Friday, September 04, 2015

US.5 - Toying with History

Sometimes the Tennis Gods are little brats. They know ALL the history... and often have a lot of fun rubbing our noses in it, too.

#23 Venus Williams (at 35) vs. #12 Belinda Bencic (18) was supposed to be the spotlight women's match of the day session. Venus had been forced to play three sets in both of her first two matches this week, and nearly blew her 2nd Rounder vs. Irina Falconi two days ago after failing to serve out the match in the 2nd set. Meanwhile, Bencic defeated Serena in the Toronto semifinals a few weeks ago, survived three match points in a emotional comeback win over Misaki Doi on Wednesday and had assumed the mantle as the current "one to watch" of the NextGen set. If she could get a win over Venus she'd become the only player to knock off both Sisters in '15, joining the list of players (at least one each season) who have accomplished the feat every year since 1997.

Venus overpowered the Swiss teen's current mentor Martina Hingis back in the early 2000's, and it was apparent that she felt pretty secure in a similar gameplan against the NEW Swiss Miss today. And, why not? While Bencic has improved greatly since they last played, but she's still a young player finding her way to great success (as she showed during her emotional outbursts vs. Doi). Plus, Williams has history with Bencic. Venus "welcomed" a 15-year old Bencic to the WTA in her main draw debut in Luxembourg in 2012, winning 6-3/6-1. The two had met two more times over the last two seasons before today, with Williams essentially repeating her original performance with 6-4/6-1 (Roland Garros '14) and 6-1/6-2 (Dubai '15) victories.

Things didn't change much today, either.

After breaking Bencic for a 5-3 lead in the 1st, Williams calmly went about serving out the set with a 118-mph ace. In the 2nd, Bencic avoided an early hole, coming back from love/40 down to hold for 1-0, then went on to take a 4-1 lead, though it was only a single break advantage. But Venus stayed the course, and the gradual swing in momentum visibly frustrated the teenager. This time, at least, she held it together... though maybe a tantrum would have helped.

Naaaah. Probably not.

Bencic held a game point on serve at 4-4, but Williams got the break via a Bencic error and served for the match. Unlike vs. Falconi, she had little trouble this time, once more polishing off a set with an ace to win 6-3/6-4 and reach her first U.S. Open Round of 16 since 2010, her third at a major in 2015 (AO/WI) and the forty-third of her career. It's Williams' thirteen such result at Flushing Meadows alone, with the first twelve coming in her first twelve appearances in the event over a 14-year span covering 1997-2010.

The Tennis Gods were even toying with Venus on this day, though mentioning her age at this point will usually bring a good-natured rebuke from the elder Sister (today, it was Pam Shriver getting the on-court, "I wish you wouldn't do that" treatment). But the fact is that Bencic was BORN approximately six months before a 17-year old Venus made her U.S. Open debut in 1997... and went all the way to the final before losing to the 16-year old ranked #1 at the time. Her name. The original Swiss Miss herself, Martina Hingis.

Oh, bother. Sometimes, things just come frighteningly full circle, don't they?

Speaking of, if things hold form from here on out, Venus could meet her sister Serena two rounds from now in the quarterfinals. It was the rise of the Sisters in the late 1990's/early 2000's that led to the change in schedule that moved the women's Open final into a nighttime time slot (something, sadly, which was abandoned after 2010). Right on cue, Venus and Serena met in the first two versions of those primetime finals, with Venus winning in '01 and then Serena taking the title a year late in Part 3 of her original "Serena Slam" run.

If they meet in NYC again, of course, the historical stakes will be even bigger. Ah, but that's for next week, if things work out.

Although, if they do, I THINK this time I could be PRETTY confident in predicting that, once again, Williams vs. Williams would take place under the lights, in one more (last?) spectacle for the ages... but perfect for a pair of sisters.

