Tuesday, January 23, 2018

AO.9 - A Waffle and a Bagel

In a match to decide the first woman to advance to the semifinals of this Australian Open, world #4 Elina Svitolina was thoroughly outplayed by unseeded Belgian Elise Mertens, who proved that a young and inexperienced player in her maiden slam quarterfinal needn't be named Alona to perform without fear of repercussion on one of the tennis world's grandest stages.

But, make no mistake, while this particular match was decidedly out of her hands almost from the outset, the Ukrainian now officially has "a slam QF problem."

In an odd twist, this match-up was something of an old-school Waffle "Justine vs. Kim" battle by proxy. Mertens' idol was Hall of Fame Belgian Kim Clijsters, who has served as something of a mentor to the 22-year old and, judging from the Mertens' post-match reveal of some of the messages she's received, has been more stressed by her younger countrywoman's AO than Elise has been herself. Meanwhile, Svitolina undertook a coach/pupil stint in 2016 with another Hall of Fame Belgian, Justine Henin, and her work with La Petit Taureau that year surely seemed to pay immediate dividends, especially when it came to her professional attitude regarding how to focus her energies on improving key aspects of her game.

While Svitolina was playing in her third career slam QF, though her first at the AO, Mertens has made her debut appearance in Melbourne one to remember. It was perhaps highlighted prior to today by her win over Dasha Gavrilova in front a partisan Aussie crowd on Laver last week in a nighttime introduction that finally took place one year after the Belgian's run to her maiden tour singles title in Hobart had prevented her from entering the AO qualifying rounds in '17. Now ranked in the Top 40, she didn't need to worry about such things as she defended her Hobart title in the season's second week.

With such a vast difference in experience (this is just Mertens' fifth overall slam MD appearance), one might have expected Svitolina (22 slams) to be more relaxed in the moment. But it would have been difficult for the Ukrainian to have ever seemed more at ease than Mertens did on this day. Not only did she outplay the woman who was the betting favorite to emerge as champion coming into this AO, but Mertens rendered one of tour's best in-match problem solvers seemingly incapable of concocting the antidote to the Belgian's sometimes overwhelming run of success. While Mertens played the majority of the match stationed on the baseline, just behind it or, even better, just inside the white line (and moving ever closer to the net), Svitolina was (too) comfortable with playing well *behind* the baseline, sometimes going in and out of the shadow line on the end of the court opposite the surface "MELBOURNE" sign, and rarely taking the chance to move forward even when she had an opening to do so. It all served to allow the Belgian to dictate the flow of the match, while Svitolina seemed helpless -- and hopeless -- to stop it.

Right away, Mertens jumped out to a break lead at 2-1. Showing that she'd gameplanned for her big day, she stood her ground around the baseline, keeping Svitolina at bay by playing with the more aggression of the two (hitting balls inside the baseline at a rate more than three times higher than the Ukrainian). She went up a double break at 5-2 with a backhand winner down the line. Svitolina got one break back, but after falling behind 15/30 while serving for the set at 5-4, the Belgian fired an ace. Two points later, Svitolina's sprayed forehand sailed well off court and Mertens claimed the set 6-4.

Seasoned Svitolinites kept waiting for Svitolina to try to change things up, be more aggressive, move into the net...something, anything, to take Mertens out of her by now well-established patterns. It may have been that nothing would have effectively done the deed, but a true effort to try never seemed to come. Mertens broke serve on her on fourth BP of game #1 in the 2nd set, securing the game by venturing to the net and putting away an overhead.

With the more pressure that Mertens put on Svitolina's game in the 2nd, the bigger the gap on the scoreboard grew. She went up a double break at 3-0, then held from 30/30 in game #4 by continuing to get on top of nearly every Svitolina shot. The Belgian controlled the flow and direction of two rallies that went in her favor to turn the tight game into a 4-0 lead. Barely hanging on, Svitolina squandered a 30/love lead a game later and went down a triple-break when Mertens fired a a backhand winner down the line. Serving to reach her first career slam semifinal, making her the first from her nation to do so since Kirsten Flipkens in 2013, Mertens didn't blink. Instead, Svitolina did. The Ukrainian flew a high swing volley to go down MP. The Waffle put it away with a clean winner to finish off a 6-4/6-0 win.

