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Svetlana Kuznetsova - 2012 Sydney International - Day 3

The quietest month on the calendar between the Australian Open and the US Open, February showcases several indoor tournaments as well as the opening rounds of national team competition.  We review the best and worst of what we watched in the first week at venues around the world.

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National #2s:  Overshadowed at the outset by higher-ranked compatriots such as Kvitova, Sharapova, and Jankovic, several of the second-ranked women on Fed Cup teams played pivotal roles in their team’s success.  While most of the attention in Moscow swirled around Sharapova, Kuznetsova delivered two singles victories to continue her excellence under national colors.  Not renowned for valiant responses to pressure in ordinary circumstances, she clinched yet another tie with a rollercoaster three-set victory over a plucky opponent with nothing to lose.  When Jankovic vanished after a first-rubber victory, as did Sharapova, Bojana Jovanovski became the heroine of Serbia’s road victory over Belgium.  The promising teenager rebounded from a Saturday loss to Wickmayer and fueled her nation’s comeback from a 1-2 deficit by winning in both singles and doubles on Sunday.  Stagnant over the last several months in individual competition, perhaps she can build from that success to reinvigorate her fortunes.

Nor should one neglect the effort of Hantuchova in World Group II, opening and closing a dangerous tie against France with victories.  Similar to Kuznetsova in her unsteadiness at crucial moments, the elegant Slovak found the courage to survive a 16-game final set in the first rubber, when the tie still hung in the balance.  Although Kvitova provided the principal heroics for the Czechs (see below), Iveta Benesova mastered the more talented Lisicki to strip the suspense almost immediately from what had seemed an intriguing tie.  Even in the presence of their more notable peers, therefore, the performance of these #2s proved the importance of depth in team competition.

Berdych:  Having waited two and a half years between his two previous titles, the world #7 ensured that no such drought would separate his next two.  Following swiftly upon his Beijing title last fall, another minor title at Montpellier extended his momentum from a quarterfinal appearance at the Australian Open.  As confident and authoritative as he looked in Melbourne, Berdych comfortably shouldered the burden of the top seed at a small event and withstood a second-set surge by Monfils in the final.  While his programmatic style translates especially well to the artificial conditions under a roof, he should bring confidence to the North American hard courts in March.  A runner-up at Miami two years ago, Berdych should aim to surpass the flagging Tsonga as the leading threat to the top four.

French men:  In the absence of the aforementioned Tsonga, his countrymen still flew the French flag with panache under the roof of Montpellier. Monfils may have watched his finals record dwindle to 4-13, but he edged within a set of defending a title for the first time in his career.  Sandwiched around his dismal exit from Melbourne are runner-up trophies at his other tournaments.  In an all-French semifinal that must have delighted the audience, Simon fell one point short of snatching his countryman’s berth in the final but displayed the competitive resilience associated with him.  To be sure, one should not overstate success at a tournament so minor and so friendly to native talent, where the French held three of the top four seeds and 12 of the 28 total slots in the main draw.  But les bleus historically have labored under a reputation for imploding on home soil, and the weeks enjoyed by these two Frenchmen combined with the recent success of Tsonga and Monfils at the Paris Indoors to undermine that theory.

Youzhny:  Now outside the top 30, this former resident of the top 10 had not even reached a final since the start of 2010.  Exploiting the inexperience of first-time finalist Lukas Lacko, Youzhny won his fifth indoor title under the Zagreb roof while showcasing his elegant backhand and effortless versatility.  Although very Russian in personality, his game almost looks French with its free-flowing grace from all corners of the court.  Considering his volatile emotions, a three-set victory over Karlovic during which he never broke serve represented the most impressive accomplishment from an otherwise smooth passage through the draw.  Added to the Fed Cup team’s triumph, Youzhny’s title offered multiple causes for celebration in Russia, whose women long have dwarfed the men in tennis talent.  With Davis Cup on the horizon, Shamil Tarpischev must look forward to welcoming this experienced veteran and stalwart patriot at one of his more optimistic moments in recent years.

Kvitova:  Although she lost the first set to lower-ranked players in each of her Fed Cup rubbers, the world #2 showed commendable determination in eking out victories against talented opponents in hostile territory.  Extended to eighteen games in the third set against Goerges, she marshaled sufficient energy to outlast inspired resistance from Lisicki on Sunday.  Uncharacteristically fragile late in the third set of the Australian Open semifinal, she displayed a tenacity more worthy of her status on an occasion not much less intense in pressure.

Deuce:

Germans:  In all of the first three singles rubbers, they won the first set.  In all three rubbers, they lost the next two sets.  As the momentum slid away from them again and again, Lisicki and Goerges must have sensed the opportunity slipping through their fingers.  But they should take comfort from their ability to threaten the heavily favored Kvitova in a tie much more competitive than the scoreline showed.  When Petkovic returns, this team will have the depth to become a Fed Cup powerhouse.

Schiavone:  Unaccountably ghastly on Saturday, she regrouped to win her second rubber on Sunday but only after a rollercoaster three-setter, a startling result on her beloved clay against a Ukrainian team that struggles on the surface.  One typically numbers Schiavone among the lionesses of Fed Cup, but surprisingly she has won only 22 of 39 singles rubbers.  After reaching the Brisbane semifinal to start 2012, she has sputtered in the last few weeks.  That said, Schiavone delivered a key win for her country when the situation absolutely demanded, and she showed the poise of a veteran in regrouping from Saturday’s debacle with competitive willpower undimmed.

