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Samantha Stosur - Samantha Stosur of Australia beats Serena Williams of USA to win the women's US Open in New York

Stosur:  According to the inverted logic by which the WTA has operated for much of this year, the understated Aussie should have seemed a tournament favorite.  Absent from the second week of the season’s first three majors, she had not won a title since Charleston 2010 and shouldered a 2-9 record in finals prior to Sunday.  The longest title drought in the top 10 then crashed to an emphatic halt with a stunningly composed performance from a player long known for her mental fragility.  As Serena loudly exhorted herself, excoriated the umpire, and ultimately spun out of control, the quiet personality across the net simply went about the business of playing a tennis match.  So calm was Stosur amidst the maelstrom of drama across the net that one might not have noticed the tactically superb tennis that she played in attacking Serena’s second serve, capitalizing on every opportunity to approach the net, and constructing rallies around her forehand whenever possible.  When the match’s climactic moments arrived, Serena and everyone else in the stadium surely expected her to show a lack of nerve.  Instead, she showed a lack of nerves, delivering the most spectacular Slam-ending shot that we can recall.  From a nation where tennis lies deeply embedded in the popular consciousness, Stosur will deserve all of the accolades that she will receive when she returns.  Not since Sharapova at Wimbledon, seven long years ago, has anyone other than her sister toppled Serena at her own game in a Slam final.

Serena:  Through six rounds, the three-time US Open champion had crafted a compelling comeback story, only to lose the plot on the championship Sunday.  Before that abrupt collapse, though, Serena captivated audiences with the type of athletic shot-making that she and her sister brought to the WTA over a decade ago.  As her victories over a host of younger opponents revealed, many of the sport’s rising stars have emulated that style but cannot quite equal it.  Until the final, Serena’s serve catapulted her far above her rivals and created matches in which breaks of serve actually held significance, a rarity in the WTA.  Never finding her best form throughout the fortnight, she nevertheless cruised past two top-5 opponents and two seeded foes without losing a set.  Moreover, her delirious dances of joy when she won demonstrated just how much each victory meant to her after her comeback.  One had begun to believe that her extended absence had awakened a more sympathetic, more mature dimension in Serena’s personality as the final approached.  But her harsh, arrogant underside merely lurked in hiding until the first genuine bit of adversity emerged.  Once again, her dazzling display of power and dismal display of petulance forced fans to draw lines in their opinions between the player and the person.  On the other hand, Serena’s courteous post-match demeanor towards Stosur in the midst of her disappointment hinted that she might have developed some maturity after all.

Wozniacki:  An encouraging fortnight on the whole, her third straight semifinal appearance at the US Open erased most of the negativity that had mounted during the spring and summer.  Liberated from her father in a coaching sense if not otherwise, the world #1 played smarter tennis than she had since Indian Wells as she returned to her counterpunching roots.  In her fourth-round comeback against Kuznetsova, audiences saw the finest traits of Wozniacki on full display:  her indefatigable defense, her tenacity, her steady focus for even the least significant points.  Two rounds later against Serena, audiences saw the reason why she has become a living refutation of the saying that defense wins titles, at least as applied to tennis.  No player yet has won a major while playing not to lose, and her failure to legitimize her #1 ranking looks increasingly inexcusable with every first-time Slam champion who hurtles past her.

Kerber:  From the shocking semifinal run of the world #92 emerge two possible narratives, not necessarily mutually exclusive.  On the bright side, this lefty German’s five-match winning streak at the year’s final major demonstrated the depth in a WTA populated by increasingly opportunistic journeywomen.  Perhaps inspired by Schiavone’s Roland Garros heroics, Kerber slugged her way past Radwanska and Pennetta in draining three-setters when one might have expected her will to falter.  On the less bright side, her appearance in the final weekend testified to the feckless fumbles of the top women in her section, especially Kvitova and Sharapova.  During the last several years, the Slams seemed an oasis of order from the waves of upsets that swept across the draw of lesser women’s tournaments.  One wonders whether the Slams have become no different from the rest of the calendar in this sometimes thrilling, some frustrating era of parity-turned-anarchy, where any Kerber can have her day.

