Monday, May 23, 2016

RG.2- Perception Problems in Paris

In a situation where "The Case of the Slumping Slovak" was on a head-on collision with "The Case of the Disconcerting Spaniard" the light was shined on the same issue, only from two different angles. Namely, surviving a start to a season that hasn't totally measured up to expectations, and determining when it's appropriate to push the "panic" button.

A player can sometimes (and somewhat) hide from an horrific start to their season during the regular WTA tour grind. Not everyone is paying attention each and every week, and when you're out of the draw by Monday or Tuesday at every tournament you play, unless you're recognizable by a single name (Serena, Venus, Aga, Simona, Petra, etc.) it goes without saying that the majority of the base of the tennis world forgets the player was even there in the first place rather than focus on their slip-sliding ranking, eroding confidence and the potential-turning-into putty streak of panic that might wreak havoc with a more fragile player's mind like an angry, hungry rhino with a sweet tooth who stumbles into a Sugarpova pop-up store and finds that Sporty Tennis Ball Gum is totally out of stock.

As bad as things sometimes get, they can always get worse.

The mettle of Anna Karolina Schmiedlova has surely been tested in 2016, even if only her loyal followers has lived and died along with her each and every week this season. Surely this year has been a nightmare for the Slovak. A season after she climbed to #26, notched her first Top 10 win and reached the first three tour-level finals of her career (winning two), Schmiedlova came into Roland Garros on an 11-match WTA losing streak (all in straight sets) and sporting a 1-12 season record (and 2-14 overall with Fed Cup). Only once all year (vs. Wozniak in FC last month) had she even won the 1st set of a match.

At a grand slam, all of a player's dirty laundry gets dragged out onto the front lawn for the passers-by to see (gawk at, really)... especially if a slumping player draws a name opponent and gets sent out to a show court and is tasked with trying to avoid drowning in a sea of big waves when even just treading water in the kiddie pool has been a challenge for five months. With her luck not changing a bit, Schmiedlova drew #4-seed Garbine Muguruza as her opening opponent in Paris. Then she was scheduled to play her on Suzanne Lenglen today. She just lost to the Spaniard in Madrid by a 6-2/7-5 score, and was also taken out by her at Roland Garros a year ago in a 6-2/6-4 3rd Round match. 0-4 vs. Muguruza, AKS had yet to win a set off her.

The Tennis Gods were pretty much just bullying her on the playground at lunchtime at this point.

Everyone who hasn't been paying full attention to the Slovak's plight would now get to hear about her long losing streak. The notion of that, and her reputation as a "losing" player, would now become the mind's eye image of a 21-year old who a year ago would have been seen as an up-and-coming young star, a legit contender vs. last year's Wimbledon finalist rather than a player seeking to launch a long shot upset bid on Day 2 in Paris.

The only way to change this altered perception was to go out and pull off the upset. Or was it?

Maybe Muguruza might have a clue. After all, much harsh light has been shined on her own 2016 season thus far. Her on-court blow-ups with coach Sam Sumyk, early season foot injury and several tournament flame-outs (1st Round exits in Brisbane, Dubai and Indian Wells, a 2nd Round defeat in Madrid, 3rd Round loss in Melbourne and love 3rd set whitewash against Kvitova in Stuttgart) have far overshadowed the good moments she's had that reminded everyone of the dominant force she seemed ready to be at the end of 2015, giving rise to the belief that, at worst, she may be the next "first time slam champion" on tour and, at best, maybe even it's next "star."

Her 4-0 Fed Cup mark this year has shown her game to be in fine form, when her mind and motivation are right. Her recent semifinal result in Rome in her last outing, and the high-quality of play she sported in a 7-6/7-6 loss to Vika Azarenka in Miami (likely the best two-set match all year, and even a "Match of the Year" contender because of the level of play and shotmaking skills put on display by both players) proved that she's still capable of great things. Except when she's not. Of course, that only makes her similar to so many other top-level players on tour, doesn't it? Especially in 2016. Still, if pressed to give a letter grade to the Spaniard's season thus far, it'd be difficult to go much higher than a mediocre "C" -- or maybe "C+" -- because of the image of a petulant young star that her public run-ins with Sumyk have cemented in the minds of most.