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South American clay:  If these tournaments wish to attract players more notable than Spanish clay specialists, they must consider changing to the hard courts where almost any sensible player would spend their time between the Australian Open and Indian Wells.  Such a change might imperil their attractiveness for players like Ferrer and Almagro, who can inflate their rankings by gorging on cheap rankings points up and down the continent.  (Appearance money and distance from players’ bases in North America and Europe also play a role, of course.)  For now, they represent a curious anomaly on the calendar and a reminder of the region’s remoteness from relevance.

Nicolas Escude:  With his team’s survival at stake, the French captain bizarrely selected the Fed Cup-allergic Cornet to face Hantuchova, who has enjoyed a strong start to 2012.  To no surprise, the feckless Frenchwoman sank to 2-12 in Fed Cup action, including 1-8 in singles.  Never should Escude have entrusted her with a live rubber, much less a must-win live rubber, and least of all after Razzano (the player for whom she substituted) had defeated Slovakian #1 Cibulkova routinely on Saturday.  As France faces possible relegation to zonal play, the French Tennis Federation should have little trouble identifying a key architect of their humiliation.

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Svetlana Kuznetsova Svetlana Kuznetsova (R) of Russia celebrates with Russian team captain Shamil Tarpischev (L) and other teammates after her win over Carla Suarez Navarro of Spain on day one of the Fed Cup by BNP Paribas World Group Final between Spain and Russia at the Club de Campo on September 13, 2008 in Madrid, Spain. Kuznetsova won the match in two sets, 6-3 and 6-1, giving Russia a 2-0 lead over Spain.

Italy at Russia:  Bereft of its leading ladies Schiavone and Pennetta, the decimated Italian squad ventures to Moscow with perhaps more hope than conviction.  Crushing Italy on home soil in the 2007 final, Russia looks fully equipped to pummel the visitors into submission once again.  But such a prospect loomed before its quarterfinal against France, when the plucky, vastly outgunned guests showed little courtesy to their hosts.  A heroine of Russia’s historic comeback from a 0-2 deficit, Kuznetsova enters this tie in unimposing form after premature exits in Indian Wells, Miami, and Marbella last week.  Moreover, Saturday opponent Vinci squelched her Beijing title defense last fall.  The two-time major champion often musters her most impassioned, motivated efforts in Fed Cup, however, and she may benefit from sliding into the #2 position behind third-ranked Zvonareva.  Not a participant in February’s miracle, the top Russian has displayed generally solid albeit not overwhelming tennis this year and has thoroughly dominated Vinci, scoring four straight wins during which she lost six or fewer games.  Playing on neither green clay nor red clay in the last two weeks, Zvonareva will arrive in Moscow neither fatigued from recent exertions nor maladjusted to the surface.

Lethal against Italians throughout her career, the world #3 should collect her two singles rubbers, requiring the visitors to defeat Kuznetsova twice in two days.  And Tarpischev also can respond to any stumble from Sveta by substituting Monterrey champion Pavlyuchenkova, just outside the top 20 and a valiant Fed Cup competitor despite her youth.  With this host of options, home-court advantage, and a starless Italy, the somnolent Shamil should enjoy his weekend very much indeed.

Czech Republic at Belgium:  They may not end the first day even in wins, but these two teams enter it even in withdrawals.  Potentially a much more competitive semifinal, the advantage here tilted sharply from the home squad to the visitors when Clijsters announced her withdrawal.  Somewhat softening the blow was the ensuing withdrawal of Safarova, replaced by the less reliable, less powerful Benesova.  Belgium counters the Czech Republic’s left-handed duo with Indian Wells semifinalist Wickmayer, who should relish the opportunity to snatch some of the spotlight from her renowned compatriots.  Resenting her status as the third-best player in her small country, the forehand-thumping firecracker will find her maturity tested as the flagship for her nation’s otherwise puny fleet.  How will Wickmayer respond to the pressure of winning two rubbers (and perhaps three) for the home team?

Her opposing flagship Kvitova has cooled considerably after a torrid, two-title start to 2011, winning just one total match on the North American hard courts.  En route to one of those titles, she outlasted Wickmayer in a third-set tiebreak; three of their five previous meetings, in fact, have reached 5-5 in the third set.  Drama thus may develop in a potentially tie-turning third rubber, but ambushes could occur in any of the weekend’s matches.  While Belgian #2 Flipkens defeated Kvitova a year ago, Benesova has troubled Wickmayer in both of their previous meetings.  Like Tarpischev, though, Czech captain Petr Pala has more ammunition in his arsenal than his opponent.  The pugnacious Zahlavova Strycova not only could thrive in the hostile atmosphere of Charleroi but should forge a doubles partnership with Benesova sturdier than any potential Belgian duo.  After consecutive semifinal losses in 2009 and 2010, the Czech Republic must feel especially determined to break through that barrier this year.

USA at Germany:  The architect of two unexpected finals runs, American captain Mary Joe Fernandez voiced justifiable optimism about a tie less beyond the reach of her squad than their clash with Russia in the same round last year.  Absent from this weekend, however, is the competitive spark of Bethanie Mattek-Sands that proved so critical in fueling that upset.  The United States instead rests its hopes upon two teenagers ranked outside the top 75, although Christina McHale has risen swiftly in recent weeks after victories over Kuznetsova, Kleybanova, and Hantuchova.  Once labeled the future of American tennis, world #81 Oudin has fallen well short of achieving that promise and struggles to cope with the high bounce on clay.  Yet surely the uniformly heavy-hitting German quartet of Petkovic, Goerges, Lisicki, and Groenefeld also would have preferred a hard court over the surface that dulls their power.  Fortunately for all concerned, the Porsche Arena generally has played much faster than a conventional clay court.  The Americans will possess a considerable advantage if they can preserve the tie until the final rubber, when Huber and King would face a German squad without a notable doubles specialist.  Bolstering their chances is Oudin’s Miami success against Goerges, which suggests that the tie could rest upon the shoulders of Fed Cup novice McHale in the fourth rubber.  Don’t discount these overachieving underdogs too easily.

