Tuesday, January 22, 2013

AO 9.0 - Rest for The Wicked

Today is a day for rejoicing, my friends. Hug your neighbor. Kiss your enemy.

Let it be known, in The Battle of Melbourne, on the twenty-second day of the first month of the year twenty thirteen, Li Na has made it safe for all humanity to sleep, free of fear, worry and paranoia. For The Radwanska has been vanquished. Put down. Removed from the equation.

For now. Or, at least, so it would seem. (More on that later.)

When Li Na faced off against Agnieszka Radwanska in their singles quarterfinal on Day 9, the prospect of the veteran's big groundstrokes being a clear obstacle in the way of the Pole's clever, almost "Beautiful Mind"-ish game was a familiar one. As is always the case with A-Rad, if a powerful foe is able to consistently keep her shots inside the lines of the court, a long, discouraging day is possible. But when Li began the match with a struggle-licious service game that lasted almost thirteen minutes, produced six deuces and eight Li errors (a day after Serena Williams had six in a full match!), as well as two Radwanska break points, it was easy to see a day developing in which all the bugaboos of inconsistency in the Chinese woman's game would come back to get her here.

Li managed to hold serve in that game for 1-0, if felt like she might have won the battle, but had already fated herself to lose the war.

When Li dumped a half-volley into the net on a Radwanska GP in the next game, then was broken with her own error for 2-1, the trajectory of the match seemed unalterably destined. It was over. Li broke back at love for 2-2, then answered another A-Rad break of serve with a second of her own. But when the television shot showed a wayward moth flopping around on the surface of Rod Laver Arena, then Radwanska popped an ace to hold for 4-4, it was hard to shake the notion that Li, along with maybe all of the rest of us, were doomed. A Li volley error and double-fault put her down love/40, and then A-Rad worked the ball around the court in a rally that ended when Li sailed a shot long to give Radwanska a break and a 5-4 lead.

It seemed that it was just a matter of time.

But that's when it was the usually cool Radwanska who started to crack, not the usually crackable Li. Of the next twelve games, Li would win nine. She broke A-Rad at love for 5-5 and, with Aga's error totals going up, held for 6-5. Then even the Pole's always-sterling decision-making and shot selection began to look a bit ragged. After having pushed Li off the left side of the court, Radwanska needed only to hit a shot deep into the open court out of reach of the scrambling Li, but instead she attempted a drop shot that was much easier to retrieve and put away for a winner. Li did, too, to get to set point. Radwanska saved it with a volley, but couldn't do the same on a second BP, as Li took the set at 7-5, ending A-Rad's 26-set winning streak.

Still, Radwanska took a 2-0 lead in the 2nd set. But it didn't last long. As Radwanska began to fade, Li's game strengthened. Or, to be fair, maybe it'd be more accurate to reverse the order there, as it as the growing force of the Chinese woman's game that took A-Rad out of hers. Out of her head, and increasingly away from what is her greatest strength -- her calm mind. Radwanska, even with help from The Rad, can't win that way. And she wasn't going to win here, either.

At 2-2 and serving into the sun, Li framed a serve so badly that it landed halfway into the lower section of fans. But she didn't let it rattle her (and, characteristically, she could laugh about it later). With her previously error-strewn game totally sewn up, and Radwanska's showing signs of splitting a few seams, Li held for 3-2, then earned an easy break for 4-2. Aga simply did not seem to have much fight in her, and as often as her opponents in recent days, weeks and months have often thrown up their hands in frustration against HER, Radwanska essentially had THAT LOOK on HER face in the closing stages of this match.

Radwanska held two break points at 5-3 down in the 2nd, but they were lost on her in her current state, as well as Li's. She wasn't able to muster her game to take advantage of them. Looking very much like the Aga who often capitulated against harder-hitting foes prior to the career transformation that took place in the summer of 2011, a frustrated A-Rad's errors put an end to her chances. Her final one, her 21st of the day (as many as she might rack up in three or four matches combined, in a good week), finally put a period at the end of the sort of day -- with a 7-5/6-3 score -- that will make even an evil alter ego bent on world domination to crawl away into a corner to lick Its wounds.

