Friday, January 22, 2016

AO 5.5 - "The Dasha & Kiki Show"

What started out as a rainy, dismal looking Friday in Melbourne played out like a brilliantly-structured three act dramatic production, brought to you courtesy of the WTA. The story shifted from the morning weather to a near-perfect mid-day performance by Serena Williams that has to spur the majority of the draw to reluctantly begin to count down the days until they board a plane home (don't worry, Vika, I got your back -- I did say the "majority"). Ah, but it was the fiery, intense third act that would ultimately come to define Day 5.

For that was when the transplanted-Hordette-turned-Sheila who has become the story of the first week of this Australian Open once again took to the court under the Eternal Sunshine of yet another Gavrilovian night. And what an evening it was, too.

The Dasha and Kiki Show was more than worth the wait.

Two days after Daria Gavrilova made her debut as a newly-minted Aussie with an upset of #6-seeded Petra Kvitova, she returned to face #28 Kristina Mladenovic on Hisense Arena in a match pushed back into the early evening hours. Rather that staring down the prospect of knocking off a highly-seeded two-time slam champion, this time the 21-year old's opponent was a longtime rival (they faced off for the '09 Roland Garros girls title, with the Pastry winning) with a comparable current ranking (#30 to Gavrilova's #39), placing an entirely different kind of pressure on the shoulders of the relentlessly energetic winner of the WTA's 2015 Newcomer of the Year award.

With a business-like, focused look on her face rather than the constant smile she displayed against Kvitova, Gavrilova put her quickness and aggressive game on the table against Mladenovic for three sets that went on for nearly three hours in a back-and-forth match that saw both women exchange swings of momentum throughout the night. While Gavrilova's fighting instincts ruled the day when she was on top, Mladenovic's bigger serve often commanded the stage when she took her turn. There were moments of frustation and elation for both, and down the stretch of an hour-and-a-half 3rd set the match would ultimately be determined by which player better handled the mounting pressure, could bounce back quicker from disappointment and was able to finally seize their opportunity to put away the match before the momentum changed yet again.

Setting the tone for the battle, the players exchanged breaks in the opening games of the 1st set. When Gavrilova's break of serve gave her a 2-1 lead, Mladenovic came back fighting, going up 40/15 on the Aussie's serve. Gavrilova's second double-fault of the game broke herself, and she gave the court a hard whack with her racket. It wouldn't be her last moment of frustration, either. But as is her way, she never gave up or gave in. Turning her scrambling defense into offense, she grabbed a break lead again in game #7 by winning a battle of back-to-back angled crosscourt slices that barely skittered over the net, taking a 4-3 lead. Moving forward after serving up the middle and putting away a forehand winner down the line, Gavrilova took a 40/15 lead in the next game and held for 5-3. Playing bigger-than-her-size and consistent tennis, Gavrilova overcame her three DF in the set (and Mladenovic's four aces) to serve out the set two games later at 6-4 when her wide serve produced a Mladenovic return that went off the net post.

With the Aussie crowd ready to ride the Gavrilovian wave into the Round of 16, though, the 2nd set proved to be the Pastry's time to fight back and shine the brightest.

Despite badly flubbing a drop shot attempt off a short ball (she failed to lift the low-bouncing ball high enough off her racket to clear the net) and facing a break point, Mladenovic held serve to open the 2nd. Gavrilova rebounded to take a 30/15 lead with a high backhand and volley combination, then hustled to a drop shot to set up a Mladenovic error that gave her a game point. A wide return from the Frenchwoman allowed the Aussie to hold, then continue her momentum into Mladenovic's service game. After smacking a backhand winner down the line to open the game, a clean return winner gave Gavrilova a 40/love lead. She got the break for 2-1 when Mladenovic netted a forehand, but the Pastry took her turn one game later by immediately breaking back by hitting a brilliant forehand winner into the corner from her position beyond the baseline. A game later, though, she gave the break back. After Gavrilova got to a drop shot, Mladenovic's wide reply put her down 15/40. Moments later, she stopped a rally mid-point to challenge a ball that had landed at her feet near the baseline. When the replay showed that Gavrilova's shot had indeed hit the line, Mladenovic's decision to challenge broke her own serve and put the Aussie up 3-2.

With Gavrilova's game maintaining its relentless drive and forward motion, it seemed as if she might pull away. But Mladenovic had other ideas, as she used a consistent, bigger serve -- and Gavrilova's edgy rambunctiousness -- to her advantage while pulling herself back from the edge of defeat.

The Pastry broke Gavrilova at love to forcefully reclaim the momentum, then held for 4-3. The Aussie continued to play with aggression, ending a rally with a forehand winner to get to 30/30, then overcoming a DF to hold in a deuce game. But Mladenovic held at love for 5-4, forcing Gavrilova to serve to stay in the set. Perhaps feeling the moment for the first time, she strung together errors that quickly put her behind love/40. As Mladenovic completed her comeback from a set and a break down to win the 2nd set 6-4 and force a 3rd, Gavrilova erupted in frustration again by tossing her racket (the chair umpire was soon seen giving her a "message").