France at Spain:  Frustrated by the historic Russian comeback discussed above, French captain Nicolas Escude publicly blamed then-singles #2 Alize Cornet for the team’s debacle.  One tie later, one wonders how the sensitive Cornet will respond to his criticism as well as her own disappointment.  Unlikely to provide much assistance is the controversy-drenched Rezai, who has wandered through a disastrous start to 2011 after what had appeared a breakthrough in Madrid last year.  Cast into these uncertain waters, Escude wisely selected the sporadically injured Razzano for singles duty despite her lower ranking.  On the other hand, controversy also has encircled the home team, which staged a short-lived Fed Cup boycott in order to extract greater support for women’s tennis from the national federation.  Unlike the French, though, the Spaniards stood united in their bold gambit, displaying a mutual loyalty that could make their seasoned group greater than the sum of its parts.  Designed to disrupt fragile minds, the quirky point construction and dazzling drop shots of Martinez Sanchez should disrupt the rhythm of the visitors.  This trans-Pyrenean encounter therefore might reverse the outcome of the Davis Cup quarterfinal that their nations contested last year.  But first we expect an avalanche of service breaks throughout a weekend populated by shaky servers, ruthless returners, and durable defenders.

Ana Ivanovic - Sony Ericsson Open

Serbia at Slovakia:  Distinctly the most glamorous tie of the weekend, this collision also could prove the most suspenseful.  Fractured by an acerbic fracas last year, the Serbian team has regained at least a semblance of unity as Ivanovic joins Jankovic in a partnership perhaps arranged merely to ensure their Olympic eligibility.  Or could a Davis Cup title last December have inspired Serbia’s feuding stars to bury their grudges and pursue a Fed Cup crown in 2012?  Whether their divisions persist below the surface remains a question crucial to this challenging weekend.  Unglued by the pressure of playing before her compatriots last year, Ivanovic seems more likely to shine in a stadium where expectations lie upon her opponents. Although she has carved out a winning record against Hantuchova, Ana has struggled against both Slovaks before and may require more time to recover from her loss to Clijsters in one of Miami’s most memorable matches.  Meanwhile, Jankovic has split her four clay meetings with Hantuchova and lost to her in Fed Cup last year (during the weekend that provoked the intra-Serbian scuffle).  Pitting soaring prodigy Jovanovski against Cibulkova is the opening rubber, which should tilt towards the diminutive but more clay-savvy Slovak.  If the tie arrives at a decisive doubles rubber, as seems plausible, the home squad should rely upon its superior chemistry to repeat its 2010 victory over Serbia.

Ukraine at Australia:  Without the Bondarenko sisters to shelter them, Ukraine heads to distant climes without a single player in the top 100.  Providing scant solace is the absence of Australian #1 Stosur, who entrusts leadership of the home squad to the eminently capable Groth.  The former Slovak leads the WTA in aces this season while marching into the top 30 for the first time, a status that neither of her Ukrainian opponents ever has approached.  Thriving in the Fed Cup atmosphere, Groth scored a stunning victory over Schiavone in the World Group quarterfinals a round ago and should comfortably capture both of her rubbers.  Beckoning for Cup neophytes Sophie Ferguson and Sally Peers, then, is a chance to stir national pride without incurring significant pressure.

***

We return shortly with thoughts on the Mediterranean playground of Rafael Nadal.

1) 1812 Overture: Like Napoleon’s Grande Armée two centuries ago, French invaders temporarily occupied Moscow before valiant Russian resistance forced them to retreat.  Cast in the role of Marshal Kutuzov was the equally wily Shamil Tarpischev, who combined patience with inspiration as a disastrous Saturday turned into a dazzling Sunday.  Initially controlling the opening rubber, Kuznetsova drifted into complacency just as her opponent Alize Cornet began to believe that she actually could win a match for her country.  Tenuously committed to Fed Cup at best, Russian flagship Sharapova then subjected her compatriots to an avalanche of 46 unforced errors that secured her Olympic eligibility in addition to a commanding lead for France.  Staggering from this Battle of Borodino, Tarpischev then replaced the three-time major champion with the plucky yet untested Pavlyuchenkova.  The WTA’s highest-ranked teenager breathed life into a moribund Russian squad by grinding her way past Cornet, who looked the heroine of the tie a set into the third rubber.   Atoning for the sins of Saturday, Kuznetsova firmly subdued Razzano and then returned with undiluted energy for the decisive doubles.  After a nervy first set, Sveta and Nastia savaged Coin and a more familiar version of Cornet during a second set in which the home squad dropped just four total points.   A nation of limitless resources and legendary pugnacity, Russia should have surprised nobody in producing the first team to erase a 0-2 deficit since Fed Cup shifted to the five-rubber format.

2) Tension in Tasmania: Behind an unremarkable 4-1 scoreline smoldered the most scintillating Fed Cup tie of the weekend, which opened with three fiercely contested three-setters.  In the tranquil surroundings of Hobart, the defending champions needed all of Pennetta’s poise and Schiavone’s swagger to escape a confident home squad.  Tiebreaks and deuce service games proliferated from the outset as Groth and Stosur pitted their power against Italian versatility.  Losing two epic encounters in a 24-hour span, the Australian #1 will wonder how the weekend might have unfolded had she capitalized upon the momentum of Groth’s opening upset over Schiavone by serving out the first set against Pennetta.  Unbroken by that disappointment, however, she competed valiantly through the second set before her flagging self-belief betrayed her in the third.  Stosur then starred in an eerily similar script on Sunday, which featured a rematch of the 2010 Roland Garros final that trumped the original in drama if not in quality.  Despite a ghastly first-set tiebreak, Sam regrouped to deliver a dominant second set and looked superior early in the decider.  Narrowly surviving that sequence, Schiavone then turned the tide almost imperceptibly as her service games grew smoother and the Australian’s games more turbulent.  Battling even more doggedly than on the previous day, the Australian erased four match points in a resilient effort from which she could (and should) take pride although not a victory.  We sympathize with her while applauding Pennetta’s 10-match Fed Cup winning streak and Schiavone’s indefatigable willpower.

