Saturday, January 21, 2012

AO.6- The Ice Maiden

Maria Sharapova originally made a name for herself by being one of the most self-possessed and unflinching competitors on tour on the game's biggest stages. She seemed to have ice in her veins. Over the last four years, the cracks in her psyche have been more and more apparent as she's attempted to make an unprecedented slam-winning comeback from shoulder surgery, only to see her old confidence-building serve suffer ill-timed breakdowns which usually led to her game's ultimate destruction.

But something different appears to possibly be happening in Melbourne. Well, check that... it's actually a Sharapova scenario that we HAVE seen before. Just not in a very long time.

"Life is like a beautiful melody, only the lyrics are messed up." - Hans Christian Andersen

Four years ago in Melbourne, Sharapova looked like she was ready to forge a total takeover the WTA world. She breezed through the draw at the Australian Open, never dropping a set and winning her third career slam title (and third leg of a career Grand Slam). She won her first eighteen matches of the year, and it looked as if the Supernova's unsullied path to the top of the sport was assured. But then it wasn't. A misdiagnosed rotator cuff injury eventually led to surgery and a nine-month absence from the tour. She managed to come back, but her path back to the top has been a struggle.

Oh, she's managed to extend her seasons with at least one title to nine, easily the longest current run on tour, and climbed back into the Top 5. She reached the Roland Garros semifinals in '11, then the Wimbledon final. But Sharapova made her name as the 17-year old who took down Serena Williams at Wimbledon to win her first slam, and her continued ability to successfully chase down that sort of moment was bound to define her career from that point on. The last four years, though, it's been the elusiveness of that quest that has been the leading story.

But are things shaping up in Melbourne in a way that what happens next could re-write the story of her recent un-'Nova like period and make her Supernovic again?

Sharapova arrived Down Under still nursing her late 2011 ankle injury and pulled out of her pre-AO tune-up commitments. Unlike Serena, the Russian has never been the sort of player who has managed to "play herself into form" at a slam. She's often either been right as rain, or an upset waiting to happen. Because of this, it was easy to count her out as a TRUE contender in Melbourne. I know I did. But Sharapova has hit the ground running at a full sprint in this tournament. Her 6-1/6-2 win over U.S. Open semifinalist Angelique Kerber today had all the hallmarks of a pre-surgery Sharapova. She made her first eleven first serves, and lost just three points in her first four service games. She hit just one double fault in the match. Her confidence has always emanated from the success of her serve, and over the last year or two I've often noted in this spot that anytime Sharapova looked shaky in an early-round match at a slam, although she'd managed to win it, it meant that her game was destined to eventually break down before she could win seven matches in a row. Every time I turned out to be right.

That hasn't been the cast at this slam. She had one poor service game in Round 1 in which she threw in three double-faults, but it was the only game she lost in the match. The seed planted in that moment has so-far refused to grow in the soil of Sharapova's 2012 AO experience. In fact, through three rounds, a case can be made that she's NEVER looked better than she does right now.

Take a look at this. I've noted here before that when Sharapova won her three previous slam titles, she was in-form from the get-go, and never broke stride. At the '08 AO, she didn't lose a set in the tournament. At Wimbledon in '04, she lost two, but not her first until the QF. At the '06 U.S. Open she dropped just one, in the SF. She's six-for-six in sets at this Melbourne, but she's actually allowed fewer games in those three matches than she did in the first three rounds of any of the slams she's won. At Wimbledon, she dropped a total of nine. In New York, it was eleven. In Melbourne four years ago, she'd lost fifteen at this point. Through three rounds at THIS Australian Open, she's lost five.

Mark Twain once noted there were "lies, damned lies and statistics," and this may be one of those cases. But what if it isn't? If Sharapova goes on to win slam title #4, reclaim the #1 ranking and dust off the cobwebs and regain her old "Supernova" Backspin nickname, let it be known here and now that the signs of such an ending to this "icy" Australian story were being foreshadowed from the very start.

...have we found this AO's "Zombie Queen?"

