Saturday, August 23, 2014

U.S. Open Preview: The Women Behind the Curtain

As everyone gathers in New York for the final grand slam event of the year, a player's career could be about to change forever. But, then again, that's no different from the rest of this season, which has unflinchingly pushed forward, making unexpected turns, since the calendar turned over to 2014.

Li Na became a multiple slam winner in January but soon parted ways with her coach, and now a knee injury will deprive us of even a glimpse of her at Flushing Meadows. Quick! Who was the other finalist in Melbourne? If you had to think about the answer, well, that says a lot about her season. Pssst... it was Dominika Cibulkova, difficult as that is to remember now. Elsewhere, a Canadian -- a CANADIAN -- has been the most consistent slam performer all season, while Vika Azarenka's year has essentially been a bust. Ana Ivanovic has been welcomed back into the elite party she pretty much self-evicted herself from five years ago, while Maria Sharapova has seemingly never left (and it now providing the guests with candy). Simona Halep is currently the #2-ranked player in the world, while Venus Williams -- again! -- is the second-best American.

Oh, and about the only woman ranked above both Halep and Venus... well, Serena Williams comes to this U.S. Open with high career stakes. Her year-end #1 ranking isn't yet solidified as she attempts to become just the second woman to three-peat in New York in the last sixty-one years, Simultaneously, she's staring down the notion of possibly not only taking home no slam titles in '14, but also failing to reach a single slam final in a full-participation year at the majors for the only time since she first arrived on the WTA scene sixteen years ago.

Of course, those are all the storylines that will be played out and added to over the next two weeks. Here's a quick overview of the women's draw, quarter-by-quarter:

1. Serena Williams, USA ...Serena weaved her way through the North American hard court circuit, wobbling but winning in Stanford, falling to Venus in Montreal and then taking Cincinnati for the first time ever, playing her best match of the summer in the final against Ivanovic. But Serena has found a way to win titles in the "regular season" before in '14 (a tour-best five times, in fact), but it hasn't translated to slam success when the pressure was really on. She hasn't yet advanced past a Round of 16 in the majors, and now stands THIS CLOSE to experiencing her first season without an appearance in a slam final since 2006, and just her second since winning the Open in 1999 at age 17. The only year in which she's played all four slams and didn't reach a final was her debut season of '98. So, history would seem to be on her side to at least advance to the final weekend, right? Maybe, but winning a third straight title might be another matter. It hasn't happened on the women's side since Chris Evert's four straight titles from 1975-78, and you have go back to the early 1950's (Maureen Connolly 1951-53) to find the last time someone did it before that.
2. Ana Ivanovic, SRB ...AnaIvo has turned a significant corner in '14, rediscovering her ability to win titles (three) as she's climbed back into the Top 10 for the first time since 2009. She even upset Serena in Melbourne, pushed her to three sets on two other occasions, and outlasted Maria Sharapova in another dramatic three-set affair in Cincinnati that had everyone checking their blood pressure. But the Serb is still looking for her first true deep run in a slam since winning Roland Garros in '08, having only reached the QF stage at two of her last twenty-five majors. Barring an unforeseen early collapse, Ivanovic should be fine to the Round of 16, then the Knob of Intrigue will get turned up a few notches.
3. Samantha Stosur, AUS ...for most of the season, the 2011 U.S. Open champ has seemed a lost cause searching for answers. Briefly, she seemed to find a few over the last two weeks. After losing to world #406 Naomi Osaka in the Japanese teen's main draw tour debut in Stanford, Stosur put up just two games against Serena in Montreal. But she rebounded in recent weeks by battling Williams through two tie-breaks in Cincinnati and riding a week of fine serving stats to the semifinals this week in New Haven, her first final four result since Week 2 in Hobart. If the Aussie could somehow reach the second week she'd be a legitimate threat, but that's a scenario that's a big reach for anyone other than a true Stosur fan. For everyone else, it's hard to envision without calling upon an illusionist.

THE BRACKET BUSTERS: Carla Suarez-Navarro, ESP & Coco Vandeweghe, USA... both are positioned in the same section as Stosur in the quarter. #15-seeded CSN and unseeded Vandeweghe are set up for a possible 2nd Round match-up, with the winner getting the chance to face the #24-seeded Aussie a round later, or to slip through the hole left in the draw should Stosur fail to make it that far. The Spaniard is generally thought to be at her best on clay, but she's put up a hard court win over Maria Sharapova this summer and took Venus Williams to three sets in the Montreal QF. The big-serving Bannerette upset Ivanovic and Jelena Jankovic in Montreal and played Angelique Kerber into a 3rd set in Stanford. If Serena has another first week stumble, either woman -- both first-time title winners in '14 -- would be in contention for a surprise semifinal run.
THE WILD CARD: Flavia Pennetta, ITA... After a slow comeback from wrist surgery, Pennetta was on the verge of retirement in the middle of '13, but a good run at Wimbledon was followed up by a first career slam SF in New York and everything changed. She grabbed the biggest title of her career in March in Indian Wells, pushing her to within shouting distance of a Top 10 return at age 32. She's had a hard time getting her game back up to speed since, going 10-11. She won just three matches on the North American hard court circuit, with a loss to Serena in Cincinnati sandwiched between tournaments in which she was upset by Yulia Putintseva and Alison Riske. Can the Italian find her fire again in New York, her best slam even before 2013 (three QF results, and that memorable gut-check vs. Vera Zvonareva in '09)? She doesn't have a "gimme" draw, with Julia Goerges, Shelby Rogers and Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova likely early-round foes. But if she can get to a Round of 16 match-up with, say, AnaIvo and keep playing beyond it, she could still go from crowd favorite to serious threat.
DON'T COUNT HER CHICKENS: Samantha Stosur, AUS... did she peak too soon? The wake-up-the-echoes loss against Serena in Cincinnati and a win over Genie Bouchard in New Haven aside, it's questionable whether the Aussie can get past her tough early-round draw (Lauren Davis, then likely Kaia Kanepi and CSN or Vandeweghe) and get her third summer '14 shot at Serena in the 4th Round. Stosur won the Open three years ago, but she's failed to reach the 3rd Round in seven of her other nine trips to New York. A year ago, she dropped her opening match to Vicky Duval.
THE POOR SOUL: Taylor Townsend, USA... considering Serena is 55-1 in career 1st Round slam matches, the chances that the 18-year old wild card will follow in the footsteps of Virginie Razzano (at Roland Garros '12) are pretty slim. Still, after a 3rd Round run in Paris this year, whatever happens will be a good learning experience.
=Final Thought...=

It's Serena's quarter, and likely tournament, to win... but that was the case at the other three slams this season, too. At this point, it would seem prudent to not expect career slam #18 to come until 2015.


1. The Hat ...any hat. Take your pick. As in: you can pretty much pick the winner of this quarter out of a hat. Yep, this quarter is loaded with big names, but whether it's loaded with legitimate title contenders is up for debate.

Petra Kvitova won Wimbledon, but saw her results sag once again on the hard courts of North America until this past week. She's had a great run in New Haven, but playing in the summer heat and in the middle of the daily buzz of New York is a different animal altogether, and the Czech is still looking for her first QF result there. She could be tested in the 3rd Round by Madison Keys. Victoria Azarenka has reached the final in NYC the last two years, but comes to the city seeded #16 and nursing a knee injury. How match tough can she be with just eight matches (and three wins) since the Australian Open? 2014 can't end quickly enough for Vika, so that she can wash the bad memories out of her hair and move onto next season. Svetlana Kuznetsova is the only former U.S. Open champion in the quarter, but she hasn't reached the QF in Queens since a run to the final in 2007. Meanwhile, Eugenie Bouchard has been the most consistent slam performer on tour in '14, reaching two semis and the Wimbledon final. But she's had a disappointing summer hard court campaign, going 1-3 and having questions being raised about how hard the WTA is pushing her as the tour's new "It" Girl. But the Canadian has been the picture of an even-keeled and confident performer in the slams in '14, and she'll have the chance to prove herself again in New York. Bouchard seems to have a good early draw, but she's just a few matches past having been served a pair of bagels by Shelby Rogers in her home tournament in Montreal, and Ekaterina Makarova (4th Rd.) has been known to knock high seeds down a peg or two when given an opportunity.

