Friday, March 14, 2014

Indian Wells Special Edition: The Winds of Future Change... maybe?

There have been all sorts of stories swirling around Indian Wells over the past week and a half. From bad news (early exits from Vika Azarenka and Maria Sharapova) to good (Li Na's simple ability to hold on, Simona Halep's continued climb up the WTA mountain, and Aga Radwanska's maneuvers in the shadows), and things somewhere in between (Lauren Davis' crazy week and, well, JJ's usual craziness), there has been no shortage of conversation-worthy topics and results.

But a case can be made that the potentially most intriguing (and eventually most important?) ongoing story might be the one involving Sloane Stephens. While, in the end, her Current Sloane self won out in her quarterfinal match-up on Thursday against Flavia Pennetta, it was a struggle in which the far-better-off Future Sloane once more poked her head into the present from her home in a more distant (but how far away?) point on the timeline. With the guidance of new coach Paul Annacone, and Stephens' slow-but-seemingly-sure progress toward taking advantage of it on the court, there has been ample evidence in Indian Wells that the seeds of Future Sloane may very well have been planted over the past two weeks in the California desert. Only time will tell, but this event might one day be looked at as something of a "beginning."

Tonight, the direction of the mighty winds of change was changed at the last moment by the Italian. Ah, but for the first time since Stephens' Australian Open breakthrough last year, the rustling outside the door was more than faint.

As far as what happened in the match between Stephens and Pennetta, things weren't exactly a pleasure for the eyes. Even before the weather conditions took over, Pennetta's 1st set service games were lowlighted by a first serve percentage under 40%, but highlighted by a mid-50's winning percentage on her second serve that allowed her to keep her head above water as Stephens failed to take advantage of the opportunities (0-for-3 on BP) presented to her. Pennetta won the set at 6-4.

In the 2nd, Stephens got an early break and led 3-1, even while not playing her best. But an ill-timed DF gave Pennetta the chance to get back on serve, which she did in game #5. Stephens held for 4-3 after staving off more break points presented to the Italian following another DF and a poor drop shot. Stephens was tired, her footwork was suffering and she seemed just about to wilt.

Over the past thirteen months, since her AO semifinal run, Stephens' natural inclination to give up when things aren't going her way, leading to a eye-covering worthy listlessness that makes her appear as if she doesn't care, has often taken hold right about this point. Part of Annacone's task as coach in 2014 is to find a way to put a stop to such surrenders, and to convince Stephens that she CAN find a way even when she's not playing at 100% efficiency. Keep doing the right things -- moving her feet, going forward to the ball when an opening presents itself, and playing shots to an opponent's weaker wing in hopes that it will break down in the clutch -- and something good can happen. It won't always work out that way, but putting herself in position to seize an opportunity will ultimately work in her favor in the long run.

Going into the QF, Annacone's words seemed to have made a dent in Stephens' psyche, as she pulled out matches that Current Sloane's "Sloany-ness" has generally turned into losses. In the 3rd Round, she blew a 1st set lead and was forced into a tie-break against Ana Ivanovic. She won it, then after nearly falling down a double-break in the 2nd set, she pulled out a straight sets win. A round later, after taking the 1st against Alisa Kleybanova, Stephens lost a 4-2 lead in the 2nd set, but surged late to break the Russian in her last two service games and win another straight sets affair.

Against Pennetta, while Stephens fretted to Annacone during their on-court coaching session in the 2nd about how she wasn't playing well, Annacone calmly noted that, even while she wasn't playing her best, she was still at 4-4 in the 2nd and right in the match. He advised her to continue to follow the game plan, and that things could still work out. For a bit, it looked as if Current Sloane was going to bury her head and lose in Sloany fashion rather than listen, but then Pennetta proved Annacone's words correct.

Serving at 5-4 and up 30/15, two points from the match, Pennetta's forehand -- the one that Annacone noted could be Stephens' key to success -- began to crack under the pressure. Stephens noticed, and suddenly she was hitting harder, cleaner and more consistently. She got the break for 5-5, then another to claim the set at 7-5. Minutes after being two points from out the door, she was in a 3rd set. Was this going to be the moment that Future Sloane would finally seize the day? Was a mighty wind of change in the air? Was the turning point to The Future going to be now, and Annacone would no longer have to convince Stephens to stick things out ,because the truth was going to play out right before her eyes and she would never doubt it's existence again?

