Tuesday, January 16, 2018

AO.2 - Have You Seen This Woman?


Be advised. There has been a Kerbernator sighting on the Australian Open grounds.

Proceed with caution, and advance at your own risk.

Finally, after her long season of discontent, a campaign in which her game failed to consistently fire for long and she could never quite rediscover that spark that had so recently lifted her to the greatest heights of her career, Angelique Kerber was back where it all started twenty-four months ago. On Day 2, the 2016 Australian Open champion, unlike her experience in Melbourne a year ago, emerged unscathed to live another day, her roll undisturbed and her early '18 fortunes still burning bright.

Two years ago, Kerber stared down a match point against Misaki Doi in the AO 1st Round, then went on to win the title, setting the stage for a career year. Last January she escaped three-setters vs. Lesia Tsurenko (1st Rd.) and Carina Witthoeft (2nd) before falling in the Round of 16, setting the stage for her historic fall over the course of '17, as she dropped all the way from #1 to #22, the biggest non-injury/retirement related slip for a year-end #1 over the course of the following season in tour history.

The omens are more in the German's favor this time around.

Even with the current #1 player in the world, last year's tour title leader, the player with the longest active tour-level winning streak (as well as the player with the longest overall winning run) all lifting championship trophies during the first two weeks of '18, and another singles title being successfully defended, there has arguably been *no* player in better form than Kerber. Undefeated at 9-0 (4-0 in Hopman Cup play, and 5-0 in her first title run in sixteen months in Sydney), the only player to defeat Belinda Bencic since last October (a 6-4/6-1 win in the WS part of the Hopman final), back in the Top 20, and last week a winner of a pair of back-to-back matches in which she dropped the 1st set (after being 3-22 in those situations last season), Kerber arrives at this slam having been tested in nearly every way imaginable over the course of the short two-week stretch to begin the season.

Facing off today against fellow German Anna-Lena Friedsam (coming back from a shoulder injury, and maybe best remembered for her near-upset of Aga Radwanska in the AO Round of 16 two years ago before being felled by cramps), for a set and a half, Kerber looked every bit the player who has buzzed through a long list of opponents in the season's opening weeks. She dropped just one point on serve while taking the 1st set at love, and led 4-1 in the 2nd. At that point, Friedsam finally found her footing and made Kerber work a bit more as she leveled the score at 4-4. But after a handful of squandered chances, Kerber finaly got the break for 5-4 and served out the match, converting her second MP to record her first victory in Melbourne since defeating Serena Williams two years ago to claim her maiden slam crown.

With her streak at ten match wins in a row, next up for Kerber is Croatia's Donna Vekic. Nothing is guaranteed for the German over the next two weeks, but nothing is off the table, either.

So, you know... beware.

...if Monday, when six (mostly big-name) seeds fell, resembled a day "in a hurry" and was ready, willing and able to wreak havoc with the women's draw, Tuesday was content with merely flirting with danger, only to pull itself back from the edge before things reached an official "eve of destruction."

Day 2 immediately proved to be something of a turnaround point for the Bannerettes one day after the U.S. women went 1-9 and saw three-fourths of last year's U.S. Open semifinalists sent packing. Today, lucky loser Bernarda Pera (in for an injured Margarita Gasparyan) was the first player to advance to the 2nd Round, defeating Russian qualifier Anna Blinkova 6-2/6-2. Pera jumped out to a quick 4-0 lead and never looked back. She's the first LL to post a 1st Round win in Melbourne since Irina Falconi in 2014. It's been twenty one years since such a run was extended another round Down Under (Sandra Kleinova in 1997), but Ons Jabeur *did* do just that last year in Paris after getting her own second chance opportunity in the Roland Garros MD.

Pera will next face Johanna Konta, who destroyed Pera's countrywoman Madison Brengle, winning 6-3/6-1 and firing off thirty-seven winners in the match's sixteen games.

While Pera's day-starting win alleviated a bit of the remaining pressure created by the series of Bannerette failures yesterday, the results of the rest of the day for the U.S. women were decidedly spotty. Madison Keys managed to avoid the U.S. Open semifinalist curse imposed at this AO by becoming the only of the four Bannerettes who reached the SF at Flushing Meadows last summer to advance to the 2nd Round at this slam, but she had to battle back from a 5-2 2nd set deficit in order to take out Wang Qiang in straight sets.

But that was where the good news ended.

