Thursday, August 29, 2013

US 3.5 - The Past isn't Present, but Future Sloane Shines Bright

Two days ago, the "past" of American tennis -- represented by Venus Williams -- gave a good impression of being a factor in the "present" of this U.S. Open, while the Bannerette with seemingly the brightest future -- Sloane Stephens -- nearly saw her trip to New York City end unceremoniously early.

On Wednesday night, and the first hour of Thursday, the Tennis Gods decided that a course correction was necessary in order to put the universe back in order.

As Williams faced off with dogged Chinese veteran Zheng Jie in the 2nd round, it became quickly evident that this was not the sort of opponent perfectly suited for the American if she was to successfully attempt to maneuver her way through this Open draw, avoiding long matches in which much running, extended rallies and extra shots would highlight the potential difficulties Williams faces while playing tennis with both a lingering back injury and the fatiguing aspects of her Sjogren's Syndrome.

A late start because of the rain led to abbreviated action before another longer delay -- after they'd played just two points, as apparently no one had access to weather radar -- before things finally got going in the late afternoon/early evening. From the start, Zheng's scrambling defense and power-blunting short strokes were having their intended impact on Williams' game, marginalizing Venus' power. And with Venus' serve never really rounding into form -- she served at a 46% 1st serve clip in the 1st set, and constantly had to reset and begin again after errant tosses all match -- things were even more difficult than they would have already otherwise been. Zheng broke Williams to take the 1st set at 6-3, but Venus got an early break in the 2nd and rode it to a 6-2 win, only to get broken herself in game #2 in the 3rd after having held double game point at 40/15. Zheng led 2-0 at that point, and pushed the lead to 4-1, with break points for a 5-1 lead

But then Venus showed why she's Venus.

After battling to get to deuce, Williams fired her first ace of the match and soon held for 4-2, then broke Zheng one game later. But Zheng wasn't finished, breaking back for 5-3 as Williams' errors prevented the sort of full-rush comeback from her that we've seen so often during her Hall of Fame career. But Venus wasn't finished, either. With Zheng serving for the match, and up 30/15, Williams smashed a return winner to avoid match point and began a short period in which she won several forehand-heavy rallies with the Chinese woman, as both essentially flirted with having their weakest groundstroke break down first. Venus held on the longest, and got the break to get to 5-4.

As a short batch of rain threatened another delay, all other courts stopped action, but Williams and Zheng sat for a just few extra minutes during one changeover on Louis Armstrong, and otherwise played through the weather and the potential for slippery lines on the court. As Zheng's forehand error totals began to rise, Venus grabbed a 40/15 lead, only to see Zheng hit a huge return of a Williams first serve to get to deuce. Venus had to pull off back-to-back volleys to put away game point to hold for 5-5, and after both exchanged two more holds of serve it all came down to a deciding tie-break.

There, just as in the match, Zheng jumped out in front early (4-1) ony to see Venus close and tie things up (5-5). Throughout her career, this would have been where Williams put the match away. Instead, this Venus gave it to Zheng. In the final two points of the match, Williams hesitated when reaching to volley a Zheng shot that was possibly going to sail long, causing her to net what should have been an easy put away winner. On match point, Venus returned Zheng's serve wide, losing the tie-break, as well as the three-hour match, 6-3/2-6/7-6(5).

At the end of the long Day 3 (by then, technically, Day 4), #15-seeded Sloane Stephens and Urszula Radwanska didn't even walk onto Ashe Court until nearly midnight, and their match's start ended up being one of the latest ever in the history of night tennis at the U.S. Open.

Earlier this season, Ula defeated Stephens in straight sets in Indian Wells, as the Bannerette was deep into her post-Australian Open swoon, losing her fourth of five matches. Additionally, Stephens surely was fortunate to escape her 1st Round encounter with Mandy Minella the other day, coming back from down 4-2 in the 3rd, and 3-1 in the deciding tie-break. Stephens has shined on the bigger stages before (she entered with a 13-3 slam record this season, and with a win in Cincinnati over Maria Sharapova a few weeks ago), and being given this spot on the schedule on Night 3 was a very big deal. A true testament to her burgeoning "star power," potential and... eek!... expectations. Would Stephens rise to occasion, or wilt under the pressure?

The answer would be an emphatic one.

While Current Sloane has wilted on many a court in the past, the talent that makes so many go ga-ga over the prospects of Future Sloane was surely in attendance on Wednesday night/Thursday morning. While U-Rad played like a player a bit overwhelmed by the occasion, part of that was because Stephens played as if she truly belonged there, knew it and wanted everyone else to, as well.

Radwanska didn't have a chance.

Stephens opened by breaking Ula's serve, ran to a 6-1 1st set win, put together a seven game winning streak and took down the Pole by a 6-1/6-1 score in less than an hour. She never even faced a break point.

