Thursday, August 28, 2014

US.4 - By Very Quiet, Vika Might Be on the Verge

Whether or not it ultimately translates into something great at this U.S. Open, it's quickly becoming apparent that, shot by shot, game by game and match by match, Victoria Azarenka is slowing rounding her game into form.

The two-time women's finalist, rusty and still not in great shape after an injury-riddled season, had to scratch and claw to get a win over Misaki Doi two days ago. She lost a 1st set tie-break to the Japanese woman before finally racing out to an insurmountable lead in the 3rd. Today in her 2nd Round match against American Christina McHale, Vika once again was behind the proverbial Eight ball in the early-going.

After McHale save two break points to hold for 1-0, she got a break to lead 2-0. With McHale up 3-0, 40/love on Azarenka's serve, Vika must have been having Aga flashbacks from Down Under. And that just wasn't going to do. Granted, McHale has a history of blowing leads that no one this side of Jana Novotna would ever dream of letting loose, but the glorious sight of Azarenka digging down and getting down to business on her old Arthur Ashe court stomping grounds more than outweigh the Bannerette's checkered history.

After being three break points down from being behind a double break in the set, Azarenka managed to hold serve. A game later, McHale went up 40/15 on serve, looking for a 4-1 lead. But as she faltered, Vika became more stern. The former #1 got the break for 3-2, and she never looked back. Azarenka won the 1st set 6-3, then extended her game winning streak to nine in the 2nd set. She won eleven of twelve games to take a 5-1 lead.

While trying to serve out the match, Vika's lack of match toughness saw a bit of light as McHale got the break. But, as is often the case even when she's on top of her game (see vs. Sloane Stephens at the 2013 AO), Vika's best friend on court is usually her return game. After failing to put things away on her own racket, she simply took it off McHale's, getting a break of serve a game later to win 6-3/6-2.

While no one can do it quite like Serena Williams, might Azarenka now be in the position to slowly play her way into a slam after an injury-related absence? Raising her game, match toughness and fitness level multiple levels over the course of two weeks, slowly but surely becoming a contender deep into the second week? It could happen, although there are significantly talented obstacles that will likely stand in her way as she attempts to pull off such a feat.

She's got time to put herself in position to get it done, but will it be enough?

Azarenka entered this U.S. Open with few expectations other than whatever ones she put on her own head. So far, at least, she's met them. After her win today, she was dancing on the court, feeling positive and even basking in -- well, well, well -- the presence of what sure seemed like a soft blanket of love (or at least as close to it as she's ever received at a slam) being placed over her by the fans in the Ashe stands. See, I always knew NYC would warm up to her someday. All she had to do, I guess, was become an underdog, with or without the snarl.

In was such a forgiving atmosphere, Azarenka wouldn't even allow Tennis Channel interviewer Rennae Stubbs to ruin her personal party, refusing to directly answer the Aussie's on-court question that would have caused her to go into the negative aspects of her '14 season. The decision earned her applause from the crowd (ah, New York), which she quickly acknowledged before spinning the question her OWN way, saying that during her layoff she "learned a lot about my body," adding, "I couldn't wait to get back on court."

Vika might not fully have rediscovered her New York groove, but she's getting closer with every shot. She might run out of time -- and rounds -- in this tournament before she can truly be declared a true contender for the title.

But, then again, maybe not.

...somewhat quietly, as has seemed to happen at nearly all the slams this season in spite of her greatly successful comeback efforts, Ana Ivanovic was ushered out of the U.S. Open just four days after it began.

Czech Karolina Pliskova defeated the Serb today, winning 7-5/6-4 to advance to her first career slam 3rd Round. Pliskova is second on tour this year to only Serena Williams in total aces (trailing 360-282, with a decent-sized gap between herself and the rest of the tour), and not only holds the season single-match best (20 in Indian Wells vs. Michelle Larcher de Brito), she also ranks in a tie for third (16) on the list and holds three of the top nine '14 match totals. Oddly enough, though, AnaIvo actually out-aced her 8-7 in this match.