3) Ivan the Terrible: In the second round of the Australian Open, a virtually unknown Croat named Ivan Dodig extended Djokovic to four sets in the only blemish on the eventual champion’s otherwise flawless fortnight.  Although the Serb promptly punished him for that affront, this implausible home hero kept the Zagreb title in local hands for the third consecutive year with victories over four seeded players during which he dropped just one total set.  Filling the void left by a perplexing Cilic, the 26-year-old Dodig ousted Granollers, Ljubicic, and Garcia-Lopez before mastering his first career final with aplomb.  Well below the towering height of his most notable compatriots, he has contested just 29 singles matches in ATP main draws during a career mostly spent trudging between challengers and qualifying rounds.  Although figures like Dodig will not leave an impact upon the sport, this week reminded us that seemingly trivial tournaments like Zagreb enable opportunistic underdogs to shine.  Fellow journeymen who noticed his feat should pursue their mission with belief rekindled.

4) Standing tall (for now): Another first-time titlist from a home nation, Kevin Anderson emulated Dodig’s feat while standing eight inches taller than Croat on brittle-looking legs.  Equally precarious is the status of the Johannesburg tournament that Anderson won, which may become a victim of a 2012 calendar truncated for the Olympics.  One would not wish to see the ATP shrink an already tentative footprint on the African continent, but few spectators watch tournaments in hopes of seeing Izak van der Merwe, Somdeev Devvarman, and Adrian Mannarino, the three players who accompanied Anderson to the semifinals.  Unlike the once-embattled WTA Birmingham event, the South African tournament lacks a superstar commitment to shelter it.  As the case of Hamburg demonstrated, tournaments have scant recourse against the authority of the ATP, which often rules its dominions by arbitrary fiat.  On the other hand, perhaps Johannesburg can exploit the current uncertainty to escape its undesirable position on the calendar, for the week immediately following a Slam never will host a tournament of relevance.

Condemned to eternally roll a boulder up a rugged mountainside, the mythical figure of Sisyphus would complete that labor only to immediately undertake it anew.   Three months after hoisting their second straight Fed Cup title, Corrado Barazzutti’s sprightly squad perhaps could empathize with the perpetually toiling Greek as they open their title defense on an island far from Sicily.

Corrado Barattuzzi Francesca Schiavone (R) of Italy celebrates her victory over Melanie Oudin of USA with team captain Corrado Barattuzzi during the Federation Cup World Group Final between Italy and the USA at Circolo Tennis Rocco Polimeni on November 7, 2009 in Reggio Calabria, Italy.

The hard courts of Hobart will host an Australian team that suddenly has assembled an impressive singles pairing of world #5 Stosur and Jarmila Groth, whose career has surged after changing her surname and her passport.  Since the Italians will bring two top-20 players to this collision, however, they remain the slight favorites in a tie where all five matches should prove competitive.  Beyond their advantage in Fed Cup experience and exploits, Pennetta and Schiavone enjoyed far more memorable Australian Opens than did the two home hopes, who combined to collect just two victories there against seven by the Italians.  All too eager to delight the Aussie crowds, both Stosur and Groth slumped under the pressure in Melbourne, and this long-awaited World Group tie will test their nerves again.  Although last year’s Roland Garros runner-up avenged that loss to Schiavone last fall, she curiously has failed to win more than four games in any of the six sets that she has contested with Pennetta.  Famous for her characteristically Calabrian temper, the Italian has proved a poised competitor in Fed Cup and clinched both of her nation’s last two titles with composed performances.  Moreover, her confidence will have soared following a debut Grand Slam doubles title with fellow doubles #1 Dulko.  If Schiavone can defuse the stunning but raw game of Groth, therefore, the visitors probably will carry a 2-0 edge into Sunday that they will not squander.  Even if Australian can take the tie to the concluding doubles, Errani and Vinci will bring their undefeated record into a fascinating battle against Stosur and Stubbs.  One anticipates drama during plenty of individual sets in Tasmania but perhaps not in the overall scoreline.

Half a world away in Bratislava, the other engaging tie of the weekend pits the bifurcated halves of the former Czechoslovakia.  Braced to renew the internecine rivalry, the stylish Hantuchova and the resurgent Cibulkova hoist the Slovak flag together with 2009 Birmingham champion Rybarikova, who has sagged after initial promise.  Hampered by an injury that forced her withdrawal from Brisbane, former prodigy Hantuchova has faded into the twilight stages of her career but mustered one of her finer recent performances in last year’s World Group playoff against Serbia.  Literally rising above her stature, Cibulkova has added a startling degree of offense over the past year and scored an eye-opening victory over Wozniacki in Sydney.  The visitors will fancy their chances of reaching a third consecutive Fed Cup semifinal, though, for all three of their singles options acquitted themselves creditably in Melbourne and possess the combative streak that can insulate players from hostile surroundings.  Spearheading the charge is Australian Open quarterfinalist Kvitova, who conquered both Stosur and Pennetta in a fortnight that bolstered her Wimbledon breakthrough.  While Safarova competed resolutely against Zvonareva, Zahlavova Strycova toppled top-20 foe Rezai.  Yet all of the Czechs remain far less predictable than either of the Slovaks, so this tie could develop into a rollercoaster of momentum shifts within and between matches.  In the doubles, the Czechs have a slight but potentially vital edge with specialist Kveta Peschke and superior servers in Kvitova and Safarova.

