Saturday, January 31, 2009

Australian Open final turns spotlight on problem

First, let me give all credit to the great Serena Williams, who played magnificently in the Australian Open final. There is reason to believe Williams would have won the match, no matter what was going on on the other side of the net. But her opponent, Dinara Safina, is too good a player not to have taken it to three sets, or at least two very close ones. Even a Safina win should have been a possibility. Instead, we got a train wreck.

Former tour star Virginia Wade appropriately calls the Australian Open final outcome embarrassing. "It's upsetting," she says, "that the women's game is so scratchy at the moment."

Wade continues: "What I find in the women's game, and I watch all these big names throughout the year and at the major tournaments, there are all these players who can hit the ball fantastically well when they are playing well. But I don't see them doing anything to help them relax when they get into a state. Tennis is all about the preparation, about being ready when the proverbial hits the fan. Tennis is about being ready and when it gets tough it's all about the head and not just about the game."

Wade is, of course, correct. Dinara Safina, Ana Ivanovic, Marion Bartoli, Daniela Hantuchova, Anna Chakvetadze, Patty Schnyder, even Jelena Jankovic--to some extent (as evidenced in Melbourne)...all have great games, but fragile mentalities. In the case of Safina and Ivanovic, it's the ball toss that goes awry when the nerves click in. With other players, choking begins, or their games just suffer in quality.

I have some theories about the possible causes of this problem:

1. So much attention is given to the power game that the mental part has been neglected.
2. Players are not seeing sports psychologists when they should.
3. Sports psychologists are not using hypnotherapy, which would be the quickest, easiest, most effective intervention for solving this problem.
4. Women, regardless of their culture, tend to have low self-esteem and do not impose themselves the way they need to in order to be winners in tennis, or in anything else. We are still culturally conditioned to not be good enough.

During the Australian Open final, Mary Carillo was in high rant mode about the lack of commitment in women's tennis. She wondered why more women's matches aren't filled with grit and sweat and high quality. It is really difficult for fans--especially fans of truly good players like Safina--to watch a major final--or any match--end the way this one ended.

Venus Williams enters Family Circle Cup

Venus Williams has joined Serena Williams and Vera Zvonareva in entering the 2009 Family Circle Cup in Charleston. Williams won the event in 2004.

What they said

"You said your energy was a bit low in the semifinals. Did you feel that today, or..."
"Not as much. I think I upped my dosage of jelly snakes."
Laura Robson

"But I was not nervous, not even close like before the French Open final. I couldn't even sleep the night. But today I slept good and everything was fine. But just pity."
Dinara Safina

"You had some choice words in the first set. Is there perhaps something to be learned about how to deal with a couple of points that don't necessarily go your way?"
"Yeah. I'll try to be a bit quieter next time."
Laura Robson

"Why did you choose to play the juniors here?"
"You know, because like it takes a long ways to come here from Russia exactly, so that's why."
Ksenia Pervak

"Should we be surprised or maybe worried a little bit when a set in a Grand Slam final could be won at love?"
"Uhm, hmm. I don't know. I don't know how you should feel. You should never be surprised by anything that I do, though."
Serena Williams

"What was the difference? Was it physical?"
"I think it was everything. Like I played better."
Ksenia Pervak

"I don't see any reason to panic or to make thousand thoughts in my mind."
Dinara Safina

Faster than a speeding bullet...

More powerful than a to beat tall Russians in a single hour

Halfway into the first set of the 2009 Australian Open women's final, I was thinking that I had seen it all before, and I had--kind of. The beat-down Serena Williams gave Dinara Safina was very much like the beat-down she gave Safina's countrywoman, Maria Sharapova, in 2007. Williams found her serve. She found it with such authority, that she won the point 95% of the time when she got her first serve in. She was fast, she was aggressive, she was confident.

Could anyone have stopped her? We'll never know, because the opposite dynamic was occurring on the other side of the net. Safina's serve was nowhere to be found. Safina, Ivanovic and a few others should form an "errant ball toss" support group so that the Russian can get some help she can't seem to give herself. Safina is capable of serving quite well--she even served three aces in the final--but when the stakes are high, her serve is the first thing to go. Between that, and the fact that Williams played like a champion from the first point, Safina was completely overwhelmed.

She was so overwhelmed that she failed to win a game in the first set, and she didn't even hold serve until the twelfth game of the match. How Safina handles this humiliating loss will be key to how she handles the rest of the year. It is a shame to see such a good player be such an enemy to herself at such an important moment.

Williams, for her part, has now won ten majors in singles. This was also her fouth Australian Open win, so--regardless what the fans call her--she is Aussie Serena, for sure. She also won the women's doubles title with her sister, Venus, and--at 27 years of age--can dictate play against just about anyone. Williams has had problems in the past staying injury-free, but if she can dodge injuries, she is the clear favorite to do a lot of winning this year.

