With a three-set loss to the resurgent Svetlana Kuznetsova today in Melbourne, Caroline Wozniacki has come full circle in the worst possible way. This isn’t simply the kind of match the former No. 1 used to win. This was literally a match the she was winning as of a little more than a year ago. In fact, the Russian powerhouse has been an interesting foil to Wozniacki during her rise to, mainstay at, and now fall from, the top of the WTA Rankings.
Flash back to the 2009 US Open. Kuznetsova was the higher ranked player, the reigning French Open champion. Wozniacki was the underdog; an underpowered youngster who’d had some good results, but had yet to reach a Grand Slam quarterfinal. Under the bright New York lights, Wozniacki pulled out the first of her infamous Houdini-esque escapes from the grips of her more aggressive rivals. Despite lacking any notable weapon, the Dane stayed with her more celebrated opponent and outlasted Kuznetsova in a final set tiebreaker.
Wozniacki parlayed the upset into a run to her first Slam final, not only leapfrogging her own progress, but also dusting her peers in the process. A year later, she was No. 1 in the world.
By 2011, the Dane was no longer the up and comer for whom everyone rooted. Resigned to her role as a “Slamless No. 1,” Wozniacki continued to plug away, but there were chinks in the proverbial armor, ones of which Kuznetsova hoped to take advantage. Two years since their last major meeting, the Russian had fallen out of the top 10, but looked fitter and looked primed for revenge. Playing expert aggression for a set and a half, Sveta dominated the top seed, and reinforced all the criticisms that had already grown from whispers to a roar.
Wozniacki was too defensive. She could not hit winners. How was she the best in the world?
Wozniacki’s A game might not have been enthralling, but it was still effective, especially against a tiring Kuznetsova, who faded short of the finish line and allowed the beleaguered best take control of the match.
Another year on, and Wozniacki must be wondering where all the good times have gone.
It’s hard to argue that the Dane’s game is any different than it was when she was dominating the rankings. She has not made the kinds of improvements one would expect of a 22-year-old, but one can hardly assert that she has regressed.
Instead, the big hitters who had been erratic during her time at the top retooled and refurbished their games, but doing so outfoxed more than just her crafty defense. They obliterated her unshakable assurance, her almost haughty self-belief.
There was once an understanding that if Wozniacki played her game, the big hitters would eventually implode. Even today when Kuznetsova failed to break the Dane at 4-4 in the third, the consensus was that the Russian had blown her chance, and Caroline would pounce on Sveta’s inevitable mistakes.
But unfortunately for Wozniacki, it’s not 2009 anymore. It’s not even 2011 anymore. Kuznetsova was far from perfect over another three-set battle, but she got it right just enough to send her wily opponent home before the second week for the fourth straight Slam.
How can the former rankings queen regain her lost crown? Her game looks as static as ever, and her insistence on retaining her father Piotr as her coach continues to raise eyebrows. But what always made the difference for Wozniacki wasn’t her explosive groundstrokes, but her unflappable confidence. If she can regain that, she will undoubtedly be a factor once again, but until then, Caroline Wozniacki continues to wade through the rubble of a fallen empire.
On behalf of blondes everywhere, the blonde jokes need to stop.
We don’t think the capital of California is the letter C. We don’t take an inordinately long time to finish puzzles because the boxes says “2-4 years.” We don’t peel M&Ms and we try not to get stuck on broken escalators.
Then again, maybe these jokes are for the best. They make you underestimate us, so you never see us coming. Maybe that’s how Maria Kirilenko was able to sneak into the fourth round of the Australian Open. The 25-year-old Russian is likely hard-pressed to ever go anywhere unnoticed, but the No. 14 seed has definitely been under the radar at the start of this year’s Australian Open.
It must be difficult to be Maria Kirilenko.
Not in the ways you would think. Indeed, the 25-year-old Russian does not need sympathy because she is blessed with stunningly good looks, the endorsements and photo shoots that come with that, and a hockey-playing fiancé who worships her.
No, take pity on her because she has all those things but still wants to let her game do the talking.