Well, quite literally, it surely looked like something could be about to happen. Outside the stadium, as the horizon darkened, the desert winds began to suddenly kick up between the 2nd and 3rd sets. The winds encroached upon the court, messing with both players' games, but Stephens continued to thrive as the American went up an early break and led 3-0, putting together a six-game winning streak.

Meanwhile, Pennetta looked as if she might be ready to implode. But she's an Italian, and she's Flavia. Ask Vera Zvonareva what that means.

One day Stephens may be just like Pennetta, on the back end of a long, good career filled with many pot holes but also quite a few winning moments. Playing into her thirties after surviving what might have been a career-ending injury, all moments are now precious to Flavia. While Stephens would seem to still have a potentially large Future ahead of her, Pennetta's veteran knowledge about a career that has never quite reached the heights that it may have means she recognizes every chance on a big stage -- such as her long-awaited maiden slam SF run at last year's U.S. Open -- for the fortunate moment that it is. None of them can be sacrificed or wasted if she's to sleep well at night, as HER tennis future isn't as long as it once was.

With all this floating -- swirling, really -- in the air, this was going to be Flavia's moment to shine, not Current -- nor Future -- Sloane's.

After nearly going away early in the 3rd, Pennetta managed to hold for 3-1, then quickly went up 40/love on Stephens' serve as the nearby desert windstorm ripped through and across the court, and a frustrated Stephens lost her focus while facing off against the Italian, herself and, maybe most importantly, the hard-to-adapt-to conditions. Pennetta got the break for 3-2, fought off a break point at 4-3, then broke Stephens at love for a 5-4 lead. The Italian ran off seven straight points as she took a 40/love lead on Sloane's serve in game #10.

Still, Future Sloane wouldn't allow Current Sloane to simply go away slump-shouldered with her head fully down. Stephens saved all three match points to get to deuce, then another when Pennetta netted a backhand to end a 27-shot rally. Finally, on MP #5, Stephens' backhand into the wind sliced just outside the sideline and Pennetta won 6-4/5-7/6-4.

Pennetta moves on to another all-veteran semifinal at a major event, facing #1-seed Li Na next, while Stephens' continues down the path toward what we still don't fully know. Her talent is as intriguing as some of her less winning traits are frustrating. Will she heed the windy calls that her Future self has thrown her way in Indian Wells, using this event as a stepping stone toward the rest of 2014 and beyond as she realizes that what Annacone told her is precisely the sort of mindset that can silence all critics and send her in the direction of the sort of career that everyone TOLD her she could have beginning last January in Melbourne? Pennetta kept the hounds of change at bay on Thursday night, preventing the present from more fully becoming the Future.

But for how long?

Only Sloane -- both the Current and Future versions -- really knows. At this point, it's in her -- and their -- hands. And at least in Indian Wells, the progress was noticeable.

As far as the start of the event in Miami next week, while the announced absences of Azarenka (injured foot... yes, THAT one) and Laura Robson (the wrist injury which has so far strangled the life out of her 2014 season) make for unfortunate headlines, but there's also a good one: Martina Hingis will be given a doubles wild card with Sabine Lisicki, as the Swiss Miss' questions about continuing her doubles comeback have at least been given one sign of hope. It'll be the first time Hingis has played in Miami since 2007.

All for now.


Blogger Todd.Spiker said...

Well, it seemed as if the A-Rad/Halep match-up was going to be a great contest, but it just never really materialized.

Halep was just a bit "off" from the start, and maybe a little tired, too. Radwanska got an early break and soon was up two breaks at 4-0, as the Romanian had too many errors creep into her game. Aga won the set 6-3, but Halep picked things up early in the 2nd. Running Radwanska around the court, she held in game #1 after ending a 25-shot rally -- filled with tremendous defensive gets from Aga -- with a drop shot. Fatigued, Radwanska began to try to end points early, and Halep took advantage and went up a break at 3-1.

But Aga balanced things out, while Halep saw the errors return, and then the frustration set in and Radwanska got the break back and surged ahead. The Romanian managed to fight off match point to hold for 5-4, but A-Rad served it out a game later to win 6-3/6-4.

