AO 4 - Sugar(pova) Doesn't Melt. Not Today, Anyway. (And neither does Sloane.)
On a day in which Extreme Heat procedures stopped play on the outer courts and (finally!) closed the roofs on Laver and Hisense, then did so again later because of lightning strikes and rain, the biggest natural disaster of the day nearly turned out to be a meltdown of Maria Sharapova.
Coming into this Australian Open off a shoulder injury and with very little match play -- one match last summer, and a SF run in Brisbane in Week 1 -- since last year's Wimbledon, Sharapova wasn't expected to be as dominant in the opening rounds as she was year ago in Melbourne. Then, she opened with two straight double-bagel wins and reached the semis having only dropped a record nine games through five matches. Two days ago, the Russian played well enough, though hardly perfectly, to down a potentially dangerous Bethanie Mattek-Sands under the lights on Laver.
Today, though, with the temperatures rising throughout her match with Italy's Karin Knapp, so much so that the "mysterious and unknown" player safety threshold kicked in (not that it did these two players any good, since they were deep into the 3rd set when the call went out, meaning play couldn't be stopped between sets for the players to go off court, or the roof to be closed), Sharapova was put to a test that she would have been forgiven for failing.
But, hey, she's Maria Sharapova... failing isn't fun, nor obediently tolerated. On this day, succeeding wasn't fun, either. But that's what she did.
After winning the 1st set, Sharapova looked on her way to a straight sets win, or at least a shot at trying to do so by pulling away late in the 2nd. But, serving at 4-5, a service game that consisted of a double-fault and three errors handed the set to Knapp and very nearly set off a draw-busting series of unfortunate events.
In the 3rd, Sharapova took at 3-1 lead, but as the heat bore down on Laver, she began to wilt. Knapp got back on serve at 3-3 and, proving that she's all Italian, began to battle and gesticulate in celebration as the Russian's AO balanced on the head of a pin. (But not Camille Pin, against whom a #1-seeded Sharapova survived a 9-7 3rd set in Extreme Heat during a 1st Round AO match in 2007.) On her fifth break point of the game, Sharapova got a break for 4-3 and held three match points at 5-4, but two double-faults and a net cord winner from the Italian got the break and evened the set at 5-5.
From there, Sharapova played with her back against the wall all the way to the finish line. Even with her serve hardly a given (12 DF), especially as she tired, Sharapova had to hold at 5-6, 6-7 and 7-8 to avoid the upset. Finally, in the seventeenth game of the set, Sharapova took at 40/love lead on Knapp's serve and got the break for 9-8 to give herself a chance to serve out the match. There, despite three double-faults, and a Knapp break point, Sharapova overcame her visible frustration with her serve to hold and take the 3:28 match, 6-3/4-6/10-8.
Just walking onto the court at this Australian Open hasn't been easy, but no top seed has had to battle quite as hard as Sharapova did today. She managed to survive, but will it leave her vulnerable to another upset bid when she returns to action this weekend against a (so far in '14) guardian angel-wielding opponent?
We shall see.
=DAY 4 NOTES=
...well, glory be, once she finally got on the court on Thursday night, Vika Azarenka managed to hold serve (after saving a break point, naturally) in the first game of her match against Barbora Zahlavova-Strycova.
Hmmm, was that a certain Backspinner I saw who raised his arms in mock/shock celebration? Yes. Yes, it was.
Ah, but it got even better. Vika raced to a 6-1 1st set victory in thirty-five minutes, and she didn't face another break point in the set. She then got an early break in the 2nd. Sure, she and BZS exchanged breaks over four straight games later in the set, as things didn't go quite as smoothly as in the 1st. But Azarenka held to put away a 6-1/6-4 win in an hour and a half.
Not perfect. But better.
...meanwhile, as Azarenka was celebrating her win, her '13 semifinal opponent was trying to grab hold of something before she slid all the way out of this AO.