With every excuse to rest on her laurels, Kirilenko continues to put in the long hours to get the most out of her petite frame and (relatively) underpowered game. An all-court player with no standout weapon, the Olympic bronze medalist in doubles has been steadily improving in the last few years and emerged at the start of this season fitter and more ready than ever to make her mark on the singles court.
A fan favorite (for obvious reasons), Kirilenko is not without her critics. Those detractors would probably tell you that she is overrated, given special attention because of her looks and with her recent engagement to Alex Ovechkin, destined for a Kournikova-esque fade out of the tennis world.
To believe all of that is to assume Kirilenko is another dumb blonde. Take it from those who watched her third round encounter with Yanina Wickmayer; “Kiri” is a smart cookie.
She was smart enough to withstand the Belgian’s early barrage. She was cool enough not to panic when that relentless stream of winners caused her to fall behind an early break. Instead, the Russian steadied herself and stayed with Wickmayer, who continued to belt winners one minute and miss only by millimeters the next.
The eventual tiebreaker was a tense affair, for it promised a massive momentum boost to its winner. Unwilling to crack beneath the weight of the moment, Kirilenko stuck to her game plan and mixed expert defense with intelligent offense, all in the effort to keep her emotional foe off-balance.Her patience was rewarded when she nabbed an essential mini-break to take the first set, but Wickmayer would not go away quickly. She persisted early in the second set with her signature aggression as a means of pegging the crafty Kirilenko to the back of the court, and began sneaking up to the net with unheard of efficiency.
But by that point, it was too late. The Russian was already dialed in and ending points earlier and earlier thanks to some flawless angles, and ran away with the second set to set up a meeting with presumptive favorite, Serena Williams.
Many will write off this match before it even begins. Kirilenko lacks the punch to keep up with the American powerhouse who has only lost one match since Wimbledon. But to underestimate the Russian would be a grave error in judgment. Be smart.
Kirilenko certainly is.
“Rivals,” my high school gym teacher once said, “always hate each other. Mac does not like PC. Coke does not like Pepsi. Competition makes the world go round!”
Had he been a tennis fan at the time, he might have added Serbian rivals Ana Ivanovic and Jelena Jankovic to his list of those between whom little love was lost.
In the mid-to-late 2000s, Ivanovic and Jankovic were the fire and ice of the WTA Tour’s elite. Ana was the big-hitter with an on-court effusiveness that was as jarring as it was endearing. Not to say that the counter-punching Jankovic was reserved; she saved her quirky personality and for the pressroom, where she gave quotes that continue to defy explanation.
Both hailed from the war torn city of Belgrade. Both became famous in their home country. Both wanted to be the best.
With few other compatriots, isolation combined with a singular goal could have bonded these young women together. The Italian and Czech Fed Cup teams are shining examples of on-court camaraderie in an individual sport. Off the court? The guest list at Elena Dementieva’s wedding was a “who’s who” of Russian tennis (Vera Dushevina caught the bouquet).
Yet, there is something about countries that boast only two talented players. Perhaps that it serves as a microcosm for the game itself, the idea of a dual between two players and only one can emerge victorious, intensifies what could otherwise be a friendly rivalry. Whatever the reason, like Belgians Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin before them, the relationship between Ivanovic and Jankovic was always cool at best. Never overtly friendly, the two had ways of reminding fans and media where the two women stood with one another.
After scoring a win over her rival in Madrid a few years ago, Jelena was seen mocking Ana’s signature fist pump:
Upon seeing it, Ana quipped, “…Sport doesn’t build character, it shows it.” Far from contrite, Jelena defended the gesture and struck out against players who fist pump “in the player’s face, and especially after not winning a point [but] after your opponent missed an easy ball, I don’t think that’s fair play.”
For all of their differences, Ana and Jelena ended up having two fairly similar careers.
At their peaks, they fought for the No. 1 ranking at the 2008 French Open. Jankovic squandered a third set lead and Ivanovic went on to win her only Slam title. From there, she promptly entered a slump that persists to this day; she has only made one Slam quarterfinal in the last (going on) five years.