Thus, the third slam QF for the Ukrainian results in Svitolina still seeking her maiden major SF berth. Maybe more troubling, though, is how she's lost those matches. While often a virtual picture of focus and problem-solving on the regular tour, Svitolina has been anything but in the three biggest matches of her career. She lost 3 & 2 to Ana Ivanovic in Paris three seasons ago, but it was an understandable result in her first slam QF. But last year at Roland Garros she led Simona Halep 6-3/5-1, twice served for the match and held a MP in a 2nd set TB, only to then see the match end with a bagel set in the 3rd. Today, against the same sort of slam QF newcomer she herself was in 2015, Svitolina was out-hit, out-maneuvered and, really, out-thought (both before and during the match, which is a bit of a stunner) by Mertens and once again saw her semifinal quest end with the resounding thud of a love set.

Has Svitolina's step-by-step progression to the top of the game found its legitimate stumbling block, something that winning big non-slam titles and facing off with highly-ranked players (22 Top 10 wins, 14 Top 5 and five #1's) have proven *not* to be. If it's to be merely an obstacle to be overcome Svitolina's going to need to see a breakthrough on this front by the end of '18, lest it become a full-fledged albatross hovering over her shoulder at every major she plays come 2019. After the match, Svitolina admitted to a lingering hip injury that hampered her movement. But, really, the admission only made her gameday tactics in this QF match even more perplexing, as a decided question about her ability to cover the court *should* have led to a more aggressive approach to keep the points shorter. Maybe Svitolina should have just said nothing, as learning the truth that she'd merely hinted at last week only made her lack of a winning plan of action today seem even more problematic.

Meanwhile, Mertens (as Svitolina would have also been had she won) now makes it *six* consecutive Australian Opens with a first-time slam semifinaliast, as she adds her name to the list that has included Sloane Stephens, Genie Bouchard, Madison Keys, Johanna Konta and CoCo Vandeweghe since 2013. She joins Clijsters, Henin, Flipkens and Yanina Wickmayer as slam semifinalist Belgians.

But is her run in Melbourne finished? Will it end one round short of the final?

Well, it should be noted that Mertens played *both* her potential semifinalist opponents -- Caroline Wozniacki and Carla Suarez-Navarro -- last year in Bastad, defeating the Spaniard and losing in three to the Dane. Her no-bothers-no-worries presence on the other side of the net, should she face the latter, might present Wozniacki with her first opponent capable of and willing to pressure her with aggression and power.

Every year the AO seems to carve out an unexpected breakthrough storyline that lasts nearly the full two weeks of the tournament. Well, with this result Mertens just cast herself in the role of *this* year's surprise star.

...Day 9's other QF between Wozniacki and Suarez-Navarro won't take place until well into the night, so I likely won't be fully addressing that one here. But here's a future shot from one of the drinking games that'll be played somewhere during the action, with everyone taking a gulp every time ESPN makes a reference to David Lee and/or his mysterious powers of influence when it comes to the Dane's rediscovered tennis standing:

...the women's doubles semis were set with the results of today's quarterfinals. Top-seeded Latisha Chan & Andrea Hlavackova fell in a 3rd set tie-break to Timea Babos & Kristina Mladenovic.

Meanwhile, #2-seeded Makarova/Vesnina won a 3rd set TB over Dabrowski/Xu, the all-Swarmette duo of Begu/Niculescu took out Bannerettes King & Brady, and defending champ Lucie Safarova (w/ Barbora Strycova filling in for Bethanie Mattek-Sands) lost to Hsieh Su-wei (she's still aliiiiiive!!) & Peng Shuai.

Still alive in both the WD and MX draws: Timea Babos and Ekaterina Makarova

...in junior action, the chances for a fourth straight all-Bannerette slam girls final remain alive, as three U.S. juniors (more than any other nation) have reached the Round of 16. #7 Alexa Noel remains in the bottom half of the draw, while #12 Elysia Bolton and unseeded Dalayna Hewitt (6' 2") are in the top half.

3 - USA (Bolton, Hewitt, Noel)
2 - CHN (Wang Xinyu, Wang Xiyu)
2 - RUS (Frayman, Rakhimova)
1 - AUS (Marshall)
1 - FRA (Burel)
1 - HKG (Wong)
1 - ITA (Cocciaretto)
1 - JPN (Sato)
1 - LAT (Vismane)
1 - SUI (Sun)
1 - THA (Sawangkaew)
1 - TPE (Liang)

...HISTORICAL NOTE ON DAY 9: The Kamiji/de Groot, or de Groot/Kamiji (I guess we'll know soon), era is officially set to begin in Melbourne.