Keeping up her pattern of having her matches interrupted by acts of nature or Belarusians, #13 Sloane Stephens saw such a thing happen to her again on Day 4. After she dropped the opening set to Ajla Tomljanovic, then knotted the match and then took a break lead in the 3rd, lightning caused the stoppage of play on Margaret Court Arena with Stephens up 3-0 and on a seven-game winning streak.
Last year, Stephens proved susceptible to not only squandering leads, but reacting especially badly when it came to playing well coming out of weather/medical delays. Bad out-of-the-break play in the AO (vs. Azarenka), Fed Cup (vs. Arvidsson) and Wimbledon (vs. Bartoli) stuck like glue to Current Sloane a season ago, proving that she hadn't yet learned to concentrate and bear down in situations that knock her off balance. Against Tomljanovic on Thursday night, it all came back to challenge the American once again.
In the first game out of an hour-and-a-half delay, Stephens had a break point for a 4-0 lead. When she failed to convert, you could feel the coming avalanche. She then dropped serve to see her lead cut to 3-2, then again as the showing-no-signs-of-nerves Croat took at 4-3 advantage. Tomljanovic's hold gave her five straight games and forced Stephens to hold to stay in the match. She did so, forcing Tomljanovic to attempt to serve it out.
It was then that Stephens showed some of the fighting spirit that got her into the semifinals in Melbourne a year ago. She quickly grabbed a 30/love lead on the Croat's serve by upping her aggression (like Future Sloane would), pulled off a wonderful drop shot to get to break point, and then saw Tomljanovic double-fault to get things back on serve at 5-5. With momentum suddenly in her favor, Stephens again looked like the AO player of 2013.
She held serve for 6-5, this time forcing Tomljanovic to hold just to stay in the match. The Croat got to game point, but Stephens didn't buckle. Instead, she swept the final three points of the match, converting her first and only match point after starting off the point with a lunging return of serve, then finishing things with a put-away backhand winner after having raced from behind the baseline to reach a Tomljanovic volley, winning 3-6/6-2/7-5.
So, Stephens' first big 2014 test can be judged a success. Future Sloane lives, but Current Sloane is still inside fighting to get out. That internal battle, much like it did last year, might still play a HUGE role in the outcome of this Australian Open.
Well, at least what happens in the bottom half of the draw, anyway.
...who knows what to make of #11 Simona Halep's result today, since the Swarmette-looking-for-a-slam-breakout really only had a capable opponent on the other side of the net for one set. And she lost that one. Varvara Lepchenko took the opening set from the Romanian, but then quickly succumbed to the heat, getting to an especially bad state by the time Halep had taken a 5-0 lead in the 2nd. The American was treated on court for potential heat illness at that time, but did manage to complete the match. She only won a single game the rest of the way, though, with Halep winning 4-6/6-0/6-1. With a match against a qualifier up next, Halep is a win away from matching her career-best slam result by reaching a second straight Round of 16.
...getting the benefit of scheduling, #10 Caroline Wozniacki didn't have to worry about delays or weather. As the second scheduled match up on Laver, the Dane and Christina McHale got to play their entire match indoors, away from the elements, as well as the element of suspense about whether they'd finish without Mother Nature clearing her throat.
As it turned out, it was a match that showed some of the early-season promise of Wozniacki 2.0-or-bust, as well as the growing pains associated with trying to re-work some aspects of her game under the coaching of Thomas Hogstedt. Wozniacki won the opening set at love, but dropped the 2nd 6-1 to the American as her tentativeness when it came to stepping into the court beyond her usual behind-the-baseline positioning got her into trouble and gave McHale a reason to be confident. In the 3rd, though, Caro made a point of trying to force the action a little bit more and turned things back in her direction. She closed out the match 6-0/1-6/6-2.
She'll now have an intriguing match-up with Hobart champ Garbine Muguruza, who took out teen Anna Schmiedlova in straight sets today after having knocked out #24 Kaia Kanepi two days ago. Wozniacki won't likely get quite as easy a pass as she did today against McHale, whose confidence tends to drift in and out depending on the moment (hence her being passed by pretty much all her Bannerette counterparts the last two years following her success at the '11 U.S. Open). Spaniard Muguruza already has a hard court win over the Dane last season in Miami.