So, I guess it should go without saying that Li deserves a great of credit for saving the world. This week. Or maybe it was Serena Williams, whose display of excellence at Rod Laver Arena the other night sent notice to everyone within eye and earshot -- not to mention beyond -- that this AO was STILL hers to win, ankle or no ankle. Vika or no Vika. Maria or no Maria. Rad or no Rad.

Hmmm, but then again, what about Li herself? She surely earned a battlefield promotion, along with expert personal strategist Carlos Rodriguez (and, maybe, by proxy, even La Petit Taureau... but maybe that's just me), on Day 9. After all, when Li opened the 2013 season with a singles title, the fear was that she might peak too soon to be a factor in Melbourne. Then she lost in the semifinals in Sydney -- to A-Rad, no less -- and that worry was at least somewhat alleviated. Through four and a half rounds at this AO, the '11 women's runner-up has garnered little attention, neither for smothering her opponents, ala Serena, Maria or, before Tuesday, Aga, nor for barely skittering past one, as was the case with Vika. Instead, she's just been going about her business, plying her trade, and maybe not yet playing at or near her peak January performance level.

Li surely had opportunities in this match, especially in the 1st set, to get frustrated and lose concentration. It's been a part of her career story, save some glorious moments two seasons ago. But against Aga, after losing to her so recently to end her four-match mastery of the Pole, Li got past her early troubles and played better and better as the match wore on. Instead of losing hope herself, she frustrated the usually unflappable A-Rad, causing her to make uncharacteristic errors while under pressure to do more against Li's "on" groundstrokes and, in the end, even appeared to cause Aga to throw in the towel in the closing points, choosing to give in, go home, and draw up plans for future battles. Quite an accomplishment, considering Radwanska's previously-brilliant start to this 2013 season.

And I'm sure she -- and her "helping hand" -- will, too. Li, though, still might have room to grow before the end of this Australian Open. With Maria Sharapova up next, she'll need to do just that.

As for the you-know-what? Well... until we all meet again, dastardly Rad. Until we meet again.

...hold on, hold! Not so fast. Maybe The Radwanska isn't finished with this AO just yet. Actually, now It might be angry.

Case in point: the Williams Sisters in the doubles quarterfinals against top-seeded Sara Errani and Roberta Vinci. For a bit, it looked like Venus & Serena would sweep out the Italians in straight sets. Both served for the match in the 2nd set, only for both to be broken. In the 3rd, they led 3-0. But the Italians upped their aggression and got back into the match. They even served for the match at 5-4, only to have the Sisters break back for 5-5. But Venus & Serena just didn't seem right, and Errani & Vinci looked like the two-time slam champions they were in 2012, pulling through with a 3-6/7-6/7-5 victory.

During the match, Serena was seen playing tentatively on court, then cautiously flexing her ankle at times, as well. Could it be that The Rad has known all along that It's best chance at success at this AO might be as a force from the sidelines, err, I mean dark crevices and shadows? We shall see. Ever since The Rad reached up from below the court surface to grab onto Serena's ankle last week, there has been a sometimes-uneasy feeling existing just below the surface of this women's competition. It might not be over, either.

Yes, after an "Eerie Calm" set in on this AO following A-Rad loss, things could get very scary all over again by this time tomorrow.

No such secret Radwanska machinations were in evidence in the second women's quarterfinal of the day, which finally took place after the all-Spaniard match between David Ferrer and Nicolas Almagro dragged on after Almagro went up two sets to love, then served for a straight sets win in the 3rd, but ultimately failed on numerous occasions to reach his first career slam semi, eventually being felled by cramping in the 5th and losing to Ferrer for the thirteenth time in thirteen meetings.

Gulp... could this be another Rad-influence result?

Anyway, Sharapova took out fellow Hordette Ekaterina Makarova 6-2/6-2, setting another grand slam record by dropping just nine total games en route to the semifinals. The previous record was twenty games (a mark held, interesting enough, by Sharapova herself). Of note, Serena has so far only lost eight games through the 4th Round, with her QF match with Sloane Stephens coming up on Day 10.

