AO.11- The Brave Tin Soldiers
Welcome to the "new" WTA, absent the "soft" #1's and mentally cracked slam contenders who make it too easy for criticism and crankiness to drown out the actual accomplishments of the players involved. Welcome to a world where players play with fire and a will to not only win, but also to grab for a major title with both hands rather than expect it to be handed to them. Oh, yeah... and for most of those things to eventually be drowned out by whiners complaining about how much noise said players make on the court.
Well, no one ever said any was a perfect tennis world, right?
Setting aside all the "el stupido" handwringing and overzealous preoccupation with the unimportant traits of some of the players in question, it was great to actually see a pair of semifinal matches on Day 11 that lived up to the advance (hoped for) billing. I'd almost forgotten what it was like to see the latter stages of a slam actually LOOK like the latter stages of a slam. No head-shaking emotional collapses occurred. There were no overmatched pretenders in attendance, either. Instead, we got a game, but (thank you, Kim) not overly-sentimental, soon-to-exit defending champion and three players who actually looked like they were willing to do whatever was necessary to win a slam and, in turn, claim the #1 ranking in the women's game. It's such an overused phrase, but there really did turn out to be no "losers" in this hard-hitting quartet. Rather than hope for their opponent to lose, they tried to win, all managing to turn seemingly-bad in-match situations back in their favor by imposing their will on their opponent. But while all four thrived, of course, only two survived.
The first semifinal of the day pitted defending champ Kim Clijsters, 28, in what she says will be her last Australian Open, against 22-year old Victoria Azarenka, seeking the triple-whammy of her first slam final, maiden slam title, and the #1 ranking if she can lift the championship trophy this weekend. Immediately, the Belarusian jumped on Clijsters' second serve, breaking the Belgian for a 2-1 lead in the 1st. Throughout the opening set, the younger player saw her chances backed against the wall, but met the pressure with some of her own. Saving four break points in Game #4, she held for 3-1. Using her groundstrokes to keep Clijsters from moving forward, Azarenka overcame Clijsters' early service game leads, following the aggressive gameplans of previous first-time slam winners of recent seasons. Clijsters never let Azarenka run away with the set, though, forcing her to emotionally hold firm. She did, too, and won the set 6-4.
With her first major final a set away, though, Azarenka did suffer a 2nd set letdown. Clijsters broke her at love in Game #2 thanks to the Belarusian's errors, grabbing a 2-0 lead and running off a string of what would be eight straight points. KC only led by a single break, and Azarenka had an opportunity to get it back. But when she missed an overhead shot that would have given her break point, then Ciljsters held for 3-0, a chance for a quick day was lost. In Game #4, Azarenka's first serve simply deserted her. The Belgian broke for 4-0, and held for 5-0. But Azarenka, maybe very importantly, pulled her game together to avoid a 2nd set bagel, holding serve to take a game and a avoid a possibly attitude-defeating freefall. Clijsters knotted the match with a 6-1 win, but it was Azarenka's getting a late foothold that led to her momentum carrying over into the 3rd.
In the opening game of the deciding set, Azarenka found herself break point down, but she managed a hold, then broke Clijsters at love. A poor service game from the Belgian (and, in particular, a poor decision to go for a drop shot during a long rally) ended with a double-fault that handed the break, and a 3-1 lead, to Azarenka. At that point, KC's shots began to fly in all directions, but the player who saved quadruple match point in the Round of 16 against Li Na had one more surge left in her. Azarenka led 4-2, 40/love on serve, but failed to convert six game points. Once Clijsters got her first break point of the game, she took advantage and closed to within 4-3. So, this appeared to be the moment when the Belgian's seemingly-fated run to the women's final would become a reality, right? Ah, not so fast.
Clijsters opened the next game with a double-fault, and Azarenka built up a 40/love lead. After going 0-for-8 in game and break point opportunities over the nearly two-game stretch, Azarenka finally put away a volley to take a 5-3 lead and give herself a chance to serve for the final. Would she prove worthy of the moment, or crack under the pressure? The answer seemed to be foreshadowed when she started off with a service winner. Moments later, she was up 40/love. A single double-fault delayed the Belarusian's gratification, but Clijsters' final error ended the match. Azarenka won 6-4/1-6/6-3 to reach her first major final.
