Thursday, June 23, 2011

W.4- What We've Been Missing

After rising to the occasion in the biggest moment of her career (so far), Germany's Sabine Lisicki said that her emotions were "over the moon." After finally getting another chance to see what we've been missing over the past fifteen months while the 21-year old was busy overcoming a seemingly neverending succession of injuries and setbacks, we should all feel the same way.

In the spring of '09, Lisicki starred in the WTA tournament in Charleston, winning on the court and winning over fans off it with an endearing smile and personality that belied the style of her game, which often desired to pound the living daylights out of opponents with one of the biggest serves on tour being her favorite weapon of choice. Large things appeared to be ahead. At Wimbledon, she reached the quarterfinals. By the fall, she was looking over the shoulders of the women ranked inside the Top 20, climbing as high as #22 before ending the season at #23. But the following March, she injured her ankle in Indian Wells, and it set off a year-long period of Sysyphian moments that eventually began to border on the absurd. After watching her ranking fall outside the Top 200 as she battled (usually unsuccessfully) to remain on the court long enough to accomplish something before yet another injury or illness set back her return to form, Lisicki played just ten tour events in '10, winning just five main draw matches. Injured yet again, she was wheeled off the court at the U.S. Open, and ended the year at #179.

During Lisicki's injury-related sojourn in "no woman's land," other members of her nation's tennis generation finally stepped forward to fill the vacuum left by the "lost" generation of German stars who never quite lived up to the high expectations set for them by the likes of Steffi Graf and Boris Becker during the late 1980's and 1990's. Andrea Petkovic experienced slam success, knocking off Maria Sharapova at the Australian Open, and became a dance-loving internet star. Julia Goerges knocked off the world #1 (then Petkovic did the same) and won a title in Stuttgart. But what of the player who'd first looked like SHE was the most talented of the young German women? Well, as the spring began, Lisicki's results had started to slowly but surely show improvement. Better yet, she wasn't getting injured. She qualified for Roland Garros, and led Vera Zvonareva 6-4/5-4 in the 2nd Round. But despite holding two match points, and going up once again 5-2 in the 3rd, Lisicki collapsed. Figuratively in the match, then literally on the court, as cramping and emotions got the best of her. After shaking hands with the Russian, she fell into a heap next to the changeover area. Eventually, a crying mess, she was carried off the court on a stretcher.

Perhaps she desired her "moment" TOO much. Either way, she couldn't have handled it much worse without puncturing herself with a pin and flying all over the court like a stricken, suddenly-airless balloon.

It was the type of moment after which a career could go one of two ways. Lisicki was either going to continue to be a "what if" Queen of the courts, desperately falling off the WTA map, or she was going to pull herself together and get back to business. Her immediate response could change the course of the rest of her career. So what did she do? With her ranking just barely edging into the Top 100, she went to play on the grass at Birmingham and won the title. It was her first since Charleston. Given a wild card into the Wimbledon main draw, she was at the heart of one of the best potential 2nd Round match-ups -- a meeting with #3-seed Li Na, a player Lisicki beat in Stuttgart and the reigning Roland Garros champion, who couldn't have left Paris with a more different head space than the one that the German did a few weeks ago. Li entered that match today with a tour-best record of 14-1 in the slams so far in '11, but it was Lisicki who was riding a seven-match winning streak on the green stuff.

Well, after a thrilling three-set win, Lisicki STILL hasn't lost a match since her Parisian collapse, as she pulled off the biggest "upset" yet at this so far decidedly un-surprising version of Wimbledon.

After dropping the 1st set at 6-3, Lisicki found herself in position to serve out the 2nd at 5-3. She couldn't do it, though. Was history going to repeat itself? Would Paris come back to haunt her again? Umm, no. She immediately broke Li back to claim the set, winning a nine and a half minute game. It looked as if her work was going to go for nothing under the Centre Court roof, though, as she fell behind 5-3 in the 3rd and served to simply stay in the match. But then it happened. Down two match points, Lisicki unsheathed a powerful serve not utilized by a German with such effectiveness on the famed court since her countryman Becker ruled the lawns at the All-England Club twenty years ago. Lisicki blasted back-to-back-to-back-to-back 120 mph-plus serves, saving the two match points with the first two, then hitting aces on the other two, sending a surge of confidence through her body, and maybe unnerving Li just a tiny bit in the process.