So, both players arrived on Lenglen today with "perception problems." Was it even possible for BOTH to take steps toward overcoming them? Well, as it turned out... yes.

AKS managed to accomplish the feat in some measure right at the very beginning of the match, finally getting off to a good start. She grabbed a quick 4-1 lead in the 1st set over Muguruza, then staved off three break points while serving for the set. The Slovak converted her second SP when the Spaniard pulled a backhand wide to give Schmiedlova a 6-3 win, marking the first time in fourteen 2016 tour matches in which she took the 1st set (and only the second time in her seventeen total outings).

In the 2nd, it was Muguruza's turn to prove how much she wanted the match, and the overwhelming current perception of her to change. Or she could just panic. Whichever route felt right at the moment.

Two years ago, she knocked off her idol Serena Williams in the 2nd Round in Paris, and now she was being threatened in a 1st Rounder by a player she'd previously dominated and who had lost eleven straight WTA matches (perception can work on a player's mind, as well). In essence, a case could be made that the opening game of the 2nd set was the key moment of the entire match. Muguruza fell behind love/40 with a double-fault, then ultimately saved nine BP in a marathon game before holding on her fourth GP. A loss there and the Spaniard would have had an opportunity to throw up her arms and give up, while AKS might have taken her chance to run away with a victory. But the game win was followed by a love break by Muguruza for a 2-0 lead following a game in which she fired three winners. In game #3, Schmiedlova got the break back on her very first BP, only to give it back a game later for 3-1. The Slovak saved two BP to hold for 4-2, then broke Muguruza to get back on serve a game later. But that lost chance (well, nine) from game #1 prevented AKS from being able to take a breath. Even while holding three GP in game #8, a double-fault gave Muguruza a BP and she got the break to go up 5-3. She held at love to take the set 6-3 and knot the match.

In the deciding 3rd set, Schmiedlova was broken with back-to-back errors in game #2. Down a break at 4-1, she might have taken the "easy" road to defeat. Instead, she got got back on serve and then held at love for 4-3. She'd shown her fight wasn't diminished despite her five-month trial. But neither was Muguruza's.

After falling behind love/30 with a double-fault, then going down BP with another DF, Muguruza put in two forehand winners before an AKS error allowed her to hold for 5-3. Finally, the point of no return had arrived for Schmiedlova. Muguruza took a 40/15 lead in game #9, then AKS's backhand error ended a 3-6/6-3/6-3 match that served an important purpose for BOTH players.

While Schmiedlova failed to take advantage of many opportunities (4/21 on BP, while Muguruza was 6/12), she played an overall good match. Her serve didn't implode, and her W/UE (24/24, to Garbi's 44/53) totals were within winning ranges. She's now lost twelve straight WTA matches, is 1-13 on tour and 2-15 overall in '16, but she should leave this match in a better frame of mind than she's experienced since January, when she last won a tour match in Sydney in Week 2. She displayed the same sort of fight she did in her "blood and tears" Fed Cup win over Arina Rodionova in February, notched her first set win over Muguruza and made the Spaniard dance on the head of a pin in the 2nd set to avoid really being pushed to the edge of defeat in this match.

Sure, it's something of a "low bar," but you don't climb out of the sort of hole Schmiedlova's season has fallen into with just a single match, let alone one she loses. But she can take small steps under such circumstances. And she took quite a few today.

Meanwhile, Muguruza can ponder whether this is the sort of match that can send her off on a big run at this Roland Garros, where her draw would seem to give her a brilliant chance at the QF, SF or even better result. She's 8-3 on clay this spring, and 9-2 at Roland Garros the last three years. Did the perception of her 2016 season change based on her survival in this match? Well, no... but it may have finally started the process. And that's not an unimportant thing.

It's after today that the baguettes get made.

...after the rain (and, eventually, Good Petra) prevented it on Day 1, we finally had our "First Seed Out" in Paris on Monday. And it turned out to be #32 Jelena Ostapenko. In her RG debut, the 18-year old Latvian lost out to another 18-year old debuting in Paris, Naomi Osaka, by a 6-4/7-5 score. After taking an early 3-1 lead, Ostapenko played with her left thigh strapped after taking a medical timeout mid-way through the 1st set. This marks the second straight slam at which the Japanese player has left a mark, having qualified in Melbourne in January and reached the 3rd Round after upsetting Elina Svitolina.

