Monday, January 23, 2017

AO.8 - Just Enough Serena to Get By

So, what happens when a 22-time major champion who is not seeded #1 at a slam for the first time in four years is suddenly thrust into the unquestioned tournament "favorite" position in the wake of the other three top seeded women in the draw failing to get past the Round of 16?

Well, we'll soon see, won't we?

But we do know that, even while not at her best less than half a day after world #1 Angelique Kerber was sent packing by CoCo Vandweghe in a lackluster performance under the lights on Laver Arena on Night 7, #2 (yep, that still sounds strange) Serena Williams is still standing as we jump head-first into the second week of this Australian Open.

Who wants to bet against the prospect of her STILL standing come the end of next weekend? Yeah, that's what I thought.

35-year old Williams, now with a chance to earn back the #1 ranking if she can win the title in Melbourne, was hardly in "A"-game form in her Round of 16 match with #16-seeded Czech Barbora Strycova, 30, on Monday. Her biggest weapon -- that serve -- was often an unwilling participant on this day, but the mark of a champion is the ability to find ways to win with various limbs tied behind her back. And who's had more success under those circumstances in as many major events as Serena over the past almost two decades? Remember, this is a woman who has claimed three of her slam titles in events in which she stared down at least one match point, and a handful of others when her opponent held a break advantage in the 3rd set or served for the match. Williams knows how to get by with what's she got on hand, especially on days when some of what she has decided to hit the snooze bar in the morning and missed the ride to the tournament grounds. Today was one of those sort of days.

Throughout the first set, both woman had difficulty... no, scratch that, they just COULDN'T hold serve. Yes, even Serena.

She immediately fell behind love/40 on serve in game #1, and when Strycova's fired a crosscourt forehand to the corner that Williams couldn't get back on BP #2, the pattern for the 1st set had been set. The Czech double-faulted twice and gave the break back a game later, only to go up love/40 on Williams' serve again in game #3 and get another break. Serena then broke back at love before finally registering the first hold of the set to take a 3-2 lead. Two games later, though, she dropped serve again, failing to hold for the third time in her first four service games after having been broken a TOTAL of three times through the first three rounds of this AO. She'd lost fourteen of her nineteen points on serve up until that point in the match, with Strycova up 4-3 and needing to take FULL advantage of Serena's low-wattage start while she had the chance.

The Czech avoided a love/30 start to game #8 with a deft lob over Williams at the net, but couldn't get the hold that might have turned the set in the favor. On her second BP chance in the game, Serena's rally-ending forehand proved to be too much for Strycova to handle, and the set was back on serve. Two games later, serving to stay in the set down 4-5, Strycova staved off three set points with a variety of tactics, including an ace and some serve-and-volley tennis before finally getting the hold on her second GP with a down the line forehand passing shot.

Williams fired an ace to hold for 6-5, then went up love/40 on Strycova's serve in game #12. But, still, taking the set from the Czech wouldn't be easy. She saved three more set points, with a serve-and-volley-and-overhead combination, as well as a half-volley off a big Williams return that Serena couldn't get back in the court. Finally, on SP #8, the struggle of the 1st set was encapsulated in one awkward shot that became the most important -- and last -- one in the stanza. A nearly handcuffed Williams fought off a ball at her feet at the baseline, muscling it back and BARELY over the net. But it was short enough that even the quick Strycova couldn't get up to it, producing the final break (the seventh of the set) that gave Serena a 7-5 win.

As the players got into the 2nd, the Williams serve, while still not in top flight form, improved enough to avoid another string of steep game deficits and a bushel of breaks. So Strycova had to know that she couldn't risk falling behind, since she may never be able to get even again. Up 2-1, Williams saved a GP with a mid-court stretch overhead while falling backwards, then another with a forehand return winner. When she got the break to go up 3-1, then held for 4-1 while still having not faced a BP in the set, it seemed all but over, even as Serena was still serving at under a 50% clip on the day. Strycova's missed volley allowed Williams to hold for 5-2, but when Serena served for the match two games later it was the Czech who took at 15/40 lead when Williams sailed a forehand, then shot another wide on BP #2 in the game to put things back on serve.

