Monday, August 22, 2011

Wk.33- The Joy of Imperfection

Maria Sharapova was ultimately crowned a champion in Cincinnati, but one has to at least slightly wonder if maybe the event's runner-up, Jelena Jankovic, might actually have garnered more good will for her immediate future from her performance last week than even the Russian.

With the end of Week 33's top-level Premier event, the U.S. Open picked up a few more intriguing subplots, but if you were looking for the action in Ohio to spin a little revelatory clarity into the mix of this sleepy pre-Open summer, then (just like, say, the world #1) you left Cincinnati behind for New Haven and other points east a little disappointed.

Serena Williams displayed superhero qualities coming into Cincinnati, but left town with a toe injury after her slow-to-end 1st Round victory over Lucie Hradecka. Serena is surely not to be underestimated in New York, but we've also learned over the past year or so to not totally brush off any sort of injury below Williams' ankles, either. She'll probably be fine, though, and likely didn't need any additional matches to prepare anyway. That swollen toe could turn out to be a blessing in disguise. Elsewhere last week, Petra Kvitova lost early (again). To Andrea Petkovic (again). Li Na made little impact (again). Caroline Wozniacki's game fizzled (again). And Kim Clijsters pulled out of a slam (yup, again). The defending Open champion Belgian's stomach muscle tear means she'll miss her second straight slam in '11, after having only made a brief (final?) cameo appearance at Roland Garros before that.

(And here's where I note that the last time KC pulled out of the Open it was also when she was the defending champion, and that she'd announced her retirement before the next one rolled around twelve months later. I'm just sayin'... history often repeats itself.)

As far as the two Cincy finalists are concerned, Sharapova deserves much credit for rescuing what had previously been a very wanting hard court season for herself since her Paris near-miss and Wimbledon disappointment. She began the week rather well, dispatching the likes of Svetlana Kuznetsova (2 & 3) and Samantha Stosur (3 & 2) fairly swiftly, but things got dicier for her the longer her tournament journey went on. She probably shouldn't have beaten Vera Zvonareva in the semis, but managed to do so. In the final against Jankovic, her game was often shockingly sloppy and hardly slam-worthy. Still, she deserves a nod for battling and toughing-out the hard times to win her second title of the year. But after she had such a hard time holding her game together over the span of five matches in Ohio one has to wonder what the odds are that she'll be able to do it over seven matches and two weeks in New York. And, make no bones about it, after surging back into the Top 5 and slam winner conversations, Sharapova's upcoming trip to New York can only have one end result that would satisfy her at the close of her resurgent summer. Two months ago, I thought she had a good shot at such a Supernovic ending in the city. Right now, though, I'm not feeling so optimistic.

Truthfully, I'm more jazzed about Jankovic.

Of course, it helps that the Serb isn't burdened with quite as lofty expectations as the Russian, not after a year-long title drought, a slip into near-irrelevance and the seeming tight closing of her slam contender window. She might not have opened that window even a crack in Cincinnati, but JJ certainly showed that that old Backspin friend -- Queen Chaos -- may not have hung up her brightly-colored cape for the final time just yet. Unlike Sharapova, who is much better when her game is finely-pressed and folded, Jankovic's fortunes have always thrived when she's routinely found ways to survive long matches and nudge through with more guile than skillfull flash. While "scratchy" Sharapova wins raise questions about her form, similar matches from JJ cause you to brace yourself for another rollercoaster ride in which she miraculously survives multiple harrowing flights of fancy that would quickly vanquish most other players. Last week, right on cue, Jankovic battled though three sets with Zheng Jie, won a wild nighttime affair with Francesca Schiavone (who knows something about thriving on seemingly chaotic moments herself), advanced past a leg-wrapped Petkovic and pushed Sharapova to the edge in the final.

Three years after she reached the U.S. Open final, Jankovic has finally reconnected with former coach Ricardo Sanchez, who was there by her side (and, often, at the end of an angry tirade or two, or three or four) when the Serb climbed to #1. The two had previously parted ways quite badly. While the combination might not be a perfectly-working machine, it's certainly better than anything else JJ has encountered since she started to gradually slide down the rankings. Call it the theory of Jankovician Democracy. It might not belatedly make her a grand slam champion in the future, but it seems to have allowed her to re-discover the old smile-and-scream, rise-and-fall, ebb-and-flow Jelena that produced so many kicks and nearly as many big moments a few years ago.