...whew! I don't think there have ever been as many "Zombie Queen" nominees as this stage as there has been at this slam, without any really standing out enough to quite claim the ZQ honors.
Before Day 4, I was already considering Ekaterina Makarova, Victoria Azarenka, Sloane Stephens, Daniela Hantuchova, Zheng Jie, and Eugenie Bouchard. Today, Sharapova added her name to the list of back-from-the-dead winners under consideration, and so did #16 Carla Suarez-Navarro.
Against Galina Voskoboeva, the Spaniard came back from 5-2 down in the 3rd set, with the Kazakh serving for the match at 5-4, to win 7-6/3-6/8-6. Voskoboeva was broken in each of her last three service games in the match.
...well, #25 Alize Cornet got another win today. She even had to play out the match all the way to the end to do it this time, too. Judging from the match stats, though, her 6-3/4-6/6-4 win over Camila Giorgi was a contest the revolved around neither player really playing their best.
Giorgi had twelve DF, while Cornet had nine. Giorgi outpaced the Pastry 28-5 in winners, but her gaudy 73 unforced errors (to Cornet's 29) more than erased any advantage she might have built with her more aggressive game. In the end, 71% of Cornet's total points (103) came via the Italian's UE total, though she still only ended up with eleven more points in the match than Giorgi.
Nice to see that guardian angel in Cornet's tennis bag is being well fed. The Pastry plays Sharapova next.
...there's a chance that the doubles #1 ranking could exchange hands at the end of this Australian Open, as defending champs Errani/Vinci -- currently both in singles funks, and having not won a doubles title in eleven months (Doha) -- have many points to defend. At the same time, #2-seeds Hsieh/Peng aren't really defending anything at this AO, and could close the small point gap between themselves and the Italians.
Both teams opened their doubles competition on Thursday in Melbourne. Errani/Vinci had a relatively easy win over Barthel/Moulton-Levy, while Hsieh/Peng barely escaped being ousted. The pair trailed the duo of Hrdinova/Ormaechea 7-6/6-5, with the Czech/Argentine duo coming within three points of the upset. Ultimately, the Wimbledon and Tour Championships-winning duo prevailed 6-7(6)/7-6(1)/6-0, pulling ahead and eventually running away with things down the stretch.
...touched by greatness?
Or at least what was once greatness, and surely will be seen that way again in the future. Nevermind this messy "in-between" time.
...DAY 4 "LIKE":
-- that this slam has multiple courts with roofs, with another to come when MCA has a working retractable lid next year.
...DAY 4 "DISLIKE":
-- that, even with the Extreme Heat rules that allow for breaks between sets, there is no firm rule that pertains to players playing in a 3rd/5th set which, since this isn't the U.S. Open, could go on and on and on without an end before one or both players turn into a heap of bones and pulsating skin surrounded by ball kids holding wet towels and trainers with ice vests. What, some sort of rule can't be passed that the between-set break can also be instituted, after, say, twelve games in the deciding set if it goes on that long?
...DAY 4 "PLEASE... no, really. Please...":
-- as ESPN2 aired coverage of the Azarenka/BZS match, Cliff Drysdale started peppering Mary Joe Fernandez with questions about comparing/contrasting the games of Azarenka and Sharapova. All in all, MJF essentially settled on Azarenka being a more all-court player than Sharapova. As it was happening, it felt like an odd bit of questioning, and then it all became a bit clearer when Drysdale mentioned how he thought that sounds both women made on the court were "quite similar," setting off another brief, eye-rolling (from this seat) recap of the whole issue and the WTA's attempts to quell the on-court noises of its players.
Really, Cliff. You're on this again, and you're roping MJF into it by, for-some-odd-but-not-so-odd-in-the-end-once-the-intention-was-revealed, having her talk about Sharapova and Azarenka's games? Really? Please.
...with Jarmila Gajdosova's loss to Elina Svitolina, Casey Dellacqua is the "Last Wild Card Standing," and continues to be in the running with Sam Stosur to be the final Aussie in the draw.
