Monday, July 04, 2016

W 8.5 - Aga & Domi's Magical Mystery Tour

Anytime Aga Radwanska steps onto a tennis court armed with her wand-like racket (and magician's mind), the overwhelming sense pervades that anything might happen -- including something you may have never been ever before. Throw Dominika Cibulkova, tennis' always-in-motion version of a human sparkplug, into the mix and you get the sort of match that graced Court Three on Day 8 of this Wimbledon.

A Round of 16 match that expertly doubled as performance art. A contest permeated with a menagerie of rallies that highlighted both touch and power, as well as unyieding tenacity, stubborn insistence and, naturally, a touch of magic dust (we ARE talking about a Radwanska match, after all). In the latter stages of its three-hour length, this shifting-in-momentum, marathon battle of wills left one of the most fit players on tour often bending over in exhaustion, and sometimes going so far as to roll over flat on her back and wish for it all to end. As long as she was declared the winner.

As it turned out, Cibulkova got her wish.

While much of the talk of WTA tennis in 2016 has focused on things happening OFF the actual courts on which the sport lives and breathes, something has happened a little under the radar. While Garbine Muguruza's Roland Garros title, Vika Azarenka's (brief, but hopefully just "interrupted") return to prominence, Angelique Kerber's stunning performance Down Under, Serena being, well, Serena, and various other storylines have managed to elbow their way out of the sport's high weeds and taken up a conversational position on the general sports landscape, one chapter of this season has not, and likely won't, crack through that particular glass ceiling. Namely, the burgeoning novella of dramatic excellence being co-authored over the first half of this season by Cibulkova and Radwanska.

Some may never really learn about. And it'll be their loss.

Going into their 4th Round match today, the two women had already put together a three-match dance worthy of its own Tennis Channel marathon. In Indian Wells, Radwanska overcame Cibulkova's power shots and a 5-2 3rd set deficit, saving a MP and winning 7-5. In Madrid, Radwanska recovered from a set and 5-3 deficit to force a 3rd, then saw Cibulkova erase a break lead there and emerge the victor. Just two weeks ago in Eastbourne, Radwanska led by a set and 2-0 when rain (imagine that) put a stop to her momentum, then the two returned a day later and Cibulkova broke back and pulled out the match. She hasn't lost since, going on to take the tournament title (her first ever on grass) and then stage her current Wimbledon run, a winning streak that was at eight matches heading into today vs. the former Wimbledon finalist and #3 seed.

Even with all that, today the two outdid themselves in match #4.

In the early going, it appeared as if Radwanska might have played herself out in her "classic Aga" 3rd Round win on the Middle Sunday vs. Katerina Siniakova. Cibulkova's power and aggression seized control early and threatened to subdue the Pole's magic tendencies and, at least at this slam, her amazing run of luck, which included saving three MP (one on a net cord) against Ana Konjuh in the 2nd Round, then seeing the young Croat be largely denied the upset after stepping on a ball while running for a drop shot and stepping on the ball, badly rolling her ankle. The #19-seeded Slovak broke Radwanska for a 3-1 lead, then forced her to save two BP in game #6 just to avoid going down a double break and essentially ceding the opening set. She held for 5-2, but was never able to reach BP on Cibulkova's serve. The Slovak held for 6-3 to claim the 1st set.

Cibulkova continued to out-hit Radwanska in the 2nd. In game #3, she went up love/40 on the Pole's serve and broke for 2-1. But Aga wasn't going away. She took a 15/40 lead a game later, and broke back with a drop shot that produced an error from the Slovak, then staved off the ongoing pressure applied by Cibulkova and held for 3-2. In game #7, the Slovak went up love/30 on Radwanska's serve, staved off a GP, and broke her for 4-3 when an Aga backhand went long. Again, though, Radwanksa would not go away quietly. She broke back a game later as Cibulkova was forced into three consecutive errors to end the game.

But in a match that would ultimately be filled to the brim seesawing momentum shifts, Cibulkova's forehand winner broke yet again for 5-4, as Radwanska continued to struggle to use her full arsenal of shot variety due to the Slovak's power and pattern of consistently hitting most of her shots from inside the baseline. Finally, serving for the match, Cibulkova looked ready to put a stake through the heart of the Pole's Wimbledon dreams for yet another year. She went up 30/15 in game #10, only to see Radwanska pass her with a backhand. A Cibulkova DF followed and she was BP down. It was saved, but BP #2 arrived after Aga won a point that covered the entire court, from a drop shot at the net to all corners. Still, though, Aga had little margin for error. She netted a forehand return and Cibulkova was at MP.

