Monday, October 28, 2013

Wk.43- A Crooked Path to an Expected Ending

We saw a few different versions of Serena Williams this past week in Istanbul. But all that really mattered was the one that showed up at the end.

While both Williams and Li Na, combining for a rare match-up of thirtysomethings in the WTA Championships final, entered Sunday's final with matching 4-0 records in round robin and semifinal play, their paths really couldn't have been more different. Serena began the week in fine form, then degenerated into a lead-footed and seemingly disinterested competitor who'd "hit the wall" physically at the end of a very long season by the time the weekend arrived. Li, fresher at this time of the season than she's EVER been after her mid-season "tune-up" regimen with coach Carlos Rodriguez, spend the week offering everyone tantalizing glimpses of the aggressive and fearless player she'd like to be in the final stages of her career. Even with Williams' career 9-1 advantage in their head-to-head history, complete with a sixteen-set winning streak, there was some real question about what might happen when they faced off.

But, when push came to shove, both ultimately lived up to PAST reputations rather than any that might have been created over the past few days.

Once again in the final, Williams looked tired and started slowly. Meanwhile, Li was on her game, seizing the control of rallies and pushing the issue at the net. She got an early break for 2-1, then held for 3-1. Employing serve-and-volley tactics one game, she used her return as a weapon in others, including an angled backhand return winner that broke Serena for a 4-1 advantage. Her taking of the 1st set at 6-2 ended Li's long set losing streak to Serena, but the match was hardly over.

Having braided her pulled-back hair into a long ponytail between sets, Serena gradually pulled together her game and desire over the final two sets of the match, as well. After surviving a nine-deuce, two break point game to open the 2nd set with a hold, Williams put herself into position to take an immediate advantage one game later. Li successfully served-and-volleyed while down break point in Game #2, but she then followed it up by missing on a forehand, as well as a volley attempt, en route to getting broken for 2-0. Down 3-0, and with errors beginning to slightly creep into her game, Li keep them at bay while Williams' game was still not quite where she wanted it to be. Li held for 3-1, then got the break back thanks to a forehand error from Williams off a deep Li return. In Game #8, Li double-faulted and fell behind love/40, and an error led to the dropping of her serve as Williams got the opportunity to serve for the set at 5-3. Li held break points on Serena's serve, but wasn't able to convert as Williams sent things to a 3rd set, where she's been the best in the world the past four seasons (going 27-7 in the span).

The same would hold true here.

A Li double-fault led to a break of serve in the opening game of the final set, and the race was on. Li lost her aggressive edge as her errors overtook her game, and Williams, as usual, pulled out her big serve to get her out of anything that resembled trouble. Serving for the match at 5-0, Serena fell behind 15/40, and faced four break points in all, but she used wide serves and a (now) noticeable desire to win to pull her over the finish line of her best-ever season. A backhand winner up the line closed out the love set as Williams became the oldest WTA Championships winner ever, winning 2-6/6-3/6-0 to end the year on an 18-match winning streak.

Of course, this sort of thing is really nothing new for Serena. But, as Williams has often done over the years, she finds a way to keep things "interesting." So does Li. And if her work in Istanbul is any indication, the Chinese vet might just be the most interesting woman in the tennis world at some point in 2014.

Then again, as long as Serena is still Serena, it might not matter.

S: Serena Williams/USA def. Li Na/CHN 2-6/6-3/6-0
D: Hsieh/Peng (TPE/CHN) d. Makarova/Vesnina (RUS/RUS) 6-4/7-5


...for the second straight year, Serena went through the WTA Championships without losing a match, though her sometimes-lethargic play on semifinal/final weekend caused her to drop a pair of sets. Still, she's now won fifteen straight Championship matches, and her season mark ends up at 78-4, by far the most matches she's ever played in a season. Her eleven titles is the most she's ever won, too.
RISERS: Hsieh Su-Wei/Peng Shuai (TPE/CHN) & Petra Kvitova/CZE

