Tuesday, August 27, 2013

US.2 - Undeterred (and Underrated?), Vika Steps Forward

Vika, U.S. Open version 2013.0, begins tonight. Are Azarenka and New York City ready?

It remains to be seen whether or not Serena Williams is correct about Victoria Azarenka doing her "a favor" by defeating her in Cincinnati and thereby renewing her focus. Surely, the American's destruction of Francesca Schiavone last night on Ashe Stadium hints that she could be right, but isn't it just as likely that Azarenka's win over Williams last week (one of two wins in three-set hard court finals against Serena this season) has done the Belarusian just as good a solid, reminding her of what she's capable of, and what she failed to do in a three-set final at Flushing Meadows a year ago?

Of course, Azarenka, in a very un-Serena like move, says she doesn't dwell on past failures, which players like Williams often use to stoke themselves toward more current success. "I never look back, really," she said recently during an interview. "I always look forward. My head doesn't spin all the way back."

In many ways, that's a good thing for Vika, as the sorts of things she's gone through the past few years -- from multiple near-misses vs. Williams in Melbourne, to "Whack-a-Vika" and last year's Open final, and then the whole medical timeout brouhaha at the Australian in January) -- would have broken far less strong players. And for that, the player who described herself a few months ago as a "tough cookie," should, I think, really get far more credit that she's received.

After all, since Justine Henin's surprise (first) retirement in the spring of 2008, many young players have risen to #1, or won a slam, only to fail to handle the pressure of the position, never win any slam, or fall back into the rankings pack and cause their career-best moments to seem to be relegated to future trivia status, as they weren't able to sustain their previous level of play and solidy themselves as a truly great "additional" player during the latter stages of what will surely later be deemed the Williams Era. From Ana Ivanovic and Jelena Jankovic, to Dinara Safina and Caroline Wozniacki, the list of #1 players with "an asterisk" attached to their "reign" is long. It even extends to a player who never reached #1 -- Petra Kvitova. Did you realize that Kvitova's failure to defend her New Haven title last week has sent her down to #10 in the rankings, barely two years after she was thought to be the next One in women's tennis? As it turned out, she just missed assuming the #1 ranking, and while there's no reason to think she can't wrangle two solid consecutive weeks out of herself -- or maybe a two or more such stretches, if she's lucky, especially at Wimbledon -- over the course of the rest of her career, based on shear momentum and physics, the lefty Czech may have already missed out on her best shot to rise to the top of the rankings.

Such a fate hasn't intruded upon Azarenka's career.

When Vika became #1 after winning the Australian Open last year, the best was still yet to come. Since then, she's won another slam, and served for a third. She lost her #1 ranking for a month last year when Maria Sharapova won Roland Garros, but then took it back for seven more consecutive months before handing it over to Serena in February... a day after she'd defeated Williams in the Doha final, it should be noted. Speaking of that, since being fated to fall to #2 (and, later, briefly #3) in the rankings before that win over Serena, she's beaten the American again (in Cincy) in a final, placing herself in the conversation, even with a lopsided overall losing record against her in their head-to-head series, as the "best opponent" Serena has ever faced during her amazing career.

And there's no reason to believe Vika is finished polishing her career resume, either. She's still, incrementally, getting mentally stronger (see Melbourne '13), gaining confidence and learning to put up greater results on surfaces other than hard courts (a second Wimbledon semi in '12, and her first Final Four in Paris earlier this season). Unlike her generational counterparts, she's gained strength from her success, rather than been periodically crippled by it. She hasn't been afraid of living up to expectations, both her own and those of others, born from what's she's already managed to accomplish. Has she had her moments of fragility? Of course. But the best of the best -- Henin, for example -- often suffer from the same affliction, but find a way to overcome it. Over the past two seasons, Vika has become more and more adept at just that, not allowing what could be a bad character trait for a true champion to prevent her from the task at hand. Occasionally, she's failed in the effort, and will again. But such inability to win in the clutch won't define her career.

Well, at least not in any derogatory way. Instead, it'll provide the experience necessary for something better just around the corner. And the latest corner to be turned could present itself for turning less than two weeks from now.

Azarenka, barring a repeat of Night 1's half-way rain out, makes her 2013 U.S. Open debut under the lights on Ashe this evening, in the second-up featured match following a first featuring men's #1 Novak Djokovic. It's the sort of treatment that SHOULD be afforded a two-time slam champ who's placed herself firmly in position as the "alternative" choice (at the minimum) to win this slam, an accomplishment that would give her three hard court slam crowns at the last four events (and she served for the "missing piece" at 5-4 in the 3rd at Flushing Meadows last September) and concretely establish her as the top player of her generation.