The 3rd played out much like the previous two sets, as the Dasha and Kiki Show featured each in a constantly-shifting starring role.

Mladenovic's opening service game included an ace that put her up 40/15, only to see a Gavrilova forehand get things to deuce. The Aussie reached BP with a big return down the line into the corner and a Mladenovic error, then the Pastry's DF (her second in the game, accompanied by two aces) handed her the break. Considering Mladenovic's history of sometimes cracking down the stretch, the "signs" of trouble were noticeable in the opening game. Game #2 would surely be big, as a Gavrilova hold would give her the chance to jump on her opponent in the early going in the 3rd, possibly paving the way to victory. She came close to accomplishing the first part of the plan, going up 40/30 and having an easy forehand into the AD court to take a 2-0 lead. After hitting the shot, Gavrilova tossed away a spare ball, thinking the game was over, not having heard the out call. She challenged it, but was wrong, then after serving at deuce challenged another call on the next point. Again she was wrong, and after having already used a third challenge earlier in the set she was out of 3rd set replay challenges in just the third game. An error followed that gave the break back to Mladenovic, and Gavrilova this time fired her spare ball in something resembling anger (but not to the level of needing a reprimand).

Having avoided the pressure-packed situation that a 2-0 deficit would have created, Mladneovic then held easily for 2-1, setting up a series of games in which Gavrilova was forced to hold to get back to even with the Pastry on the scoreboard. After squandering a 40/15 lead in game #6, Gavrilova won a deuce game for 3-3. A game later, Gavrilova missed on a golden opportunity shot at 30/30 on the Mladenovic serve (both she and coach Nicole Pratt in the stands couldn't help but shake their heads at the lost chance), then saw the Frenchwoman's service winner secure a hold for 4-3.

But with the energy of the crowd rising with every game, Gavrilova didn't allow the moment to prevent her from concentrating on the task at hand. She held at love again for 4-4, the raced out to a 30/love lead a game later. She jumped on a Mladenovic second serve for a forehand return winner to reach triple break point, the saw the Pastry DF to break herself and give Gavrilova the chance to serve for the match at 5-4.

But Gavrilova's inexperience showed as she tried to race through the point and ride the wave of emotion traveling through the stands, never slowing down to focus. She soon fell behind love/40, as Mladenovic broke to get back on serve at 5-5. A moment had been lost by the Aussie, and now it was a matter of whether another would come around.

It would.

At 6-6, a Mladenovic DF put her down 15/30 and Gavrilova held two BP, but the Pastry secured a huge hold anyway, staving off an explosion from the fans on Hisense, who'd been sitting on the edge of their seats since the Aussie had failed to serve out the match, hoping she'd soon get another opportunity. As the 3rd set stretched deeper into the night, Gavrilova began to routinely hold serve. She held at love yet again for 7-7, and went back to looking for another break. She nearly got it in game #15, going up 30/love on Mladenovic's serve, only to be forced to save a GP with a forehand winner. Still, Mladenovic held once more for 8-7.

Gavrilova held at love again for 8-8, then again for 9-9 as the pair went back and forth, both seeking out the BIG point that would provide the final turn in momentum on the night. Finally, in game #19 it arrived. The Aussie's forehand return winner of a second serve put her up 30/love, then an overhead shot led to a Mladenovic error and break points at 40/15. The Pastry saved the first with a big serve, but then finally cracked at precisely the wrong moment. A DF broke her serve and handed Gavrilova a 10-9 lead and another chance to serve out the match. As the crowd began to cheer her opponent's DF, Gavrilova put up the "shhhhh" sign...

She then went back to business. Only this time, she took her time.

At 15/15, a Mladenovic forehand error brought Gavrilova within two points of the win. The crowd erupted. They could feel it now. This time it would happen. A long return gave the Aussie double match point. Mladenovic delayed Hisense's gratification for one point longer, nailing a pass at the net on the first MP, but then when she pushed a short ball long the "instant classic" match went to Gavrilova by a 6-4/4-6/11-9 score.

Through 2:51, 1:35 in the 3rd set alone, Gavrilova and Mladenovic had exchanged blows in the match of the tournament thus far. The final difference was but a small one, but it was also quite large. Not only for Gavrilova, but for the home nation. While Gavrilvova has won two matches at this event to reach her first slam Round of 16, the rest of the Aussie women went 0-8 in the main draw. A few hours later on Night 5, Nick Krygios was bounced from the tournament by Tomas Berdych on Rod Laver, leaving only the winner of the all-Australian 3rd Round match-up between Bernard Tomic and John Millman remaining in the men's draw. Meanwhile, the newest Aussie tennis star's second week run is now playing out in the wake of Aussie future Hall of Famer Lleyton Hewitt's farewell from the sport barely twenty-four hours earlier.

The Eternal Sunshine of this Gavrilovian summer in Australia has drastically changed the hometown storyline of this first slam of 2016. Big time.