World number 1 Serena Williams def. Dinara Safina, 6-0, 6-3

Friday, January 30, 2009

McHale and Tomljanovic win junior girls doubles title

Christina McHale, whose cramping led to her exit from the first round of the main draw of the Australian Open, has--with her partner, Ajla Tomljanovic--won the Australian Open junior girls doubles title. McHale and Tomljanovic defeated Alexandra Krunic and Sandra Zaniewska, 6-2, 2-6, 10-4 in the final.

Pervak wins Australian Open

In her last interview, 2008 Wimbledon champion and 5th seed Laura Robson said she felt depleted, and didn't know if she had anything left to give in the junior girls final at the Australian Open. She didn't have much, as it turns out. Robson was defeated by 3rd seed Ksenia Pervak, 6-3, 6-1.

Pervak, a left-handed Russian, is currently ranked 154 in the world on the Sony Ericsson WTA Tour. Robson is ranked 514.

Had Robson won the final, she would have become number 1 in the world in juniors.

Vergeer does it again

Esther Vergeer, the wonder of women's wheelchair tennis, has won the Australian Open, once again defeating her countrywoman, Korie Homan. Vergeer did it in straight sets, 6-4, 6-2. Vergeer and Homan were seeded 1 and 2, respectively. Vergeer and Homan also won the doubles title.

What they said

"My mum, I told her not to watch on the live score, because I think that's really horrible watching on there. So... she usually just goes to bed and then she kind of wakes up for my texts to say if I won or not."
Laura Robson

"...I think that when you play good points in doubles, you tend to smile a little more, enjoy that point with someone else. It's definitely a different kind of feeling, 'cause in singles you're so focused, you don't even smile, you just move to that next point without any kind of elation."
Venus Williams

"Is there anything you learned at Wimbledon that actually helped you here?"
"...this kind of stuff, yeah. That's about it. Oh, and then playing in stadiums, as well."
Laura Robson

"Can you elaborate on your mental issues?"
"I get really angry and I'm a perfectionist. I have a slight case of OCD. Yeah, those are my issues."
Serena Williams

"What did he say?"
"...It just said, Happy birthday and all the best. But it's good enough for me."
Laura Robson, on her birthday note from Marat Safin

As expected, Warsaw is the new Berlin

Now that the German Open is no more, as expected, the Warsaw Open has been upgraded to premier event status. It's going to take a while for some of us to talk about the Warsaw Open/Italian Open duo instead of the German Open/Italian Open pair.

There are more tour changes, which you can read about here.

Barbara Jordan, forgotten champion

A few years ago, Australian Open officials held a ceremony to honor past tournament champions, and forgot to invite Barbara Jordan. When she learned about the omission, she found it amusing, which means she has a much different sense of humor than many of us have.

Jordan may have the strangest record of all time. She won only two singles titles her entire career, but one of them was the 1979 Australian Open. Jordan defeated number 4 seed Sharon Walsh, 6-3, 6-3, to take the title.

Jordan's victory came during a time when the Open was held during the Christmas holidays, and many American players opted to stay home. It should be noted, however, that she upset the great Hana Mandlikova in the quarterfinals, and she also upset 3rd-seeded Renata Tomanova in the semifinals. Jordan recalls: "I remember I was at a WTA board meeting the next year and we were talking about the Australian Open. Chris Evert was saying how she hadn’t won there. I just looked up and said, 'Yeah, that’s no big deal. I’ve done that.' Chrissie really laughed hard at that one.”

Jordan, by the way, is the sister of Kathy Jordan, a much better-known player. And though the Australian Open was the only major singles title she won, Barbara Jordan also won the 1983 French Open mixed doubles title, with Eliot Teltscher.

Jordan is now an attorney in San Jose.

Some friendships are more important than others

Yesterday, I was watching a repeat of an Australian Open match on Tennis Channel, and the subject of the Nadal-Federer relationship was discussed. Federer and Nadal are friends. They sends text messages to each other, Rafa flew Roger to a match once when Roger couldn't get a flight, they watch each other's matches, etc.

The Nadal-Federer story is a good one, but the commentator's telling of it turned sour when he remarked that never before in the history of tennis was there such a friendship between the two top players in the world. Now, I appreciate the Rafa-Roger relationship as much as anyone, but it pales to almost nothing when compared with the friendship between Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova, who were also the two top players in the world. Their decades-long close friendship, which has had its share of drama, is unique not only in tennis, but in all of sports.

But some friendships are more important than others.

Navigating slippery slopes to the final

Neither Dinara Safina nor Serena Williams has exactly cruised into the Australian Open final. Safina defeated Alla Kudryavtseva, Ekaterina Makarova, Kaia Kanepi, Alize Cornet, Jelena Dokic, and Vera Zvonareva. Zvonareva is a tough opponent, but by the time she reached the semifinals, Safina remembered to turn on the big switch, so she was able to deal with her. But if Cornet had had more guts, or Dokic had had a bit more rest, Safina would be in Russia right now, drinking vodka and hitting herself on the head.

