Thursday, January 18, 2018

AO.4 - The Heat is On, and the Seeds Keep Falling

We're just two rounds into this Australian Open and large expanses of the women's draw are already looking the worse for wear.

As the original list of contenders has been pared down from 128 (129 if you count one very lucky loser) to 32, the list of big-time victims is already worthy of a deep-into-week-two stage of the proceedings. None of last year's AO semifinalists are in the 3rd Round, and only one of last year's quarterfinalists is still alive and kickin'. Of last year's Round of 16 participants, just three will be playing for the chance to return there in 2018. Meanwhile, three of last year's U.S. Open semifinalists lost on Day 1, and three of the final four from Wimbledon last summer have big adieu, as well, and two of the three '17 slam winners who were in the draw at the start of play can no longer say the same.

Still, most of the carnage has taken place in the Wild West-styled bottom half of the draw -- where three qualifiers, seven other unseeded women and one 15-year old make up a large portion of the sixteen remaining players -- while some level of stable genius has mostly managed to reign supreme in the top half, where top players have rolled ankles and been greatly tested, but usually found a way to survive.

Well, that was the case until Day 4, at least.

It didn't take long to get the first indication that the malady that has seen fit to virtually decimate one half of the draw might just be a contagious condition that was now ready to attack the heart of the other. All it took was Top 10er and former AO semifinalist Johanna Konta to be upset by a lucky loser.

23-year old Bannerette Bernarda Pera (#123) lost in the final round of qualifying over the weekend, and didn't get a spot in the main draw until after 1st Round play had already begun. When Russia's Margarita Gasparyan, returning from a trio of knee surgeries, pulled out with an injured shoulder, Pera was set to make her slam debut (she got a win over another Hordette, and an *actual* qualifier, in Anna Blinkova).

Still trying to find some sort of consistent run of results since her career-altering final four run in front of a home British crowd at Wimbledon last year, Konta never really had things in order on this day. Meanwhile, Pera edged ahead in key moments of both of the match's two sets. At 4-4 in the 1st, she went up love/40 on Konta's serve, got the break and then served out a 6-4 set. After getting the break for a 4-3 lead in the 2nd, she held serve and then had three MP chances on Konta's serve. The Brit managed to extend the match with a hold, but Pera finally served out the biggest win of her career on MP #5 to win 6-4/7-5. She's the first LL to reach the 3rd Round in Melbourne since 1997.

Not content with just *one* big name player falling on this day, the Tennis Gods had another surprise up their collective sleeve before the sun had set.

Looking to take another step in a slam in which she could become the first of her tennis generation to grab a third career slam crown, as well as being one of six women who began this AO with an opportunity to end it as the #1-ranked player in the world, Garbine Muguruza came to Melbourne having already retired from one match with cramps, and issued a walkover due to injury in another in the season's first two weeks. So the Spaniard surely didn't relish having to take the court in Day 4's intense heat, let alone doing so against Hsieh Su-wei and her oddball trickster strokes. But that was the Wimbledon champion's fate on this day... and she didn't handle it well.

When Muguruza did manage to get herself to the net she was usually successful, but she had a hard time finding her way around the 32-year Taiwanese vet's balls to do it. Hsieh was looking to reach the 3rd Round at a major for just the fourth time in her career, and the first time at the AO since her career-best slam result (4th Rd.) there in 2008. She grabbed a 4-2 lead in the opening set, and then won a 7-1 tie-break. In the 2nd, Hsieh again led 4-2. Down 30/40 and trying to stay in the match, Muguruza got to the net but badly fired a volley beyond the baseline to fall behind 5-2. She got a break for 5-3 a game later, then saved a MP with a mid-point attack and put-away at the net and held for 5-4. While she didn't "Mugu" away the match, it still wasn't enough to change the Spaniard's fortunes, as her forty-three unforced errors ultimately proved too much to overcome. With her last stand before her, she couldn't prevent Hsieh from serving out the match on her second attempt, winning 7-6(1)/6-4 to record her second career Top 20 win. After reaching at least the Round of 16 at all four majors in a season for the first time in her career a year ago, Muguruza begins 2018 with her worst slam result since her back-to-back 2nd Round exits in London and New York in '16.

