Thursday, January 23, 2014

AO 11 - An Absence of Radwanskian Malice

So, how do you improve upon perfection? Well, if you're Aga Radwanska attempting to follow up her masterpiece of a match against Vika Azarenka in the Australian Open quarterfinals, you don't.

When the Pole opened today's semifinal match against Dominika Cibulkova with an unforced error, the first clue about what was about to happen had been dropped. Of course, Radwanska had already learned the hard way last year that the diminutive Cibulkova, the shortest player on tour, wasn't a slow learner. The Pole had put up a masterpiece against the Slovak in Week 2 of 2013, defeating her 6-0/6-0 in the Sydney final, only to see Cibulkova come back seven months later and defeat her in the final of Stanford.

What the 24-year old Cibulkova lacks in size she makes up for with ferocity. While she's usually described as a counter-puncher, you sometimes get the notion that Cibulkova is playing as if she's the biggest beast on the block. She regularly smacks shots harder than players half a foot taller than herself, and she's unafraid to step into the court to take balls early in an attempt to control her own destiny. It's a wonderful trait to have, but until now it hasn't been enough.

Cibulkova came into her career's second major semifinal showing an impressive finishing burst in her last four matches in Melbourne, as she closed them out, in order, by 6-1, 6-0, 6-1 and 6-0 last set scores. But that was quite in contrast to the Slovak's longtime knock as a player talented and determined enough to defeat the top players, but maybe not mentally strong enough to close them out after having grabbed big, seemingly insurmountable match leads.

Against Radwanska, Cibulkova would get another chance to prove that she's outgrown her career-long reputation. And she'd get a lot of help from Aga in doing so.

Aside from the error on the first point of the match, Radwanska also egregiously missed a drop shot in that game. Meanwhile, Cibulkova, kicking off a strategy that she would employ the entire day, attacked the Radwanska serve, getting the break. As the hard-hitting Slovak immediately began to dictate play in this match, it was apparent that her opponent was not the same Aga that had discombobulated Azarenka and wowed so many people with her artistic brilliance and mad scientist genius just twenty-four hours earlier. Instead, she more resembled the Radwanska who'd ended her '13 campaign in Istanbul, playing with a blank expression on her face, going through the motions while seeming to lack inspiration and showing signs that her brilliant mind was simply not in working order. Afterward, the Pole would admit that she felt like she was playing in "slow motion" on this day. Needless to say, in the only main draw singles match all tournament that went off just one day after the players' previous round, only Cibulkova came 100% prepared to give it her all.

A game and a half into this semifinal, Radwanska already had as many errors in the match as she had in the entire 6-0 3rd set she put up against Azarenka yesterday. And there seemed to be no end in sight. An Aga error on a down-the-line backhand completed Cibulkova's hold for 2-0, and even when Aga did finally string together a few points -- going up 40/love on serve in game #3 -- she would soon after make things difficult for herself. A double-fault and error brought that game to deuce, and she held to get on the board. But she was flat, lifeless and a shadow of her oft-fascinating self. Even when she held five break points on Cibulkova's serve a game later, a close-up shot of Radwanska's face revealed that there was nothing going on there. No glint in the eye. No determined half-smile. No evidence that the wheels were turning inside her mind, planning out moves four strokes in advance and then standing back and marveling at what she just accomplished with an ounce of anticipation and the flick of a wrist. Cibulkova held for 3-1.

Soon, with Cibulkova, unlike Azarenka, making her shots from the start, Radwanska was even being victimized by one of her own weapons -- a drop shot -- before another error provided the final point that converted still another break to give the Slovak a 4-1 lead. On the rare occasion that Radwanska ventured in from behind the baseline, she was often left to watch a Cibulkova passing shot fly past her for a winner.

In game #7, serving down 5-1, the artist's blue period persisted. An A-Rad error gave Cibulkova double set point at 40/15. Radwanska saved one BP with a going-through-the-motions version of one of the sequences she pulled off with such joy against Azarenka: an approach to the net, an overhead and a winner. But it was a labored struggle for her to do it. It was as if her body remembered what to do, but her heart and mind weren't fully committed. Or maybe vice versa. Either way, all the parts weren't working in unison to produce the sort of seamless work of art that we know she's capable of. On the second SP, Cibulkova closed out the 6-1 set with a backhand winner. For the set, Radwanska won 0% of her 2nd serve points, and was 0-for-5 on break point attempts.