Kazakh Zarina Diyas avoided a "Last Qualifier Standing" logjam, taking the honors all by herself with a win today over Kiwi Marina Erakovic.
Also, although Sharapova (and then Stephens) nearly stole it from her today, #6 Petra Kvitova unfortunately goes into the book as this AO's "Crash & Burn" player. The Czech's 1st Round exit at the hands of Luksika Kumkhum was her worst slam result since her 1st Round exit at the U.S. Open in the immediate aftermath of her maiden slam title at Wimbledon in 2011.
As far as the national honors, it's a bit difficult to pick out clear winners in the "Upset Queens" and "Revelation Ladies" races for the AO early rounds, but I'm going to go with the Romanians for "RL" with Halep looking like a good bet for another Round of 16, and Monica Niculecsu and her awe-inspiring slice forehand still alive in the draw, as well, after she ended her personal eight-match slam losing streak.
I was looking at the Americans for "Upset Queens," but I think I'm going to go elsewhere, largely because the only seeded player upset by a Bannerette was #23 Elena Vesnina by Alison Riske. Even though they, too, have only knocked off one seed (#18 Flipkens), I'll instead go with the Aussies. After all, who thought that THREE would get 1st Round wins, that two would still be in the draw in the 3rd Round, and that Stosur would be looking so good on Aussie soil? Those would have all been "upset" results forthe first four days of this AO if you'd said they might happen before the start of the tournament.
The Aussies' win here, by the way, ends the impressive four-year run (and 5-of-6) of "UQ" honors being claimed by the Hordettes.
*AO "REVELATION LADIES" WINNERS*
2011 Czech Republic
2013 United States
*AO "UPSET QUEENS" WINNERS*
2007 Czech Republic
*AO "LAST WILD CARD STANDING" WINNERS*
2008 Jessica Moore, AUS (2nd Rd.)
2009 Jelena Dokic, AUS (QF)
2010 Justine Henin, BEL (RU)
2011 Jelena Dokic/AUS, Caroline Garcia/FRA & Alicia Molik/AUS (2nd Rd.)
2012 Casey Dellacqua/AUS & Olivia Rogowska/AUS (2nd Rd.)
2013 Madison Keys/USA (3rd Rd.)
2014 Casey Dellacqua/AUS (in 3rd Rd.)
*AO "LAST QUALIFIER STANDING" WINNERS*
2006 (3rd Rd.) Olga Savchuk, UKR
2007 (2nd Rd.) A.Kremer/LUX, A.Kudryavtseva/RUS, T.Paszek/AUT, J.Vakulenko/UKR, R.Voracova/CZE
2008 (4th Rd.) Marta Domachowska, POL
2009 (2nd Rd.) E.Baltacha/GBR, A.Brianti/ITA, S.Karatantcheva/KAZ
2010 (4th Rd.) Yanina Wickmayer, BEL
2011 (3rd Rd.) Vesna Manasieva, RUS (now Vesna Dolonc/SRB)