Ostapenko wasn't the last seed to fall today, though. She was just the first.

It appeared before the start of the tournament that the Italians were staring "Poor Soul" status right in the face, and both #7 Roberta Vinci and #16 Sara Errani played right into the trap on Day 2. Errani fell first, to Bulgarian Slam Upset-Making Master Tsvetana Pironkova, by a 6-3/6-2 score. Not long afterward, Vinci fell to Kateryna Bondarenko 6-1/6-3. The red clay season has been a disaster for the Italians, with Errani going 0-4 (!!) and Vinci 3-7.

Not to be outdone, #17 Karolina Pliskova maintained her pattern of unfortunate career slam underachievement, falling to Bannerette Shelby Rogers 3-6/6-4/6-3. It's Rogers' first MD win in Paris since 2013.

Meanwhile, Pliskova falls to 2-5 in her RG career, and twin sister Kristyna manages to outlast her at this slam due to the scheduling quirks of the first few days. Kristyna has yet to start her 1st Rounder vs. Teliana Pereira. Of course, the excuse for Karolina here is that clay isn't her best surface. Granted, that's true. But she STILL has never reached the Round of 16 at ANY slam. She's 3-4 on the grass at Wimbledon, 2-3 on hard courts in New York and only this year got above .500 with a 5-4 mark in Melbourne after January's modest 3rd Round run, just her third such slam result in sixteen career MD appearances in majors.

It's not the surface. It's the Czech.

...elsewhere, qualifier Cagla Buyukakcay added another paragraph to her growing career bio, filling up faster and faster with more "first from her nation" notes than any player on tour since Sania Mirza first broke onto the scene a decade ago. The 26-year old, already the first Turk to win a tour singles title (Istanbul), reach the Top 100 and play in a slam MD singles match, added her maiden slam MD victory to her list of first-time accomplishments. After having her Day 1 match with Aliaksandra Sasnovich suspended with the Belarusian leading 2-1 in the 3rd set, Buyukakcay came out today and swept five straight games to secure a 5-7/7-6(2)/6-2 win.

Next up: a SECOND win? She'll face up-and-down #24 seed Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova. Of course, maybe she's ALREADY won a second match, at least as far as the RG site's Completed Match page was concerned for a time today:

Of course, 20-year old Ipek Soylu is right on Buykakcay's heels in all this. She's yet to play her own 1st Rounder vs. French wild card Virginie Razzano.

...Madrid champ Simona Halep had an easy time of it against Mayo Hibi. The #6 seed, a finalist in Paris two years ago, won 6-2/6-0 while sporting one of those black-and-white outfits that so many players have tweeted out photos of themselves wearing in the weeks leading up to Roland Garros. Still to come in the same gear: AnaIvo and the Pastry Kiki (just to name two).

#2 Aga Radwanska, one of two players (w/ Kerber) with a shot to seize the #1 ranking from Serena Williams by the end of this tournament, breezed through Bojana Jovanovski with just as much, if not more, ease as the Swarmette. She won the 1st set at love in twenty-eight minutes, and claimed the first eight games in a 6-0/6-2 win that sets up a rather intriguing 2nd Round clash with Strasbourg champ Caroline Garcia.

The Pastry, who famously begged the tournament to not put her on Chatrier Court a year ago because playing there was too much pressure, arrived on Court 1 on Day 2 for her match with Lesia Tsurenko. Thankfully, her match was actually scheduled there. Whew! She won 6-3/7-5, overcoming her 1-4 RG mark the last four seasons. In Garcia's case, playing the entire week before the start of slam was probably a good idea. She had no singles momentum and was probably lacking any confidence for this slam, but going to Strasbourg and winning on French soil in front of French fans has to give her her best-ever chance to do something bigger in Paris. She still might not get past A-Rad, but if she's going to do it, the perfect storm for potential success is likely upon us.

In her RG debut year in 2011, Garcia was on the cusp of a huge win in Paris over Maria Sharapova in the 2nd Round, only to fail to put away the match after leading by a set and two breaks. The Russian eventually reached her second of three straight RG finals (she won two), while Garcia has yet to advance past the 2nd Round in her home slam since.

