Thursday, April 07, 2016

1Q BSA's: The Most Interesting Tour in the World, Pt.2

There are so many tourist-friendly stops along the scenic 1st Quarter tour of Route WTA in 2016.

Next up, the matches that "moved the needle"...

[Most Enjoyable]

Doha QF - Aga Radwanska def. Roberta Vinci
Radwanska may have ultimately come up well short in the Doha semifinals vs. CSN, but before that she delivered a brilliant performance in a crazy-good QF match vs. Vinci. In a contest that was either a criminally short 1:51 or a perfectly condensed masterpiece, the quality of the tennis was in no way evident in the deceiving final scoreline. With their somewhat similar, variety-loving styles perfectly complementing one another, Radwanska and Vinci alternated flashes of aggression and trick shot artistry for three complete, crowd-pleasing and awe-inspiring sets of competition that left not only the fans on the sidelines having to pick their jaws off the floor, but the players (well, at least Roberta, who was heard to loudly mutter "Not fair!" at one point), as well.

An on-fire Vinci dominated the 1st, but Radwanska slowly but surely began to seize control of the match's momentum soon afterward, pulling off roughly (and conservatively) a dozen to twenty shots (including three in a single game, if memory serves correctly) that would be in the running for Shot of the Month/Year if, you know, Aga was a regular mortal and the rules of shotmaking that apply to everyone else were something by which her particularly magical skills were even slightly constrained. Setting Twitter aflame, leaving an in-form Vinci nonetheless shaking her head and then admitting afterward that even she is occasionally surprised when some of her shots land in, this was a case of Aga at her Radwanskian best. So much so that you almost forgive her having nothing left to give a day later in the SF. Vinci's final surge to turn a 4-1 3rd set deficit into a not-a-runaway final stanza secured the goods that ensure match being included on the short list for, at the very least, the "Most Enjoyable Match" of 2016. In fact, at this point, it's atop already impressive heap.

Yep, Aga. We did.
[Most Crazily Dramatic]

Australian Open 3rd Rd. - Daria Gavrilova def. Kristina Mladenovic
The Eternal Sunshine of the Gavrilovian night ruled the evening in this one as the "Dasha & Kiki Show" took center stage and hogged the spotlight. With a business-like, focused look on her face rather than the constant smile she displayed while upsetting Petra Kvitova earlier in the tournament, 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 frustration 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. 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 1st 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. When a replay showed that a Gavrilova 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 later 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 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 Show featured each player in a constantly-shifting starring role. The Pastry's DF to break herself gave Gavrilova the chance to serve for the match at 5-4, but her 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. As the 3rd set stretched deeper into the night, Gavrilova began to routinely hold serve. She held at love 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. 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 Arena's gratification for one point longer, nailing a pass at the net on the first MP, but then she pushed a short ball long to end an Australian Open "instant classic" after 2:51 of competitive bliss.

[Most Historic]
Fed Cup 1st Rd. Match #2 - Richel Hogenkamp/NED def. Svetlana Kuznetsova/RUS
In an historic four-hour match, the #141-ranked player who hadn't played a FC singles match in two years bested Russia's #17-ranked all-time FC match win leader. After taking the 1st set in a tie-break, Hogenkamp came back from 3-0 down in the 2nd to extend Kuznetsova, who eventually got a break of serve to knot the match. In the 3rd, the Dutch failed to serve out the victory at 5-4, then saw the Russian earn a MP at 7-6. Hogenkamp outlasted Kuznetsova, though, converting her own MP in game #18 of the final set to finish with a 146-145 point advantage in the match. While Kuznetsova led in winners (44 to Hogenkamp's 34), she also had more unforced errors, totally 72 to the Dutch woman's equally "impressive" 56.

[Best Two-Setter]
Miami 4th Rd. - Victoria Azarenka def. Garbine Muguruza
A sure-fire nominee for the best two-set match of the year, this Grandstand (????) hosted match produced some of the highest-quality, gut-busting tennis we'll likely see all season long. The 1st set alone was fit for a time capsule, set to be opened (if we're lucky) around the time everyone meets up in Paris, London or New York in order to inspire the masses. Muguruza led the TB 6-4, only to see Azarenka raise her game and save two SP and win 8-6. In the 2nd, Vika led 2-0 and held from love/30 down for a 5-2 advantage, then reached MP from 15/40 down two games later. Right on cue, the Spaniard saved two MP via volley (#1) and overhead (#2) shots, then broke the Belarusian on a net cord dribbler to get back on serve at 5-4. Muguruza held at love in game #12 to force another TB, which simply gave Azarenka another opportunity to lift her game in clutch. She grabbed a mini-break lead at 2-1, went up 4-1 and finally won on her fourth MP. The best thing about this one? That is was the FIRST match-up between these two (now) Top 5 players. May it be the first of many battle. Pretty, pretty please?

[Best Match-Up]
Miami SF - Victoria Azarenka def. Angelique Kerber
Azarenka may lead the head-to-head vs. Kerber by a 7-1 score, but that stat -- like many of the particulars of this match -- have no corralation to the expected quality of any match-up between the two Top 5 players. Last summer, they teamed up to produced the match of the tournament at last year's U.S. Open (Azarenka won a three-set 3rd Rd. clash), and they've already met three times in major matches in the 1Q of '16, with the winner of all three contests ultimately being crowned the tournament champion. Quality is as quality does. In Brisbane, Azarenka blew out the German in the final to set the tone for her comeback season, only to see a more aggressive knock off the poorly-serving Vika in the Australian Open QF en route to the title. In Miami, they butted heads once more. If not for Azarenka/Muguruza a few days earlier, this would have been THE sterling example of a great 1Q straight sets match (even if the final scoreline might not suggest the measure of firepower, guts and glory displayed in this one by both players). In the Miami semifinal, points were won rather than lost. Kerber played with a strapped thigh that left her wincing at the conclusion of some points, but it didn't seem to hold her back or lower the level of fight in her blood. Both played with aggression, and the German made Vika work overtime for everything she got. But after being out-attacked by Kerber in the AO QF, a bigger-serving and forward-moving Azarenka made a point to not be beaten to the punch this time. In the closing moments of the 2nd set, Azarenka's (still) occasional service foibles (the result of going for more on her serve) led to Kerber very nearly being able to push things to a 3rd when Vika double-faulted and fell behind love/30, then DF'd again to break herself. But Vika was not to be denied, with her lethal return game leading the way as she continued to raise her game vs. stiff '16 competition. When these two meet, history tells us that it's right to expect something great. Once again, they didn't disappoint.

[Most Important Moment?]
Indian Wells Final - Victoria Azarenka def. Serena Williams
Might the memorable rivalry that was first glimpsed and hinted at a few seasons ago finally be about to give the WTA some well-deserved delayed gratification?

The 21st meeting -- and ninth final -- in the series revolved around Williams' struggles with her forehand, return of serve and not-as-overwhelming-a-weapon-as-usual serve against Azarenka's top-notch return abilities. Meanwhile, while Serena quested to find her game, the Belarusian relied on a good 1st and 2nd serve, kept her errors to a minimum, flashed signs of her old defensive skills with her renewed fitness and rediscovered quickness and showed her ability to remain focused on the biggest points. Yet, still, it almost wasn't enough to allow Azarenka to prevail without her '15 failures vs. Serena flashing before her eyes. While Azarenka (until the nearly bitter end) deflected the pressure throughout the day, it turned out to be the stress that rested on the shoulders of Williams, seeking her first Indian Wells title since the controversial and hurtful win in the final over Kim Clijsters in 2001 that precipitated a 14-year boycott of the event, that lingered above the around the court from the first ball to the last. Always one to wear her emotions on her sleeve on the court, it was clear that even Williams' knowledge of the danger factor of facing Azarenka, she was going to have a difficult time brushing her memories and emotions totally aside and just play her best tennis. Some players may not have been able to take advantage of that fact. But Azarenka is not one of those players.

While Williams got off to a slow start, Azarenka was immediately in tune. After breaking Serena to open the match, Vika served well and managed to fight off a slew of chances that Williams had to turn the momentum in her favor. Showing no fear while firing big 1st and 2nd serves, Azarenka saved two break points in game #6, then three more two games later. After playing brilliant defense that allowed her to get to successive balls in both corners of the court, Azarenka induced a long Williams backhand to hold for 5-3. Playing a nearly error-free game, Vika served out the set at love to take the 1st by a 6-4 score, as Williams failed to convert on all five of her BP chances.