The (Becker-esque) Blond Baroness was born.

Unless the player is named Williams, the WTA hasn't seen too many women with ability to do what Lisicki did in that important moment the last decade. Most of the baseliners tend to not focus as much on their serves as they should, and even the players with the ability to serve their way out of trouble have often been hindered by "head case" playing personalities (Stosur) or injuries (Sharapova) that have -- at least for long stretches -- served to rob them of their greatest weapon in recent seasons. The main reason the Sisters have been able to compete at the slams, especially Wimbledon, for so long, is because of their ability to win "free" points with big serves, and the ability to pull them out, Pete Sampras-style, just when the do-or-die moment arises. That's what Lisicki did, and it turned around the match... and maybe her career, too. Time will tell.

With seventeen aces in her column, Lisicki didn't hit another in the match, but it didn't matter. She broke Li one game later for 5-5 when the veteran served for the match. After missing a swing volley on break point, Lisicki gave Li the chance to serve things out again at 6-5. Again, though, she broke her. Three Li forehand errors, then a strong Lisicki service game, later and the German was up 7-6. With Li perhaps feeling the pressure to do too much, knowing her chances to break Lisicki's serve might not be totally within her control, her forehand continued to fly shots outside the boundaries of the court. Li fell down 15/40. In the Australian Open semifinals, Li saved a match point en route to the final. She saved two here, too, hitting an ice on the second. But Lisicki got a third match point, and another Li error gave the German a 3-6/6-4/8-6 victory.

After falling to her knees in celebration, Lisicki threw a kiss and wave to all four sides of the court... then she sat down in her chair and was unable to hold back the lovely combination of a joyful laugh and a happy cry that often emerges from a player after they've managed to work their way through the ringer to find something good on the other side. She put a towel to her face, but there was no hiding that a star may have just been born on Centre Court on Day 4. It wasn't an unknown star suddenly discovered in the dark of night, but instead it was one re-discovered in fine form. Let's hope it stays that way.

With a thrilling combination of pumping fists, looks of determination and "did-I-just-do-that?" smiles, Lisicki's triumph was easily the best moment of this Wimbledon to date. She's always been easy to root for, but when the clouds suddenly split away to reveal such a shining moment it's hard to not want to see more and more of it.

Sometimes the biggest lesson a player can learn comes from when they realize what they accomplish with a little perseverence in the face of adversity. Lisicki has more than earned her moment in the spotlight today. For a while, it looked like it might never come. Now, one wonders just how big her starring role can be at this Wimbledon.

As long as her mind and body can continue to cooperate, though, who needs limits?

=DAY 4 NOTES= Venus did for her 1st Round match, Serena Williams had to make the long trek out to Court 2 for her 2nd Round match. As with her sister, she arrived at her own pace, a little later than scheduled by the All-England Club. As it turned out, Serena's game showed up a little late, too, against Romanian teenager Simona Halep.

I was a little surprised that the ESPN2 commentators actually broached the subject of Halep's breast reduction surgery from a while back, if only because the network doesn't use much time to get into potentially "touchy" (for some people, at least) personal subjects such as that during its tennis coverage (or doesn't really even bother to gather information on players someone who'll just have their name eventually butchered and/or will be declared someone "I've never heard of"). And even as he brought it up, Chris Fowler seemed to not really want to get into it. There's no reason to be reticent, though. Halep has been open about the surgery, and how she went through with it for her own personal comfort, as well as for her tennis career. Relieved of the back pain that had previously been an issue, and now more comfortable on the court, Halep has seen her results and ranking improve dramatically since the procedure. In Melbourne, she notched her first career slam match win and reached the 3rd Round. She reached her first career WTA singles final in Fes, and her Roland Garros 1st Round victory was the first by any player at the tournament. Then today against Williams, she showed why she's a former world junior #1. At least she did so for a while.