Here's her chance to put a stake through the heart of that memory.

...34-year old Mirjana Lucic-Baroni was Garcia's opponent in that Strasbourg final, playing nineteen years after the Croat had contested the final of the same event in 1997 (when Garcia was 3... as in "years old"). Her long week didn't hinder her today, though. She took down 33-year old Daniela Hantuchova, who had to handle the stress of her first-ever RG qualifying run attempt last week, 6-1/6-2. MLB's a match (vs. Osaka) away from once again possibly facing Halep in a slam. Hmmm.

Fellow vet, #13 Svetlana Kuznetsova, returned on Day 2 to complete her 1st Round match vs. Yaroslava Shvedova. Since we never know which Sveta we'll get, whether the Russian could carry over the momentum that saw her go 6-1/3-1 on Sunday after dropping the 1st set was anyone's guess. As expected, she surrendered her break lead to Shvedova, but got it back at 4-3. She won 4-6/6-1/6-4. Crisis averted. For now, anyway.

...Christina McHale has been an under-the-radar force on tour through the early months of 2016. In her 1st Rounder vs. French wild card Myrtille Georges (#203), the Bannerette saved set point in the 1st and won a 9-7 tie-break. But then the Pastry took over, winning the final two sets 6-0/6-3. McHale's slam game has never been good. This is the tenth consecutive time, and fourteenth of fifteen, she's gone out in the 1st or 2nd Round at a major. And that span doesn't even include the time she squandered a 5-0 3rd set lead (and MP) vs. Sara Errani in the 1st Round in Paris in 2011.

...late in the day, #25 Irina-Camelia Begu, the Swarmette who won ten clay court matches this spring (def. Muguruza, Azarenka, Kasatkina, Bouchard and Garcia) as she reached the QF in Charleston and Madrid, and the semis in Rome, gave rise to the notion that she may have indeed peaked too soon when she lost her opening set in Paris today to Bethanie Mattek-Sands. But Begu rebounded quite well, winning 5-7/6-1/6-3 and thereby maintains her position as the possible in-form "surprise" (but not totally, really) player who could clean up in a quarter filled with a whole slew of hot-and-cold-at-any-given-moment higher-seeded players.

...the juniors won't begin play for a while yet, but here's the current Girls Top 20:

1. Vera Lapko, BLR
2. Olesya Pervushina, RUS
3. Dalma Galfi, HUN
4. Anna Kalinskaya, RUS
5. Amanda Anisimova, USA
6. Kayla Day, USA
7. Anastasia Potapova, RUS
8. Bianca Andreescu, CAN
9. Tereza Mihalikova, SVK
10. Dayana Yastremka, UKR
11. Katie Swan, GBR
12. Georgia Andreea Craciun, ROU
13. Anna Blinkova, RUS
14. Elena Rybakina, RUS
15. Usue Arconada, USA
16. Sonya Kenin, USA
17. Sofya Zhuk, RUS
18. Kaja Juvan, SLO
19. Rebeka Masarova, SUI
20. Panna Udvardy, HUN
[by nation]
4...United States
1...Great Britain


B-U-Y-U-K-A-K-C-A-Y! B-U-Y-U-K-A-K-C-A-Y!

But spelling isn't the whole story...

...LIKE FROM DAY 2: So, at least there's this...

...LIKE FROM DAY 2: Martina's Roland Garros preparation...


So I guess we won't have to listen to all the pointlessly drooling commentary as a lead up a another typical flame-out or reckless injury. Can you sense my disappointment?

And, by the way, this officially marks the only "coverage" or mention of any ATP player or match in this space during the two weeks of this tournament.

...CAN'T-MISS-AN-OPPORTUNITY-TO... FROM DAY 2: new video of Li Na hitting a tennis ball

...LIKE FROM DAY 2: An Italian shopping for pasta in Paris.