Williams defeated Yuan Meng, Gisela Dulko, Peng Shuai, Victoria Azarenka, Svetlana Kuznetsova, and Elena Dementieva. Dulko gave her a good workout in one of the best matches I saw; some people think that if the roof of Rod Laver Arena had stayed off, Kuznetsova might have taken her out. But Williams' real piece of luck came when a bad snack got the best of Victoria Azarenka, who had to retire early in the second set. Azarenka emphatically won the first set, and there was reason to believe Williams might be on her way out. We'll never know, of course, but it is fair to say that both Williams and Safina had some help getting to the final. That isn't a bad thing--it's just pro tennis.

So neither woman is invincible, and each had to more or less scrap her way to the last match. Cliche though it may be, the player who has the most belief is probably the one who will win the Australian Open, given the high level of play that is likely to be involved. It is, of course, easier for most fans to envision Williams possessing the higher degree of belief, and with good reason. There are other factors, too--weather, injury, the crowd, etc.--that come into play. After having the entire crowd against her during her match against Dokic, Safina asked the crowd to back her from that time on. Since she is considered the underdog, she may get her wish, at least during parts of the final match.

Is it Homan's time?

Esther Vergeer appears unbeatable, having lost only one singles match (2003) since March of 2001. When she entered the Beijing Paralympic Games, she had won 348 consecutive matches, and she went on to win her third Olympic gold medal. But Vergeer has been pushed more and more by her countrywoman, Korie Homan. Homan has taken Vergeer to a third set a few times, and in Beijing, she took her to a third-set tiebreak for the first time.

Now the two will meet again in the Australian Open women's wheelchair singles final, and fans are most likely expecting another close match.

Homan and Vergeer, by the way, have already won the women's wheelchair doubles title at the Australian Open, allowing their opponents to win only one game.

Fed Cup matches coming up soon

I have already announced the U.S. Fed Cup team for the U.S.-Argentina competition. Here are the other World Group teams who will compete February 7 and 8:

Russia: Elena Dementieva, Svetlana Kuznetsova, Anna Chakvetadze, Alisa Kleybanova
China: Zheng Jie, Yan Zi, Zhang Shuai, Sun Tiantian

France: Alize Cornet, Amelie Mauresmo, Nathalie Dechy, Severine Bremond
Italy: Francesca Schiavone, Flavia Pennetta, Sara Errani, Roberta Vinci

Czech Republic: Iveta Benesova, Petra Kvitova, Lucie Safarova, Kveta Peschke
Spain: Carla Suarez Navarro, Nuria Llagostera Vives, Maria Jose Martinez Sanchez, Lourdes Dominguez Lino

Dechy and Ram to meet Mirza and Bhupati in final

Nathalie Dechy and Andy Ram will play Sania Mirza and Mahesh Bhupati in the 2009 Australian Open mixed doubles final.

Mirza and Bhupati were the finalists last year.

Lertcheewakarn upset by Robson

Number 1 junior girls seed Noppawan Lertcheewakarn, who has had a remarkable run through the Australian Open, has fallen to the same girl who defeated her in the 2008 Wimbledon final. Laura Robson defeated Lertcheewakarn 6-4, 6-3 in their semifinal match. 5th-seeded Robson will play number 3 seed Ksenia Pervak in the final. Pervak defeated number 2 seed Ana Bogdan, 6-1, 6-3.

Friday cat blogging--Australian Open edition

What they said

"Just mentally I was really tired because I had too much things going in the French Open, too many tough matches, singles, doubles all together. I was just mentally exhausted there."
Dinara Safina

"I blame the heat for the fact that I’ve been rambling like Sarah Palin and sweating like Alisa Kleybanova."
Abigail Lorge

"You were talking about 2005. In that press conference, he (Marat) said that you needed to grow up. How much of that sort of changed your thinking?"
"Well, you know, he didn't know what was going through my mind because I didn't talk to him too much, you know. He's not really the guy who has enough patience for this, you know, to have a woman's talk, you know."
Dinara Safina

Venus and Serena win Australian Open doubles title

It looked good for Daniela Hantuchova and Ai Sugiyama when the women's doubles final at the Australian Open began. They just missed going up two breaks in the first set, and that was the last time they would have that much momentum. There were multiple breaks of serve throughout the match, however, and more often than not, they were consecutive. There were also a lot of balls that were hit into players' bodies.

Hantuchova and Sugiyama had a great run in Melbourne, but in the end, they could not out play the lightning-fast Williams sisters. This is the sisters' eighth major doubles title.

Williams/Williams def. Hantuchova/Sugiyama, 6-3, 6-3

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Williams sisters and Hantuchova/Sugiyama to meet in final

10-seeded Venus and Serena Williams defeated Casey Dellacqua and Francesca Schiavone 6-0, 6-2 in the Australian Open semifinals, setting up a final against number 9 seeds Daniela Hantuchova and Ai Sugiyama. Hantuchova and Sugiyama won their semifinal against Nathalie Dechy and Mara Santangelo, 6-4, 6-3.