Varvara Lepchenko looked as if she might upset Anastasija Sevastova, but the Latvian pushed the match to a 3rd set and won it. Shelby Rogers, too, had a big win within her grasp. She pushed '17 AO semifinalist Mirjana Lucic-Baroni to 3rd set, but couldn't get past the 35-year old Croat. Other Bannerettes who fell on Day 2 included Christina McHale and Kristie Ahn.

With the U.S. women standing at a combined 3-14, only Lauren Davis (vs. Jana Cepelova) has yet to complete her 1st Round match in an attempt to join Keys, Pera and Nicole Gibbs in the 2nd Round.

...after a bit of a shaky start, Caroline Garcia got her AO off to a winning start. Carina Witthoeft served for the 1st set at 5-4 against the Frenchwoman, but after getting the break Garcia ran off a string of six additional games to take a 7-5/4-0 lead before ultimately taking the 2nd set 6-3. The Pastry has reached at least the 3rd Round at the last five majors, as well as in two of her last three trips to Melbourne.

While her name was on the tip of everyone's tongue at the start of multiple slams in '17 following her 2016 U.S. Open final appearance, the buzz around Karolina Pliskova is not quite as loud as this AO begins even after she put up her most consistent slam season a year ago (w/ a SF and two QF). Not that the twin is one to show any outward signs of not withstanding pressure, but being a bit on the down-low when it comes to people discussing her title hopes is still probably a checkmark in the Czech's column for this opening major of '18. One of six women with a chance to finish this slam in the #1 ranking, Pliskova began her own personal quest by defeating Veronica Cepede Royg 6-4/6-3.

Pliskova was one of a slew of Czechs who advanced to the 2nd Round today after winning in their first-up matches at the start of the day. The group of Maidens included Lucie Safarova (in her first outing since failing to convert that MP vs. Angelique Kerber in the 1st Round in Sydney), Barbora Strycova and Marketa Vondrousova.

...while Kerber made her winning return to Melbourne today, Maria Sharapova was back for the first time in two years, contesting a match on MCA in her first AO outing since her failed drug test following her QF loss to Serena Williams in 2016. A few days after reawakening the ire of the I-don't-care-if-she-served-out-her-punishment-I'll-never-let-it-go-until-my-dying-day crowd by being included in the draw ceremony with Roger Federer-er-er-er-er -- granted, it was an odd choice by the organizers, but there would honestly be few who'd even come close to being the star-power equal of RF, so deal with it -- the Russian got about to getting things done between the lines in a match-up with Tatjana Maria (yeah, so the scoreboard read "Sharapova vs. Maria"... a nice chuckle courtesy of the Tennis Gods, who may or may not have been trying to deliver some sort of subconscious message in the odd occurrence -- they've refused to answer any of the questions sent their way from Backspin HQ).

After winning the opening set 6-1, Sharapova's error count begin to climb in the 2nd as Maria settled into the big stage surroundings. The German led 3-1 before Sharapova tightened things up and finished off the win.

...while Sloane Stephens couldn't stop her losing streak on Day 1, Genie Bouchard *did* manage to end her own skid, and may have just gotten a big gift from the Tennis Gods, as well. More on that in a moment.

It was four years ago that Bouchard had her breakout slam in Melbourne, reaching the AO semifinals in a season in which she'd reach another slam semi and the Wimbledon final, then climb as high as #5 in the rankings. The Canadian came into this slam ranked outside the Top 100, and might need to post a few impressive results to avoid having her position as the top-ranked player in her nation challenged by one or more younger countrywomen later this spring or summer. On a six-match losing streak (not including her 0-3 mark in the Hopman Cup), and with a 3-13 mark beginning with her Madrid QF loss last spring after having won matches over Sharapova and Kerber earlier in the week, Bouchard took the 1st set from Oceane Dodin today, then avoided what might have become a sticky 3rd set by taking out the Pastry in the 2nd set TB to win 6-3/7-6(5). Bouchard hit twelve aces in the match and held a 29/24 edge in W/UE.

So, what is the gift Bouchard might have received? Well, frankly, that her next opponent is Simona Halep. Not because of any deficiencies in the #1-ranked player in the world, as the Romanian put on a gritty performance today against 17-year old Aussie wild card Destanee Aiava, but because one has to wonder if an ankle injury she suffered during the match might turn out to be as significant as was initially feared despite the fact that she literally got up off the court and finished off her opponent in straight sets this afternoon in Melbourne.

Make no mistake, Halep should be proud of what she did today. Against a great deal of adversity, she never lost her head, heart or guile on the Laver Arena court. She faced down a huge-hitting opponent who got on top of her and grabbed a big 1st set lead, found her way after a long injury break from the teenager, saving a handful of set points and ultimately stealing the opening stanza, then pulling out the match after badly rolling her ankle and seeming to be on the verge of possibly abandoning the match as the intense pain she was in was plainly visible on her face.