Almost as an afterthought, the daylight hours managed to throw another big name seed onto the Melbourne trash heap, as the glorious story of '17 AO semifinalist Mirjana Lucic-Baroni, who reached a major final four for the first time in eighteen years a season ago, was unable to produce another headline-grabbing and heart-tugging AO sequel, falling to Fed Cup star (and early '18 personality-plus spark plug) Aliaksandra Sasnovich, who knocked off the Croat in a 6-3/6-1 match that gets the Belarusian into her first career slam 3rd Round.

And then, mercifully, the carnage stopped.

One suspects this won't be the last time such a theme persists on a given day at this slam, though. There *are* more than a week of days left to be played, after all.

=DAY 4 NOTES= player who didn't suffer a shocking fate on Thursday was Maria Sharapova. In the role of the "unseeded upstart" facing off in a revenge match with a seeded player (Anastasija Sevastova) who'd defeated her at last year's U.S. Open in her initial return to slam action, the Russian burst out of the match gate like a player who wanted to win and find shelter and shade before the *real* heat began to descend upon Melbourne Park. Seeking her third Top 20 win since her return to the tour last spring (one against Simona Halep in New York, and the other against Sevastova last fall in Beijing) Sharapova rushed through a 6-1 1st set, winning sixteen of eighteen points on serve and converting both break point opportunities against the Latvian. Sevastova, playing with her thigh wrapped, finally got into the swing of things in 2nd, and even broke Sharapova when she served for the match at 5-4 and then held for a 6-5 lead. Sharapova won the eventual tie-break 7-4 to close out the contest.

With just three former slam champions remaining in the Final 32, wouldn't you just know it that two of them will face off against each other in the 3rd Round as Sharapova's next opponent will be the '16 AO champ, a still-undefeated-in-2018 Angelique Kerber. On her 30th birthday, the German took to the court on MCA later in the afternoon under more intense heat (Novak Djokovic vs. Gael Monfils sometimes resembled an arena-style death match on "Game of Thrones" as it took place on Laver at the same time). Facing Donna Vekic, now coached by Torben Beltz, the point man during Kerber's career season two years ago, Angie handled the heat far better than most. While the slight Vekic literally turned red over the course of the short match, and likely wouldn't have been able to go three sets had she been forced to, Kerber took care of her business in an efficient 6-4/6-1 win to run her season mark to 7-0 (11-0 with Hopman Cup play).

...though her banner season-closing finish is now a few months old, Caroline Garcia is still officially on the leading edge of a glorious run. She came into Day 4 on a 14-3 combined run since late '17, but was forced to work overtime to take down Czech teen Marketa Vondrousova, who's going to be on the winning side of one these sort of matches in a slam very soon. Today, though, after staging a rally from 4-1 down to steal the opening set in a tie-break, she saw the Pastry stage a comeback of her own in the 3rd. Down an early break in the deciding set, Garcia got back on serve mid-way through and ultimately won out 6-7(3)/6-2/8-6 in 2:29.

Still operating in the shadows of this slam, Karolina Pliskova made like a thief in the day by getting on and off the court in under an hour on Hisense in the immediate aftermath of the Garcia/Vondrousova marathon that had just taken place there. After defeating one South American (Veronica Cepede Royg) in the 1st Round, Pliskova eliminated another (Beatriz Haddad Maia) today in just forty-four minutes, winning 6-1/6-1 to reach at least the 3rd Round in the fifth of her last six majors dating back to her U.S. Open final run in 2016.

