Monday, January 18, 2016

AO 1 - Beware the Opossum

If nothing else, Day 1 in Melbourne just went to show you that the "talk" of the opening weeks of the season are just that. Talk.

Forty-eight hours ago, #1 Serena Williams was essentially shaped like a big question mark in the minds of many as she began to finally kick off her '16 season in Melbourne against diminutive and dangerous Italian Camila Giorgi. Was Serena's knee going to hinder her quest to catch Steffi Graf on the all-time slam singles title list, or was her health actually playing a silent game of opossum?

Well, after one round of play, the former notion could still eventually still have legs, but it may be more likely that the latter is the REAL truth.

Sure, Williams said the other day that she was "120%...130%" healthy as things were set to begin at this AO but, you know, we actually had to see her with our own eyes to be sure.

As it turned out, while the numbers might not FULLY hold up, Serena surely looked better in her opening match against Giorgi than she did in the early days (and a few of the late ones, too) of most of her slam title runs last season. As expected, Giorgi had a lot of fight in her. One year after she'd served for the match (but lost) against Venus Williams in this event, the Italian didn't get such an opportunity against the younger Sister. Williams moved well, and if you didn't know that she'd been dealing with a lingering knee injury you wouldn't necessarily have been able to put the pieces of such a scenario together simply by watching her play today.

While Giorgi hung close, and was always one of those bad stretches from Williams that we saw so often on the major stage in '15 away from maybe pushing the American into a corner from which she'd have to fight herself out. Even while she led the 2nd set 5-4, though, Giorgi never was able to get beyond giving Williams a very nice, sometimes-tense-but-never-quite-scary workout in a 6-4/7-5 match that should go a long way toward getting Serena moving some forward on some sort of roll that might just bring her career slam #22 two weeks from now. With a few points going the other way, Giorgi very nearly might have forced a 3rd set and put Serena to a REAL test (she played twenty of those in '15, more than in any other season in her career career -- she went 18-2), but Williams proved the better player on almost all the biggest points of the day, losing just four points on her first serve and firing an ace on match point.

Geez, that's SO unlike her, isn't it? Yeah.

...Day 1 began on a good note, psychologically, as all the bad news and questions surrounding the top women's players opened with an encouraging note as Good Petra -- not her evil twin Bad Petra -- showed up for the first match at Rod Laver Arena.

#6-seeded Kvitova, two years after hitting the "blast off" button while sitting in the AO ejector seat and being upset by Luksika Kumkhum in the 1st Round in Melbourne, returned to get some measure of revenge against the Thai qualifier on Monday. The first player up was also the first player to move on to the 2nd Round, notching the First Victory at this Australian Open with a 6-3/6-1 win over Kumkhum in 1:10. Kvitova won 79% of her first serves, as well as 63% of her second, and she hit five aces on the day.

Of course, this was a match with an 11 a.m. start, so we'll see what happens when the notoriously hot weather-repellent Czech has to take the court in the middle of a burning Melbourne summer afternoon. Sometimes those sorts of situations don't turn out too well for her.

Ah, but, what am I doing? This was supposed to be a mention of something immediately GOOD on Day 1. So congrats to Petra, for at least surviving to see if she'll crack on another day. (Sorry, couldn't resist.)

If the Australian "inevitable" does happen for Kvitova in the NEXT round, it'll be to the benefit of an Aussie. Her next opponent will be Daria Gavrilova, who opened her very first AO as a bona fide Sheila with a straight sets win over Lucie Hradecka, 7-6(3)/6-4.

Of course, Official Backspin Mascot Gavrilova knows the score. Things will have to turn in her favor for her to advance any further, but she's up for the challenge.

One would think it might be a night match, which could both work for and against Gavrilova. And Kvitova, too, for that matter.

...the last two First Seeds Out in Melbourne have come on the opposite end of a Julia Goerges victory. That didn't happen today, but there was a familiar ring to the FSO anyway. #17 Sara Errani, after winning the first five games of the day and leading Margarita Gasparyan 6-1/4-3, with the Russian 0-for-11 on BP chances, suddenly saw her 2016 "officially" get off to a bad start. Possibly at least partly owed to an ailing back, Errani saw the Hordette come charging back to steal the 2nd set and then run away with the 3rd to put away her first career MD slam win with a 1-6/7-5/6-1 victory. This is the second time in three years that Errani has been the FSO at the AO, having been Goerges' 1st Round victim in '14, as well.