2012 (3rd Rd.) Nina Bratchikova, RUS
2013 (3rd Rd.) Valeria Savinykh/RUS, Lesia Tsurenko/UKR
2014 (in 3rd Rd.) Zarina Diyas, KAZ
*AO "CRASH & BURN" LOSERS*
2008 Svetlana Kuznetsova, RUS (3rd Rd.)
2009 Venus Williams, USA (2nd Rd.)
2010 Maria Sharapova, RUS (1st Rd.)
2011 Jelena Jankovic, SRB (2nd Rd.)
2012 Samantha Stosur, AUS (1st Rd.)
2013 Samantha Stosur, AUS (2nd Rd.)
2014 Petra Kvitova, CZE (1st Rd.)
**AO "EARLY-ROUND TOP PLAYER" WINNERS**
2002 (Week 1 POW) Martina Hingis, SUI
2003 (Week 1 POW) Kim Clijsters, BEL
2004 (Week 1 co-POW) Kim Clijsters, BEL & Justine Henin, BEL *
2005 (Week 1 POW) Svetlana Kuznetsova, RUS
2006 (Week 1 POW) Amelie Mauresmo, FRA *
2007 Kim Clijsters, BEL
2008 Maria Sharapova, RUS *
2009 Dominika Cibulkova, SVK
2010 Kim Clijsters, BEL
2011 Kim Clijsters, BEL *
2012 Victoria Azarenka, BLR *
2013 Maria Sharapova, RUS
2014 Serena Williams, USA
* - won title
TOP QUALIFIER: Belinda Bencic/SUI
TOP EARLY ROUND (1r-2r): #1 Serena Williams/USA
TOP MIDDLE-ROUND (3r-QF): xx
TOP LATE ROUND (SF-F): xx
TOP QUALIFYING MATCH: Q1: Cristina Mitu/ROU def. #4 Anna-Lena Friedsam/GER 3-6/6-4/9-7
TOP EARLY RD. MATCH (1r-2r): 2nd Rd. - #3 Maria Sharapova/RUS def. Karin Knapp/ITA 6-3/4-6/10-8
TOP MIDDLE-RD. MATCH (3r-QF): xx
TOP LATE RD. MATCH (SF-F/Jr.): xx
TOP LAVER NIGHT MATCH: xx
FIRST VICTORY: #18 Kirsten Flipkens/BEL (def. Laura Robson/GBR)
FIRST SEED OUT: #7 Sara Errani/ITA (lost 1st Rd. to Julia Goerges, GER)
UPSET QUEENS: Australia
REVELATION LADIES: Romania
NATION OF POOR SOULS: Italy (top-seeded #7 Errani & #12 Vinci out 1st Round; Schiavone out 1st Rd. 5/6 slams)
LAST QUALIFIER STANDING: Zarina Diyas/KAZ (in 3rd. Rd.)
LAST WILD CARD STANDING: Casey Dellacqua/AUS (in 3rd Rd.)
LAST AUSSIE STANDING: in 3rd Rd.: Dellacqua, Stosur
Ms. OPPORTUNITY: xx
IT (TBD): xx
COMEBACK PLAYER: Nominees: J.Zheng, Dellacqua (singles), Stosur, Ivanovic
CRASH & BURN: #6 Petra Kvitova/CZE (lost 1st Rd. to world #88 Luksika Kumkhum; worst slam result since losing 1st Rd. at '11 U.S. Open following Wimbledon title run)
ZOMBIE QUEEN: Nominees: #22 E.Makarova (down 3-0 in 3rd vs. Venus/1st Rd.); #2 V.Azarenka (Larsson twice served for 1st set in 1st Rd.); #13 S.Stephens (down 5-1, with Shvedova twice serving for 1st set in 1st Rd.; 2nd Rd., won 7-5 in 3rd after Tomljanovic served for match at 5-4); #31 Hantuchova (goes three sets in both 1st/2nd Rd., wins 12-10 3rd vs. Ka.Pliskova on 5th MP); J.Zheng (2nd Rd., down double-break at 4-1 in 3rd vs. M.Keys); #30 Bouchard (no on 6 MP in 2nd set vs. Razzano/2nd Rd., saves 2 SP in 2nd; wins on 7th MP); #3 M.Sharapova (2nd Rd. - goes 3:28 vs. Knapp, no on 3 MP at 5-4 in 3rd, wins on 4th MP for 10-8 final set); #16 C.Suarez-Navarro (2nd Rd. - down 5-2 in 3rd vs. Voskoboeva, who served for match at 5-4; CSN won 8-6)
AMG SLAM FUTILITY UPDATE: lost 1st Rd. to (LL) Falconi/USA, once again failing to reach a slam QF in her career (so Anna Smashnova still has a buddy); 7 con. slam losses; 22 1st Round exits in 47 slams
LADY OF THE EVENING: Nominees: S.Stosur, S.Williams
DOUBLES STAR: xx
JUNIOR BREAKOUT: xx
All for Day 4. More tomorrow.