If this slam turns out to be the latest career-defining moment for the 24-year old, then the process begins tonight. Stay tuned.

...after a slightly late Day 1 post, I thought this was a good day to get something up early, what with the late afternoon/early evening matching not necessarily presenting a slew of match-ups that turn your head. If need be, I'll fill in the blanks later tonight.

Not that there weren't some interesting results prior to this posting on Day 2, of course:

#6-seed Caroline Wozniacki, staring at a qualifier-filled section that might not have her facing a true "upset contender" (Vinci, Vesnina or Safarova?) until the Round of 16, polished off qualifier Duan Ying-Ying 6-2/7-5. #7-seed Petra Kvitova needed (naturally) three sets to take out Misaki Doi, while #20-seed Nadia Petrova, who hadn't played a singles match since Wimbledon, went down in straight sets to qualifier Julia Glushko, 6-3/6-4. With the loss, Petrova finishes off a 0-4 2013 grand slam slate... after coming off a nice comeback season in '12, where last summer in NYC she knocked off Jarmila Gajdosova, Simona Halep and Lucie Safarova before losing in three sets to Maria Sharapova in the 4th Round.

Oh, Nadia.


on Tennis Channel, Jim Courier and Mary Carillo's discussion during the John Isner match about the notion that such a large player as the American is more susceptible to injury ALSO means that a diminutive one like Dominika Cibulkova is LESS injury-prone. "Data guy" Courier didn't see the logic, and said you'd have to prove it to him.

Said Carillo, "See, you like facts. I admire that. Me, I like opinions, and even more than that... sensations."

"I like those, too," Courier chuckled. "They're not mutually exclusive, Mary."

While it might not necessarily come off that way when taken out of context (as with most of Courier's commentary, so much more can be read into it by his tone and delivery), it was a nice little moment of fun and levity. Speaking of which...

...LIKE #2 FROM DAY 2... well, Day 1, actually:

Sabine Lisicki's squirrel escapade from Monday:


Yes, the news of Neil "First Man on the Moon" Armstrong's death was trending high on Twitter today, with everyone offering condolences and posting RIP notices. Too bad it happened LAST year, not a few days ago, as so many seemed to think. Sure, it says a lot about our attention spans and lack of retention for historical facts and information in the viral age, but, really, part of this 367-days-after-the-fact story falls on the late Armstrong's shoulders, too. One of the reasons people have forgotten that he died a year ago is because when he passed away most people hadn't realized he was still alive -- and that's largely because Armstrong had barely shown his face or spoken in public in the forty-plus years after his historic walk.

In retrospect, was he the right person to make that walk? Skill-level wise, yes, and at the time of the NASA lunar program's beginning in the 1960's, it's hard to argue that that shouldn't have been THE deciding factor, but the long-run view of things brings it into question. Part of being such an historical figure, and having played such a part in a monumental human feat, is also bearing the responsibility of keeping that flame alive as an inspiration to future generations, scientists and even governments. As NASA lost funding for manned space exploration in the later years of Armstrong's life, he complained about the situation. And I'll say now what I said then -- maybe much of what happened decades ago, and the wondrous dreams space travel inspired, wouldn't have been lost (figuratively, and then literally) if Armstrong had taken it upon himself to be more of the "living face" of those accomplishments, rather than just a name in a text book.... as he was, or at least should have been. Instead, the trumpeting of the original astronauts' accomplishments fell on the shoulders of the likes of Alan Shepard (first American in space, and the first to tee off a golf ball from the moon, too), John Glenn (first American to orbit the earth, and the oldest man to ever fly in space) and Buzz Aldrin (second man on the moon). So much so that Aldrin has come to be the butt of jokes about how often he talks about those days and puts himself out there for publicity, even going as far as appearing on "Dancing with the Stars." But the fact is that they were all real-life heroes, in the sense that they put their lives on the line to accomplish incredible things that were thought to have been only the stuff of dreams and wild imaginations at the beginning of their lifetimes.

Armstrong was the FIRST HUMAN to set foot on the moon. In the span of human existence, it's difficult to think of a technological accomplishment or feat of exploration more amazing than that in its time. Soon, there won't be any living men who've set foot on the lunar surface (just twelve did, the last in December 1972 -- eight are still alive, the youngest of which is 77). But Armstrong was the first, and there will never be another of those. That's really something. And while his desire for privacy (he had to be dragged to even attend NASA anniversary celebrations of his feat) was well-earned, it'd have been nice, for more people than just himself, had he become the living, breathing figure of heroic accomplishment in everyone's mind, his face and name immediately recognizable the world over, during his lifetime that he should have been. It might have done some good. Who knows what it might have inspired. And maybe people wouldn't have forgotten so soon that he died a year ago, either. Now, one has to wonder if he'll be as famous -- or infamous -- as the subject of a posthumous internet death "hoax" than he ultimately is known for being the first man on the moon.