Jankovic eventually wrested the top spot from her rival and went on a late-season tear to finish the year atop the rankings. A move to change her game in order to better compete for majors saw her not only remain slamless, but also caused her to tumble from the game’s elite.
This year’s Australian Open saw the two play one another for the first time at a Slam since that fateful French Open encounter. Far from the penultimate round, the rivals were seeded outside the top 10 and competing for a spot in the fourth round, where the winner would take on the much-higher ranked Agnieszka Radwanska.
Ostensibly, the stakes were as high as ever as each woman strives to retain relevancy on a Tour that has moved on without them. Once highly marketable stars, the rivals were relegated to Hisense Arena for a competitive, though more lighthearted, battle. While showing flashes of their former brilliance, the two shared a laugh several times during Ivanovic’s two-set victory. With that, the “Serbian Sisters” wordlessly confirmed the news that they had buried the hatchet.
Reflecting on their frosty past, Jankovic mused, “Back then we were competing for No. 1 and we both wanted what we never achieved and it was different circumstances.” In the heat of the moment, it was easy to see things less clearly, but in retrospect, Jelena poignantly describes the fate of the rivalry with her compatriot, one that was never truly realized.
But rather than dwelling on what might have been, it is comforting to see the two former foes together, now able to laugh and reminisce about their time at the top.
Age restrictions on the WTA Tour have wrested dominance from the prepubescent prodigies of old. Week-to-week, players of all ages continue making their mark, all products of their generation. The young guns are fiery, full of determination. Those in their mid-twenties are methodical, but looking for a breakthrough or an escape after nearly a decade at the proverbial grind.
Then there is Kimiko Date-Krumm.
The more we see of the ageless wonder, the surer we are of how she spent those 12 years away from the game. She didn’t spend it marrying German racecar driver Michael Krumm. She wasn’t staying in peak physical condition and running marathons. She certainly couldn’t have been playing tennis, save for an aborted comeback attempt in 2002.
No, it is all clear now. Kimiko spent that decade (or longer) in a time capsule.
After all, how else did she leave the game in the mid-90s only to reemerge in 2008 looking younger than her new crop of rivals, many of whom had yet to be born when the Japanesewoman turned pro (in 1989)? How else did she retain her throwback game, those mercilessly flat groundstrokes and all-court efficiency? How else could she, at (allegedly) 42, be improving at a rate outpacing teenaged players young enough to call Kimiko “Mom?”
Whatever the conspiracy, Date-Krumm should bottle it, sell it, and make millions off of it.
(Then she could buy an island, relax on the beach while maintaining her flawless tan.)
There is plenty of hyperbole here, but only because Kimiko is, in her own subtle way, the most hyperbolic player on the Tour. We as fans and writers enjoy entertaining debates of whether bygone generations could compete in today’s game, yet we fail to sufficiently take notice of this fascinating athletic experiment, one that takes place every time Date-Krumm takes the court.
Coming from an ostensibly extinct era where mental fortitude trumped brute strength, Date-Krumm appears to lack the height and technique of shot to bother the modern player. Yet, most matches involving the Japanesewoman begin and end on her own terms. With bulging biceps, her relentless shots spring from her Yonex racquet like a catapult for screaming winners or unfortunate errors.
With that game plan, Kimiko pummels the ball as well as anyone, and has the resumé to prove it. During the last five years of her incredible second career, she has beaten players like Slam champions like Maria Sharapova, former No. 1s like Dinara Safina and participated in classic matches, none more memorable than her titanic effort against Venus Williams at Wimbledon:
For all she has achieved by simply being on the court, Kimiko continues to come back for more, even after an injury ruined her dream of representing her country at the London Olympics. Riding a wave of confidence and good form at the end of last year, she came to Australia ready to reclaim her giant-killing reputation.
Drawing Nadia Petrova, the No. 12 seed, it looked like an inauspicious start for the Japanesewoman. As well as she had ended 2012, Petrova had hit even higher peaks, and looked primed for a big run at a Slam. Tall and powerful, the Russian is a perfect example of the modern game. But Kimiko proved that her 90s sensibilities were still effective in 2013; she was positively ruthless in a thrilling upset and only allowed the in-form Russian two games.