...the wheelchair draws are out and, with Esther Vergeer not participating in this AO, her countrywoman, Aniek van Koot is the #1 seed. I haven't been able to find anything that gives an exact reason for the absence of Vergeer, a nine-time Australian Open champ (including the last two years) and winner of her last 470 matches. Although, the 31-year old, who hasn't played since winning Gold last summer at the Paralympics in London, was hinting last year that retirement could be in her near future. It doesn't look as if any official announcement has been made, but this could be a sign that the Dutch woman is beginning to wind things down. Of course, that doesn't mean the women's champ won't hail from the Netherlands. After all, five of the current Top 6 ranked WC woman in the world are Dutch.

...DAY 9 "LIKE":

a Li Na interview. Any Li Na interview. Even the one on ESPN2 tonight conducted by Chris Fowler and Patrick McEnroe... with the Ferrer/Almagro match still being shown throughout on split-screen (with partial sound).

...and, finally, altogether now...

Reka-Luca Jani! Reka-Luca Jani! Reka-Luca Jani!

After the result was delayed on the ITF site on Sunday (perhaps play was rained out yesterday?), I can finally clean up a loose end from this weekend's challenger results. And, yes, my little cheer DOES mean that the 21-year old Hungarian whose name is so nice it should be shouted thrice won a title. Her second circuit singles title of the year, in fact. Jani defeated Sofia Kvatsabaia (GEO) 6-0/6-1 in the final of a $10K in Antalya, Turkey. RLJ is now 10-0 in 2013.

Of note, in the same tournament, Swarmette Alexandra Dulgheru, making her way back after surgeries on both knees, reached the semifinals.

#1 Victoria Azarenka/BLR vs. Svetlana Kuznetsova/RUS
#3 Serena Williams/USA vs. #29 Sloane Stephens/USA
#6 Li Na/CHN def. #4 Agnieszka Radwanska/POL
#2 Maria Sharapova/RUS def. #19 Ekaterina Makarova/RUS

#1 Novak Djokovic/SRB vs. #5 Tomas Berdych/CZE
#4 David Ferrer/ESP def. #10 Nicolas Almagro/ESP
Jeremy Chardy/FRA vs. #3 Andy Murray/GBR
#7 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga/FRA vs. #2 Roger Federer/SUI

#1 Errani/Vinci (ITA/ITA) vs. #4 Makarova/Vesnina (RUS/RUS)
Barty/Dellacqua (AUS/AUS) vs. Lepchenko/Sai.Zheng (USA/CHN)

#1 Bryan/Bryan (USA/USA) vs. Bracciali/Dlouhy (BRA/CZE)
Cabal/Farrah (COL/COL) vs. Bolelli/Fognini (ITA/ITA)
#13 Granollers/M.Lopez (ESP/ESP) def. Bellucci/Paire (BRA/FRA)
Haase/Sijsling (NED/NED) def. #11 Marrero/Verdasco (ESP/ESP)

Peschke/Matkowski (CZE/POL) vs. Hsieh/Bopanna (TPE/IND)
#3 Mirza/B.Bryan (IND/USA) vs. Hradecka/Cermak (CZE/CZE)
Shvedova/Istomin (KAZ/UZB) vs. xx
#5 Petrova/Bhupathi (RUS/IND) vs. xx

1975 Natasha Chmyreva (L)
2005 Maria Sharapova (L)
2006 Maria Sharapova (L)
2007 Maria Sharapova (W)
2008 Maria Sharapova (W)
2009 Elena Dementieva (L), Dinara Safina (W), Vera Zvonareva (L)
2011 Vera Zvonareva (L)
2012 Maria Sharapova (W)
2013 Maria Sharapova *
* - S.Kuznetsova to play QF

[Maria Sharapova]
Australian Open (6) - 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008(W), 2012, 2013
Roland Garros (3) - 2007, 2011, 2012(W)
Wimbledon (4) - 2004(W), 2005, 2006, 2011
U.S. Open (3) - 2005, 2006, 2012
[Li Na]
Australian Open (3) - 2010, 2011, 2013
Roland Garros (1) - 2011 (W)