On a good note, for Errani's sake, she rebounded to put up a pair of slam QF results the rest of '14, but that was also the season in which she battled her own mental demons down the stretch as she tearfully commented about the inherent pressure of trying to stay near the top of the game.

...elsewhere, it might have been an even worse day to be a Belgian Waffle. Well, at least if your name is Wickmayer. Yanina Wickmayer.

The former U.S. Open semifinalist held two MP on Magdalena Rybarikova at 5-4 in the 3rd set, only to see the Slovak hold in a long game, then break Wickmayer one game later. A follow-up hold meant that Rybarikova fully turned the tables on Wickmayer, winning 3-6/6-3/7-5, escaping within an inch of her life. Rybarikova, while she has won four career tour titles in somewhat under-the-radar fashion, has only advanced beyond the 2nd Round of a major once since 2009.

Meanwhile, it was a good day to be a Sakkari. A Maria Sakkari. The Greek qualifier, the daughter of former WTA player Angeliki Kanellopoulou, played in and won her very first slam singles match. Not that it was easy. Not in the end, anyway. Sakkari led fellow qualifier Wang Yafan 5-1 in the 3rd, and served at 5-2. In a game #8 that saw her hold a MP, Sakkari's serve was broken on Wang's fourth BP of the game. The 18-year old didn't let it slow her Day 1 roll, though. One game later, she broke the Chinese woman and converted on MP #2 to take the memory of a 6-4/1-6/6-3 win with her into the 2nd Round.

...the first few hours of Day 1 proved to be the only hours that #24 Sloane Stephens will get to spend in Melbourne as a care-free member of the group of players hoping to super-charge her '16 with an inspiring performance in this year's Australian Open.

In fact, she was anything but "inspiring" in her 1st Round loss to qualifier Wang Qiang.

Three years ago, Stephens burst through the slam wall in Melbourne, upsetting Serena Williams to reach the AO semifinals. Two Melbourne losses to Vika Azarenka later, along with many disappointing days on the court, a couple of coaching changes, a pair of no-sets-lost, turning-tuna-into-lobster tour titles in Washington and (less than two weeks ago) Auckland and a general sense of well being, lessons learned and forward momentum led Stephens to arrive at the doorstep of this slam rightfully harboring thoughts of maybe pulling off something big over the next two weeks.


Thing is, Stephens looked good at the start of today's loss. She led Wang 3-1 and had points for a 4-1 bulge. But she failed to seize the opportunity, then saw the Chinese woman do just that. To the tune of reeling off nine straight games as the old what-is-she-doing-and-why-isn't-she-moving-forward frustration with watching Stephens let a match slip away settled in and strangled the very life out of her 2016 Australian Open. Well, almost. At least Stephens didn't totally fold down the stretch here. Down 4-0 in the 2nd, she surely could have. Instead she managed to almost get back into the set, but her efforts were too little too late in a 6-3/6-3 loss. It's her second straight 1st Round exit at the AO, and her second such defeat in a major. She's now lost her opening match at four of seven majors, after having reached at least the Round of 16 at six straight from 2013-14.

So, the Future is once again put on hold.

Stephens need not throw out her entire trip around the world because of this one loss, though. She's got some good to take back with her to Europe, North America and parts unknown. The confidence of those moments, combined with the continued lessons learned from the bad ones today, will serve to continue to bring the Future a little closer to the present.

But the time machine will just have to wait.

...after Serena had won and, well, Sloane hadn't, #26 Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova added her name (once again) to the list of underachievers at yet another slam.

Not that it's a shock. The Russian specializes is giving just enough hope that she might snap out of her career-long case of the "blahs," only to snap right back into place in the four biggest events of the year. Her 1-6/6-3/6-4 loss on Day 1 to Lauren Davis, after she'd been a point away from a 5-3 lead in the 3rd, was just the latest defeat on her ledger. She's now failed to advance past the 2nd Round at eight straight slams, and has gone seventeen majors without surviving longer than the 3rd Round. In her thirty-three slam appearances, only three times has she managed to reach at least the Round of 16.