The 3rd set began with a love hold by Cibulkova. In game #2, she hit a forehand winner on the first point, which was followed by back-to-back Radwanska errors and a Cibulkova return winner off a weak second serve to go up 2-0. Then, if there was any thought that Radwanska might awaken her inner Rad, it slipped away a game later. There, things started well for the Pole, as a forehand error from Cibulkova led to her falling down love/40 on serve, bringing back memories of all the blown leads she's squandered in the past. On the next point, Cibulkova hit a seemingly long second serve that was called in. Radwanska reflexively played the ball, then chose to play the point (which she quickly lost) rather than stop and call for a replay challenge. Upset that the chair umpire didn't overrule the call, Aga had robbed herself of a chance to have call corrected by making the mistake of continuing to play. It wasn't the sort of move that a mentally aware Radwanska would make. Replays showed the serve to be quite long, but it no longer mattered.

What followed after that point was a Cibulkova forehand winner, a wide Radwanska return, a serve up the "T" that Aga barely got over the net and was an easy put-away for the Slovak, and then a game-holding Radwanska error to give Cibulkova a 3-0 lead.

From there, there was no looking back. One game later, Cibulkova was able to take her time to lean back and load up her racket to crack a 2nd serve return winner as Radwanska's serve continued to be victimized. Later in the game, the Slovak stepped to her right and crushed a FIRST serve return so hard that it looked like a second serve. It gave her a break point, which she converted with a forehand down the line to go up 4-0. The Pole did manage a break in the next game, as her level of play almost imperceptibly picked up, but even with Cibulkova's checkered past under similar circumstances, the general lack of any Radwanska get-up-and-go meant that the chances for a turnaround were virtually nil. She held to get to 4-2 with three straight good serves, but it was a hollow victory.

None of the "unconfirmed Radwanska Sightings" at this slam were going to help Aga on this day.

After a Cibulkova error put her down 15/30 in the next game, Radwanska made another too-few-and-far-between venture to the net, only to see one of the Slovak's hot shots fired back at her and fly off Aga's racket, landing out to give Cibulkova a game point. A sailed forehand from A-Rad handed her the hold for 5-2. Playing out the string, Radwanska started game #8 with another error, then after being unable to keep in her reply to a hard and deep Cibulkova shot, Aga ended things with two more. Cibulkova won 6-1/6-2, falling on her back and kicking up her feet in celebration as she notched her second Top 5 victory at this AO and advanced to her first career slam final.

While Radwanska still searches for grand slam glory, Cibulkova has discovered the hard-earned "fast track" to success. She's one win away from being one of the most unanticipated grand slam champions in recent memory.

Go figure.

...heading into the first semifinal of the day, 31-year old two-time AO finalist Li Na must have sworn that the tournament draw -- save for her QF match against the one-day-older-that-Li Flavia Pennetta -- was conspiring against her in an attempt to make her feel old. She opened this AO by facing off with the two 16-year old players (Ana Konjuh & Belinda Bencic) who split 2013's four junior slam crowns, and today went up against 19-year old Eugenie Bouchard, the 2012 Wimbledon girls winner and last year's tour Newcomer of the Year.

With much sentiment both in Melbourne and other corners with Bouchard in this match-up, the charming Li was cast in the uncharacteristic role as not only the favorite to win this tournament in the wake of so many big game exits, but also as the spoiler who threatened to assert her authority and put the star-in-the-making teen out of this Australian Open. Whether or not either was a role she embraced, Li took to both with aplomb and skill.

Li opened by quickly going up 40/love against the first-time slam semifinalist (in just her fourth career major), then crushed a forehand return up the line to break Bouchard's serve. And her early dominance didn't end there, either. Li held and broke Bouchard again two games later, taking a 3-0 lead without yet committing her first unforced error in the match. Winning twenty of the first twenty-three points, Li got a third break for a 5-0 advantage.

From that point, Bouchard finally settled herself. She won eight of the next ten points, closing on the net to put away a swing volley to get her first break point of the match as Li was serving for a bagel in the opening set. The Chinese vet double-faulted on BP #2 to get the Canadian on the scoreboard.

Bouchard seemed to finally have a feel for the moment, easily holding for 5-2, but it was too late to save the 1st set. Serving for the set once again, Li put away a serve-and-volley point on her second set point to win 6-2 after having successfully employed a game plan that called for her to focus on deep groundstrokes with intent, stressing the sort of crosscourt shots that would pull Bouchard off the court, then follow them up with still more crosscourt shots that the athletic, but hardly quick, Canadian would have a difficult time consistently chasing down.