By the end of Day 3, we'd seen Venus give us what she could. But Williams can no longer quite give us what she used to be able to... at least not nearly as often as was formerly the case. Venus has come to accept it, and so must we. In other words -- and ESPN2's Mike Tirico, this means you this time -- can we please not attempt to write Williams' possible career epitaph EVERY time she loses a slam match? Especially since Williams always deflects such thoughts, and has more than once stated a desire to play doubles with Serena in Rio in 2016. Will she make it there? Maybe. But at least let her try without raising a questioning eye at every single turn. Please? Pretty please?

As for Sloane, well, she gave us quite a bit tonight/this morning. More than expected, actually. Way more. In fact, her 2nd Round match was one of those previews of Future Sloane that will only raise the stakes for the NEXT time she plays under the lights on Ashe. Like, say, against Serena in the Round of 16?

Hey, it's never too early to gaze into a proverbial crystal ball... especially where Current/Future Sloane is concerned.

=NIGHT 3 NOTES= all, eight women's matches -- half of those scheduled) -- were cancelled on Day 3 as the organizers tried to fight against four hours of weather delays on Wednesday and get the men's 1st Round finished before Thursday (which was accomplished after midnight, as Ivo Karlovic came back from two sets to love down to end James Blake's career... speaking of which, while Blake will maintain his reputation as a gentleman, I won't miss the U.S. Open crowds that showed up for his matches -- far too many of them have acted like a**holes toward whoever he's played).

Really, how smart is it to try to spread the men's opening round out so much when you know rain delays are likely to be an issue? Although, I suppose some of that issue is alleviated by the fact that the Open's men's final is actually SCHEDULED to be on a Monday this year, rather than it being forced there because of rain on the weekend.

Of course, this likely means we'll get a TUESDAY men's final this year. Which, honestly, would be fine with me since the Washington Redskins open their season on Monday Night Football on that same night. Naturally, what will likely happen is that the women's final on Sunday will be rained out and end up being played on that Monday night and I'll want to grow an extra head because my old one will be aching too much to stand it.

...anyway, the four matches completed during the evening included Laura Robson's win over Caroline Garcia, setting up a great 3rd Rounder against Li Na, a rematch of the 3rd Rounder at last year's Open in which the youngster upset the Chinese vet to become the first British woman to reach a slam Round of 16 since 1991. Hmmm, I smell a night match... at least I'd HOPE so. Although I suspect that slot might end up going to Serena, and we'll be treated to another blowout under the lights.

Plus, I guess it might be SOMEWHAT of an imposition for her fans back in Britain to have to START to watch Robson's match at midnight in Europe... and that'd only be if the women's match was the first up on Ashe that night. It could even be later than that. Of course, not that the Open organizers are likely to take that into account.

In the other women's match that went deep into the night, #23 Jamie Hampton took out Kristina Mladenovic -- who reached the 3rd Round last year -- in straight sets. Well, at least the Pastry will now be able to focus more on Doubles and Mixed, I guess.

...and, finally, tomorrow will bring a bit more packed schedule, as BOTH Serena and Vika play, but neither at night. Instead, it'll be Caroline Wozniacki who gets the women's slot on the Ashe night session docket, with her match against Chanelle Scheepers an appetizer for Rafa Nadal's first appearance under the lights in New York City in two years.

All for now. More tomorrow.


Blogger Diane said...

Blake certainly doesn't maintain his reputation as a gentleman with me. Throughout his career, he either passive-aggressively or overtly protected and encouraged the J-Block. When he chewed Pam S. out that time, people were all "Go James," but really, it was a prime piece of hypocrisy--James Blake complaining that someone was interrupting players' concentration.

Thu Aug 29, 10:36:00 AM EDT  
Blogger Todd.Spiker said...

Oh, I actually agree with that. I sort of blanched when I typed that last night, because I wanted to add a few notes of sarcasm to it... but I at least had to get a shot in at the J-Block which, as usual, was horrible toward Karlovic last night, with no one on ESPN ever acting as if it was anything but great (that stuff is what gives NYC fans such a bad reputation). Still, note that I said he'd maintain his reputation as a gentleman, since I've always made a point around here that while he's often been an exciting player, I've never really been a Blake fan.

But, you know, little facts about a player, especially an American, rarely matter when ESPN chooses to canonize a player's career who the commentators like and/or are friends with. Truthfully, no matter what happened off the court during it, Blake's was mostly a disappointment on it. In a way, it was sort of fitting that his career ended with him losing a two sets to zero lead... sort of crystallized his entire run, in a way, I thought. I had to laugh a bit when commentators yesterday and last night were talking about the "legacy" of Blake's career. Legacy? Of what, having his matches shoved down our throats while ones with far better, more accomplished and less overrated players were playing at the same time?

For me, that "legacy" stands a bit taller than anything else when all is said and done.

And, yeah, I ripped Blake over the whole Shriver thing, too, back when it happened. I sort of thought it exposed a bit of what I'd thought was the case all along. ;)

I way going to say all this last night, but I figured I'd be nice since he was leaving. But you managed to drag it out of me, Diane! :D

Thu Aug 29, 11:52:00 AM EDT  
Blogger Diane said...

Glad to be of service :)

Thu Aug 29, 12:59:00 PM EDT  

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