Afterward, Dasha provided still more entertainment. First saying she wanted "to hug the whole stadium" during her post-match interview, then covering her mouth in embarrassment after immediately realizing she'd accidentally blurted out an endearing double entendre while describing her in-match comeback abilities, casually noting that she was "good from behind."

Still, even while celebrating the biggest win over her career, Gavrilova maintained her well-worn sportswomanship, following up her "protection" of Mladenovic from post-DF cheers by giving her full (and maybe more) credit on social media later in the night.

While Mladenovic is currently still set to maintain her ranking supremacy over Gavrilova, whose result at this AO has assured that she'll (at least) be breathing down the Frenchwoman's neck in the rankings when the tournament is over, the Aussie has now stamped her ticket to the next round and a place in the heart of Australian Open history. Another win and she might be facing off with a certain Radwanska sister for a shot at becoming the first Australian woman in the AO semifinals in over three decades. Oh yes, please.

And, remember, she's only been an Aussie for a month. Dasha surely knows how to introduce herself, doesn't she?

...not long after Gavrilova advanced, as it turned out, so did her next opponent when #10 Carla Suarez-Navarro defeated Elizaveta Kulichkova when the young Russian retired down a set and 2-0 in the 2nd set.

Meanwhile, the only half of last year's AO women's doubles duo in the draw this time around, Bethanie Mattek-Sands (w/o Lucie Safarova, but w/ Sabine Lisicki) lost in the doubles to the Rodionova sisters.

...of course, it should be noted that very little of the Gavrilova/Mladenovic thriller was actually shown on ESPN (just a point or two before it was FINALLY picked up at 6-6 in the 3rd after endless energy was wasted airing yet another fated win by Novak Djokovic over a doomed opponent), just as the was the case with Gavrilova's upset of Kvitova two days ago, the Puig/Pliskova match, Kerber/Doi and countless other contests in contention for the moments of the tournament's first week. Only Naomi Osaka's run has gotten much air time, and that's likely only because she trains in the U.S., conducts her interviews in lively English, and there was once a possibility (whoops) that she might play under the U.S. flag (again, "good" work there, MJF... way to justify your lofty position).

Holding to form, ESPN's inability to broadcast a SLAM rather than a simple, undramatic MATCH is becoming clear once again at this major. The waste of resources is massive, to say the least, as fans are directed to the Watch ESPN app for any match worth watching (and sometimes that doesn't work, either -- see the Kvitova/Gavrilova match). That's all fine and good on a technically-we're-"airing"-it level, but it's still a bit baffling that the network remains content to air boring/uninteresting matches of top seeds (mostly men, no matter how much of a foregone conclusion the result is... or if the match is just in the FIRST set), rarely update other matches on air, and then barely mention some of the best stories of the tournament (Shuai! Anyone... Shuai? Have MJF and company mentioned her at all the last few days?) as the days tick by.

Not that anything else is really to be expected. This has been the pattern for years, over all the slams. But it's still worth noting, just because one would think that someone -- anyone -- would know better. You'd think that after spending so much money to seize control of the slam broadcasting rights for North America that Disney & Co. might want to produce the best, most dramatically intense, broadcast possible in order to make it all worthwhile and maybe "grow" the product that was acquired at such a cost (one that was probably higher than it SHOULD have been, to be honest).

But, well... no.

...Maria Sharapova's movement into the 4th Round (and, no, that isn't a sideways comment about Rennae Stubbs' TMI probing of Maria about what she did during her toilet break yesterday) means there has been at least one Russian in the Round of 16 at sixty-one of the last sixty-two slams. Only the 4th Round at Wimbledon in 2013 hasn't included a Hordette since the run began at the 2000 U.S. Open.

...and, finally, IT IS COMING HAS STARTED. So we'll see if/how long the power stays on at Backspin HQ.

#1 Serena Williams/USA vs. Margarita Gasparyan/RUS
#12 Belinda Bencic/SUI vs. #5 Maria Sharapova/RUS
#4 Aga Radwanska/POL vs. Anna-Lena Friedsam/GER
#10 Carla Suarez-Navarro/ESP vs. Daria Gavrilova/AUS

#1 Novak Djokovic/SRB vs. #14 Gilles Simon/FRA
#9 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga/FRA vs. #7 Kei Nishikori/JPN
#3 Roger Federer/SUI vs. #15 David Goffin/BEL
#14 Roberto Bautista Agut/ESP vs. #6 Tomas Berdych/CZE

All for Day 5.5 -- more later, I suppose..


Blogger Diane said...

Watching it now. I did predict that this would be THE match....Why did it have to be scheduled in the middle of my night? :(

Fri Jan 22, 04:40:00 PM EST  
Blogger Todd.Spiker said...

If it happens, Radwanska/Gavrilova will probably end up being the same. :(

Fri Jan 22, 07:41:00 PM EST  
Blogger Diane said...

I think it will happen, and I think that will be the end of Dasha's run.

Fri Jan 22, 09:22:00 PM EST  

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