Still, at that point, one got the sense that the 2nd would be a closer affair since Bouchard had her feet under her and was getting more comfortable with Li's high-level of play after the teenager had advanced to the semis without facing a player seeded higher than #14. But Bouchard had to open the set on serve, putting her in an immediate pressure situation to hold after having done so just once in the opening set. Initially, she held up her end. In the opening game, Bouchard saw a game point erased when Li raced across the middle of the court to put away a crosscourt forehand that a lunging Bouchard got her racket on and couldn't keep in the court. Saving two break points, the Canadian used her big forehand and an ace to help her hold for 1-0 and, with Li serving into the sun, denied her opponent on three game points before breaking her on her own third break point of the game to go up 2-0.

For a moment, Bouchard looked as if she might be able to pull off her third come-from-behind three-set victory at this AO.

But her advantage didn't last long, as Li continued to consistently take big leads in each game. A Bouchard DF helped put her into a love/40 service hole one game later, and Li immediately got the break back for 2-1. The Canadian held a break point in game #4, but Li saved it then hit an ace to hold and knot the set at two. The pair exchanged breaks the next two games, then Li again went up 40/love on Bouchard's serve and used a pair of crosscourt forehands to break for 4-3. Going up 40/love again with a wide serve, Li used another big serve to hold for 5-3 then, two games later, utilized three more crosscourt shots on match point, ending things with a backhand winner to take the match 6-2/6-4 and advance to her third AO final in the last four years, and her third consecutive WTA final overall dating back to last season's Tour Championships.

Meanwhile, while Bouchard was ultimately held off here, one wonders if the same will be able to be said about the fast-improving teen by the end of the season.

...the junior semis are set, and we're assured of an unseeded girls finalist.

In the top half of the draw, unseeded Croat Jana Fett (the Force is STILL with her, apparently) knocked off Bannerette Olivia Hauger, who'd earlier upset #1 seed Varvara Flink. She'll face unseeded Aussie Kimberly Birrell in the semifinals. Today, Birrell defeated #10 seeded Hordette Anastasiya Kornadina, the only seed that had advanced in the top half.

The bottom half of the quarterfinals included four seeds, though. There, #4 Elizaveta Kulichkova, an unseeded girls semifinalist in Melbourne a year ago, defeated #6 Jelena Ostapenko of Latvia. The Russian will next face #7-seed Sun Ziyue of China, who upset #2-seeded Serb Ivana Jorovic.

So, with Sun and Li alive in both singles draws, there's a chance we could see the first-ever slam sweep of both the girls and women's titles by players hailing from China.

In the girls doubles final, the #1 team of Anhelina Kalinina (UKR) & Kulichkova will meet #2-seeds Katie Boulter (GBR) & Jorovic. the Mixed Doubles, Kristina Mladenovic & Daniel Nestor knocked off Daniela Hantuchova & Leander Paes in the QF. They'll next face the team of Zheng Jie & Scott Lipsky, who advanced yesterday.

In the other semi, Sania Mirza & Horia Tecau will face defending AO champions Jarmila Gajdosova & Matthew Ebden. The last team to defend a Mixed slam title was the all-sibling duo of Helena Sukova & Cyril Suk at Wimbledon in 1996-97, and the only to do so at the Australian Open has been 1988-89 champions Jana Novotna & Jim Pugh. the wheelchair singles semifinals, the top two seeded woman -- Germany's Sabine Ellerbrock and Yui Kamiji of Japan -- advanced to the final, but there was a big upset on the men's side as it'll be Argentine Gustavo Fernandez facing off against Japan's #1-seeded Shingo Kunieda in the final, not #2 Frenchman Stephane Houdet.

As the #1 WC doubles team, though, Kunieda & Houdet reached the final


during ESPN2's coverage of the Li/Bouchard match, Cliff Drysdale talked of the winner of that match's next opponent. Or, more accurately, who the opponent WOULD NOT be. "There's no Serena," he said, ""No Maria, no..." Then, he searched his memory for the name of the player that had somehow slipped his mind. Finally, after about eight seconds, he concluded the thought with, "...Azarenka."


...and, finally, hopefully, if the same match-ending situation arises this weekend, Li will have a quick answer to a question similar to Rennae Stubbs' post-match query today about which of her eight rackets did the deed against Bouchard (Li offered to check her tennis bag to see which racket it was, but by then Stubbs had lost interest, a phenomenon consistent in nearly every strained, trying-way-to-hard-to-be-irreverent on-court interview during this tournament, save perhaps for the ones conducted by Jim Courier).

You see, Li has named her rackets: "Li Na 1," "Li Na 2," "Li Na 3," etc. And how fun would it be to hear Li Na talking about a racket named Li Na that had just helped Li Na win her second major title? Really, can Li Na be anything other than priceless?