The start of the 2nd set saw the story continue. Williams' DF on BP once again put in a 1-0 hole. A game later, Azarenka saved four more BP (making Serena 0-for-9) with a combination of an ace, a Williams error, and big first shot after a Serena return and one of Williams' many bad returns on the day. Another wild Williams error broke her own serve again as Vika took a 3-0 lead. Williams crushed her racket on the court on the way to the changeover area, then destroyed another without even removing it from the wrapper once she reached her seat. She tossed it aimlessly over her shoulder, perhaps providing the breaking point that caused chair umpire Marija Cicak to issue her a point penalty.

Azarenka didn't need the 15/love advantage heading into game #4, but she took full advantage of it, holding at love to take a 6-4/4-0 lead... the same score as the AO QF she managed to lose to Williams in 2010, one of the many of her close-call losses to Serena over the years, including three defeats in '15. As it turned out, Azarenka didn't let this one slip away. But -- whoosh -- it ended up being a close call, with the match seemingly a few points from going either way at any given moment down the final stretch of the 2nd set. Williams finally got on the board at 4-1, but Azarenka's 1st serve continued to remain strong as she held at love for a 5-1 lead, having won 29 of 34 1st serve points. Serving for the match at 5-2, Vika had the cushion of a two-break lead, though she surely didn't want to have to depend on that fact. As it turned out, she needed it.

As happened in Madrid when she his three consecutive DF up triple MP vs. Williams, DF's began to become Azarenk's undoing. Back-to-back giveaways handed Serena a double BP situation, and when Williams' deep returns elicited a long error from Azarenka the world #1 finally had her first BP conversion in ten attempts on the day. Down 5-3, suddenly Serena's serve caught fire. Two aces and a service winner easily held for 5-4 and things were getting tighter and tighter by the second.

Serving for the match once again, Azarenka fell behind love/30 after Williams won a "Point of the Match" rally and then fired a big return. But Vika was still looking for a good "pinish" -- the "finish + punish" mantra she broke out at last year's U.S. Open. When Serena's huge return got her to double BP at 40/15, it looked like things were going to get far stickier before everything was settled, but it was at that moment that Azarenka managed to turn the momentum back in her favor long enough to pull out the win. She fired an ace to save the first BP, then Williams' long backhand secured the other. It made Serena 1-for-12 in BP chances on the day, and she wouldn't get another. With a sudden return of the errors that plagued her earlier, Williams ended the match with back-to-back forehand errors that finally pushed Azarenka over the finish line for a 6-4/6-4 win, her first straight sets win over Serena in nearly seven years ('09 Miami), notching her fourth career victory over Williams as she becomes the only player to ever defeat Serena four times in finals (not surprisingly, all have come on hard court), handing her her first back-to-back losses in finals (w/ her AO loss to Angelique Kerber) since the 2004.

[Most Heated Contest]

Auckland 2nd Rd. - Naomi Broady def. Jelena Ostapenko
Broady added her name to the list of Brits to Watch, and added a few more intriguing layers to her personal story in Week 1 in Auckland. Already once a controversial figure a few years ago when she had her funding pulled due to supposedly questionable photos posted on social media, qualifier Broady found herself smack in the middle of a headline-grabbing situation vs. wild card Ostapenko. The teenage Latvian led by a set and 5-2, and held two MP. Broady saved both. In the ensuing TB, either in desperation, frustration or my sheer "accident" Ostapenko's racket went flying at a ball that she was unable to reach, then bounced up and hit a ball boy. Broady immediately protested to the chair umpire that her opponent should be defaulted for the incident. The rules essentially say as much, though the chair umpire didn't see fit to "pull the trigger," giving Ostapenko the benefit of the doubt (which Broady did not) largely, one would suspect, because there was a legitimate question about the nature of the "accidental" slip/intentionally frustrated toss actions by Ostapenko and, one might consider, maybe because she was up a set and had just held MP a few minutes earlier and, truth be told, it felt a bit desperate the way that Broady (literally bringing herself to tears) pleaded for the default and even called out a tournament official to argue for it. As things turned out, Broady finished off the TB, recovered from a 5-1 3rd set deficit and fired 21 aces to win the match as Ostapenko failed on three occasions to serve out the victory. Then, at the net, Broady sparked a confrontation with Ostapenko after the Latvian complained about her earlier reaction, leading to the Brit yelling in her direction in the changeover area and the two continuing to verbally go back-and-forth after the match. Later, fellow players stood behind Broady while commenting on issues they'd had with Ostapenko during her first season on tour last year. Whether the Latvian deserved to be defaulted, or whether Broady's over the top reaction during and after the match was warranted, the match will surely be one of the most "memorable" of the year.

Australian 1st Rd. - Angelique Kerber def. Misaki Doi
The match that was overlooked by most at the start of the tournament turned out to be the most important one of the fortnight by the time it was over as Kerber went on to become the first slam winner to go on to win the title after having faced a match point in the opening round of the event. After racing out to a 4-0 lead in the 1st, and maybe mistakenly feeling like she had the match in the bag (Kerber allowed just one game in her last meeting with Doi on hard courts last summer), the German saw her Japanese opponent grab the momentum as Kerber's level of play dropped, erasing the two-break deficit and taking the 1st set in a tie-break. In the 2nd, Kerber went about trying to get it right a second time. She took a 4-1 lead, and soon found herself serving up 5-3, 30/love only to see Doi suddenly surge again, leaving Kerber grumbling and looking for answers to all the proverbial tennis questions that go though a player's mind at such moments. Smacking lefty forehand winners from all over, the diminutive-but-deceptively-powerful Doi (Justine Henin was her idol, so you get the idea) won four straight points to break to get back on serve at 5-4. Things again went to a tie-break, where Kerber's well-timed winner put her up 2-1, only to see her then give the lead back with a double-fault. Doi's put-away at the net gave her a match point, but her long return allowed Kerber to stay alive, even as the German was having a devil of a time avoiding (and catching up with) Doi's whipping, aggressive forehand shots. At 6-6, a long Doi backhand mercifully gave Kerber a set point, and she converted it when Doi finally netted a forehand rather than plant it into the corner, ending the 1:01 2nd set and sending things to a 3rd. In the deciding set, Kerber finally began to go on the attack once again. Saving a break point, she managed to barely hold for 4-2. Two games later, Kerber found herself down love/40. But two Doi errors, and a Kerber slice off the corner line saved all three BP and she ultimately held on her own third GP to go up 5-3. It was finally enough to escape Doi's web. Kerber grabbed a 40/love lead a game later on Doi's serve, then won it with a clean forehand return winner. She let out a roar, winning in 2:41 despite Doi's fifty-nine winners (Kerber had 35) and 20/26 net points won. "I was with one foot on the plane back to Germany," Kerber said of her afternoon experience in Melbourne. Having kept both feet on the ground, the rest turned out to be history.
Australian Open 2nd Rd. - Monica Puig def. Kristyna Pliskova
Karolina's sister Kristyna set a WTA record with thirty-one aces in a single match, but STILL lost despite 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, failing to give her any noticeable edge. 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 TB at 8-6. Pliskova's serve again heated 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, which she got in TWO sets), but Puig countered by doing the same to keep her hopes alive. Pliskova failed to convert two more MP on Puig's serve, then 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.