As other big names were falling around her, Date-Krumm sensed opportunity knocking during her second round encounter with Israeli Shahar Pe’er. Once a formidable opponent, Pe’er alludes to those aforementioned twentysomethings who look as eager for a way out as Date-Krumm is for a way back in. Cruising past the former top 20 player with a set and two breaks, Kimiko looked poised for another effortless victory.
In the oppressive heat and against a reinvigorated Pe’er, however, Date-Krumm would not have the remainder of the match all her own way. But unlike those young enough to be her daughters, for whom “the moment” can crush, the Japanesewoman held her nerve and served out the second round on the second time of asking. Nearly five years after mounting this improbable comeback, Kimiko is in the third round of a Grand Slam event for the first time since 1996.
But then, we should have expected this from a woman who only recently awoke from cryogenic sleep. In fact, check her hotel room for the fountain of youth, lest we be forced to deal with the fact that yes, we can get better with age.
A lot of people are going to publish articles about Samantha Stosur in the next few hours.
About how she lost early in Australia again. About how she snatched defeat from the jaws of victory and how she once again crumbled under the pressure of playing at home. How she choked and let her undersized opponent back into the match. About how she is a talented player with a big serve and forehand, how she has won a Grand Slam title, and how mysterious it is that she cannot string together wins in her home country.
This will not be one of those articles.
Instead, I’m going to talk about Zheng Jie. A player without the Slam title but arguably twice the talent with flat strokes that belie her size. A pioneer for Chinese tennis, the first Chinese woman to reach a major semifinal at Wimbledon. A courageous competitor who took Serena Williams to 9-7 in the third on the London lawns a year ago and beat Stosur herself two weeks ago in a three grueling sets.
The winner of her second round match, defeating Stosur 6-4, 1-6, 7-5.
Zheng took the court understandably full of belief; her opponent’s struggles in Australia are as notorious as they are well documented. Combine those external circumstances with the inconvenient truth that Zheng’s flat, on the rise groundstrokes match up well against Stosur’s more mechanical, time-dependent game style and the unseeded Chinesewoman was the overwhelming favorite.
She certainly played like the favorite for most of the first set. Taking precious time away from Stosur, Zheng dominated the No. 9 seed from the back of the court, showing the partisan crowd why she has been ranked as high as 15 in the world. Despite a late wobble, she closed on her eighth set point and looked set to be Stosur’s yearly Melbourne conqueror.
For the next set and a half, things began to change. Stosur stopped missing, and Zheng’s laser-like shots lost their pinpoint accuracy. The crowd got involved and for a moment, Stosur forgot she was playing in Australia. As the Chinesewoman fell behind a double break in the third set she struck a disconsolate figure, out of energy and out of ideas.
In a manner reminiscent of everywhere (not just Australia), Stosur began to pull back. The embarrassing shanks that haunted her throughout the first set were coming in streams. Despite a jittery finish, she still found herself within two points of the third round.
Enter “JZ.” Like a boss.
Using her veteran sensibility, Zheng took full advantage of the shorter ball she was now getting. She stepped up and into the court, outfoxing Stosur from the baseline and passing her at the net. Breaking the Aussie twice to level, the rest of the match appeared only a formality. Stosur had retreated, Zheng had advanced; there would be no more violent shifts in momentum.
Almost three days into the first week, this match was one of the best the tournament had to offer. The first match on Rod Laver Arena to go the distance, it exhibited breathtaking rallies, intelligent shotmaking, and a very tense ending. But it was not a match that Sam Stosur lost.
This was a match that Zheng Jie won.
It was a hard-earned victory, one that does not deserved to be sullied by the insinuation that she benefited from a choke. Stosur may have left the door open on her way to the round of 32, but it was up to Zheng to walk through and kick the Aussie out.
Kick she did, and she was rewarded with a day in the sun.
By David Kane
It may never be too late to be who you might have been, but American Brian Baker could be running out of time.