Was this match not going to go the requisite three sets? Oh, come on...of course it was.

Cibulkova's wide backhand squandered her chance at a carefree afternoon and Radwanska soon reached BP #3. She stealthily moved in to the net to put away a FH volley and broke for 5-5. And away they went. Aga held for 6-5, then hit a forehand winner to go up 15/30 on Cibulkova's serve in game #12. Suddenly, momentum had turned enough to allow Radwanska to join the match midstream and quickly get up to speed. It took her nearly two full sets, but she'd finally broken down Cibulkova's defenses enough to play her OWN game. Flashing her renowned variety and knack for mind games, Aga began to fully utilize her great skills for anticipation, point construction and deft racket work.

A backhand down the line winner gave Radwanska a SP, then Cibulkova's own backhand down the line went out and, all of a sudden, the Pole had somehow managed to save a MP in another round and sneak off with a 7-5 set win that had evened the match.

Somewhere, Siniakova was shaking her head and saying, "Uh-huh," and making her appointment for a therapy session to discuss those weird dreams she had last night.

Radwanska opened the 3rd set by holding to win her fourth straight game. Now, as Radwanska's game blossomed, Cibulkova's confidence began to dip. Her pressure waned just a tad, and her bigger groundstrokes were absorbed by Aga's racket. Radwanska reached BP in game #2, but Cibulkova saved it with a swing volley winner. She fired an ace to reach GP, then held for 1-1 three points later. Suddenly, just as quickly as she'd lost them, the Slovak's confidence and swagger were back.

The two would open up the throttle and go full out the rest of the way, with both players consistently grabbing leads on their opponent's serve only to see them then steer the momentum back in their favor and (usually) hold. In game #5, Cibulkova led 15/40 on Radwanska serve, but Aga saved both BP and held for 3-2. A game later, Cibulkova held from love/30. She then further upped her aggression a game later, going up love/40, this time getting the break for 4-3. But Radwanska chased down a drop shot and flipped things back in her favor again, going up 15/40 in game #8 and breaking back with a backhand winner. From 15/40 down, Aga saved three BP with two Cibulkova errors and her own reflex reaction to a ball that landed at her feet and crosscourt forehand winner. The Pole held for 5-4 two points later when the Slovak netted a backhand return.

At 5-5, Radwanska went up 40/30 on serve, but Cibulkova denied her with a forehand return winner on her second GP. It began a long dance in what would be a six-deuce game. A forehand crosscourt winner gave Cibulkova a BP. Aga fired an ace. Cibulkova's forehand down the line gave her BP #2, but Aga hit a forehand winner as a follow-up to her wide serve. The Slovak's forehand swing volley got her a third BP, but she fired a backhand out. Re-set. Another Cibulkova forehand winner down the line gave her a fourth BP, which Radwanska quickly erased with another big serve. By this point, it was getting ridiculous, as neither player would bend to the desires of the other for long enough for it to matter. Cibulkova's backhand down the line gave her BP #5. Radwanska aced her... but a replay challenge overturned the point. So Aga instead fired a serve up the "T" to Cibulkova's forehand and the Slovak netted it. Finally, the Pole got a GP and her forehand skidded off the baseline and produced a Cibulkova error that allowed Radwanska to hold for 6-5.


In the next game, Radwanska prevailed in a 20-shot rally to get to 15/15, and soon reached MP when Cibulkova fired a forehand out. But the Slovak saved it with a forehand winner, then held for 6-6. In game #13, Cibulkova's angled forehand from deep in the court allowed her to reach BP. A Radwanska forehand error secured the break for 7-6. The Slovak then served for the match for a second time. But she wouldn't put it away this time, either. She led 30/15, but missed a forehand to knot the game. Radwanska broke her for 7-7 with a forehand winner.

But it was to be Radwanska's final stand.

In game #15, Cibulkova carved out another BP opportunity. She failed to put it away and fired a forehand return long, but her second chance resulted in a Radwanska backhand error that gave Cibulkova the break for 8-7 and a third chance to serve to reach her first Wimbledon QF since 2011.