Australian Open Final - Angelique Kerber def. Serena Williams
With Williams' game -- especially her serve and wonky footwork -- waxing both on and off (she had 46 errors -- 23 in the 1st, 5 in the 2nd, then 18 in the 3rd -- and 6 DF to go with 7 aces), Kerber's unrelenting combination of defense and offensive aggression (including on her own serve) proved to be the difference as she grabbed her maiden slam title and became the first German to win a major title in seventeen years. In the key game of the match, Kerber broke Serena for 4-2 after saving two Williams game points with drop shots before finally converting on her fifth BP of the game. Williams' first career loss in a three-set slam final (8-1) prevented her from tying Steffi Graf, Kerber's idol and sometimes-mentor, with a record 22nd slam singles title in the Open era.
Miami QF - Svetlana Kuznetsova def. Ekaterina Makarova
Kuznetsova nearly gave this one away. Multiple times. She led 5-2, 40/love in the 1st but was broken, then dropped serve at 5-4 and 6-5, too, and Makarova breezed through a 7-3 TB to steal the set. Kuznetsova served for the set at 5-3 in the 2nd, but fell behind love/40 and dropped serve again. But she broke Makarova to force a 3rd. There, at 4-2, Sveta was broken again, but finally served things out after breaking her fellow Hordette in game #9. All in (Sveta) day's work.
Miami 4th Rd. - Svetlana Kuznetsova def. Serena Williams
Sveta ends an error-prone Serena's 20-match Miami win streak, counting up eight aces and taking the match away from the world #1 despite dropping a 1st set which she probably should have won. Up a double-break at 3-0 in the 3rd, Kuznetsova saw Williams get one break back, but then quickly fall behind 15/40 while trying to back it up a game later. Serena got to game point, but ultimately broke herself with her ninth double-fault of the day. There was little doubt after that. In the end, the Hordette had just thirteen unforced errors to Serena's fifty (including three in the final game).
Auckland 1st Rd. - Tamira Paszek def. Francesca Schiavone 7-6(3)/4-6/6-3
Australian Open Q2 - Virginie Razzano def. Francesca Schiavone 6-1/4-6/6-1
the matches that prevented Schiavone from tying Ai Sugiyama with a tour-record 62nd consecutive slam main draw appearance. Needing a big result in Week 1 to raise her ranking high enough for automatic entry into the AO, Schiavone lost a 3:00 battle to Paszek in her opening '16 match in Auckland. In a set that featured Schiavone's late fight, multiple arguments and a forward-facing tweener shot at the net in the closing moments the Italian battled back from 4-1 down in the 3rd and got back on serve down 4-3, only to give the break back a game later, then fail to convert BP at 5-3 as Paszek served out the win. Forced into AO qualifying, Schiavone lost to another veteran, as Razzano pulled away in the final set to win and end what could have been a great Melbourne story (a round later, she nearly ended what WOULD become a great Melbourne story before it began -- serving for the match, but losing, against eventual AO quarterfinalist Zhang Shuai in the final Q-round). With the end of Schiavone's consecutive slam quest at hand, the player who moves into the on-deck spot is Jelena Jankovic, who has now played in 50 consecutive slam main draws. She could tie Sugiyama at the 2019 Australian Open. JJ would be a month away from her 34th birthday, while Schiavone will turn 36 this June. Hmmm. It's conceivably do-able. We'll see.
Australian Open 4th Rd. - Maria Sharapova def. Belinda Bencic
Like a lost relic from an earlier, Supernovic age, Sharapova dispatched the teenager behind the force of a power game that littered the scorecard with winners, errors and a career-high ace total. There was a time when the heart and quality of Sharapova's game radiated from her serve outward. When it shined its brightest, providing the tide that lifted all the boats of her tennis existence, she was a powerful figure on the court who was nearly unstoppable in full flight. But all that changed after the 2008 shoulder surgery that could have, but didn't, end or greatly diminish her career. The Russian survived, and likely even improved because of, the injury. But it changed the legacy of the Sharapova serve and what it meant to her success. After surgery, it was no longer a reliably consistent weapon, and on occasion was even nearly a liability. Rather than prop up the rest of her game, providing its fuel, it was often something that had to be overcome. To her credit, she did just that. Improving her court movement, quickness and variety in the "second phase" of her career, Sharapova transformed herself from an awkward clay courter into one of the best in the world on the surface, and took home a pair of Roland Garros titles because of it. A round after firing sixteen aces against Lauren Davis, Sharapova's serving confidence carried over vs. Bencic. While her errors (46) her high, they were the byproduct of an aggressive game that was kept afloat by a hunger for winners (58 to Bencic's 10) and a serve that produced a career-high twenty-one aces that helped to cover Sharapova's imperfections. Though Bencic wasn't able to match Sharapova's power, and struggled to develop the same sort of aggressive gameplan (she faced BP in all six of her 1st set serve games) that helped her to her biggest career title in Toronto last summer, much credit goes to the Swiss for managing to be opportunistic and staying close enough with Sharapova on the scoreboard (she saved nine of the first eleven BP in the 1st, and converted two of her own) that the result remained in question throughout the tight two-set victory by the Russian. Sharapova had set the tone for her day early, firing four aces in her first two service games, then displayed her characteristic fight through the middle portion by twice countering Bencic breaks of serve by immediately breaking back one game later. In the 2nd, Sharapova faced and saved break points in games #1, #3 and #5, ending the latter with an ace up the "T." Needing her power and serve to overcome her rising error total, Sharapova finally pulled away from Bencic down the stretch, but it was never a runaway. In game #12, Sharapova's 57th winner gave her a match point, but error #46 prevented her from converting it. On MP #2, winner #58 -- a backhand shot that landed near the baseline but was called out -- was awarded via a replay challenge that showed the Sharapova ball clipping the line. Sharapova lost in the QF to Serena Williams, didn't see the court on Fed Cup weekend and then pulled out of an even with a lingering forearm injury. Unfortunately, with her revealing of a positive drug test in Melbourne, this could turn out to be the last match the Russian wins in quite a while.
Fed Cup World Group II Match #1 - Anna Karolina Schmiedlova/SVK def. Arina Rodionova/AUS
The drama started early as Rodionova cramped up in the 1st set, while the off-her-game Schmiedlova's miss-hits and DF handed the Aussie an opportunity, which she finally took advantage of by serving out the set on her second try. AKS fell behind 7-5/4-1, only to finally find her form. A limping Rodionova saved three SP at 5-4, then Schmiedlova bloodied her knee trying to reach a shot before holding for 6-5 and then breaking serve to take the 2nd set. In the 3rd, Rodionova ran out of gas, going out in 32 minutes to end the 3:02 match. "It had blood, tears, cramping...there was everything out there," said the Aussie. Unfortunately for Slovakia, Schmiedlova's win proved to be not enough in a 3-2 loss to Australia. And the same goes for Schmiedlova herself, who won two titles and finished at #26 in 2015. She won just one other time in her ten matches in the 1Q (with all eight losses in straight sets, usually none of them close), and she's already been rocked in her first 2Q match, as well.

Australian Open 4th Round - Johanna Konta def. Ekaterina Makarova
Facing off with '15 AO semifinalist Ekaterina Makarova, the Sydney-born Konta outlasted the Hordette in a 3rd set that, unlike some of the recent women's matches at the AO, opened with eight straight holds of serve. Konta finally broke Makarova in game #9 and served for the match at 5-4. But the moment proved to be too much for her, and it was soon back to the grind at 5-5. Three games later, she got the break advantage back at 7-6, and went about her "do-over" moment. This time, Konta held true, easily holding to put away a victory that made her the first British woman to reach a slam Final 8 since Jo Durie at Wimbledon in 1984.
Indian Wells SF - Victoria Azarenka def. Karolina Pliskova
In a match of swinging momentum, Pliskova out-hit Azarenka early and held two SP on Vika's serve at 5-3. After failing there, the Czech still had the chance to serve for the set. But after losing just three points on serve prior to game #9, Pliskova quickly fell down 15/40 and was broken. Azarenka then held at love and raced to a 5-0 lead in the tie-break, winning 7-1 to officially rip the set from her Czech opponent's grasp. Pliskova rebounded in the 2nd, saving four BP in the opening game then breaking for 2-0 before coasting to the set win. But it wasn't enough to hold off Azarenka down the stretch in the decider. A season ago, Azarenka opened '15 by failing to convert 2 MP and losing to Pliskova in the 1st Round in Brisbane, setting the tone for her half-step-behind campaign. Things have changed in 2016.
Australian Open 1st Rd. - Kristyna Pliskova def. Samantha Stosur
While an early Stosur exit in Australia isn't big news, she usually wins at least ONE match. This was just her second 1st Round loss since 2005, and it came on the big stage under the lights on Rod Laver (really, they should have known not to schedule her there, right?). Qualifier Pliskova nearly flubbed her chance, showing all her Czech-ness by throwing in a pair of DF while trying to serve out the match at 6-4/5-4. Eventually, Stosur held two SP before Pliskova pushed things to a TB. There, on her 3rd MP, Pliskova fired a lefty ace to put Stosur away. So, again, she flashed all her "Czech glory"... only this time it was the good stuff. A round later, Pliskova hit 31 aces and held five match points, but still lost. Yep, she's a Maiden, through-and-through.
Indian Wells QF - Aga Radwanska def. Petra Kvitova
Radwanska backs up her Singapore win over the Czech, while Petra once again finds a way to squander a big lead as she limps across the finish line in her third straight three-setter in Indian Wells. Aga saved four BP to hold for 3-1 in the 1st, the Kvitova's DF on BP handed her an insurmountable double-break lead one game later. In the 2nd, the Czech finally got a service hold and broke for 3-1. Radwanska broke back for 3-2, but Kvitova went up 5-2 and served for the set two games later. A Radwanska drop shot and lob combo broke Petra for 5-4, then the Czech's errors carried her the rest of hte way. In the tie-break, Kvitova opened with a DF, saw Radwanska take a 4-0 lead, then after reaching a drop shot the Czech pushed a too-fine-an-angle forehand crosscourt volley off the net cord and out to give Aga a 5-2 advantage. One point later, Radwanska reached MP when -- naturally -- HER record hit the net cord and dribbled over onto Kvitova's side of the court. On her second MP, Radwanska advanced and solidified her return to the Top 3 in the rankings.