The Roland Garros Radio coverage, which is far superior to the ridiculously ATP-centric dreck provided by Tennis Channel. On TC, which became the main broadcaster for Paris -- with weekend stretches from NBC -- after ESPN bailed entirely on the event, the WTA matches essentially only get coverage in the final game of a set, or in a one-minute-or-less replay of the end of a match that could/should have been carried live (such as Kvitova/Kovinic on Sunday). And that's not even mentioning the who-needs-score-updates-or-live-look-ins standard operating procedure, which counts a split screen, two-court shot aired for fifteen seconds, or a WTA winner waving to the crowd after converting MP, as "giving an overall sense of the tournament."

Oh, but USTA President Katrina Adams managed to find a way on air, though. Naturally. Because we couldn't go an event without the USTA or its camera/microphone-craving leader getting some additional stroking for simply existing and showing up.

On principle, I refuse to pay for Tennis Channel-Plus to watch additional match coverage for this slam when (supposedly) the channel (and its slam) coverage are already being paid for once with a satellite TV subscription. An ESPN subscription opens up the ESPN3 additional court coverage at the other three slams, but TC (from what I can tell) didn't even choose to offer a two-week TC+ "buy" that would only cover Roland Garros (sort of like what CBS essentially does with it's All Access service during the summer run of "Big Brother," allowing fans to watch all the 24-hour live-cam coverage of that show, but then walk away once its run is over). As it is, TC+ at this slam is sort of like paying for gasoline for your car and then having to fork over three or more times the amount extra to turn the ignition.

Or that.

Anyway, where was I? Oh, yeah. The unforced camaraderie and natural tangents that occur during Roland Garros Radio's commentary, even without the "pictues," reminds me of the "gold standard" of U.S. slam broadcasting that we had when HBO covered Wimbledon ages ago, with the likes of Billie Jean King, Arthur Ashe, Barry MacKay, Martina Navratilova and a pre-judgemental/non-whiny/non-crabby Mary Carillo providing the bulk of the voices of the tournament (w/ Jim Lampley as studio host).

...and, finally, Suzanne "La Divine" Lenglen. After becoming the first woman tennis player to turn pro in 1926, the flashy Frenchwoman was unable to continue to contend for major titles. The AELTC revoked her honorary club membership after her decision, despite her being a six-time Wimbledon champion. So the All-England Club was ever-so-"progressive" even way back then. Imagine that.

This video is from seven years later, at age 34 or 35, when Lenglen was still considered the greatest female tennis player to ever live.

[YouTube details]
"Sportshots - Popular sports and pastimes under the Cine-Camera lens - Described by Charles Eade of the "Sunday Express".
This week Charles Eade takes Suzanne Lenglen for his subject.

On the roof of the Gallerie Lafayette on Regent Street we see champion tennis player Suzanne Lenglen demonstrating her different tennis racquet grips and tennis strokes to a small watching crowd. Commentator Charles Eade describes practice techniques as we see Suzanne hitting a tennis ball against a wall. Several slow motion shots show Suzanne's skill in detail.

2005 #25 Dinara Safina/RUS (Razzano/FRA)
2006 #18 Elena Likhovtseva/RUS (Sprem/CRO)
2007 #31 Severine Bremond/FRA (Krajicek/NED)
2008 #15 Nicole Vaidisova/CZE (Benesova/CZE)
2009 #19 Kaia Kanepi/EST (Shvedova/KAZ)
2010 #10 Victoria Azarenka/BLR (Dulko/ARG)
2011 #19 Shahar Peer/ISR (Martinez-Sanchez/ESP)
2012 #30 Mona Barthel/GER (Davis/USA)
2013 #11 Nadia Petrova/RUS (Puig/PUR)
2014 #25 Kaia Kanepi/EST (Niculescu/ROU)
2015 #31 Caroline Garcia/FRA (Vekic/CRO)
2016 #32 Jelena Ostapenko/LAT (Osaka/JPN)

*2016 ITF TITLES"*
5...Isabella Shinikova, BUL
3...Marie Bouzkova, CZE
3...Ons Jabeur, TUN
3...Victoria Kan, RUS
3...Irina Khromacheva, RUS
3...Angelica Moratelli, ITA
3...Paula Ormaechea, ARG
3...Gabriela Elena Ruse, ROU
3...Anne Schaefer, GER
3...Chantal Skamlova, SVK
3...Viktoriya Tomova, HUN