In the end, the final moments were tense. Cibulkova reached 15/15 with a forehand off s drop shot, rolling over on her back in exhaustion and staring at the sky at the conclusion of the point. But she gave the point back with an error a moment later. At 30/30, Cibulkova received a time violation from the chair umpire (come on... don't become the story, no matter how much the AELTC insists that you should over-officiate matches), setting her off but not so much that she lost her concentration. Radwanska's wide backhand gave Cibulkova her second MP. She missed on a forehand, but she got a another chance. Finally, on her third MP, Cibulkova's forehand winner (her 56th winner of the match, to Aga's own high count of 37) into the corner sealed a 6-3/5-7/9-7 victory... and gave birth to a million stories that will last a lifetime.

While Cibulkova celebrated, Radwanska gave little hint of the likely emotional turmoil roiling inside her as, once again, she has failed to get the most out of a Wimbledon experience and came up short once more in her career quest for an elusive grand slam title. She warmly hugged the Slovak at the net.

This match links them together, but only one could keep her dreams alive and survive to the next round.

It's a pity, really. But it's the suddenly stark contrast between winning and losing that makes matches like this meaningful, as well as special. As always, it's about the stakes.

They'll both play again, and likely play each other again soon (yes, please). But this one will continue to exist in the mystical tennis ether... all on its own.

=DAY 8 NOTES - cont'd=
...meanwhile, in a result of (potentially, in a best case scenario) multi-slam significance, Simona Halep, once "#1-with-a-bullet" on the list of "next first-time slam champions" that circulate around the solar system of the minds of those who think about such things, continued to show a healthy avoidance of the habit of wandering over the edge of The Cliffs, the metaphorical site over which so many of her slam dreams have fallen, dying horrible deaths over the last two years.

#5 Simona Halep def. #9 Madison Keys 6-7(5)/6-4/6-3
...the Romanian's troubling habit of walking right up to within sight of peak grand slam success, then seeing her hopes plunge in frightening fashion down the other side has, quite honestly, become tiresome. In Paris, it reached new heights/depths, with a dose of excuse-making thrown into the mix after her water-logged exit at the hands of Sam Stosur in the Roland Garros Round of 16.

On Monday, Halep, after a mostly-breezy trip through the first three rounds in which she was little more than a curious siteseer/adrenaline junkie who peeked over the edge of The Cliffs on occasion, just to show that she wasn't a slave to their charms, once again found herself in wide open space with nowhere to hide. With Keys on the other side of the net, she was facing down a player who very well could be the current player wearing the newly-dry cleaned "next maiden slam-winner" outfit turned in to the proper authorities in Paris by none than (now) actual slam-winner Garbine Muguruza. It was put up or shut up time for Simona. Again.

And, by the end of the day, Halep had put up quite lot. Oh, the process wasn't without another game of chicken with those very same Cliffs (i.e. a "blip" that was survived en route to victory), of course. Simona just can't seem to help herself. But it's the final result that matters the most, because it's what she'll remember the most (hopefully) the next times she walks down the path.

After so many slams in which she's climbed to relative heights, only to be too fearful to look down -- but then fell anyway -- maybe the correct course IS to build up a tolerance for the whole ordeal. Today's match was another example of the Swarmette testing herself and emerging with nary a scrape, as well as sporting a new mountaineering merit badge or two.

Early on, though, it looked as if things could go either way. Keys, undergoing her own one-step-back-two-steps-forward self-training method through this Wimbledon, opened the match with an ace to hold at love in the first game. The two made it to 4-4 before either faced their first BP. But Keys' back-to-back forehand errors gave Halep opportunity #1, and she responded with a forehand lob to break for 5-4. Serving for the match was to be her first real test of the day.

It didn't go well.

After taking a 40/15 lead, Halep hit a DF on her first set point. On SP #2, she mishit a forehand. Keys snuffed out SP #3 with a backhand return winner. Upon reaching SP #4, Halep hit another DF, then a forehand error gave Keys a BP. Moving forward for a short ball, Halep didn't take it out of the air for a volley and instead let the ball bounce and fired a shot to the corner, where a slightly off-balance Keys wristed a shot that floated over the Romanian's head down the line and landed inside the court for a winner to get the break for 5-5.