Petkovic / Pavlyuchenkova:  When thinking of the cyclone of dances and practical jokes known as “Petkorazzi,” the adjective “steady” rarely springs into one’s mind.  But Petkovic became the only woman to reach three Slam quarterfinals in 2011, and she displayed feisty competitive spark in rallying from a first-set breadstick against Wozniacki to nearly steal the second set.  Just as promising was the accomplishment of former junior #1 Pavlyuchenkova in reaching her second Slam quarterfinal of the seasons.  For a full set, she traded baseline bombs with Serena and seemed to surprise the American with her ball-striking power.  While Petkovic’s undisciplined shot selection and rudimentary sense of point construction ultimately undid her, Pavlyuchenkova’s serve requires significant attention.

Zvonareva:  Much superior to her Wimbledon form, the defending US Open finalist survived until the quarterfinals and the eighth consecutive edition of Stosur’s odd voodoo spell over her.  Her loss to the defending champion looked more justifiable in retrospect, while her victory over Lisicki featured some of the most sparkling tennis on Arthur Ashe in the women’s tournament.  Against the type of powerful server who often troubles her, Zvonareva stayed thoroughly in command of her composure despite the magnitude of the stage.  Previously prosperous in the fall, she has positioned herself for another run to the year-end championships where she has thrived before.  Vera rarely wins a title, but she has acquired a curious knack for losing (at least on hard courts) to the player who does.

Kuznetsova:  Through a set and a half against Wozniacki, she displayed flashes of her vintage self that allowed viewers to understand how she won this tournament in 2004.  Despite the unforced errors that sprayed from her racket throughout that match, its early stages showed a Kuznetsova whose combination of shot-making and athleticism could hit through the WTA’s leading defender.  The second half of that match illustrated why she has fallen from the list of Slam contenders and outside the top 10.  In command at 4-1 in the second set, Kuznetsova gagged more appallingly than Pennetta did in the New York heat and dropped 11 of the last 13 games in farcical fashion.  Nevertheless, she made Arthur Ashe a livelier place for the three hours that she spent on it, which contrasted pleasingly with the yawn-inducing routs of the first week. 

Azarenka:  The victim of the USTA’s obstinacy and the imbalanced draw that ensured, Azarenka played with surprising spirit in a virtually unwinnable encounter against Serena in formidable form.  In her previous loss to the American this summer, she slumped in dejection during the match’s final phases.  At the brink of defeat this time, by contrast, Vika mustered her most penetrating groundstrokes and constructed a series of court-stretching rallies that nearly forced a third set.  Within two points of that goal in the tiebreak, she grew tentative again while allowing Serena to step inside the baseline, but the last several games of the second set revealed an Azarenka physically and mentally capable of competing with the best in the sport.  At the end of a generally promising Slam season, this gallant defeat bodes well for her future. 

Venus:  The elder Williams has enjoyed a career filled with glittering moments and classy sportsmanship while plagued with nagging injuries.  One hopes that this latest, disquieting illness does not close the door upon a champion who represents a completely different and more appealing side of competition than her younger sister.

Lisicki:  On the heels of a Wimbledon semifinal, Lisicki suggested that she could consolidate upon her breakthroughs by reaching the second week of the next major.   Her increasingly reliable game should adapt convincingly to any surface, although one expected her to cause Zvonareva more trouble than the 2-and-3 dismissal in the fourth round.  When she faces opponents less balanced than the Russian, her nemesis three times this year, Lisicki should earn more free points from her serve than anyone in her generation and accumulate a substantial intimidation factor.  If the German can stay healthier than she has so far, a top-10 berth looks nearly certain.

Pennetta:  We always appreciate the type of effort that leads a player to spill her guts (literally, almost) on the court as this Fed Cup superstar did in her epic victory over Peng Shuai.  Effective against the streaky as well as the steady, Pennetta generally held her nerve through the third set of her upset over Sharapova, one of the more surprising upsets in an upset-riddled women’s draw.  In both of those matches, she showed how effective a clean, crisp style can prove under pressure.  Falling to Kerber in a three-set quarterfinal, she showed how much better she performs as the underdog rather than as a favorite.  Opportunity knocked for this veteran to reach a first Slam semifinal, but Pennetta allowed someone else to walk through the door.

