AO 4.5 - A (Dasha) Show Fit for an Encore
As "The Dasha Show" returned for a second 2017 installment in Melbourne, this time in the form of a 2nd Round match-up between Dasha Gavrilova and Ana Konjuh, the sense was that the Aussie might not be able to construct the same sort of happy ending against the recent U.S. Open quarterfinalist from Croatia as she had so often in her 4-1 stretch in AO play over the past two seasons. I know I sort of felt that Konjuh's bigger game and lingering '16 big stage experience (which she's employed do decisively vs. Kiki Mladenovic in the 1st Round) would likely get the best of Gavrilova in a Hisense Arena match which started late in the day and extended into the evening.
Hmmm. "The Dasha Show" in primetime. I guess I should have known.
While 22-year old Gavrilova played her game of scrambling defense, long rallies and stoking-the-crowd waves of emotion, Konjuh often found herself bedeviled on Thursday night. Sometimes it was by Gavrilova's efforts to more her around the court, sideways and to the net, as she tried to exploit her movement and make her hit two or three extra shots in a rally and cause her tactical thinking to go haywire, but it was also because the 19-year old herself had difficulties corralling her power long enough to execute a successful plan of attack.
Gavrilova's chances of another AO victory were apparent in the 1st set, as Konjuh had difficulty stringing successively effective shots together. The Aussie broke for a 4-2 lead, and the show was off and running. The familiar rhythm and excitement of '16 were back, even with Dasha being a seeded "favorite" this time around rather than the surprise contender of a year ago. Gavrilova saved a BP and held for 5-2, then saw Konjuh double-fault a game later (her third DF, and 18th UE in the set) to hand Dasha a SP at 15/40. Gavrilova grabbed the set when the Croat misfired with her 19th UE, dropping the set on the back of that stat and a frightening 41% First Serve Percentage.
Konjuh managed to finally find her range in the 2nd set, powering through Gavrilova and dominating the stanza after breaking the Aussie in game #1, then saving BP a game later to hold for 2-0. Finally rattled and made emotional (she began whacking her racket on the court quite often after losing points), Gavrilova double-faulted to break herself and fall behind 4-1. Konjuh's 1st set errors became winners (12, in fact) in the 2nd, as she upped her First Serve Percentage to 61% and won going away, 6-1. Gavrilova hit just one winner in the set.
Both players had had difficulty holding serve into the early stages of the 3rd set. Gavrilova broke to open things there, only to drop serve a game later, then get the break back in game #3. Through the first eighteen games the two combined for ten breaks of serve. But down the stretch, both held on tightly to their all-important service games. In the final seven games there were seven straight holds, though most were hardly easy tasks.
Konjuh's bad, flat-footed volley on a low ball allowed Gavrilova to hold for 4-2. But it was the Aussie's service stint in game #8 that proved to be the most important in the match. She jumped to a 30/love lead, but Konjuh surged back with a crushed return and mid-rally backhand to get things to 30/30. But then the Croat flubbed a backhand on a pace-reducing, high-bouncing ball from Gavrilova, handing the Aussie a GP. It wouldn't be her last. She'd have three more, while she'd have to fight off two BP, as well. Finally, Konjuh's renewed inconsistency proved to be too much, as her 3rd set error total climbed of 24. Then Gavrilova smacked an ace to hold for 5-3, then skipped to the changeover area as the Aussie crowd cheered her on all over again.
Konjuh managed to hold at love, but a game later Gavrilova's net cord plopper and a Konjuh error put the Aussie at double MP at 40/15. She fired a forehand out of reach of Konjuh at the baseline, finishing off the 6-2/1-6/6-4 victory in 2:01. While Gavrilova had just 14 winners compared to the more free-hitting Konjuh's 34 on the night, her 25 UE were dwarfed by the Croat's total of 56.
So, "The Dasha Show" continues in this its second season, renewed for at least another round in Melbourne, where #12-seeded Timea Bacsinszky will be welcomed as a guest star in what could very well be another three-setter high on long rallies and excitable drama. So far at this AO, Gavrilova has kept the histrionic emotional moments to a minimum (their overabundance foretold her collapse in the Round of 16 last January), while holding firm to a game plan that seeks to highlight the defense and persistent "twitchiness" that fuels her game.
Once again, it's not a bad show, and one that has proven to be fit for a nice encore Down Under.
=NIGHT 4 NOTES=
...on the two main show courts, the #2 seed continued to prove that challenges don't bother her, they simply make her lift her game to the level necessary to win, while a short distance away on another court, the #3 seed was simply hit off the court.
When Serena Williams' potentially ornery draw in Melbourne was announced, it was clear that we'd get a good value judgment on her AO form right out of the slam gate. And she knew she'd need to be focused and on point, too. Which probably isn't great news for the rest of the field. Saying, "When I play players like Bencic and Safarova, they force me to play better," Williams added a tenth win in ten career meetings with Lucie Safarova on Thursday night with 6-3/6-4 win over the Czech who'd scrambled to save nine MP a round earlier just to set up this match on Laver.