The Williams sisters have won the Australian Open twice. Hantuchova reached the finals in 2002 with partner Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario.

The Shadow departs Melbourne, replaced by the real Safina

Throughout this Australian Open, Dinara Safina has said she felt it wasn't she, but her shadow, who was playing--that she had so much more game inside, but it wasn't coming out. It came out today, as Safina defeated Vera Zvonareva in straight sets to get to the final. Zvonareva had won their last three matches, but today, Safina dominated her countrywoman with good serving and relentless defense.

It was the best Safina has played since she arrived in Melbourne. Extending herself in almost every game, she wound up with twice as many errors--and twice as many winners--as her opponent. Gone was the bumbling, self-critical Safina. Instead, we saw a calm, steady and confident player who controlled the match almost from the beginning.

It was a high-quality match. Zvonareva played well, but always seemed to be a step behind her opponent. We got to see the famous Zvonareva temper only once, when she got into it with umpire Lynn Welch over a call, but she recovered quickly.

One thing Safina did in Melbourne was make good on her promise that she would not go to pieces again in a big semifinal like she did at the U.S. Open against Serena Williams. Her reward? She gets to play Williams in the final. Thrill Ride, indeed.

ESPN commentators: Get a clue!

The constant babble from the crew at ESPN would not be quite as irritating if it contained a reasonable amount of accuracy. For example, within a very short period tonight--ESPN commentators butchered Sabine Lisicki's name, reported incorrect information about Vera Zvonareva's ranking, reported incorrect information about Maria Sharapova's injury, and did everything they could to read something into Zvonareva's towel-over-the-head during changeovers (Zvonareva does this on just about every changeover at every match at every tournament).

There is something wrong when fans often know more facts about the tour than the people who are paid a lot of money to deliver those facts to the public.

What they said

"Well, yeah, definitely angry. Why should I not be? Game going my way. I'm fine playing with the roof. I think the guys yesterday, it was the same weather. Everybody was playing with the roof. Why today they had to close it? I didn't get it."
Svetlana Kuznetsova, on the between-set closing of the roof in Rod Laver Arena

"This year I didn't take too much time off at all. So I was shocked that my form wasn't stellar for the first match I played in Sydney, let alone here."
Serena Williams

"I think I did some double‑faults not in a good moment."
Elena Dementieva

"Well, Safina's playing well. She seems to never die."
Serena Williams

"What’s the strangest thing that’s happened to you on court?"
"I have no idea! I forget who is serving and who is returning all the time, so that’s not strange anymore. Nobody has run naked on the court in my matches."
Vera Zvonareva

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Top seed drops 12 games in 4 rounds

Junior girls' number 1 seed Noppawan Lertcheewakarn has made it through to the semifinals of the Australian Open without dropping a set. She has also served three bagel sets, and has given up a total of only twelve games. Lertcheewakarn was the 2008 junior Wimbledon finalist. She lost--in a high quality match--to Laura Robson, whom she will meet in her Australian Open semifinal. 5th-seeded Robson defeated number 4 seed Elena Bogdan to get to the semifinal.

Williams into the Australian Open final

Lately, Elena Dementieva has not only been serving decently--she has been serving well. But in today's semifinal match against Serena Williams, Dementieva's serve went to hell again. For her part, Williams has had trouble with her serve since she arrived in Melbourne. But not in the semifinal. In the semifinal, she served ten aces.

Go figure.

It wasn't a memorable match, but it was better than some I have seen in the past week and a half, and it wasn't without drama: Williams took a nasty fall, Dementieva knocked her visor off with her racquet, Williams lost an earring...oh, and there were some very fine rallies.

Williams def. Dementieva, 6-3, 6-4


The U.S. Fed Cup team for the U.S.-Argentina contest next month has been announced. Captain Mary Joe Fernandez has selected Jill Craybas, Bethanie Mattek (who lives half an hour from the tournament site in Arizona), Melanie Oudin, and Liezel Huber. The Argentine team will be led by the talented but underachieving Gisela Dulko.

Melbourne Park is going to undergo a redevelopment that will costs hundreds of millions of dollars. Proposals for the project include putting a roof on the Margaret Court arena, and building a new Tennis Australia headquarters, better player facilities, better media facilities, and improved practice courts.

Billie Jean King would like for the WTA and the ATP to combine. That's her dream, nor mine, though I do appreciate the reasoning behind such a wish. King, by the way, is now going out of her way to correct what she implies is a faulty perception that her activism focuses on women's issues. God forbid.

Serena Williams recently revealed that, as a Jehovah's Witness, she has been spending some time going door-to-door on behalf of her religion. Can you imagine opening your door and seeing Serena standing there with The Watchtower in her hand?

