Sunday, January 19, 2014

AO 7 - The Serb Rises, and Serena Falls

Why is it that when Serena Williams loses in a slam -- or anywhere, really -- it seems as if the moon has just fallen from the sky?

Maybe it's because, like a WTA version of the rise and fall of the tides, we've come to mark time by how Williams performs in the four biggest events on the tennis calendar. And when a celestial player of the stature of a Serena is suddenly removed from the equation, everything seems "adrift." All of a sudden, nothing is a given. What once seemed an incontrovertible fact a few hours before is now a question without an answer. It's exciting, yes. But also scary. "Who knows what's going to happen now?," is the immediate refrain. It can give a tournament the shivers, serving to embolden the most hungry-for-success players, as well as freeze other less-prepared contenders in their tracks. It's fascinating to see in which group the surviving players ultimately reside.

Well, after Day 7 at this Australian Open, at the mid-way point of the tournament, that is what the rest of this slam will be about: who wants it the most, and who is capable of actually taking it? For there is both joy and fear in Melbourne... mighty Serena has indeed gone out.

Ana Ivanovic, a former #1 and slam winner, hasn't often resembled the last few years what her bio says she once was. Truthfully, ever after her masterful performance against Sam Stosur two nights ago, there was really little realistic thought that she could defeat Williams in their Round of 16 match today. After all, she was 0-4 against Serena in her career, and had never even won a single set, or even more than four games in any of those eight sets.

But, of course, there's always an "if" when it comes to Serena. If she's healthy and focused, she won't lose. If she's not, well, she still might win... but the door is open for the possibility of something else. It was pretty clear from the start that that door was open today, even if it was easy to believe that either Williams would find a way to close it, or AnaIvo would find a way to avoid walking through it.

Neither notion would prove true.

By now, we can see when something is "off" with Serena pretty quickly. The lack of footwork. The errors. The mechanical breakdown of her shots. Usually, when there's smoke, there's also fire. The last few days, there were rumors (amidst talk of shortened practices, a seemingly "B"-level game against Daniela Hantuchova two days ago, and a withdrawal from doubles) that Williams was injured. But Williams showed up on Laver today, so she thought she could still compete. And that's enough to get behind the notion that nothing should be taken away from what the Serb did on this day.

Even on a bad day, the one thing that Serena can do well is serve. She had thirteen aces today, but AnaIvo, regularly had an answer for both her first and second serves throughout the match. It would prove to be the signature of the #14-seeded Serb's three-set win over the world #1 who came to Melbourne as the virtually unopposed favorite to lift her eighteenth slam crown next weekend.

But, right from the start, something didn't seem right today.

Williams hit an ace on the first point of the match, but the opening game also included two double-faults and three break points. Williams held, but her trouble would prove to be prophetic. Ivanovic broke her serve for 3-2, but failed to hold it when she was broken back at love in the next game, double-faulting on break point. While Ivanovic played with, and mostly better, than Williams in the opening set, Serena managed another break in game #10 to grab the set at 6-4.

In the 2nd, though, Ivanovic got a second chance. She didn't squander it.

Once again, she broke Williams for 3-2, then backed it up with a hold a game later when she won a replay challenge on a Serena groundstroke that proved to have sailed long. The Serb nearly extended her lead with another break, but Williams saved two break points and held for 4-3. As was the case against Stosur, Ivanovic showed an ability to seize control of the flow of games by stringing together winners off the ground. As the match progressed, in fact, her off-the-ground power numbers began to dwarf those of Williams. Serving to stay in the set at 5-3, Williams saw Ivanovic hit back-to-back forehand winners -- one on a return -- to take a 40/15 lead. Serena pulled out her big serve to pull the game back from the edge, but continued to serve up groundstrokes to what by now had proven to be Ivanovic's most pulverizing weapon in the match. If it was a tactical decision, it didn't work, as AnaIvo got a third break point and put away another forehand winner to take the set 6-3, ending her nine-set losing streak against the American.

In the 3rd, Ivanovic continued her surge. She got an early break and went up 2-0, then held for 3-0. On the first point of game #5, an AnaIvo backhand bounced off the net, over Williams, and safely inside the corner of the baseline. If one was looking for a sign of a Williams comeback, this was not it. It was more like an omen.