After the match, Azarenka held up a (maybe a bit premature?) #1 finger, while Clijsters quickly slipped away from what will likely be her last AO. There was no tearful on-court interview with the Belgian, dubbed "Aussie Kim" so many years ago, and for that maybe she should be commended. The story of this match was not her, it was Azarenka, a player we've seen arriving at this moment for quite a few years now, only for her achy breaky body and anger issues to sometimes trip her up along the way. But, having largely conquered both problems from her past, the fiery, often demonstrative Belarusian with the sort of desire to win that makes some people (you know who they are) uncomfortable, will now finally get her moment to rise or fall on the game's biggest stage. Having proven she can climb onto the platform, no matter what happens next, it won't likely be her last trip there.
While the first match served as a nice coming out party for another young twentysomething, the second match between Maria Sharapova and Petra Kvitova, especially the 3rd set, stood out as the true jewel of the women's semifinals. Even more so than the Azarenka/Clijsters match, this one came down to its closing games, even points, with the final result totally in question, even when match points were on the line. What was going to happen was anyone's guess, but everyone sure knew they wanted to see it all play out on the court of Rod Laver Arena.
Kvitova, 21, held at love to start the match, but the Czech's penchant at this tournament to sometimes have trouble holding her serve for large stretches of time continued against Sharapova's grand return game. The two exchanged momentum in the early going. Kvitova missed an overhead and was broken in Game #3, when the 24-year old Russian tossed in a double-fault and error to break herself back the next game. Using her return reflexes to attack Kvitova's FIRST serve, Sharapova went up a break again at 3-2. At 4-2, she showed the sort athleticism that she's never really been known for. Reacting quickly to a Kvitova drop shot attempt, the Russian went into full sprint from behind the baseline and easily got to the ball, putting away a winner. She'd soon break for a 5-2 lead then, after falling down love/40, hold serve to claim a 6-2 set. With a 112-5 slam record when she wins the 1st set, and with the Czech visibly frustrated (tossing her racket down more than once, an act that wasn't seen from her last year, but has become her "go to" in bad stretches this season), Sharapova seemed set for a very good day.
But then Kvitova did what she's done so well at this AO -- quickly rebound and impose her power game on her opponent. Just as she did in the Wimbledon final last July, she did it again to Sharapova in the 2nd set. Sending a message with a big return to start Sharapova's service game, she was gifted a double-fault from the Russian one point later. With the score at 40/love, Sharapova's fifth DF of the match broke herself to give Kvitova a 2-0 advantage. The set ultimately played out like a SW19 redux, even down to the Czech's ace on set point that matched her final winner on match point at the All-England Club. She won 6-3, knotting the contest at one set each.
The 3rd began just as the 2nd had ended, with Kvitova whacking balls with great force. It seemed like many other matches she plays -- her's to win. She broke Sharapova to go up 2-1, gave it back a game later, but saw her game remain firm during the series of ball-blasting rallies that characterized the set. Kvitova nearly got the break back in Game #5, but Sharapova managed an important hold for 3-2. In a very long Game #7, the Russian did the same.
At 4-4, it was apparent that crunchtime was upon the two. Hall of Fame Washington Redskins coach Joe Gibbs always called it "gut check time," and Kvitova, her motor revving up at every turn, seemed to be the one checking off every gutsy item on the list required for her to reach her first AO final and play for the #1 ranking. She went up 30/love on Sharapova's serve and the end seemed to possibly be near. But THIS Sharapova, as we've seen since the early rounds of this tournament when she began to pass the required "eye test" that always marks whether or not she's a SERIOUS slam contender, isn't the same Russian who's been lost in the slam wilderness since her shoulder surgery nearly four years ago. In Melbourne, she's been the former champion driven to return to the winner's circle to prove, as much to herself as others, that she CAN do it again after all her career has endured over the 48 months since she last lifted a slam championship trophy. Who's to say what the dialogue inside Sharapova's head sounded like when the still-improving-and-hardly-yet-a-finished-product Czech looked like she was going to able to take her down in yet another slam, especially the one in which the Russian has looked so much like the 20-year old who claimed the Daphne Akhurst Trophy on this same court in 2008 to complete her third leg of a career Grand Slam.