All that wouldn't be so bad is she wasn't capable of so much more. Remember, she was a dominant junior, has been ranked as high as #13 on the WTA tour and has put away eight titles in her career, including fairly big wins in events in Moscow and Paris. Still, even with all that she's only had one season-ending Top 20 ranking, which highlights her reliably unreliable week-to-week performances up and down the WTA schedule for most of the past decade. the Prediction Blowout to start this season, I had Caroline Wozniacki falling outside the Top 20 before she finally began to work her way back up the rankings. The Dane, still oddly choosing to go backwards with her career by playing the overly cautious game that she'd finally (but only briefly, as it turned out) abandoned late in '14 (not coincidentally, she reached the U.S. Open final that summer and climbed back into the heart of the Top 10 -- hint-hint, Caro) came into this AO seeded at #16, and her 1st Round exit -- her worst-ever result in nine trips to Melbourne -- will surely begin to send her reality in that predicted direction.

Despite handily winning the 1st set over Yulia Putintseva 6-1, Wozniacki could never quite get rid of the just-turned-21 year old Kazakh. She battled back to take the 2nd in a tie-break, fought off an attack of cramps and sometimes had her way with the Dane in the 3rd set. She opened with a break, gave it back, then regained the advantage to take a 5-4 lead as the set was characterized by Putintseva dragging Wozniacki from one side of the court to the other, bringing her into the net and often firing a winner past her once she got there. On her second MP in the tenth game of the set, Putintseva engaged Wozniacki in a long rally. The sort of rallies that Wozniacki often wins. But not this time. With Putintseva finding a way to get everything back herself, it was the Dane's eventual forehand error into the net that ended the proceedings as the Moscow-born Kazakh reaches her fifth career slam 2nd Round in nine major appearances with a 1-6/7-6(3)/6-4 win.

Meanwhile, Wozniacki, has now failed to advance past the 2nd Round at four of the last five slams. Since 2011, her AO result progression looks like this: SF-QF-4th-3rd-2nd-1st. If that little fact doesn't tell Caro something, then nothing ever will.

...elsewhere, Jelena Ostapenko joined Shenzhen confrontation partner Naomi Broady (she lost in the opening round of qualifying) on the sidelines at this AO, losing today to veteran Hsieh Su-Wei despite jumping out to a quick start, 3-6/7-5/6-1. Neither Ostapenko nor Broady have played well since their on-court extracurricular activities in Week 1, going a combined 0-4.

When the draw was set, the match-up between #28 Kristina Mladenovic and '14 finalist Dominika Cibulkova seemed to be the best 1st Round contest of them all. Still, it was scheduled on Court 19, far enough on the outskirts of the grounds that it didn't even have full match stats. I guess the AO organizers must have known something we didn't, as it turned out to be a clunker. Mladenovic won handily, racing to a 6-3/3-0 lead before finally settling in with a 6-3/6-4 win just about forty-eight hours after she and Caroline Garcia failed to hold onto a set and 5-2 advantage over Hingis/Mirza in the Sydney doubles final. The Dream Team went on to win a 30th straight match and 7th consecutive title. For today, though, Kiki was on top of the world. Her nine aces powered her 63-45 edge in points for the match, as she improved her career head-to-head with Cibulkova to a suddenly-less "well-rounded" 1-5.


The 18-year old Russian added another head to her trophy wall. This time it was #27-seeded Anna Karolina Schmiedlova, whose bad start grows another twisted hair as she falls to 1-3 on the season, with all three losses being of the "thudding" variety. Daria Kasatkina made it two Darias/Dashas into the 2nd Round with a 6-3/6-3 win over the Slovak. She'd actually led 6-3/5-0, and served for the match at 5-1 before having to work just a little bit longer. Finally, before game #9 of the 2nd set could get too sticky, Kasatkina closed things out with a hold.

...while the action Day 1 is not yet over as of this posting (a little ways into the opening night session), it's worth noting that even if more seeds fall through the end of Day 2 -- barring TRUE craziness ensuing -- the total number won't likely equal the Open era record-tying total of eleven that succumbed in the 1st Round last year in Melbourne.

As of now, five seeds have fallen, with more sure to soon follow.

11 - 2002 Roland Garros, 2004 Wimbledon, 2015 Australian
10 - 2012 U.S.
9 - 2005 Wimbledon, 2015 U.S.
8 - 2002 Australian, 2012 Wimbledon, 2014 Wimbledon, 2001 U.S.

...DAY 1 LIKE: The calm before the storm

...DAY 1 LIKE: Serena & IBM Watson

...DAY 1 LIKE: Following in giant footsteps

Has it already been TWO YEARS since Li won in Melbourne????????