In other news:

* - Halep will move to a Romanian best-ever #5 in the rankings on Monday

* - and, no, this isn't a repeat of an earlier story (well, it SORT of is), but Wozniacki has once again split with her coach. So, following in the footsteps of Ricardo Sanchez, Thomas Johansson and Thomas Hogstedt, Michael Mortensen joins the long and growing list of well-regarded coaches who have come up against a Danish brick wall when it comes to attempting to change Caro's game so that she can improve her standing (she'll drop out of the Top 15 on Monday). Mortensen said that Wozniacki wants to get back to the game that got her to #1 in 2010 rather than do the things that he suggested in order to change it. He wished them -- Caro and Piotr -- luck, but I'm sure he was shaking his head in his mind when he said it.

Midge, Midge, Midge, Midge...

(throws up hands)

Fri Mar 14, 11:04:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Todd.Spiker said...

In last night's finale, after keeping just ahead of disaster throughout her time in IW, Li Na was finally overtaken by it in her all-32 year old SF match vs. Flavia Pennetta.

The 1st set was defined by service breaks. Beginning in game #5 there were eight straight, as Li was deviled by DF and Pennetta's first serve percentage wasn't much better than it had been vs. Stephens in the QF. Four times, Pennetta went up a break, only to give it right back a game later. Things went to a tie-break, where once again the Italian went up a mini-break three times, only to soon give it back. Finally, on her second SP, Pennettta won 7-5 on a Li double-fault.

In the 2nd, Li was the one who got up a break (at 1-0) only to not be able to hold it. Pennetta broke back for 2-2 and never really looked back, as Li's forehand errors make it difficult for the AO champ to get herself straight. Pennetta won 7-6/6-3, as Li lost for just the second time in 19 matches this season.

Pennetta, after considering retirement due to the slow return from wrist surgery during 2013, is in her first singles final in over two years, and the biggest yet of her career.

Sat Mar 15, 12:18:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Eric said...

i think that Wozniacki should ask Kim Clijsters for consultation. I think that that would be a good fit...and Clijsters 2.0 had much more aggressive tactics, which propelled her to 3 slams.

Sun Mar 16, 07:07:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Eric said...

seeing flavia's reaction was so worth everything!

Sun Mar 16, 07:51:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Todd.Spiker said...

I don't think she'd ever ask anyone for help, because it mean she was admitting that she and Piotr didn't know what was best for her. Maybe if Kim went to her she'd listen, but I'm doubtful of that, too, since I sort of think she's beyond reasoning with at this point. Actually, a case can be made that it may take a KC-like path -- i.e. marriage, retirement, motherhood, comeback -- for Wozniacki 2.0 to ever become a reality.

Sun Mar 16, 11:01:00 PM EDT  
Blogger jo shum said...

i have long said that caro is the new version of KC. early age success, good looks, amicable personality, media darling, and most of all too happy to stay at the same level for too long, therefore no urgency to take the leap. in order to improve, she really has to ditch her dad once and for all. go on her own, find her own place.

i love that penneta won! she is so diligent and hard working at her age, plays beautiful tennis.

looks like a very big change in landscape of top 10 this year. vika and maria seem not able to hold on with injuries. i wonder if serena is still able to hold the fort.

Sun Mar 16, 11:47:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Diane said...

While I don't see the amicable personality (never have, but then some never saw it in Kim), I do see your point about everything else, Jo. Also, like KC, Woz has a sturdy athleticism that can allow her to outlast those who are not as physically powerful in the legs. Her athleticism alone took her a very long way.

I think Caroline is a mystery, but she's not a mystery I ever thought much about solving, unlike Kvitova or Safina. It seems obvious to everyone save Woz that she needs to be away from her father, insofar as a coaching relationship goes. What I can't believe is that these people keep accepting the invitation to coach her. It goes nowhere.

Perhaps there will be a second career; nobody did it better than Kim. Kim found her killer instinct after all those years of being pushed around by Justine. I wonder what it would take for Woz to find hers.

Mon Mar 17, 12:20:00 AM EDT  
Blogger Todd.Spiker said...

Ah, the Barbie/Midge comparison has so many angles. It'll be interesting to see how deep they'll end up going. ;)

Mon Mar 17, 01:39:00 AM EDT  

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