Baker came up the junior ranks as Andy Roddick was winning his first major title in 2003. With a run to the Roland Garros boy’s final, Baker established himself as an American who could win on clay. At the time, the two looked poised to be this generation’s Sampras/Agassi rivalry, with Roddick’s big serve and preference for faster courts, and Baker’s early return and clay court credentials. Surely the two would contest Slam finals and continue the run of dominance of American men since the early 90s.
But when Roddick retired last year, he did so without ever having played Baker. Baker’s inability, however, to set up an encounter with his would-be rival will go down in his resumé as an “incomplete” rather than a “failure.” Successful as his junior career was, the Nashville native played precious few matches on the senior tour for the last ten years; his one highlight, ironically enough, was a win over senior French Open champion Gaston Gaudio at the US Open in 2005.
From there, Baker would not enter another Grand Slam for the remainder of an injury-filled decade that required five surgeries (two on his left hip, one on his right, hernia and Tommy John elbow surgery). Instead of being one half of a great American rivalry, Baker became a cautionary tale of perceived burnout and chronic injuries. During the time off, he took up a coaching position at Belmont University. Dreams of his own success were officially on the proverbial back burner.
Oddly enough, the desire to return to a world that had caused him such pain and disappointment came when he was furthest away from it. No longer the hotshot junior prodigy, Baker could not rely on a tennis federation that had long since forgotten about him. When he asked for a wildcard into a low level Futures qualifying event, the USTA refused. Faced with the daunting task of starting from scratch, Baker responded with unparallel grace and character. He went on to win that tournament along with several others leading up to the Savannah Challenger, an event that awarded a wildcard into the 2012 French Open.
Baker won there too, but this run of good form would not stay hidden in the minor leagues for long. Days before the French Open was set to begin, Baker caught fire at an ATP event in Nice:
As a qualifier, Baker took out big names like Gael Monfils and Nickolay Davydenko en route to his first ever Tour final at 27 years old. At an age where his contemporaries start looking at the back halves of their careers, Baker played 2012 like Rookie of the Year, with a run to the fourth round of Wimbledon (again as a qualifier) the highlight for a man who had only one Grand Slam win to his name for the better part of a decade.
Coming into 2013, Baker was cautiously optimistic for the sophomore year of his second career. Far from lofty in his goals for the new season, the American was mostly concerned with maintaining his clean bill of health: “I want to stay healthy and get fitter, to get into Top 50 by May. I want to get to the second week of a Slam.”
Everything seemed to be going to plan as the first Slam of the year got under way. Unseeded, Baker won a grueling five set match to set up a second round battle with compatriot Sam Querrey. Another American who has struggled with injury, Querrey is the highest ranked US man in the draw after John Isner’s withdrawal.
Finally faced with an opportunity to play a big name American, Baker was game for the challenge and took the first set in a tiebreaker. Barely two games into the second, Baker felt a pop as he moved for a backhand and knew something was wrong. Hopping off the court, the trainer suspected a torn ACL, a diagnosis that could have meant another year off the court. Thankfully (if one could ever be thankful for an injury), an MRI revealed only a torn lateral meniscus, an injury similar to the one from which Andrea Petkovic currently suffers.
Like the German, Baker will likely be sidelined until the end of the clay court season, where all his success began a year ago. Like the German, Baker’s career, already defined by traumatic injuries, continues to be marked by bad luck and tragic circumstance.
By David Kane
It has been a rough couple of months for American upstart Christina McHale.
After a promising 2011 that saw her topple then-No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki, the New Jersey native began 2012 in bright fashion, taking out Petra Kvitova in three grueling sets in Indian Wells and achieved a box set of third round finishes at the majors by Wimbledon. By the summer, though, her results began to tail off and it was revealed that McHale was suffering from a prolonged case of mononucleosis.
Having famously felled Justine Henin in the mid-2000s, “the kissing disease” sent McHale into a tailspin of form that arguably reached its nadir on her home court. During her rise, the American had credited training sessions at the National Tennis Center. But at the US Open, she failed to make it past an even sicker Kiki Bertens, who ran off the court mid-game to seek relief.