...after three Ukrainians reached the 3rd Round yesterday, Lesia Tsurenko had a chance to be the historic fourth with a win today over Aga Radwanska. She found herself in position to do so, too, only to see the Polish vet put together a second successful comeback win at this AO. After winning from a set down deficit over Kristyna Pliskova two days ago, Aga once again got off to a slow start on Thursday, dropping the opening set to Tsurenko by a 6-2 score. After taking a 4-1 lead in the 2nd, then seeing the Ukrainian serve for the match at 5-4, Radwanska got the key break and then ran off five more successive games to lead 3-0 in the 3rd. She won 2-6/7-5/6-3, bettering her disappointing 2nd Round result that set the bad tone for her season a year ago after she'd previously reached at least the Round of 16 in Melbourne for six straight years (3 QF, 2 SF).

Two days ago, Andrea Petkovic talked about how under different circumstances she might have run naked through the tournament grounds to celebrate her hard-knock victory over Petra Kvitova in the 1st Round, where she took a 10-8 3rd set after the Czech had twice served for the match. Today the German claimed a 6-4 1st set over Lauren Davis, and her string of eight straight losses before the 3rd Round in majors looked set to end. But, tasked with trying to win her second straight match in Melbourne after having dropped the opening set -- Davis defeated Jana Cepelova in the 1st Round after falling behind, a win which had still only improved her record to 7-17 in her last twenty-four matches dating back to last spring -- the Bannerette... didn't lose another game in the match. The 4-6/6-0/6-0 win made the diminutive 24-year old, who picked up her maiden tour title in Auckland last January, the second unexpected U.S. woman (w/ Pera) to reach the 3rd Round.

She was later joined there by a less-surprising name, as Madison Keys continued to defy the 2017 U.S. Open semifinalist (or finalist, in her case) "curse" at this AO and will move on to the next round after her quick forty-one minute, 6-0/6-1 destruction of Russian Ekaterina Alexandrova. the night session on MCA, the mystery and worry about the condition of Simona Halep's rolled ankle proved to be unfounded. Of course, Genie Bouchard didn't exactly pressure her into having to extend herself, either.

It was a match-up of two players who met in the '14 Wimbledon semis, with the Canadian defeating the Romanian to reach her first slam on that day in London. But their careers have gone in opposite directions ever since. Halep came into the match ranked #1 in the world, while last week Bouchard fell all the way out of the Top 100 to #112.

Halep opened the match with a break of serve, and immediately went about moving well around the court and showing no true sign of the injury (she'd later say she felt the lingering pain, but simply didn't think about it). Taking the initiative and turning beautiful defense into occasionally brilliant offense, the Swarmette took the 1st set 6-2, then opened the 2nd just as she had the 1st, by breaking Bouchard's serve. This set went largely the same as the first, and Halep won going away by a 6-2/6-2 score.

She'll now get two days off, and forty-eight additional hours to get her ankle in an even better state. night after Gavrilova's "Dasha Show" ended it's run at this AO, it was "Barty Party" time again. Ash Barty staged a comeback from a set down to win her 1st Round match under the lights against Aryna Sabalenka, and on Thursday the young Aussie did the same thing against another excitable opponent, an in-form-early-in-2018 Camila Giorgi.

The Italian, after failing to serve out the 1st set at 5-3, got the break back at 6-5 and served out the set on her second try for a 7-5 win. In the 2nd, it was Barty who couldn't serve out the set at 5-3, only to break back a game later and knot the match. In the 3rd, finally and to the delight of a crowd now seemingly getting used to these late first week/early second week runs by Aussie women in Melbourne -- be she named Casey, Jelena, Dasha or Ash -- Barty began to pull away. She got an early break for 2-0, and then coasted over the finish line with a 5-7/6-4/6-1 win to reach the 3rd Round for the second straight year. doubles, Kiki Mladenovic proved today that she CAN still win a match. Of course, Timea Babos has to take some of the credit for the 1st Round win over the duo of Knoll/Dzalamidze. Babos & Mladenovic won three tour titles as a pair in 2015 before the Pastry began to team with Fed Cup partner Caroline Garcia in preparation for the '16 Olympics. It proved to be a fruitful partnership, producing a Roland Garros title and a U.S. Open final before, well, you know.