Rising American women:  When this tournament began, talk centered around Ryan Harrison, Alex Bogomolov, John Isner, and the multiplying posse of American men poised to brand their imprint upon their home major.  As fate decreed, the women stole the show with unexpected victories from Falconi (d. CIbulkova), Stephens (d. Peer), and McHale (d. Bartoli).  Eagerly seeking an answer for an unanswerable question, American fans now wonder whether any of these three young women will carve out an accomplished career.  To hazard a guess, we will say “no,” “yes,” and “maybe.”  A non-entity until this tournament, Falconi became far from the first unfamiliar name to upset Cibulkova and snatched just one game from Lisicki a round later.  Despite her modest stature, Stephens not only possesses a promising serve and inside-out forehand but has a crystallizing sense of how to construct points, a skill often underestimated among this nation’s players.  Even in her loss to Ivanovic, she displayed a technically solid game that didn’t break down under the pressure of the circumstances.  Although McHale scored the most impressive upset from a rankings perspective, the highest-ranked teenager in the sport wilted on Arthur Ashe for the second time in three years, this time against the far from intimidating Kirilenko.  Unlike Stephens, she has yet to show more than flickers of the firepower that usually translates into WTA success.  Those doubts notwithstanding, the outlook looks far brighter for women’s tennis here than it did a year ago.

Maria Sharapova - 2011 US Open - Day 5

Sharapova:  Late in the best odd-numbered year of her career, Sharapova arrived at the US Open with momentum from a Wimbledon final and a title in Cincinnati, where she defeated four top-15 opponents.  For her fourth straight appearance in New York, however, she fell before the quarterfinals amidst a cascade of unforced errors and double faults, exploited by a steady but not spectacular opponent.  Over her last four matches, including the Cincinnati final, Sharapova has struck 205 unforced errors as her movement and footwork lost their crispness.  For the first time this year, the 2006 champion failed to extricate herself from a third set despite mounting a characteristically ferocious comeback.  After winning so many hard-fought battles in a season that has catapulted her from outside the top 15 to #2 in the world, Sharapova may have exhausted her emotional reserves.  One wonders whether she can regroup in time for a fall season that suits her playing style, especially the year-end championships where she has not played since reaching the 2007 final.

Ivanovic:  Although she won only two matches here, benefiting from a second-round walkover, the Serb enjoyed her first career exposure under the lights of Arthur Ashe.  In a situation that one might have expected to rattle her nerves, she played stylish and generally composed tennis to halt the hopes of Sloane Stephens before an American crowd.  One of the Open’s most moving moments came when she dedicated her opening victory to her dead grandfather.  Perhaps inspired by his memory, Ivanovic acquitted herself impressively in two competitive sets against a heavily favored Serena Williams.  Refusing to wilt against the intimidating champion as she did against Clijsters last year, she pounded more winners than her fabled opponent and attacked the WTA’s most formidable serve with impressive courage on her return.  The latest in a procession of abortive coaching experiments, Nigel Sears finally may have given her the stability and reassuring guidance for which she has longed.

Li / Kvitova:  As the winds of controversy swirl around Wozniacki’s Slamless #1 status, commentators and spectators have argued that the Slam champions de facto are the best players in the sport.  After the ragged performances of these two 2011 titlists, that argument becomes more dubious if not downright unconvincing.  To be sure, few expected Kvitova to follow her first major crown with an immediate sequel, nor did Li Na seem likely to suddenly spring from a tepid summer into glory on Super Saturday.  But one also expected more than straight-sets losses in the first round to a pair of Romanians, Dulgheru and Halep, whose modest talents played less role in the outcome than did the thoroughly disheveled games of the champions.  For Li and Kvitova, their sudden burst into international celebrity status continues to disorient them and probably will linger through the rest of the season.