But it would only be a temporary reprieve for Strycova, who'd soon face match point on her own serve a game later. A missed half-volley ended the match, with Williams winning a 7-5/6-4 match that, especially in the 1st, was far from a "finished product" where Serena is concerned. If Strycova had been able to get one additional hold in the opening set, during which she accepted the "gift" of three Williams service breaks but failed to take true advantage of any of them, the match might have gotten even tighter. She'll surely be playing the scenario over in her head a few times before morning.

Williams, though, moves forward. Still and once again the favorite in Melbourne. Still with a tough draw both behind AND ahead of her if she's going to reclaim the #1 ranking and pass by Steffi Graf on the Open era slam title list with win #23 (while whispering into the ear of the all-time leader with 24, Australia's Margaret Court). Still with history on her side. And, maybe most reliably and importantly, still being Serena every second of every day.

And that might be enough for her to be crowned champion. Again.

...meanwhile, Johanna Konta accidentally left her daily "Down Under To-Do List" in the gym this morning.

I'd say that someone should make sure that it gets back to her, but I suspect she's got a few copies in her possession already.

The #9-seeded Brit's path of destruction through the continent continued on Monday, as she upped her 2017 record to 12-1, winning her 17th and 18th consecutive sets with a 6-1/6-4 victory over #30 Ekaterina Makarova. A year ago, the two also met in the Round of 16, in a three-hour battle that went to 8-6 in the 3rd. A year later, Konta is a defending AO semifinalist, Top 10 player, Stanford and Sydney champ, and looking for all the world like a player who could win this event.

Well, if it wasn't for the pesky little fact that she'll next face Serena in the quarterfinals, at least.

Truly threatening to become the "most boring" player in the draw since, you know, her opponents in Melbourne haven't been able to muster up much of anything interesting to do against her over the past week (two weeks, actually), Konta again put a foe in her place right out of the gate today, taking a quick 4-1 lead on Makarova and finishing off the Russian in a 24-minute 1st set that she won by the score of 6-1. Showing that she actually IS human, Konta stubbed her toe to start the 2nd set, though, falling behind 3-1 when Makarova registered a break on her first BP of the match and pulled ahead 4-1.

But the Brit wouldn't stand for such behavior for long. She broke Makarova back in game #7, then again in #9, converting for the fourth time on five BP chances and taking a 5-4 lead when the Russian's forehand went wide. Konta finished off the fifth of her five-game, match-ending run by coming back from love/40, brushing aside three consecutive BP with, in order, a big serve, a forehand winner and an ace. On her second MP attempt a few moments later, Konta moved in toward the net behind her forehand, pressing Makarova into a forehand error that ended the match, winning 6-1/6-4 and holding a 60-39 point advantage.

In two appearances in the AO MD, Konta is now 9-1, with a '17 QF result to back up her '16 semi. But that won't remove the next obstable, and everyone knows it will take quite an effort, even with her currently lethal form, for the Sydney-born Brit who sports a passport from Hungary to be the ant who moves this particular rubber true plant. The reaction from the crowd when you-know-who's name was mentioned in Konta's post-match interview was priceless.

But Konta's reaction wasn't half-bad, either. She knows it's an honor to face a player who inspired her as kid, and that if she's going to have to face Williams in a major, Melbourne is probably as good a place as any for her to do it.

That one could be for the 2017 AO title, two rounds before the final. the final women's Round of 16 match in the day session, unseeded 34-year old Croat Mirjana Lucic-Baroni finally put an end to qualifier Jennifer Brady's maiden slam run, taking out the former UCLA Bruin 6-4/6-2 to reach her first slam QF since she burst onto the scene with a semifinal run at Wimbledon in 1999 at age 17. The other semifinalists at SW19 that year were Steffi Graf, Lindsay Davenport... and Alexandra Stevenson. But the breakout performance that many might remember from that Wimbledon was that of Jelena Dokic, who upset then-#1 (in singles) Martina Hingis in the 1st Round en route to a QF berth in her London debut (she reach the SF in '00).