Jiske Griffioen announced her retirement late in 2017.


..."Hmmmm..." ON DAY 9: Anyone else wondering if Pam Shriver is hankering to interview Caroline Wozniacki if she wins tonight, and remind her that, in a surprise, she'll next be playing a Belgian named "MERT-ens?"

...LIKE ON DAY 9: ATP... welcome to NextGen slam tennis. Finally. A semifinalist named Edmund, and another named either Chung or Sandgren? we've been waiting for you guys to catch up with the Most Interesting Tour for far too long.

...WONDERING ON DAY 9: Whether any of the burgeoning crop of children produced by pro tennis playing mothers or fathers will ever go all-in and name a few something like Ace, Deuce, Smash, Slice or Volley?

Or maybe, in the spirit of Tennys Sandgren, a player can get around putting such pressure-at-birth on their offspring by saying it's actually a family name. I mean, there has to be someone named "Racquette" somewhere on some far-off branch of a family tree, right? Hmmm... sounds a bit like a future Pastry.

...and, finally, there's actually a WTA 125 Series event going on on the other side of the world in Newport Beach, California. The field includes the likes of Francesca Schiavone and Vicky, Duval, who delivered yet another punch to the gut of Misaki Doi (who's now seen Angie Kerber come full circle over the two years since the Japanese woman held MP against her in the 1st Round of the 2016 AO, only to lose and see the German win the title six matches later) with a 2 & 1 1st Round win.

#1 Simona Halep/ROU vs. #6 Karolina Pliskova/CZE
#21 Angelique Kerber/GER vs. #17 Madison Keys/USA
Elise Mertens/BEL def. #4 Elina Svitolina/UKR
Carla Suarez-Navarro/ESP vs. #2 Caroline Wozniacki/DEN

#5 Babos/Mladenovic (HUN/FRA) vs. #8 S.Hsieh/Peng (TPE/CHN)
#10 Begu/Niculescu (ROU/ROU) vs. #2 Makarova/Vesnina (RUS/RUS)

(WC) Sanders/Polmans (AUS/AUS) def. #1 L.Chan/J.Murray (TPE/GBR)
Martinez-Sanchez/Demoliner (ESP/BRA) def. #7 A.Chan/Venus (TPE/NZL)
Spears/Cabal (USA/COL) def. #4 Peschke/Kontinen (CZE/FIN)
#5 Babos/Bopanna (HUN/IND) def. King/Skugor (USA/CRO)
#6 Sestini-Hlavackova/Roger-Vasselin (CZE/FRA) vs. N.Kichenok/Granollers (UKR/ESP)
#3 Makarova/Soares (RUS/BRA) def. (WC) Stosur/Groth (AUS/AUS)
#8 Dabrowski/Pavic (CAN/CRO) vs. Schuurs/Rojer (NED/NED)
Larsson/Middlekoop (SWE/NED) def. #2 Dellacqua/Peers (AUS/AUS)

#1 Wang Xinyu/CHN vs. Mananchaya Sawangkaew/THA
#10 Lulu Sun/SUI vs. #5 Naho Sato/JPN
Dalayna Hewitt/USA vs. (WC) Amber Marshall/AUS
#12 Elysia Bolton/USA vs. Clara Burel/FRA
Elisabetta Cocciaretto/ITA vs. (Q) Wong Hong Yi Cody/HKG
#13 Daniela Vismane/LAT vs. Daria Frayman/RUS
#7 Alexa Noel/USA vs. #9 Wang Xiyu/CHN
#16 Kamilla Rakhimova/RUS vs. #2 Liang En-shuo/TPE

#1 Liang En-shuo/Wang Xinyu (TPE/CHN) vs. x
#3 Naito/Sato (JPN/JPN) vs. (WC) Da Silva Fick/Popovic (AUS/AUS)
#7 V.Apisah/Sun (PNG/SUI) vs. Bencheikh/Kawamura (FRA/JPN)
x vs. #2 Wang Xiyu/Walters (CHN/SUI)