"I only appear to be dead." - Hans Christian Andersen

After climbing out of a 4-2 3rd set hole against Stefanie Voegele in the 1st Round, #15 seed Sabine Lisicki had another escape in Round 3. Through the 1st set of action against Svetlana Kuznetsova, Lisicki looked like a poor-serving goner. And, maybe more importantly, the Russian was engaged in the action. Kuznetsova led 6-2/3-1 before Lisicki finally got herself squared away, while Kuznetsova proceded to pull one of the sort of mid-match dissolving acts that have come to be a specialty of her's the last few seasons. Kuznetsova didn't really show any true life again until she was down 5-1 in the 3rd and Lisicki held three match points. The two-time slam champ -- who lost that 16-14 3rd set, 4:44 match against Francesca Schiavone on the same Hisense Arena court a year ago -- fought back to take the game, but it was short-lived resurgence. Lisicki cleaned up one game later, putting away a 2-6/6-4/6-2 victory on her fourth match point, winning eleven of the match's final fourteen games.

...meanwhile, Vera Zvonareva added her name to the list of eliminated Hordettes. Playing against countrywoman Ekaterina Makarova, Zvonareva, a semifinalist in Melbourne in '11, actually got to set point in the 1st set. But she ultimately lost the tie-break, then Makarova ran away with the match, winning 7-6/6-1. Kuznetsova and Zvonareva weren't the biggest disappointments on Day 6, though. That'd have to be Marion Bartoli. She fell in shockingly quick order, 6-3/6-3, to Chinese vet Zheng Jie, an AO semifinalist two years ago.

But Petra Kvitova had an easy day on Saturday. Maria Kirilenko injured her thigh, and her lack of mobility made her pretty much uncompetitive against the Czech's heavy shots. After falling behind 6-0/1-0, the Russian finally retired from the match.

...elsewhere, the first #1 seed eliminated from this slam came in the Women's Doubles, as top-seeded Kveta Peschke and Katarina Srebotnik retired from their match with Alla Kudryavtseva and Ekaterina Makarova (wow, she had a pretty good day, huh?) after just five games.

...ROUND OF 16 NOTES: with the Round of 16 set, only four of the remaining players have extended slam 4th Round streaks -- Caroline Wozniacki (3), Serena Williams (3), Sabine Lisicki (3) and Ana Ivanovic (2). Serena Williams' 6-1/6-1 win over Greta Arn, 32, left the 30-year old American as the oldest woman left in the draw. Her straight sets win ran her career AO record to 44-0 when she wins the 1st set. A pair of 21-year olds are the youngest players still alive, with Caroline Wozniacki a few months younger than Petra Kvitova.

Julia Goerges and Sara Errani are in their first career slam Round of 16's. Veteran Iveta Benesova is playing in her 38th career slam. Coming into this AO, she'd suffered twenty-one 1st Round losses and only reached a single Round of 16. It came at last year's Australian Open. This year's 4th Round result is her second.

Serena has the most career Round of 16 results (38) of any remaining woman (and is behind only her sister's 40 among active players) . This is Kim Clijsters' 24th career slam 4th Round. With 2012 scheduled to be her final year on tour, a question remains about whether or not she intends to play beyond the Olympics. If her health allows her to play the first three slams, and then she decides to play the U.S. Open, where she's won the title the last three times she's showed up (over an eight-year stretch), it'd mark the first time since 2003 that she played in all four slams during a season.

Four of the original six players who came to Melbourne with a shot to be ranked #1 at the end of the tournament are still in the running for the top spot. They're the current Top 4 ranked players on the WTA computer -- Wozniacki, Kvitova, Azarenka & Sharapova.

...DAY 6 LIKES: the ability to smile with Lisicki when she wins and not have to do so through gritted teeth, wondering when the other (injury-related) shoe will drop. Of course, we ARE only six days in. the final junior tune-up leading into the AO, Bannerette Krista Hardebeck was the shining star in the G1 Traralgon, Australia event. The 17-year old qualified, then took out the likes of Yulia Putintseva, Taylor Townsend, An-Sophie Mestach (the '11 AO jr. champ) and Anna Karolina Schmiedlova in the final.