THE BRACKET BUSTER: Madison Keys, USA... the American has shown an ability to gain confidence from her victories and learn from her losses. With '14 wins over Halep, Kerber and Jankovic, the #28-ranked Keys is poised to push Sloane Stephens as the highest-ranked of the young Bannerette corps. Keys doesn't have an easy draw by any means, as she's positioned in the same section of the quarter as three slam winners -- Kvitova, Kuznetsova and Azarenka. But with all three having their own reasons for possibly disappointing in New York, Keys could slip through to set up a "battle for the hearts of North American youth" in the QF in a clash between Team Madison and Genie's Army.
THE WILD CARD: Kuznetsova, RUS

...ten years ago, Sveta became the third Russian to lift a slam title in the '04 season, taking the Open as a braces-wearing 19-year old with what seemed like an amazing future. She's had a very good, likely Hall of Fame-worthy (when you factor in her Fed Cup history), career. But she hasn't become the great champion her talent said she COULD be. But while Kuznetsova is still capable of being ousted in the 1st Round of a slam and surprising no one with the result, the same can be said about her if she put together a deep run into the second week that could potentially put a career-defining THIRD slam on her racket. She's already "missed" on a trio of additional slam wins in the past, three times failing to convert match points or serve out victories in slam matches against players (Henin, Myskina and Serena) who would go on to win the title. At 29, an age which has come with something of a buy-two-get-one-free deal for many on tour in recent seasons, Kuznetsova has shown "signs" of, well, SOMETHING. A brief return to the Top 20, her first final since 2011 and her first title since 2010 have her ranked #21 and once again playing the role of Ultimate Wild Card at slam time. She has a rough potential draw: Erakovic in the 1st, followed by Vesnina, Azarenka, Kvitova and Bouchard to just reach the semifinals. But considering the current fallibility of that entire group, Kuznetsova might not even have to face anyone from that "murderer's row" other than the Kiwi. Curses! What am I trying to talk myself into???
DON'T COUNT HER CHICKENS: Dominika Cibulkova, SVK... not that anyone is expecting much from the Slovak, of course. But that says something about her season, which began with an Australian Open final and included a 16-2 run from February to April. She's only won five of her last fifteen matches, though, and is far, far off the radar heading into this Open. She's seemingly a "given" to win her 1st Rounder against 15-year old wild card CiCi Bellis, the youngest player in the draw, but what version of Cibulkova we'll see after that is anyone's guess.
THE POOR SOUL???: Kristina Mladenovic, FRA... the Pastry has been spinning various webs of Mladenovic Magic over the past few months, from her upset of Li Na in Paris to her Istanbul semifinal and three doubles finals (including at Wimbledon) since June. But Kiki's gone 0-3 in those finals, retiring in the Cincinnati decider with Timea Babos due to a back injury. She gets reigning Wimbledon champ Kvitova in the 1st Round at the Open, and would seem to be soon left to nurse only her doubles and mixed hopes by Day 3 of the tournament. Hmmm, but then again, Kvitova lost in the 1st Round at the Open in '11 after winning Wimbledon, and Mladenovic already has one 1st Round slam win (Australian Open champ Li) this season over the woman who won the previous major on the schedule. Could Petra, tired from her run in Connecticut, make it two?
=Final Thought...=
The best story of the women's draw seems likely to emerge from this collection of talent. I hesitate to say which storyline I'm leaning towards happening, for fear I might curse the outcome. But...

1. Angelique Kerber, GER ...Kerber surprisingly emerged in New York in 2011, reaching the semifinals while barely being ranked in the Top 100. While she hasn't racked up singles titles, the German has admirably maintained a Top 10 ranking since the spring of '12, reaching a second slam SF ('12 Wimbledon) and reaching at least the Round of 16 at ten of the last twelve majors. She's never reached a slam final, though. At SW19, she upset Sharapova, only to be caught in the scheduling web of the All-England Club, getting little rest and going out in the QF a day later to Bouchard. She opened her summer hard court campaign by reaching the Stanford final, and might just end it on another high note, for she has what could be the best draw of any top contender, opening with back-to-back qualifiers in the only quarter that doesn't sport a former slam singles champion (each of the other three have more than one).
2. Aga Radwanska, POL

...with her title run in Montreal, Radwanska seemed to finally turn back the unable-to-finish-anything mojo that began with her loss in the 2013 Wimbledon semifinals. Her "blue period" gave most of her results a sour aftertaste, and the magical quality that went along with watching her take down opponents while reaching into her bag of game day tricks just wasn't quite as fun. The evil joy of it all might be back... but that doesn't mean she's going to put on a deep run at this U.S. Open. She's never reached the QF at this slam, and while the draw would seem to set up to give her at least a chance to reach the 4th Round again and play for her best Open result, it's hard to get over the thought that it won't happen. But even if Lucie Safarova doesn't trip her up in the Round of 16, Kerber could do it in the QF. The German is 4-3 against Aga on hard courts, winning two of their last three meetings.
3. Jelena Jankovic, SRB ...JJ is forever in search of what she lost. The former #1 reached the U.S. Open final in '08, playing and losing a tight two-setter against Serena. The Serb has been all over the board ever since. Rising, falling, doing splits and spinning around like a top. Well, maybe not that last one... but would you put it past her if she did? JJ climbed back into the Top 10 last year, but she hasn't reached a slam semifinal since 2010. This Open might just provide her with the best shot she's had to do it in years, though. If she can get past a 1st Round match against her countrywoman, that is.

THE BRACKET BUSTER: Bojana Jovanovski, SRB... BoJo comes to NYC on a four-match losing streak, having dropped eight straight sets. And that's not even her longest losing streak of the season, having survived a six-match skid earlier this year before rebounding by upsetting Azarenka at Wimbledon and reaching the Baku final in July. She'll face countrywoman JJ in the 1st Round (1-2 in their head-to-head, she defeated Jankovic on hard court in 2010), with a shot to deliver the first draw-altering upset of the Open. The removal of JJ from the equation would surely immediately set off a firestorm of talk on ESPN about how the "draw has opened up for Sloane." Of course, as things played out, that wouldn't likely last long. But, really, it'd be so much more fun to just keep Queen Chaos alive and ticking in this draw for as long as possible.
THE WILD CARD: Lucie Safarova, CZE... since (barely) failing to convert match point in the 3rd Round against eventual AO champ Li Na in Melbourne, Safarova has been on something of a grand slam mission. She went to Paris and upset AnaIvo en route to the Round of 16 (matching her career RG best), then reached her first career slam semifinal at Wimbledon. This past Monday, Safarova reached a career-high ranking of #15. She's never been beyond the 3rd Round in New York, but she put up a win over Venus in Cincinnati and has a draw that seems suited to the Czech setting up a Round of 16 clash with Radwanska, who's never been to the final eight in New York. A break or two and Safarova might find herself in her second slam semifinal this summer.
DON'T COUNT HER CHICKENS: Alize Cornet, FRA... The Pastry has given every sign of being the tour's Most Improved Player in '14, notching two wins over Serena and being a drama queen of immense proportions. In a good way. Most of the time. But Cornet has gone 1-5 since defeating Williams in the 3rd Round at Wimbledon. She was one-and-done in both D.C. and Cincy, and even lost to an injured Vika in Montreal. That doesn't speak well for a deep run in New York.
THE POOR SOUL: Sloane Stephens, USA... a victim of her own success, Current Sloane's slips are now more noticeable. Coaching changes, a 1st Round loss at Wimbledon, being passed by fellow North American Bouchard on the tour landscape, then countrywoman Venus in the rankings (with Keys not far behind). If Future Sloane ever becomes a reality, her birth will be a very public triumph. The blessed event probably won't happen in New York, though. If she makes it that far, Stephens is slated to face Jankovic in the 3rd Round. She's already lost to the Serb twice on hard courts this summer.
=Final Thought...=
Kerber is the only current Top 10 player without an appearance in a slam final. With ten different finalists at the last five slams, you'd think the law of averages would get the German into one of those championship matches at some point, right?