And a day after both Dashas were ejected from the women's singles draw, they joined forces on Day 4... and were eliminated from doubles, as well. The Dashas Gavrilova & Kasatkina went out 6-4/6-1 at the hands of Jennifer Brady & Vania King. It's Kings' first win since Miami last year, as last week she lost in the 1st Round in Sydney (w/ Anna-Lena Groenefeld) in her return to action following '17 ankle surgery.

...meanwhile, the expected girls singles seeds (no Marta Kostyuk, who said -- with glee -- that she's now finished with the junior tour)...

1. Wang Xinyu, CHN
2. Liang En-shuo, TPE
3. Simona Waltert, SUI
4. Maria Lourdes Carle, ARG
5. Naho Sato, JPN
6. Joanna Garland, TPE
7. Alexa Noel, USA
8. Nika Radisic, SLO
9. Wang Xiyu, CHN
10. Lulu Sun, SUI
11. Yuki Naito, JPN
12. Elysia Bolton, USA
13. Daniela Vismane, LAT
14. Zheng Qinwen, CHN
15. Yasmine Mansouri, FRA
16. Kamilla Rakhimova, RUS

...LATE NIGHT ON DAY 3: "The Dasha Show" was cancelled, at nearly 2 a.m. in Melbourne.

Elise Mertens came back from 5-0 down in the 1st, saving eight set points, to win 7-5/6-3.

...ALSO CANCELLED A LITTLE EARLIER ON NIGHT 3: Julia Goerges' 15-match winning streak...

...LIKE ON DAY 4: Jamie Hampton, still out there...

...LIKE ON DAY 4: Tim Tams... yum.

Although, I like the original version Tim Tams best, so I'd actually go for the banana.

...REMEMBER WHEN...? ON DAY 4: The old WTA Championships was such a great event at Madison Square Garden in New York?

...and, finally... a few awards:

ZOMBIE QUEEN: Caroline Wozniacki (of course)

UPSET QUEENS: Ukraine gets the nod, as Marta Kostyuk (def. #25 Peng) and Kateryna Bondarenko (def. #15 Pavlyuchenkova) join Svitolina in the Final 32, just one body short of matching the draw-leading four placed there by the Czechs.

REVELATION LADIES: A tough one here. The U.S., after a horrid start, nearly put on a winning run with surprise 3rd Round berths from Pera and Davis (if Gibbs had won her match, we might have seen the very first Poor Souls/Revelation Ladies combo in Backspin history). Meanwhile, Croatia was a converted MP (Fett vs. Wozniacki) away from taking it, as well, since Martic had already reached the 3rd Round, and even the Croat-born Bannerette Pera *could* be counted here in a pinch. Elsewhere, if Sevastova had again knocked off Sharapova in a major then the Baltic region's Core Four (from Latvia & Estonia) would have been a mighty award-worthy force, but since Latvian Thunder will remain a one-woman national show at this slam I suppose I'll go with Estonia in a stand-alone honor. Both Kontaveit and Kanepi remain in the draw. Naturally, Ostapenko will face Kontaveit in the 3rd Round, with the winner possibly facing off with Kanepi in the Round of 16.

4...CZE (Allertova,Ka.Pliskova,Safarova,Strycova)
3...UKR (K.Bondarenko,Kostyuk,Svitolina)
3...USA (Davis,Keys,Pera)
2...EST (Kanepi,Kontaveit)
2...FRA (Cornet,Garcia)
2...POL (Linette,A.Radwanska)
2...ROU (A.Bogdan, Halep)
1...AUS (Barty)
1...BEL (Mertens)
1...BLR (Sasnovich)
1...CRO (Martic)
1...DEN (Wozniacki)
1...ESP (Suarez-Navarro)
1...GER (Kerber)
1...JPN (Osaka)
1...LAT (Ostapenko)
1...NED (Bertens)
1...RUS (Sharapova)
1...SVK (Rybarikova)
1...THA (Kumkhum)
1...TPE (S.Hsieh)
Western Europe & Scandinavia: 15
Russia & Eastern Europe: 10
Asia/Pacific: 4
North America/Atlantic: 3
South America: 0
Africa/Middle East: 0