Australian Open 3rd Rd. - Maria Sharapova def. Lauren Davis
The Russian put together a well-played, dominant performance against Davis. Well, that is, if you overlook the messy, un-Sharapovian 2nd set that sprung up from the depths of Laver Arena in between the 1st and 3rd sets and, for a bit, swallowed up the gummy candy maven. Playing for her 600th career win, Sharapova took the 1st set at 6-1, and then the 3rd at love. But in the 2nd an uncharacteristic spate of errors (33... in the SET!) plagued her game throughout. Still, she very nearly won it to finish up in straight sets. Davis served up 4-2 in the 2nd, and later led 4-2 and 5-4 in the tie-break, yet all along one fully expected Sharapova to do what she always does under such circumstances: get back even and then pull away. She did the former to force the TB, but the latter would take an additional set. Davis reached set point when Sharapova missed on a seemingly easy short ball eleven points into the breaker, slicing a ball that landed just outside the line to give Davis a set point at 6-5. A forehand error then forced Sharapova to go the distance. The 3rd set was elementary, as Sharapova took out her 2nd set frustrations on the diminutive Bannerette to notch yet another career milestone.

Fed Cup 1st Rd. Match #1 - Karolina Pliskova/CZE def. Simona Halep/ROU
Halep led 7-6/4-4 before being broken for 5-4 in the 2nd. Tossing her racket in disgust, she then lost seven of the next nine games and put Romania behind the 8-ball after a 2:30 loss. At least her over Match #3 win over Petra Kvitova (who went 0-2 for the first time in her FC career) smoothed over some of the hurt of what turned out to be "lost" weekend for the Swarmettes, who squandered a golden opportunity to knock off the two-time defending champion Czechs, who prevailed 3-2 after winning the deciding doubles.
Acapulco Final - Sloane Stephens def. Dominika Cibulkova
In 3:06, Current Sloane shows her mettle and moves to 3-0 in career singles finals (2-0 already in '16, with all three since last summer). Of course, a certain Swarmette, circa 2013-14 or so, might choose to note how Stephens has become quite proficient in the "smaller" tournaments, but is still looking to hook a "bigger fish" in the Future.
Kuala Lumpur 1st Rd. - Kurumi Nara def. Daniela Hantuchova
In a 3:10 match suspended in midstream due to the heat, Hantuchova failed to hold onto a 5-3 3rd set advantage, as she was broken while serving up 5-4 and couldn't convert on three MP in the deciding tie-break. The Slovak vet hasn't won a main draw match since last July.
Doha 2nd Rd. - Monica Niculescu def. Jelena Jankovic
After 2:46, twenty breaks of serve and Niculescu nearly blowing a 5-2 lead in the 3rd set, JJ was left with a few extra days before celebrating her 31st birthday. Hmmm, maybe THAT explains why the cats were going crazy in Qatar.

Miami 2nd Rd. - Serena Williams def. Christina McHale
Once again, McHale had a strong 1Q showing. Williams led 6-3/5-3, serving for the match at 5-4 and holding a MP. But McHale got the break for 5-5, saved three BP to hold a game later and then broke the world #1 again (!!) to force a 3rd set. McHale staved off break points to hold in game #1 of the 3rd, but Williams claimed control of the match from that point forward.
Miami 2nd Rd. - Timea Babos def. Karolina Pliskova
Babos notched her fourth career Top 20 win, but it wasn't easy. The Hungarian led 5-2 in the 3rd and served for the match three times, holding two MP. But Karolina forced a tie-break... only to then get bageled there 7-0. Sigh. On the same day, twin Kristyna advanced to the 3rd Round when Belinda Bencic retired from their match with a back injury.
Indian Wells SF - Serena Williams def. Aga Radwanska
Try as she might, Radwanska couldn't quite take full advantage of Serena's early struggles. Still, the Pole's eschewing of the use of her trusty bag of trick shots for a bit more forward aggression (though she was still sometimes tentative) allowed her to stay close and nearly take her second career set off Williams. Radwanska had three BP in game #5, then another in game #7, but failed to take a double-break lead. Seizing her own chance, Williams began to tee off on Radwanska's second serve in game #8, earning the break to knot things at 4-4. Williams simply out-hit her opponent while taking the final four games of the set. Serena led 3-0 in the 3rd after winning the first eleven points of the set, only to see Aga run off three straight games of her own, saving two BP in game #6 to hold for 3-3. Williams wide backhand volley handed Radwanska a 6-5 lead with a break, but Serena's crosscourt forehand got the break back and things went to a TB that was dominated by Williams. After dropping the first point, Serena won the final seven points of the match with big returns and serves to secure her tenth win in ten meetings with the Pole and advance to her first I.W. final in fifteen years.

Indian Wells 2nd Rd. - Genie Bouchard def. Sloane Stephens
Bouchard knots her head-to-head with Stephens at 2-2 as the Bannerette continues her feast-or-famine season (if she doesn't win the title, Sloane often just "rips off the Band-Aid" loses her first match). Thing is, Stephens had every opportunity to at least push this to three sets, as she served up 5-4, 40/love and held five SP in the 2nd, including one sitter forehand that she wildly sailed. Bouchard got the break in that game, then held at love. She won eleven of the final twelve points to claim the match.
Miami 3rd Rd. - Elina Svitolina def. Caroline Wozniacki
In a momentum-shifting match that lasted until nealry 1 a.m. Easter Sunday, the hot-and-cold level of Svitolina's play directed the action, with her forehand and aggressive tactics coming and going, then finally settling in long enough in the closing moments to secure the win. Svitolina served for the 1st set, but ultimately lost it. In the 2nd, she lost just two points on serve. Down 4-5, love/30 to the Dane in the 3rd, the Ukrainian reeled off eleven of the twelve points to finally put away the steadily-sinking-in-the-rankings Wozniacki.
Indian Wells 2nd Rd. - Ana Ivanovic def. Camila Giorgi
Was that AnaIvo saving two match points and advancing late in the night on Saturday? Yes. Of course, it helped that Giorgi threw in 47 UE's (w/ 10 DF) with her 40 winners. Naturally, Ivanovic couldn't help but lose for winning, as she fell in the very next round, playing with a sore knee and posting just two games against Karolina Pliskova.
Indian Wells 2nd Rd. - Petra Kvitova def. Danka Kovinic 6-3/4-6/7-6(5)
Indian Wells 3rd Rd. - Petra Kvitova def. Johanna Larrson 6-3/4-6/7-5
they weren't pretty, but they were wins. And those haven't been easy to come by for Petra in '16. In 2:26, after failing to serve out the match vs. Kovinic, Kvitova fell behind 6-5, 30/love in the 3rd. Winning the total points battle by a score 107-106, the Czech was just good enough to take out the Montenegrin. A round later, she had to dig out of a 5-3 3rd set hole vs. Larsson, with the Swede serving for the match. Kvitova won sixteen of the final twenty points on that day.
Indian Wells 2nd Rd. - Zhang Shuai def. Caroline Wozniacki
In 3:24, Zhang's early-season run continued as she converted on her fourth MP after nearly squandering a 5-2 3rd set lead.
Dubai 1st Rd. - Jelena Jankovic def. Belinda Bencic
When good things happen to good people, and bad things happen to equally good people. Bencic led JJ 6-4/4-3 before the Serb finally took the 3rd set by converting on her sixth set point. The Swiss teen, playing for a seventh straight week, finally wore down in the 3rd in the 2:30+ match.

Miami 2nd Rd. - Carolina Garcia def. Andrea Petkovic
Petko's North American hard court swing left her grasping a straws. After losing a 7-5 3rd set vs. Barbora Strycova in Indian Wells, she dropped a 3rd set tie-break to Garcia in a nearly three-hour match in which the German actually recorded ten more points (121-111). With her ranking barely holding in the Top 30, after openly talking last year about her questions about her future one has to hope the German she sees her fortunes turn around soon.

Americas II Promotional Playoff Match #3 - Koch-Benvenuto/Seguel (CHI) def. Puig/Cordero (PUR)
Puig was living the good life in Bayamon all week, going 4-0 in singles (winning 48 of 50 games) and 3-0 in doubles while carrying Puerto Rico into the PP vs. Chile. She won her singles match over Daniela Seguel to force the deciding doubles, then led 5-3 and held MP along with Ana Sofia Cordero in the 3rd set vs. Seguel & Koch-Benvenuto. But it wasn't enough, as all her work went for nothing as the Chileans battled back to win in 2:10 to earn promotion to Americas I zone play.