It may be a new year and McHale is mono-free, but things have yet to brighten for the American on the tennis court. Unseeded and overshadowed by compatriots like Sloane Stephens and Lauren Davis, McHale was excluded from an ESPN graphic featuring “Young Americans” as the Australian Open got underway.
But the worst was yet to come.
McHale could have drawn anyone in the first round: a Williams sister or perhaps Maria Sharapova. But instead, she was slated to face World No. 125 and the poster girl of “Generation Spitfire,” Yulia Putintseva. Putintseva earned her place in the main draw at the end of last year, and spent the off-season training at the Mourataglou Academy where she hit with big names like Serena Williams, Martina Hingis, and Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova. Despite dropping her first match of the year in Auckland, Putintseva came into 2013 ready to play.
For a player recovering from mononucleosis, McHale could not have drawn a more ironic opponent. Standing at 5’1”, Putintseva may lack many things, but one thing on which she is never short is energy. Playing in her debut Slam on the senior level, Putintseva unleashed a sampling of that effusive energy as she romped through the first set and a half, dropping a mere handful of points on her serve. McHale had played precious few matches in the last few months, and even fewer matches where she played the role of veteran to Putintseva’s newcomer. Yet, it must have been that veteran sense that allowed the American to take advantage of a weak moment from the Kazakh to level the match.
Unfortunately for McHale, Putintseva has come a long way in just a few months. Notoriously volatile, she remained positive after an embarrassing tiebreaker score of 7-0 and continued serving well to open the third. Faced with an opportunity in the fourth game, Putintseva broke the American and never looked back. ESPN hardly had time to send a camera out to untelevised Court 7 for the match’s hurried conclusion:
Putintseva’s celebration is not only one of legend, but it also signified the dramatic shift in fortune for these two women. McHale looked exhausted and well beyond her years at the end of a brutal effort. Putintseva smiled broadly as she skipped to the net to shake the American’s hand. As a viewer it was a bittersweet moment; as nice as it was to see Putintseva shake some of her demons and close out the biggest win of her career, one could not help but feel for the young American, once on the rise, future unknown.
By David Kane
When marketing tennis, it’s rarely about how well the game is played. To appeal to an audience broader than diehards, the question of “who’s playing” can be equally if not more important. Notorious for its shocking upsets and unheralded finalists, the WTA has struggled to corral its biggest names onto the back ends of its best tournaments. With the tour’s stars going through injuries and inconsistency (even unretirements), tournaments instead began relying on “matches worthy of a final” that in reality occurred days, sometimes weeks before the championship match.
Venus/Clijsters. Henin/Sharapova. Azarenka/Serena. All are marquee match-ups that took place before a Slam’s prestigious second week.
Of late, the women’s side has formed its own “Big Four,” but those cracking early match-ups still exist thanks to a most uncommon denominator in Venus Williams, who could play No. 2 seed (and kindred spirit) Maria Sharapova should both reach the third round.
The American has inspired many in how she has balanced a pro career with the energy-sapping Sjogren’s Syndrome. Battling through the ups and downs of a chronic illness, she achieved her goal of making the Olympic team and won another gold medal with her sister. Finishing 2012 with a title in Luxembourg, the veteran started the new season undefeated in Hopman Cup.
Sharapova has faced tough times as well; taken out of the game with a shoulder injury, the Russian spent years struggling to regain the form that took her to multiple major championships. Her Roland Garros victory was not only a fulfillment of the Career Grand Slam, but also an emphatic triumph over adversity.
However, triumph over adversity is not necessarily “elimination of.”
Venus has worked hard to mitigate the effects of Sjogren’s, including a change in diet and selective scheduling. But the very nature of the disease is its unpredictability; for as many days as Venus may feel great, there have been (and will be) days where she pulls up lame, as she did in the first round of Wimbledon.