Ivanovic held for 4-1, then 5-2, as Serena was backed into a corner, needing to hold to keep the match alive. After getting a warning from the chair umpire for taking too long to serve, Williams' anger was apparent. In fact, it led to a brief period in which a comeback DID seem possible. After saving a match point, Serena began serving extremely quickly, forcing Ivanovic to hold up her hand to slow her down on more than one occasion. Williams fired an ace and put in several other big serves to hold, then glared at the umpire as she walked along the baseline. Was everything about to turn?

Umm, no.

Immediately after that game, it was all pretty much over. A backhand error and long return from Serena put AnaIvo up 40/love. Another long return ended things, as Ivanovic locked up her first career win over Williams, 4-6/6-3/6-3, and advanced to just her second slam quarterfinal since she lifted the Coupe Suzanne Lenglen in Paris nearly six years ago. Ending Williams' 25-match win streak, Ivanovic broke her serve four time led 23-5 in in groundstroke winners (w/ 20 from her forehand alone).

After rising to the highest position in the sport in one fell swoop in France in 2008, then almost immediately plummeting outside the Top 20, might Ivanovic's long road back finally have come back around again? She's shown brief flashes in recent seasons, gradually rising back into the Top 15 before this AO. In Week 1 in Auckland, she won her first title in over two years, and her first in an outdoor event since she won RG. AnaIvo is undefeated in 2014, and maybe looking better than she ever has.

After the match, what was expected about Serena proved true. Williams coach Patrick Mouratoglou hinted to the press about a back injury, and then Serena herself confirmed as much in her press conference. A back injury, possibly suffered during practice early in the week, nearly caused her to withdraw from the event, she said. With her game limited, her level of play went down and she made some errors she "hasn't made since the '80's."

But Williams also made a point to not lay everything about the loss on her injury. "I feel like Ana deserves all the credit," she said. "I feel she played unbelievable today."

And she did, too. Sporting a forehand that rekindled dreams are made of, and the sort of admirable nerves in the clutch that have eluded her for so long, Ivanovic has now thrown her name into the mix for being one of those players who are both hungry for (new) success, as well as capable of achieving it. We'll see if she can maintain that level for another week.

If so, it's not out of bounds to think that the recent WTA history of occasionally unexpected major champions could add another chapter.
Move over Francesca, Sam and Marion?

=DAY 7 NOTES= the preseason Prediction Blowout I picked Serena to win a true Grand Slam -- all four majors in a single season -- because I felt it was possible, if not realistically likely, considering her '13 dominance and head-to-head records against the other slam contenders.

A side benefit of the prediction was that it would be an overdue, very public test of the old "Kuznetsova Curse" that has been around nearly as long as Backspin itself. References to the Curse in this space have sort of drifted into the background around here as the talk of Radwanskian Massacres and Tennis Gods have pushed it out of the forefront in recent seasons. Here, though, I figured, would be the chance to see if it had any "juice" left.

Well, apparently, it still does. Welcome back, old friend. I never doubted you for a moment. (Not to your "face," anyway.)

...the Night 7 match-up on Laver between the last Aussie in the draw, wild card Casey Dellacqua, and fast-rising teenager Eugenie Bouchard was already a match with a few flags of interest attached to it. From the Aussie flags set to wave in the stands for Dellacqua, to the Canadian ones entertainingly wielded by a traveling band of Aussies who have quickly taken to the fair-haired Bouchard (surely, it's only because of her tennis, though, right?). Once Serena was removed as the QF opponent-in-waiting for the winner, though, the whole thing became an even bigger event

Maybe, in the end, too big for Dellacqua. But not Bouchard.

With dueling sections of serenading Aussies planted in the stands, Dellacqua saved a break point in game #2, then broke Bouchard in game #3 to take the early lead. Bouchard broke back late in the set and things went to a tie-break, where Dellacqua grabbed a 4-2 advantage. But her first double-fault, which was followed up by an error, seemed to sway the momentum to the Canadian. But Bouchard, too, saw a few wayward shots strip her of what appeared to be a surge in the making. In the end, Dellacqua pulled ahead at the close of the tie-break, taking it 7-5.

