Tuesday, September 02, 2014

US 8.5 - Good Luck & the Belarusian Idol

They say that the making of the sausage isn't always pretty. But something it's pretty exciting. Case in point: Victoria Azarenka vs. Aleksandra Krunic in the Round of 16 on Ashe.

A week ago, no one could have really foreseen the match-up that occurred at Flushing Meadows on Labor Day Monday. After a disappointing, injury-marred season, former #1 and two-time finalist Azarenka came to New York barely holding onto a Top 20 ranking after entering 2014 as the solid #2. An ankle injury took her away from the game for months, only to make her appreciate the sport more and take unbridled joy in finally being able to spread her toes, knowing that it was a sign that she was close to returning to the court. A knee injury played havoc with the Belarusian's pre-Open hard court season, and it truthfully wouldn't have been a shock if she'd failed to last beyond the opening few rounds at this slam. And she almost didn't, being pushed in her opening match, before gradually beginning to regain her past verve and form over the next two matches heading in the 4th Round. Whether she was on the verge of truly regaining her form was unknown... sort of like her #145-ranked, 4th Round opponent in the eyes of many.

Krunic, 21, has mostly maintained a doubles presence in recent seasons, playing a key role in Serbia's run to the Fed Cup final in 2012, only to often be snubbed by her nation's tennis federation ever since, left off FC rosters with regularity in favor of players who'd accomplished less than her both before and after they were gifted with roster spots over the last two years. It's no wonder that Krunic's words seem to hint that she has very little confidence in her ability to truly compete against the best singles players on tour, no matter that she'd done just that through the first week of the Open. Splitting from her coach before the tournament, one of the first arguments she had with her new one centered on her unwillingness to book her hotel room into the SECOND week of the tournament (why do it if you think you won't still be in the draw?). When told she needed to believe she could last until the end of the tournament, Krunic said, "come back to earth, please." Yet after making it through qualifying, all she'd done since was knock off seeded American Madison Keys and Wimbledon champ Petra Kvitova, showing keen defensive skills, nice variety and a remarkable power despite her 5-foot-4, 105-pound frame. Maybe it was the heart that seemed to be the size of the entire city that made the difference. Looking at photos of Krunic standing alongside her past FC teammates, her head not even reaching the height of Ana Ivanovic's shoulder, the Serbian Good Luck Charm who's barely the size of a charm bracelet has always been easy to root for. At this Open, it turned into something more, well, real. She proved she has game, even if she might still need a little bit of convincing how good she might be.

Before heading out to play her 4th Round match with Azarenka, Krunic was visably in awe of the size of the largest tennis stadium in the world, and said her game plan was "to stay on the court for as long" as she could. It didn't exactly sound like a player who thought she could win. But she very nearly did.

Oh, and what a match it turned out to be, too.

At times it was thrilling, while at others crazed. All the while, both players passed momentum back and forth like a hot potato lit on fire by a white-hot metal rod poking through its middle. First, Krunic flummoxed Azarenka with drop shots, lobs and change of pace balls, only to grab the lead and then become noticeably more tentative as Azarenka seemed to grab control of the match. Of course, that wouldn't last long, as the speedy Krunic's fearless -- and more offensively-minded -- streak would return sized twice as big as her tiny self, wrestling back the direction of the match in come-from-behind fashion, only to see Azarenka's fire stoked still more as she battled through several error-strewn patches that saw her hanging on, staying barely a step ahead of her opponent and causing the crowd to become engrossed with the ENTIRE match, not just Krunic's fate.