Drawing Galina Voskoboeva in the first round looked to be a bad omen for the American. The tall Kazakh mixes raw power with quirky finesse not unlike Tsvetana Pironkova, a player who has owned Venus, particularly at Slams. How would she hold up under Voskoboeva’s undoubtedly relentless assault of slices and dropshots?
While her ranking no longer shows it, Sharapova too has dealt with the residual effects of shoulder surgery. Though ostensibly healed, the constant tweaking with her service motion left her with a perennially shaky delivery that can produce a string of double faults out of nowhere. An ugly serving day can lead to some ugly losses, as her big game can crumble when the confidence in her serve disappears.
The collarbone injury that took Sharapova out of Brisbane was worrisome only in the notion that the Russian would come to Melbourne rusty, which could trigger one of those “no good, very bad days” on serve and on the court. Who was to say that, despite facing a less intimidating foe in Olga Puchkova, Sharapova wouldn’t hit herself off the court?
Taking the court in one of her EleVen creations, Venus silenced those buzzing around Hisense Arena predicting an upset with startling efficiency, dropping only one game to her talented opponent. Looking more like a young upstart with streaks of blue hair rather than a hobbled veteran, the American was always the aggressor and never allowed Voskoboeva to wrest control. By the end, Venus was twirling her way into the second round, erasing many doubts in the process.
As Venus was making mincemeat of one opponent, Sharapova was grounding out another. After struggling through two long games to begin the match, the No. 2 seed clicked into form in a manner that should put fear into her opposition. Exposing Puchkova’s poor movement and poorer forehand, Sharapova double-bageled her compatriot, romping through a second set where she hit only three unforced errors. Three-quarters of the way to a Career Slam Double Bagel (Sharapova has pitched no hitters at the French and US Open), the Russian looked equally dominant to start her Australian campaign.
Chaos may no longer reign in women’s tennis, but depth is here to stay. With intriguing matches to be found throughout the fortnight, the WTA may have found the best of both worlds with a meatier and – dare I say it? – more marketable product.
By David Kane
The first time I ever saw Elena Vesnina, she was far from a WTA Tour final. She was 19 and playing in US Open qualifying. I was drawn away from whatever match my family was watching to see her fight off a game opponent with a fiery determination that had clearly ingratiated itself with the small but lively Court 14 crowd.
Not long after, Vesnina became a steady top 100 player, peaking close to the top 20 in 2009. Rarely bringing her best at the Slams, the Russian has been known to sporadically catch fire at Tour events, causing minor but contextually notable upsets and taking that good form all the way to the final.
Here is where the strange tale of Elena Vesnina truly begins.
One look at her resumé and it is clear that Vesnina’s has been a career defined by missed opportunities. In the last four years, the 26 year old reached six Slam finals (three in doubles, three in mixed) and lost all six. The trend was similar in singles, albeit on a smaller scale. The word (quickly the joke) on Vesnina centered on her inability to seal the deal, that she could not win a final to save her life.
Such a reputation seems unfair. Indeed, a team loses together when they play doubles, but more often than not, Vesnina proved the steadier while her partner appeared bent on blowing the entire operation. No better example exists than the time when she had to dry the tears of partner Vera Zvonareva during a Wimbledon doubles final in 2010.
She was equally unsuccessful in singles, but a closer look reminds the reader that it was not as if she was losing to scrubs. In two finals, she had the misfortune of playing Caroline Wozniacki. Another saw her runner-up to Elena Dementieva. Most recently, she reached the final of a clay event in Budapest, only to lose to Sara Errani, who would reach the French Open final a few weeks later.
While she may never be the best closer, Vesnina cannot be accused of facing unworthy opponents.
This made today’s Hobart final all the more pressure-filled. On another hot streak, Vesnina had taken out No. 4 seed Yaroslava Shvedova and an in-form No. 8 seed Sloane Stephens en route to her seventh final, where she faced defending champion Mona Barthel. The German has a game akin to a minefield; at any moment, she is capable of unloading screaming winners from either side, flustering helpless opponents in the process. Barthel impressed many in 2012, but she almost certainly lacks the consistency of a Wozniacki or a Dementieva.