Mother Nature:  Although she arrived a bit late at the season’s final major, the rain goddess wasted no time in imposing her presence upon the second week.  Just when the tournament seemed ready to escalate to a thunderous climax, deluge upon deluge enforced an embarrassing ceasefire.  Enhancing its own embarrassment, the Open tournament director and the USTA then insisted upon dragging players onto court for 15 minutes of tennis while desperately begging the clouds to desist.  They didn’t, and the clamor for a long-overdue roof grew louder as the schedule grew increasingly distorted.  If a bastion of tradition like Wimbledon already has bowed to pragmatism, why must the allegedly progressive US Open submit itself to the whims of the elements?

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Just two weeks remain until the final major of 2010, and the tournaments next week mark the final significant opportunity for players to hone their skills before entering the harsh New York spotlight.  While the men’s event in Cincinnati showcases all of the ATP elite, the skeletal draw in Montreal features only a handful of stars familiar to those outside the sport’s inner circle.  In the absence of marquee names Serena, Venus, Sharapova, and Henin, ample opportunities await for a dormant veteran or an ambitious youngster to pound and/or shriek themselves (see image above) into the conversation surrounding the upcoming Slam.  Quarter-by-quarter previews of Montreal and Cincinnati straight ahead:

First quarter

In this section are situated many of the WTA’s finest two-handed backhands, from Jankovic and Petrova to Azarenka and Li.  Although the terms “forehand” and “backhand” don’t quite apply to Bartoli’s double-fisted style, the Frenchwoman might upset the top-seeded Serb in a particularly bitter third-round clash, especially since Jankovic is struggling with an ankle injury.  A champion at Stanford and a first-round loser (albeit a doubles champion) at Cincinnati, Azarenka persists in defying expectation for better or for worse.  So does her scheduled third-round opponent, Li Na, who is most dangerous when discounted and most vulnerable when hyped.  After dispatching a Bondarenko apiece, the blazing-eyed Belarussian and the steely Chinese will contest perhaps the most intriguing midweek match.  Who will consolidate her position as a dark horse at the US Open?

Semifinalist:  Azarenka

Second quarter:

Fortunately the recipient of a first-round bye, Clijsters must quickly regroup after the Cincinnati final but faces no intimidating opponents in her early rounds.  Neither Oudin nor Peer is equipped to outhit the defending US Open champion, despite the grim tenacity exhibited by the American and the Israeli.  On the other side, this weakest section of a weak draw features Clijsters’ compatriot Wickmayer, steadily approaching the limelight and the architect of Li’s demise in Cincinnati.  Seeking a potential rematch of a Wimbledon quarterfinal is the presence of Zvonareva, who defeated Kim for the first time at the All England Club.  Nevertheless, we expect Wickmayer to dispatch Vera beforehand and set up an all-Belgian quarterfinal; Clijsters is undefeated against her countrywomen during her comeback so far, crushing “Wickipedia” in Eastbourne this June.

Semifinalist:  Clijsters

Third quarter:

Filled with flamboyant personalities, distinctive playing styles, and existential angst, this section features both of the San Diego finalists as well as the tournament’s most intriguing first-round match:  Pavlyuchenkova-Kuznetsova.  On the other side lurk the aging, injury-addled Dementieva, the enigmatic Rezai, and equally enigmatic Wimbledon semifinalist Kvitova.  Both ranked among the top five in the US Open Series standings, Radwanska and Kuznetsova probably will clash for the second time in three tournaments.  This time, the Russian should win more comfortably without the additional pressure of playing for a title and armed with the confidence from her week in San Diego.  Since the other bold-faced names in this neighborhood have faltered miserably lately, Sveta should capitalize upon the momentum surge so curtly interrupted by Sharapova in Cincinnati.

Semifinalist:  Kuznetsova

Fourth quarter:

Defanged by the withdrawal of Sharapova, this section includes Roland Garros champion and quintessential one-Slam wonder, Francesca Schiavone.  Having won exactly one match since her magical fortnight in Paris, the Italian shouldn’t penetrate too deeply in this draw.  Consequently, a door might well open for the winner of the first-round confrontation between ball-bruising German Andrea Petkovic and the most maligned former #1 in WTA history, Dinara Safina.  Considering that the Russian hasn’t won consecutive matches since January, however, one suspects that the semifinalist will emerge from the lower section of this quarter.  Despite capturing the title at her home tournament in Copenhagen, Wozniacki has accomplished nothing of note since Miami and exited meekly to Bartoli in Cincinnati.  Yet her most substantial competition is San Diego semifinalist Pennetta, who enjoys the summer hardcourts more than one would imagine for a clay-loving Italian.