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
2018 Caroline Wozniacki, DEN

2004 Hungary
2005 Russia
2006 Spain
2007 Czech Republic
2008 Russia
2009 France
2010 Russia
2011 Russia
2012 Russia
2013 Russia
2014 Australia
2015 Germany
2016 Russia
2017 United States
2018 Ukraine

2006 Italy
2007 Belarus
2008 Poland
2009 Kazakhstan
2010 Germany
2011 Czech Republic
2012 Germany
2013 United States
2014 Romania
2015 France
2016 China
2017 Australia
2018 Estonia

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
2018 Angelique Kerber, GER
* - won title

2008 Casey Dellacqua (4th Rd.)
2009 Jelena Dokic (QF)
2010 Samantha Stosur (4th Rd.)
2011 Samantha Stosur (3rd Rd.)
2012 C.Dellacqua, J.Dokic, O.Rogowska (2nd)
2013 Samantha Stosur (2nd Rd.)
2014 Casey Dellacqua (4th Rd.)
2015 C.Dellacqua, J.Gajdosova, S.Stosur,A.Tomljanovic (2nd)
2016 Dasha Gavrilova (4th Rd.)
2017 Dasha Gavrilova (4th Rd.)
2018 Ash Barty (in 3rd Rd.)

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 3rd Rd.]

TOP QUALIFIER: Marta Kostyuk/UKR (first player born in 2002 in slam MD)
TOP EARLY ROUND (1r-2r): #21 Angelique Kerber/GER
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): 1st Rd. - Andrea Petkovic/GER def. Petra Kvitova/CZE 6-3/4-6/10-8 (Petko up 4-0 in 3rd, 3 MP saved by Kvitova; Kvitova for match at 6-5 and 8-7)
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: In 3rd Rd.: Allertova, Kostyuk, Kumkhum; (LL: Pera)
LAST WILD CARD STANDING: Olivia Rogowska/AUS (2nd Rd.)
LAST AUSSIE STANDING: Ash Barty (in 3rd Rd.)
Ms. OPPORTUNITY: Nominee: Pera
IT (TBD): Nominee: Kostyuk ("Teen")
CRASH & BURN: Sloane Stephens, CoCo Vandeweghe & Venus Williams, USA (3 of 4 '17 U.S. Open semifinalist lose on Day 1)
ZOMBIE QUEEN: Caroline Wozniacki/DEN (2nd Rd. - Fett/CRO served up 5-1, 40/15 in 3rd set; 2 MP saved)

All for Day 4. More tomorrow.


Blogger colt13 said...

WTA future is bright. So many of the youngsters came close to getting the biggest win of their careers.

Estonia is now on the clock. Kontaveit has been to the 4th rd of a slam, but 2 women from Estonia in the 4th rd of the same slam? Never. Kanepi has the better matchup, and the pedigree-7 4th rd's or better, 6 of them being QF.

Stat of the Day-14- The number of slams it took for Virginia Ruzici to win her slam.

Since Simona Halep is still on track to join Ruzici as the only woman from Romania to win a slam, let's take a look at Halep's slam career, and Ruzici's results up to that point, as she eventually played 40.

Halep-30 slams

Upsets happen. But over a third of her losses are 1st rd. That is shocking. Also means she needs to change her prep work. Since the 2015 French, when she went out in the 2nd rd, she has been all or nothing. 4 1st rd exits, or 4th rd or better.

Ruzici-30 slams

Her numbers hold up favorably. The difference is that the numbers after this dropped off considerably, with no QF runs, and back to skipping the AO like she did early in her career, while Halep is still at her peak. 30 more slams is another 7 1/2 seasons, which seems realistic. And with that should come 2-3 slams.

Thu Jan 18, 09:56:00 AM EST  

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