Doha 1st Rd. - Caroline Wozniacki def. Ana Konjuh
Right after having fallen out of the Top 20, Wozniacki struggled to get by Konjuh in 2:35 after being up a double break in the 3rd, serving at 5-2 and 5-4 (40/love) before finally putting away her ninth match point.
Fed Cup Asia/Oceania I Pool B Round Robin - Chang Kai-Chen/TPE def. Yaroslava Shvedova/KAZ
The Kazakh has a history of losing long, drawn-out Fed Cup matches that you'd think someone of her experience would find a way through, only to go down in flames yet again. This one is just the latest, as Kazakhstan once again underperformed at FC time.
$25K Port Pirie Final - Barbara Haas def. Arina Rodionova
A week after Rodionova defeated the Austrian en route to a challenger title in Perth, Haas did the same vs. the Aussie in the PP final. Rodionova led 4-2 in the 1st before losing it, then 5-1 in the 2nd before winning it to force a 3rd.

"When I play her, I know automatically I have to step up my game. I think that makes me play better." - Serena Williams, on Maria Sharapova

[Serena vs. Maria XXI]
Australian Open 4th Rd. - Serena Williams def. Maria Sharapova
While the matches never live up to the anticipation, Serena/Maria meetings have always been -- in a "perfect" tennis world -- an occasion to marvel at the historic careers and personas each carved out over the past decade-plus as two very contrasting personalities who have managed to co-exist on the big stage of the same sport -- as the two most successful, non-sibling players of their generation -- without ever having either's career defined by the (more, or less) success of the other, no matter if numbers or dollar signs are easily assigned to both women.

In their most recent match-up was the last before Sharapova's drug test controversy, a situation which will place down another layer of intrigue the next time they face off with one another (IF they do, I suppose one should qualify), as Serena wasn't amongst the several players who embarrassed themselves in the aftermath of the test announcement and took the Russian's predicament as an opportunity to accuse her of being a "cheater" and/or express how "impolite" she may have been over the years while not fostering friendships with her tour competitors.

Taken as a match, Serena/Maria XXXI wasn't a great one. Sharapova opened strong with a break of serve, as Williams got off to a somewhat slow start. So, in the early going, the prevailing notion was that the immediate conditions that Sharapova had to be hoping for were to her liking. She came in serving well (16 and a career-best 21 aces in her last two matches) and playing with confident and powerful aggression, showing a bit of her old, my-serve-informs-my-game-rather-than-hamstrings-it style. Sharapova held for 2-0 with an ace, then reached deuce on Williams' serve in game #3. But Williams has a long memory, and it's been twelve years since she's allowed the Russian to see anything much less than her best for long. The same would be the case again here. Serena held for 2-1. From there, things would never quite be the same for Maria.

In the next game, the serve that carried Sharapova into another deep run in Melbourne began to let her down. Still, the Russian managed to stay even at 4-4 despite six 1st set DF. A Williams DF in game #9 gave Sharapova a break point and a chance to have the set on her racket. Naturally, Serena hit an ace, then saved a second BP with a big serve up the "T" and a forehand winner. Her eighth ace gave her game point. She didn't convert it, but did GP #2 with, you guessed it, an ace up the middle (#9) for a 5-4 lead. After one final valiant stand, Sharapova was broken on Williams' third SP. Then, it happened again.

It's one of the odd facts about this series, as Sharapova -- whose confidence never flags vs. any other opponent -- often finds herself, when playing Serena, face-to-face in the mirror with her own, "anti-Maria" tennis doppelganger. And for going on twelve years now, Maria has always blinked. Sometimes early, sometimes late. But always. Serena would run off seven straight games before Sharapova finally got on the board for 5-1, then collected herself to regain her will to make the match's final game a study in her time-honored competitiveness.

Nothing changed as a result of this match, and both Williams and Sharapova continue to survive. Together, as well as apart. While both have weathered different personal storms over the years, with Sharapova now taking her turn in the ring of fire, when they join as "one" the tennis world has never able to avoid taking pause, if just for a moment, in the hope that something great may happen between them once again. Another shot of that greatness may be forever elusive, but the interest will likely never dissipate. No matter what happens next, for either woman.

Hopman Cup RR Mixed Doubles - Australia Green (Gavrilova/Kyrgios) def. France (Garcia/de Schepper)
...6-4/2-6 [11-9].
The Aussies needed a win to advance to the final (otherwise, the British team of Watson/Murray would) in the final RR match, and faced down a MP at 9-8 in the deciding tie-break. After Garcia had managed to get back Kyrgios' big serve, Gavrilova followed up her slugging volley up the middle with a deft crosscourt drop volley just barely over the net and inside the service box to save the day. The Aussies didn't lose another point, as Kyrgios soon handled every shot on Australia's MP, pushing the duo into the final, where they shut out Elina Svitolina and Alexandr Dolgopolov and swept the Ukrainians to take the title.


Australian Open 4th Rd. - Aga Radwanska def. Anna-Lena Friedsam
Radwanska trailed 4-1 in the 1st, but won four straight games and held a set point. Friedsam pushed things to a TB and won it 8-6. In the 3rd, once again, Friedsam grabbed the lead, coming back from 0-2 down to lead 5-2 and serve for the match at 5-3. But severe cramping did her in down the stretch, as A-Rad took advantage of her compromised opponent by mercilessly moving her around the court. Friedsam often served through tears as her pain increased. Trying to stretch out her hamstring, Friedsam was given a time violation before serving the first point in game #11 then, unable to push off without pain, she tried to serve underhanded. It didn't work (not everyone can be Michael Chang). Dragging her legs, she was called for a foot fault, and was soon down a break point after chasing down a short ball but being unable to get it back. She doubled over and nearly went down in pain in front of the changeover area as she grabbed the back of her UNwrapped leg. Delaying and slowly walking back to the baseline, she was given another time violation, which resulted in a lost point that handed Radwanska the break for a 6-5 lead.

Ten minutes after dangling over the edge of an Australian Open cliff, Radwanska was suddenly serving for the match. Securing the hold, she served out the match and eventually reached her second AO semifinal in three years.
Rio QF - Francesca Schiavone def. Cindy Burger
Burger led 6-3/5-3, served for the match at 5-4 and 6-5 and held a MP in the TB. Schiavone went on to win the title (def. Shelby Rogers in three sets), joining AO champ Angelique Kerber as the only '16 singles champs (so far) who saved MP before reaching the winner's circle.
Miami 2nd Rd. - Garbine Muguruza def. Dominika Cibulkova
After an oft-disheartening 1Q of poor results and an even worse on-court attitude, will this match be looked back upon as the moment when Muguruza finally seriously began her '16 season? Maybe. She battled back from a 3-0 deficit in the 3rd to steal this victory from Cibulkova, who got as close as two points from the win before Muguruza got the key break for 6-5 and served out the match.
Sydney Final - Martina Hingis/Sania Mirza def. Caroline Garcia/Kristina Mladenovic
...1-6/7-5 [10-5].
The Dream Team's infallible reputation nearly suffered a dent the week before the start of play at the Australian Open, but it instead was only bolstered by another clutch performance as Hingis/Mirza recovered from a 6-1/5-2 deficit against the all-Pastry duo to win their seventh straight title and 30th consecutive match. In Melbourne, the numbers would be increased to eight and 36 before the streak finally ended at 41.
Miami 4th Rd. - Angelique Kerber def. Timea Babos
Kerber escaped the Doi Trap in Melbourne and went on to win the Australian Open, and after she managed to avoid an upset at the hands of Babos it appeared that history may repeat itself in Miami. Vika took care of that, though. Still, the German finding a way to win after being down 3-1 in the 3rd set -- with BPs for 4-1 -- and erasing the Hungarian's own GP for a 4-2 lead and turning it into a break to level things at 3-3 (Kerber ultimately won five of the final six games to advance) en route to an ultimate semifinal run is surely a good way to end what was a "career Quarter."
Indian Wells 2nd Rd. - Aga Radwanska def. Dominika Cibulkova
Cibulkova's power seemed to be getting the best of Radwanska, as the Slovak led 5-2 in the 3rd and held a match point. But Aga got a key hold in game #6 to avoid falling down a double-break, then used some well-timed aggression to seize control down the stretch.
Kuala Lumpur Final - Elina Svitolina def. Genie Bouchard 6-7(5)/6-4/7-5
Indian Wells 2nd Rd. - Elina Svitolina def. Annika Beck 4-6/7-6(0)/6-1
In comebacks fitting of a certain newly Hall of Fame-elected Belgian who currently has the Ukrainian's ear, Svitolina charged back in both these matches which highlight the renewed urgency in her game (and the resulting success) that has accompanied Justine Henin's addition to her coaching team. Showing the art of bouncing back is indeed in her genes, Svitolina rebounded from failing to serve out the 1st set at 5-3, falling behind 7-6/4-2 and seeing Bouchard served for the match at 5-4 in the 3rd, breaking the Canadian at love the saving a BP on her own serve one game later en route to sweeping the final games of the rain delay-marred match to secure career title #4 (4-0 in finals) and drop Bouchard to 1-5 in championship matches.