But rather than sulk, Halep bounced back, getting a break in the following game by forcing two errors off Keys' racket in a love game. But, serving again for the set at 6-5, Halep fell behind love/30. When Keys failed to effectively put away a volley, Halep smacked a forehand winner the down the line to reach 30/30. But Keys' forehand return winner got her a break point, and she converted it after reaching a drop shot and firing a passing shot behind Halep to force a tie-break. There, Keys went up a mini-break at 2-0, and would have led 3-0 had a ball that hit the tape bounced over the net rather than fall on her side of the court. Still, two Halep errors made the advantage 4-1, and a smash volley by Keys gave her a 6-3 lead. She failed to convert on two SP due to errors, but finally secured a 7-5 TB win with a forehand winner. Once again, after failing twice to serve out the set, and squandering four SP, Halep was hovering near the Cliffs' edge. After so many get-me-out-of-her slam exits under similar circumstances since her breakout '14 spring/summer, how would she respond now?

Not well, at first.

Keys got an early break and led 2-0 in the 2nd. But rather than run away from the moment, this time Halep dug in. She held at love in game #3, then broke serve on her fourth BP chance of game #4. A game later, the Romanian saved one BP, then four more (from love/40 down) two games later to hold for 4-3. An ace gave her a hold for 5-4, and then it was Keys who blinked in game #10, letting slip a 30/15 lead with three consecutive unforced errors to hand Halep a 6-4 set and force a 3rd.

Halep opened the 3rd with a love hold, then immediately put pressure on Keys' service game. She reached BP with a backhand winner. The Bannerette held, but as the set went on, the Romanian remained steady while Keys, battling what appeared to be a leg injury that hindered her movement (she later said she began to cramp, likely partially as a reaction to physical strain, but also admittedly the stress of the moment), began to slip behind.

Halep held at love for 3-2, then went up a break with a Keys DF a game later. Keys managed to extend the match with a hold for 5-3, but Halep then closed it out without too much drama in the following game.

Does this result mean that Halep's propensity to wander off path and send up a rescue flair in panic is gone? Of course not. But make no mistake that, after a few hints of the return of the ability in the early rounds in Paris, the Romanian has continued to display some of the problem solving abilities in London that helped her reach the RG final two years ago and climb to #2. It's all a continuing work in progress, as well as developing a way to combat and (hopefully) eliminate the bad behavior that has led her down dark mental alleys which cause her to further lose confidence in her ability to find her way out of tight situations on important stages when everyone EXPECTS her to work her way through them and come out on top. Just ask Keys about the process, she's been undergoing the same sort of trial by fire for more than a year since her AO semifinal run -- though with a little less glare, at least partially because of her good-natured, but not spotlight-hogging, personality in a nation when she tends to slip between the rather large sporting cracks. Hot dog eating champ Joey Chestnut will get more play in the U.S. in the next 24 than her defeat will, and that at least gives Keys more time to work out the remaining kinks in her own rise to the top.

For Halep, it's a little more complicated in Romania, and from a position slightly nearer to the top of the game. Maybe she's close to finding her way back up the mountain side. Maybe. At least she's avoiding the edge of The Cliffs of Simona more often than in the past. And that's something to put in the "very good" column of her progress chart.

Up next: Angelique Kerber. So, umm... press re-play, and let's see what happens.


Dominika Cibulkova may have to hold back her wedding a week after a very hard-fought win against Agnieszka Radwanska earlier today. It's scheduled for this Saturday, the same day as the Ladies' final.

And if she has to? "It would be a dream come true because nothing better could happen to me. It will be no problem to postpone it one week later and it would be more enjoyable! Last week it was funny as I had a dream that it's already Saturday. And then I woke up and realised I was still at Wimbledon and needed to play a match."

Even one more win might force a postponement, it seems. "I say to my team 'Now it's getting more serious, if I win tomorrow then we have to see seriously about this.' I wanted the wedding to be in summer and it was the only OK time to have it."

DREAM OF ALL DREAMS ON DAY 8: If a certain Russian would send an unrequested RSVP.

...and, finally...

And from Radwanska-free Europe, after a mostly clear day in July as the clocks strike thirteen, we bid the Threat Level chart farewell.

Until next fortnight...

All for Day 8. More tomorrow.


Blogger Diane said...

I'm not so convinced that when Aga exits, It goes with her. Time will tell!

British readers will take offense; they have never believed they were even in Europe!" Now, even NPR is referring to outside-the-UK as "Europe," thus taking up residence--though metaphorically--"on the island."

Tue Jul 05, 10:15:00 AM EDT  
Blogger Todd.Spiker said...

Everyone wants to build walls, metaphorical or otherwise. :\

Well, at any rate, I suspect The Rad is "stateless" and exists on whatever plane of existence It so desires, depending on the task at hand. :)

Tue Jul 05, 12:53:00 PM EDT  

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