While Serena got off to a noticably slow-motion start, Halep's serve enabled her to build a 5-2 lead, and she won the opening set 6-3. The Romanian slipped and fell behind the baseline and was treated for a calf injury by a trainer, but it never really seemed to limit her during the match. That said, one never really reached the point of feeling that Williams was in any sort of "danger zone" in the match. As I mentioned yesterday that one is never quite sure whether or not Venus will escape from whatever in-match funk she might be in, Serena pretty much always does. She did here, too. She got an early break in the 2nd, quickly gained control and ultimately won pretty comfortably by a 3-6/6-2/6-1 score. She had a bit of trouble closing out the match, taking four attempts at match point to finally do it, but that's likely a byproduct of only playing a handful of matches over the past year.

After her 1st Round loss to Williams the other day, Aravane Rezai said that "if she wins the next two or three matches, I think she can win the tournament." Well, that's one down. other matches, Ana Ivanovic continued to quietly move through the draw with much force. After allowing just one game to Melanie Oudin in the 1st Round, she allowed just three to veteran Eleni Daniiidou today. So far, she's put up two love sets out of four. Svetlana Kuznetsova handled Alexandra Dulgheru 6-0/6-2, and was serenaded with "Happy Birthday" by fans after the match. Thing is, she doesn't celebrate her 26th until Monday. Today WAS Francesca Schiavone's birthday, though. The 31st. Her present to herself was a win over Barbora Zahlavova-Strycova.

One match that has to catch your eye today is Nadia Petrova's 6-3/6-3 win over #14-seed Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova. I still don't think the younger Russian has much confidence on the grass, but just that Petrova is apparently healthy and in decent form is always something to keep tabs on. For one reason, that health status could easily change at the drop of a hat with Petrova. For another, she's a two-time Wimbledon quarterfinalist, and is now one match win away from facing the winner of Azarenka/Hantuchova, a match whose survivor might be the "favorite" to reach the semifinals in the section (though the more Schiavone plays, the better one has to like her chances of getting comfortable on the grass and maybe putting up a result that nobody thought she was capable of... well, except for "Carl," of course -- though even HE didn't pick her to reach the final four, and he lost his champion pick -- Li -- later in the day).

Petrova's next opponent will be Kateryna Bondarenko, who's naturally flying way under the radar, even after her three-set win today over Sara Errani. It should be noted that the younger of the Sisters Bondarenko is a former Wimbledon Girls champ (2004) and reached the QF at the U.S. Open in '09 before being derailed by injuries that caused her to finish '10 outside the Top 100 for the first time since 2006., even with five 2nd Round matches still to be completed, it's time for the Early-Round Awards. I'll just include those remaining contests in the Middle-Round honors a few days from now:

=EARLY-ROUND AWARDS - 1st/2nd Rounds (Days 1-4)=
TOP PLAYER: Petra Kvitova/CZE
...she's lost just seven games, and so far hasn't had to fight through one of her "it's time for my opponent to seize a little momentum" stretches. (RU: Sabine Lisicki/GER... her Becker-esque serving display on Centre Court was as eye-catching as her reaction to her win over Li was heartwarming)
RISER: Ana Ivanovic/SRB
...SHE'S only lost four games in two matches, but it's going to take more than that to have any real "faith" that she's not one match away from another implosion. (ALSO: Victoria Azarenka/BLR... a retirement in an Azarenka match in the 1st Round! Then a retirement by a Belarusian in the 2nd Round! Are we SURE Vika wasn't the player in question involved in either situation? Amazing.)
SURPRISE: Tsvetana Pironkova/BUL can a Wimbledon semifinalist be a "surprise" in the first two round one year later? Well, it happens if that player puts up the generally crappy sort of results that the Bulgarian has in the past twelve months SINCE last year's Wimbledon, that's how. Yet here Pironkova is again, with another shot at Vera Zvonareva, the player who defeated her in the final four last season. (ALSO: Petra Cetkovska & Klara Zakopalova, CZE... the OTHER Czechs alive in the 3rd Round)
VETERAN: Nadia Petrova/RUS she healthy? Umm, what time is it? Is it safe to think of ridiculous moments to come? No, it's NEVER that when it comes to Petrova. Oh, Nadia. (ALSO: Maria Jose Martinez-Sanchez/ESP... she took out JJ, and gets Venus next.)
FRESH FACE Ksenia Pervak/RUS
...she knocked out the first seed of the tournament, and outlasted the higher-ranked Pavlyuchenkova in the draw to become the best teenager from Russia at this SW19. (ALSO: Misaki Doi/JPN... she doesn't have any outfits put together by Lady Gaga's designer, but she outlasted Bethanie Mattek-Sands)
COMEBACK: Venus & Serena Williams/USA
...we didn't know what we had until it was gone. Well, actually we've known ALL ALONG. (ALSO: British women... after going 0-6 in the 1st Round a year ago, three won opening round matches this time, including 17-year old Laura Robson)
DOWN: Jelena Jankovic/SRB
...her 1st Round exit was her worst slam result since the '05 Roland Garros. Li Na COULD be in this slot, but she drew the short stick by getting Lisicki in the 2nd Round and her loss wasn't really a stunning development. (ALSO: Kaia Kanepi/EST... a year ago she held match points to reach the SF. This year her Wimbledon stay lasted just one match.)
UNDERRATED: Kateryna Bondarenko/UKR, Jarmila Gajdosova/AUS & Svetlana Kuznetsova/RUS
...they all have grass court success on their resumes, and could end up making noise in this event.

"It's just been a long, arduous road. To stand up, still, is pretty awesome." - Serena Williams, after winning her 1st Round match following a year of health scares

2nd Rd. - Venus Williams d. Kimiko Date-Krumm 6-7/6-3/8-6
...the 40-year old Japanese vet pushes Venus' back to the wall in a tense 2:55 drama, but the five-time champ's serve bails her out when she often had very little else going for her. In the final game, Date-Krumm finally cracked, and her errors help keep Williams alive in the draw.
2nd Rd. - Sabine Lisicki d. Li Na 3-6/6-4/8-6
...staring down two match points and bringing out a cannon of a serve to save the day, Lisicki stages a German-centric Centre Court drama not seen since the days of Becker and Graf.

1st Rd. - Christina McHale d. Ekaterina Makarova 2-6/6-1/8-6
...after losing in Paris after leading Sara Errani 5-0 in the 3rd set, McHale had her own "Rory McIlroy moment" when she used her next appearance on a major stage to obliterate that bad moment from her grand slam memory bank. She didn't go from choker to champion, ala Masters lead-blower and now current U.S. Open golf champ McIlroy, but it'll have to do.
THAT'LL DO... but it shouldn't have come to this: After being the subject of "Love Her or Hate Her" talk in the past, Serena Williams finally receives warm applause and heartfelt support after she breaks down and cries after winning her 1st Round match. So, I guess we now know what it takes to win over the Wimbledon crowds, even after winning four Ladies championships -- you have to nearly die. All things even out, though... and Serena having to trudge out to Court 2 for her scheduled 2nd Round match surely reinstated at least a little of the old "I'll show them" spice that has inspired her win thirteen slam titles.