In Indian Wells, Svitolina completed a comeback from a set and 5-2 down, including seeing Beck serve for the match at 5-3. She then crushed the German in the 2nd set TB (7-0) and handled her in a 6-1 3rd set to move on in the desert.
Auckland 2nd Rd. - Nao Hibino def. Daria Kasatkina 7-5/2-6/7-5
Doha 2nd Rd. - Roberta Vinci def. Daria Kasatkina 2-6/6-4/7-6(3)
Proof that the young Russian is human, after all. Hibino saved 11 of 16 break points in the match, coming back to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat after Kasatkina had come within two points of the win at both 5-3 and 5-4 in the 3rd set. Vinci saved three match points against the Hordette.
Indian Wells 3rd Rd. - Daria Kasatkina def. Monica Puig
Of course, Kasatkina is still Kasatina, too. Puig saved five MP vs. Kr.Pliskova in Melbourne, but she was on the other side of things here by losing after holding one of her own vs. the Russian.

Indian Wells 2nd Rd. - Roberta Vinci def. Margarita Gasparyan
The Italian saved two MP here vs. the Russian. Vinci has already won four 3rd set tie-breaks this season. I guess defeating Serena Williams at the U.S. Open has a way of instilling big match confidence in a player, huh?
Hobart 1st Rd. - Naomi Osaka def. Jarmila Wolfe
The week before the start of the AO, Osaka qualified in Hobart and saved two MP in the 2nd set TB -- at 6-5 and 8-7 -- to get the win over Aussie Wolfe (formerly Gajdosova). She did so well in the event that had she not "conveniently" lost her next match she'd have missed out on the qualifying rounds in Melbourne. As it was, Osaka made it there on time, won three matches to qualify, then reached the 3rd Round after notching an upset win over #18-seed Elina Svitolina.

Doha 1st Rd. - Genie Bouchard def. Anastasija Sevastova
Early season signs of a Bouchard return to form? It was surely a good sign on Sunday when the Canadian won a rollercoaster battle with Sevastova. Sevastova led 4-1 in the 1st, then fell behind 5-4 before winning three straight games to take the set. In the 3rd, Bouchard trailed 4-0 and 5-2 and saved two MP before staging a comeback that ended with a deciding TB win.
Hopman Cup RR - Heather Watson def. Daria Gavrilova
Watson and Andy Murray failed to reach the final (barely), but the Brit didn't let this match get away like she did the one against Serena at Wimbledon last year. Gavrilova saved 2 SP in the 1st set to grab the match advantage, winning ten of twelve points (going up 6-0 in the TB). But Watson didn't go away. Instead, she overcame a 4-2 3rd set deficit, and Gavrilova serving at 5-3, 30/15. Watson closed out the match with a love hold. This, as well as another win over Sabine Lisicki and a three-setter with Garcia, didn't lead to greater things in Perth, but the Brit would win her third career tour singles title in early March in Monterrey.
Kaohsiung 1st Rd. - Donna Vekic def. Alison Riske
This was Vekic's first MD win of the season, and it took 2:40, nine aces and her coming back from Riske serving for the match at 6-5 in the 2nd set (but being broken at love) to finally do it. The Bannerette's twelve DF's helped, too.


Kaohsiung 2nd Rd. - Anastasija Sevastova def. Donna Vekic
Maybe it was the shock of actually winning one round earlier? After escaping in her opening match, Vekic gave this one away after leading 4-0 in the 3rd.
Hobart 2nd Rd. - Heather Watson def. Monica Niculescu
In a 3:14 match played out over two days, defending champ Watson squandered a 4-1 3rd set lead and had to save three MP before finally vanquishing the oft-frustrating game of Niculescu. She had to play her QF, which she lost to Johanna Larsson, the same day, ending her twelve-month reign as the Queen of Hobart.
Sydney 1st Rd. - Samantha Stosur def. Roberta Vinci
In 2:32, Stosur came back from a set and a break down, then had to hold off Vinci after leading 5-2 in the 3rd. Stosur only had three wins in Sydney since reaching the '05 final, but she notched two this year alone.
Australian 1st Rd. - Magdalena Rybarikova def. Yanina Wickmayer
The oft-overlooked Slovak saved two MP at 5-4 in the 3rd, held serve, then broke the oft-overlooked Waffle again to win her fourth 1st Round match at the last five slams.
Australian Open Q3 - Wang Yafan def. Kristina Kucova
The 21-year old saved a MP en route to qualifying for her first career slam MD, after having failed in three straight slam qualifying attempts last season.
Dubai SF - Chuang Chia-Jung/Darija Jurak def. Sara Errani/Carla Suarez-Navarro
...5-7/7-6(5) [10-7].
Chuang & Jurak battled back from 4-0 and 5-2 down in the 2nd set, saving five MP. They went on to win the title.

Dubai 2nd Rd. - Caroline Garcia def. Carla Suarez-Navarro
After Garcia had battled back from a 6-4/4-2 hole, the rains came when Garcia was serving for the match up 5-3, 15/15. Three hours later, she returned to win three of the final four points and close out the match. The side effect: Roberta Vinci became the oldest debut Top 10er ever. The most interesting tour in the world.

BNP Paribas Challenge Final - Taylor Townsend def. Sonya Kenin
In the tournament to win a wild card berth in the Indian Wells qualifying draw, 19-year old Townsend finally found some light at what has turned out to be a fairly long, dark tunnel spread out over the last year. The #6 seed defeated #1 Mandy Minella, #4 Lauren Embree and #7 Kenin en route to the win that wrapped up a good week for a Bannerette who entered the week all the way down at #379. Townsend ended 2014 at #102 after reaching the Roland Garros 3rd Round and winning a pair of $50K titles. She battled back from a 0-3 3rd set deficit against 17-year old Kenin to crack the I.W. Q-draw.
San Antonio WTA 125 Series 2nd Rd. - Daria Gavrilova def. Maria Sakkari
Finally, after a nearly two-month absence, a bit of Gavrilova's Melbourne spark showed up again, as the Aussie staged a comeback from 6-4/4-2 down vs. the Greek teen, surging back from 5-3 down in the 2nd set tie-break with four consecutive points to set the stage for a victorious 3rd.
Dubai 2nd Rd. - CoCo Vandeweghe def. Kristina Mladenovic
Their results thus far in '16 give indications that Top 30 player Mladenovic and Top 40 player Vandeweghe might soon act as ships passing the rankings night. Such an outcome happened on the court when they met in February, with the Bannerette coming back form 4-2 down in the 3rd to take out the Pastry.

*COUGH, COUGH, COUGH -- hey, don't choke!... ah, too late*
Miami 2nd Rd. - Irina-Camelia Begu def. Sabine Lisicki
An early nominee for "Choke of the Year." Lisicki won eleven straight games from 1-0 down in the 2nd to take a 5-0 lead in the 3rd set. Despite holding a MP, the German saw it all slip away as she lost six straight games. But then she broke Begu to force a deciding tie-break, only to quickly fall behind there and... wait for it... DF on match point. Oh, Sabine.
Australian Open 3rd Rd. - Madison Keys def. Ana Ivanovic
Ivanovic came out firing following a :50 delay after coach Nigel Sears collapsed in the stands and was rushed to a hospital with the Serb leading 6-4/1-0. But Ivanovic, being who she is for the last seven-plus years, wasn't going to go quietly -- and victoriously -- into the Melbourne night. She led by an early break in the 2nd, gave it back, then regained it. Serving for a 6-4/5-2 lead, one would think that the former #1 and slam champion would have her opponent -- who hasn't really WON anything yet in her career -- right where she'd want her, right? Come now, we're talking about AnaIvo. Keys had HER right where she wanted her. The Serb's service toss immediately began its slow devolution, and errors overtook her game. Keys eventually recovered from love/40 and saved six BP in game #10 to hold to take the 2nd set. Not content to have lost two potentially match-securing leads to Keys, Ivanovic was at it again in the 3rd. She blew a 3-0 3rd set advantage, Keys held from 15/40 for 3-3, then AnaIvo double-faulted to break herself a game later. Keys would win six of the final seven games to take the match, as Ivanovic has now failed to reach the 4th Round at six of her last nine slams, and nineteen times in the thirty-one slams since she won her only major title at Roland Garros in '08. Before that stretch, AnaIvo had put together a F-SF-4th-F-W run in 2007-08 that lifted her into the #1 ranking. Some might want to use the incident with Sears as a reason for Ivanovic's squandering (on multiple occasions) of this match. But, come on, this has been her pattern for far too long for this to be viewed as an isolated incident. Unfortunately, as a player, it's just who she is.
Australian Open 4th Rd. - Carla Suarez-Navarro def. Daria Gavrilova
Playing in her first match at Rod Laver Arena, Gavrilova seemed to have everything going for her in the 1st set. And the 2nd. And the 3rd. The energized Aussie took the 1st at love from CSN, with the Spanish veteran winning just one point on her first serve in the set. In both the 2nd and 3rd sets, Gavrilova led 2-0 and was a point away from a 3-0 lead. After failing to get the game in the 2nd, she became frustrated and lost four straight games then, ultimately, the set. But Gavrilova was still seemingly in the driver's seat in the deciding set. Up 2-0, she again was a point away from a 3-0 lead. Again, she failed to get it. Again, she got frustrated. Again, she couldn't pull herself together enough to turn the tide back in her favor, as she mutated into a Russo-Aussie version of Jelena Jankovic. Clanging her racket against whatever was handy, wild gesticulating at herself and her players box. Screaming at her coach, then angrily gesturing in the direction of her team when they didn't stand up and cheer when she won a point. The move made coach Nicole Pratt simply shake her head and chuckle... oh, Dasha.