[ Speaking of the crowd, it should be noted that the New York fans who once again showed the two-time finalist great respect while she faced off with a plucky underdog that arenas filled with fans in other grand slam cities -- psst, Melbourne and Paris, I'm talking about you -- would have sold their souls to get behind totally, while simultaneously turning against Azarenka in the process. That sort of nonsense never happened in this match. It was all about the tennis, and both players were appreciated for the show they put on. The Ashe crowd refused to root against Vika, but still cheered wildly for the Serbian qualifier as she sometimes fired crushing shots off her racket from seemingly out of nowhere, combining them with her peerless defense for some of the best shots we have or will see at this U.S. Open. ]

We had aces and volleys. Net cords and drop shots. Clenched fists and full body thrusts. And, in the end, a victory that means so much more than just a means of advancing one single round into a grand slam. Oh, and then we had a sing-along session. But, ummm, more on that later.

Of course, in the early going, the questioning Krunic nearly made it a runaway for Azarenka. Nervous and tight, she was broken to start the match, then fell down a double break at 3-0. She lost twelve of the first fourteen points. But then Vika double-faulted to break herself and cut the score to 3-1, and all holy hell broke loose. Suddenly, Krunic caught a wave and won eight of ten points, winning four of five games. Serving at 4-4, Krunic faced break point, but survived the game with a combination of drop shots, long rallies, and both elicited and unforced errors off Azarenka's racket. Krunic held for 5-4, and a game later was up 40/love on Vika's serve. Azarenka saved three break/set points, but a drop shot and pass combo from the Serb gave her a fourth opportunity. Azarenka's netted forehand gave Krunic the 1st set at 6-4, and a frustrated Vika -- who'd won just 38% of her 1st serves -- had a manic look on her face that looked to be about another break of serve away from what we saw during that Australian Open semifinal against Sloane Stephens last year.

Krunic held to go up 1-0 in the 2nd set to win her seventh of eight games, while Azarenka was forced to play from behind while serving second. While Vika was desperately trying to pump herself up with shouts and fist pumps, Krunic was almost silently putting together multiple all-inspiring shots. Like this gem:

Azarenka seemed to pull away and take control, going up 40/love on Krunic's serve at 3-3, and getting the break lead when the Serb committed a forehand error. Vika held for 6-4 to knot the match, then broke to start the 3rd. But all it took was for Azarenka's play to end its forward momentum for a moment, and Krunic grabbed the opportunity to shine when the pressure of leading the match had been lifted off her slight shoulders. In game #4, Krunic held double break-point and Azarenka's error got things back on serve at 2-2. Then Vika seemed to surge ahead again, profitting form a double-bounce off the net cord that gave her a break point at 3-3. A down-the-line backhand winner put the Belarusian winner up 4-3, and things appeared to finally be pointing in the direction of a Vika victory.

Even after another spate of errors put Azarenka down 15/40 on serve a game later, she was able to hold onto her advantage by the barest of margins. Another net cord and a half-volley, down-the-line passing shot winner from the baseline saved one break point, then a long Krunic error saved another. Azarenka moved forward and cut off a Krunic shot for volley winner to reach game point, then another error from the Serb gave Vika a 5-3 lead.

But Krunic wasn't going to go away easily. She wasn't ready to come back down to earth just yet.

A game later, she fired two aces and held for 5-4. Azarenka opened game #10 with a double-fault and error to fall behind love/30. A wide serve and forehand winner combo prevented a deep hole, and the poor decision by Krunic to attempt a drop shot from two feet behind the baseline took away her lead as the ball failed to cross the net. On match point, Krunic's long return gave Azarenka a 4-6/6-4/6-4 victory and a third straight trip to the U.S. Open quarterfinals.

The former #1's path back to contender status hasn't always been pretty at this Open, but the end result still could be beautiful. Azarenka has her game face back, while her fitness and match toughness are still a work in progress. But she's getting closer. She's loving tennis, life and her continuing existence in this Open.

But, well, then there was this. Umm, I think the less said the better. Heehee.

All right, so she's not going to be the winner of the next season of "Belarusian Idol," but I think she can live with that.

For now, anyway.