...Li became the first WTA Championships singles finalist to hail from Asia, but long-time friends Hsieh & Peng became the first Asian champions in the event, taking the doubles title in straight sets in the final over Russians Ekaterina Makarova & Elena Vesnina, who'd battled back a day earlier to knock off top-seeded Errani & Vinci in the semis. The Italians may be 2013's #1-ranked team, but Hsieh & Peng have really made a very strong case to be declared the Doubles Team of the Year. While Errani & Vinci have won three titles, including the Australian Open, Paris Indoors and Doha, Hsieh and Peng has claimed five, including wins in Rome, Cincinnati, Wimbledon and now the Championships. Kvitova, showing improvement in her fitness and (for the most part, though she wasn't without her lapses) consistency, lived up to her indoor tennis reputation by reaching the Championships semifinals, and also set a tour record with her 37th three-setter of the season in a round robin win over Angelique Kerber.
SURPRISES: Casey Dellacqua/AUS & Shuko Aoyama/JPN
...both these two are much better known for their doubles than singles, but both pulled off ITF titles all by their lonesome this weekend. Dellacqua, 28, is a Top 10er in doubles but is currently barely in the Top 200 in singles. But after failing to reach the WTA Championships with Ashleigh Barty (they were ranked 5th in the points race, just missing the four-team field), she played a $50K challenger in Bendigo, Australia and got wins over Irena Pavlovic, Irina Falconi and Noppawan Lertcheewakarn in the final to grab her first singles crown of '13 and match the biggest title of her career (she now has three $50K titles). Aoyama, 25, is in the Top 50 in doubles, but just inside the Top 300 in singles. She hadn't won a singles title since taking a $10K in Tokyo in 2010 before she went through the draw at the $25K event in Hamamatsu this past week. Aoyama, who won two tour doubles titles and reached the Wimbledon doubles semis earlier this season, defeated Eri Hozumi in the singles final, and also picked up a more familiar trophy in the doubles with Junri Namigata.
...she faded down the stretch and came up short in the final against Serena, but Li continued to break records for Chinese and Asian tennis, becoming the first Championship singles finalist and finishing the season at #3 (and doing that in a year in which she didn't win a slam, and claimed just one title, shows how much more consistent her overall results were than in previous seasons). One more offseason, especially since it won't be as much of a shock to her system as the last, with Carlos Rodriguez and we might finally see the "finished product" of their partnership. Melbourne waits with bated breath.
COMEBACK: Jelena Jankovic/SRB
...sure, JJ ultimately went just 1-3 in Istanbul. But it was a fine conclusion to a season which saw her reclaim a Top 10 ranking and make her first appearance in the WTA Championships since 2010. Once in Istanbul, her win over Victoria Azarenka was her first over a Top 4 player in over three years, and ended her 0-17 slide in such matches. Her semifinal result -- though she was just the fourth woman to ever advance out of round robin play with a losing record -- was her best in the event since 2009. Sure, she had a shot to put away a barely-there Serena on Saturday, but no one ever accused Jelena of being perfect. If she was... well, that just wouldn't, and couldn't, and shouldn't, be, well, "right."
FRESH FACE: Ons Jabeur/TUN the $50K challenger in Saguenay, Canada, the 19-year old Tunisian won her sixth career ITF crown (4th in '13), matching her two previous biggest-ever titles in $50K events. In what has to amount to a career week, Jabeur, the 2011 RG girls champ, notched wins over Alexandra Stevenson, Marta Domachowska and Timea Babos before downing Coco Vandeweghe in three sets in the final.
DOWN: Agnieszka Radwanska/POL
...Vika might have talked of lacking motivation, and dragged her injured body around the court in her final match, finishing up her first-ever professional season without an in-match retirement, but at least she got a win in Istanbul. Radwanska didn't even show up. Oh, she was there in body... but not in mind. Nowhere to be found was the clever thinker and shotmaker, as the Pole defined "playing out the string," failing to win even a set in three matches (vs. Kvitova, Serena and Kerber) and, as a result, losing the #3 season-ending ranking to Li and falling from #4 to #5.
ITF PLAYERS: Aliaksandra Sasnovich/BLR & Anna Tatishvili/GEO
...Vika had a bad week, but at least one Minsk-born Belarusian had a good one. 19-year old Sasnovich, ranked 237 spots below Azarenka, claimed the biggest of her eight career challenger titles in claiming the $100K in Poitiers, France. Unseeded, Sasnovich defeated Mandy Minella, Pauline Parmentier, Alexandra Cadantu and Sofia Arvidsson en route to the title. Last year's winner in Poitiers was Monica Puig in a foreshadowing of what turned out to be a breakthrough season for the Puerto Rican teenager in '13. In Florence, South Carolina, Anna Tatishvili reached her third straight challenger final in the American South in recent weeks. After splitting her previous two finals, the 23-year old from Georgia (just not the American one) got wins over Asia Muhammad, Catalina Castano, Chalena Scholl and Madison Brengle in a three-set final.
JUNIOR STARS: Ivana Jorovic/SRB & Christina Makarova/USA
...Jorovic, 16, won the Osaka Mayor's Cup as the 4th seed, taking out Ilka Csoregi in the quarterfinals before dusting off #1-seeded Hordette Varvara Flink in the final. Meanwhile, in the aforementioned $25K in Florence, South Carolina, Makarova -- the Montreal-born 17-year old with the Russian-sounding name who is actually a Bannerette -- qualified and advanced all the way to the quarterfinals, picking up a nice win over Petra Rampre along the way.