No matter, the story of this contest -- for right now -- is Ivanovic's failure to follow through with her regular tour success on the bigger slam stages this season. She got off to a good start in January, winning a title in Melbourne, then upsetting Serena in the Australian Open en route to the QF, where she lost to Genie Bouchard. Since then, though, the trend hasn't been as eyebrow-raising, at least not in a good way. She reached the semifinals in Rome on clay, but lost in the 3rd Round in Paris. She won her first grass title in Birmingham, but was sent packing in the 3rd Round at Wimbledon. In North America, she just reached the final in Cincinnati, but followed that up with a 2nd Round loss in Flushing Meadows, her worst NYC result since losing in the 1st Round in 2009 when she was in full "swoon mode" not much more than a year after winning her one slam title at Roland Garros the previous season. Her nine slam match wins in 2014 are her fewest in a season since 2011.

So... when is a "comeback" not a "Comeback," and vice versa, anyway? And does it really matter? If this is a stepping-stone sort of thing, maybe the consistency in the slams will return in 2015 for AnaIvo. Of course, then again, what's happened in the four biggest tournaments of the year could be a sign that her uptick in results this season will be a short-lived aberration rather than something close to a return to her old form.

We shall see. a late afternoon match, I'm not sure Madison Keys knew exactly what sort of fight she was going to get from the Serbian Good Luck Charm, world #145 Aleksandra Krunic (Backspin's Q-Player of the Week heading into this Open). The Serb is on the slight side, but she showed great heart, ever better defensive ability ("My job was to be a kind of wall today. I think I managed to do it very well," she said) and surprising power (especially on serve) against the hard-hitting Bannerette in their 2nd Round match.

In a break-less 1st set, Krunic was the picture of composure down the stretch, not letting frustration get the better of her after she failed to convert two break points as Keys held for a 5-4 lead, then had to battle through a 22-point, 10+ minute game in order to hold for 5-5, saving four break points before finally settling things on her own fourth game point. In the eventual tie-break, Krunic won 7-4 to take a surprising lead over the #27 seed, who for the second straight slam was being viewed at as a potential second week breakthrough sort of player.

An injury stopped her progress in London. In New York, it was bit more complicated.

In the 2nd set, all appeared fine. Keys raced out to a big lead and won 6-2. In the 3rd, though, the tough-nosed Krunic returned, while Keys proved that she's not quite ready to be a sure-fire winner over her own nerves in a big match, especially when SHE is the "hunted" player expected to pull things out. The Serb finally broke the Bannerette for the first time in the match to get back on serve at 3-3. Keys saved a BP to hold for 4-4, but as things got close again down the stretch it was the qualifier who proved to have the stronger will. Serving to stay in the match down 5-6, Keys was broken at love, with Krunic emerging with a 7-6(4)/2-6/7-5 win as she reaches her first slam 3rd Round after a week ago sporting a career 0-1 mark (a loss a last year's Open, where she was also a qualifier) in main draw play at majors.

So, in the end, while one Serb went the way of The Dolonc on Day 4, another is still alive along with JJ in the draw. Krunic will next face a certain highly-ranked Czech who still has a shot to become #1 at the end this tournament, so she might need some of that much-talked-about Good Luck. Hey, it's served her well so far. Who knows, maybe this result will finally make her a write-it-down-in-ink-and-don't-question-it member of the Serbian Fed Cup team next year. Maybe.

Krunic and Mirjana Lucic-Baroni (in her first U.S. Open 3rd Round since 1998) are now the only two qualifiers who remain in the draw. it turned out, Samantha Stosur's late North American hard court kick was just that. A kick, not a lift-off. Facing the similarly up-and-down Kaia Kanepi, Stosur played into a 3rd set tie-break. She led 4-1, and held two match points. Failing to convert either, she saw Kanepi ultimately win on her own second MP, taking the TB at 10-8 and the match 3-6/6-3/7-6(8) to reach the Open 3rd Round for the second straight year.

...elsewhere, the other top players cruised. Serena Williams allowed just one game to countrywoman Vania King, and now won't even have to play the woman who defeated her in the '11 final -- Stosur, who could have been on the other side of the next in the 4th Round. Later, Petra Kvitova disposed of fellow Czech (and fellow Petra) Cetkovska in straight sets, as well. A face-off with Vika in the Round of 16 is now just one round away.

...2013 semifinalist Flavia Pennetta defeated Shelby Rogers to reach the 3rd Round, continuing her longtime special relationship with the Open. This is the Italian's tenth appearance in New York, and her previous nine have produced four quarterfinal-or-better results. In the other thirty-five slams she's played in her career, she's had just one such result. And it didn't come until this past January in Melbourne, as she was still riding the confidence high of reaching her only major semi at last year's Open.