Semifinalist:  Wozniacki

Moving on (or back) to Cincinnati…

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First quarter:

One match played, one seed gone as Baghdatis upset the floundering Cilic on Sunday night after the women’s final.  After a rather flat trip to Canada, Nadal probably will begin his tournament against one of only two players who have defeated him since April, compatriot Feliciano Lopez.  If Rafa is a little deflated or unfocused, the quirky serve-and-volleying veteran could spell trouble as he did for Murray in Los Angeles, but it’s hard to imagine Lopez upsetting the world #1 in consecutive meetings.  Representing another potential hurdle is the 14th-seeded Almagro, who held match points against Nadal last fall and became one of only two players (with Gulbis) to win a set from the five-time French Open champion during the clay season.  A likely rematch of the Wimbledon final looms in the quarters, for Berdych enjoys a rather smooth road through the early rounds and looked convincing in Canada.  Even when the Czech has displayed some of his best tennis, though, Nadal has ultimately solved his challenge.

Semifinalist:  Nadal

Second quarter:

Crisp and poised for most of his finals run in Toronto, Federer will have gained a significant injection of confidence by overcoming Wimbledon nemesis Berdych and retaking the #2 ranking from Djokovic.  Whether Blake, Monfils, Ferrer, or Davydenko, all of the marquee names in his vicinity have struggled mightily against the GOAT, so it’s his quarter to lose until proven otherwise.  Mediocre since returning from an injury, Davydenko might fall to the LA champion and winner of last year’s US Open Series, Querrey.  But note that the American thus far has failed to translate his success from the peripheral 250 and 500 events to a Masters Series; in Cincinnati, he crashed out early to the gawky Kevin Anderson.  Other than the potential task of solving Querrey’s serve, Federer’s goal here should be to win as efficiently as possible in order to conserve energy for a semifinal with the Mallorcan.

Semifinalist:  Federer

Third quarter:

Tangling in a memorable opening-round encounter at the Australian Open, the scintillating one-handed backhands of Gasquet and Youzhny collide in the first round once again.  At the top of the quarter, Simon and Fish intersect in a meeting between Roddick’s two most recent nemeses that should feature a contrast of styles between the baseline-rooted Frenchman and the net-rushing American.  Trudging wearily through his last several events, eighth seed Verdasco looks ripe for an upset by one of the aforementioned players.  But the last laugh probably will belong to the Rogers Cup champion and 2008 Cincinnati champion, unless Gulbis can recapture his clay-season form to ambush Murray in the third round.  Considering the light balls and fast courts here, it’s not inconceivable although unlikely.

Semifinalist:  Murray

Clashing in the opening round are a pair of veterans who resuscitated their careers this year after prolonged sojourns in the tennis wilderness, Ljubicic and Nalbandian.  While the Croat’s title in Indian Wells increasingly resembles Schiavone’s conquest of Roland Garros, the Argentine seems more likely to build upon his summer success for a surprising run at the US Open.  Perhaps still reeling from a frustrating, blowout-turned-nailbiter semifinal loss to Federer, Djokovic should overcome compatriot Troicki in his opener but might fall to either Nalbandian or Isner in the third round.  Without the stabilizing influence of coach Magnus Norman, Soderling may struggle to overcome home favorite Roddick, who will enjoy vociferous crowd support as he nurses a lingering case of mono.  If Roddick collides with Djokovic in the quarterfinals, momentum in their mini-rivalry will rest squarely on his side.  If he confronts Isner or Nalbandian, expect his superior conditioning to outlast those opponents in the torrid Cincinnati heat.

Semifinalist:  Roddick

***

Perspiration will pour, fists will pump, and nerves will jangle.  Who will surmount the heat and the pressure to prance nimbly through these capacious but not overwhelming draws?

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