Or at least QC was nice enough to visit us again for a few days last week. With a little luck, maybe she'll decide to stick around a little longer, too.

CINCINNATI, OHIO USA (Premier $2.05K/hard court outdoor)
S: Maria Sharapova def. Jelena Jankovic 4-6/7-6/6-3
D: King/Shvedova d. Grandin/Uhlirova


...Sharapova's stay outside the Top 5 didn't last long, as she jumped from #7 up to #4 with her Cincinnati title, her second of '11 and twenty-fourth of her career (tying her with Jana Novotna for 21st on the all-time list). It's her second top-level Premier win of the season, as she joins Wozniacki as the only women to win mulitple such events this year.
RISERS: Vania King/Yaroslava Shvedova (USA/KAZ) & Andrea Petkovic/GER
...King and Shvedova have proven to be a big event duo in the past, grabbing a pair of slam titles in '10. So, while the pair's Cincinnati title IS a big one, this third trophy-winning performance of their career as a team is actually the SMALLEST event they've ever won together. While Shvedova grabbed a doubles title earlier this summer in College Park, this is both King and the pair's first since they won the U.S. Open last year. Meanwhile, Petkovic entered last week seemingly having done everything right to ensure another good slam result in New York (she reached the Round of 16 last year). In Cincy, the zippy beat went on as she topped Jarmila Gajdosova, Kvitova (for the second time in two events), Greta Arn and Nadia Petrova to reach the SF. But the knee injury she suffered against the Russian nearly crashed everything. As it turns out, it was just a small meniscus tear rather than something catastrophic. After spending a day fearing the worst, she ultimately played in her semifinal match against Jankovic with her leg heavily wrapped. She played well, but the injured hampered her enough to possibly make a difference there, and cause her Open prospects to be totally re-thought, as well. She'll get a week to rest up, but suddenly her next event seems more of an uphill battle than the potentially joyful ride is looked like it could be a few days ago.
SURPRISES: Christina McHale/USA & Natalie Grandin/Vladimira Uhlirova (RSA/CZE)
...American teen McHale has managed to pull off some near and real upsets in the past (including Kuznetsova earlier this year), but none have been quite as big as the straight sets took-it-to-her win she had over world #1 Wozniacki in the 2nd Round last week in Cincinnati. Showing unexpected aggression, she pushed the Dane back and never let her get a foothold in the match. She lost her next match in the 3rd Round (she'd defeated Tsvetana Pironkova in the 1st) against Petrova, but she still managed to jump her ranking from #76 to #66 today, just two spots behind her career-best showing. In the Cincinnati doubles final, the team of Grandin and Uhlirova lost to King/Shvedova. The pair had beaten world #1's Kveta Peschke and Katarina Srebotnik in the semis, but they couldn't have been all that surprised to lose the final since, after all, they've got something of a knack for such a thing. With this loss, the pair is now 0-4 in WTA finals in 2011 (they DID win a $100K challenger, though), and 0-5 over the last two seasons. 33-year old Czech Uhlirova has at least tasted SOME tour doubles title success, winning four crowns in her long career, the last coming in Portoroz last year. But 30-year old South African Grandin is still searching for her first. She's now 0-10 in finals, but did rise to a career-best #24 in the rankings today after this result. Right next to her in the Top 25, of course, is now Uhlirova. Maybe one of these days they'll get to celebrate something bigger together.
COMEBACK: Jelena Jankovic/SRB's been over a year since JJ has won a title (Indian Wells '10), but last week's result in Cincy makes one believe that drought might not last too much longer. Three-setters over Zheng and Schiavone, a nice victory over Petkovic and the crazy final with Sharapova show that Queen Chaos might have a few more moments of joy to impart to her minions -- err, I mean her fans -- before all is said and done. At the very least, she managed to bump her ranking up to #12 just in time to get the same bump in her seeding at Flushing Meadows, so maybe the Draw Gods will see fit to give her something to work with next week (that is, assuming she doesn't do something to herself in New Haven this week that will keep her from being at her best in NYC).
