Sunday, September 07, 2014

To the Exceptional Go the Spoils

If you're playing in the U.S. Open final, you sort of know things aren't going your way when you don't register your first groundstroke winner until you're down a set and 5-3 in the 2nd. Well, that was Caroline Wozniacki's world today... and there was only enough room for Serena Williams to live in it.

Check that. There was enough room for Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert, too.

Fifteen years ago, Williams burst onto the grand slam center stage at Flushing Meadows as a 17-year old, beating her big sister Venus into the winner's circle by elbowing world #1, five-time slam champ and three-times-running U.S. Open finalist Martina Hingis, 18, out of the picture to grab her first major title. The Swiss Miss would never win another slam singles crown, nor reach a fourth final in New York. Within three years, though, Serena would win four straight slams en route to her "Serena Slam." Flashforward to 2014, and the twice retired, 33-year old Hingis, working on her second comeback, was playing in the women's doubles final. A day later, Williams, already the oldest-ever WTA world #1 at 32, was making her twenty-second major final appearance, looking to take her sixth U.S. Open crown, become the first three-peat champ in thirty-seven years and win an eighteenth career slam title, tying her with Navratilova and Evert for fourth place on the all-time Open era list.

Wozniacki, a former #1 herself as well as '09 Open finalist, came into the final looking to put a grand capper on a summer that began with both romantic and slam heartbreak in Europe but eventually morphed into a North American run that finally saw the long-sought changes in her game take hold as the Dane's new in-point aggression and improved serve made her the second-best player on tour during the hard court stint between Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. Thing is, the only player who'd achieved even more than Wozniacki in North America the last two months was staring back at her over the net. It was the same player with whom she'd developed a friendship with the last few years, as well as the one who joined her in Miami following their early Roland Garros exits, going on beach excursions and Heat games and generally looking as if they were having wonderful fun together after some very public bad times.

For the first time, well, maybe since she climbed into the #1 ranking in 2010, even longtime Wozniacki detractors finally felt she might just be capable of seizing the moment on a major stage. With her improved game (although she lost both times, she'd already pushed Williams to three sets twice this summer), her history as a slam-less #1 and the player with the most career titles without a major win in WTA history seemed capable of being put into the past. Well, that is, if the "real" Serena didn't show up for the final because, you know, if SHE'S around at slam time the rest of the field is essentially playing for second.

After having not advanced to a QF at any slam in '14 prior to the U.S. Open, Williams had already avoided having this be her first four-slam participation season without reaching at least one final since her debut campaign in 1998, but a third straight title would make her the first woman to win three consecutive Opens since Evert won four in a row from 1975-78, and just the second since "Little Mo'" Connolly was the champ from 1951-53. So, Williams was still playing against some pretty strong history that said that it just might not be her day, after all.

Yeah, right. In truth, it was no contest.

Wozniacki held a break point on Williams' serve in the very first game of the match, but once Serena held for a 1-0 lead she really never looked back. The Dane had two double-faults in her first serve game, but when she did manage to get her second serve in Williams pulverized it, blasting a crosscourt forehand winner on one to reach break point, then another forehand winner down the line on another to go up 2-0. The pair ultimately exchanged five consecutive breaks of serve during the 1st set, but there was never a notion that Williams wasn't in control of the action, from the rallies to the overall tone of the competition. While Serena wasn't shouting after winning important points in an attempt to pump herself up -- perhaps as a nod to her friendship with Wozniacki -- she was clearly focused throughout. Williams finally held serve for a 5-2 lead, forcing Wozniacki to do the same in order to extend the set. After reaching game point, back-to-back forehand errors from the Dane set up Serena with a set point, Wozniacki managed to hold for the first time in the match. But it was only a delaying tactic, as one game later Williams moved in on a short ball and hit a clean winner behind Wozniacki to take the 1st at 6-3.

It's been twenty years ('94 Sanchez Vicario vs. Graf) since a woman lost the 1st set in the U.S. Open final and came back to win, and before the last two finals in Flushing Meadows saw three-set encounters between Williams and Victoria Azarenka only one championship match had gone the distance over the previous sixteen years. This final was not going to carve out any particular new ground for this tournament.