...speaking of the juniors, the AO Girls draw is out. Here are the Top 10 Girls seeds:

1. Irina Khromacheva, RUS
2. Eugenie Bouchard, CAN
3. Anette Kontaveit, EST
4. Yulia Putintseva, RUS
5. Indy De Vroome, NED
6. Elizabeth Kulichkova, RUS
7. Danka Kovinic, MNE
8. Anna Karolina Schmiedlova, SVK
9. Zheng Saisai, CHN
10. Ilka Csoregi, ROU

Krista Hardebeck/USA d. #1 Irina Khromacheva/RUS
#14 Taylor Townsend/USA d. Samantha Crawford/USA
#4 Yulia Putintseva/RUS d. #5 Indy De Vroome/NED
#7 Danka Kovinic/MNE d. #2 Eugene Bouchard/CAN
Krista Hardebeck/USA d. #14 Taylor Townsend/USA
#4 Yulia Putintseva/RUS d. #7 Danka Kovinic/MNE
#4 Yulia Putintseva/RUS d. Krista Hardebeck/USA

...and, finally, it's always fun when a TV commentator puts a "jinx" on a player, and it happened again on Day 6 when ESPN2's Mary Joe Fernandez mentioned that Sharapova had yet to have her first double-fault of the match, which was in its 14th game at the time. Naturally, she hit her first, and only, DF of the match on the very next point. Priceless.

#1 Caroline Wozniacki/DEN vs. #13 Jelena Jankovic/SRB
#11 Kim Clijsters/BEL vs. #5 Li Na/CHN
#3 Victoria Azarenka/BLR vs. Iveta Benesova/CZE
#22 Julia Goerges/GER vs. #8 Agnieszka Radwanska/POL
Ekaterina Makarova/RUS vs. #12 Serena Williams/USA
#15 Sabine Lisicki/GER vs. #4 Maria Sharapova/RUS
Sara Errani/ITA vs. Zheng Jie/CHN
#21 Ana Ivanovic/SRB vs. #2 Petra Kvitova/CZE

#1 Novak Djokovic/SRB vs. (WC) Lleyton Hewitt/AUS
#17 Richard Gasquet/FRA vs. #5 David Ferrer/ESP
#4 Andy Murray/GBR vs. Mikhail Kukushkin/KAZ
#24 Kei Nishikori/JPN vs. #6 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga/FRA
Philipp Kohlschreiber/GER vs. #11 Juan Martin del Potro/ARG
Bernard Tomic/AUS vs. #3 Roger Federer/SUI
#7 Tomas Berdych/CZE vs. #10 Nicolas Almagro/ESP
#18 Feliciano Lopez/ESP vs. #2 Rafael Nadal/ESP

[through 3rd Rd., nations w/ players left in draw]
16-12...Russia (Makarova,Sharapova)
10-3...Germany (Goerges,Lisicki)
9-7...Czech Republic (Benesova,Kvitova)
9-9...United States (S.Williams)
8-5...Italy (Errani)
7-2...China (Li,Zheng)
6-1...Serbia (Ivanovic,Jankovic)
4-1...Poland (A.Radwanska)
4-2...Belarus (Azarenka)
3-3...Slovak Republic
3-0...Denmark (Wozniacki)
3-1...Belgium (Clijsters)

[by age]
21...Caroline Wozniacki
21...Petra Kvitova
22...Sabine Lisicki
22...Victoria Azarenka
22...Agnieszka Radwanska
23...Julia Goerges
23...Ekaterina Makarova
24...Ana Ivanovic
24...Sara Errani
24...Maria Sharapova
26...Jelena Jankovic
28...Zheng Jie
28...Kim Clijsters
28...Iveta Benesova
29...Li Na
30...Serena Williams
[by ranking]
#1 - Caroline Wozniacki
#2 - Petra Kvitova
#3 - Victoria Azarenka
#4 - Maria Sharapova
#6 - Li Na
#8 - Agnieszka Radwanska
#12 - Serena Williams
#13 - Jelena Jankovic
#14 - Kim Clijsters
#15 - Sabine Lisicki
#22 - Ana Ivanovic
#23 - Julia Goerges
#38 - Zheng Jie
#46 - Iveta Benesova
#48 - Sara Errani
#56 - Ekaterina Makarova
[by career slam Round-of-16's; w/ number at AO]
38...Serena Williams (9)
24...Kim Clijsters (8)
23...Maria Sharapova (6)
16...Jelena Jankovic (4)
12...Caroline Wozniacki (4)
12...Agnieszka Radwanska (3)
12...Ana Ivanovic (2)
11...Li Na (4)
10...Victoria Azarenka (4)
7...Petra Kvitova (2)
5...Zheng Jie (3)
4...Sabine Lisicki (1)
3...Ekaterina Makarova (2)
2...Iveta Benesova (2)
1...Sara Errani (1)
1...Julia Goerges (1)
[by current slam Round-of-16 streaks]
3...Caroline Wozniacki
3...Serena Williams
3...Sabine Lisicki
2...Ana Ivanovic
1...12 players
[by preseason Backspin Master List positions]
(1) Serena Williams
(2) Petra Kvitova
(3) Kim Clijsters
(5) Victoria Azarenka
(6) Maria Sharapova
(7) Caroline Wozniacki
(11) Li Na
(14) Sabine Lisicki
(16) Agnieszka Radwanska
(18) Jelena Jankovic
(19) Ana Ivanovic
(30) Zheng Jie
(31) Julia Goerges
(45) Ekaterina Makarova
(--) Iveta Benesova
(--) Sara Errani