"Even the open, transparent lake has its unknown depths, which no divers know." - Hans Christian Andersen
Two points from serving for the final, Kvitova saw Sharapova's shot sail long and the game score move to 40/love in the Czech's favor. She was so close now. But something happened on the way to Kvitova's instant immortality -- the Russian challenged the call. Then, everything changed. The ball had grazed the line, and the replay may have turned out to be the biggest moment of the entire match, and maybe even the tournament. If the always seemingly-composed Sharapova had developed any lingering doubts about her ability to defeat the Czech, and her rare-for-her looks into the players box seemed to hint that she maybe had, then that moment seemed to evaporate them. Surviving the close call of being in such a deep hole, she suddenly turned super-steady in the match's closing moments. It might have been THE key to victory. Kvitova, meanwhile, who seemed so sure of her path to a win that she'd even managed to smile to herself at the audacity of the angle of one of her powerful winners in an earlier point, seemed to maybe catch wind of maybe fate NOT being on her side, after all. Whatever actually happened, things WERE different from that moment forward.
Sharapova went on to hold serve and, rather than serve for the match at 5-4, Kvitova was serving to stay in it at all. She committed a forehand error to start the game, and Sharapova grabbed a 30/15 lead. Even after the Czech netted a backhand off a Sharapova drop shot, nothing seemed settled. Kvitova was just as likely to catch fire yet again as she was to be broken with the match on the line. But, one long rally later, as Kvitova's shot sailed long, Sharapova walked off with a skin-of-her-teeth, why-she's-likely-to-win-slam-#4-in-two-days victory by the score of 6-2/3-6/6-4. In the end, the Russian had played the biggest points better. Kvitova was just 3-of-14 on break points attempts, including 1-of-5 in the 3rd set, while Sharapova had gone a remarkably impressive 5-for-5 (I actually didn't even trust the ESPN2 number, and had to go look at the official match stats to be sure it was true), especially so against a player with as big a serve as the Wimbledon champ's. One has to think that Kvitova will have to figure a way to work past the belief that she should have somehow found a way to do MORE with her serve in this match, and the fact that she hadn't been able to do so probably (at least temporarily) robbed her of her second slam title and the #1 ranking.
"An eternal night awaited her." - Hans Christian Andersen
Kvitova outpaced Sharapova 29-18 in winners, but had 41 errors to the Russian's 30. Once again, as well, Sharapova, didn't allow any service miscues (10 DF) to bring down the rest of her game. In the end, she won 86 points to Kvitova's 84. The difference between an 85-85 split? That overturned shot in Sharapova's final service game, which, if it'd gone the way it'd been originally called, would have probaby led to a totally different end result in this match.
So, still looking the part, Sharapova moves on to the final, where she'll try to reclaim the #1 ranking and become the first player to win a major title following career-threatening shoulder surgery, and waiting for her there will be another woman trying to find slam glory and reach #1 in Azarenka. It'll be a hard-hitting, fist-pumping display of dualing wills to win a slam rarely seen on any WTA stage in recent years. Maybe even decades, for that matter. Of course, many will be distracted from the great nature of this "Scream Queen" final because they won't be able to avoid slipping into their "Noise Nazi" regalia. But, let them eat cake, I say. I know I'll enjoy the spectacle for the legitimate one it'll be, filled with concussive sounds emanating from ALL corners of the court... but none of the sounds as great as the desire to win that will resound inside both players.
Hey, it's the "new" WTA. I think I'll take it.
=DAY 11 NOTES=
...in the capper to what turned out to be one of the best slam semifinal days in recent memory, Rafael Nadal ended Australia Day by taking out Roger Federer in four sets, 6-7/6-2/7-6/6-4, to reach his second AO singles final. The Spaniard is now 18-9 in the twenty-seven career meetings between the two, and 8-2 in slams.
...in the junior singles competition, as opposed to what happened in the regular draws, North America is dominating. Especially in the Girls draw, where three of the final four hail from the continent.
Unseeded Bannerette Krista Hardebeck took down yet another biggie in the QF, eliminating #1-seed Irina Khromacheva in straights to reach the semis, where she'll meet her countrywoman (girl?), #14-seeded Taylor Townsend (who also reached the Girls Doubles final with American Gabrielle Andrews). The other SF pits Russian Yulia Putintseva (#4) against Canada's Eugenie Bouchard (#2).