1. Maria Sharapova, RUS ...the '06 champion SHOULD cast a bigger shadow at this tournament than she actually does. But she's only reached one QF in New York since she won the title eight years ago, and ever since her shoulder injury Sharapova has been more of a consistent threat on clay than hard courts. That she comes into the Open after being forced to three sets in five of six hard court matches this summer -- losing to CSN and AnaIvo, the latter in the sort of dramatic match that Maria always usually wins -- doesn't exactly speak highly of the form -- especially on serve -- she's dragging to Flushing Meadows, either. But, still, even with all that, she's the favorite in this quarter. A combined 10-3 in her head-to-heads against #2-seeded Halep (5-0, including a recent win in Cincinnati) and Venus Williams, Sharapova has lost just once to the latter since 2008. She's 5-2 against Caroline Wozniacki, too, with the Dane putting up a only one win since 2010. There are pitfalls in this quarter for the Russian, of course, starting in the 1st Round with countrywoman Maria Kirilenko. But Sharapova has to be looking at this draw -- with Serena all the way on the other side of it -- and thinking, "Yeah, this is doable." Then again, she probably always thinks that.
2. Venus Williams, USA ...maybe the best developing story of this '14 season has been the re-emergence from the shadows of her condition and all the endless "r"-word talk of a Venus whose game has, at times, looked better than it has in years. Back in the Top 20 and having won her first title in two years, Williams' summer included a run to the Montreal final and her first win over Serena in five years. She hasn't reached a slam QF since 2010, and the day-by-day nature of the fatigue associated with her Sjogren's, even as she's managed it better and better, still make Venus a question mark over the course of a two-week slam event. But for the first time since before we -- and she -- finally learned the cause for the lethargy that often engulfed her tennis game a few seasons ago, there's reason to believe that a deep slam run from Venus isn't just a fairy tale-like story emerging from one's imagination and heartfelt desires. It could really happen.

3. Simona Halep, ROU ...Halep arrives with little match play (2-2) on North American hard courts, and one wonders just how much her second straight long season might be wearing down the Pride of Romania, especially as she's likely still being bothered by the ankle she injured in the Wimbledon semifinals. If the world #2 can get her teeth into this Open, she might be able to ride her all-purpose game into yet another slam semi, or maybe better. But a reinvigorated Venus would seem to be slated to be waiting for her in the Round of 16, and she's 0-3 against the American. A deep run from Halep at this Open would be good for the game, as it'd be nice to see the Romanian's low-key personality and reassuring court intelligence/athleticism combo given a proper showcase on the biggest stage the sport has to offer. Not sure if it'll play out that way, though.
4. Andrea Petkovic, GER ...lost in the weeds of this high octane quarter is one of the most well-liked players on tour, and a former quarterfinalist (in 2011, before injuries dragged the German's career into a corner and pummeled it for a few seasons). Petko has recovered quite nicely this year, as she's won two titles and reached the SF in Paris. She's got a 3rd Round date with the Dane, and if Andrea is seen dancing on the court afterward, well, things could get very interesting down here in this quarter.

THE BRACKET BUSTER: Maria Kirilenko, RUS... we all KNOW she's capable of it. We've even seen her do it, in the 1st Round of the Australian Open in 2010. Sure, that's the only time Kirilenko has converted a match point to defeat Sharapova in eight career meetings (she won a match in' 05 via retirement), but the all-Russian match-up will surely be one of the most closely watched 1st Round matches at Flushing Meadows because everyone immediately went on Upset Alert as soon as the draw became public. Thing is, Kirilenko just might not be up to it. After a long injury break, the #113-ranked Kirilenko has played just seven matches in 2014, and none since her 2nd Round exit at Wimbledon. Even in her few outings this season, though, she's shown some fight. Still, Sharapova being ousted in the 1st Round in New York for the first time ever would send shock waves through the draw right out of the gate. And when that happens so early in a slam, almost anything can happen next.
THE WILD CARD: Camila Giorgi, ITA... a year ago, the hard-hitting little Italian (and her papa) put on quite a show as she charged into the Round of 16. She might be warming up for something again, too. Giorgi ended a four-match losing streak this week, showing up in New Haven and taking out Caroline Wozniacki (she beat Caro at last year's U.S. Open, as well) and Garbine Muguruza (despite 19 DF's!) en route to the semifinals. After facing qualifier Anastasia Rodionova, she'd get the Errani/Flipkens winner, and then maybe Venus.
DON'T COUNT HER CHICKENS: Caroline Wozniacki, DEN... did she play TOO much this summer? Maybe, but after leading the tour with thirteen match wins since Wimbledon, grabbing a title in Istanbul and getting a pair of Top 10 wins (A-Rad, Kerber) on her way to the Cincinnati semifinals, she's finally earned a passing grade in "Wozniology-101" by proving that she can actually learn to move TOWARD the net on occasion. Because of that the Dane shouldn't look at the Open as a barometer of where her career stands at the moment. After such a successful post-tabloid fodder summer, another of her recent early exits at a slam would be only a blip this time, not the reason for a revolt by tennis watchers against all that is Wozniacki's game. Again. She gets New Haven achiever Magdalena Rybarikova first, but it's hard not to point toward a possible 3rd Rounder vs. Petkovic. A QF+ run is possible for her, but it's not a "necessity."
THE POOR SOUL: Sara Errani, ITA... she put up an aberrational semifinal in 2012, but the Italian hasn't gotten past the 3rd Round in her six other U.S. Open appearances. She's was just 1-3 on the summer hard court circuit, and very well could challenge for "First Seed Out" when she faces Kirsten Flipkens in the 1st Round. She and Roberta Vinci are the favorites to take their second Open doubles title, though. In a season in which no singles player has really stood above the others, the Italian doubles pair should be given serious consideration for "Co-Players of the Year" honors.
=Final Thought...=
This is a complicated quarter. What with the issues of the contenders placed here, you get the feeling that the path for the survivor is going to include multiple three-set victories that won't exactly put them in an advantageous position when it comes time to play for a spot in the final. But everyone might be rooting for them to take it all.

**US OPEN TOP SEEDS - since 2002**
2002 Serena Williams, USA
2003 Kim Clijsters, BEL
2004 Justine Henin-Hardenne, BEL
2005 Maria Sharapova, RUS
2006 Amelie Mauresmo, FRA
2007 Justine Henin, BEL
2008 Ana Ivanovic, SRB
2009 Dinara Safina, RUS
2010 Caroline Wozniacki, DEN
2011 Caroline Wozniacki, DEN
2012 Victoria Azarenka, BLR
2013 Serena Williams, USA
2014 Serena Williams, USA

101...Chris Evert
89...Martina Navratilova
73...Steffi Graf
62...Lindsay Davenport

2004: Svetlana Kuznetsova (W), Elena Dementieva (RU), Jennifer Capriati, Lindsay Davenport
2005: Kim Clijsters (W), Mary Pierce (RU), Elena Dementieva, Maria Sharapova
2006: Maria Sharapova (W), Justine Henin-Hardenne (RU), Jelena Jankovic, Amelie Mauresmo
2007: Justine Henin (W), Svetlana Kuznetsova (RU), Anna Chakvetadze, Venus Williams
2008: Serena Williams (W), Jelena Jankovic (RU), Elena Dementieva, Dinara Safina
2009: Kim Clijsters (W), Caroline Wozniacki (RU), Yanina Wickmayer, Serena Williams
2010: Kim Clijsters (W), Vera Zvonareva (RU), Venus Williams, Caroline Wozniacki
2011: Samantha Stosur (W), Serena Williams (RU), Angelique Kerber, Caroline Wozniacki
2012: Serena Williams (W), Victoria Azarenka (RU), Maria Sharapova, Sara Errani
2013: Serena Williams (W), Victoria Azarenka (RU), Li Na, Flavia Pennetta

2005 Victoria Azarenka/BLR def. Alexa Glatch/USA
2006 Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova/RUS def. Tamira Paszek/AUT
2007 Kristina Kucova/SVK def. Urszula Radwanska/POL
2008 Coco Vandeweghe/USA def. Gabriela Paz/VEN
2009 Heather Watson/GBR def. Yana Buchina/RUS
2010 Daria Gavrilova/RUS def. Yulia Putintseva/RUS
2011 Grace Min/USA def. Caroline Garcia/FRA
2012 Samantha Crawford/USA def. Anett Kontaveit/EST
2013 Ana Konjuh/CRO def. Tornado Black/USA

[Open Era]
1968 Virginia Wade, GBR
1979 Tracy Austin, USA
1990 Gabriela Sabatini, ARG
1998 Lindsay Davenport, USA
1999 Serena Williams, USA
2004 Svetlana Kuznetsova, RUS
2005 Kim Clijsters, BEL
2011 Samantha Stosur, AUS

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
2014 Roland Garros - Simona Halep
2014 Wimbledon - Eugenie Bouchard

2012 AO: Victoria Azarenka, BLR
2012 RG: Maria Sharapova, RUS
2012 WI: Serena Williams, USA
2012 US: Serena Williams, USA
2013 AO: Victoria Azarenka, BLR
2013 RG: Serena Williams, USA
2013 WI: Marion Bartoli, FRA
2013 US: Serena Williams, USA
2014 AO: Li Na, CHN
2014 RG: Maria Sharapova, RUS
2014 WI: Petra Kvitova, CZE