TOP QUALIFIER: Viktoriya Golubic/SUI
TOP EARLY-ROUND (1r-2r): xx
TOP QUALIFYING MATCH: Q3: Lucie Hradecka/CZE d. Grace Min/USA 6-7(4)/6-1/11-9 (saved 4 MP)
TOP EARLY-RD. MATCH (1r-2r): xx
FIRST VICTORY: #24 Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova/RUS (def. Sorribes Tormo/ESP
FIRST SEED OUT: #32 Jelena Ostapenko/LAT (lost 1st Rd. to Osaka/JPN)
LAST QUALIFIER STANDING: 1st Rd. wins: C.Buyukakcay/TUR, V.Cepede Royg/PAR, V.Golubic/SUI
LAST WILD CARD STANDING: 1st Rd. wins: M.Georges/FRA
LAST PASTRY STANDING: 1st Rd. wins: C.Garcia, M.Georges
IT "??": xx
ZOMBIE QUEEN (TBA at QF): Nominee: #10 Kvitova (1st Rd.-Kovinic served for match at 5-4, two pts. from win)

Artist: Paul Thurlby (2013)

All for Day 2. More tomorrow.


Blogger Diane said...

All in all, I thought Schmiedy looked pretty good. She wasn't always thinking clearly, but neither was Mugu. I disagree with the commentator's assessment that Schmiedy was overcome by "firepower." We hear that all the time, but it isn't always the case. It's true that Mugu turned up the heat, but Schmiedlova also lost the plot a bit.

And speaking of the commentator, he mispronounced Garbi's name throughout the match, and called AKS Anna Katrina Schmiedlova. The umpire didn't do much better. I also heard "The Ukraine" several times today, including from Leif Shiras, who only last week apologized (sort of) for saying it. At this point, you have to go with either "stupid" or "disrespectful," and neither is attractive.

My eyes are on Begu to spoil the party. It will be interesting to see how far she can go.

Mon May 23, 08:03:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Todd.Spiker said...

Begu was the topic of discussion between Courtney Nguyen and Gigi Salmon the other day on RG Radio as the dark horse seed outside the Top 20, so we aren't the only ones looking at her as a possible second week contender. Power to the power who actually pay attention! :)

Of course, when she lost that 1st set today to BMS, I thought, "Well, now we've gone and cursed her." False alarm, though. ;)

(Courtney N. was making a point of teaching everyone how to pronounce Buyukakcay's full name, too... something I'm sure we'll never experience something similar to on U.S. TV tennis coverage.

Mon May 23, 09:39:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Diane said...

I saw that on Twitter. (RG Radio is great.)

Actually, long ago, either TC or ESPN ran a feature in which they had Sesil Karatantcheva teach everyone how to pronounce her name. As soon as it was over, the on-air personalities proceeded to mispronounce it immediately.

Mon May 23, 10:38:00 PM EDT  
Blogger colt13 said...

Kerber is out. Obviously expected, because dealing with all of the press/expectations after the first slam gets to you. Of the last 10 first time slam winners, going back to Mauresmo in 2006, none have gotten past the 4th rd at the next slam. 5 of 10(including Kerber) have lost in the 1st round, which is worse since it is really 5 of 8, since Pennetta and Bartoli never played another slam.

Tue May 24, 09:51:00 AM EDT  
Blogger Todd.Spiker said...

So, essentially, winning your first slam and then retiring is a good career move. I mean, Pennetta is still a consistent Top 10-15 player even without having played a match in almost nine months.

Ah, the Most Interesting Tour in the World. ;)

Tue May 24, 12:32:00 PM EDT  
Blogger colt13 said...

Well, Nuremburg's former winners all won today Bertens-16, Knapp-15, Bouchard-14, and Halep-13 won yesterday.

The odd thing from today is not that Knapp won, but it is the second time she beat Azarenka(2007) at the French. Azarenka was the higher ranked player then too, 48 to Knapp's 85. Since I refer to Knapp as often injured, I should mention that her 21 WTA tour level wins last year was a career high. So she had be playing good tennis although she was 1-5 going into this match. Also 3 of 5 career top 20 wins before today were against players ranked #19 at the time(Kirilenko, Vinci, Errani).

Schiavone is like Moya now. No threat to win a major, but a tough out. She played well today.

Tue May 24, 02:08:00 PM EDT  

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