Monday, January 15, 2018

AO.1 - Four Months, Eight Losses and Future Shock

While she might have suffered a bout with Triskaidekaphobia as the #13 seed at this Australian Open, for Sloane Stephens, Day 1 instead turned out to revolve around an unlucky "crazy eighth." As in an eighth straight loss that has served to put her slam run from last summer firmly in her past as she must now deal with the troubling slump that has enveloped her ever since she experienced her greatest career moment.

Arriving as she did in Melbourne with more reverse-momentum than any player not named Mladenovic (or maybe Bouchard), that Stephens' time in this Australian Open's singles draw was brief is hardly a surprise. The reigning U.S. Open champ has been hampered by a lingering knee injury since the fall, and the resulting lack of practice time and match play has put any momentum she might have gained from her New York run under wraps. Looking to end '17 with another highlight, she instead displayed a stark lack of confidence between the lines in the Fed Cup final, as the U.S. squad (no matter how hard Captain Kathy Rinaldi tried to re-light Stephens' inner fire) was forced to win in spite of her near championship-killing face plant in Minsk. When Zhang Shuai's name was pulled as Sloane's 1st Round opponent in the first major of 2018, well, her ultimate fate Down Under seemed to have already been written in the stars.

Still, even while riding a seven match losing streak since defeating Madison Keys in the Open final, Stephens began her first post-Future Sloane slam looking like she'd finally turned a corner. She took the opening set 6-2, then overcame a break disadvantage (down 3-0) in the 2nd to serve for the match at 5-4. But once Zhang got the break, everything changed. The '16 AO quarterfinalist pushed things to a tie-break, won it 7-2, then jumped on her discouraged opponent early in the 3rd. She won the first seven points, and eight of nine to take a 2-0 lead, then coasted to a 2-6/7-6(2)/6-2 win, dropping Stephens to 0-8 since picking up that eye-popping big check last September

Stephens won't feel the sting of her current form in the rankings for quite some time, as she has zero points to defend until the North American hard court summer. Maybe her time away due to foot surgery last year, which stoked her desire and focus once she returned to the court, will once again act as an instigator that leads to Sloane getting her proverbial ducks in a row once again sometime this spring or summer. She needn't panic, nor put too much pressure on herself to right her course too quickly. She has time to get fully healthy, and totally fit -- physically and mentally -- once again. Her game form, confidence and results will likely following suit soon afterward.

Right this moment, though... while it took place place just four months ago, the memory of what happened in New York has already started to fade away. If The Future was then, then what is *this*?

...from its very first moments, Day 1 looked to be in a hurry. And it didn't take long before this slam's first big-name victims were sent packing long before many had anticipated entertaining the thought of leaving Melbourne behind.

With ten women's matches kicking off at 11 a.m. in Melbourne, Wimbledon semifinalist Magdalena Rybarikova was the quickest out of the blocks, taking a love 1st set from Taylor Townsend faster than a grand slam website and app could crash within minutes of the start of play... well, check that, *nothing* could quite top the light speed with which this AO's woeful new versions of both fell victim to catastrophic failure precisely when everyone had just started to pay attention to their shortcomings.

But the Slovak wasn't the first to shake hands in victory on this Monday. No, that turned out to be China's Duan Yingying. As things got a bit sticky in the 2nd set for Rybarikova (though she led Townsend 6-0/4-3, she only had a three-point advantage in the match), Duan raced to a 6-0/4-0 lead against Mariana Duque-Marino and closed out the Colombian 6-0/6-1 to become the first player to advance to the 2nd Round.

RG champ Alona Ostapenko, too, was a young woman in a hurry. She jumped out with a 6-1 1st set win over 37-year old Francesca Schiavone (playing with an uncomfortable-looking back brace), fell behind 3-1 in the 2nd, then handed the Italian vet her seventeenth career AO MD defeat (her first came in her debut in 2001, the year before the youngest player in the women's draw -- 15-year old Marta Kostyuk -- was born) by taking the final five games, serving out a 6-1/6-4 victory.