2006 E.Birnerova/CZE,Y.Fedossova/FRA,K.Flipkens/BEL, V.Lepchenko/UZB,A.Radwanska/POL (2nd Rd.)
2007 Alize Cornet/FRA & Ekaterina Makarova/RUS (3rd Rd.)
2008 Anna-Lena Groenefeld/GER (4th Rd.)
2009 Anastasia Rodionova/AUS (3rd Rd.)
2010 Lourdes Dominquez-Lino/ESP, Mandy Minella/LUX (3rd)
2011 Silvia Soler-Espinosa/ESP (3rd Rd.)
2012 Olga Puchkova/RUS (3rd Rd.)
2013 Camila Giorgi/ITA (4th Rd.)
2014 Aleksandra Krunic/SRB, Mirjana Lucic-Baroni/CRO (4th)
AO: Zarina Diyas, KAZ (3rd Rd.)
RG: Kiki Bertens, NED (4th Rd.)
WI: Tereza Smitkova, CZE (4th Rd.)
US: Aleksandra Krunic/SRB, Mirjana Lucic-Baroni/CRO (4th)

Unseeded - 2000 Elena Dementieva, RUS
Unseeded - 2009 Yanina Wickmayer, BEL
Unseeded - 2011 Angelique Kerber, GER
Unseeded - 2013 Flavia Pennetta, ITA
[ Unseeded - Belinda Bencic, SUI ??? ]
[ Unseeded - Peng Shuai, CHN ??? ]
Wild Card - 2009 Kim Clijsters, BEL (W)
#28 - 2011 Serena Williams, USA (RU)
#19 - 2006 Jelena Jankovic,SRB
[ #17 - Ekaterina Makarova, RUS ??? ]
[ #16 - Victoria Azarenka, BLR ??? ]
[ #13 - Sara Errani, ITA ??? ]
#12 - 2005 Mary Pierce, FRA (RU)
#12 - 2007 Venus Williams, USA
[ #11 - Flavia Pennetta, ITA ??? ]
#10 - 2001 Serena Williams, USA (RU)
#10 - 2002 Amelie Mauresmo, FRA
#10 - 2012 Sara Errani, ITA
[ #10 - Caroline Wozniacki, DEN ??? ]

All for Night 8. More tomorrow.


Blogger jo shum said...

todd, don't you just love how feisty vika gets sometimes, and not only on court?

in the interview, question about shorts:

Q. You talked about Milos' sleeve. Do you feel comfortable back in the shorts? During your big winning streak, beginning of 2012, all in shorts. I'm wondering if you're in a happy place again now that you're back in them.

VICTORIA AZARENKA: Ben, you're killing me every time.

Q. It's a good question.

VICTORIA AZARENKA: I mean, I missed you so much. You didn't show up in any of my press conferences before and I was wondering when are you going to show up with some ridiculous stuff. I think my shorts are in a happy place, you know. They are on a happy place. You know, it's on my butt, so it's in a happy place.

but the birthday song, she should get a grip. sang horribly.

Tue Sep 02, 02:19:00 AM EDT  
Blogger Todd.Spiker said...

"I think my shorts are in a happy place, you know. They are on a happy place. You know, it's on my butt, so it's in a happy place."

I think that quote could live forever. Haha!

You know, sometimes I find myself worrying that when she gets feisty on the court that the crowd is going to turn against her. I always hold my breath, but I guess that's just the bad memories from Melbourne. I think that's why I've been remarking numerous times this Open about the crowd treating her well, not getting on her back about things like being upset with something or trying to fire herself up. In the AO, every move she makes seems to be an opportunity for those fans to boo or make fun, etc. There were a few moments in tonight's match that I'm sure would have brought whistles from the "great Australian fans."

Always though she was a natural to be embraced in NYC, though. It seems like she's on or heading down that path.

But, yeah, I thought the "happy birthday" song was going to undo all the good in one minute! But I think it was so bad, and a little goofy, that she was able to get away with it and it'll actually be seen as an endearing thing.