On Monday, Wendy Turnbull was inducted into the Australian Tennis Hall of Fame. A bronze statue of Turnbull will be placed in Garden Square at Melbourne Park.

Things are not always what they seem

The 2009 season has begun, yes, but before we wipe off our crystal balls, we need to remember that unknown factors are coming faintly into sight. Those unknown factors are, to be specific, Maria Sharapova and Jelena Dokic.

Was Dokic's run through the Australian Open a short burst of triumph? I doubt it. And while there are definitely some things she needs to change about her game, she is still Jelena Dokic, and I think--once she does some fine-tuning--she may wind up taking a few top 20 players to school. Think of this as Hingis coming back, but with more drive and more power. Granted, Dokic didn't win any majors when she was a top 10 player, nor does she (or anyone) have the tennis mind of Hingis, but Dokic is mentally strong and can really hit the ball.

What about Maria? She says her shoulder has completely healed. I hope so. And if that is the case--once she plays enough to get match-tough again--she will be a major factor.

One might also consider throwing Victoria Azarenka into this mix because, with her new outlook, she is the complete package.

A lot could change in a few months.

The other Russian

Vera Zvonareva and her coach, Sam Sumyk

While all the talk is about Serena Williams (Can she win another odd-year Australian Open?), Elena Dementieva (She's playing so well--is this her time?) and Dinara Safina (Can she do now what she almost did last year--win a major?), there is another player quietly standing by. And not just any player, but the woman who has easily out-performed every other woman in the 2009 Australian Open. If the championship were decided by overall performance, Vera Zvonareva would already be holding the trophy.

Zvonareva has not dropped a set so far, and she has delivered four bagel sets to opponents. Her next opponent is countrywoman Dinara Safina, and their runs through the Open could not be more different. Zvonareva has cruised through, while Thrill Ride has had to zoom over bumps and around curves and escape near-crashes. She struggled with Alize Cornet (in fairness, anyone would struggle with Cornet), and she is very lucky to have survived an obviously debilitated Jelena Dokic in the quarterfinals.

Zvonareva and Safina played three times last year, all of the matches on hard courts, and Zvonareva won all three, including one in a third set tiebreak. Unless Zvonareva has a meltdown (and she has been known to have them), Safina will have to call on her very best thrilling come-from-behind magic in order to prevail.

Similarly, the last three times Serena Williams and Elena Dementieva played (2007, 2008, 2009), Dementieva won all three matches. Dementieva is playing the best tennis of her career, and Williams is not. But Dementieva--who used to be very mentally tough--has become a bit vulnerable in the head department, and Williams--well, I don't need to explain how hard it is to beat Serena in a major. We should expect a very good match, at any rate.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

What they said

"By the end of the match, she looked like a little over-heated roadster."
Mary Carillo, speaking of Carla Suarez Navarro

"...I think if you have a roof, why not use it?"
Elena Dementieva

"She's certainly portrayed a confident individual on the court. When I watched two or three of the matches from California where I live, it was just unbelievable how she was coming back from almost hopeless positions."
Rod Laver, speaking of Jelena Dokic

"It was difficult to won any match like this, no?"
Carla Suarez Navarro, on her quarterfinal match against Elena Dementieva

"It was an out-of-body experience. I felt like I was watching somebody play in a blue dress."
Serena Williams, on the court heat

"Were the moths an issue for you?"
"Oh, I mean, it was hot for everyone, you know. They were like ready to die; not to survive a day like that.
Elena Dementieva

Dementieva rolls into semifinals

Carla Suarez Navarro is pleasant to watch and has a lovely backhand, but none of her skills was very useful in her Australian Open quarterfinal match against Elena Dementieva, who defeated her 6-2, 6-2. Suarez Navarro had chances--ten break chances, to be exact--but failed to capitalize on any of them. Dementieva had a first serve percentage of 79, but she also double-faulted ten times.

Still crazy after all these years

Last year, after she lost to Jelena Jankovic in the quarterfinals of the Australian Open, then-defending champion Serena Williams told the press she just "went crazy" during the match. When she arrived in Melbourne this year, she said in a press conference: "One year I went crazy. A couple of years ago I went completely crazy."

She went crazy again in her 2009 Australian Open quarterfinal, too--but in a good way. Still not serving well, and still not acting like Serena Williams the champion, she lost the first set, 5-7, to an in-form Svetlana Kuznetsova. Then there was a half-hour break while the roof was finally put in place. In the second set, Williams was down 3-5, and broke Kuznetsova when she served for the match. Williams then held, then broke Kuznetsova again, and went on to take the set, 7-5. In the third set, Williams found her serve again and dominated, winning it 6-1.

Of course, there is talk about whether Kuznetsova would have won if there had not been a long roof break. Who knows? Tennis is filled with "what if?"s such as this. One notable thing about this match was that Kuznetsova did not go into choke mode; she was simply outplayed by a force called Serena.

Of the three women who are expert at coming back from behind at the last moment--Williams, Dinara Safina and Jelena Dokic--two are still standing.