Maria Sharapova Maria Sharapova of Russia celebrates winning her second round match against Virginie Razzano of France during day three of the 2011 Australian Open at Melbourne Park on January 19, 2011 in Melbourne, Australia.

When Sharapova enters Fed Cup, an Olympic year must lie just over the horizon.  Having participated in only one previous Fed Cup tie, she returns to a country where she has not showcased her talents since 2007 and has won just two matches in her career.  The three-time major champion grimly bulldozed through the Israeli team in 2008, adjusting with aplomb to the competition’s distinctive atmosphere.  On the Moscow indoor hard court, her recently erratic groundstrokes will not need to find the mark as regularly, so she should register her two matches in Russia’s victory column.  Both Razzano and Cornet surpassed expectations in Melbourne, however; the former threatened to take a set from Sharapova in the second round, while the latter nearly did the same against Clijsters a round later.  Despite the higher ranking of Pavlyuchenkova, one imagines that Tarpischev will reward the more experienced Kuznetsova for her previous Fed Cup service and her courageous performance in Australia.  The final opponent of Henin’s career, the Russian will have accumulated immense confidence after defeating Stosur and nearly Li in Sydney.  But will she have recovered physically from the longest women’s match in Grand Slam history?  If she falters against Cornet on the first day, which seems unlikely considering the Frenchwoman’s haplessness in Fed Cup, Tarpischev might substitute the WTA’s highest-ranked teenager against Sunday.  Pavlyuchenkova crushed projected Sunday opponent Razzano on an indoor hard court two years ago, whereas Kuznetsova hasn’t faced her in nearly seven years.  If outcomes reflect the lopsided talents of these two teams, though, Tarpischev will doze through another first-round romp.

More sleepwalking impends in Belgium, where Clijsters joins Wickmayer against a plucky American squad that upset an understaffed Russia last year en route to their second straight final.  As usual, the USA will aim to split the singles rubbers and pin their hopes on the doubles, where they hold a considerable advantage with Liezel Huber.  In order to realize that goal, they must rely on both Oudin and Mattek-Sands to overcome Wickmayer in singles, since Clijsters surely will sail bulletproof through the weekend.  The task does not tower quite as dauntingly as it might seem at first glance, for the Belgian #2 has struggled alarmingly since last year’s US Open despite reaching the final in Auckland after an arduous week of three-setters.  A feisty competitor who performs above her standard level in Fed Cup, Mattek-Sands shone on an indoor surface at the Hopman Cup and again in Hobart, although she suffered a discouraging first-round loss in Melbourne.  If she can find Wickmayer’s backhand more regularly than the Belgian finds her forehand, her sturdier confidence could translate into a minor upset.  Meanwhile, Oudin has shifted from prodigy to former prodigy as she has failed abjectly in rekindling the spark that ignited the 2009 US Open.  Somewhat less feckless in Fed Cup, she defeated Schiavone last fall and competed valiantly on Italian clay during the previous final.  With USA almost certain to enter the fourth rubber trailing 2-1, though, she will face not only a more talented opponent but the pressure of preserving the tie.  Lightning probably won’t strike Wickmayer twice.

We close with a few thoughts on the four World Group II ties:

Spain at Estonia:  Perhaps a more decisive factor than any player, the indoor hard court in Tallinn may frustrate dirt devils Martinez Sanchez and Suarez Navarro.  Despite a second-round exit at the Australian Open, top Estonian Kanepi enjoys greater firepower than either Spaniard and should overwhelm them with a barrage of mighty first blows.  Like the USA, Spain seeks only to split the singles and reach the doubles, where the experienced duo of Medina Garrigues and Llagostera Vives could shine.  Unlike the USA, they have an excellent chance of accomplishing that mission with the 527th-ranked Maret Ani playing the role of Wickmayer.  Perhaps more intriguing than the tennis here is the subplot that revolved around the miniature Fed Cup strike staged by the top Spanish women against their own tennis federation.  Ostensibly placated now, they could bolster their pleas for greater attention in Spain’s male-dominated tennis world by restoring their nation to the World Group in 2012.

Andrea Petkovic Andrea Petkovic of Germany celebrates winning a point in her quarterfinal match against Na Li of China during day nine of the 2011 Australian Open at Melbourne Park on January 25, 2011 in Melbourne, Australia.

Germany at Slovenia:  Frauleins with a future and an average ranking of #29, Petkovic and Goerges delivered an emphatic statement of intent in Melbourne with performances as notable for their poise as for their shot-making.  The two ball-bruising brunettes enter the tie distinctly favored against a Slovenian squad highlighted by doubles specialist Katarina Srebotnik.  Unless she decides to renege upon her retirement from singles, her chances of playing a meaningful match this weekend look slim to none.  On the other hand, Petkovic proved herself more frail than the French in Fed Cup last year (no small feat), and the youthful Germans may find an opponent worthy of their steel in Polona Hercog.  Two weeks after her 20th birthday, the lanky Slovenian #1 established herself in the top 50 during the past year but has lost all three of her matches in 2011.  Can the home crowd rejuvenate her?