...Venus will next take on another teenager, qualifier Anett Kontaveit. The 19-year old Estonian ended Madison Brengle's best-ever U.S. Open with a 6-2/3-6/6-0 victory to reach her first career slam Round of 16. She'd been 0-2 in slam main draws (the last two years at Wimbledon) coming into this Open. might not realize it at first, but Flavia Pennetta isn't the only thirtysomething Italian who has shined at the U.S. Open. Today, Flavia's 32-year old countrywoman Roberta Vinci reached her third career 4th Round at Flushing Meadows with a 6-1/5-7/6-2 win over Mariana Duque. Vinci had served for the match in the 2nd set at 5-3, but the Colombian forced things to go the distance. The Italian put up career best slam results (both QF) in New York in 2012-13. This is her best slam result of '15, as she's finally rebounded from a slip in results after reaching the Round of 16 at five slams over a six-event stretch over the 2012 and '13 seasons.

With Serena Williams to play on Friday night, and Pennetta and Sam Stosur going on Saturday, the chances are looking decent for five 30+ year old women reaching the Round of 16.

...the only thing that Kiki Mladenovic has to fear is fear itself. Well, that and herself with a lead in a big tennis match, I guess. The Pastry HAS sometimes been her own worst enemy in big moments over the course of her career. Today, though, Mladenovic showed no fear of lucky loser Daria Kasatkina continuing her best-by-a-LL-in-22-years run at this Open. But, more importantly, she didn't quake at the prospect of winning and producing her best ever career slam result, either.

The 22-year old Frenchwoman had at least one opportunity to wilt, too. And not just in the heat and humidity, either. After winning the 1st set at 6-2, then going up 4-1 in the 2nd, Mladenovic saw the Russian teenager hold at love. The question hung in the air... would Kiki fold up like a cheap tent? As it turned out, no. Moving forward in the court without hestitation, she got an easy hold for a 5-2 lead, then served things out at 15 two games later for a 6-2/6-3 win. She even converted on her FIRST match point... which isn't always a given for her.

The 22-year old's movement into her first major Round of 16, one year after winning just one game in a 1st Round Open loss to Petra Kvitova, is a huge step for a player who has seemed to be on the edge of something bigger for a while now. Already having put up great doubles results -- Top 5, thirteen titles, two mixed slams -- Mladenovic has shown great promise in singles, as well. In 2013, she got a win over Kvitova, then the next year she upset Li Na at Roland Garros. This year she's reached her first tour singles final (Strasbourg), put up five Top 20 wins and two over Top 10ers and reached a career-high #35. She'll pass that ranking once this Open is over, as her slam results have consistently improved (three consecutive 3rd Round-or-better). It's just a matter of how MUCH higher she'll climb.

Mladenovic's next opponent will be #13 Ekaterina Makarova, a semifinalist at this event a year ago.

Against slam-semifinalist-in-waiting Elina Svitolina, the 20-year old #17 seed from Ukraine who reached the QF at Roland Garros in the spring, Makarova was often in charge of things. Unless she wasn't, or at least she seemed to THINK she wasn't, as her confidence in her game often appeared quite low on the day.

Serving up 5-3 in the 1st, the Russian saw errors creep in. She went from a set point up to facing a pair of break points. But Makarova upped her aggression (she converted 12 or 14 net approaches in the 1st) and held for 6-3. While the Hordette had sometimes seemed unsure of herself, it was Svitolina who'd had the real problems. She won just 8% of her 2nd serve points, while Makarova led her 19-5 in winners. The Ukrainian had been broken in the first two service games of the match, and even when she did hold it wasn't easy. Makarova got to 30 and deuce in the two other games in which Svitolina WAS able to hold.

In the 2nd, Makarova once again broke Svitolina early and led 2-0 even while her emotions walked a fine line. After saving two BP in her second service game of the set, Svitolina seized the moment and got things back on serve at 3-3. She then held three more straight times, at love in game #7, and led 5-4. With her emotions flowing and fist pumping, she looked like she might turn the momentum of the day in her favor. But that's when Makarova, playing with her right thigh wrapped after an injury-plagued summer hard court season, called for a trainer to retape her leg during the changeover, then quickly got herself into trouble in her service game. Makarova fell behind 15/30 after missing an easy down the line shot and had to stare down a Svitolina set point, but she managed to hold for 5-5.