OF some note, Stevenson is STILL playing, and should be larboring on the challenger circuit in her twentieth season in the coming weeks, while Dokic emerged from the shadows at this AO, popping up in the commentary booth (and below).

When asked about young players to watch, the first names she mentions are Kasatkina and Svitolina. Ah, I'd expect nothing less from the "Backspin Rosetta Stone."

Fair One forever. Week 3 ITF action, Poland's Katarzyna Piter, 25, won the $25K challenger in Orlando, defeating 18-year old Bannerette Sonya Kenin in the final, and also taking home the WD crown. It's Piter's eighth career ITF singles title, but her first since May 2015. Before her win this week, she'd gone 1-8 in challenger finals since 2011.

In Hammamet, Spain's Maria Teresa Torro-Flor won a match-up of two of the sport's most injury-prone players to win the $15K challenger, her second straight '17 title run. The victory upped her career record in ITF finals to 14-3, including a streak of eleven straight wins in championship matches that dates back to 2011. MTTF, who came into the week ranked outside the Top 500, also won the doubles, just like she did last week in another $15K event in the same city. She's a combined 17-0 on the season.

Her opponent in the final was Romanian Alexandra Dulgheru, back on the court for the first time since May. She retired after dropping the opening set. Dulgheru, who had to win a match to qualify for the MD, came in ranked #356 after being out most of 2016 after finally deciding to undergo yet another knee surgery after, playing through pain, she hadn't won a singles match on any level since the 1st Round of last year's Australian Open (a 0-9 stretch that began with a 2nd Round loss to Angelique Kerber). Dulgheru is apparently scheduled to return to the WTA tour in February, utilizing her protected ranking to play in Dubai and Kuala Lumpur.

And in Stuttgart, 17-year old Czech Maiden Marketa Vondrousova (also playing for the first time since last spring) won her fourth career challenger crown with a win over Germany's Anna Zaja. She teamed with fellow Czech Miriam Kolodziejova to win the doubles, their third pro title as a duo.

On Night 8, "The Dasha Show" returns.

This time, in what could be a truly entertaining Round of 16 battle, #22-seeded Gavrilova will try to become the first Aussie woman to reach the AO quarterfinals since Jelena Dokic's wonderful run in 2009 (Ha! There she is again!), and just the third to do it (w/ Alicia Molik '05) since 1988. #5-seeded Karolina Pliskova, fresh off her comeback from 5-2 down in the 3rd vs. Jelena Ostapenko, will be looking to back up her U.S. Open final from September with her second career QF result at a major.

The winner meets Lucic-Baroni in the Final 8, with either Serena or Konta after that.

Oh, and the winner ALSO gets this AO's "Lady of the Evening" honors. For what that's worth.

I'll post a recap of that one, along with a few quarterfinalist lists, before play starts for Day 9.


Or insinuations about how a 30-ish journeyman (who's not even the best player in his family) taking out the world #1, as well as the #2's early loss under similar circumstances, might reflect poorly on the quality of the upper echelon of the men's game, rather than highlighting how good that tour's players ranked #100+ are.

Seems like when the shoe was on the other tour's foot, the whole take was "inside-out."

And I'm sure that if the women's final ends up being a 35-year old vs. a 36-year old (which it actually could), a large chunk of the commentary will be about how the rest of the field isn't pulling its collective weight, rather than simply the historically epic abilities of the two players involved making such a reality possible. And if the men's end ups being Federer vs. Nadal, too. Well... let's just say it'd be revealing to see the comparisons being made.

I'm just sayin'.

..."OH, OKAY" ON DAY 8: The on-court zebra look of 2016 has left the animal reserve's borders in 2017.

...THINGS YOU HAVE TO LIVE WITH IN THE U.S. ON DAY 8: Until you no longer do.

...TRUTH ON DAY 8: Konta's got a future in something AFTER tennis, too.