Canada at Serbia:  Stripped of Jankovic and Ivanovic, the hosts suddenly confront a perilous situation against the dangerous albeit often injured Wozniak and an even brighter talent in the burly teenager Rebecca Marino.  Fortunately for Serbia, an equally promising teenager carries their banner in a bid to return to the World Group from which Russia expelled them in 2010.  One of the WTA’s better kept secrets, Bojana Jovanovski burst onto the international stage by sweeping to the Sydney semifinals past three top-20 players and boldly swiping a set from Zvonareva in Melbourne. Probably unable to secure victory single-handedly, she nevertheless could extend the tie to a decisive doubles rubber where anything could happen.

Ukraine at Sweden:  Weren’t the Bondarenko sisters planning to boycott Fed Cup this year?  Although newly married Alona remains aloof, Kateryna broke the ban and could inject some intrigue into what still seems a notably uninteresting tie.  No rising stars, aging legends, or electrifying games on display here.  Just an invigorating ferry ride from host city Helsingfors stands Hamlet’s castle, however, a much more scintillating destination.

 

While the men’s draw featured several suspenseful five-setters, Day 1 did not ruin the manicures of the leading women or their supporters.  That trend could shift on Day 2 when the most famous working mom in tennis opens her Melbourne campaign against the 2009 finalist and former #1.  Thoroughly embarrassed by another Russian here a year ago, Clijsters hopes to avoid a relapse when she faces Safina, with whom she has split their two meetings during her comeback (both in Cincinnati).  Almost invincible against non-Russians, the three-time US Open champion has posted an indifferent 5-5 record since the start of 2010 when she plays someone from Safina’s nation.  As the first set of the Sydney final demonstrated, the Belgian’s game still can evaporate at unexpected moments and drift hopelessly beyond her control.  On the other hand, Safina’s game may have fractured beyond repair after a career-threatening back injury that descended late in 2009, exacerbating the mental frailty that she displayed as #1.  After winning a set from Wickmayer in Auckland, the Russian secured just one game from Bartoli in Hobart, but the scoreline did not reflect the multiple-deuce games that littered their encounter.  The night-session atmosphere probably favors the more confident Clijsters, thrusting Safina into an uncomfortably intense setting where she collapsed against Serena in the 2009 final.  For Marat’s sister, though, a loss would drop her outside the top 100 and into the murky realm of wildcards or perhaps qualifying draws, so she may approach this clash with additional motivation.  Yet she has won two or fewer games in half of the sets that she has played against Clijsters, including two bagels and four breadsticks, so an ugly rout could develop if Kim seizes control before Safina settles into the match.

Elsewhere on Day 2:

Nalbandian vs. Hewitt:  Curiously, this vintage encounter opposes the victor and the vanquished from the last Wimbledon final before Federer’s lease on the All England Club began.  A finalist last week in Auckland, the Argentine scored encouraging victories over Isner and Almagro.  Despite advancing age and questionable fitness, Nalbandian continues to lurk among the dark horses at every prominent event when healthy, for his uncanny timing and immaculate ball-striking have flustered even Federer and Nadal on repeated occasions.  Probably less naturally gifted than his adversary, Hewitt has fully capitalized upon his potential with a gritty work ethic antithetical to the underachieving Argentine, whose motivation has seemed tepid and sporadic at best.  The two-time major champion likely realizes that few Australian Opens remain in the twilight of his tennis odyssey, as do his fervent supporters.  Etching indelible memories onto their minds, the Australian once collaborated with Baghdatis in an early-round epic that resulted in the latest finish ever witnessed in Melbourne.  Unless Nalbandian sweeps him aside efficiently, Hewitt’s superior fitness (both physically and mentally) likely will produce another marathon and perhaps another rousing victory.

Jankovic vs. Kudryavtseva:  Highly fallible during the second half of 2010, the Serb looks to recapture the form that brought her the Indian Wells title last spring.  Unleashing a temper as flaming as her hair, Kudryavtseva showcased her fearsome offense in a Wimbledon upset over Sharapova in 2008 and a near-upset there over Venus a year earlier.  The Russian’s forehand penetrates the court with ease, menacing the type of inconsistent counterpuncher that Jankovic can become when low in confidence.  But can Kudryavsteva rein in her unruly weapons at crucial moments and maintain her level throughout two or maybe three sets?  In that regard, the Serb comfortably trumps her volatile adversary.

Ana Ivanovic - Adizero Speed Week In Melbourne

Makarova vs. Ivanovic:  For the second consecutive major, Ana opens against the Russian lefty who stunned the Eastbourne draw as a qualifier last year.  Frequently flashing her signature smile during the Hopman Cup and yesterday’s Rally for Relief, Ivanovic will seek to carry her relaxed attitude into a relatively gentle draw that she can exploit.  Dueling Azarenka for more than three hours  in Sydney, however, Makarova has an imposing serve and a striking knack for saving break points, even more perceptible than with the typical lefty.  Like Kudryavtseva above, her streakiness often prevents her from delivering her best tennis for more than a few games at a time.  Much more consistent since last summer, the Serb may experience a few nerves at the tournament where she once reached the final, while a strained abdominal muscle stirs slight concern.  Guided by the insightful Antonio van Grichen , Ivanovic has gained an air of quiet confidence after conquering her self-created demons, and the crowd should support her vociferously from the first ball onwards.

Date-Krumm vs. Radwanska:  Hobbled by injury last fall, the fabulously versatile Pole has not won a match since Tokyo and has not played since Beijing.  In fact, her entry in the Australian Open surprised most observers and causes us to wonder whether she has leapt to a premature decision that she will regret.  Across the net, the oldest player in the WTA has no regrets at all about a comeback that has ambushed two former #1s and a host of other players half her age.  Slapping groundstrokes at implausible angles with oddly truncated swings, Date-Krumm hopes to jerk Radwanska from side to side like a windshield wiper.  Comfortable anywhere on the court, the Pole aims to unsettle and exhaust the crafty veteran by exposing her to a variety of speeds and spins.  Sophisticated tennis fans will relish the subtle talents of both players as they delicately uncover each other’s flaws.