"It shows she's not a machine; she's a human being. We all have a heart. We all have emotions." - Aravane Rezai, after losing to Serena Wiliams, who cried with joy after the match

FIRST VICTORY: Kimiko Date-Krumm, who opened matters for the '11 Wimbledon with a win over Katie O'Brien, becoming the oldest Open era match winner at Wimbledon not named Navratilova
FIRST SEED OUT: #22 Shahar Peer (lost to Ksenia Pervak), becoming the first seed sent packing for the second straight slam
UPSET QUEENS: The Russians
NATION OF POOR SOULS: Australia, which went 1-3 in the 1st Round. Thank goodness for Jarmila Gajdosova, who is still eyeing a match-up with #1-seed Caroline Wozniacki.
CRASH & BURNER (1r-2r): Jelena Jankovic. For the second slam in '11 (w/ her 2nd Round loss in Oz), JJ's result is the most disappointing.
ZOMBIE QUEEN?? (1r-2r): Venus Williams survived her 2nd Round match with Kimiko Date-Krumm, winning 8-6 in the 3rd, but then Sabine Lisicki won 8-6 in the 3rd one day later over Li Na... AND saved two match points, too
LAST BRITS STANDING: Elena Baltacha, Anne Keothavong and Laura Robson all won 1st Round matches. So far, only Keothavong (who lost) has completed her 2nd Rounder.
LAST QUALIFIER STANDING: Misaki Doi is in the 3rd Round, and she'll next play the...
LAST WILD CARD STANDING: Sabine Lisicki, who might be sticking around until Serena shows up on the other side of the net in the QF.. if we're lucky. Seriously, that match-up could produce the most awesome display of clutch serving in women's tennis history... on both sides of the net.

...with Dick Enberg commentating at his final Wimbledon after being there every summer since 1979, he's now doing daily remembrances on ESPN2 of his favorite Wimbledon moments over the decades. Today, he recounted a story that's been repeated MANY times in MANY places over the last, oh, about 10-15 years concerning the first live broadcast of the men's final on NBC in '79. With the broadcast set to start at 9am, and Wimbledon policy listing that time as when the first ball was to be struck in the match, NBC had a problem with the timing. Enberg noted how Donald Dell, one of his broadcast partners and with an "in" with American finalist Roscoe Tanner, convinced the eventual runner-up (to Bjorn Borg) to go on a (faux) impromptu "bathroom break" when the two players were lined up and waiting to be led to the court. Tanner excused himself, then locked himself in the loo for a few minutes, just long enough for NBC to introduce the match and things to begin a few minutes after 9 o'clock (2pm London time). And, thus, a new tradition was born.

It's a nice story but, as I said, one repeated over and over and over through the years. Not that you'd have guessed that was the case by the reaction of the ESPN2 crew. From Hannah Storm and Mary Joe Fernandez to Chris Fowler and Darren Cahill, they were shocked -- shocked! I tell you! -- to learn that this story had taken place in this establishment. Listening to all the overreactions, I couldn't figure out which was worse -- how the on-air crew tried so hard to make it appear as if some great secret had been revealed for the first time on ESPN2's air only moments earlier or, if the seeming ridiculously stunned responses were somehow true, and how unfathomable it was that the people in charge of covering Wimbledon for U.S. television had really never heard one of the most famous sports television stories of the past thirty or so years. Especially one that centered on tennis, at Wimbledon, and involved one of their fellow sportscasters.

Somehow, I guess it doesn't really matter which one it is. Neither "truth" really surprises me too much.

...and, finally, just a passing note on the Washington D.C. area television front. News came down today that the sports anchor from the D.C. NBC affiliate, Lindsay Czarniak, would be joining ESPN next month. It's good news, because Czarniak is a great talent and should soon become a real broadcasting star on the bigger stage. Discovered years ago by broadcasting legend and longtime WRC sports anchor George Michael (R.I.P., George... still miss you), she eventually assumed his seat behind the desk and has been too good for local sports anchoring duties for a while now. But considering ESPN's tendency to bring real talents down to the level of its more mediocre employees, especially when those talented individuals are female, I just hope ESPN doesn't "waste" her.