As is her wont, Serena fine-tuned her game when it was appropriate throughout the night, saving three BP in game #5 to hold for a 3-2 lead, then breaking Safarova a game later en route to taking the set. In the 2nd, she saved BP again -- naturally, with a shocking-but-not-really-shocking second serve ace -- and held for 3-3, then grabbed a break advantage one game later. Serving for the match, after failing to convert on two MP, Williams won one of the best rallies of the entire match.
Oh, Nicole Gibbs. You're great at all, but I'm sure not so you're going to want much of what Serena has to offer two days from now.
...on MCA, #3 Aga Radwanska saw her 2017 AO stay -- and her over sixteen-month run in the Top 5, as well -- come to an unceremonious end, as 34-year old Croatian vet Mirjana Lucic-Baroni advanced to her seventh career slam 3rd Round with a comprehensive 6-3/6-2 win over the Pole.
Lucic systematically took down Radwanska, breaking her whenever she needed to, including when Aga was serving to just stay in the set in game #9 of the 1st. After dropping serve early in the 2nd, she immediately got the break back a game later and then continued to bum-rush Radwanska out of Melbourne, ultimately winning six of the final seven games of the match as Radwanska has still yet to fully find her form in this young '17 season, as she's now 6-3 with crushing losses at the hands of Lucic and Konta, as well as a love 3rd set defeat vs. Riske, and a shaky, MPs-saved win over Duan.
Aga came into this AO having reached the semifinals two of the last three years, posting QF-or-better results six times since 2008, and having had a run of six consecutive years in which she reached at least the Round of 16 . She exits with her worst result in Melbourne since a 1st Round upset (K.Bondarenko) in 2009. Lucic-Baroni hadn't won a MD match in the AO since 1998 until a few days ago, having come out on the other end of an ugly familial story that saw her lose nearly a decade of her tennis career after she'd reached the SW19 semis at age 17 in 1999.
The Croat will next face 21-year old Greek Maria Sakkari, whose exciting presence will endure into a major 3rd Round for the first time after her three-set victory over #28 Alize Cornet. The match took place on Court 7, which I have to say is one of the more unique looking courts at all the slams, with an especially great, not-harshly-lit appearance in the evening. With covered areas on either side, and an extended ground-level walking area for fans around the court's edge (Sakkari seemed to hover around the area for forever after the match, signing autographs and posing for selfies, even taking phones from fans and snapping many of the shots herself), it has something of the intimate look of a tennis club, or small indoor arena. It sort of reminded me a little of the old Court 1 at Wimbledon, and I now want to watch another match there. Just to see the court at night.
(Another interesting thing I noticed -- how incredibly close the changeover area chairs' backs are to the wall separating the court and the fans. One has to wonder about the safety issues, but it has to make the fans there feel like they've got seats right behind the bench at a basketball game.)
As a result of all the upsets, we're assured of one QF slot being filled by either #14 Elena Vesnina (less than a year after her Wimbledon semi, so the Top 10 could be close), qualifier Jen Brady, Sakkari or Lucic.
SUDDEN REALIZATION FROM NIGHT 4: Quite obviously, Serena no longer qualifies as "presidential" material.
CHAKVETADZE SIGHTING FROM NIGHT 4: And a great one, too (celebrating Denis Istomin's upset win over Novak Djokovic).
AND YOU JUST HAD TO KNOW ON NIGHT 4: ...that THIS was happening in the stands during a Gavrilova match.
*WOMEN'S FINAL 32 - BY NATION*
**AO "EARLY-ROUND TOP PLAYER" WINNERS**
2002 (Week 1 POW) Martina Hingis, SUI
2003 (Week 1 POW) Kim Clijsters, BEL
2004 (Week 1 co-POW) Kim Clijsters/BEL & Justine Henin/BEL *
2005 (Week 1 POW) Svetlana Kuznetsova, RUS
2006 (Week 1 POW) Amelie Mauresmo, FRA *
2007 Kim Clijsters, BEL
2008 Maria Sharapova, RUS *
2009 Dominika Cibulkova, SVK
2010 Kim Clijsters, BEL
2011 Kim Clijsters, BEL *
2012 Victoria Azarenka, BLR *
2013 Maria Sharapova, RUS
2014 Serena Williams, USA
2015 Genie Bouchard, CAN
2016 Victoria Azarenka, BLR
2017 Karolina Pliskova, CZE
* - won title
*RECENT SLAM SEED EXITS BY ROUNDS*
AO: 12 1st Round / 6 2nd Round
RG: 9 1st Round / 2 2nd Round
WI: 3 1st Round / 11 2nd Round
US: 9 1st Round / 4 2nd Round
AO: 7 1st Round / 7 2nd Round