#4 Li Na/CHN vs. #20 Dominika Cibulkova/SVK

#1 Rafael Nadal/ESP vs. #6 Roger Federer/SUI
#8 Stanislas Wawrinka/SUI def. #7 Tomas Berdych/CZE

#1 Errani/Vinci (ITA/ITA) vs. #3 Makarova/Vesnina (RUS/RUS)

Butorac/Klaasen (USA/RSA) vs. #14 Kubot/Lindstedt (POL/SWE)

J.Zheng/Lipsky (CHN/USA) vs. Mladenovic/Nestor (FRA/CAN)
#6 Mirza/Tecau (IND/ROU) vs. Gajdosova/Ebden (AUS/AUS)

Jana Fett/CRO vs. Kimberly Birrell/AUS
#4 Elizaveta Kulichkova/RUS vs. #7 Sun Ziyue/CHN

#1 Alexander Zverev/GER vs. Bradley Mousley/AUS
#7 Quentin Halys/FRA vs. #2 Stefan Kozlov/USA

#1 Kalinina/Kulichkova (UKR/RUS) vs. #2 Boulter/Jorovic (GBR/SRB)

##3 Halys/Tatlot (FRA/FRA) vs. #5 Mielder/Mousley (AUT/AUS)

#1 Sabine Ellerbrock/GER vs. #2 Yui Kamiji/JPN

#1 Shingo Kunieda/JPN vs. Gustavo Fernandez/ARG

#1 Kamiji/Whiley (JPN/GER) vs. #2 Buis/Griffioen (NED/NED)

#1 Houdet/Kunieda (FRA/JPN) vs. #2 Reid/Scheffers (GBR/NED)

2004 Fabiola Zuluaga, COL
2005 Nathalie Dechy, FRA
2006 Martina Hingis, SUI
2007 Serena Williams, USA
2008 Daniela Hantuchova, SVK
2009 Vera Zvonareva, RUS
2010 Zheng Jie, CHN & Li Na, CHN
2011 Li Na, CHN
2012 Sara Errani, ITA
2013 Sloane Stephens, USA
2014 Dominika Cibulkova, SVK

21...Serena Williams (17-4)
14...Venus Williams (7-7)
8...Maria Sharapova (4-4)
4...Svetlana Kuznetsova (2-2)
4...Victoria Azarenka (2-2)
4...LI NA (1-2)
3...Ana Ivanovic (1-2)

1977 Kerry Melville-Reid, AUS
1978 Chris O'Neil, AUS
1979 Barbara Jordan, USA
1980 Hana Mandlikova, CZE
1995 Mary Pierce, FRA
1997 Martina Hingis, SUI
2001 Jennifer Capriati, USA
2006 Amelie Mauresmo, FRA
2012 Victoria Azarenka, BLR

5...Serena Williams (5-0)
3...Maria Sharapova (1-2)
3...LI NA (0-2)
2...Victoria Azarenka (2-0)
1...Ana Ivanovic (0-1)
1...Venus Williams (0-1)

47 - Marion Bartoli (2013 Wimbledon)
45 - Jana Novotna (1998 Wimbledon)
39 - Francesca Schiavone (2010 Roland Garros)
34 - Samantha Stosur (2011 US Open)
31 - Amelie Mauresmo (2006 Australian Open)
29 - Jennifer Capriati (2001 Australian Open)
28 - Kerry Melville-Reid (1978 Australian Open)
26 - Lindsay Davenport (1998 U.S. Open)
26 - Dominika Cibulkova ???
25 - Victoria Azarenka (2012 Australian Open)

1997 U.S. Open - Venus Williams
1999 U.S. Open - Serena Williams (W)
2004 Wimbledon - Maria Sharapova (W)
2004 U.S. Open - Svetlana Kuznetsova (W)
2007 Roland Garros - Ana Ivanovic
2008 U.S. Open - Jelena Jankovic
2009 U.S. Open - Caroline Wozniacki
2010 Roland Garros - Francesca Schiavone (W)
2010 Roland Garros - Samantha Stosur
2010 Wimbledon - Vera Zvonareva
2011 Australian Open - Li Na
2011 Wimbledon - Petra Kvitova (W)
2012 Australian Open - Victoria Azarenka (W)
2012 Roland Garros - Sara Errani
2012 Wimbledon - Agnieszka Radwanska
2013 Wimbledon - Sabine Lisicki
2014 Australian Open - Dominika Cibulkova

Unseeded - 1978 Chris O'Neil, AUS
Unseeded - 2007 Serena Williams, USA
#20 - 2014 Dominika Cibulkova, SVK???
#12 - 2001 Jennifer Capriati, USA
#7 - 2005 Serena Williams, USA
#5 - 1979 Barbara Jordan, USA
#5 - 2008 Maria Sharapova, RUS
#4 - 1995 Mary Pierce, FRA
#4 - 1997 Martina Hingis, SUI
#4 - 2014 Li Na, CHN???