Unfortunately, Williams punctuated her win by telling an interviewer: "I told myself I need to man up or go home." Williams, of all people, should know that maleness does not equal courage. "Man up," the latest version of "has balls," perpetuates the myth that one--even a female one--must embrace maleness in order to be strong and brave.

Vergeer into semifinals

Esther Vergeer has reached the semifinals of the Australian Open women's wheelchair singles competition. Vergeer has won the Australian Open six times in singles and four times in doubles.

Don't try this at home

I stayed up very, very late last night to watch the quarterfinal match between 3rd seed Dinara Safina and wild card Jelena Dokic, and my reward was to observe each player seemingly begging her opponent to take her out of her misery. Double faults, puffy second serves, wild second serves, netted balls, desperate strategy--it wasn't pretty.

I'm going to cut Dokic some slack, though. She hasn't played on the tour at this level in many years, and she hasn't played in a major for 5 1/2 years. She is also the first woman in history to play five consecutive three-set matches at the Australian Open.

I can't cut Safina any slack, though. All the head-case characteristics of old came back last night, and after match point, Safina briefly acknowledged the crowd, then sat down with a disgusted look on her face and hit her racquet to the ground. The one thing she can be proud of, however, is that when things looked really dangerous--serving at 5-4, 15-40--she pulled off a win. That is the tough part of Safina, but she has to call on it way too often.

I imagine that Dokic feels worse than she is letting on--not so much for losing the match, but for thinking back over the almost countless opportunities she had to put Safina away.

Safina def. Dokic, 6-4, 4-6, 6-4

What they said

"It seems like she's reading my game like in the book."
Marion Bartoli, speaking of Vera Zvonareva

"...if I'm coming for the tournament, I'm pretty confident in myself. If I'm in the tournament, I'm here to try to win it."
Vera Zvonareva

"...she's almost like a ball machine. She just put it back at you all the time, you know, with interest."
Marion Bartoli, speaking of Vera Zvonareva

"Every match is more of a struggle for me than other players because I haven't played this much in a long time. Considering all that, I still think I pulled up pretty well after each match."
Jelena Dokic

"I never watch her matches. I don't need that stress. I have a high blood pressure."
Damir Dokic, responding to reports that he passed out while watching Jelena on television

"Most of the time it's me against myself playing. You know, I play against me, my shadow, myself, everything against me. If one day I will play only against opponent, this will be the perfect day. Then it's the crowd and the Open and me. I hope the next match is going to be ball and the Open and nothing else."
Dinara Safina

Top seeds out in mixed doubles

Number 1 seeds Cara Black and Leander Paes have been defeated in the second round of mixed doubles at the Australian Open. The unseeded team of Patty Schnyder and Wesley Moodie defeated Black and Paes 6-1, 7-5.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Williams sisters tested, but move on in doubles

Hsieh Su-wei and Peng Shuai did something today that no one else at the Australian Open had done: They took a set off of the Williams sisters. The sisters took the first set, 6-2, and Hsieh and Peng took the second, 6-4. In the first five games of the third set, there were four breaks. At 3-all, the Williams sisters broke again, then held, then successfully served for the match at 5-3.

I have already written about the two big doubles thrillers that took place today. There was another quarterfinal, of course. Casey Dellacqua and Francesca Schiavone defeated Anna-Lena Groenefeld and Patty Schnyder, 0-6, 7-5, 6-1.

Australian Open doubles--the thrills keep coming

Unfortunately, I didn't get to see the quarterfinal that Nathalie Dechy and Mara Santangelo played against 11th seeds Nuria Llagostera Vives and Maria Jose Martinez Sanchez, but I saw the scoreboard, and that was enough to tell me there was a second three-hour thriller today. Dechy and Santangelo saved a match point and won the match, 3-6, 7-6, 7-6.

Zvonareva runs over Bartoli in Australian Open quarterfinal

What is it about Marion Bartoli that--unless she's at the 2007 Wimbledon Championships--she cannot follow a strong win with another win? The commentators like to babble on about her fitness, but Bartoli is fit enough. I believe that the problem, most of the time, is mental, and I cannot help but wonder whether she just puts too much pressure on herself with her first-strike game. As much as Walter Bartoli has done for his daughter, I say (again) that it is probably time for her to get a different coach. A sports psychologist wouldn't hurt, either.

The Marion Bartoli who defeated Jelena Jankovic in the round of 16 was nowhere to be seen in her match against Zvonareva. Bartoli looked sluggish, out of sorts, and lost. For her part, Zvonareva was as sharp as she has ever been, but Bartoli should have performed better against her.

Zvonareva def. Bartoli, 6-3, 6-0

Hantuchova and Sugiyama upset Black and Huber in major thriller

Earlier today, I said it was time to talk about doubles. Now, it's really time to talk about doubles. Top seeds Cara Black and Liezel Huber have been upset in the Australian Open quarterfinals by Daniela Hantuchova and Ai Sugiyama, 6-7, 6-3, 7-6. The three-hour ordeal was an absolute thriller, with Black and Huber finally dominating the first set with a 7-0 tiebreak score, Hantuchova and Sugiyama getting themselves together in the second, and back-to-back thrills occurring in the third.