VETERANS: Samantha Stosur/AUS & Zheng Jie/CHN
...Stosur has put together a nice little late summer resurgence in North America. In Cincy, it continued with a QF result and a win over Li Na (of course, her walkover past Serena in the 2nd Round DID remove a rather daunting obstacle just days after she wasn't able to get past it in the Toronto final). The Aussie has never been a big fan of the often less-than-even-tempered enviroment on the grounds of the Open, but she has every reason to believe she might be able to match her best-ever U.S. result (a QF) of a year ago in a few weeks. Of course, Stosur generally performs worse when there's something to be expected. Meanwhile, Zheng lost in the 2nd Round in Cincinnati, but her good recent work is more than worthy of inclusion. In Toronto, she pushed Serena to three sets before losing, then immediately went and qualified to reach the Cincy draw (getting wins over Coco Vandweghe and Johanna Larsson). Last Monday, she upset Julia Goerges, then ended up pushing Jankovic to three sets, as well. Close, but no cigar, for sure... but good enough for here.
FRESH FACES: Madison Keys/USA & Elina Svitolina/UKR
...hard-serving 16-year old Keys was the youngest player invited to participate in the USTA's Wild Card Playoff tournament, but she was the last female standing when all was said and done. To earn her pass into the Open's main draw, she had to take down Beatrice Capra (the '10 winner of the playoff, and an instant star when she reached the tournament's 3rd Round) in the final by a 3-6/6-4/6-0 score. In a $10K challenger in Istanbul, 16-year old Ukrainian Svitolina, the world #428 and '10 Roland Garros junior champ (she finished last season as the #2-ranked girl), grabbed her first pro singles title after making it through qualifying and then defeating Croat Anja Prislan in the final.
DOWN: Caroline Wozniacki/DEN & Petra Kvitova/CZE riding a three-match losing streak (going winless since her Bastad retirement the week after Wimbledon), Wozniacki suddenly finds herself arriving on the Yale campus actually NEEDING to get some matches under her belt the week before a slam. Who'd have thunk it? The announcement of a new coach/player combo is expected to come soon, so whether her recent backstepping into the sort of week-in, week-out performances -- inconsistent and error-laden -- that she's expertly avoided while building up the #1-ranking cushion between herself the rest of the WTA field is simply the immediate result of her career's growing pains will have to be something that works itself out over the next few days, weeks and months. Whatever the case, once again the Dane was out-aggressioned by her victorious opponent -- #76 Christina McHale -- in a straight sets loss in the 2nd Round. Meanwhile, Wimbledon champ Kvitova once again failed to get past Petkovic and pick up any post-slam championship momentum for the second straight week, losing by another fairly routine score. Is this another case of the Czech's game swirling about before finally solidifying (ala the week before Wimbledon), or is it the case of her having to find her way through a lull after a big result (ala the weeks after her '10 SW19 semifinal)? She did say the other week that, "You never know how is it going in the head," so there's reason to think the latter might be the case. Quite possibly, the slam enviroment will settle her thoughts and actions, and (hopefully) continued and closer inspection at Flushing Meadows will serve her well. We shall see.
ITF PLAYER: Polina Vinogradova/RUS
...playing back home in St.Petersburg, the 17-year old Hordette grabbed a title -- two, actually -- in sweeping the singles and doubles crowns at a $10K challenger. She defeated fellow Russian Tatiana Kotelnikova in the final to earn her second ITF title of the season.
JUNIOR STAR: Emily Fanning/NZL
...the 16-year old Kiwi swept the singles and doubles titles in a B2 event in Fiji. After winning the doubles with Abbie Myers, Fanning then defeated her partner 6-1/0-6/6-1 in the singles final.