1999 Serena Williams, USA
2000 Venus Williams, USA
2001 Venus Williams, USA
2002 Serena Williams, USA
2003 Justine Henin, BEL
2004 Svetlana Kuznetsova, RUS
2005 Kim Clijsters, BEL
2006 Maria Sharapova, RUS
2007 Justine Henin, BEL
2008 Serena Williams, USA
2009 Kim Clijsters, BEL
2010 Kim Clijsters, BEL
2011 Samantha Stosur, AUS
2012 Serena Williams, USA
2013 Serena Williams, USA

7...Serena Williams (5-2)
4...Venus Williams (2-2)
2...Svetlana Kuznetsova (1-1)
2...Victoria Azarenka (0-2)
1...Maria Sharapova (1-0)
1...Samantha Stosur (1-0)
1...Jelena Jankovic (0-1)
1...Caroline Wozniacki (0-1)
1...Vera Zvonareva (0-1)

[won Girls & Ladies titles]
Lindsay Davenport (1992 Jr. Champion; 1998 Women's champion)
Martina Hingis (1994 Junior RU; 1997 Women's Champion)
Svetlana Kuznetsova (2001 Junior RU; 2004 Women's champion)
Victoria Azarenka (2005 Junior champion; 2012-13 Women's RU)

1970 Margaret Court, AUS
1972 Billie Jean King, USA
1976 Chris Evert, USA
1982 Chris Evert-Lloyd, USA
1983 Martina Navratilova, USA
1986 Martina Navratilova, USA
1987 Martina Navratilova, USA
1988 Steffi Graf, GER *
1989 Steffi Graf, GER
1993 Steffi Graf, GER
1995 Steffi Graf, GER
1996 Steffi Graf, GER
1997 Martina Hingis, SUI
2000 Venus Williams, USA *
2001 Venus Williams, USA
2002 Serena Williams, USA
2012 Serena Williams, USA *
* - also won Olympic Gold

Unseeded - 2000 Elena Dementieva, RUS
Unseeded - 2009 Yanina Wickmayer, BEL
Unseeded - 2011 Angelique Kerber, GER
Unseeded - 2013 Flavia Pennetta, ITA
Wild Card - 2009 Kim Clijsters, BEL (W)
#28 - 2011 Serena Williams, USA (RU)
#19 - 2006 Jelena Jankovic, SRB
#12 - 2005 Mary Pierce, FRA (RU)
#12 - 2007 Venus Williams, USA
#10 - 2001 Serena Williams, USA (RU)
#10 - 2002 Amelie Mauresmo, FRA
#10 - 2012 Sara Errani, ITA

306...Martina Navratilova
299...Chris Evert
278...Steffi Graf
252...Serena Williams *
218...Venus Williams *
210...Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario
198...Lindsay Davenport
180...Monica Seles
174...Conchita Martinez
164...Gabriela Sabatini
162...Maria Sharapova *

AO (4): 1969,1970,1974,1993
RG (1): 1992
WI (10): 1973,1976,1978-79,1988,1992,1995,2003,2006,2009
US (1): 1975

#1 S.Williams d. #24 Stosur
#11 Pennetta d. #8 Ivanovic
#20 Kuznetsova d. #3 Kvitova
#7 Bouchard d. #17 Makarova
#6 Kerber d. #9 Jankovic
#4 A.Radwanska d. #14 Safarova
#5 Sharapova d. #10 Wozniacki
#19 V.Williams d. #2 Halep

...Stosur likely peaked in New Haven. Same with Petra. Meanwhile, it'd be a case of reverting to form if '13 U.S. semifinalist Pennetta rights her listing ship in New York while AnaIvo's result comes up a bit shorter on the biggest stage than it did on the smaller ones. If Bouchard gets past this round, she will have properly earned another set of wings as a big event player... then she'll head into '15 hoping she doesn't turn into a Current Sloane-like pumpkin overnight. Kerber/JJ would be, well, not for the faint of heart. Aga breaks out of her Round of 16 doldrums at the Open. Halep could certainly sail through to the QF, but Venus has a better summer track record, as well as large history in Queens.

#1 S.Williams d. #11 Pennetta
#20 Kuznetsova d. #7 Bouchard
#6 Kerber d. #4 A.Radwanska
#5 Sharapova d. #19 V.Williams (I WANT to go the other way)'s oh so tempting to push Venus forward at least another round, but I won't. If Kuznetsova makes it this far on the tenth anniversary of her '04 Open championship run, well, the Tennis Gods will be up all night, chuckling over their clever maneuverings and the mere mortals who would surely marvel at them. Sharapova survives. Barely.

#20 Kuznetsova d. #1 S.Williams
#6 Kerber d. #5 Sharapova (for the second straight slam)

...after so many near-misses against Williams in slams that Serena ultimately won, Sveta finally scales the peak. The last three matches in which they faced off have come in slam QF, with the winner going on to take the title. Kuznetsova won Part I of the trilogy in Paris in '09. About Kerber being the only player currently ranked in the Top 10 who has yet to reach a slam final.... well, it might be time to correct that. And she already has a slam win over Sharapova this year at Wimbledon.

#20 Kuznetsova d. #6 Kerber

...after winning slams in '04 and '09, it'd be just like Sveta to close out another five-year block of her career with a third slam that would make her just the fourth woman who played in the Open era to win three slam without ever reaching the #1 ranking. Of course, this prediction pretty much assures that it'd be smart to go ahead and get those congratulatory messages prepared to send off to Marina Erakovic on the occasion of her 1st Round victory. I'm just sayin'.

#1 Djokovic d. #9 Tsonga
#3 Wawrinka d. #5 Raonic
#4 Ferrer d. #19 Lopez
#2 Federer d. #20 Monfils

...there's no Rafa in the draw, but #1 Novak Djokovic, who hasn't exactly been in great form since winning Wimbledon and getting married, has still managed to get stuck on the same side of the draw with the likes of '12 U.S. champ Andy Murray, Rogers Cup winner (and Djoker conqueror) Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, AO titlist Stan Wawrinka and Milos Raonic, who just claimed the U.S. Open Series. Meanwhile, #2 Roger Federer is joined by #4 David Ferrer in the bottom half, along with a slew of underachievers (if they have "FRA" beside their name, they probably qualify), never-have-beens and good players who come into NYC in bad form (Grigor Dimitrov, Tomas Berdych). The six-time Open champ couldn't have asked for a better draw even if he'd put it together all by himself during some quiet time between middle-of-the-night crying fits by the twins.

#3 Wawrinka d. #1 Djokovic
#2 Federer d. #4 Ferrer

...the entire population of Switzerland stops the clocks and collectively watches with rapt attention.

#2 Federer d. #3 Wawrinka

...and Federer's longevity and late-career success adds a little fuel in his favor in the "Greatest of All-Time" debate... or at least the greatest of HIS own time race, which has become a bit muddy as Nadal as inched closer and closer on the major title list.

All for now. Day 1 -- and the Daily Backspin -- awaits, as well as a Q-Round round-up and quick Week 34 recap.


Wednesday, August 20, 2014


[The Season of the Hordettes, Pt.III]

After Anastasia Myskina had become the first Russian slam winner at Roland Garros, then was quickly followed by a 17-year old Maria Sharapova into the major champion winner's circle at Wimbledon a month later, it didn't seem possible that the summer of 2004 could get any better for the Hordettes populating the WTA tour.

Ah, but those sneaky Tennis Gods had another ace up their collective sleeve. Her name was Svetlana Kuznetsova, and the two slam-winning Russians were soon to be joined by a third in New York.

A decade ago next week, as the annual August humidity was enveloping Flushing Meadows, the footsteps of 19-year old Kuznetsova weren't ringing in anyone's ears nearly as loudly as Sharapova's had been earlier in the summer. But Sveta HAD been making some noise. It had just been occurring off to the side, on the edge of the spotlight, but not quite in it. That would change, of course, and the Russian's activities prior to the '04 U.S. Open would later make everyone wonder how they'd missed the inevitability of her early arrival on the big stage.

Kuznetsova was the junior #1 in 2001, winning the U.S. Open girls doubles crown but failing to also sweep the singles title, losing in the final to a fellow 16-year old named Marion Bartoli, soon to be Backspin's "La Trufflette" and, eventually, a slam champion herself a dozen years later. A year later, Kuznetsova claimed a pair of small, tour level singles titles in Helsinki and Bali. In 2003, she finished the season ranked in the Top 40.