Of course, that third set didn't look too thrilling for a while, although there were some very entertaining rallies. Hantuchova and Sugiyama were down, 2-5, and it just looked like a matter of moments before Black and Huber won the match. But suddenly, Hantuchova and Sugiyama began to play completely in sync with one another, with Hantuchova setting up superb volleys for Sugiyama. About this time, Black became somewhat vulnerable, too, which gave her opponents some room to hit shots between her and Huber.

Hantuchova and Sugiyama brought the match to a tiebreak, but then went down 2-6 in that. Again, the match appeared to be over, and again, Hantuchova and Sugiyama refused to go out. They won the tiebreak 12-10, and saved a total of seven match points. The crowd response was tremendous throughout, as the reunited team of Hantuchova and Sugiyama played one the best matches of their careers.

Some random thoughts

I keep hearing that the tour needs Justine Henin. I disagree. Does the tour miss her? Yes! Do fans miss her? Yes! But--again, in my opinion--all this talk about how terrible things are without a dominant player means nothing to me. If anything, I think it's all more fun without a dominant player. And should one of my favorites become dominant, would I change my mind? Maybe, but since I have more than one favorite--maybe not.

Victoria Azarenka's win in Brisbane took her out of the Hantuchova zone and turned her into a different player. Given her skills, and with this new mentality, I now consider her to be the elite player among her contemporaries. 2009 could be a very big year for Azarenka.

Bethanie Mattek says that she wants a regular doubles partner and has found a couple of potential candidates. I have been turning this over in my mind, but I don't really have any good guesses about who these candidates are. Mattek is a fine doubles player, and whomever she taps will be lucky.

Marion Bartoli has already taken two days off from blogging from Melbourne. This turn of events makes me think of her 2007 Wimbledon run. During her matches, when she was usually behind, she would take naps during the many rain breaks. Someone would then have to wake her up to tell her to go back onto the court, at which point she would dismantle her opponent. Bartoli trains hard, and she should indeed be careful she gets enough rest.

Abigail Lorge believes that Jelena Dokic is so satisfied to have achieved so much in the Australian Open that she will offer Dinara Safina little resistance in their quarterfinal match. I think that Dokic may not have a lot left to give, but I can't imagine her being complacent.

It's time to talk about doubles

Let's begin with the announcement that Cara Black has now spent 100 weeks as the number 1 in the world!

I have a question: Does anyone know why Maria Kirilenko and Flavia Pennetta gave Casey Dellacqua and Francesca Schiavone a walkover in the third round? I haven't seen a reason for that. Too bad. What a terrible Australian Open for Pennetta.

Also, I was really disappointed when I realized that Black and Huber would not be playing Azarenka and Zvonareva. That could have been a good one. However, they will play Hantuchova and Sugiyama, and that should stir some excitement.

How far will Hsieh and Peng get when they play the Williams sisters?

Of the eight teams left, two--Dechy/Santangelo and Groenefeld/Schnyder--are unseeded. The seeded teams remaining are numbers 1, 9, 10, 11, 12, and 16.

What they said

"I see her, how she's motivated. Sometimes she makes me motivated. So I think this is great thing about her."
Svetlana Kuznetsova, referring to Olga Morozova, who is now her coach

"I remember crying after I lost to her. That was surprising to most of the people, because they thought that I'm just going to go on the court and enjoy. I was so upset to lose."
Elena Dementieva, on her first Australian Open match ever, against Martina Hingis

"When we were ten, I had to literally run around in the shower to get wet.... She was bench-pressing dump trucks already at that time."
Andy Roddick, on Serena Williams' win against him in 1993

"She thinks now she's beaten everyone you've beaten."
"Oh, yeah. She sat me down for five minutes yesterday and was going through her indirect wins. She was pretty excited. She didn't know I had two wins over Pete, so she was excited about that also."
Andy Roddick, speaking again of Serena

"...he just got jealous because my body was more fit and that my biceps are probably still bigger than his."
Serena's response to Andy

"It was tough year for me. I made a few changes. It was pretty big for me, these changes."
Svetlana Kuznetsova

"Did you retape your right ankle yourself?"
"The trainer retaped one."
"Right. I did the left."
"I can do it all. I cook, I clean, I write, I make jokes, I tape. You know, I just pretty much do everything.
Serena Williams

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Azarenka retires with illness--Williams goes to the quarterfinals

After Victoria Azarenka won Brisbane, she withdrew from Sydney because of a viral illness. She thought she had totally recovered from it, but it appears that it hit her again at the worst possible time--right after she won the first set in her round of 16 match against Serena Williams. Azarenka tried to play the second set, but she appeared weak and dazed. I thought it was heat illness, but then I was reminded of the viral illness. Azarenka's immune system was recently compromised, and a combination of extreme heat and stress can easily cause a virus to return.