TOP QUALIFIER: #1q Lesia Tsurenko/UKR
TOP EARLY ROUND (1r-2r): #2 Maria Sharapova/RUS
TOP QUALIFYING MATCH: Q1: Cagla Buykakcay/TUR d. Tamarine Tanasugarn/THA 4-6/6-2/10-8
TOP EARLY RD. MATCH (1r-2r): 2nd Rd. - Laura Robson/GBR d. #8 Petra Kvitova/CZE 2-6/6-3/11-9
TOP LAVER NIGHT MATCH: 2nd Rd. - Laura Robson/GBR d. #8 Petra Kvitova/CZE 2-6/6-3/11-9
FIRST VICTORY: #2 Maria Sharapova/RUS (def. O.Puchkova/RUS)
FIRST SEED OUT: #32 Mona Barthel/GER (lost to K.Pervak/KAZ in 1st Rd.)
NATION OF POOR SOULS: Australia (1-6 in 1st Rd.; 1-7 overall)
LAST QUALIFIERS STANDING: Lesia Tsurenko/UKR & Valeria Savinykh/RUS (3rd Rd.)
LAST AUSSIE STANDING: #9 Samantha Stosur (2nd Rd.)
Ms. OPPORTUNITY: Nominees: N.Li, S.Stephens, Errani/Vinci
IT (Fortysomething): Kimiko Date-Krumm/JPN (at 42, oldest AO MD match winner)
COMEBACK PLAYER: Svetlana Kuznetsova/RUS
CRASH & BURN: #9 Samantha Stosur/AUS (lost to J.Zheng in 2nd Round; led 5-2 in 3rd and served for match at 5-2 and 5-4)
ZOMBIE QUEEN: #10 Caroline Wozniacki/DEN (down 3-0 in the 3rd set vs. Lisicki in 1st Rd.; had lost back-to-back 1st Rd. slam matches)
LADY OF THE EVENING: Nominees: L.Robson, M.Sharapova

All for Day 9. More tomorrow.


Blogger Eric said...

Sharapova is a marketing machine. Signs the camera Sugarpova...and whenever on tv drops that she has twitter now.

Tue Jan 22, 02:35:00 AM EST  
Blogger Eric said...

Well someone had to pay for Aga going out. They had just broken to 54 in the second set when I fell asleep. Sisters lose. But Venus was serving terribly and Serena was playing awfully at that point. I'll have to watch the replay to see how the third set turned out. There's no way they could have continued like that and won over a quality team like the Italians.

Li Na's chest is starting to look like Henin's. Carlos at work. (And this sounds totally inappropriate but, seriously, Li Na is looking muscle-y and built.)

Tue Jan 22, 02:41:00 AM EST  
Blogger Eric said...


I didn't see Serena test her ankle, but i did see Venus pelt her in the back. That was something...

Also, Li Na really could have gone farther in the tournament last year...her collapse against Kim Clijsters hurt her for the whole year. Couldn't seem to overcome any tight situations throughout the year.

Both Li and Rad present challenges for Sharapova so the Semi was going to be tantalizing either way.

I watched a clip of Sharapova warming up...her movement really is quite improved...taking lots of small steps and her forehand seems much more stable.

And Sharapova and Li are connected not only by Li's old coach, but by Max Eisenbud. All Eisenbud needs now is Sloane in his garden and he'll be the angelina Jolie of tennis.

Tue Jan 22, 02:49:00 AM EST  
Blogger Diane said...

All credit to Li, but what the hell happened to Aga? She's always had trouble playing Li, but I don't know if I've ever seen her freeze like that.

And as for The Rad--It seems to be involved with Future Sloane......

Wed Jan 23, 12:05:00 AM EST  
Blogger Todd.Spiker said...

Hmmmm, ever since Radwanska lost... no Williams has won a match.


(FS couldn't be a double-agent, could she?)

Wed Jan 23, 12:15:00 AM EST  

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