but coming back the very next day and plastering Stephens as she did was arguably even more impressive. Well, at least it would be if the Sloane we're seeing these days was anywhere close to resembling the one we saw reach the semifinals in Melbourne.
2. Chas Final - S.Williams d. Jankovic
Clearly, Serena is no Justine. Just look at her head-to-head history with JJ. After all, Wiliams' all-time series record vs. Jankovic is about as tight as her mark against any other regular opponent in her career. This win gives Williams just a 6-4 advantage (if the 3rd set tie-break in Rome in '10 had gone the other way, they'd be tied), and four of the matches have gone three sets.
3. Monterrey Final - Pavlyuchenkova d. Kerber
Anastasia is the fourth different Hordette to claim a tour singles title this season.
4. Chas 1st Rd - King d. Shvedova
Cue up the sentimental music. Now reminisce about some of the great times these two once had in doubles. Sniff.
5. Chas 2nd Rd. - Burdette d. Lisicki
Burdette's recently nice run continued in South Carolina with a victory -- on her sixth match point -- over Lisicki. The American put up a rather good effort against Serena in the next round, too.
6. Chas 1st Rd. - Jankovic d. Oudin 6-4/5-7/6-4
Chas 2nd Rd. - Jankovic d. Garcia 5-7/7-6(10)/6-3
Chas SF - Jankovic d. Voegele 6-4/6-7(6)/6-2
in keeping with QC tradition, JJ's run to the final wasn't an easy road. She had to battle a ghost from her past (Little MO upset her during her big '09 summer, and again last year), overcome a shadow of doubt (saving two match points in a 12-10 tie-break win vs. Garcia) and learn to not allow a lost opportunity (she led Voegele 4-2 in the 2nd, then failed to close out the tie-break with the score -- knotted at 6-6 -- to secure a straight sets win) to get the best of her. Of course, none of that prevented her from being mugged by Serena's aura in the championship match's final two sets, though.
7. Chas 3rd Rd. - Wozniacki walkover Petkovic
Petko pulls out with a calf injury as a precautionary measure. Still... not a good sign for a player who's already missed a ton of time with injuries over the last year or so.
8. Katowice Q1 - Peer d. Rezai
Wow -- a double-blast from "the past." Actually, Peer has been popping up with some good results lately, having just qualified in Miami and gotten a main draw win over Marina Erakovic. Although, Peer ended up losing in the final qualifying round in Poland today to Anna Schmiedlova.
HM- Monterrey Doubles Final - Babos/Date-Krumm d. Birnerova/Tanasugarn
Tanasugarn must have looked across the net and felt virtually like a kid in this one.

1. Chas SF - S.Williams d. V.Williams
Talk about timing, just one day after the documentary "Venus and Serena" became available for viewing, the Sisters met in an official match for the first time since the WTA Championships in 2009. Of course, with Venus having had a loaded-up week of action, it wasn't much of a contest. Serena quickly went up 4-0 and had zero unforced errors in the 1st. In fact, this was the most lopsided of the twenty-four matches the Sisters have played against each other. Serena has now won fourteen of them.

**WTA SINGLES TITLES - 2011-13**
12...SERENA WILLIAMS (2/7/3)
11...Victoria Azarenka (3/6/2)
9...Petra Kvitova (6/2/1)
8...Agnieszka Radwanska (3/3/2)
8...Caroline Wozniacki (6/2/0)
6...Maria Sharapova (2/3/1)
5...Sara Errani (0/4/1)

2...Sara Errani (hard, red clay)
2...JELENA JANKOVIC (red clay, green clay)
2...SERENA WILLIAMS (hard, green clay)

Shenzhen - Li Na, CHN
Auckland - Agnieszka Radwanska, POL
Sydney - Agnieszka Radwanska, POL
Australian Open - Victoria Azarenka, BLR
Doha - Victoria Azarenka, BLR
Bogota - Jelena Jankovic, SRB
Acapulco - Sara Errani, ITA
Miami - Serena Williams, USA
Charleston - Serena Williams, USA