There's a Canadian (Filip Peliwo) in the Boys semifinals, as well. But, even with #1-seed Luke Saville the last remaining Aussie in any of the AO draws, the bigger story is probably Czech Adam Pavlasek, Kvitova's boyfriend. He took out #4 Kaichi Uchida to reach the singles SF (he'll face Saville), and also advanced to the Boys Doubles final with Croatia's Filip Veger.
...the Bryan twins reached the Men's Doubles final, where they've already picked up the AO title five of the last six years. A sixth win will break their current tie with Mark Woodforde & Todd Woodbridge for the most slam Men's Doubles titles in the Open era. Both teams currently have eleven. Title #12, by the way, would also actually tie the all-time men's mark for slam wins held by John Newcombe & Tony Roche (who won just seven of their twelve titles in the Open era).
...well, Sania Mirza and Elena Vesnina ended up going 3-0 against Liezel Huber and Lisa Raymond, as Vesnina & Leander Paes took out Raymond & Rohan Bopanna in the Mixed QF. Doubles team Mirza & Vesnina could end up facing off with each other in the Mixed final.
...as difficult as it is to believe, Esther Vergeer has once again reached the women's wheelchair final.
...DAY 11 LIKES: Azarenka having, perhaps, the "temerity" in the face of all the talk of her on-court shrieking, to complain to the umpire about fans talking during a point in her match with Clijsters. Oh, that's so very Vika-ish, isn't it? I love the, "You don't like it? I don't care. I don't like it... and that's what matters to me right now." attitude about it all she has. If she wins the final, maybe she hold up another single finger to all the people who'd want to ignore her actual accomplishments and focus on the noise she makes when she swings a racket. Hey, absent a black-hatted Justine, the tour could use a "villain," real or imagined, to spice things up a bit. Why not embrace and go all the way with it?
Of course, rather than see the natural humor in the situation, from Azarenka's complaint to (I think) her sounds, the ESPN2's were more offended than amused. No surprise, considering (yet again) they spent a five-minute stretch in the 1st set griping about how much noise Azarenka makes, completely overlooking the fact that a MATCH to reach a slam final was going on... while crazy-noisy jet fighters were flying back and forth across the Melbourne sky in Australia Day activities, it should be noted. And if that particular tangent wasn't enough, ten minutes later Cliff Drysdale saw fit to inform everyone of the "breaking news" that Patrick McEnroe was reporting to him that... fans (CUE IMPORTANT NEWSREADER VOICE) were Tweeting him right then and there about how much they hate all the noise the players make on court. Because, as you know, the only opinions that matter are those of the people with nothing better to do but Tweet some loud-mouthed TV tennis commentators and tell them what they want to hear.
...and, finally, I can't express how glad I am that I don't actually have to keep up with any AO women's singles action on Day 12. Ah, the refeshing end is near.
"Brave soldier, never fear. Even though your death is near." - Hans Christian Andersen
Hey, now, Hans. I'm just talking about the end of the TOURNAMENT. Sheesh.
*WOMEN'S SINGLES FINAL*
#3 Victoria Azarenka/BLR vs. #4 Maria Sharapova/RUS