1. WTA RR - Li d. Azarenka
2013 began with Li tripping and falling against Azarenka in the Australian Open final, and it ends with Azarenka hurting her back in Istanbul against Li and losing for the fifth time in her last six matches. Maybe, for their own safety, they should just try to avoid each other in 2014?
2. WTA SF - Li d. Kvitova
And with this win, Li becomes the first Asian to reach the WTA Championships final, as well as assuring herself of also being the highest-ranked at #3 (surpassing Kimiko Date-Krumm's #4).
3. WTA Doubles Final - Hsieh/Peng d. Makarova/Vesnina
Hmmm, I guess Makarova wasn't was injured as Vesina hinted she was the other week when she said that was one of the reasons she was skipping the Fed Cup final to play in Sofia.
4. $25K Casablanca Final - Victoria Kan/RUS d. Olga Savchuk/UKR
Yep, another Hordette not playing next week in Italy. The 18-year old won her 3rd challenger of the year in a season in which she's seen her ranking jump over 200 spots since the end of 2012. (Oh, and if you thought I might think about making some sort of "Casablanca" allusion here -- like say, nothing that this title might not mean "a hill of beans in this crazy world" when it comes to the FC final, or something like that -- than you would have been correct... but I decided against doing it. Too obvious.)
5. $10K Dubrovnik Final - Barbora Krejicikova/CZE d. Polona Rebersak/SLO
One more game in the 1st, and the scoreline would have matched the WTA Championship final. The 17-year old junior #4 wins her second '13 challenger, and it's a defense of the same title she won a year ago, as well.
HM- $10K Sharm El Sheikh Final - Elise Mertens/BEL d. Klaartje Liebens/BEL
Speaking of repeats, this is the same final match-up as in the challenger LAST week in Sharm El Sheikh. In fact, the 17-year old Waffle, a Top 10 junior, has won three titles there this season. She claimed the doubles, too, with Sandra Zaniewska, the same player Mertens defeated in the singles semifinals.

1. WTA Final - S.Williams d. Li

Serena claims her tenth three-set win of 2013 (which, for once, IS NOT a record for her -- she won eleven in '09).
2. $50K Bendigo Doubles Final - Sema/Sema d. Adamczak/Rogowska
The Japanese sisters win their third title as a duo in '13, and their seventh in their careers.
3. $25K Herzlia ISR Final - Yuliya Beygelzimer/UKR d. Kristina Kucova/SVK
...6-3/4-6/5-2 ret.
Alas, not all tennis sisters could win in finals this weekend.

8...Martina Navratilova
5...Steffi Graf
4...Chris Evert
3...Kim Clijsters
3...Monica Seles

[minimum 50 matches won, fewer than 10 losses]
.989 - Martina Navratilova, 1983 (86-1)
.977 - Steffi Graf, 1989 (86-2)
.975 - Martina Navratilova, 1984 (78-2)
.974 - Steffi Graf, 1987 (75-2)
.968 - Martina Navratilova, 1982 (90-3)
.967 - Martina Navratilova, 1986 (89-3)
.960 - Steffi Graf, 1988 (72-3)
.953 - Margaret Court, 1973 (102-5)
.951 - SERENA WILLIAMS, 2013 (78-4)
.949 - Chris Evert, 1978 (56-3)

6...Serena Williams, February-June (5-1)
6...SERENA WILLIAMS, July-October (5-1)
4...Maria Sharapova, March-May (2-2)
3...Victoria Azarenka, July-September (2-1)

**2013 WTA FINAL WIN PCT. - 3+ finals**
1.000 - Simona Halep (5-0)
.846 - SERENA WILLIAMS (11-2)
.750 - Agnieszka Radwanska (3-1)
.667 - Samantha Stosur (2-1)
.250 - Sara Errani (1-3)
.250 - LI NA (1-3)
.333 - Jelena Jankovic (1-2)
.333 - Angelique Kerber (1-2)

3...Sara Errani & Roberta Vinci, ITA/ITA
3...Nadia Petrova & Katarina Srebotnik, RUS/SLO