A crosscourt return winner gave Makarova a BP in game #11, then a swing-volley put-away put her into position to serve out the match. Moving forward for a put-away, the Russian soon was at double match point. But a double-fault and long forehand followed and, once again facing a possible turn in momentum, Makarova attempted to get the umpire to allow the trainer to return to the court in the middle of the point before she served at deuce. But when she said that she was cramping, such help wasn't allowed. The Russian missed a forehand down the line and faced a BP, but Svitolina failed to convert, then yanked a return wide to give Makarova MP #3. Makarova put away a forehand winner, making any help from the trainer unnecessary, as she got the 6-3/7-5 win.

This is Makarova's third consecutive Round of 16 appearance in the U.S. Open, as well as her third at a slam this season. Even better, she's put up such a result at five of the last six majors, and seven of nine. The last Hordette hope at this event, Makarova's win means that at least one Russian woman has now advanced to the Round of 16 at sixty of the last sixty-one slams, and now nine straight. the night session drew to a close, #25 Genie Bouchard once again showed that she's still capable of the sort of gutty performances that made her 2014 slam season so successful, but have been virtual nonexistent in '15. Winning a third consecutive match for the first time since her QF run at the Australian Open, the Canadian defeated Dominika Cibulkova 7-6(9)/4-6/6-3 to reach her second consecutive U.S. Open Round of 16.

The 1st set proved to be key, as Bouchard recovered from a 4-2 deficit, saved five set points (two at 6-5 down, then three more in an 11-9 tie-break) and finally won on her own second SP. Cibulkova came back from 3-1 down to win the 2nd, getting back on serve by breaking Bouchard on her eighth BP chance in game #5. In the 3rd, Bouchard's mettle proved to be sound, even with her 2-8 record in three-setters in 2015. She took a 4-1 lead, and eventually held firm and served out the match in the final game to win her second straight three-setter at this Open.

She'll face Vinci next, with the winner getting the Makarova/Mladenovic survivor in the quarterfinals. doubles, winners included the Chan sisters and the all-Fed Cup team of Errani/Pennetta. Viva Italia! Meanwhile, the Kichenok sisters lost, as did the sisters-by-another-mother duo of Hsieh Su-Wei and Anastasia Rodionova. Garbine Muguruza & Carla Suarez-Navarro's awful hardcourt summer continued, as they lost to Irina-Camelia Begu & Raluca Olaru.

Also winning on Day 5: Jankovic & Krunic! Yay!

(chant) Brace-let! Brace-let! Brace-let! (chant)

Also losing on Day 5: Anabel Medina-Garrigues (w/ Arantxa Parra-Santonja).

In mixed, it was a two-loss day for Bencic, as she and Fernando Verdasco were sent packing, wrapping up her 2015 U.S. Open. Also losing: defending U.S. Open champs Sania Mirza & Bruno Soares.

(TOO) TYPICAL DISLIKE FROM DAY 5: I've avoided the daily ESPN jabs for most of the last year's worth of slams, but this Open's little details have been irritating enough to kick it in again. I think this will be the last time I say anything (well, unless Hannah or LZ do something/say something that make it necessary), just because doing so this week has irritated me a little more. So, before I stop, I'll just say this...

ESPN's ineptitude knows no bounds. I've never seen a network covering a tennis tournament go more out of its way to NOT show any actual tennis for as long and as often as possible.