*MEN'S SINGLES SF*
#1 Novak Djokovic/SRB vs. #4 Andy Murray/GBR
#2 Rafael Nadal/ESP def. #3 Roger Federer/SUI
*WOMEN'S DOUBLES FINAL*
#11 Errani/Vinci (ITA/ITA) vs. Kuznetsova/Zvonareva (RUS/RUS)
*MEN'S DOUBLES FINAL*
#1 Bryan/Bryan (USA/USA) vs. Paes/Stepanek (IND/CZE)
*MIXED DOUBLES SF*
Vinci/Bracciali (ITA/ITA) vs. #5 Vesnina/Paes (RUS/IND)
#6 Mirza/Bhupathi (IND/IND) vs. #8 Mattek-Sands/Tecau (USA/ROU)
*GIRLS SINGLES SF*
Krista Hardebeck/USA vs. #14 Taylor Townsend/USA
#4 Yulia Putintseva/RUS vs. #2 Eugenie Bouchard/CAN
*BOYS SINGLES SF*
#1 Luke Saville/AUS vs. #10 Adam Pavlasek/CZE
MacKenzie McDonald/USA vs. Filip Peliwo/CAN
*GIRLS DOUBLES FINAL*
#1 Khromacheva/Kovinic (RUS/MNE) vs. Andrews/Townsend (USA/USA)
*BOYS DOUBLES FINAL*
Pavlasek/Veger (CZE/CRO) vs. #6 Broady/Ward-Hibbert (GBR/GBR)
**SLAM FINAL LEADERS**
[career slam finals - active women]
17...Serena Williams (13-4)
14...Venus Williams (7-7)
8...Kim Clijsters (4-4)
6...MARIA SHARAPOVA (3-2)
4...Svetlana Kuznetsova (2-2)
3...Ana Ivanovic (1-2)
3...Dinara Safina (0-3)
2...Li Na (1-1)
2...Francesca Schiavone (1-1)
2...Samantha Stosur (1-1)
2...Vera Zvonareva (0-2)
1...VICTORIA AZARENKA (0-0)
1...Petra Kvitova (1-0)
1...Marion Bartoli (0-1)
1...Jelena Jankovic (0-1)
1...Caroline Wozniacki (0-1)
[career AO finals - active women/men]
5...Serena Williams (5-0)
5...Roger Federer (4-1)
3...MARIA SHARAPOVA (1-1)
2...Novak Djokovic (2-0) *
2...RAFAEL NADAL (1-0)
2...Kim Clijsters (1-1)
2...Andy Murray (0-2) *
* - to play in AO SF
[Russian women in slam finals]
6...MARIA SHARAPOVA (3-2)
4...Svetlana Kuznetsova (2-2)
3...Dinara Safina (0-3)
2...Elena Dementieva (0-2)
2...Olga Morozova (0-2)
2...Vera Zvonareva (0-2)
1...Anastasia Myskina (1-0)
NOTE: no slam final w/ a Russian woman has ever gone three sets
[all-time slam finals - men]
TOP QUALIFIER: Paula Ormaechea/ARG
TOP EARLY ROUND (1r-2r): #3 Victoria Azarenka/BLR
TOP MIDDLE-ROUND (3r-QF): #4 Maria Sharapova/RUS
TOP LATE ROUND (SF-F): xx
TOP QUALIFYING MATCH: Q1: Bibiane Schoofs/NED d. Yaroslava Shvedova/KAZ 6-4/3-6/11-9
TOP EARLY RD. MATCH (1r-2r): 2nd Rd. - Greta Arn/HUN d. #17 Dominika Cibulkova/SVK 6-2/3-6/10-8
TOP MIDDLE-RD. MATCH (3r-QF): 4th Rd. - #11 Kim Clijsters/BEL d. #5 Li Na/CHN 4-6/7-6/6-4 (saved 4 MP)
TOP LATE RD. MATCH (SF-F/Jr.): xx
TOP LAVER NIGHT MATCH: none
FIRST WINNER: #3 Victoria Azarenka/BLR (def. Heather Watson/GBR)
FIRST SEED OUT: #19 Flavia Pennetta/ITA (1st Rd.- lost to Nina Bratchikova/RUS)
UPSET QUEENS: Russians
REVELATION LADIES: Germans
NATION OF POOR SOULS: Great Britain (0-4 in 1st Round, all on Day 1)
LAST QUALIFIER STANDING: Nina Bratchikova/RUS (3rd Rd.)
LAST WILD CARDS STANDING: Casey Dellacqua/AUS & Olivia Rogowska/AUS (2nd Rd.)
LAST AUSSIES STANDING: Casey Dellacqua, Jelena Dokic & Olivia Rogowska (2nd Rd.)
IT: Ekaterina Makarova/RUS
MS. OPPORTUNITY: Sara Errani/ITA
COMEBACK PLAYER: #4 Maria Sharapova/RUS
CRASH & BURN: #5 Samantha Stosur/AUS (lost 1st Rd. to Sorana Cirstea/ROU)
ZOMBIE QUEEN: #11 Kim Clijsters/BEL (down 6-4/3-1, 5-1 in 2nd set tie-break and 4 MP vs. Li, 4th Rd.)
LADY OF THE EVENING: #3 Victoria Azarenka/BLR
DOUBLES STAR Nominees: Roberta Vinci, Kuznetsova/Zvonareva, Bethanie Mattek-Sands, Elena Vesnina
JUNIOR BREAKOUT: Nominees: Krista Hardebeck, Taylor Townsend, Eugenie Bouchard
All for Day 11. More tomorrow.