While Wozniacki had reached the final by using her newly aggressive tactics to rack up winners during her matches, she had just one (an ace) in the 1st set against ten unforced errors. While still sporting a good defensive game that can wear down opponents -- two of Wozniacki's six Open opponents had retired against her, most famously a collapsing Peng Shuai in the semifinals -- it was the Dane who was doing the running during the rallies against Williams, perhaps allowing Caro to get in a little additional road work leading up to her participation in the upcoming New York City marathon. As the 2nd set set opened with another break of Wozniacki's serve, it appeared as if Williams was almost inadvertently toying with her fellow finalist. Wozniacki avoided going down a double-break, saving break point to hold for 2-1, then held serve for a third straight time to cut Serena's lead to 4-3. Still, though, she didn't hit her first non-ace winner in the final until she was down 5-3, 15/love in the 2nd set.

On the next point, Williams won a 26-shot rally that served to inform the Dane that she had no reason to expect any sudden miracles here.

Just a few moments later, Serena reached match point. Wozniacki's long backhand shot ended the 6-3/6-3 match as Williams won her twenty-first straight match in New York, and ultimately outdistanced the Dane 29-4 in winners.

In winning another match in straight sets at this slam, Williams became the first woman to take the Open title without dropping a set since she last did it in 2008. In fact, three of her six titles in NYC have come with such a spotless record, as she also pulled off the feat in 2002.

In the post-match ceremony, Williams basked in the glow of the history she'd created. Posing for pictures with Navratilova and Evert, who gave her a charm bracelet to honor the occasion of her 18th slam, Williams was humble and appreciative of her place in the landscape of the game. She still says that she can hardly believe it's happened to her, even if the rest of us can now barely remember a time when it didn't seem, quite simply, a matter-of-fact way of WTA life that Serena is the best women's tennis player on the planet. After all, it's been a thought that has hovered over -- at the very least -- the tour for going only close to twenty years now.

Wozniacki knew she had nothing to be ashamed of on this today. Losing to the best player she'll ever face, on one of Serena's "good" days, is never going to create an ounce of regret in an opponent. "Serena, you deserve it. You played better than me today and you deserve to be the champion," Wozniacki said. "You are an inspiration on the court and off it. You're an unbelievable champion and a great friend. The drinks are on you tonight."

While Wozniacki's new "era of optimism" regarding her slam chances will continue into 2015 and beyond, Williams, too, seems ready to resume her climb up the ladder of greats come next season. Officially standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Navratilova and Evert, Serena can now look up only at the likes of Helen Wills-Moody, Steffi Graf and Margaret Court. At least one, and maybe two, are surely within reach before she's through. Who knows, maybe that ALL are.

While she once again showed just how human she is during the 2014 slam calendar, in New York Williams also showed that she's still one exceptional human when it comes to playing tennis. At 32, she's already won more slam titles since turning 30 than any other woman in WTA history. One more title and she'll have claimed twice as many. And, after all these years, it's still never safe to bet against her getting even more after that.

=DAY 14 NOTES= the Men's Doubles final, the Bryan twins picked up their 100th career title, 5th U.S. Open and overall 16th grand slam crown.

...Czech Maiden Marie Bouzkova won the girls singles title, taking out #9-seed Anhelina Kalinina 6-4/7-6(5) to become the first girl from her country to win the U.S. Open junior championship. Barbora (then only) Strycova reached the final in 2002, while Slovak Karina Habsudova won the Open girls crown while representing Czechoslovakia in 1991. Czech Hana Mandlikova won the women's singles in 1985, famously knocking off both Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova on her way to the title.

Meanwhile, Bouzkova got congratulations from someone named Petra back home. the Women's Wheelchair Singles final, Yui Kamiji from Japan continued along on her way to completing a near-Vergeerean sort of season at the slams. Her 6-3/6-3 win today over Esther Vergeer's countrywoman, Aniek Van Koot, gives the 20-year old six of the seven major singles and doubles titles contested in 2014. She and Jordanne Whiley completed a Doubles Grand Slam yesterday, and today's singles win is her second at a slam this season. She reached the final in the only major competition she didn't win in Melbourne, losing in three sets to Germany's Sabine Ellerbrock.