[by combined nations; W+M]
4...Spain (0+4)
3...Czech Republic (2+1)
3...Germany (2+1)
3...Serbia (2+1)
2...Australia (0+2)
2...China (2+0)
2...France (0+2)
2...Russia (2+0)
1...Argentina (0+1)
1...Belarus (1+0)
1...Belgium (1+0)
1...Denmark (1+0)
1...Great Britain (0+1)
1...Italy (1+0)
1...Japan (0+1)
1...Kazakhstan (0+1)
1...Poland (1+0)
1...Switzerland (0+1)
1...United States (1+0)

TOP QUALIFIER: Paula Ormaechea/ARG
TOP EARLY ROUND (1r-2r): #3 Victoria Azarenka/BLR
TOP QUALIFYING MATCH: Q1: Bibiane Schoofs/NED d. Yaroslava Shvedova/KAZ 6-4/3-6/11-9
TOP EARLY RD. MATCH (1r-2r): 2nd Rd. - Greta Arn/HUN d. #17 Dominika Cibulkova/SVK 6-2/3-6/10-8
FIRST WINNER: #3 Victoria Azarenka/BLR (def. Heather Watson/GBR)
FIRST SEED OUT: #19 Flavia Pennetta/ITA (1st Rd.- lost to Nina Bratchikova/RUS)
NATION OF POOR SOULS: Great Britain (0-4 in 1st Round, all on Day 1)
LAST QUALIFIER STANDING: Nina Bratchikova/RUS (3rd Rd.)
LAST WILD CARDS STANDING: Casey Dellacqua/AUS & Olivia Rogowska/AUS (2nd Rd.)
LAST AUSSIES STANDING: Casey Dellacqua, Jelena Dokic & Olivia Rogowska (2nd Rd.)
IT: xx
COMEBACK PLAYER: Nominees: Ivanovic, Jankovic, Li & Sharapova
CRASH & BURN: #5 Samantha Stosur/AUS (lost 1st Rd. to Sorana Cirstea/ROU)
ZOMBIE QUEEN: Nominees: #15 Sabine Lisicki (down 4-2 in 3rd to Voegele in1st Rd., and 6-2/3-1 to Kuznetsova in 3rd Rd.), #2 Petra Kvitova (down 2-0, 30/15 in 3rd to CSN, 2nd Rd.)
LADY OF THE EVENING: Nominees: Azarenka, S.Williams

All for Day 6. More tomorrow.


Blogger Jeppe said...

If her draw wasn't so gruesome, I would say Maria could win this thing.

And Todd, Kvitova isn't the youngest player left in the draw ...

Sat Jan 21, 04:24:00 PM EST  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well Todd it's close to the point where you have to use one of my favorite HCA fairytales The lovely duckling. For a set and a half C-Woz played some of the best tennis I've seen. I must say she's peeking at the right moment.

Sun Jan 22, 07:00:00 AM EST  
Blogger Todd.Spiker said...


Whoops. Right. Wozniacki WAS born a few months earlier. I even wrote all the birthdays down as each player won, but still put them in order wrong.

I blame Carl.


Yeah, but the REAL tests begin next round.

Sun Jan 22, 10:06:00 AM EST  

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