Even while Myskina and Sharapova were making history in 2004, there was Kuznetsova. Lurking. Just out of sight.

At Roland Garros, she held match point against Myskina in the Round of 16 before the Czarina would win that match and three more to earn the right lift to the Coupe Suzanne Lenglen. On the grass in England, Sharapova won a pre-Wimbledon title in Birmingham, then a week later Kuznetsova won an even bigger crown in Eastbourne. But Sveta lost in the 1st Round at the All-England Club, while Sharapova, well, you know.

As things shifted to North America in preparation for the U.S. Open, Kuznetsova was again playing in the shadows of others. She lost in the QF in Los Angeles to countrywoman Elena Dementieva, then did the same in the 3rd Round in San Diego against another Russian, Vera Zvonareva. At the Olympics in Athens, Amelie Mauresmo took her down in the final eight, preventing Kuznetsova from being assured of playing a for a medal in either the Gold or Bronze Medal matches. She came into New York having won just six total matches since her Eastbourne title, and one fewer than she'd need to win to become the third straight Russian slam champion.

But the two weeks in Flushing Meadows would prove to simply be the FIRST time that Kuznetsova would confound us and our expectations, either for the good or the bad, during her enigmatic career.

The first week of the Open seemed to revolve around what Serena Williams was wearing, as well as the exits of many big names. Myskina (2nd Round) and Sharapova (3rd Round) lost early, then Venus Williams (4th Round) and #1-seeded defending champ and Athens Gold winner Justine Henin (4th) failed to reach the final eight. Meanwhile, #9-seeded Kuznetsova quietly went about her business, reaching her first slam semifinal without dropping a set. She outlasted Lindsay Davenport in a three-set semifinal, setting up the second all-Russian slam singles final of '04, as RG runner-up Dementieva was there waiting for her, having taken out the likes of Dinara Safina, Zvonareva, Mauresmo (who'd nonetheless rise to #1 for the first time after the tournament) and Jennifer Capriati, playing four three-setters in five matches (she got a 3rd Rd. walkover) to earn yet another eventually-star-crossed chance to win a slam of her own.

Kuznetsova's 6-3/7-5 victory, and the Russian flavor of the final, solidified the "Year of the Russians" -- not that further ammunition was necessary, the Hordettes would add on a few additional huge moments to remember by the end of the season -- and, at the time, established the teenager's sturdy game as the one with maybe the most potential of those of any of her countrywomen.

Of course, the free-spirited, oft-inconsistent and focus-wandering Kuznetsova has never quite lived up to those early, (though still not overreaching) assumptions, but she continues to persevere on the tour a decade later, well beyond the time when most -- save for one -- of her fellow Hordettes have either walked or drifted away from the tour, or slam contention. Or both.

But the moment that that occurred now ten years and few weeks ago continues to stand the test of history. Here's how I recounted it all at the time...

September 14, 2004 - Finally the Bride"

Here we go again.

Last week in New York, after a season of constantly finding herself in the role of "bridesmaid" to her Russian-born countrywomen, 19-year old Svetlana Kuznetsova finally put together a bride-worthy performance (sorry, I couldn't come up with a "mail-order" reference that wouldn't strain everyone's patience) that officially puts her near the top of the invitation list of Horde nominees hoping to snare the honor of "best Russian." And since she's been hovering in the weeds all season, Kuznetsova's U.S. Open crown might just give her the right to claim the now-exalted title as 2004 swiftly comes to a close.

Consider this. Kuznetsova held a match point against Anastasia Myskina at Roland Garros, only to fail to convert it and then watch the Czarina become the first female Russian slam champion. During the grass season, Maria Sharapova won a grass court title two weeks before Wimbledon. Kuznetsova, for her part, took the more prestigious Eastbourne crown the week before play began at SW19 and went to the All-England club as many people's dark horse to challenge for the title. Of course, it was Kuznetsova who was bounced in the 1st Round while the Supernova went on to claim her eventual destiny -- a little earlier than most expected -- at age 17.

Also, Kuznetsova's had the most consistent season of all the Russians. After an 0-3 run in finals earlier this year, she's now won two in a row. She's 5-0 in singles semifinals (the best mark on tour), and this week is #6 in the singles rankings and #3 in doubles -- the only player to show up in both Top 10 lists. And how's this for a little known fact? The two longest WTA match winning streaks in 2004 have belonged to Lindsay Davenport (22) and Justine Henin-Hardenne (16). Guess who snapped both streaks. Yep, it was Kuznetsova.

It'll be interesting to see how Kuznetsova immediately responds to being the third straight Russian slam winner. Myskina has been a bit of a disappointment since Roland Garros, over-scheduling herself during the hard court season (and is that her name again in the Bali draw?! -- what is she doing to herself?), imploding in Athens, then leaving her head in Greece while she lugged her body to Flushing Meadows. The post-Wimbledon Sharapova, too, has been as shaky as a 17-year old slam winner would be expected to be, even if it seems an ungainly reality for a Supernova such as she.

It's the rugged game of Kuznetsova, though, that caused her to be befriended early-on by the likes of Martina Navratilova and Arantxa Sanchez Vicario (with 22 slam singles crowns between them). Maybe they were onto something. Maybe the best Russian has only now taken her turn on the big-time international stage.

Considering the exploits we witnessed earlier this summer in England, wouldn't THAT turn of events be a stunner?

*2004 BACKSPIN PLAYER-OF-THE-YEAR UPDATE* this getting-late point in the season, the POY race is now essentially down to three players. I'm tossing Myskina and Sharapova out of legitimate contention for just not consistently having their game up to par beyond their isolated slam runs. Of the final three, Amelie Mauresmo is ranked #1 on the computer and Lindsay Davenport is #1 in the 2004 points race... but only Justine Henin-Hardenne has won a slam title (and an Olympic gold) this season. In fact, the other two haven't even made a single slam final this year. So, the question is this: Can a Player of the Year be a woman without a slam title (or RU) for the season? That'll be answered during the 4th Quarter. For the time being, with neither Mauresmo nor Davenport seizing the moment in New York, Queen Justine re-assumes her spot atop the race board despite her 4r exit. The race:

[Tier I]
1.Henin-Hardenne...Open disappointment tempered by 5 titles, 1 slam and 1 Gold
2.Davenport...6 titles, but nary a slam final in '04
3.Mauresmo...the reigning (dubious) #1, she's had great Tier I event success but choked in the slams yet again

[Tier II - Russian Division]
4.Myskina...was handed RG on a silver platter, then ran herself into the ground on hardcourts
5.Kuznetsova...might catch Myskina in race soon. Plus, she's #3 in doubles, too.
6.Sharapova...only "pretty good" year seems so much better with Wimbledon title in the mix
7.Dementieva...hasn't won a title yet, but was RU in two slams

[Tier III]
8.Suarez...quick start has slowed, but doubles play keeps ahead of "the rest"
9.Zvonareva...having breakthrough year, but still falling back into Horde pack easily we forget her stellar spring on clay. And think what her hardcourt summer would have been like without Davenport getting in her way -- she was 0-3 vs. Davenport, and 11-1 against everyone else.
H.M. - Serena Williams & Virginia Ruano-Pascual...VRP is the doubles #1, while Serena is, well, just Serena -- and that's enough for honorable mention

1. Dementieva and Kuznetsova, for their heartfelt addresses to the crowd after the US Open singles final. In the shadow of the September 1 Russian school tragedy, and on the three-year anniversary of 9/11, the players' pleas for unity against worldwide terrorism revealed the two to be more than just ball-striking machines.
2. Mary Pierce. With summer wins over Venus and Sharapova, is she looking to be the Davenport of '05?
3. Young American females. With the likes of Davenport and Capriati nearing the end, finally a little light was shining on the red, white & blue's youngsters as Angela Haynes made some waves in the main draw, 16-year old Jessica Kirkland was the girls' RU and 15-year old Julia Cohen quietly won her first ITF title in Mexico City while everyone else was in New York.
4. Anna Kournikova. Even while not playing, she's getting more and more credit for ushering in what has become the Horde's current wave of success. It's far more complimentary than the things most said about her game when she was a Top 10 player herself.
5. Pierre Cantin. Yes, it's the Tennisrulz head honcho himself making the list! Remember, he WAS correct about a Russian winning a third straight slam crown. And he was right about Vera Zvonareva winning her first slam title, as well. Sure, the Russian singles winner turned out to be Kuznetsova rather than his pick of Vera Z, whose first slam title came in Mixed Doubles, not the biggie he forecast two weeks earlier. A little disconnect? Sure. But the thread of a psychic prophecy was there, so let's forget that it was a tad "off." Good job, anyway!