(shakes head)

Anyway, here's NASA's musical tribute to Armstrong:

And, now, back to tennis...

...and, finally, with Azarenka making her debut in the scheduled second-up match on Ashe tonight, I suspect there will be the first "U.S. Open at Night" additional post before the start of Day 3 tomorrow. Vika plays Germany's Dinah Pfizenmaier, who went 1-1 against the Radwanskas at Roland Garros en route to winning a share of the Last Qualifier Standing honor in Paris.

[Monthly/Quarterly winners]
JAN: Agnieszka Radwanska, POL
FEB: Sara Errani, ITA
MAR: Caroline Wozniacki, DEN
APR: Ekaterina Makarova, RUS
MAY: Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, RUS
JUN: Simona Halep, ROU
JUL: Raquel Kops-Jones/Abigail Spears, USA/USA
AUG: Simona Halep, ROU
[2013 Weekly Riser Award Wins]
6...Agnieszka Radwanska, POL
6...Carla Suarez-Navarro, ESP
5...Simona Halep, ROU
5...Sara Errani, ITA
5...Maria Kirilenko, RUS
4...Sorana Cirstea, ROU
3...Marina Erakovic, NZL
3...Sara Errani/Roberta Vinci, ITA/ITA
3...Angelique Kerber, GER
3...Ekaterina Makarova, RUS
3...Ekaterina Makarova/Elena Vesnina, RUS/RUS
2...Petra Cetkovska, CZE
2...Alize Cornet, FRA
2...Mariana Duque-Marino, COL
2...Julia Goerges, GER
2...Lucie Hradecka, CZE
2...Hsieh Su-Wei/Peng Shuai, TPE/CHN
2...Karin Knapp, ITA
2...Raquel Kops-Jones/Abigail Spears, USA/USA
2...Romina Oprandi, SUI
2...Urszula Radwanska, POL
2...Elena Vesnina, RUS
2...Yanina Wickmayer, BEL

TOP QUALIFIER: Michelle Larcher de Brito/POR
TOP EARLY-ROUND (1r-2r): xx
TOP QUALIFYING MATCH: Q3: Chanel Simmonds/RSA d. (WC) Taylor Townsend/USA 2-6/6-2/7-5
TOP EARLY-RD. MATCH (1r-2r): xx
TOP MIDDLE-RD. MATCH (3r-QF/Doub.): xx
FIRST WINNER: Carla Suarez-Navarro, ESP (def. Davis/USA)
FIRST SEED OUT: #29 Magdalena Rybarikova/SVK (lost to LL Mayr-Achleitner/AUT)
CRASH & BURN: Nominees: "favored" #12 Flipkens/BEL loses 1st Rd. to V.Williams/USA; #20 Petrova/RUS loses 1st Rd. to Glushko/ISR, 0-4 in 2013 slams
ZOMBIE QUEEN: Nominee: #15 Stephens/USA def. Minella/LUX after being down break at 4-2 in 3rd
AMG SLAM FUTILITY UPDATE: lost 1st Rd. to Mladenovic/FRA, once again failing to reach a slam QF in her career (so Anna Smashnova still has a buddy)
LAST QUALIFIER STANDING: 1st Rd. wins: Giorgi/ITA, Glushko/ISR, Larcher de Brito/POR, Nara/JPN, Tomljanovic/CRO, Vandeweghe/USA
LAST BANNERETTE STANDING: 1st Rd. wins: Hampton, Mattek-Sands, McHale, Stephens, Vandeweghe, S.Williams, V.Williams
IT: xx
COMEBACK PLAYER: Nominee: Kleybanova/RUS - first slam win/appearance since AO '11, prior to Hodgkin's diagnosis

All for Day 2. More soon.


Blogger jo shum said...

what happened to stosur? my picked on dark horse is gone. now i can switch to kuzzy now, again i guess by nature of dark horse, is that the player is usually hard to predict. haha.

i didn't watch much of vika's game until the last, but i heard from radio that she wasn't playing very well. i think, she is super nervous. it is probably the first in all the slams she plays, she is named a real favourite and got asked that question a lot from media. how she got that nice scoreline is beyond me. but, credit to her on bagging critical points but played like amateur the rest. oh well. i hope she will be back at her aggressive side soon, otherwise, boring stuff.

Tue Aug 27, 10:41:00 PM EDT  

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