#1 Yui Kamiji/JPN vs. Marjolein Buis/NED
Lucy Shuker/GBR vs. Sabine Ellerbrock/GER
Kgothatso Montjane/RSA vs. Aniek van Koot/NED
(WC) Katharina Kruger/GER vs. #2 Diede de Groot/NED

#1 Buis/Yamiji (NED/JPN) vs. Montjane/Shuker (RSA/GBR)
Ellerbrock/Kruger (GER/GER) vs. #2 de Groot/van Koot (NED/NED)

AO: Sloane Stephens/USA
RG: -
WI: Kirsten Flipkens/BEL
US: Flavia Pennetta/ITA
AO: Genie Bouchard/CAN
RG: Simona Halep/ROU (RU), Andrea Petkovic/GER
WI: Lucie Safarova/CZE
US: Ekatarina Makarova/RUS, Peng Shuai/CHN
AO: Madison Keys/USA
RG: Timea Bacsinszky/SUI
WI: Garbine Muguruza/ESP (RU)
US: Roberta Vinci/ITA (RU)
AO: Johanna Konta/GBR
RG: Kiki Bertens/NED
WI: Elena Vesnina/RUS
US: Karolina Pliskova/CZE (RU)
AO: CoCo Vandeweghe/USA
RG: Alona Ostapenko/LAT (W)
WI: Magdalena Rybarikova/SVK
US: -
AO: Elise Mertens/BEL
NOTE: Suarez-Navarro to play QF

Kiki Bertens, NED
Kirsten Flipkens, BEL
Alona Ostapenko, LAT
Peng Shuai, CHN
Andrea Petkovic, GER
Tsvetana Pironkova, BUL
Magdalena Rybarikova, SVK
Patty Schnyder, SUI
Elena Vesnina, RUS
Roberta Vinci, ITA
Yanina Wickmayer, BEL
To Play: Carla Suarez-Navarro (0 SF)

Unseeded - 2000 Jennifer Capriati, USA
Unseeded - 2007 Serena Williams, USA (W)
Unseeded - 2010 Zheng Jie, CHN
Unseeded - 2015 Madison Keys, USA
Unseeded - 2016 Johanna Konta, GBR
Unseeded - 2017 Mirjana Lucic-Baroni, CRO
Unseeded - 2017 CoCo Vandeweghe, USA
Unseeded - 2018 Elise Mertens, BEL
Wild Card - 2010 Justine Henin, BEL (RU)
#32 - 2004 Fabiola Zuluaga, COL
#30 - 2014 Genie Bouchard, CAN
#29 - 2013 Sloane Stephens, USA
#22 - 2004 Patty Schnyder, SUI
#20 - 2014 Dominika Cibulkova, SVK (RU)
#19 - 2005 Nathalie Dechy, FRA
#16 - 2010 Li Na, CHN
#13 - 2017 Venus Williams, USA
#12 - 2001 Jennifer Capriati, USA (W)
#11 - 2012 Kim Clijsters, BEL
#10 - 2000 Conchita Martinez, ESP
#10 - 2007 Nicole Vaidisova, CZE
#10 - 2015 Ekaterina Makarova, RUS
To Play: Suarez-Navarro (Un), Keys (#17), Kerber (#21)

2008 Alona Bondarenko / Kateryna Bondarenko
2009 Serena Williams / Venus Williams
2010 Serena Williams / Venus Williams
2011 Gisela Dulko / Flavia Pennetta
2012 Svetlana Kuznetsova / Vera Zvonareva
2013 Sara Errani / Roberta Vinci
2014 Sara Errani / Roberta Vinci
2015 Bethanie Mattek-Sands / Lucie Safarova
2016 Martina Hingis / Sania Mirza
2017 Bethanie Mattek-Sands / Lucie Safarova
2018 ?

2011 Katarina Srebotnik & Daniel Nestor
2012 Bethanie Mattek-Sands & Horia Tecau
2013 Jarmila Gajdosova & Matthew Ebden
2014 Kristina Mladenovic & Daniel Nestor
2015 Martina Hingis & Leander Paes
2016 Elena Vesnina & Bruno Soares
2017 Abigail Spears & Juan Sebastian Cabal
2018 ?