Vandeweghe vs. Cornet:  Once considered the future of women’s tennis in her nation, the Frenchwoman confronts a hard-serving foe often considered the future of American women’s tennis.  At the Australian Open occurred the collapse against Safina that precipitated Cornet’s seemingly irreversible spiral.  After three qualifying matches, Vandeweghe may enter the main draw somewhat weary, but her brash self-belief should help bring her past the easily wilting phenom of the past.

Berankis vs. Matosevic:  During the Australian Open wildcard playoff, we warmed to the mercurial Aussie as he launched a spirited comeback against Luczak to earn a berth in his home major.  Yet he will not find his task comfortable against the top-ranked Lithuanian in the ATP, who punches well above his diminutive stature.  Likely to reach the top 20 eventually, the boyish Berankis has reached the top 100 after gorging himself upon challengers while winning a match apiece at each of the last two majors.  Can he extend that streak?

Petrova vs. Pervak:  Last year’s quarterfinalist exited both Brisbane and Sydney in the opening round, while Pervak clawed her way through qualifying into the main draw at the former event.  There, she overwhelmed former top-5 star Chakvetadze before winning a set from ultimate champion Kvitova, who had ousted Petrova much more routinely a round earlier.  We watched the petite lefty against Sharapova at Roland Garros last year, where she convinced us that she possesses both the game and the mentality to threaten a fading, fragile veteran.

Cirstea vs. Lucic:  Not unlike Cornet, the exotic-looking Romanian formerly seemed destined to become the standard-bearer of her nation’s tennis hopes.  Hampered by injuries over the past two years, Cirstea merely seeks to reassert her relevance against yet another of the WTA’s comeback artists.  Lucic has enjoyed a far less successful return than her fellow veterans but did take a set from Jankovic at last year’s US Open with her flat, heavy groundstrokes; we look forward to watching her on grass.

***

We return tomorrow with the Day 3 preview!  As before, feel free to comment if you would like to share any recommendations for matches to highlight.

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A rather painful episode of déjà vu occurred today for the star-crossed Richard Gasquet, who watched a two-set-and-break lead evaporate against Murray for the second time.  Probably better suited for the compressed best-of-three format, the Frenchman’s electrifying shotmaking fails to compensate for his lack of physical (and mental) fitness at majors.  With relatively little at stake, Murray deserves credit for staying focused until Gasquet faded once again; this instinctive will to compete comprises an essential trait of a champion.  Elsewhere, Taylor Dent cracked the fastest serve in Roland Garros history…and actually won the match.  (We know that Andy will be eyeing the radar tomorrow in an effort to eclipse that 149-mph bomb, but wet conditions won’t aid his cause.)  In previous French Opens, serving records generally have not produced positive outcomes; Venus broke the WTA Slam speed record in a 2007 loss to Jankovic, while Karlovic broke the single-match Slam ace record in a defeat to Hewitt last year.  Finally, Ivanovic delivered a characteristically candid post-match interview that was much more intriguing than her opening victory.  Documenting the Serb’s mental oscillations between confidence and uncertainty, it’s worth a read for Ana fans (go to the Roland Garros site, click on News and Photos, then Interviews).  As she tries to “move on and get better” from match to match, we move on to Day 3.

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Pironkova vs. Henin (22) (Chatrier, 1st match):  Perhaps a shade more familiar than the typical 22nd seed, Henin will be sure to reawaken blissful memories in the multitudes of quasi-compatriots eager to celebrate her return to Roland Garros.  The four-time defending champion ignites what will be an extremely demanding fortnight (judging from her draw) against a player whom she once considered a future contender.  Her tennis tomorrow will need to be more impressive than her prognosticating skills then, for Pironkova hasn’t accomplished anything remarkable at significant events; nevertheless, she did defeat a sub-par Dementieva in Warsaw last week.  A quintessential pusher, the Bulgarian projects almost no power at all behind her serves and groundstrokes, relying on movement and consistency to prolong points until her opponent commits errors.  Although Henin’s heightened aggression has produced recurrent flurries of miscues, she should find her range sooner or later.  Pironkova’s pacelessness should allow the Belgian to measure her groundstrokes on the clay, providing her with a useful reference point for tenser encounters in the imminent future.

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Hewitt (28) vs. Chardy (Chatrier, 4th match):  While neither player especially enjoys this surface, the match offers an intriguing contrast between a wily, tenacious veteran and a flamboyant, temperamental star of the future.  Or at least the French hope that Chardy delivers upon his promise, since recent evidence has not been impressive.  Can Hewitt’s grittier mentality enable him to outlast the younger player just as another Anglophone competitor survived a Frenchman on Day 2?  Or will Chardy’s more forceful serve-forehand combinations penetrate the court too effectively, miring the Australian deep behind the baseline?  Note the duration of the rallies, which will favor Chardy if relatively short and Hewitt if they extend longer.  Also observe the impact of the Paris crowd on yet another of les bleues, some of whom (Gasquet, Mauresmo) have appeared burdened by expectations and others of whom (Tsonga, Monfils) have relished the adulation.  On the other hand, something more than fanatical Frenchies is required to rattle Hewitt.