This turn of events has to be a bit aggravating for Van Koot, just 24, who finally was able to grab two slam singles titles (AO & US) of her own last year once the dominant Vergeer had retired. As the #1-ranked Kamiji has risen to assume the top spot in the Wheelchair rankings in '14, though, Van Koot has finished second to Kamiji in five of her six title runs in majors (losing singles finals at RG & the U.S., and in doubles at RG, SW19 & the U.S. after having missed the AO due to injury).

In the men's WC final, Shingo Kunieda defeated Gustavo Fernandez of Argentina, giving Japan a second player with a singles/doubles sweep of the wheelchair titles at this Open. Tomorrow, Kei Nishikori will try to grab another title for the nation while becoming the first Asian man to ever win a slam singles crown. Week 36 ITF action, 37-year old Thai vet Tamarine Tanasugarn fell from the sky and onto the carpet in the $25K challenger in Noto, Japan, defeating Taiwan's Lee Ya-Hsuan 6-0/6-4 to win her 14th career ITF singles crown. It's her first circuit title since 2011, while her last tour level singles win came in 2010 in Osaka when she defeated Kimiko Date-Krumm in the final. A former Top 20 player (reaching #19 in 2002) Tanasugarn entered this past week ranked #697 in the world.

Elsewhere, Czech Denisa Allertova continued her ITF Player of the Year-type season in the $25K event in Alphen aan den Rijn, Netherlands by defeating Brazil's Teliana Pereira in the final to grab her ITF-leading seventh title this season. Allertova, 21, is 8-1 in her last nine singles finals since 2012.

Meanwhile, in one of the many $10K events held in Antalya, Turkey it was 28-year old Fin Emma Laine who walked off with her third singles challenger title of 2014, as she continues on her successful return to solo play after having played exclusively in doubles from January 2012 until February of this season. The Fed Cup stalwart, a former Top 50 player (2006), hadn't won a singles title since 2010 when this season began, but has now raised her career challenger title total to ten with today's win over Thailand's Nungnadda Wannasuk in the final. Even with her results prior to this week factored in, Laine was still only ranked #664 in the world heading into the event. She's now 32-9 in singles on the year.

FUTURE CAROLINE FROM DAY 14?: Until next year...


LIKE FROM DAY 14: It never gets old.

LIKE #2 FROM DAY 14: Ditto.

MEANWHILE...FROM DAY 14: Livin' on the edge of the shot. At least this time.

And as the center of attention...

For forever and a day... and counting.

...and, finally...

QUEBEC CITY, QUEBEC CAN (Int'l $250K/indoor carpet)
13 Final: Safarova d. Erakovic
13 Doubles Final: Kudryavtseva/An.Rodionova d. Hlavackova/Hradecka
14 Top Seeds: V.Williams/Tomljanovic

#1 V.Williams d. #4 Rogers
#5 Goerges d. #3 Mladenovic
#1 V.Williams d. #5 Goerges

...Rogers likes Canada (see Montreal), but Venus liked it even better this summer (see defeat of Serena).

HONG KONG, CHINA (Int'l $250K/hard outdoor)
13 Final: new event
13 Doubles Final: new event
14 Top Seeds: Lisicki/Hantuchova

#1 Lisicki d. Date-Krumm
#3 Ka.Pliskova d. Bertens
#3 Ka.Pliskova d. #1 Lisicki

...may the best serve win. And since Hong Kong isn't London...

TASHKENT, UZBEKISTAN (Int'l $250K/hard outdoor)
13 Final: Jovanovski d. Govortsova
13 Doubles Final: Babos/Shvedova d. Govortsova/Minella
14 Top Seeds: Jovanovski/Begu

#1 Jovanovski d. Jaksic
Krunic d. #6 Doi
Krunic d. #1 Jovanovski

...hmmm, let's see how the Serbian Good Luck Charm follows up her U.S. Open run. She might not be able to carry over her momentum in Tashkent, where defending champ BoJo is playing after apparently haven gotten past (for now, at least) the wrist injury that it's been said she needs surgery to remedy for a bit now. Oh, but if Krunic COULD win this title, how great would THAT be? So, I'll pick it just in case.