I just hope every time she's interviewed after a match at the Open that they don't now ask her to sing something. For her sake and, you know, out of respect for our ears. :)

Tue Sep 02, 03:21:00 AM EDT  
Blogger Todd.Spiker said...

Thank goodness someone actually had the sense to ask her that question. It's the sort of thing we need and want to know! :D

Tue Sep 02, 03:23:00 AM EDT  
Blogger jo shum said...

oh but i love that edgy self on display. for a while now, i thought she was too mellow. in this open, she came back, well, the bad temper too. haha. but it's ok in my eyes.

don't know if you have seen this question asked, it's almost like she is attacking it. i love it though.

Q. What have you enjoyed the most during this tournament so far in the way you've played given what you've suffered?

VICTORIA AZARENKA: You're making it sound like I went through, I don't know, that I almost died and, you know, there was 10 sharks and I got attacked and I survived. And, you know, I saved a dolphin, as well. It's not that complicated, really. You know, what I enjoy is to play tennis. To be talking about what happened with my injuries, I mean, it's useless already. Really what I want to do is to focus on the moment and, you know, just leave this moment, enjoy this moment because I really do, and try to make the best out of this particular moment. What happened in the past, you know, I ain't got no genie in the bottle to wish what could I do in the past.

krunic was great! i never saw her play until this open. when i saw her beat petra i was surprised, but tonight i was impressed. impossible retrieving skills, and great varieties and a punch to her serve. does she play like that all the time? why didn't we see her earlier in other tournaments? is this stretch sustainable or just one time wonder in one slam? i think i might just start following her.

Tue Sep 02, 03:35:00 AM EDT  
Blogger Todd.Spiker said...

Oh, I like it, too. That and the adverse reaction some had to it was, I think, what sort of lifted her up to "replace" Henin around here as the "favorite daughter." I'm glad THAT Vika is coming back, and I guess it's also nice that some people are now accepting it a little more easily, too. Of course, there's always Melbourne... but that's leaves at least one place where the "stick it" attitude can come out here if the Whack-a-Vika stuff starts up again next year. ;)

I noticed Krunic having some good results in singles earlier this year -- back-to-back SF in $75K and $100K events, with a win over Doi and pushing Zahlavova-Strycova to three sets. I think maybe she's just now finally learning to be more offensive-minded on court. You could see in this Open that often when she got a little tight, or had a lead, she fell back into a too-defensive game; but when she was behind she went more offensive and things started to work great. Thing is, her size and speed would make her seem like she'd be only one of those scrambling, defensive, wait for an error sort of players. But she really has some easy pop in her shots, which is remarkable considering how small she is. Even on serve... which should really put some higher-ranked WTA players to shame, since physically they should be able to at least come close to having the sort of serve that Krunic is capable of having.

Just listening to her, it seems like she's lacking in the confidence in her game that she can do what she just did on a regular basis. But hopefully how she played in NY will change that, and lead her to take more chances on the court. She can pull off the big shots, and chase down everything, too. I hope she can find it within herself to make that her normal game, or get a coach that will drag it out of her. Maybe the new coach she has now has already helped.

Tue Sep 02, 01:20:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Eric said...

Good tournament for Michael Chang.

Tue Sep 02, 02:05:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Diane said...

Krunic clearly shocked herself. Sounds like the new coach is the best thing to come along in her career. No matter what else happens at this tournament, the highlight--for me--is still going to be Krunic's run.

The scary thing (I hope not for her) is seeing how much better she can be with more experience competing against the top players. She came within only a couple of poor short selections short of advancing to the quarterfinals. And yes, she has a lot of JJ in her :)

Tue Sep 02, 05:39:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Todd.Spiker said...

And that just CAN'T be a bad thing! Even if some anecdotal evidence might suggest otherwise. :D

Tue Sep 02, 05:51:00 PM EDT  

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