...DAY 1 NOT DIS-LIKE, but not "like," either: Serena's outfit. She may be the only one would could pull it off, but it might take another round to fully complete the process.

...OBLIGATORY DAY 1 STAT: Serena is now 61-1 in slam 1st Round matches (16-0 at the Australian Open)

...EVEN "BETTER" DAY 1 STAT: Aga Radwanska is now 36-3 in slam 1st Round matches (9-1 at the Australian Open)

...HOPEFULLY-NOT-PROPHETIC DAY 3 STAT: Svetlana Kuznetsova apparently likes the 6-0/6-2 scoreline. After defeating Monica Puig by that score in the Sydney final over the weekend, she defeated Daniela Hantuchova by the same score today. This doesn't mean that she'll now lose by that score on Wednesday, does it? Can a Kuznetsova maybe "Kuznetsova Curse" herself?

...and, finally, the Day 2 schedule is out, and Victoria Azarenka's return to the state of Victoria will take place under the lights on Rod Laver, right after Lleyton Hewitt kicks off his final Australian Open.

Hmmm, it's either an incredible honor, or a thankless task, to follow up a Hewitt match under such circumstances? No Azarenka-bashing allowed in the Rod, please. Maybe she should find a way to bring Superfan Steph along, just in case.

2005 #16 Ai Sugiyama, JPN (lost to Sucha)
2006 #9 Elena Dementieva, RUS (lost to Schruff)
2007 #25 Anabel Medina-Garrigues, ESP (lost to Vesnina)
2008 #32 Julia Vakulenko, UKR (lost to Vesnina)
2009 #23 Agnes Szavay, HUN (lost to Voskoboeva)
2010 #14 Maria Sharapova, RUS (lost to Kirilenko)
2011 #28 Daniela Hantuchova, SVK (lost to Kulikova)
2012 #19 Flavia Pennetta, ITA (lost to Bratchikova)
2013 #32 Mona Barthel, GER (lost to Pervak)
2014 #7 Sara Errani, ITA (lost to Goerges)
2015 #32 Belinda Bencic, SUI (lost to Goerges)
2016 #17 Sara Errani, ITA (lost to Gasparyan)

2009 Patricia Mayr, AUS (def. Schruff)
2010 Dinara Safina, RUS (def. Rybarikova)
2011 Evgeniya Rodina, RUS (def. Rogowska)
2012 Victoria Azarenka, BLR (def. Watson)
2013 Maria Sharapova, RUS (def. Puchkova)
2014 Kirsten Flipkens, BEL (def. Robson)
2015 Julia Goerges, GER (def. Bencic)
2016 Petra Kvitova, CZE (def. Kumkhum)

TOP EARLY ROUND (1r-2r): xx
TOP QUALIFYING MATCH: Q2 - Virginie Razzano/FRA d. #6 Francesca Schiavone/ITA 6-1/4-6/6-1 (ends streak of 61 con. slam MD)
TOP EARLY RD. MATCH (1r-2r): xx
TOP LATE RD. MATCH (SF-F/Jr./Doub.): xx
FIRST VICTORY: #6 Petra Kvitova/CZE (def. Q/Kumkhum, THA)
FIRST SEED OUT: #17 Sara Errani/ITA (lost 1st Rd. to Gasparyan/RUS)
LAST QUALIFIER STANDING: Day 1 wins: N.Gibbs/USA, M.Sakkari/GRE, Wang Qiang/CHN
LAST AUSSIE STANDING: Day 1 wins: D.Gavrilova
IT (??): xx
CRASH & BURN: Nominee: #24 Stephens (lost 1st Rd. to Q.Wang)

All for Day 1. More tomorrow.


Blogger jo shum said...

Oh Sam ....

Many seeds fell. Men seeds are holding up quite well.

Mon Jan 18, 08:10:00 AM EST  
Blogger Diane said...

That IBM Watson ad is great!

If Melbourne stays only moderately humid, Petra should be okay (I mean, in terms of the heat--there are so many other "Petra factors"). It 's the humidity that kicks in her asthma. She likes the surface. I always worry, though, when she looks that good in an opening round.🙄

Mon Jan 18, 11:05:00 AM EST  
Blogger Todd.Spiker said...

Only five more seeds need to fall on Day 2 to set the Open era record. I say it happens now.

Ah, the perils of being a Petra Watcher. Sometimes it's always brightest before the darkest hour... or something like that. ;)

Mon Jan 18, 01:30:00 PM EST  

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