Bouchard bounced back in the 2nd, getting an early break and leading 3-1. She went on to take the set at 6-2. At that point, Dellacqua had nothing more to give. The Aussie didn't win another game, while Bouchard once again showed an on-court calm that might pay big dividends down the road. She won this match 6-7(5)/6-2/6-0 to reach her first career slam quarterfinal.

The Genie Army, like their young general, will live on at this Australian Open. What's next is anyone's guess. They can thank Serena for that. And AnaIvo, too.

...the first women's Round of 16 match up on Day 7 featured the sight of Flavia Pennetta shining in an everything-goes-her-way 1st set (winning 6-1 in twenty-four minutes) against Angelique Kerber, and then again in the closing games two sets later, after the Italian had failed to serve things out at 5-3. No where near ready to give in, Pennetta turned the tables and managed a break of the German to end the match, winning 6-1/4-6/7-5.

The Li Na/Ekaterina Makarova Round of 16 contest had far less turns of fate. It was pretty much a one-way affair, as the two-time AO finalist jumped on the Hordette early and never really looked back. After having to save a match point against Lucie Safarova in the 3rd Round, Li quickly got a break of the Russian's serve in the third game of the match, then coasted to a 6-2/6-0 victory. She's got unfinished business in Melbourne and, as it's turned out, her slip to #4 in the rankings after Week 1 might end up proving to be a boon to the Chinese. The #4 seed, of course, resided in the same half of the draw as Serena, so Li's chances of even reaching a third AO final seemed damaged, let alone her quest for her first title in the closest thing she has to a "home" slam.

Well, that's all changed now. Though AnaIvo's form isn't something to overlook, Li is surely now the favorite in the top half of the draw. Mixed Doubles, karma struck yet again, as Lisa Raymond (w/ Mariusz Fyrstenberg) defeated former doubles partner Liezel Huber (w/ Marcelo Melo) in the 1st Round.

Meanwhile, Kristina Mladenovic & Daniel Nestor won their 1st Round Mixed Doubles match. junior action, the Force was once again with Croat Jana Fett as she won her 1st Round match, while #16-seeded Fanny Stollar of Hungary lost to Kiwi Rosie Cheng. I don't mention the latter because Stollar was a favorite to win the title, but rather because I'm envisioning the blushes and giggles at Wimbledon when the Hungarian's name is announced to the fans at the All-England. If you don't know why, then Google what "fanny" means in Britain. I'm just sayin'.

...Ah, more memories...

Vika and Sloane in Melbourne in 2013. You remember, the match that Vika dominated save for part of one game when she failed to convert five match points when serving at 6-1/5-3? Yeah, that one.

First thing that catches my eye? The height and size difference.

...DAY 7 "LIKE":

on Tennis Channel, Martina Navratilova quite possibly coining -- or at least drawing attention to -- a new phrase: a "career quarterfinal slam," reaching at least the QF at all for slams during a career


Jim Courier coaxing Novak Djokovic to once again pull an impersonation from his tennis bag. Literally. After defeating Fabio Fognini to reach his nineteenth straight slam QF, Djokovic pulled out a racket and did his best Becker impression. As in Boris Becker, the Serb's new head coach. Sitting in the front row, Boris had a good time with it.

Could you imagine Murray daring to do the same with Lendl?


on Tennis Channel, Tracy Austin noting that sometimes Kerber can be "a little pouty." A "little?" Why, that's sort of like saying that JJ is "just a bit demonstrative" when things don't go her way in a match.

...and, finally, I just figured I'd go ahead and get a head start on what I expect will be the focus of one of tomorrow's Round of 16 matches, or at least it'll be the case with a certain four-lettered sports network. So...

Oh, and I'll also be on the look-out for when it's mentioned how Serena's exit opens up the world of possibility for Sloane Stephens, but not that it also does so for Vika, who, you know, has actually won the last two AO titles (both without having to face Williams, against whom she's 0-8 in slams, and now is assured of not having to meet once again).