Having dropped her last two 1st Round matches in Melbourne, Halep already had a major mental hurdle to clear before today's match had even started. Though she's been sporting a lightness of spirit and a high level of confidence after sweeping the titles in Shenzhen in Week 1, Halep needed to prove (mostly to herself, maybe) that she wasn't snakebit at this event, especially not in her first slam as the world #1.

The powerful Aiava didn't make things easy, and she looked like a possible upset-maker in the 1st set. She broke for 3-1 and 4-2 leads, and managed to save a handful of BP to hold in a 15-minute game for 5-2. But it was then that she called for a trainer, and eventually was led off the court for ten minutes. When play resumed, Halep served to stay in the set, and had to save two SP before holding for 5-3. A bit lost in the moment (maybe it was the long break, maybe it was the occasion), Aiava lost track of the match score after that game and thought it was time for a changeover break. Wandering around the court for the next few games with an expression that surely didn't look as if it belonged to a player *leading* the match, Aiava's errors increased. Halep held on, and put in a series of big first serves to get back on serve at 5-5, then managed to edge out the Aussie to win a 7-5 TB and steal away with a 1st set win.

Early in the 2nd, though, one point after pulling up and hitting the back of her thigh, Halep stretched for a ball behind the baseline and turned her left ankle. She went down quickly and clutched at her leg. It looked bad, and the video of the incident backed up the feeling.

Halep was taped up and continued to play, though. While favoring the ankle, she was able to run and move around the court. She took a 3-0 lead, kept Aiava at bay and put the match away 7-6(5)/6-1 to notch her first AO win since 2015. Afterward, she admitted to being in the dark about how bad her injury might be, noting that it was still warm and she didn't yet feel it. Even a good diagnosis is going to include a lot of work to get her ready for a 2nd Round match with Bouchard, and beyond. One wants to believe she'll find a way to keep going, but then you see that video and just how far over her ankle was rolled and it makes one wonder if further examination might reveal an injury extensive enough to prematurely end her AO.

(Fingers crossed.)

...as the start of the night session neared, Day 2 had yet to see a women's seed ejected from the draw despite quite a few close calls. It looked as if that was all going to change as Petra Kvitova's return to Melbourne seemed set to end the way so many had in the past, with a devastating defeat. Then, fortunes changed and Kvitova looked to be ready to stage a successful Houdini act... until she couldn't quite escape her fate.

Andrea Petkovic won the 1st set, only to see the Czech go up 5-4 in the 2nd and push things into a 3rd. The German led 4-0 there, and held three MP (two in a row), only to see Kvitova find a way out of the deep hole. She battled back and eventually found herself serving for the match at 6-5, but fell behind 15/40 and then double-faulted two points later as the score was knotted at 6-6. Three games later, Kvitova got the break to get a second chance to serve out the match at 8-7, only to fail to do so and drop serve yet again. Finally, Petko did the honor, breaking Kvitova to get the win that she nearly let slip away, 6-3/4-6/10-8, as the Czech DF'd on the German's final MP.

While it's sad to see Petra sent away so early, it's nice to see such an effort from Petkovic. This has to be one of her biggest wins in quite some time.

...still to come on Tuesday as of the posting of this update: Kristina Mladenovic (with 14 straight losses, she'll face Ana Bogdan) will see if she'll join the Stephens or Bouchard camp when it comes to trying to end a long losing streak, Aga Radwanska will try to get past a Pliskova (Krystina), Garbine Muguruza's true condition (after a retirement and walkover in the first two weeks of '18) may finally be revealed under the lights on MCA, and one night after the successful first episode of "The Dasha Show" proved to be a predictable one, another "Barty Party" will break out on Laver as Aussie Ash goes up against Aryna Sabalenka in what could be an excitable night-ending face-off.

...LIKE ON DAY 2: When you win on Day 1...