TOP EARLY ROUND (1r-2r): #1 Serena Williams/USA
TOP QUALIFYING MATCH: Q1: Cristina Mitu/ROU def. #4 Anna-Lena Friedsam/GER 3-6/6-4/9-7
TOP EARLY RD. MATCH (1r-2r): 2nd Rd. - #3 Maria Sharapova/RUS def. Karin Knapp/ITA 6-3/4-6/10-8
TOP MIDDLE-RD. MATCH (3r-QF): 4th Rd. - #14 Ivanovic d. #1 S.Williams 4-6/6-3/6-3
TOP LATE RD. MATCH (SF-F/Jr./Doub.): xx
TOP LAVER NIGHT MATCH: Nominee: 3rd Rd. - #14 Ivanovic d. #17 Stosur 6-7(8)/6-4/6-2
FIRST VICTORY: #18 Kirsten Flipkens/BEL (def. Laura Robson/GBR)
FIRST SEED OUT: #7 Sara Errani/ITA (lost 1st Rd. to Julia Goerges, GER)
NATION OF POOR SOULS: Italy (top-seeded #7 Errani & #12 Vinci out 1st Round; Schiavone out 1st Rd. 5/6 slams)
LAST WILD CARD STANDING: Casey Dellacqua/AUS (4th Rd.)
LAST AUSSIE STANDING: Casey Dellacqua/AUS (4th Rd.)
Ms. OPPORTUNITY: Dominika Cibulkova/SVK
IT (Teen): Eugenie Bouchard/CAN
CRASH & BURN: #6 Petra Kvitova/CZE (lost 1st Rd. to world #88 Luksika Kumkhum; worst slam result since losing 1st Rd. at '11 U.S. Open following Wimbledon title run)
ZOMBIE QUEEN: #4 Li Na/CHN (3rd Rd. - saved MP vs. Safarova)
AMG SLAM FUTILITY UPDATE: lost 1st Rd. to (LL) Falconi/USA, once again failing to reach a slam QF in her career (so Anna Smashnova still has a buddy); 7 con. slam losses; 22 1st Round exits in 47 slams
LADY OF THE EVENING: Nominees: (the women's champion)
DOUBLES STAR: Nominees: J.Gajdosova, S.Mirza, K.Mladenovic, J.Zheng
JUNIOR BREAKOUT: Nominees: Z.Sun, J.Fett, K.Birrell, E.Kulichkova

All for Day 11. More tomorrow.


Blogger jo shum said...

I think the last match took too much out of her. Oh well, should have let vika win, then there's a chance for a AO final rematch, my favorite two girls. Granted , I have no idea if vika can get pass cibu. ;). Still good to dream. I think the next grand slam is too far away, should be somewhere in April, every 3 months will be good for show too.

Thu Jan 23, 08:38:00 AM EST  
Blogger Todd.Spiker said...

Yeah, Vika/Cibulkova would have been intriguing, what with their history of either great matches (Miami '12) or upsets (RG '12).

I keep wondering, what with all the Asian (mostly China-based) events being added to the schedule, and the tour's placing of big events (WTA Chsp.) in the area, if maybe one day in the not too distant future we might see the addition of a fifth slam directly into Asia, possibly one that takes place entirely indoors.

It would take some juggling of the schedule, but could probably be fit into the schedule, possibly at the end of the year or in that area (right before the EuroClay season) that you mentioned, right after the I.W./Miami/Charleston U.S. swing.

Thu Jan 23, 01:35:00 PM EST  
Blogger Hoergren said...

Indeed strange to see Aga - but understandable. So much effort into one match and thanks for that. We see it all the time in first rounders where big names are stunned by new unknown playing their lifes match because they meet a top 10 player. And the next they loose easily. Actually i like these surprises it makes tennis interesting to warch - except when your babe looses. Hope Cibu wins she's a fun player to watch. Anyone knows why she sheeze to the ball every time?

Fri Jan 24, 03:59:00 AM EST  
Blogger Todd.Spiker said...

But Aga's not a young player getting her first big win, though. We really should expect a better effort out of her on back-to-back days. It's not as if she hasn't beaten top players on back-to-back days in other "regular" events to win titles in the past. Yes, a slam is different... but she took Serena to three sets in the Wimbledon final. The occasion shouldn't be an issue, and it's too early in the year for fitness/wear to be blamed.

Fri Jan 24, 01:20:00 PM EST  

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