Wednesday, January 20, 2016

AO 3.5 - The Eternal Sunshine of the Melbourne Night

The Force is strong with this one.

The Eternal Sunshine of a Gavrilovian summer has settled on Australia.

All bouncing ponytail and endless energy, newly-minted 21-year old Aussie Daria Gavrilova was presented with the opportunity of a tennis lifetime on Night 3. And like any Backspin Official Mascot, she followed in the footsteps of this site's "Original Face Of..." Jelena Dokic, who put together a memorable QF run in Melbourne seven years ago, by riding the moment for all she could.

Facing off with an opportunity-squandering #6-seeded Petra Kvitova, it was the Hordette-turned-Sheila whose breezy style both played to the crowd and the moment. Kvitova, who looked so good in her 1st Round match, often looked lethargic in this 2nd Round encounter that, it should be noted, took place under the lights and away from the sort of heat and humidity that often spell her doom Down Under and elsewhere. This one was all on Kvitova. Well, and Dasha, of course... the latest Shining Star of Melbourne.

In the opening set, Kvitova was presented with numerous chances to tamp down any possible Gavrilovian uprisings. She broke to take 3-2 and 4-3 leads, only to hand back the advantage by dropping serve in the next game both times. Finally, Gavrilova grabbed the break for a 5-4 lead, then secured the set with a Kvitova forehand error.

Of course, for most of us, this all took place in the Eternal Darkness that is ESPN's AO coverage. While Gavrilova was busy becoming a star and Kvitova was falling once more, ESPN was busy showing Novak Djokovic kicking a French kid up and down the court on Laver (or catching everyone up on an actual GOOD match between Monica Puig and Kristyna Pliskova -- see below). Not only that, but the match didn't even show up on the matches available list on Watch ESPN until mid-way into the 1st set, then failed to load all night.

In the 2nd set, Gavrilova broke Kvitova to take a 4-2 lead (or so said Chris Fowler as Djokovic pounded another winner in a match that was over before it began), then held for 5-2 (ditto). Finally, ESPN decided to show everyone the important match taking place a few hundred feet away as Kvitova served to stay in the match.

With "Dasha, Dasha!" chants filling Margaret Court Arena between points, Kvitova held serve and put the moment on the small shoulders of Gavrilova, who then served for yet another big upset (she def. Sharapova, among others, last year, remember). She got to MP, but then noticeably tightened up. A long slice backhand and another error handed a break to Kvitova, who would be just as generous one game later. Up 40/15 on the Czech at 5-4, it took Gavrilova two more chances to finally put an end to things, but it happened when Kvitova sailed a shot well long. The Aussie, who'd just converted on her fifth of six BP chances on the night, dropped her racket and began the celebration of a 6-4/6-4 victory.

Let the Gavrilovian era of Australian women's tennis commence.

In her on-court interview, Gavrilova continued her natural charm offensive, as she managed to pull off a true pot-calling-the-kettle-black moment when asked about the fans chanting her name in the stands all night.

"You guys are crazy," she said.

While Kvitova is left to slink away from yet another slam (ranked in the Top 10 for a number of years now, she's failed to advance past the 3rd Round in eight of her last thirteen major), Gavrilova is bouncing like a superball into her first career 3rd Round slam match. She'll find a familiar opponent waiting for her there in #28 seed Kristina Mladenovic, her opponent in the 2009 Roland Garros girls final. The Pastry won that one, but it took place on her own home ground in Paris. Gavrilova, who lives ten minutes away from Melbourne Park, has the home advantage this time around. And, remember, technically, the Hopman Cup-winning, Moscow-born Gavrilova is STILL undefeated as an official Aussie.

Just how long will the sun shine on this Gavrilovian summer? Well, hold on... this could still become quite an interesting ride.

...before the clamor on MCA, the original women's Night 3 match took place on Laver, where #4 seed Aga Radwanska faced off with '14 semifinalist Genie Bouchard. The latter has only recently emerged from the tennis darkness in the opening weeks of 2016, while the former has been basking in the bright light for months, putting on a hugely successful run in Asia, winning the WTA Finals and returning to the Top 5 before opening this season with a Week 1 title and swiping away a Top 4 seed from Maria Sharapova.

It would be case of a vintage, though somewhat less flashy, Radwanska showing that she's not yet ready to slow her roll in a section of the draw in which every round's results seem to give her a better chance to uphold her seed.

Ultimately, the match played out just how one would have likely expected. Or at least how ONE PERSON did.

Physically stronger than in '15 and back to the one-dimensional, go-for-broke style that works pretty well for her -- well, until it doesn't and her inability to consistanty keep her shots in the court and alter her game plan come backs to bite her against players who can weather the storm -- Bouchard dictated play in the early going. Radwanska, though, was not the player the Bouchard style was going to work against. Aga showed in Singapore vs. multiple top players and/or big hitters that she can alter her style and be more aggressive when need be, but it was clear she never really thought that would be necessary against the Canadian. The way for Radwanska to beat Bouchard was easy for the Pole to decode. There was no need to break out the safe-cracking manual on this one. She just had to keep it simple. She really only needed to put together a few eye-popping points for effect in a few key moments, then be content with letting the match come to her as Bouchard would be unable to maintain her mini-rolls.

So Aga held her ground and waited Bouchard out. It worked like a Radwanskian charm.