...and, finally... well, at least SNL's Kate McKinnon now has more to work with than she could ever have imagined. Really, I have to say, turning a Kellyanne Conway sketch into an homage to "Chicago" is pretty freakin' brilliant.

CoCo Vandeweghe/USA vs. #7 Garbine Muguruza/ESP
#13 Venus Williams/USA vs. #24 Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova/RUS
(#5 Ka.Pliskova or #22 Gavrilova) vs. Mirjana Lucic-Baroni/CRO
#9 Johanna Konta/GBR vs. #2 Serena Williams/USA

#1 Garcia/Mladenovic (FRA/FRA) vs. (WC) Barty/Dellacqua (AUS/AUS)
#3 Makarova/Vesnina (RUS/RUS) vs. #12 Hlavackova/Peng (CZE/CHN)
Lucic-Baroni/Petkovic (CRO/GER) vs. Hozumi/Kato (JPN/JPN)
#11 Atawo/Yi.Xu (USA/CHN) vs. #2 Mattek-Sands/Safarova (USA/CZE)

#1 Mattek-Sands/M.Bryan vs. Yi.Xu/F.Martin (CHN/FRA)
Svitolina/Guccione (UKR/AUS) vs. #6 Siniakova/Soares (CZE/BRA)
Atawo/Lindstedt (USA/SWE) vs. Krajicek/Klaasen (NED/RSA)
Begu/Tecau (ROU/ROU) vs. Spears/Cabal (USA/COL)
(WC) Hingis/Paes (SUI/IND) def. (WC) Dellacqua/Reid (AUS/AUS)
(WC) Stosur/Groth (AUS/AUS) vs. Jurak/Rojer (CRO/NED)
#5 YJ.Chan/Kubot (TPE/POL) vs. Dabrowski/Bopanna (CAN/IND)
Sai.Zheng/Peya (CHN/AUT) vs. #2 Mirza/Dodig (IND/CRO)

So much better than doing ice baths! Perks of being home :) #Melbs #recovery

A video posted by Daria Gavrilova (@daria_gav) on

2008 Jelena Jankovic, SRB
2009 Dinara Safina, RUS
2010 Serena Williams, USA
2011 Francesca Schiavone, ITA
2012 Kim Clijsters, BEL
2013 Caroline Wozniacki, DEN
2014 Li Na, CHN
2015 Maria Sharapova, RUS
2016 Monica Puig, PUR
2017 Lucie Safarova, CZE

Olga Savchuk, UKR (3rd Rd.)
Anne Kremer, LUX (all 2nd Rd.)
Alla Kudryavtseva, RUS
Tamira Paszek, AUT
Julia Vakulenko, UKR
Renata Voracova, CZE
Marta Domachowska, POL (4th Rd.)
Elena Baltacha, GBR (all 2nd Rd.)
Alberta Brianti, ITA
Sesil Karatantcheva, KAZ
Yanina Wickmayer, BEL (4th Rd.)
Vesna Manasieva (now Dolonc/SRB), RUS (3rd Rd.)
Nina Bratchikova, RUS (3rd Rd.)
Valeria Savinykh, RUS (both 3rd Rd.)
Lesia Tsurenko, UKR
Zarina Diyas, KAZ (3rd Rd.)
Lucie Hradecka, CZE (3rd Rd.)
Zhang Shuai, CHN (QF)
Mona Barthel, GER (both 4th Rd.)
Jennifer Brady, USA

[since first 32-seed draw AO in 2002]
2002 Adriana Serra-Zanetti/ITA
2003 Virginia Ruano Pascual/ESP, Meghann Shaughnessy/USA
2006 Martina Hingis/SUI (WC)
2007 Lucie Safarova/CZE, Serena Williams/USA
2009 Jelena Dokic/AUS (WC), Carla Suarez-Navarro/ESP
2010 Justine Henin/BEL (WC), Maria Kirilenko/RUS, Zheng Jie/CHN
2012 Sara Errani/ITA, Ekaterina Makarova/RUS
2013 Svetlana Kuznetsova/RUS
2015 Madison Keys/USA
2016 Johanna Konta/GBR, Zhang Shuai/CHN (Q)
2017 Mirjana Lucic-Baroni/CRO, CoCo Vandeweghe/USA
Runner-up - Henin (2010)
Champion - S.Williams (2007)