1. Cin 3rd Rd - Jankovic d. Schiavone
No one has been involved in more crazy matches this season than Schiavone, whose Melbourne marathon with Svetlana Kuznetsova proved to be just the beginning for her. This one only lasted 2:38, rather than 4:44, but it included Jankovic being unable to close out the match in straights while serving at 5-4 in the 2nd and holding match point, visits from trainers, cross feelings toward coaches, as well as the umpire. In other words, it was a typically fascinating-but-headache-inducing Jankovician delight. Oh, I surely HOPE ol' Queen Chaos really IS back.
2. Cin 2nd Rd - McHale d. Wozniacki
The wild forehand error to end the match would have been a bad omen on which to send C-Woz off to New York. Thankfully, for her, she'll be making a stop off in Connecticut along the way.
3. Cin 2nd Rd - Stosur walkover S.Williams
hmmm, Achilles had his heel. Is Serena's weakness her foot... or, in this particular instance, a swollen big toe?
4. Cin 3rd Rd - Petkovic d. Kvitova
Hey, Petra lost 1 & 2 to Petkovic in Toronto. So she's making progress. Ironically, with the potential for Petkovic's knee injury to linger and/or hamper her final preparations this week, Kvitova might now be the better positioned of the two for success in NYC.
5. Cin Final - Sharapova d. Jankovic
This was simply one of those "pillar-to-post" matches, where both players take turns being figuratively beaten about the head and shoulders until one's game finally falls enough into the cracks that the other manages to (barely) escape with her dignity. Sharapova led 4-1 in the 1st and held a break point for 5-2, but ended up losing seven straight games while dropping in five very badly-timed double-faults in the set (including at set point down). But then JJ failed to extend and put away her 6-4/2-0 lead, as Sharapova pulled out a 2:49 win in a match that included 113 unforced errors (64 from the Russian, and 49 more contributed by the Serb).

**2011 WINS OVER WORLD #1**
[all over Wozniacki]
Sydney 2nd Rd - #31 Dominika Cibulkova, SVK
Australian Open SF - #11 Li Na, CHN
Doha Final - #3 Vera Zvonareva, RUS
Miami 4th Rd - #23 Andrea Petkovic, GER
Stuttgart Final - #32 Julia Goerges, GER
Madrid 3rd Rd - #27 Julia Goerges, GER
Rome SF - #8 Maria Sharapova, RUS
Roland Garros 3rd Rd - #29 Daniela Hantuchova, SVK
Wimbledon 4th Rd - #24 Dominika Cibulkova, SVK
Bastad 2nd Rd - #73 Sofia Arvidsson, SWE (ret.)
Toronto 2nd Rd - #22 Roberta Vinci, ITA
Cincinnati 2nd Rd - #76 Christina McHale, USA

**2011 WTA FINALS**
7...Caroline Wozniacki (5-2)
5...Petra Kvitova (4-1)
4...Marion Bartoli (1-3)

**2011 WTA SF**
9...Caroline Wozniacki (7-2)
7...Marion Bartoli (3-3 +W)
5...Petra Kvitova (5-0)
5...Victoria Azarenka (3-2)
5...Li Na (3-2)
5...Anabel Medina-Garrigues (2-3)
5...Peng Shuai (1-4)

Dubai - Caroline Wozniacki, DEN
Indian Wells - Caroline Wozniacki, DEN
Miami - Victoria Azarenka, BLR
Madrid - Petra Kvitova, CZE
Rome - Maria Sharapova, RUS
Toronto - Serena Williams, USA
Cincinnati - Maria Sharapova, RUS
Tokyo - x
Beijing - x

Petra Kvitova, CZE (hard / red clay / grass)
Caroline Wozniacki, DEN (green clay / hard / red clay)
Victoria Azarenka, BLR (red clay / hard)
Li Na, CHN (hard / red clay)
Maria Sharapova, RUS (red clay / hard)
Roberta Vinci, ITA (red clay / grass)

167...Martina Navratilova
154...Chris Evert
107...Steffi Graf
92...Margaret Smith-Court
68...Evonne Goolagong
67...Billie Jean King
55...Lindsay Davenport
55...Virginia Wade
53...Monica Seles
43...Venus Williams *
43...Justine Henin
43...Martina Hingis
41...Kim Clijsters *
39...Serena Williams *
33...Conchita Martinez
30...Tracy Austin
29...Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario
27...Hana Mandlikova
27...Gabriela Sabatini
25...Amelie Mauresmo
24...Jana Novotna
21...Pam Shriver
* - active