#14 Ana Ivanovic/SRB def. #1 Serena Williams/USA
#30 Eugenie Bouchard/CAN def. (WC) Casey Dellacqua/AUS
#4 Li Na/CHN def. #22 Ekaterina Makarova/RUS
#28 Flavia Pennetta/ITA def. #9 Angelique Kerber/GER
#8 Jelena Jankovic/SRB vs. #11 Simona Halep/ROU
#20 Dominika Cibulkova/SVK vs. #3 Maria Sharapova/RUS
#5 Agnieszka Radwanska/POL vs. Garbine Muguruza/ESP
#13 Sloane Stephens/USA vs. #2 Victoria Azarenka/BLR

#1 Rafael Nadal/ESP vs. #16 Kei Nishikori/JPN
#22 Grigor Dimitrov/BUL vs. Roberta Bautista Agut/ESP
#4 Andy Murray/GBR vs. (LL) Stephane Robert/FRA
#10 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga/FRA vs. #6 Roger Federer/SUI
#7 Tomas Berdych/CZE def. #19 Kevin Anderson/RSA
#3 David Ferrer/ESP def. Florian Mayer/GER
#8 Stanislas Wawrinka/SUI vs. #17 Tommy Robredo/ESP
#2 Novak Djokovic/SRB def. #15 Fabio Fognini/ITA

#1 Errani/Vinci (ITA/ITA) vs. x/x
#4 Peschke/Srebotnik (CZE/SLO) vs. Gajdosova/Tomljanovic (AUS/CRO)
x/x vs. x/x
x/x vs. Peer/Soler-Espinosa (ISR/ESP)

x/x vs. Huey/Inglot (PHI/GBR)
Bolt/Whittington (AUS/AUS) vs. x/x
x/x vs. x/x
#5 Paes/Stepanek (IND/CZE) vs. #13 Llodra/Mahut (FRA/FRA)

[multiple matches - individual]
2-0...Victoria Azarenka, BLR
2-0...Novak Djokovic, SRB
1-1...Samantha Stosur, AUS
[multiple matches - nations]
3-0 = SRB
2-0 = BLR, CAN, ESP#
1-0 = CAN
1-5 = AUS
0-2 = FRA
# - Robredo (ESP) Night 7 result not included

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
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.)
IT (TBD): E.Bouchard, S.Halep, G.Muguruza
COMEBACK PLAYER: Nominees: A.Ivanovic, F.Pennetta
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: Nominees...
#13 S.Stephens (1st Rd. - down 5-1, w/ Shvedova twice serving for 1st set; 2nd Rd. - Tomljanovic served for match; 3rd Rd. - Svitolina served for 1st set)
#30 E.Bouchard (2nd Rd. - no on 6 MP in 2nd set vs. Razzano, saves 2 SP in 2nd; wins on 7th MP)
#3 M.Sharapova (2nd Rd. - goes 3:28 vs. Knapp, no on 3 MP at 5-4 in 3rd, wins on 4th MP for 10-8 final set)
#4 N.Li (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: A.Ivanovic, V.Azarenka

All for Day 7. More tomorrow.


Blogger Zidane said...

Bouchard reached the quarterfinals, so she'll never be the next AMG. Whew.

I tried not to mention her until now in order not to jinx her, especially her draw looking pretty good since Day 1. Now that Serena is out, it's even better. She beat Ivanovic at Wimbledon on Centre Court, so this is a result that she can repeat. If Pennetta beats Li, a final is even possible, although Li was my non-Serena pick at this Slam. (To simplify things, I now pick Serena to win every Slam, with a just-in-case non-Serena pick.)

I thought top 10 would have to wait until 2015 for Bouchard, possibly 2016, but it appears it might be 2014 after all.

Sun Jan 19, 10:14:00 AM EST  
Blogger jo shum said...

bouchard has an insanely good draw from the start. it is her year. top 10 for sure. this girl has the game.

Sun Jan 19, 11:04:00 AM EST  
Blogger Diane said...

Serena's bugaboo seems to have shifted from the US. Open to the Australian. Ignoring the Radwanska Threat Level is obviously not a useful tactic, no matter what Commander Sloane may have said :D

Sun Jan 19, 11:11:00 AM EST  
Blogger J said...

As a Canadian, I'm so happy that Genie reached the QFs! Even if she had a lot of luck with that draw, she's been playing some great tennis.