While she put together a few points down the stretch, the storyline turned into a case of Gavrilova never being able to focus long enough to put herself back into the mindset necessary to win the match. Suarez-Navarro ran off the last six games, winning 0-6/6-3/6-2 as Gavrilova failed to become just the second Aussie woman to reach the AO quarterfinals in the past decade. Afterward, Gavrilova admitted to and apologized for acting like a "spoiled brat."

Doha 1st Rd. - Elena Vesnina def. Simona Halep
The #118-ranked Russian trailed 7-6/4-1 before winning eleven of the final twelve games to once again send Halep packing in the opening stages of an event. Halep, perhaps dealing with a calf injury (when isn't there an issue below the knees or above the neck with the Swarmette?) double-faulted to close out the 2nd.

Dubai 2nd Rd. - Madison Brengle def. Petra Kvitova
From 6-0/3-1 down (Kvitova won the 1st in :19), and 3-1 behind in the 3rd, Brengle notches her second victory over the Czech in less than a year. Kvitova was the last of the eight seeds to fall in Dubai, all without winning a single match.
St.Petersburg QF - Roberta Vinci def. Timea Babos
Babos lost both the 1st and 3rd sets in tie-breaks after seemingly having commanding early leads. Advantages of 5-2 in the 1st, then serving for the match up 5-4 in the 3rd before holding a 4-2 lead in the eventual deciding tie-break, weren't big enough for the Hungarian as Vinci reeled off the final five points of the match. This one also included an immediate nominee in the Worst Challenge Ever competition:

Australian Open 1st Rd. - Ana Konjuh def. Ula Radwanska
U-Rad led 6-0/3-0, and had a break point at 4-4 in the 2nd that, if converted, would have given her the chance to serve for the match and just her second MD slam win since 2013. Konjuh would lose in her next match, while Ula's sister Aga would win five times in Melbourne to reach the semifinals.
Kuala Lumpur QF - Naomi Broady def. Sabine Lisicki
From 5-4 down in the 3rd, Broady reeled off eleven straight points and twelve of thirteen to close out the German. Quite simply, no one has snatched defeat from the jaws as often or more spectacularly than Lisicki this season.
Australian Open 3rd Rd. - Barbora Strycova def. Garbine Muguruza
#3-seeded Muguruza joined the maddening crowd of ousted seeds with a muted, stagnant, disheartening performance that ended the Wimbledon finalist's chances for a third straight Round of 16 result at the AO. The win improved Strycova's career mark vs. Top 5 opponents to 3-18.
Doha QF - Andrea Petkovic def. Garbine Muguruza
"Tell me something I don't know," a frustrated and angry Muguruza shot back at Sam Sumyk during their coaching session. While the look on his face was priceless, his, perfectly-timed "you know everything" reply was perhaps as close as we'll get to seeing just how close coaching a temperamental athlete must be to raising a temperamental teenager.


Australian Open Q1 - Zhu Lin def. Elena Vesnina
The Russian led 7-6 in the 3rd set, but Zhu won the last twelve points of the match, reportedly leaving upset newlywed Vesnina -- who came into a season ranked outside the Top 100 for the first time since 2005 -- to angrily fling her tennis bag against a tree in frustration after the match. 68 unforced errors in a match will do that to a Hordette, I guess. Don't worry, though, things ended well in Melbourne for Elena -- on the final day of the tournament, she claimed her first career slam Mixed Doubles titles with Bruno Soares. And, thankfully, her AO flame-out was hardly an indicator of her '16 season efforts, as she's rebounded quite nicely so far from her from non-Top 100 season in ten years in 2015.
Australian Open 1st Rd. - Yulia Putintseva def. Caroline Wozniacki
Despite handily winning the 1st set over Putintseva, 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 far-too-passive 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 reached her fifth career slam 2nd Round in nine major appearances. 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. Realistically, she can't take another step back -- there's no more room.

Doha 1st Rd. - Margarita Gasparyan def. Karolina Pliskova
Pliskova's disappointing non-Fed Cup 1st Quarter campaign was pretty much summed up her 24 unforced errors in this match's fourteen games and her double-fault on match point.
Australian Open 1st Rd. - Lauren Davis def. Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova
#26 seed Pavlyuchenkova, never one to NOT go out in disappointing fashion at slam time, had a point for a 5-3 lead in the 3rd set. The Russian, while regularly winning titles (5) over the same stretch, has now gone seventeen consecutive slams without even a Round of 16 result to show for her "efforts."
Indian Wells 2nd Rd. - Magdalena Rybarikova def. Daria Gavrilova
The Aussie Unicorn, who has failed to get much traction since Melbourne, led 4-2 in the 3rd and served for the match vs. Rybarikova, but lost the last four games (and the last six points).
Australian Open 1st Rd. - Kirsten Flipkens def. Mirjana Lucic-Baroni
The Waffle emerges with the victory after being 5-3 down in the 3rd, as Lucic served for the match at 5-4, only to be broken at love, then drop serve again to lose the match two games later. Mirjana is currently petitioning every tennis organizing body on record seeking the right to play Simona Halep at EVERY slam.
Miami Q1 - Pauline Parmentier def. Alison Riske
...riske 2-6/7-5/7-6(4).
Riske twice served for the match vs. the veteran Pastry at 6-2/5-4 and 6-5 in the 3rd, holding one MP.

IT's SUPER-... err, BAT-...
umm, UPSETS!*
Fed Cup 1st Round - Netherlands def. Russia 3-1
the "Miracle of Moscow." The Dutch reached the nation's third FC semi (the first since '97, with the other taking place forty-eight years ago) despite a roster without a single Top 100 player facing off against a Russian squad that was a who's who (and who will be) of the WTA tour with the likes of Kuznetsova, Makarova, Sharapova (who didn't play) and Kasatkina in attendance. Kiki Bertens both kicked off and clinched the 3-0 lead that sent the Hordettes down the rabbit hole of Fed Cup upset history, while Richel Hogenkamp's FC record 4:00 upset of Team Russia legend Kuznetsova in match #2 proved to be the centerpiece moment of 2016's entire opening week of Fed Cup competition.
Australian Open 1st Rd. - Zhang Shuai def. Simona Halep
Days later, Halep spoke of various physical ailments and announced nasal surgery intended to deal with some of them. But none of that was an excuse for yet another loss after which she admitted to being "lost" on the court as she dropped the final five games of the match after having led the veteran Chinese qualifier (world #133) 3-1 in the 2nd set. While it's a lament associated with the Romanian quite often over the past year, Zhang deserves credit, too. With thirty-one winners, many of them zinging down the line shots, she made then-#2 Halep the twelfth (and final) seed to fall in the 1st Round of the AO, and the Swarmette the first Top 2 to lose her opening match in the event since #1 Virginia Ruzici (Halep's current manager) in 1979. Zhang, who already holds the tour record as the lowest-ranked player to defeat a world #1 (#226 vs. Dinara Safina in '09), had been 0-14 in slam MD matches in her career, and failed on thirteen other occasions to qualify for majors (and saw her opponent serve for the match in the final round in Melbourne this time around, as well). She was considering retirement going into this match, and had flown in her parents to be there for the occasion... which turned out to be "special" for a totally unexpected reason. A week later, Zhang had reached the QF, become the highest-ranked Chinese player in the world and reconsidered shelving her career. Halep decided to play Fed Cup for Romania, went 1-1 (def. Kvitova) and cancelled her surgery, saying she felt better and that her game had recovered. Evidence to back up the ascertain has been evident, but inconsistent, ever since.