#1 Serena Williams/USA def. #10 Caroline Wozniacki/DEN 6-3/6-3

#10 Kei Nishikori/JPN vs. #14 Marin Cilin/CRO

#4 Makarova/Vesnina (RUS/RUS) def. Hingis/Pennetta (SUI/ITA) 2-6/6-3/6-2

#1 B.Bryan/M.Bryan (USA/USA) def. #11 Granollers-Pujols/M.Lopez (ESP/ESP) 6-3/6-4

#1 Mirza/Soares (IND/BRA) def. Spears/S.Gonzalez (USA/MEX) 6-1/2-6 [11-9]

Marie Bouzkova/CZE def. #9 Anhelina Kalinina/UKR 6-4/7-6(5)

Omar Jasika/AUS def. #5 Quentin Halys/FRA 2-6/7-5/6-1

#6 Soylu/Teichmann (TUR/SUI) def. Lapko/Mihalikova (BLR/SVK) 5-7/6-2 [10-7]

#6 Jasika/Nakagawa (AUS/JPN) def. Matos/Menezes (BRA/BRA) 6-3/7-6(6)

#1 Yui Kamiji/JPN def. #2 Aniek Van Koot/NED 6-3/6-3

#1 Shingo Kunieda/JPN def. #2 Stephane Houdet/FRA 7-6(0)/6-4

#1 Kamiji/Whiley (JPN/GBR) def. #2 Griffioen/Van Koot (NED/NED) 6-4/3-6/6-3

#1 Houdet/Kunieda (FRA/JPN) def. #2 Reid/Scheffers (GBR/NED) 6-2 2-6 7-6(4)

#1 Jamie Loeb (Univ. of North Carolina) def. Julia Elbaba (Univ. of Va.) 7-5/6-1

#1 Marcos Giron (UCLA) def. Peter Kobelt (Ohio St.) 6-1/6-3

24...Margaret Court
22...Steffi Graf
19...Helen Wills-Moody
18...Martina Navratilova
18...Chris Evert
12...Billie Jean King
12...Suzanne Lenglen
[total slam titles - active - singles/doubles/mixed]
33...SERENA WILLIAMS (18-13-2)
22...Venus Williams (7-13-2)
15...Martina Hingis (5-9-1)
11...Lisa Raymond (0-6-5)
10...Cara Black (0-5-5)

7...Venus Williams, USA
5...Maria Sharapova, RUS
2...Victoria Azarenka, BLR
2...Svetlana Kuznetsova, RUS
2...Li Na, CHN
2...Petra Kvitova, CZE

5...SERENA WILLIAMS (2 at 30, 2 at 31, 1 at 32)
3...Martina Navratilova (2 at 30, 1 at 33)
3...Margaret Court (2 at 30, 1 at 31)
2...Billie Jean King (30 & 31)
2...Chris Evert (30 & 31)
1...Li Na (31)
1...Virginia Wade (31)
1...Ann Haydon Jones (30)

32y,11m,1w - SERENA WILLIAMS, 2014
31y,11m,2w - Serena Williams, 2013
31y,1m,3w - Margaret Court, 1973
30y,11m,2w - Serena Williams, 2012

*U.S. OPEN WOMEN'S TITLES - all-time*
8...Molla Bjurstedt Mallory
7...Helen Wills Moody
6...Chris Evert
5...Margaret Court
5...Steffi Graf

AO: Karolina Pliskova, CZE
RG: Elina Svitolina, UKR
WI: Kristyna Pliskova, CZE
US: Daria Gavrilova, RUS
AO: An-Sophie Mestach, BEL
RG: Ons Jabeur, TUN
WI: Ashleigh Barty, AUS
AO: Grace Min, USA
AO: Taylor Townsend, USA
RG: Annika Beck, GER
WI: Eugenie Bouchard, CAN
US: Samantha Crawford, USA
AO: Ana Konjuh, CRO
RG: Belinda Bencic, SUI
WI: Belinda Bencic, SUI
US: Ana Konjuh, CRO
AO: Elizaveta Kulichkova, RUS
RG: Darya Kasatkina, RUS
WI: Jelena Ostapenko, LAT
US: Marie Bouzkova, CZE

2007 Kristina Kucova, SVK
2008 Gabriela Paz, VEN
2009 Heather Watson, GBR
2010 Yulia Putintseva, RUS & Sloane Stephens, USA
2011 Grace Min, USA
2012 Vicky Duval, USA
2013 Tornado Alicia Black, USA
2014 Marie Bouzkova, CZE
AO: Elizaveta Kulichkova, RUS
RG: Darya Kasatkina, RUS
WI: Jelena Ostapenko, LAT
US: Marie Bouzkova, CZE