TOP QUALIFIER: Marta Kostyuk/UKR (first player born in 2002 in slam MD)
TOP EARLY ROUND (1r-2r): #21 Angelique Kerber/GER
TOP MIDDLE-ROUND (3r-QF): #17 Madison Keys/USA
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 MIDDLE-RD. MATCH (3r-QF): 3rd Rd. - #1 Simona Halep/ROU def. Lauren Davis/USA 4-6/6-4/15-13 (3:45; 3 MP saved from triple MP down; served out on fourth try in the 2:22 3rd set)
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: Denisa Allertova/CZE (in 4th Rd.) (LL: Bernarda Pera/USA - 3rd Rd.)
LAST WILD CARD STANDING: Olivia Rogowska/AUS (2nd Rd.)
IT (TBD): Nominee: Kostyuk, (jr.)
COMEBACK PLAYER: Nominees: Kerber, Wozniacki, King
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)
LADY OF THE EVENING: Elise Mertens/BEL (def. Gavrilova in 2nd Rd. in AO nighttime debut)

All for Day 9. More tomorrow.


Blogger Diane said...

Shriver did "pull a Wickmayer" lately. Can't find my Tweet, but I'm pretty sure she did it with--wait for it--"BEL-gium."

That drunk picture made me laugh out loud.

Tue Jan 23, 10:51:00 AM EST  
Blogger colt13 said...

Gavrilova carb loading.

Mertens making it 5 years in a row that at least one Hopman Cup participant has made the SF.

Only Ace I know about is from softball star Jennie Finch.

Stat of the Day-11- Slams won by women from Belgium.

Admittedly, Mertens is ahead of the curve. If she wins this week, it would be the 3rd in Australia, as Henin and Clijsters both won once. The holy grail? Wimbledon, where whichever Belgian woman pulls of the feat would be the first.

Tue Jan 23, 11:54:00 AM EST  
Blogger Leif Mortensen said...

Well Carolines match was first finished 1.35 am because they (AO) put an eventual gaper before a womens match. I know ATP matches are -for one or another reason- more important than womens battles but definitely more boring, How come they can't place them the other way round so the womens match can be a sort of warmup, then the men can fight with bugs and seagulshit for a change, Apart from that wozniacki did well with 10 aces and good winners and a little hickup in second set but to me no doubt about her winning. Second bagel not bad me thinks.

Tue Jan 23, 12:05:00 PM EST  
Blogger Todd.Spiker said...

Didn't get to see much of Wozniacki/CSN, so I don't know bad it might have gotten. ;)

Ah, Ace would work there, too. Maybe if Isner has a son... Ace Isner sounds like the front man for a rock band. Trent Reznor/Ace Isner... pretty close. :)

Yeah, I'm not liking all the last-night-match scheduling for the women, and I've taken an enough-is-enough approach to following those closely at this AO. I don't know, when the U.S. Open schedules the women's match last in the night session it feels like more of a compliment to get the "primetime" spot, but in the AO it sometimes feels like a burden/afterthought scheduling practice since so often they've played after the likes of Federer or Nadal have gone first. Of course, from this part of the world, the time difference is especially crappy, too, and plays a factor in how I'm looking at it, I'm sure. :\

I think Caro's first true test since the Fett deficit will finally come in the form of Mertens, if the Waffle can maintain the level of play and relaxation she has so far. Wozniacki is still the favorite there, but...

Tue Jan 23, 12:22:00 PM EST  
Blogger SKSimonsen said...

Todd - Wozniacki won the match against Mertens in Bastad i ‘17 NOT the other Way around..

Tue Jan 23, 01:34:00 PM EST  
Blogger SKSimonsen said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

Tue Jan 23, 01:34:00 PM EST  
Blogger Leif Mortensen said...

I think lt's intersting that wozniacki is one of the leaders in aces this year - must around 40 or above outacing Pliskova - well befor todays quarterfinal at least - who would have thought about that a year ago ;)

Tue Jan 23, 02:23:00 PM EST  
Blogger Todd.Spiker said...

Yep, you're right. Thanks -- I fixed that. I thought for sure that ESPN's on-screen stat after the Mertens/Svitolina match had her listed as defeated both, but maybe I read it wrong. :(

CSN made note after the match how much improved Caro's FH and serve are, and is leaning toward a Halep/Wozniacki final.

Tue Jan 23, 04:40:00 PM EST  

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