Auckland 1st Rd. - Daria Kasatkina def. Venus Williams
Beware the Kasatkina. Down 3-1 in the 3rd, the Russian (who put on a 3rd Round run as a LL at last year's U.S. Open) charged back to take out Williams in the opening match of the season for both players. The result, her first Top 10 victory, spoke to a potential breakout year for the Hordette (she went on to defeat Anna Karolina Schmiedlova and Ana Konjuh at the AO, then reach the SF in St.Petersburg and QF at Indian Wells as she climbed into the Top 40), while it put an early-season damper on the excitement Williams' strong '15 finish had stirred up a few months earlier. Williams would go on to drop her opening round match in Melbourne, too, but rebound with a title in Kaohsiung before going winless on the North American hard court circuit in March.
Australian Open 2nd Rd. - Daria Gavrilova def. Petra Kvitova
The #6-seeded Czech was sent packing in the first three rounds in Melbourne for the fourth straight year by the newly-minted Aussie, who'd use the boost to put on a career-best slam Round of 16 run (she'd had two previous 2nd Rd. results) and become the newest, most energetic apple of the collective eye of fans Down Under. Kvitova twice held break leads in the 1st set only to immediately give back the advantage one game later. With Gavrilova serving for the match at 5-3, she tightened up after holding a MP and Kvitova was back in the match... only to drop serve to end the match a game later, as the Aussie converted her fifth of six BP chances in the match.

Brisbane Q1 - Samantha Crawford def. Tsvetana Pironkova 7-6(1)/6-4
Brisbane 2nd Rd. - Samantha Crawford def. Belinda Bencic 7-5/7-5
Brisbane QF - Samantha Crawford def. Andrea Petkovic 6-3/6-0
20-year old Crawford was the girls U.S. Open champ in 2012 and came into 2016 having won back-to-back USTA playoff races for wild card berths into last year's U.S. Open and this January's Australian Open. But none of that made what the world #142 did in Brisbane any less surprising, nor how easily she did it any less shocking. Armed with a big serve and flat, powerful groundstrokes that brought to mind Petra Kvitova at her best, the Bannerette came into Week 1 with just two main draw wins in her tour career. But after opening the WTA season by upsetting Brisbane's #1 Q-seed Tsvetana Pironkova on Day 1 of qualifying, then notching two more wins to reach the MD (the last, an 18-ace triumph over Oceane Dodin), Crawford put up three straight sets MD wins to reach her first career semifinal. The first win was against Aussie junior Priscilla Hon, but the last two came over Belinda Bencic and Andrea Petkovic, the latter a love & 3 lesson in domination that left the German searching for answers as the American officially registered a performance that will forever remind everyone of what she's capable of doing on her best day.

Fed Cup 1st Rd. - Monica Niculescu/ROU def. Petra Kvitova/CZE
Niculescu filled the role of "fiery Romanian" on the weekend, pulling off the biggest upset of the tie by frustrating and upending Kvitova in Match #2 -- to chants of "Mon-i-ca, Mon-i-ca" -- immediately after Halep's loss to Pliskova had seemingly painted the Swarmettes into a corner. Said Niculescu, "I said I am going to play (forehand) slice because it is my game. In the end it was perfect -- I think the slice was bothering her." While Niculescu committed just 12 unforced errors, Kvitova had 46 in what turned out to be the first 0-2 weekend of her Fed Cup career... and it happened on an indoor hard court, where she'd previously inspired legit fear in opponents. Oh, Petra.
Doha QF - Kasatkina/Vesnina def. Hingis/Mirza 2-6/6-4 [10-5]
Indian Wells 2nd Rd. - King/Kudryavtseva def. Hingis/Mirza 7-6(9)/6-4
Miami 2nd Rd. - Gasparyan/Niculescu def. Hingis/Mirza 6-4/6-2
after winning 41 straight matches dating back to last summer, the Dreamers crashed hard late in the 1st Quarter. First, the all-Hordette duo handed them their first '16 loss in twenty matches. Then they hit the U.S. hard court circuit -- where they swept the Indian Wells and Miami titles to kick-off their partnership last spring -- and went 2-2, suffering their first straight sets loss since last summer in Toronto, then losing in the same fashion two weeks later.
Doha 2nd Rd. - Jelena Ostapenko def. Petra Kvitova
Petra, who recently split with longtime coach David Kotyza, talked during the 1Q about enjoying the freedom associated with playing without a coach. Well, that's fine, you know, if you're successful doing that. The Czech has most decidedly NOT been that so far in 2016. Maybe a new new set of eyes isn't such a bad idea (maybe along the lines of "team member, but not my everyday coach" set up that Elina Svitolina has with Justine Henin). I hear there's a lefty, Czech-born Wimbledon champion out there who's professed an affinity for her game in the past. I'm just sayin...
Australian Open 2nd Rd. - Naomi Osaka def. Elina Svitolina
18-year old, #127-ranked Osaka, a qualifier with Japanese, Haitian and American roots playing in just her fourth tour-level main draw, used a series of massive ground strokes and #18-seeded Svitolina's consistent unwillingness to aggressively move forward to take advantage of the opportunities she had -- including being up 3-1 in the 1st, and holding four BP as Osaka served for the match at 5-4 in the 2nd -- to mark herself as a true "rising star" months after she was the surprise winner of the tour's Rising Star competition in Singapore. The Ukrainian responded by adding former #1 Justine Henin to her coaching team, and her results (as well as her in-match willingness to be aggressive) have been improving ever since.
Australian Open 1st Rd. - Wang Qiang def. Sloane Stephens
Auckland champ Stephens led 3-1, and nearly 4-1, in the 1st before Wang reeled off nine consecutive games to take a set and 4-0 lead. #24-seeded Stephens, with 36 errors in the two-set match, didn't buckle and almost got herself back into the 2nd set. But her efforts were too little, too late as her January became a two-steps-forward, one-step-back, hold-your-horses-the-Future-isn't-here-just-yet start to her '16 season. The pattern has continued, as Stephens later won another title, but has mostly "failed to post" in her other events.
Australian Open 1st Rd. - Johanna Konta def. Venus Williams
What Kasatkina started in Auckland, Konta finished in Melbourne as #8 seed Williams, lethargic in her movement and playing with her leg wrapped, was assured of a winless January to open her 2016 campaign. For Konta, she made her AO debut a memorable one... and went on to become the first British woman to reach a slam semifinal in nearly forty years. With Konta climbing the rankings, this same result might not even be considered an "upset" now.

Auckland 1st Rd. - Naomi Broady def. Ana Ivanovic
Firing fourteen aces, the Brit grabbed her first career Top 20 victory against the '14 Auckland champ. AnaIvo's back-to-back DF to end the opening set were but another example of the Serb's serve (and toss) crumbling when the slightest bit of pressure was applied in a close match. She'd go on to suffer a similar fate in Melbourne.
Doha 1st Rd. - Zheng Saisai def. Angelique Kerber
Et tu, Angie? In her first tour-level match since she won the Australian Open, Kerber joined the early-season list of top players who've been the victims of "shocking" upsets in 2016. While Zheng had just eight unforced errors, Kerber had "one of those days" while committing 38.
Doha 1st Rd. - Cagla Buyukakcay def. Lucie Safarova
After three months away, Safarova finally returns from her illness-related absence in a short-lived attempt to defend her Doha title. Hey, so be it -- before she could take a second step, she had to take a first. And, anyway, it's hard to feel TOO bad when Buyukakcay got a chance to celebrate her first career Top 20 victory. Ranked outside the Top 160 at the time of this match, the 26-year old Turk has knocking down a series of career-bests all 1Q long, including a new career-high ranking (she's nearly in the Top 100) and her best tour-level result (QF in Kuala Lumpur). Apparently, I was right on target in my efforts to memorize how to spell Cagla's name before last season, since it's come in handy quite often in '16.


Australian Open 1st Rd. - Magarita Gasparyan def. Sara Errani
The hail of seeds falling in the opening rounds in Melbourne began with #17 Errani, who has now been the First Seed Out in the AO twice in the last three years. The Italian led 5-0 in the 1st, and held a 6-1/4-3 advantage a set later before the Russian staged a comeback to notch her first career slam MD victory. She'd go on to reach the Round of 16.
Kuala Lumpur 1st Rd. - Chang Kai-Chen def. Roberta Vinci
As Vinci competed in her seventh of the first nine weeks of the season, the St.Petersburg champ finally hit a wall. Of course, Chang has been down the upset road before. Her win over Top 10er Vinci came with the Taiwanese vet ranked #153, but she knocked off even bigger prey back in 2009 when a #132-ranked Chang defeated then-#1 Dinara Safina.
$25K Surprise 1st Rd. - Claire Liu def. Michelle Larcher de Brito
Larcher de Brito led 4-0 in the 2nd set, but couldn't hold off the 15-year old, #555-ranked 2015 Easter Bowl champ who last season became the first player born in the 2000's to earn a WTA singles ranking.

Still to come: The Top Performances

All for now.


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