**#1 vs. #1 MEETINGS IN 2014 SLAMS**
AO: (4th Rd.) Ivanovic d. S.Williams
RG: -
WI: -
US: (4th Rd.) Wozniacki d. Sharapova, (Final) S.Williams d. Wozniacki

AO: Sabine Ellerbrock, GER
RG: Yui Kamiji, JPN
US: Yui Kamiji, JPN
AO: Yui Kamiji/Jordanne Whiley, JPN/GBR
RG: Yui Kamiji/Jordanne Whiley, JPN/GBR
WI: Yui Kamiji/Jordanne Whiley, JPN/GBR
US: Yui Kamiji/Jordanne Whiley, JPN/GBR

2002 Mahesh Bhupathi & Max Mirnyi
2003 Jonas Bjorkman & Todd Woodbridge
2004 Mark Knowles & Daniel Nestor
2005 Bob & Mike Bryan
2006 Martin Damm & Leander Paes
2007 Simon Aspelin & Julian Knowle
2008 Bob & Mike Bryan
2009 Lukas Dlouhy & Leander Paes
2010 Bob & Mike Bryan
2011 Jurgen Melzer & Philipp Petzschner
2012 Bob & Mike Bryan
2013 Leander Paes & Radek Stepanek
2014 Bob & Mike Bryan
AO: Lukas Kubot & Robert Lindstedt
RG: Julien Benneteau & Edouard Roger-Vasselin
WI: Vacek Pospisil & Jack Sock
US: Bob & Mike Bryan

[duos - Open era]
11...Todd Woodbridge & Mark Woodforde
7...Peter Fleming & John McEnroe
7...John Newcombe & Tony Roche
[individuals - Open era]
16 - Todd Woodbridge, AUS
12 - Mark Woodforde, AUS
11 - John Newcombe, USA

17...Roger Federer, SUI
14...Leander Paes, IND
14...Rafael Nadal, ESP
12...Mahesh Bhupathi, IND
12...Daniel Nestor, CAN

TOP QUALIFIER: #32q Aleksandra Krunic/SRB
TOP EARLY-ROUND (1r-2r): #1 Serena Williams/USA
TOP MIDDLE-ROUND (3r-QF): #17 Ekaterina Makarova/RUS
TOP LATE-ROUND (SF-F): #1 Serena Williams/USA
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): 1st Rd. - (WC) CiCi Bellis/USA d. #12 Dominika Cibulkova/SVK 6-1/4-6/6-4 (Bellis world #1208)
TOP MIDDLE-RD. MATCH (3r-QF): 4th Rd. - #16 Victoria Azarenka/BLR d. (Q) Aleksandra Krunic/SRB 4-6/6-4/6-4
TOP LATE-RD. MATCH (SF-F/Jr.): Mixed Doubles Final - #1 Mirza/Soares d. Spears/Santiago 6-1/2-6 [11-9]
TOP ASHE NIGHT SESSION MATCH: 4th Rd. - #16 Victoria Azarenka/BLR d. (Q) Aleksandra Krunic/SRB 4-6/6-4/6-4
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 (12 Bannerettes 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: Mirjana Lucic-Baroni/CRO (in Round of 16 for first time in 15 years, after family's abusive background)
LAST QUALIFIER STANDING: Aleksandra Krunic/SRB & Mirjana Lucic-Baroni/CRO (both 4th Rd.)
IT ("Girl"): CiCi Bellis/USA (15-year old Wild Card; youngest MD win since 1996 - Anna Kournikova)
COMEBACK PLAYER: Caroline Wozniacki/DEN
LADY OF THE EVENING: Victoria Azarenka/BLR
DOUBLES STARS: Yui Kamiji & Jordanne Whiley (JPN/GBR)

All for now. More Monday.


Blogger Eric said...

Don't think that Caroline has any singles slam titles...yet.

Mon Sep 08, 12:08:00 AM EDT  
Blogger Todd.Spiker said...

Haha. I think she must have slipped onto the bottom of that list because I thought it said career slam FINALS. Whoops! Fixed. Thanks. ;)

Mon Sep 08, 03:00:00 AM EDT  

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