Maybe two-time NCAA champ Nicole Gibbs will always have special memories of the U.S. Open, too. Receiving the traditional wild cards into her home slam the last two years as the American-born college champ, Gibbs played her first two career slam matches in Flushing Meadows, going 0-2. This year, she earned a wild card by winning the USTA's multi-tournament playoff on the North American challenger circuit. Two days ago, she grabbed her first career slam match win, and then today she got the biggest victory of her career with an upset of #23 seed Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova.

But it wasn't easy.

With Pavlyuchenkova serving at a woeful clip (39% of 1st serves in, winning 20% of her 2nd), Gibbs held steady and got the chance to serve out the opening set. She did, taking the 1st at 6-4, and then racing to a 5-3 lead in the 2nd. She tried to serve out the match at 5-4, then again at 6-5, failing both times. In the 2nd set tie-break, Gibbs led 5-3, then held a match point. Again, it didn't happen. The Russian, still flailing around on serve (44% of 1st's in, winning 42% of 2nd's in the 2nd set), won the TB 8-6 and forced a 3rd set. That's when Gibbs' history of winning (the two NCAA crowns, including an historic singles/doubles sweep in 2011, and reaching five ITF singles finals over the last two seasons, winning a pair) finally kicked in.

The Bannerette again grabbed a big lead at 5-2, serving for the match once more at 5-3. This time, she didn't falter, putting away the still-underachieving Pavlyuchenkova 6-4/6-7(6)/6-3 to throw her name into the expanding pot filled with achieving Bannerettes. Pavlyuchenkova's final serving stats: 42% of 1st serves in and winning just 30% of 2nd serves, as the Hordette continues to show that dominating in the juniors doesn't necessarily translate to similarly great things on the women's circuit if, as some have long suspected, you're not willing to do what is necessary to make it so.

Gibbs is one of two wild cards remaining as I post this, with CiCi Bellis still to play her match against Zarina Diyas.

...meanwhile, with Gibbs' win over the seeded Pavlyuchenkova, Varvara Lepchenko's win over Mona Barthel today, as well as previous wins over the likes of Dominika Cibulkova, Caroline Garcia, Donna Vekic, Francesca Schiavone and Julia Glushko, I'm going to go the rare route and give the "Revelation Ladies"-winning Bannerettes the "Upset Queens" honor for this slam, as well. It's only the second time it's ever happened, with the other sweep coming from the Czech Maidens at Roland Garros in 2008.

...LIKE FROM DAY 4: Welcome to New York, Anastasia. Woof!

...BELATED OUCH FROM DAY 3: Caro's bad hair day, via an Anna C. "blast from the past" Tweet:

...LIKE FROM DAY 4: Don't worry, Maria K. is doin' just fine.

...DISLIKE FROM DAY 4: ESPN, I know it goes against your nature, but just leave CiCi Bellis alone. There she was walking through the gate just a short time before playing her 2nd Round match, and there was LZ Granderson, microphone in hand, there to intercept her and ask her a few meaningless questions so that the four-letter network could get one last drop of blood out of the teenager before she quite possibly lost a match and became "old news" to the Powers That Be. Bellis, being 15 and experiencing everything here for the first time, isn't going to say "no," and is going to "enjoy" the attention that comes with her win. Yes, she has come off as very mature and composed the last few days, but she IS just a 10th grader (and barely that).

Normally, that would leave it to "the adults" to pull back a tiny bit and let things play out. But this is ESPN, remember, so, well, you know. Mo'ne Davis got the same treatment last week, so why change things up now, right? Apparently, they learned nothing from the Oudin Experiment from a few years ago, either, or the All-Sloane-All-the-Time slam coverage that took place from the 2013 Australian Open until this past Wimbledon... you know, when Stephens lost in the 1st Round.

Hmmm, what a coincidence that is, huh?

...SANIA BEING SANIA FROM DAY 4: Thank goodness. doubles, the Chan sisters advances, while Venus & Serena are headed into a 3rd set with Timea Babos & Kristina Mladenovic as I post this recap.

After a few upsets yesterday, most notably the loss of '13 finalists Barty/Dellacqua, we almost had another today. #2-seeded Hsieh Su-Wei & Peng Shuai dropped the 1st set of their 1st Round match against Irina-Camelia Begu & Karin Knapp, then found themselves down a break point at 4-4 in the 2nd. They saved it, then went on to win 4-6/7-5/6-3.