Up 4-2 after breaking Radwanska's serve, Bouchard couldn't hold the advantage for even one game. Down 15/40, a badly-missed second serve provided the DF that handed the break back. Radwanska won the final four games of the set, holding back and giving Bouchard just enough rope to hang her own chances. A-Rad squandered a 40/love lead on serve in the final game and saved BP, but she ultimately put away her fifth set point with a crosscourt forehand winner to secure a 6-4 1st set that included twenty-three unforced errors off the racket of Bouchard. Radwanska went to the changeover sporting a clenched fist, while seeing little reason to change her patient defensive tactics in the 2nd. Already 24-1 in Melbourne after winning the 1st set, Aga had her opponent right where she wanted her.

The Pole grabbed a 3-1 lead in the 2nd, then held for 4-2 with a point that included a squat shot then a short backhand pick-up that brought Bouchard into the net, opening up the court for an uncontested Radwanska forehand winner. It was one of the few times that Aga saw the need to bring her special brand of high-minded magic to the court on Night 3, as her pure consistency was generally enough to get her through. Rather than dig into her bag of tricks, she was mostly content to simply use a plastic spoon -- carved into a point, just in case it was needed in a pinch -- as her weapon of choice. It was yet another masterfully intelligent decision A-Rad, who it's become obvious would be a fine partner in a prison break. (Hint: she'd play the "brains" role in the operation, but beware the shiv hidden in her sock if you do something that she doesn't like... or she just has a sudden need to see red.)

Note to El Chapo: contact Aga at a later date... but leave Sean Penn at home.

A game later, at 30/30, Bouchard missed on a sure forehand swing volley winner behind Radwanska to fall down BP. On the next point, Aga's deep return pushed the Canadian back behind the baseline, then she soon followed up with a mid-court short ball that forced a reaching Bouchard backhand that sailed out and gave Radwanska a 5-2 bulge on the scoreboard. Serving for the match, the Pole climbed back from a love/40 hole thanks to four consecutive Bouchard errors to reach MP.

It was here where Radwanska reminded everyone just who she is, as Bouchard's return landed near the baseline. It was called out by the linesperson to end the match, but the chair umpire immediately overruled and called it in, leading a questioning Radwanska get "that look" on her face and raise her hand to challenge the decision as she stood over the spot where the ball had landed. Come on, everyone KNEW how this was going to turn out. The replay showed that the shot was out. Radwanska was right, and she was a 6-4/6-2 winner as she moved into the AO 3rd Round for the seventh straight year, and the eighth time in her last nine trips to Melbourne.

Bouchard, while she littered the scorecard with thirty-seven unforced errors (A-Rad had just 12), still has reason to leave Australia with a good feeling about the rest of her season. While she's still seeking the consistency that eventually eluded her even in her best '14 runs, she seems to finally be "back" in mind, body and spirit after some confidence-building results in the first two weeks of the season. She'll likely fall outside the Top 50 after failing to defend her '15 AO QF result, but that's just a technicality. With Thomas Hogstedt in her corner, she has some coaching stability (it would seem... one never knows), too, and, really, after the way she ended her disaster of a season a few months ago, what more could she have conceivably asked for Australian to give her? Now it's up to her.

One one needs to worry about Aga, either. Well, unless they're going to play her. At least for a few more rounds.

...meanwhile, based on the result of a match that carried into the night, while the draw IS big enough for two Darias it apparently doesn't enough room for a pair of Pliskovas.

But it SHOULD have at seen ONE move onto the 3rd Round on Wednesday night... as Kristyna Pliskova set a WTA record with thirty-one aces in a single match, but STILL lost to Monica Puig, 4-6/7-6(6)/9-7. After holding five match points, including triple MP in a 2nd set TB in which she was serving twice up 6-3. I guess that's the very definition of a Pyrrhic victory (or maybe "Pyrrhic defeat"), isn't it?

Really, the match was lost by Pliskova in that tie-break. Pliskova's lefty shot put in back-to-back aces to go up 2-1, then placed another big serve up the middle that Puig failed to get back as she secured both serve points to go up 5-2. At triple MP, though, Pliskova's serve didn't pay the price of admission. She simply didn't "stick the landing." Puig saved one MP with an overhead winner, then a second with a long Pliskova backhand. A long return from the Czech wasted the third MP on Puig's serve, then another forehand error gave the Puerto Rican a set point. She won it to claim the 2nd set TB at 8-6.

Pliskova's serve again cooked up in the 3rd, but it still wasn't enough. She held for 6-5 and 7-6 (the latter time with back-to-back aces to lift her final total to 31, four past Sabine Lisicki's 2015 mark of 27), but Puig countered by doing the same to keep her hopes alive. Pliskova failed to convert two more MP on Puig's serve, the lost her serve a game later. On her own second MP, Puig put away a forehand winner at the net and collapsed on the court.

A great moment for (Zombie Queen) Puig, but a true missed opportunity for Pliskova. One has to wonder, which Czech had the worst night in the end -- Pliskova or Kvitova?

Well, I guess Karolina can now win the personal sister-vs.-sister slam race with a 2nd Round win of her own on Day 4. Ah, but will she?

2008 Jelena Jankovic, SRB
2009 Dinara Safina, RUS
2010 Serena Williams, USA
2011 Francesca Schiavone, ITA
2012 Kim Clijsters, BEL
2013 Caroline Wozniacki, DEN
2014 Li Na, CHN
2015 Maria Sharapova, RUS
2016 Monica Puig, PUR

All for Day 3.5 -- more tonight.


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