How else can you explain that after not starting network coverage until two hours after the start of play on Friday, rather than show actual tennis when things kicked in, spending the first seventeen minutes of the broadcast having McEnroe, Gilbert and McKendry talking? That's fine when you start coverage at the beginning of the day, but not when you don't pick up until the afternoon. Meanwhile, '14 men's champion Marin Cilic was in action and being tested early on Armstrong, while the real and potential drama between a '14 semifinalist (Makarova) and a star-in-the-making (Svitolina) was going on on Ashe, with the Russian cramping, failing to put away two match points, and facing a break point all in just one (final) game before putting things away.

Finally, ESPN joined things for the very last point of the match. Way to miss the parade. Hope someone brought a shovel to pick up after the horses.

You'd think the leading sports network in the country, which spends money to keep slam coverage away from competitors would try to do a little to grow the sport in a nation in which it has fallen way, way down the sports totem pole. Instead, they decide to only play to the established REAL fans who will go out of their way to go online (which, I admit, is a good production) or can see things on only DirecTV, but not even bother trying to create new fans, or at least allow casual ones to learn the players by trying at least a little on what should be the MAIN broadcast.

Later, after interviewing Bencic before she walked onto Ashe to play Venus, coverage fiddled around and didn't actually go the match until four games in, after filling some of that time by, get this, showing press room comments from both players WHILE THEY WERE PLAYING LIVE NOW. Whuh?

That said, the network's night session coverage has been great (even with Hannah "Ms. Insincere" in the mix), with the best match announcers (well, the best that ESPN has, at least) utilized well, Mike Tirico and Chris Fowler being good point-by-point calls, and the entire production ramped up a bit, without any incessant talking and/or distractions from the actual tennis at a grand slam. Which, you know, is what they're supposed to be airing.

Hmmmm, so ESPN is actually trying in the primetime hours when ANYONE could be watching, but not really holding up its end when only the real tennis fans would be around. Says a lot about the whole operation, I think.

LIKE FROM DAY 5: The always watchful eye of Andy.

Ummm... FROM DAY 5: No, I'm not going to make an LZ Granderson comment here. Nope. Hey, look -- Roger... auditioning for a part in "Entourage 2?" Nah. He'd never have to audtion for ANYTHING.

LIKE FROM DAY 5: You win, you get promotion.

NEVER QUESTION A GERMAN'S GRASP OF PHYSICS ON DAY 5: some stats from this Open only give further credence to Andrea Petkovic's comment the other week about the game of the diminutive but hard-hitting Camila Giorgi, of which she said, "It defies physics!"

ESPN displayed a pair of stats today that listed the players with the highest average serve speed, and the highest average groundstroke speed at this Open. Giorgi was tied for first (at 108 mph) on serve with Sloane Stephens, ahead of the likes of Madison Keys, Venus Williams and Sabine Lisicki. She was second (70 mph) on the groundstroke list, behind Keys but ahead of Venus, Serena and Sloane.

Size-wise, Giorgi is dwarfed by the Sisters and Keys, while Lisicki owns the record for the most aces ever in a match, as well as the fastest-ever women's serve, and the power of Stephens' shots are well known.

Giorgi's game really DOES defy physics!

LIKE FROM DAY 5: Remembering being exquisite in the city...

"Ummm..." FROM DAY 5: Nothing against Andre, Steffi, Chris or Martina. But, really, this question should sort of be unfair to all of them.


...and, finally... Serena vs. Mattek-Sands on Ashe tonight, with Aga and Keys scheduled to go around the same time on Armstrong. Maybe the first real shot at a second "U.S. Open at Night" post at this slam? Stay tuned.

x vs. x
#23 Venus Williams/USA vs. (Q) Anett Kontaveit/EST
Kristina Mladenovic/FRA vs. #13 Ekaterina Makarova/RUS
Roberta Vinci/ITA vs. #25 Genie Bouchard/CAN
x vs. x
x vs. x
x vs. x
x vs. x

#1 Novak Djokovic/SRB vs. #23 Roberto Bautista Agut/ESP
x vs. x
Benoit Paire/FRA vs. #19 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga/FRA
#9 Marin Cilic/CRO vs. x
x vs. x
x vs. x
x vs. x
x vs. x

Love this shot! Hair game strong ???? thanks @nytimessports for a cool pic ????