1. Mariana Alves. Move over Ted Watts, you've got some company in the "Disgraced Umpire of the Year" contest. Sure, replay wouldn't be "full-proof." But we already know that the current system is anything but. To err is human, but ineptitude needn't be tolerated.
2. Amelie Mauresmo. Yeah, I know she's the new #1, but she could have clinched it with a QF win against Elena Dementieva and instead pulled her usual in-need-of-the-Heimlich act when it really counted the most.
3. Lindsay Davenport. So much for going out on top, huh? Sure, she was injured in "practice." But one wonders if that hip flexor would have happened if she hadn't decided to jam Cincinnati into her schedule at the last minute when her real goal was supposed to be success at Flushing Meadows. As it was, she blew another slam SF lead to a Russian teenager who went on to win the title.
4. Black Monday/Tuesday. The top three seeds on the women's side all fell within 24 hours in 4th Round and QF matches.
5. The Boo Award. It goes to Alan Schwartz. You're president of the USTA but can't pronounce the name of a Top 10 player (and #3 in doubles) who's playing the final your organization supports? That's downright embarrassing. And it's not as if "Kuznetsova" is the most difficult of the Horde surnames to decipher. Just imagine what would have happened had Schwartz tried to congratulate Anna Chakvetadze or, worse yet, Ekaterina Bychkova.

S: Svetlana Kuznetsova d. Elena Dementieva 6-3/7-5
D: Ruano-Pascual/Suarez d. Kuznetsova/Likhovtseva
M: Zvonareva/B.Bryan d. Molik/Woodbridge
GS: Michaella Krajicek d. Jessica Kirkland 6-1/6-1
GD: Krajicek/Erakovic d. Gojnea/Niculescu

[US OPEN WEEK 2 - 4r to F]
PLAYER OF THE WEEK: Svetlana Kuznetsova she the first slam champion to wear braces since Tracy Austin?

RISERS: Kuznetsova & Elena Dementieva
...#5 Dementieva's still ranked ahead of #6 Kuznetsova on the WTA computer.
SURPRISE: Shinobu Asagoe
...Miss Opportunity. The 28-year old Japanese vet took advantage of Myskina's ouster from her section of the draw to, at #62, become the lowest-ranked quarterfinalist since #66 Venus Williams in 1997.
VETERANS: Virginia Ruano-Pascual & Paola Suarez
...they won their third straight US Open doubles title, and their third slam crown in 2004.
FRESH FACES: Michaella Krajicek & Jenifer Widjaja
...Krajicek swept both the girls singles and doubles titles in Flushing Meadows. The Brazilian Widjaja, 17, won back-to-back-to-back ITF titles in the period before and during the Open.
DOWN: Jennifer Capriati
...twice this summer, Capriati advanced to a slam SF with a golden opportunity to grab her fourth slam title in an otherwise underwhelming year. She went 0-2 vs. the Russians, never showing up against Myskina in Paris (after which she fired Heinz Gunthardt) and dropping the 1st set at love against Dementieva in Flushing (is Stefano next?). At 28, it's feeling like #4 won't be happening.

[4th Rd. to Final]
1. QF - Capriati d. Serena
The most poorly officiated contest since the last time a Williams got jobbed at a slam.
2. Final - Kuznetsova d. Dementieva
What'll the Russians do for an encore in 2005? Hmmm, I smell an "Intriguing Question" coming on.
3. 4th Rd. - Petrova d. Henin-Hardenne
This was the JHH we expected in Athens. After 46 weeks, #1 is history...for now.
4. 4th Rd. - Pierce d. Sharapova
Sharapova had 14 DF, and blew a 3-1 lead in the 3rd set.
5. 4th Rd. - Davenport d. Venus
Davenport went 4-0 vs. Serena & Venus this summer after not beating them during the previous four years.
6. QF - Dementieva d. Mauresmo
Dementieva's serves were in the mid-60 mph range. She had a groin injury, suffered from an upset stomach, had 15 DF, needed a I.V. after the match and was down a set and a break to Mauresmo. And she STILL won.
7. SF - Kuznetsova d. Davenport
What's the bigger Davenport story this summer -- the four straight titles, or the two blown slam SF leads?
8. SF - Dementieva d. Capriati
Was Capriati feeling "unworthy" after that Serena match?
9. Mixed SF - Molik/Woodbridge d. Navratilova/Paes
will Martina's last slam act be a DF on match point? After all the farewell talk at Wimbledon, there was decidedly little fanfare in NY in what is "supposed" to be her grand slam sayonara.
10. Jr. Final - Krajicek d. Kirkland
Krajicek was the 2003 US Open girls RU.

In her next two tournaments, Kuznetsova won Bali the week following her Open triumph, then reached the Beijing final (losing to Serena) and ran her winning streak to fourteen matches before finally going out in Filderstadt. The stretch, aside from the three-title clay court run that included her second slam win in Paris in '09, was probably the last time she fully rode a wave of momentum and followed through on the promise of her talent while everything great seemed probable, not just possible. But she didn't win another title until Miami in early 2006.

While it'd be unfair to call Sveta a full-on "talent tease," she hasn't evolved into a great champion, either.

Kuznetsova had maybe the most potential, talent-wise, of the entire group of Hordettes, armed with a game that translated to success on the most surfaces. Since that summer in the city, the inconsistent Sveta has become one of the most confounding enigmas in the sport. Ever the free-spirit -- who else would manage to sport cornrows and suddenly show up with a "Pain doesn't kill me, I kill the pain" tattoo over the last decade? ...not counting maybe Bethanie Mattek-Sands, I mean -- she's sometimes seemed disinterested on court over the years, and has constantly been searching for the "right" coach to get the most out of her.

It's become commmon to wait on pins and needles when it comes to Kuznetsova, wondering whether her motivation will wane on a match-to-match basis in a tournament, or it'll be game-to-game...or even point-to-point. You just never know when Sveta will start to look like she has something else better to do than hit a fuzzy yellow ball with a racket. She's become the "ultimate wild card" in any event she enters, capable of a quick flame out or trip to the final weekend at each turn, with both being equally likely. In 2011, she defeated Henin in the final match of the Belgian's career in the 2nd Round of the Australian Open, then two rounds later played Francesca Schiavone in the longest women's slam match of the Open era. She lost a 16-14 3rd set in a contest that lasted 4:44.

When healthy and in form, she's still dangerous, having become the first player since the grand slams began seeding thirty-two players in '01 to reach the QF as an unseeded entrant in back-to-back majors (at the Australian Open and Roland Garros in '13). At this point, even if the well-liked Kuznetsova manages to win a third slam, she'll be viewed as something of an underachiever, though her two slam wins and Fed Cup heroics will likely get her into the HOF, assuring the Russian generation that came of age during the 2000's of at least two (w/ Sharapova) women eventually enshrined in Newport.

Of course, Sveta holds a special place in this space because of all that potential she showed back in 2004...

"The devil made me do it." "Everything happens for a reason." "Karma." Right alongside those should be "The Kuznetsova Curse."

For anything that occurs, there's always a reason, excuse, or dose of blame ready to be pulled out to explain it. Here at Backspin, while predictions do come true on occasion, just the lightly tapping of a particular player to achieve something is reason to think that, since the possibility was even brought up that it COULD happen, that from that point on it might now have ZERO chance of actually becoming reality. The notion has history, too. In fact, it even has a name. "The Kuznetsova Curse" goes back nearly a full decade now, unleashed upon the WTA (and, later, ATP) landscape all because of one double-headed prediction back in 2005. You see, after the official birth of the Russian tennis revolution back in 2004, Tennisrulz (Backspin's original home) Head Honcho Pierre Cantin and I posted our dual Top 10 predictions for the upcoming season that January. Without any consultation between the two of us, we'd both surprisingly picked the same player to finish as 2005's #1-ranked player. And it wasn't a "tried and true" champion, either. It was Kuznetsova, who'd just finished 2004 ranked at #5. Of course, as soon as the predictions were made I knew they -- and Sveta -- were doomed. As I said then, "hmmm. Both Pierre & I picked Kuznetsova to be #1? One is a prediction. Two is a jinx. So, it probably won't happen now. Sorry, Contessova. (Psst... blame Pierre!)"