2006 Severine Bremond, FRA (QF)
2007 O.Govortsova/BLR, N.Ozegovic/CRO, T.Perebiynis/UKR, A.Szavay/HUN, H.Sromova/CZE (2nd Rd.)
2008 A.Pavlyuchenkova/RUS, MJ.Martinez-Sanchez/ESP, B.Strycova/CZE (3rd Rd.)
2009 Melanie Oudin, USA (4th Rd.)
2010 Kaia Kanepi, EST (QF)
2011 Misaki Doi, JPN (in 3rd Rd.)

2008 Zheng Jie, CHN (SF)
2009 Elena Baltacha/GBR & Michelle Larcher de Brito/POR (2nd Rd.)
2010 none to 2nd Rd.
2011 Sabine Lisicki, GER (in 3rd Rd.)

2006 Serbia
2007 France
2008 Russia
2009 Italy (veterans)
2010 Romania
2011 Great Britain

2004 Great Britain
2005 United States
2006 Great Britain
2007 Austria
2008 Russia
2009 Germany
2010 Czech Republic
2011 Russia

AO: Kim Clijsters, BEL (lost in 3rd Rd.)
RG: Venus Williams, USA (lost in 4th Rd.)
WI: Venus Williams/USA & Serena Williams/USA (lost in QF & won title)
US: Caroline Wozniacki, DEN (lost in SF)
AO: Kim Clijsters, BEL (won title)
RG: Samantha Stosur, AUS (lost in 3rd. Rd.)
WI: Petra Kvitova, CZE (????)

TOP EARLY ROUND (1r-2r): #8 Petra Kvitova/CZE
TOP QUALIFYING MATCH: Q3: Alexa Glatch/USA def. Galina Voskoboeva/KAZ 3-6/7-6/12-10
TOP EARLY RD. MATCH (1r-2r): 2nd Rd. - #23 Venus Williams/USA def. Kimiko Date-Krumm/JPN 6-7/6-3/8-6 (2:55)
TOP UNDER-THE-ROOF MATCH: Nominee: 2nd Rd. - V.Williams d. K.Date-Krumm 6-7/6-3/8-6 (2:55)
FIRST WIN: Kimiko Date-Krumm/JPN (def. O'Brien/GBR)
FIRST SEED OUT: #22 Shahar Peer (1st Rd. - lost to Pervak/RUS)
NATION OF POOR SOULS: Australia (1-3 in 1st Rd., losses by Stosur & Dokic)
LAST BRITS STANDING: Elena Baltacha, Anne Keothavong & Laura Robson to 2nd Rd.
LAST WILD CARD STANDING: Sabine Lisicki/GER (in 3rd Rd.)
CRASH & BURN: #15 Jelena Jankovic/SRB (1st Rd. loss to Martinez-Sanchez/ESP, worst slam result since '05 RG)
ZOMBIE QUEEN: Nominees: V.Williams (survives 8-6 3rd set vs. Date-Krumm in 2nd Rd.), S.Lisicki (down 2 MP vs. Li in 2nd Rd.)

All for Day 4. More tomorrow.


Blogger Diane said...

Lisicki was also out twice for extended periods because of illness; once, she was in the hospital. Perhaps it's just my professional inclination, but I wonder what's going on with players like Lisicki and Azarenka. "Incorrect" or "insufficient" training is the obvious answer, but it nags at me that there might be something else causing such fragility. (This is the place at which I could easily chat about my Kournikova theory, but that's for another time.)

Lisicki's serving was outstanding today, but she also won in the nerves department. I do wonder how long she can keep that up.

Thu Jun 23, 11:14:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Todd Spiker said...

Even though this was the first big upset -- though it really wasn't THAT big, considering the circumstances -- of the tournament, stranger things HAVE already occurred at this Wimbledon than Lisicki keeping it up for a while longer.

I mean, TWO retirements in matches involving players from Belarus, and Azarenka is still in the tournament? And Petrova and Lisicki are both standing upright, too? Weird beyond weird. :)

Fri Jun 24, 01:25:00 AM EDT  

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