2013 AO - #1 Aniek Van Koot/NED def. #2 Sabine Ellerbrock/GER
2013 RG - Sabine Ellerbrock/GER def. #2 Jiske Griffioen/NED
2013 US - #2 Aniek Van Koot/NED def. #1 Sabine Ellerbrock/GER
2014 AO - #1 Sabine Ellerbrock/GER def. #2 Yui Kamiji/JPN
2014 RG - #1 Yui Kamiji/JPN def. Aniek Van Koot/NED
2014 US - #1 Yui Kamiji/JPN def. #2 Aniek Van Koot/NED
2015 AO - Jiske Griffioen/NED def. #1 Yui Kamiji/JPN
2015 RG - #2 Jiske Griffioen/NED def. Aniek Van Koot/NED
2015 US - Jordanne Whiley/GBR def. Yui Kamiji/JPN
2016 AO - #1 Jiske Griffioen/NED def. Aniek Van Koot/NED
2016 RG - Marjolein Buis/NED def. Sabine Ellerbrock/GER
2016 WI - #1 Jiske Griffioen/NED def. Aniek Van Koot/NED
2017 AO - ?

TOP QUALIFIER: Elizaveta Kulichkova/RUS
TOP EARLY ROUND (1r-2r): #5 Karolina Pliskova/CZE (4 games lost)
TOP QUALIFYING MATCH: Q1 - Ons Jabeur/TUN def. Dalila Jakupovic/SRB 2-6/7-6(5)/7-5 (comeback from 6-2/4-1 down)
TOP EARLY RD. MATCH (1r-2r): 1st Rd. - Lucie Safarova/CZE def. Yanina Wickmayer/BEL 3-6/7-6(7)/6-1 (saved 9 MP)
TOP MIDDLE-RD. MATCH (3r-QF): 3rd Rd. - Kuznetsova d. Jankovic (3:36)
TOP LATE RD. MATCH (SF-F/Jr./Doub.): x
TOP LAVER/MCA NIGHT MATCH: 3rd Rd. - Ka.Pliskova d. Ostapenko (double-break down at 5-2 in 3rd set)
FIRST VICTORY: #29 Monica Puig/PUR (def. Tig/ROU)
FIRST SEED OUT: #4 Simona Halep/ROU (lost to Rogers/USA)
UPSET QUEENS: United States
NATION OF POOR SOULS: Romania (First Loss, First Seed Out & two players ranked in Top 32 ousted in 1st Rd.)
LAST QUALIFIER STANDING: Mona Barthel/GER & Jennifer Brady/USA (4th Rd.)
LAST AUSSIE STANDING: Dasha Gavrilova (in 4th Rd.)
Ms. OPPORTUNITY: Nominees: Konta/GBR, Pavlyuchenkova/RUS, Vandeweghe/USA, Lucic-Baroni/CRO
IT (??): Nominee: Barty/AUS, Pavlyuchenkova/RUS, Vandeweghe/USA
COMEBACK PLAYER: Nominees: Barty/AUS, Barty/Dellacqua, Lucic-Baroni/CRO
CRASH & BURN: #4 Simona Halep/ROU (1st Rd./Rogers; 2 con. AO 1st Rd. exits)
ZOMBIE QUEEN: Lucie Safarova/CZE (1st Rd. - saved 9 MP vs. Wickmayer)
KIMIKO VETERAN CUP: Nominees: Lucic-Baroni/CRO, V.Williams/USA, S.Williams/USA
LADY OF THE EVENING: Nominee: Gavrilova/AUS ("The Dasha Show: The Sequel"), Ka.Pliskova/CZE

All for Day 8. More tomorrow.


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