I didn't know how right I was. After reports of a failed drug test greeted her at the Australian Open, Kuznetsova suffered through a less-than-compelling "year after," becoming the first defending U.S. Open champ to lose in the opening round, and finished the season at #18. Thus, the "Kuznetsova Curse" was born... and lives until this day, and into the future. The Curse seems to have covered the Russian's entire boom-or-bust career as she's bounced back and forth between being "focused & lethal" and "distracted & an upset waiting to happen."

The Curse eventually spread to other players, and has become the easy thing to "blame" whenever a perfectly reasonable prediction ends up looking pretty bad once the dust has settled, while (fill in the name of the unlucky individual) is forced to suffer through the consequences. It didn't take long for the pandemic to become reality, either. In 2007, I was even forced to issue an only-partly-in-jest "Statement" to "protect" Pierre and myself from legal action after both of us predicted Sharapova to finish '07 at #1, and she quickly fell into an early-season slump. Three years later, the Curse jumped tours. I picked reigning U.S. Open champ Juan Martin del Potro to be the ATP's #1 player for 2010, only to see him injure his wrist and miss three slams before having to embark on a comeback that, after some brief additional success, he is STILL trying to complete.

As a result, I stopped making official preseason #1 predictions, and instead simply compile an alphabetical list of players I think might finish in the Top 10. Well, until 2014, when I tempted fate and predicted that Serena would win the season Grand Slam, which was essentially a #1 prediction in all ways but the most blatant one. I soon noted that I figured we'd see just how great Serena was if she could outrun even The Curse, which was being tested to see if it had any "juice" left.

Well, I guess we know how THAT turned out, huh? Can you say, "Her. Worst. Slam. Season. Ever.?" (Ruefully shakes head.)

"The Kuznetsova Curse" came in a #5 on the "All-Time Backspin MVP List" back in 2012, behind only Kim Clijsters, Justine Henin, Jelena Jankovic and Serena Williams. It was the highest-placing Russian-related entry on the countdown, while Kuznetsova didn't make the list in her own right. In the end, I suspect that's Sveta's ultimate "legacy" in this space since, you know, you never really get to choose how you'll be remembered. Heehee.

Not that she hasn't had a very good, though not great, career. Kuznetsova has won fourteen tour singles titles, and sixteen in doubles, including five with the legendary Martina Navratilova and a pair of Australian Opens with Alicia Molik and Vera Zvonareva. She's reached the doubles final at all four slams. She's had five Top 10 seasons and six wins over world #1's. She's played in fifteen slam QF and four slam finals, as well as an additional SF. Kuznetsova topped out in the rankings at #2, first reaching the spot at the conclusion of the '07 U.S. Open. In 2008, if she'd won the Roland Garros title she'd have taken over at #1 in the wake of the retirement of top-ranked Justine Henin two weeks before the start of play in Paris. But she lost in the semifinals to countrywoman Dinara Safina, who'd then lose the final to Ana Ivanovic as the Serb won her first (and so far only) major title and became the new #1. A year later, five seasons after winning in NYC, Sveta won the Roland Garros championship that had eluded her in '08 (and in '04, when she'd held match point in the Round of 16 vs. Myskina, as well as '05, when Kuznetsova also got to MP vs. eventual champ Henin in the same round a season later).

En route to taking that title in Paris, Sveta got wins over both the then-#1 (Safina) and #2 (Serena) players in the world in the tournament. She's the only woman to accomplish the feat on her way to winning a slam in the last eight seasons, since Sharapova did it at the U.S. Open in 2006.

Actually, those near misses in Paris weren't the only times Kuznetsova has come THIS CLOSE to taking a third slam crown, or at least taking out the woman who'd eventually win the title. In 2009, she served for her QF match against soon-to-be champ Serena in Melbourne, then had Williams a break down in the 3rd set in the QF again in Paris four years later before Serena went on to claim her own long-awaited second RG title. While a third major crown is still theoretically possible for Sveta, becoming the third Russian to reach the #1 ranking isn't a reality. Ah, but history can STILL be made. Only three women -- Hana Mandlikova (4), Ann Haydon Jones & Virginia Wade (both with 3) -- who played in the Open era have ever won as many as three singles slams but never reached the #1 ranking. Kuznetsova, if she could hold things together for one more two week stretch in what's left of the now 29-year old's career, could still be the fourth woman added to that list.

Of course, if she never darkened even the grounds of the final eight at another slam, no one would be surprised, either.

Maybe if Kuznetsova hadn't surprised everyone so much with her early slam win in '04, the five years between that triumph and her eventual return to the slam winner's circle at Roland Garros in '09 wouldn't have seemed so disappointing. But after flashing her skills and proving what she WAS capable of accomplishing, little leeway was given the Russian as she failed time and time again to live up to her Open success, from struggling to win regular tour finals to often missing golden grand slam opportunities. Maybe more than any other player this decade, Kuznetsova walked the fine line between being a "great talent" and a "great player," often times falling on the "lesser" side of the equation.

Still, after her '05 dip in results, she managed to once again finish seasons in the Top 10 from 2006-09 (twice she was in the year-end Top 3), star on multiple Fed Cup-winning Russian teams, and was the only women to defeat Henin twice (in '04 & '07) when she was ranked #1. But while her Russian countrywomen were sweeping the Beijing Olympic Medal stand in '08, Kuznetsova was losing in the 1st Round. Early in the '09 season, she found herself in a 1-10 rut in tour singles finals over the previous two seasons. It just went on and on, even when she never showed any physical or game-related reasons why she shouldn't be winning big tour titles.

Kuznetsova, on the advice of none other than Roger Federer, moved back to Russia from her longtime training ground at the Sanchez-Casal Academy in Spain at the start of the '09 season, then in the spring enlisted former Soviet doubles star Larisa Savchenko-Neiland as her new coach. For a time, the change seemed to work wonders, as for the first time as a pro she seemed settled and finally began to pick up where she'd left off five years earlier. After not winning a singles title outright since '06 (her '07 New Haven crown came when Agnes Szavay retired while leading the final), Kuznetsova won three times in four final appearances in '09, including at Roland Garros (where she had much unfinished business) and in Beijing (where she'd missed out on the Russian party a year earlier). After reaching the #3 ranking in '04, she returned there five years later, finishing at #3.

Since then, her results have been spotty. Many coaches and advisers have come and gone. The underachieving nature of Kuznetsova's career still rings true, but so does the prospect of her one day coming through with another result befitting her early promise, especially on a WTA tour where 29th and 30th birthdays have proven to be stepping stones to late-career success in recent seasons. Of course, we only occasionally see evidence of the Sveta capable of THAT. In the same 2012 season in which she was included as one of just ten then-active players on Tennis Channel's "100 Greatest Players of All-Time" list -- she was #92 -- the Russian missed the second half of the season due to injury and fell to a year-end #72, her lowest ranking since 2001. She rebounded with the two slam QF runs in '13 to finish at #21. In early '14, she briefly returned to the Top 20 for the first time in nearly two years, then in Oeiras reached her first final since 2011. Sure, she blew a 4-1 3rd set lead and lost, but she's since reached her fourth slam QF since her '09 RG win (again, in Paris), claimed her first tour singles title (in Washington, D.C., pictured below) in four years and once again finds herself on the cusp of returning to the Top 20 as the tenth anniversary of her U.S. Open title run arrives (she's ranked #21, but with the absences of other injured players she'll be seeded in the Top 20 in New York).

So, after all these years, lingering signs are there that Kuznetsova is still capable of jumping up and out with a great result. But can she still go deep in a major event, and is that historic third major title possible? Hmmm, probably not, since finding the prolonged consistency necessary to make it through seven matches is a huge sticking point. But we're talking about Sveta, so never rule anything out. 2014 is the five year anniversary season of Kuznetsova's LAST slam win in Paris in '09. In the fifth year after her U.S. Open win, she won her second slam, so who's to say Sveta's strangely ticking clock can't still make her soon-to-begin return to Flushing Meadows an even more significant anniversary than it already is? No one would be TRULY stunned if the Hordette could pull together a "time machine moment." Nothing she does on court over the years has ever really been a big shock.

As always, well, at least since 2004-05, there may be no WTA star more fitting than Kuznetsova of the description of a player who could lose in an upset on Day 1 of a slam or win the entire thing and, even now, really surprise no one with either outcome. The possibility of the latter scenario continues to play out in the back of your mind at slam time... until Kuznetsova is finally ousted from the draw, that is.