17...United States

**2013 ITF $100K FINALS**
Midland, USA - Lauren Davis/USA d. Alja Tomljanovic/CRO
Cagnes-Sur-Mer, FRA - Caroline Garcia/FRA d. Maryna Zanveska/UKR
Prague, CZE - Lucie Safarova/CZE d. Alexandra Cadantu/ROU
Marseille, FRA - Andrea Petkovic/GER d. A.Medina-Garrigues/ESP
Biarritz, FRA - Stephanie Vogt/LIE d. Anna Schmiedlova/SVK
Olomouc, CZE - Polona Hercog/SLO d. Katarzyna Piter/POL
Astana, KAZ - Nadiya Kichenok/UKR d. Maria Joao Koehler/POR
Vancouver, CAN - Johanna Konta/GBR d. Sharon Fichman/CAN
Poitiers, FRA - Aliaksandra Sasnovich/BLR d. Sofia Arvidsson/SWE

2009 Aravane Rezai, FRA
2010 Ana Ivanovic, SRB
2011 Ana Ivanovic, SRB
2012 Nadia Petrova, RUS

FED CUP FINAL (Cagliardi, ITA; red clay/outdoor)
12 Final: Czech Republic d. Serbia

Italy d. Russia 3-0

...really, you can sort of see the Russians wanting to get this one over as quickly as possible, what with the embarrassment of fielding a team of non-Top 100 players in the FC final. That said, Alisa Kleybanova was once (and, who knows, maybe could be again) a Top 20 player, so maybe she'll be able to scratch out a win and make the scoreline look a little less hurtful. Either way, it's hard to believe even four matches will be played in this one... although I guess the new rule that allow the doubles to be played at #4 in a dead rubber situation could be enacted, and the score turns out to be 4-0.

12 Final: Petrova d. Wozniacki

#14 Simona Halep
#16 Ana Ivanovic (WC)
#18 Maria Kirilenko
#19 Samantha Stosur
#25 Elena Vesnina
#26 Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova
#27 Alize Cornet
#119 Tsvetana Pironkova (WC)
alternates: #29 Lucie Safarova, #33 Daniela Hantuchova

Halep d. Stosur

...the draw isn't out yet, but assuming this match-up is possible I'll go with a repeat of the Kremlin Cup final

NANJING, CHINA (WTA $125K Challenger/hard court)
12 Final: =new event=
12 Doubles Final: =new event=
13 Top Seeds: Date-Krumm/Wickmayer

#1 Date-Krumm d. #8 A.Schmiedlova
#3 Zhang Shuai d. Shvedova
#3 Zhang Shuai d. #1 Date-Krumm

...hmm, KDK is the #1 seed here, and Wickmayer is #2. Both are former slam semifinalists. Yep, these 125 Challengers really ARE about giving young players an extra chance to succeed, aren't they? Of course, since the Tournament of "Champions" doesn't contain a full field of actual champions, who's to quibble?

All for now. 2013 BSA Player Lists later this week.


Blogger 224jax said...

Serena is 32. Venus is 33.

Mon Oct 28, 12:19:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Todd.Spiker said...

Whoops! Thanks. I think I got crossed up over thinking she'd been 32 when she won the Open, and then had her birthday in late September.

Mon Oct 28, 12:49:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Eric said...

Question of the day: Is Jankovic a better player now or when she was no. 1?

Naturally, the next question is if Ivanovic is better now or when she was no. 1?

I think Ivanovic is definitely a better all-round player. Her fitness and movement is exponentially better. I think her forehand has stayed the same. Her backhand is more consistent now but can sit up sometimes. I think her serve is still powerful, but not as consistent as when she was no. 1. But on the whole, she's a better player. I think she still needs to improve her mentality, especially in tight situations. harder to assess. She has a better serve - and has developed a quick serve as a weapon. But i think her groundstrokes are less reliable...and she's not as quick on her feet. But I think the area where she suffers most now is tactically. I think Sanchez helped her a lot with opponents. She was always a counter puncher, but she was an offensive counter puncher. She always hit the ball one more time, but ALWAYS away from the opponent. It was frustrating for her opponents (and frustrating for me to watch - I didn't like her then). She was able to hit the ball away from them because she knew where they were going. Now...I think that she tries to be more offensive, but doesn't set up the point well all the time... Points sometimes feel out of her control and that she's waiting for some mistakes. In 2008, I always felt like she was weaving a web (of deceit) and that she was in control of the points.

But as she said to a reporter in Istanbul, this is just one person's opinion. lol

Thanks for another year of posts Todd!

Mon Oct 28, 09:12:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Diane said...

Eric, I agree with everything you said about JJ. Yes, the serve is much better, but the groundstrokes aren't razor-sharp the way they used to be, and the points end more quickly. I also don't think she's quite as fast as she was, though she's certainly just as flexible and rubbery.