Safina (9) vs. Date Krumm (Lenglen, 2nd match):  The Russian seeks her third consecutive finals appearance at Roland Garros after finishing runner-up to Ivanovic and Safina, but it’s unrealistic to expect the realization of that goal in the aftermath of her back surgery.  Winning just one total match at Stuttgart, Rome, and Madrid, Safina could fall well outside the top 10 and possibly outside the top 20 if she falters here.  Opposite her stands the artful, seemingly ageless Date, whose enduring affection for the game inspired her improbable return.  Unsurprisingly, she hasn’t toppled many high-profile foes in the comeback, yet she did win the Seoul title and has taken sets from elite players such as Wozniacki.  The match rests in Safina’s control, which is not necessarily good news for her; in a similar situation against the pedestrian Zakopalova in Madrid, she coughed up leads in both sets before crumbling under pressure in two tiebreaks.  Should she establish an early lead, she might cruise.  If she doesn’t, we could witness a lively rollercoaster that would compensate for mediocre tennis with high-quality drama.

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Cornet vs. Pavlyuchenkova (29) (Court 1, 1st match):  Long considered future superstars by their respective nations, these expectation-laden phenoms have not quite delivered on their promise—the French much more notably than the Russian.  One can trace Cornet’s implosion to the two match points that she squandered against Safina in the fourth round of last year’s Australian Open.  Had she converted one of those opportunities, she would have reached a first Slam quarterfinal and possibly sparked a breakthrough season; instead, her understandable deflation combined with a  shoulder injury to completely reverse her momentum.  Although Pavlyuchenkova hasn’t endured a similarly spectacular collapse, the Russian has wavered after what seemed a career-changing surge into last year’s Indian Wells semifinals.  She has struggled notably on the largest stages over the past year and has been hobbled by a foot injury in recent weeks.  It’ll be intriguing to observe whether Pavlyuchenkova can recapture the form that brought her to the second week here in 2009, or whether Cornet can muster momentum from encouraging performances in Fez and Estoril.  The French crowd will be firmly on her side, but she might be better off if they weren’t.

Ferrero (16) vs. Cuevas (Court 1, 3rd match):  Our last sight of the polished, gracefully aging Ferrero was his ignominious opening defeat in Rome at the unexpected hands of Santiago Giraldo.  (The Colombian displayed a crisp game that day, but a former French Open champion needs to win more than three games from an unseeded challenger.)  Shortly afterwards, a knee injury compelled Juan Carlos to withdraw from his home even in Madrid, a pity considering his near-total dominance of the South American clay courts in February.  It’ll be intriguing to observe what attitude the former French Open champion brings to his clash with the Uruguayan clay-court doubles specialist Pablo Cuevas.  Gifted with an elegant backhand, Cuevas has overcome adversaries as accomplished as Almagro on this surface, so he could penalize an unconvincing Ferrero.  Above all, though, this duo should deliver a classic exhibit of clay-court tennis rather than awkwardly adapting hard-court styles to the dirt as is so often the case in the contemporary game.  Watching players like these, one learns to relish the variety among tennis surfaces and regret the current trend towards uniform surface speed.

Ginepri vs. Querrey (18) (Court 2, 2nd match):  We’ll admit immediately that these two Americans are no clay experts and in fact are occasionally embarrassed by the vagaries of the surface.  This clash caught our attention not from the brilliant technique that they’ll display but from its psychological component.  Losing their previous meeting in the Indianapolis final despite a far more imposing serve, Querrey brings that mental baggage to the court as well as the baggage of never having won a match at Roland Garros.  It’s not surprising that his strategically limited game hasn’t succeeded here in the past, yet the sometimes complacent American has typically underwhelmed at Slams in general, not a positive sign for his future.  He can’t keep writing off early, disappointing losses as learning experiences forever, nor can he continue losing lackadaisically on important occasions to respectable but unintimidating players like Ginepri.  There’s a fine line between relaxed and lackadaisical that the loose-limbed Californian needs to find soon.

Peer (18) vs. Llagostera Vives (Q) (Court 6, 1st match):  Generally not renowned for her clay-court skills, the Israeli smoothly navigated a pair of formidable draws to reach the semifinals in Stuttgart and Madrid.  In that infamous top quarter of the WTA draw, Peer’s days are certainly numbered, for she could face Serena in the round of 16.  Nevertheless, this tournament represents an opportunity to extend the momentum from the Premier events into Wimbledon and the summer hard courts, where she has prospered more often.  Toting a name as long as she is short, Llagostera Vives has achieved resounding success in doubles with Martinez Sanchez but can be crafty in singles as well.  Peer will be cast in the role of the aggressor, an unaccustomed and perhaps uncomfortable position for her.  We should see a match defined by intelligent point construction and mental tenacity much more than baseline bullets.  Neither of these players can survive with the top-tier sluggers, but they’re an engaging diversion from the power-soaked games of the WTA elite.

Briefly notedAfter Ginepri vs. Querrey on Court 2, Serena and Venus continue their pursuit of a doubles calendar Slam.  Absent for most of the clay season in which she thrives, Marbella finalist Suarez Navarro targets Ponte Vedra Beach finalist Govortsova, a Belarussian who has enjoyed surprising success on this surface over the past several weeks.  One match to not watch is the clash between Gabashvili and Daniel Koellerer.  The senselessly pugnacious Austrian has earned the contempt of fellow players, commentators, and spectators alike for his repulsive, relentless displays of gamesmanship inappropriate to this dignified sport.  Far more elegant is the meeting between Hantuchova and Tamarine Tanasugarn, both of whom must be looking forward to the grass season; nevertheless, we’re curious to see who more successfully adapts their fast-court style to the clay.  While the willowy Slovak attempts to solve that riddle, Russian qualifier Ksenia Pervak ventures into the den of a familiar lioness:

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How do you solve a problem like Maria?  We hope that Pervak has no answer. 😉

 

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