A photo posted by Victoria Azarenka (@vichka35) on

The victim of Czech perseverence.

JAN: Bethanie Mattek-Sands, USA
FEB: Victoria Azarenka, BLR
MAR: Sloane Stephens, USA
1Q: Victoria Azarenka, BLR
APR/MAY: Italian Fed Cup Team
MAY/JUN: Victoria Azarenka, BLR
RG: Ana Ivanovic, SRB
2Q Clay Court: Italian Fed Cup Team
JUN: Aga Radwanska, POL
2Q Grass Court/WI: Aga Radwanska, POL
JUL/AUG: Sloane Stephens, USA
AUG: Vicky Duval, USA
[2015 Weekly COMEBACK Wins]
8...Victoria Azarenka, BLR
5...Anastasija Sevastova, LAT
5...Sloane Stephens, USA
3...Sesil Karatantcheva, BUL
2...Dominika Cibulkova, SVK
2...Vicky Duval, USA
2...Irina Falconi, USA
2...Jarmila Gajdosova, AUS
2...Alexa Glatch, USA
2...Petra Martic, CRO
2...Bethanie Mattek-Sands, USA
2...Ula Radwanska, POL
2...Vera Zvonareva, RUS

TOP QUALIFIER: (WC) Jessica Pegula/USA
TOP EARLY-ROUND (1r-2r): #2 Simona Halep/ROU
TOP QUALIFYING MATCH: Q3: Tereza Mrdeza/CRO d. #2 Yaroslava Shvedova/KAZ 5-7/7-6(8)/7-6(4) [3:12; saved 3 MP]
TOP EARLY-RD. MATCH (1r-2r): 2nd Rd. - #12 Belinda Bencic/SUI d. Misaki Doi/JPN 5-7/7-6(3)/6-3 (down 3 MP in 2nd; outburst/crying/no shake umpire's hand)
TOP ASHE NIGHT SESSION MATCH: Nominee: 2r - Cetkovska/CZE d. #4 Wozniacki/DEN 6-4/5-7/7-6(1) (saved 4 MP; ended 12:12 a.m. after 3:02)
FIRST VICTORY: Mariana Duque/COL (def. Kenin/USA)
FIRST SEED OUT: #7 Ana Ivanovic/SRB (lost 1st Rd. to Cibulkova/SVK)
UPSET QUEENS: United States
NATION OF POOR SOULS: Serbia (1-4; #7 Ivanovic, #21 Jankovic and '14 star Aleksandra Krunic out in 1st Rd.)
CRASH & BURN: #8 Karolina Pliskova/CZE (1st Rd. loss to Tatishvili/USA; :52; U.S. Open Series "winner")
ZOMBIE QUEEN: (LL) Daria Kasatkina/RUS (lucky loser, reached3rd Round after wins over Gavrilova & Konjuh -- best LL slam result since 1997, best at Open since 1993)
IT ("xx"): Nominees: Mladenovic, Kontaveit
LAST QUALIFIER STANDING: In 3rd Rd.: Konta/GBR, Kontaveit/EST(W), Rogers/USA
LAST WILD CARD STANDING: Bethanie Mattek-Sands/USA (in 3rd Rd.)
LAST BANNERETTE STANDING: In 3rd Rd.: Brengle(L), Keys, Lepchenko, Mattek-Sands, Rogers, S.Williams, V.Williams(W)
COMEBACK PLAYER: Nominee: Azarenka, Mattek-Sands, Bouchard, Cetkovska
KIMIKO DATE-KRUMM VETERAN CUP (KDK CUP): Nominee: Cetkovska, Vinci, V.Williams, Raymond
LADY OF THE EVENING: Nominees: Kvitova, Cetkovska

All for Day 5. More tomorrow.


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