I do wonder whether these deficits can be corrected. I know she's older now, but she's so athletic, I believe she can get it back, if she's willing to do the work. She reads her opponents well, and can rely on her extraordinary reach to quickly change defense to offense. Maybe another go with Sanchez? I think he's a really good coach, and especially for JJ.

Mon Oct 28, 10:18:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Zidane said...

I also agree with both of you: Jankovic is a lesser version of her former self. Serve is improved, fitness has remained, but tactical skills, reading of the game and speed have decreased.

As for Ivanovic, she is definitely much better than when she was #1. ;) The question is rather: is she better than the year prior to her being #1, to which question the answer is an obvious no to me. Her mental toughness (or rather what we thought was mental toughess) collapsed, the reliability of her serve steeply declined (it had a few cracks on windy days, but it became fully apparent and recurring after her mental deficiencies were exposed), she lost muscle weight (for photoshoots?) and thus power in her shots. Other aspects improved, and her forehand is still a beauty to watch, but the whole appears to me much weaker than it was. She no longer has the tools to beat any opponent playing at a high level.

Mon Oct 28, 11:22:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Eric said...

I used to think Ana had lost some power due to becoming more slender...but I watched her match against Li Na in Toronto this summer and she was hammering the ball. You can pull it up on youtube.

I also wonder about her mental toughness in 2007/8. Was it just the daring of youth? And then the inability or immaturity to handle the pressures of being number 1? External pressures? Loss of drive since she'd "made it"? I think that she still has a lot of time to win another slam.

Zidane - I'm not sure what you mean by the year prior to 2008? I felt like she was at her peak in early 2008...

Diane - I always wonder what happened between JJ and Sanchez...They certainly had a volatile relationship.

Mon Oct 28, 11:56:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Eric said...

what about Kuzzie? is she better or worse now? I honestly haven't seen her play in so long that I'm not sure.

Tue Oct 29, 12:01:00 AM EDT  
Blogger Todd.Spiker said...

Thanks, Eric. 132 (and counting) since January 1st, to be exact. ;)

Oh, and in case anyone is interested in watching, ESPN2's newest "30 for 30" documentary on Tuesday night is about Jimmy Connors' U.S. Open run in 1991.

Tue Oct 29, 02:12:00 AM EDT  
Blogger Diane said...

JJ tends to have volatile relationships with coaches, etc. Sanchez might have been the only one who is just as comfortable as JJ in volatile relationships!

(After she won her semifinal in Charleston this year--having gotten into it with both Serena and a ballboy--she walked into the press room and said "Anyone want to fight me?!")

Tue Oct 29, 10:00:00 AM EDT  
Blogger Zidane said...

Eric - I did't say the year prior to 2008, but the year (52 weeks) prior to her becoming #1. She officially became #1 after winning RG, and it is this precise moment that her slump began. The year prior to it includes two RG finals (one won), one AO final and very good, consistent performances overall, the best stretch of her career by far. It was mostly a joke, I was playing with the words.

I must admit I haven't seen her play in 2013, so my assessment was based on what I saw in 2011-2012. So, regarding that match with Li, two possibilities: either (i) she regained some power lately, and I need to correct my assessment, or (ii) that Li hitting the ball so hard makes her opponents having to generate less power, which made Ivanovic look like she did in the old days.

Kuznet has decreased. Her overall game hasn't changed over the years, she still offers the otherworldly shots she is known for and for which I love her, but her consistency (based on her own standards) and fitness have declined over the last 2-3 years, albeit with ups and downs. Physical issues have also plagued her.

I remember when she won the US Open in 2004, it was said that she hit balls after every match, whatever the result, loss or win, a habit she maintained even after winning the Open. Somewhere between 2004 and now, she stopped that habit, and I often wonder how important it might have been for her to keep her focus and consistency.

Tue Oct 29, 05:30:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Eric said...

Zidane, I think it's interesting how Kuznet and Marat Safin are very good friends and so similar personality-wise. Both are so talented and mercurial (both in the mind and the feet). Both won slams 5 years apart. Both base their games on passion. When they feel it, they feel it. And both can sometimes be tormented.

Tue Oct 29, 11:11:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Eric said...

Todd, are you fatigued after so many posts? Have you hit a wall? LOL.

Tue Oct 29, 11:12:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Diane said...

Todd is the Serena of bloggers :)

Wed Oct 30, 09:01:00 AM EDT  
Blogger Todd.Spiker said...

If Sveta could have only gotten to #1, you could have kept going there, Eric! :D

Trying to space out the season review posts so I don't go loopy!


Oh, if only I could twist my hair into a braid! (Wait... that sounded a bit strange, didn't it?) :D

Wed Oct 30, 01:41:00 PM EDT  

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