Australian Open - Victoria Azarenka, BLR
Doha - Victoria Azarenka, BLR
Acapulco - Sara Errani, ITA
Charleston - Serena Williams, USA
Sydney - Katarina Srebotnik, SLO
Kuala Lumpur - Chang Kai-Chen, TPE
Miami - Nadia Petrova, RUS
Charleston - Lucie Safarova, CZE

4...RUSSIA (Kirilenko, Pavlyuchekova, Sharapova & Vesnina)
2...Czech Republic (Kvitova & Ka.Pliskova)
[recent seasons - by nation]
2007: 8-Russia, 5-France, 4-USA, 3-Italy, 2-Belgium/Serbia
2008: 7-Russia, 3-USA, 2-France/Italy/Serbia/Spain
2009: 6-Russia, 3-France/Italy, 2-Belgium/Germany/Hungary/Spain/USA
2010: 9-Russia, 3-Belgium/Italy, 2-Australia/Serbia/USA
2011: 5-Russia, 3-Australia/Germany/Slovak Republic/Spain, 2-Czech Republic/Italy
2012: 3-Italy/Slovak Republic/USA, 2-China/France/Germany/Russia

Lisa Raymond, USA (2003)
Aravane Rezai, FRA (2010)
Lucie Safarova, CZE (2008)
Katarina Srebotnik, SLO (2005)
Tamarine Tanasugarn, THA (2010)
Zheng Jie, CHN (2012)

KATOWICE, POLAND (Int'l $235K/red clay indoor)
12 Final: -new event-
12 Doubles Champions: -new event-
13 Top Seeds: Kvitova/Vinci

#1 Kvitova d. #7 Lisicki
#3 Zakopalova d. #2 Vinci
#1 Kvitova d. #3 Zakopalova

...well, Kaia Kanepi finally starts her injury-delayed season this week in the new event in Poland, but you-know-who (and you-know-What) is nowhere to be found. Kvitova is, though, likely with her coach in tow. Uh-uh. But she ISN'T in North America, and this is a rare INDOOR clay court event. So I'll go with her to grab a second season title.

All for now.


Blogger Todd.Spiker said...

Hey, good news for Peer! Into the Katowice draw as a Lucky Loser, she became a lucky winner as she took down Pironkova 5-7/7-6/7-6.

Tue Apr 09, 02:23:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Todd.Spiker said...

The final eight run the gamut in Katowice: 2 seeds (Kvitova/Vinci), 2 unseeded (Martic/Beck), 2 qualifiers (Cadantu/Camerin), a wild card (Ka.Pliskova) and a lucky loser (Peer).

Thu Apr 11, 03:02:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Diane said...

I decided not to write about the JJ-Serena "conversation" last week because, by then, a whole lot had already been said about it, and I just let it drop. JJ was foolish--not to say something (more on that in a moment)--but to let Serena get to her.

However, Nouni showed once again that umpires don't give a damn about the "at the server's pace" rule. Of course, they're also extremely inconsistent about the 20-second rule. I forget who it was, but some player--a top player--in Charleston constantly took too long to serve, and not one umpire said a word.

Thu Apr 18, 03:38:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Todd.Spiker said...

Yes, I agree about JJ, especially since this had come up between them before and she should have been prepared before the match to just let it roll off her back if it became an issue again.

I've heard some commentators suggest putting a running clock on the scoreboard between points (sort of like the clock at the National Spelling Bee, perhaps with a little "ding" at some point?) to urge a quicker pace of play. It always seemed an unnecessary step too far, but maybe it would have its intended effect, and it'd also be easier to see which players get the benefit from umpires and are allowed to go overtime (and it might serve to tighten everything up, too).

Thu Apr 18, 03:49:00 PM EDT  

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