Other early-in-the-day results included Alize Cornet, playing in her 45th straight slam MD (behind only Aga Radwanska's tour-leading streak of 47), defeating 16-year old wild card Wang Xinyu, the youngest Chinese player to ever appear in a slam draw, 6-4/6-2; while Julia Goerges tucked away her fifteenth straight win dating back to last season with a 6-4/6-4 win over Bannerette teen Sonya Kenin.

Kenin's loss, following on the heels of that of countrywoman Townsend, set the early tone for what turned out to be an horrendous day for Bannerette tennis, which had found itself flying high in the closing months of 2017 with a foursome of semifinalists at last year's U.S. Open hailing from the home country, and soon after Team USA lifting the Fed Cup championship trophy for the first time in seventeen years.

By the end of the day, three of those four semifinalists had been dumped out of this AO within hours of its start. And that wasn't even the half of it.

The much-anticipated 1st Round match-up (or second week star-robbing encounter, depending on how you look at it) between Venus Williams, an AO finalist a year ago, and burgeoning comeback star Belinda Bencic didn't turn out to be a classic ala the Sharapova/Halep tilt last summer at Flushing Meadows (expect more of this sort of thing when the seeds are shrunk from 32 to 16). Instead, it showed that Bencic's late 2017 run of dominance and early '18 winner's touch (she won both the Hopman Cup and Kooyong exhibition titles) were likely a sign of greater things to come.

A year after facing (and losing to) Serena in the 1st Round last year's AO, Bencic controlled the course of action this year against Venus. After taking a break lead at 4-3 in the 1st, then saving five BP before a rain delay (at deuce) in order to close the Laver Arena roof, the 20-year old Swiss burst out of the interruption without a hint of rust. Reeling off four straight points, Bencic held for 5-3 and soon secured the 1st set. Throughout a tight 2nd set, she was opportunistic and light on her feet, and kept a step ahead of her 37-year old opponent, notching her first career win in five attempts vs. Williams, 6-3/7-5. Bencic had lost all eight previous sets she'd played against Venus.

Her injury-related absence for much of last season allowed Bencic to play very late into the calendar year, beyond the official end of the WTA season, as she put together a 28-3 overall record on all levels in the closing months, including a 15-0 run to end the year. In an early season stretch that has seen so many top players put up spotty results and/or have questionable conditioning/health, perhaps Bencic's momentum-gathering stretch of action since last fall has allowed her to find her '18 groove far quicker than most. This win gives her six wins in seven matches this January, though the first six took place in "unofficial" events.

Of note: Bencic's single loss, a straight sets defeat at the hands of undefeated-in-2018 Angelique Kerber in Perth, surely continues to make the German look even better than she already has in the opening weeks of the new season, doesn't it?.

Oh, but the U.S. woes were just getting started...

Last year's AO semifinalist, CoCo Vandeweghe, went out quicker and in more frustrating fashion than even her fellow U.S. Open semifinalists Venus and Sloane. Back in Melbourne with Pat Cash in her coaching corner, Vandeweghe won't even get an opportunity operate in the Melbourne draft of the Aussie great. After taking an early lead against the talented but unpredictable Timea Babos, CoCo saw the Hungarian better handle the rain delay and the closing of the Hisense Arena roof. Babos seized control of the 1st set TB, winning it 7-4, then blew out Vandeweghe in the 2nd for a 7-6(4)/6-1 win. Somewhat surprisingly for a player of her talent, it's just Babos' second career Top 10 win, and her first in almost four years (Halep in Fed Cup play in '14).

While all three seeded U.S. stars faced unusually tough 1st Round opponents, and apparently Vandeweghe was experiencing some sort of flu-like symptoms, such a bombed-out result in the first slam after what happened last summer in New York is quite a wicked turn of events, no matter how short-lived the downturn turns out to be.

But, while the tailspin is currently taking place, ummm, why not speed it up a bit more?

CiCi Bellis claimed the opening set against Kiki Bertens, but lost in three. Alison Riske did the same vs. Kirsten Flipkens. With the U.S. with a shocking 0-7 combined record, Jennifer Brady (who reached the Round of 16 a year ago) raced to a 5-0 1st set lead vs. Magda Linette and seemed set to flip U.S. fortunes, only to eventually add her name to the list of Bannerettes to squander leads and fall in three, going out 2-6/6-4/6-3 to the Pole.