...and, finally, the Night 5 schedule is set, and Sharapova (17-0 under the lights, the best U.S. Open record ever by a woman, and just slightly behind Pete Sampras' all-time best mark of 20-0, a number which she conceivably could surpass at this slam) will be back on Ashe again, facing off with Sabine Lisicki.

Speaking of the Open at Night, I'll be back later, after the Bellis match and Bouchard night session-concluding contest with Sorana Cirstea, with a short early-round status report.

2004 Russia
2005 United States
2006 France
2007 Russia
2008 China
2009 United States
2010 Taiwan
2011 Romania
2012 Romania
2013 United States
2014 United States
AO: Australia
RG: France
WI: United States
US: United States

JAN: Sara Errani/Roberta Vinci, ITA/ITA (POM: Li)
FEB: Klara Koukalova (Zakopalova), CZE
MAR: Flavia Pennetta, ITA (POM: S.Williams)
APR: Maria Sharapova, RUS
MAY: Sara Errani/Roberta Vinci, ITA/ITA (POM: Sharapova)
JUN: Carla Suarez-Navarro, ESP (POM: Sharapova)
WI: Sara Errani/Roberta Vinci, ITA/ITA
JUL: Serena Williams, USA
AUG: Sara Errani/Roberta Vinci, ITA/ITA (POM: S.Williams)
[2014 Weekly Veteran Award Wins]
6...Jelena Jankovic, SRB
5...Sara Errani/Roberta Vinci, ITA/ITA
4...Svetlana Kuznetsova, RUS
4...Lucie Safarova, CZE
4...Samantha Stosur, AUS
3...Kimiko Date-Krumm, JPN
3...Casey Dellacqua, AUS
3...Klara Koukalova (Zakopalova), CZE
3...Aleksandra Wozniak, CAN
2...Martina Hingis, SUI
2...Johanna Larsson, SWE
2...Li Na, CHN
2...Anabel Medina-Garrigues/Yaroslava Shvedova, ESP/KAZ
2...Yvonne Meusburger, AUT
2...Flavia Pennetta, ITA
2...Chanelle Scheepers, RSA
2...Roberta Vinci, ITA
2...Venus Williams, USA
2...Zheng Jie, CHN

TOP QUALIFIER: #32q Aleksandra Krunic/SRB
Co-TOP EARLY-ROUND (1r-2r): xx
TOP QUALIFYING MATCH: Q3: Duan Yingying/CHN d. Irena Pavlovic/FRA 6-3/1-6/7-6(5) [Pavlovic up 5-1 3rd, held MP]
TOP EARLY-RD. MATCH (1r-2r): Nominee: 1st Rd. - (WC) Bellis d. #12 Cibulkova 6-1/4-6/6-4
FIRST WINNER: #4 Aga Radwanska/POL (def. S.Fichman/CAN)
FIRST SEED OUT: #25 Garbine Muguruza/ESP (lost to M.Lucic-Baroni/CRO)
UPSET QUEENS: United States
REVELATION LADIES: United States' Bannerettes (12 reach 2nd Rd.)
NATION OF POOR SOULS: France (1-5 in 1st Rd.; only win in Pastry-vs.-Pastry match-up)
CRASH & BURN: #12 Dominika Cibulkova/SVK (AO runner-up; lost 1st Rd. to Bellis/USA, 15-year old in slam debut)
ZOMBIE QUEEN: Nominees: J.Larsson/SWE (down 7-5/3-0, 2-0 in 3rd vs. Stephens in 2nd Rd.); A.Petkovic/GER (down 4-1 in 3rd vs. Puig in 2nd Rd.)
LAST QUALIFIER STANDING: In 3rd Rd.: A.Krunic/SRB, M.Lucic-Baroni/CRO
LAST WILD CARD STANDING: In 3rd Rd.: N.Gibbs/USA (Bellis/USA still to play 2nd Rd.)
LAST BANNERETTE STANDING: In 3rd Rd.: N.Gibbs, V.Lepchenko, S.Williams, V.Williams (C.Bellis still to play 2nd Rd.)
IT ("Girl"): CiCi Bellis/USA (15-year old Wild Card; youngest MD win since 1996 - Anna Kournikova)
COMEBACK PLAYER: Nominee: M.Lucic-Baroni/CRO, C.Wozniacki/DEN, A.Petkovic/GER
BROADWAY-BOUND: Nominee: C.Bellis/USA, A.Cornet/FRA
LADY OF THE EVENING: Nominee: M.Sharapova/RUS, S.Williams/USA

All for now. More later.


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