Tthe star-studded lineup for the 16th annual Arthur Ashe Kids’ Day presented by Hess has been announced. Reigning US Open Champions Rafael Nadal and Kim Clijsters, world #1 ranked Novak Djokovic and former US Open Champion Andy Roddick will take the court this year with actor Bradley Cooper, New York Knicks All-Star Carmelo Anthony and pop star Cody Simpson. The full day tennis and music festival, hosted by TV personalities/actors La La Anthony and Quddus, will take place on Saturday, August 27th and will kick-off the 2011 US Open, which runs from August 29th-September 11th in Flushing, NY. Additional information can be found at the U.S. Open's official website.

NEW HAVEN, CONNECTICUT USA (Premier $618K/hard outdoor)
10 Final: Wozniacki d. Petrova (Wozniacki 2008-10 champ)
11 Top Seeds: Wozniacki/Li
10 Doubles Champions: Peschke/Srebotnik

#1 Wozniacki d. #7 Jankovic
#5 A.Radwanska d. #2 Li
#1 Wozniacki d. #5 A.Radwanska

...even if Wozniacki were to come through and win this again, it'd probably be debatable how much it might mean. Winning four in a row hardly ever happens, but what the heck, it's the "Wozniacki Open" or bust.

DALLAS, TEXAS USA (Int'l $220K/hard outdoor)
10 Finals: (new event)
11 Top Seeds: Peng/Cibulkova

#3 Goerges d. #6/WC Peer
#5 Lisicki d. #4 Wickmayer
#5 Lisicki d. #3 Goerges

...Petkovic has been the best German on hard courts in North America this summer, but she never managed to get into a final. One, or both, of these two could trump her on that front. Yeah, I know, it probably won't happen... but it MIGHT.

ALSO: U.S. Open Qualifying

Bare Bones Backspin and the U.S. Open preview arrive this weekend, with the Daily Backspin starting up next Monday. All for now.

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Blogger Zidane said...

Thanks a lot for your posts in the last months. I've been away and totally disconnected in Europe in the past two months, and thanks to your daily posts for Wimbledon and weekly posts afterwards, I got to know the daily action that I missed. I did get to see the Wimbledon finals though. Your enthusiam for Kvitova's prospects in the hard court season surprised me a lot, because I expected the exact opposite mostly because I couldn't put aside all your remarks in the whole year before Wimbledon pointing out that that she always had long slumps after good results. (2010 Wimbledon, final won over Clijsters this winter, etc.) Hoergren had it right in one of his comments. This post is the first in which you mention it again since she won Wimbledon.

I do share, however, your high enthusiam of her Championships for women tennis. I loved all your sarcastic and bitter remarks on Wozniacki! I wish her though to get her game back on track right about now.

Tennis anecdote from Europe: when you watch a Nadal-Djokovic Wimbledon final from a pub in Madrid, and that you root for Djokovic, it's always better not to express your joy too loud!

Tue Aug 23, 08:29:00 AM EDT  
Blogger Todd Spiker said...

Haha. Yeah, I guess I was hoping that Kvitova's Wimbledon success would mean that she wouldn't go through it again. It took her a while to play after Wimbledon, so I was hoping the absence would wash all the potential "bad" away. No such luck. One thing, though. Her lull after winning the Paris indoors WAS shorter than the one after last year's SW19, so hopefully this one will be even shorter than that one. Maybe one day, she'll eliminate those nasty things altogether. :)

Backspin HQ just felt the earthquake that hit the U.S. East coast. Very strange. That's the first one I've ever been in. The epicenter wasn't all that far away. Weird. Kind of cool, too, I guess. Not that I want to have another one anytime soon.

Hey, at least you weren't in Serbia rooting for a Croat, or vice versa. ;)

Tue Aug 23, 02:34:00 PM EDT  

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