...and, finally... a flashback to Jelena Dokic's heartwarming AO quarterfinal run of 2009:

2012 GBR (0-4 1st Rd.; all on Day 1)
2013 AUS (1-6 in 1st Rd., 1-7 overall)
2014 ITA (top-seeded #7 Errani & #12 Vinci out 1st)
2015 CHN (year after Li champ, 1-5 in 1st Round)
2016 AUS (1-8 in 1st Rd.; only AUS-born in 2nd is a Brit)
2017 ROU (2-4 1st Loss, 1st Seed Out, 3 Top 32 defeats)
2018 USA (lost first 8 matches, 1-9 on Day 1; 3/4 of '17 U.S. Open SF ousted)

2008 Svetlana Kuznetsova, RUS (3rd Rd.)
2009 Venus Williams, USA (2nd Rd.)
2010 Maria Sharapova, RUS (1st Rd.)
2011 Jelena Jankovic, SRB (2nd Rd.)
2012 Samantha Stosur, AUS (1st Rd.)
2013 Samantha Stosur, AUS (2nd Rd.)
2014 Petra Kvitova, CZE (1st Rd.)
2015 Ana Ivanovic, SRB (1st Rd.)
2016 Simona Halep, ROU (1st Rd.)
2017 Simona Halep, ROU (1st Rd.)
2018 Sloane Stephens, CoCo Vandeweghe & Venus Williams, USA (1st Rd. - all '17 U.S. Open SF)

2006 US: Nicole Pratt, AUS (2nd)
2006 RG: Kirsten Flipkens, BEL (2nd)
2007 WI: Alize Cornet, FRA (2nd)
2008 US: Mariana Duque-Marino, COL (2nd)
2009 RG: Mariana Duque-Marino, COL (2nd)
2009 WI: Kristina Kucova, SVK (2nd)
2010 RG: Bethanie Mattek-Sands, USA (2nd)
2011 WI: Stephanie Dubois, CAN (2nd)
2012 RG: Sesil Karatantcheva, KAZ (2nd)
2013 US: Patricia Mayr-Achleitner, AUT (2nd)
2014 AO: Irina Falconi, USA (2nd)
2015 US: Daria Kasatkina, RUS (3rd)
2016 WI: Duan Yingying, CHN (2nd)
2017 RG: Ons Jabeur, TUN (3rd)
2018 AO: Bernarda Pera, USA [into 2nd Rd.]
Most Recent AO 3rd Rd.: Sandra Kleinova, CZE (1997)

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: USA (women lose first eight 1st Rd. matches, go 1-9 on Day 1, 3/4 of '17 U.S. Open all-Bannerette semifinalists ousted)
LAST QUALIFIER STANDING: Into 2nd Rd.: Allertova, Kostyuk, Kumkhum (LL: Pera)
LAST WILD CARD STANDING: Into 2nd Rd.: Rogowska
LAST AUSSIE STANDING: Into 2nd Rd.: Gavrilova, Rogowska
IT (TBD): xx
CRASH & BURN: Sloane Stephens, CoCo Vandeweghe & Venus Williams, USA (3 of 4 '17 U.S. Open semifinalist lose 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); Halep (1r - down 5-2 and 2 SP in 1st set vs. Aiava, turns ankle in 2nd set); Petkovic (1r - Kvitova twice served for match; won 10-8 in 3rd)

All for Day 2. More tomorrow.


Blogger colt13 said...

Mladenovic showing us how important the mental game is.

Unforunately, the theory was right. All 5 Top 100 players that came in with no match play lost-Rogers, Dodin, Kozlova, Schiavone, Peng. Not counting Bencic because of Hopman and Kooyong.

Stat of the Day-14- The number of years it had been since the AO Jr Champ won in the main draw the next year.

Obviously, Marta Kostyuk is the reason for this post, but before I get to her, you might be pleased to know that not only did the person who pulled off the feat participate in this year's event, but they won their first rd match. That was Barbora Strycova, the 2002 and 2003 Girls Champion, who made it through qualies in 2004 and made it to the 2nd rd.

The still only 15 yr old Kostyuk has a BIG future. If Strycova is the floor, Bencic might be the ceiling, as she did the same, winning Wimbledon Juniors in 2013, then making the 3rd rd in 2014.

The good thing about Marta is that she already has a WTA level serve. No big weaknesses either, maybe just anticipating the next shot better. And that will come.

Peng actually didn't play badly in their match. Was compromised going to her left, but still had those clean strokes and would have beaten your average WC.

Kostyuk has a winnable match vs Rogowska, will be interesting to see if she can bring the same level of play to this one.

Tue Jan 16, 09:24:00 AM EST  
Blogger Todd.Spiker said...

"Mladenovic showing us how important the mental game is."

Even for a player self-described as the smartest, most intellectually evolved individual in the sport, too.

Tue Jan 16, 12:38:00 PM EST  
Blogger Leif Mortensen said...

Comebackniacki - my nerves are wrecked - what a comeback

Wed Jan 17, 01:42:00 AM EST  
Blogger Todd.Spiker said...

That.Was.Quite.Large. ;)

Wed Jan 17, 02:04:00 AM EST  

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