With the U.S. woman standing at an astounding 0-8, it could get even worse in the bottom half of the draw. Nicole Gibbs will at least be favored vs. lucky loser Viktorya Tomova, but Irina Falconi has been given the opportunity to serve in the role of guest on this AO's first edition of "The Dasha Show" in the night session-closing match on Laver vs. Miss Gavrilova.

Poors Souls, indeed. (And here's where you make your own "Who's-the-s***hole-country-now?" joke, I guess, too.)

Leave it to Venus to tell it like it is, of course.

Oh, and by the way, Madison Keys... watch your back tomorrow.

...but you didn't have to be a Bannerette to be a seeded player sent packing on this openg day of 2018 slam play. Ekaterina Makarova fell in an 8-6 3rd set to Irina-Camelia Begu, while Dominika Cibulkova was ejected more forcefully by Kaia Kanepi, 6-2/6-2.

Meanwhile, Anett Kontaveit might have had some trouble on her hands had Aleksandra Krunic been able to push the Estonian to a 3rd set. Kontaveit led by a set and a break, served at 5-2 in the 2nd and held a MP before The Bracelet briefly turned the tables on her and knotted the score at 5-5. But Kontaveit rebounded to record her first career AO MD win, 6-4/7-5. Anastasia Palvyuchenkova, a year after the Russian completed her Career QF Slam with a final eight run in Melbourne, looked like she was going to do what she does so often. Come on, you know... She trailed Kateryna Kozlova 3-1 in the 3rd but, wouldn't you know it, she *didn't* put forth a massively disappointing result on the heels of something good. I know... now *that's* a true stunner. Instead, she reeled off five straight games to win 3-6/6-4/6-3. Go figure.

...for all the world to see, it appeared as if Sam Stosur was going to head off at the 3rd set pass any of the home soil demons that have hounded her for nearly her entire career. She led Monica Puig by a set and held a MP in a 2nd set TB. But the Puerto Rican Gold Medalist saved it and pushed things to a 3rd and, well, the match took place in Melbourne. So...

Sam's now lost four matches in a row in Melbourne.

...a year ago, Marta Kostyuk won the AO girls singles title on the final weekend of play. This year, she's way ahead of the game. After making her way through qualifying to become the first player born in 2002 to reach a slam MD, the 15-year posted a 1st Round upset of veteran Peng Shuai today to become the first from her birth year to also get a victory, winning 6-2/6-2.

After making it through qualifying this weekend, Kostyuk found her mom and got a hug and a kiss.

I guess the stakes have now officially been raised.

...well, looks like it's time to wrap up the Day 1 post. Remember, though, there are *still* matches left to be finished, started and completed, including Anna Karolina Schiedlova's long-awaited return to slam MD action vs. Dasha Kasatkina, as well as the slam MD debut of Backspin's 2017 "Player Whose Name You'll Know..." designee Jana Fett (vs. Misa Eguchi) *and* the AO debut of '18 pick, Viktoria Kuzmova (vs. two-time Hobart champ Elise Mertens). Elina Svitolina also takes the court for the first time in the season's first major.

In the night session on MCA, Auckland finalist Caroline Wozniacki will meet Hobart finalist Mihaela Buzarnescu, as the Romanian gets another chance at the Dane, who knocked her out of the U.S. Open 1st Round last fall in the Swarmette's slam MD debut. And, as noted earlier, Gavrilova will try to "Rock The Rod" for a third straight AO when she meets Falconi in the session-ending match on Laver.


Or, as the Trump White House would say... "Everything worked perfectly. We've been getting compliments on it, actually. The general conclusion is that it's the best debut of a new slam website and app ever."


..."UGH" ON DAY 1: after working to get back on the court after three knee surgeries...


...LIKE ON DAY 1: Petra looking all Golden Age of Hollywood-y and all...

...and, finally... it's time for the bush birds to call once again...