Oh, things could have been so different, and seemed like they would be a decade ago. But, then again, that wouldn't have been very Sveta-like, would've it?

As for the Hordettes, they went on to claim an even bigger chunk of 2004 history. Hmmm, don't be surprised if there's another Russian-centered '04 Time Capsule by the end of the year.

Maria Sharapova went on to end her season by winning her first and (so far) only Tour Championships title, becoming the only Russian to ever do so when she pulled off a sequel to her Wimbledon triumph by getting a second victory over (an injured) Serena Williams in the final in Los Angeles. Nearly a full decade later, Sharapova is still seeking win #3 over Williams.

The 2004 season-ending Top 5 included all three slam-winning Hordettes, as Myskina (#3), Sharapova (#4) and Kuznetsova (#5) gave the Russian threat rankings teeth. Two-time '04 slam finalist Dementieva was #6, while three more countrywomen (#11 Zvonareva, #12 Nadia Petrova & #15 Elena Bovina) made it seven Russians in the Top 15. Sharapova, contrary to what I thought possible after the U.S. Open, won "Ms. Backspin" honors (though, at the time I wasn't officially calling the "Player of the Year" winner that), while Myskina finished third, Kuznetsova sixth, Dementieva eighth and Zvonareva tenth.

A week after Sharapova won the Tour Championships, Myskina led the Russians to their first-ever Fed Cup title with little if any help from the season's other two slam champions. Kuznetsova, who'd eventually become a FC legend (twice winning title-clinching singles matches in '07 and '08), performed well in that week's semifinal action vs. Austria, but went 0-2 in the final against France, while Sharapova wasn't even on the team, mostly because Myskina, who had issues with Maria's father Yuri, had essentially forbid it if she was going to devote her own time to the Fed Cup cause. Sharapova wouldn't make her FC debut until 2008. The '04 FC win for Team Russia would be the first of the Hordette's four FC titles in five years. After having lost in four finals with Soviet/Russian squads prior to '04, the team has since reached additional finals in '11 and '13. Myskina officially became the Russian team's Captain before the 2014 campaign.

Suddenly, the old "quantity over quality" argument is back in the discussion when it comes to the Hordettes, as well. Really, unless Kuznetsova's talent flashes again, only Sharapova survives as a legit slam contender. The group has claimed just two slam crowns (both in Paris by Sharapova) since Sharapova's own pre-shoulder surgery Australian Open title in 2008, and no fourth Hordette major title winner has followed Kuznetsova in the decade since she won in New York. Other than the three slam winners of '04, the other Russian Revolution stars -- Dementieva, Safina and Zvonareva -- who have reached slam finals have gone a combined 0-7.

So far, no member of the NextGen Hordettes have shown major-winning ability, either. They're a talented lot, and the Russian junior stars keep coming in mini-waves -- two have won girls slam crowns in '14 -- but many are even sometimes more emotionally destructive on court than the notoriously fragile Safina and Zvonareva. Additionally, some of the better younger players are deciding to represent other nations with smaller talent pools, allowing themselves more opportunities for support and/or spots on Fed Cup or Olympic rosters. Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, now 23, seemed to have the most ability of the next generation. She was once as dominant in junior play as any girl ever was, but fitness, coaching questions and inconsistency have kept her from a true breakthrough. Ekaterina Makarova, a truly lethal opponent for any top player to take down on one of the Russian's good days, is capable of a huge upset on a grand stage, but hasn't been able to string together enough of those sort of wins to be a realistic dark horse for a slam title. If veteran Maria Kirilenko could ever stay healthy, she might have a real shot at starring in a late-career Cinderella slam story. But that's a big "if." She's yet to reach her first slam semifinal.

Yes, the Russians are here to stay. As 2014 U.S. Open beckons, four Hordettes are ranked in the Top 25, and six in the Top 100. Not bad. But things are never, ever going to be how they were ten years ago.

Of course, we should have know that at the time.

2001 U.S. Open Girls Doubles (w/ Galina Fokina)
2004 U.S. Open Women's Singles
2005 Australian Open Women's Doubles (w/ Alicia Molik)
2009 Roland Garros Women's Singles
2012 Australian Open Women's Doubles (w/ Vera Zvonareva)

[most WTA titles]
32 - Maria Sharapova (2003-14)
16 - Elena Dementieva (2003-10)
13 - Nadia Petrova (2005-12)
12 - Vera Zvonareva (2003-11)
12 - Dinara Safina (2002-09)
10 - Anastasia Myskina (1999-05)
9 - Olga Morozova, USSR (1969-75)
8 - Anna Chakvetadze (2006-10)
[age at Hordettes at first title]
16-Dinara Safina (2002)
16-Maria Sharapova (2003)
18-Elena Likhovtseva (1993)
18-Anastasia Myskina (1999)
18-Vera Zvonareva (2003)
18-Maria Kirilenko (2005)
18-Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova (2010)
19-Elena Bovina (2002)
19-Anna Chakvetadze (2006)
20-Alisa Kleybanova (2010)
20-Ksenia Pervak (2011)
21-Elena Dementieva (2003)
22-Vera Dushevina (2009)
22-Ekaterina Makarova (2010)
22-Alla Kudryavtseva (2010)
23-Nadia Petrova (2005)
26-Elena Vesnina (2013)
[most all-Russian finals]
12...Elena Dementieva (6-6)
7...Dinara Safina (3-4)
5...Maria Sharapova (3-2)
4...Anastasia Myskina (4-0)
3...Elena Vesnina (0-3)
2...Anna Chakvetadze (2-0)
2...Alisa Kleybanova (2-0)
2...Nadia Petrova (0-2)

[Australian Open]
2007 Serena Williams def. Maria Sharapova
2008 Maria Sharapova def. Ana Ivanovic
2009 Serena Williams def. Dinara Safina
2012 Victoria Azarenka def. Maria Sharapova
[Roland Garros]
1988 Steffi Graf def. Natalia Zvereva
2004 Anastasia Myskina def. Elena Dementieva
2006 Justine Henin-Hardenne def. Svetlana Kuznetsova
2008 Ana Ivanovic def. Dinara Safina
2009 Svetlana Kuznetsova def. Dinara Safina
2012 Maria Sharapova def. Sara Errani
2013 Serena Williams def. Maria Sharapova
2014 Maria Sharapova def. Simona Halep
1974 Chris Evert def. Olga Morozova
2004 Maria Sharapova def. Serena Williams
2010 Serena Williams def. Vera Zvonareva
2011 Petra Kvitova def. Maria Sharapova
[U.S. Open]
1974 Chris Evert def. Olga Morozova
2004 Svetlana Kuznetsova def. Elena Dementieva
2006 Maria Sharapova def. Justine Henin-Hardenne
2007 Justine Henin def. Svetlana Kuznetsova
2010 Kim Clijsters def. Vera Zvonareva
[Olympic Gold Medal Match]
2000 Sydney: Venus Williams def. Elena Dementieva
2008 Beijing: Elena Dementieva def. Dinara Safina
2012 London: Serena Williams def. Maria Sharapova
[Olympic Bronze Medal Match]
2004 Athens: Alicia Molik def. Anastasia Myskina
2008 Beijing: Vera Zvonareva def. Li Na
2012 London: Victoria Azarenka def. Maria Kirilenko
[Tour Championships]
2004 Maria Sharapova def. Serena Williams
2007 Justine Henin def. Maria Sharapova
2008 Venus Williams def. Vera Zvonareva
2012 Serena Williams def. Maria Sharapova
[Fed Cup]
1988 CZE def. USSR 2-1
1990 USA def. USSR 2-1
1999 USA def. RUS 4-1
2001 BEL def. RUS 2-1
2004 RUS def. FRA 3-2
2005 RUS def. FRA 3-2
2007 RUS def. ITA 4-0
2008 RUS def. ESP 4-0
2011 CZE def. RUS 3-2
2013 ITA def. RUS 4-0

[singles titles]
62...Serena Williams
45...Venus Williams
32...Maria Sharapova
22...Caroline Wozniacki
17...Victoria Azarenka
14...Ana Ivanovic
14...Aga Radwanska
13...Jelena Jankovic
13...Nadia Petrova
[singles finals]
79...Serena Williams
74...Venus Williams
54...Maria Sharapova
35...Caroline Wozniacki
32...Victoria Azarenka
32...Jelena Jankovic
30...Vera Zvonareva

All for now.