And just a question: has anyone but the WTA's Big Three ever won a tournament where all three have entered? (oh, I guess Wimbledon, but any non-retired players?)

Sun Jan 19, 11:28:00 AM EST  
Blogger Mfarfan said...

I completely agree with what you have to say regarding ESPN and Sloane Stephens (and Im an Amarican). There has been little to no credit given to Vika who has won this event two times, in a row! I am sooo tired of hearing about Sharapovas shoulder and the Sloane/Vika controversy. In my opinion even if Vika wouldnt have taken that medical time out Im sure Vika would still have broken her serve to close out the match. Did they forget Vika is one of the best returners in the game? I wish the ESPN commentators would stop with all the drama and talk about the tennis. In my opinion I dont like past players as commentators. They are always comparing and to an extent discrediting the current players to when they were playing. I also think its a shame that JJ has yet to play on Rod Laver. I understand that she got the backlash of having Murray/ Federer/ Nadal all playing on the same day as her but theyve put players like Kerber and Wozniacki on Laver. JJ even got sent to court 8 at one point. Shes the 8th seed! Its so frustrating.

Sun Jan 19, 03:53:00 PM EST  
Blogger Todd.Spiker said...

Zidane -

All right, now if none of that happens, we'll know who to blame. :)

Jo -

Well, no one hold's Bartoli draw against her from SW19. :)

The NextGen is really coming in a big wave right now. As was said at the time, Wozniacki couldn't assume she "had time" two years ago, because things change fast. She might improve, but still get passed by by Bouchard, Halep, Stephens, Muguruza, etc.

Diane -

And yet A-Rad is still around. Hop to it, QC & Co.!

(Hmmm, and JJ is still around, too.)

Jesica -

That's a really interesting question, I was able to go over things (since the possibilities aren't that plentiful, what with Serena's schedule and few losses), going back to the point where the current Big 3 would "officially" begin -- when Azarenka won the AO and became #1 in January '12.

Only twice has someone other than those three won the event: Marion Bartoli at last year's Wimbledon and, of course, Radwanska in Miami in 2012.

2012 Miami QF - Wozniacki d. S.Williams
2012 Miami QF - Bartoli d. Azarenka
2012 Miami F - A.Radwanska d. Sharapova

You might remember, that Miami event was when The Rad's existence was first revealed, while last year's Wimbledon was the time and place of It's "Radwanskian Massacre." Interesting how that worked out, huh? ;)

Here are all the events all three -- Serena, Vika & Maria -- have entered since January '12, along with the touranment winners:

[NOTE: sometimes they weren't seeded 1-2-3 since Williams was on the comeback trial in '12 -- she wasn't in the Top 3 seeds in that '12 Miami event, for example]

AO - Azarenka
Madrid - S.Williams
Rome - Sharapova
RG - Sharapova
WI - S.Williams
Olympics - S.Williams
US - S.Williams
WTA - S.Williams

Brisbane (Sharapova w/d from MD) - S.Williams
AO - Azarenka
Doha - Azarenka
Miami (Azarenka w/d from MD) - S.Williams
Madrid - S.Williams
Rome - S.Williams
RG - S.Williams
Cincinnati - Azarenka

Brisbane - S.Williams
AO - ????

Sun Jan 19, 04:14:00 PM EST  
Blogger Todd.Spiker said...


Yeah, I'm an American, too. And I often find it embarrassing how ESPN has traditionally ignored non-American players in favor of U.S. players, stars or not.

It's almost as embarrassing as how a nation of this size, with its rich tennis history, hasn't produced a slam contender on the men's side for more than a decade, and with no one in sight who might change that, either.

But, truthfully, that little fact doesn't even bother me at all. The only thing with it is that the U.S. sports media finds it easier to ignore tennis these days if an American isn't making headlines. I can't imagine how things might be when Serena is gone, and if no U.S. player has rise into the Top 5 by then.

Sun Jan 19, 04:20:00 PM EST  
Blogger Todd.Spiker said...

Love how a deal is being made that Stephens called her relationship with Azarenka "nonexistent." Hmmm, so I guess that makes it sort of like the relationship that Stephens had with Serena when Sloane was calling Williams "my good friend Serena" during interviews.

Sun Jan 19, 06:21:00 PM EST  

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