A post shared by Victoria Azarenka (@vichka35) on

2005 #16 Ai Sugiyama, JPN (lost to Sucha)
2006 #9 Elena Dementieva, RUS (lost to Schruff)
2007 #25 Anabel Medina-Garrigues, ESP (lost to Vesnina)
2008 #32 Julia Vakulenko, UKR (lost to Vesnina)
2009 #23 Agnes Szavay, HUN (lost to Voskoboeva)
2010 #14 Maria Sharapova, RUS (lost to Kirilenko)
2011 #28 Daniela Hantuchova, SVK (lost to Kulikova)
2012 #19 Flavia Pennetta, ITA (lost to Bratchikova)
2013 #32 Mona Barthel, GER (lost to Pervak)
2014 #7 Sara Errani, ITA (lost to Goerges)
2015 #32 Belinda Bencic, SUI (lost to Goerges)
2016 #17 Sara Errani, ITA (lost to Gasparyan)
2017 #4 Simona Halep, ROU (lost to Rogers)
2018 #13 Sloane Stephens, USA (lost to Sh.Zhang)

2009 Patricia Mayr, AUS (def. Schruff)
2010 Dinara Safina, RUS (def. Rybarikova)
2011 Evgeniya Rodina, RUS (def. Rogowska)
2012 Victoria Azarenka, BLR (def. Watson)
2013 Maria Sharapova, RUS (def. Puchkova)
2014 Kirsten Flipkens, BEL (def. Robson)
2015 Julia Goerges, GER (def. Bencic)
2016 Petra Kvitova, CZE (def. Kumkhum)
2017 Monica Puig, PUR (def. Tig)
2018 Duan Yingying, CHN (def. Duque Marino)

TOP QUALIFIER: Marta Kostyuk/UKR (first player born in 2002 in slam MD)
TOP EARLY ROUND (1r-2r): xx
TOP QUALIFYING MATCH: Q1 - Caroline Dolehide/USA def. Conny Perrin/SUI 5-7/6-3/7-6(7) (trailed 5-0 and 6-2 in the deciding TB, saved 5 MP to record first career slam match win)
TOP EARLY RD. MATCH (1r-2r): xx
TOP LATE RD. MATCH (SF-F/Jr./Doub.): xx
FIRST VICTORY: Duan Yingying/CHN (def. Duque-Marino/COL)
FIRST SEED OUT: #13 Sloane Stephens/USA (1st Rd. - lost to Zhang Shuai; 0-8 since winning U.S. Open)
NATION OF POOR SOULS: Nominee: U.S. women lose first eight 1st Rd. matches on Day 1
LAST QUALIFIER STANDING: Day 1 wins: Allertova, Kostyuk, Kumkhum
LAST WILD CARD STANDING: Day 1 wins: Rogowska
LAST AUSSIE STANDING: Day 1 wins: Rogowska
IT (TBD): xx
CRASH & BURN: Nominees: Bannerette '17 U.S. Open Semifinalists (Stephens, Vandeweghe & Venus ousted on Day 1)
ZOMBIE QUEEN: Nominees: Sh.Zhang (1r - Stephens served for match at 5-4 in 2nd set); Puig (1r - Stosur MP in 2nd set)

All for Day 1. More tomorrow.


Blogger colt13 said...

Was wrong about Estonia, good for them.

US has to be the poor souls now.

Stat of the Day-5- The amount of 1st rd losses for first time slam winners-out of the last 14.

That doesn't include Puig, who promptly followed up her Olympic win with a first rd loss at the USO.

Although Stephens' loss is probably the least shocking of the bunch, lets look at how the numbers stack up for the first and second slam after a win.

First slam match after

Second slam match after

So most rebound. This shows why there was such a buzz when Ostapenko reached the QF, because it had not happened since Clijsters, who deserves notice because not only did she reach the SF in her first, in a 4 yr span including her retirement, she reached 4 SF and Won in her next 5 slams.

The only ones that did worse or same in the 2nd slam? Muguruza, Li, Ivanovic, and Ostapenko. Two of those won another slam, and one probably will.

Mon Jan 15, 08:52:00 AM EST  
Blogger Todd.Spiker said...

Poor Souls: Yeah, why not carry over to tennis the '18 theme of the NON-tennis year, so far, I guess?

Hey, though she lost in qualifying, Pera got into the draw, anyway.

Mon Jan 15, 12:48:00 PM EST  

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