This was a final Elena Vesnina had a reasonable chance of winning, and she knew it.
Throughout the match, Vesnina was constantly pumping herself up, shouting “Otlichno!” (Russian for “Excellent!”) as often as she could. In her defense, she had good reason to, as she was playing as well as I had ever seen her play. In a bizarre switch from that which was expected, Vesnina was dominating Barthel from the back of the court one minute, and throwing in viciously effective dropshots to expose the German’s poor movement the next.
The Vesnina of the alleged “fragile psyche” was nowhere to be found today in Tasmania; when she fell behind an early break in the second set, she immediately broke back. Despite squandering break points for a lead of her own, she remained focused on serve and waited for her opportunity. Against the erratic Barthel, that opportunity came when the German served at 4-5, 30-40. On the first championship point of her singles career, Vesnina played smart, keeping the ball deep and eventually drawing the error from her big hitting opponent.
As emotional in victory as she had been stoic in defeat, Vesnina sunk to her knees and looked like a young woman reborn. The good vibrations were felt across the Twittersphere; everyone seemed glad that the Russian’s Susan Lucci-esque streak of losses had come to close. No one, however was more happy than Vesnina herself:
After years of playing second fiddle, a very deserving Elena Vesnina finally got to have her moment.
By David Kane
During the off-season, players get to make use of time usually spent on the road or on the court during year on fitness and conditioning. Far from a time when one can sit around and indulge in a heaping slice of chocolate cake, players from Monica Seles to Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova have tended to take advantage of these working vacations to emerge fitter, faster, and ready for the grueling Australian summer.
Yet despite these physical transformations and the higher expectations that should go with them, we as spectators hardly predict that these athletes’ almost-superhuman bodies will hold up for more than a couple of hours. And when they are put through extreme physical tests, a letdown is not only forgiven, but also a foregone conclusion. Not that this is a call for the “letdown loss” to be judged more harshly, but why do we underestimate our athletes?
Perhaps because when a player convincingly knocks out a top 10 player less than 24 hours after a five hour war of attrition, we find the effort all the more impressive. Such was the case for Dominika Cibulkova; the top 20 stalwart and pint-sized dynamo stayed on the court for a staggering four hours and forty-six minutes in the hopes of toppling last year’s Australian Open quarterfinalist Ekaterina Makarova.
In sweltering heat that read 106 degrees on the thermometer but felt like a balmy 120 on the court, Cibulkova broke the Russian as she served for the match and barreled through a final set tiebreaker (the second of the match) to earn a spot in the Sydney quarters, where she would face Sara Errani, one of the impact players of 2012.
If one lacks a cursory knowledge of tennis, pure common sense should dictate that if one had to run for five hours, the idea of running for at least another 90 minutes sounds like torture. Against a grinder like Errani, that 90-minute dash could easily be extended into yet another marathon. Before the two diminutive big guns even took the court, it appeared easy to predict how the match should go: the heavy-hitting Slovak would punch herself out until she hit a wall, and the steady Italian would slice and dice until she had made pepperoni pizza out of a tired opponent.
To watch the match, one would have thought that Errani herself had not only hit a wall, but also had decidedly banged her head against it a few too many times. Looking flat and lacking the usual snap on her high, topspin groundstrokes, she had no answers against an on-fire Cibulkova, who appeared fresh from a light jog as opposed to lead-footed from a slugfest. Bellowing her signature “Pome!” (Slovakian for “Come on!”), Cibulkova was firing from all cylinders, knocking anything that landed short into the corners and seemed unbothered by the fact that Errani consistently forced her to generate her own pace.
A slight wobble towards the end of the match from Cibulkova treated the Grandstand crowd to a tense ending to what was otherwise one-way traffic for the Slovak, who will again get little rest as she prepares to play No. 2 seed Angelique Kerber for a spot in the final.
It is at this point in the article where one would openly question Cibulkova’s ability to replicate success for a third straight day, whether she has enough left in the proverbial tank to take out another elite counterpuncher. But asking whether she can keep going is a foolhardy question for the ultimate Energizer Bunny.