However, it turns out that it was food poisoning that took Azarenka down. She was vomiting early in the morning, but felt better later. After she won the first set, she looked very faint. She took a medical break, but looked none the better for it on her return to the court. By the time she retired, the people in her box--not to mention the rest of us--were concerned about her. I thought she was going to topple right over on the court.

It was a sad ending to what should have been a great match. With a retirement victory of 3-6, 4-2, Serena Williams moves to the quarterfinals.

Zheng injures her bad wrist and retires in 4th round

Zheng Jie had both her thumb and her wrist wrapped when she entered the court to play Svetlana Kuznetsova in the Australian Open round of 16. She fell during the first set, and her bad hand hit the court. She attempted to continue to the match, but was forced to retire at 4-1. Kuznetsova now goes the quarterfinals.

Suarez Navarro and Dementieva move to the quarterfinals

In the round of 16 battle of the Spaniards, Carla Suarez Navarro, the woman who took Venus Williams out of the Australian Open, has prevailed. Suarez Navarro defeated Anabel Medina Garrigues 6-3, 6-2. Suarez Navarro hit three times as many winners as her countrywoman, and prevailed in four of five break opportunities.

After that match was the fourth round match between Elena Dementieva and Dominika Cibulkova, which Dementieva won, 6-2, 6-2. Cibulkova is always a tough opponent, but Dementieva was absolutely on her game, and managed to do everything a bit better than her opponent. She hit four times as many winners as Cibulkova, and was as savvy at the net as she was at the baseline.

McHale out in first round of Australian Open juniors

Christina McHale, who won the Australian Open wild card playoff in the U.S. and went out in the first round because of cramping, is now out of junior competition, also. She was defeated, 7-5, 6-3, by 2008 junior Wimbledon champion Laura Robson.

Australian Open tidbits

Abigail Lorge nicely sums up the Safina-Cornet match.

Speaking of Safina, some commentator--I think it was Pam Shriver--said that "She (Safina) has a new name now," referring to Dinara's request to be called "SAFina," rather than "SafEEna." That is the kind of nonsense we have come to expect from commentators (and especially Shriver) when they are asked to correctly pronounce a player's name. Safina does not have a new name--she has just become assertive about getting people to pronounce it correctly. In the past, she followed the Sharapova example of giving up before even making an effort. I wish players would not do that because I consider the act of dumbing down to be a cultural crime.

Here's a quick interview with Yan and Zheng.

For some of us, it was hard to watch the U.S. National Figure Skating Championships and the Australian Open at the same time.

Ana Ivanovic has decided that perhaps getting a coach is a good idea, after all.

Speaking of coaches, Ricardo Sanchez pleased Marion Bartoli with a nice gesture following her defeat of his protege, Jelena Jankovic. He went to her and told her how well she had played.

Bartoli, by the way, has added running to her already-grueling training regimen.

It's all about Dokic

Just as Martina Hingis, beginning her comeback, stormed the Australian Open and went to the quarterfinals a few years ago, Jelena Dokic has become the story of this year's Open. In the round of 16, she was faced with her first really big hitter, Alisa Kleybanova, and she squeaked by, 7-5, 5-7, 8-6. Everyone is busy praising Dokic (as well they should), but let us also commend Kleybanova for holding forth against a huge crowd favorite, and providing spectators with a an exciting match.

Dokic didn't just win a tennis match, however. She also publicly informed her father that he is not welcome at her matches, and that she wants nothing to do with him. The delusional Damir Dokic has "apologized" to his daughter, and is apparently ready to interfere in her life again. Of course, with him, "interference" is actually abuse.

Dokic will now play Dinara Safina in the quarterfinals. Safina is another big hitter, of course. There are other factors involved: Dokic may have hurt her ankle when she rolled it during her fouth round match. Safina is again having trouble with her head. If a wind comes up, the Russian will be in trouble.

Peschke and Raymond out of the Australian Open

3rd seeds Kveta Peschke and Lisa Raymond were defeated today in the third round of the Australian Open by Nathalie Dechy and Mara Santangelo, who won won 7-5, 6-3. The number 2 seeds, Anabel Medina Garrigues and Virginia Ruano Pascaul, were also defeated in the third round.

There's more...Number 5 seeds Samantha Stosur and Rennae Stubbs lost 6-4, 6-2 to Venus and Serena Williams. And number 6 seeds Yan Zi and Zheng Jie lost, 7-5, 6-4, to Nuria Llagostera Vives and Maria Jose Martinez Sanchez.

USTA to take 25% ownership of WTT

The U.S. Tennis Association will soon become a minority owner of World Team Tennis. The USTA is making this move in order to market USTA Junior Team Tennis through the WTT.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

What they said

"Can you pick yourself up for the next match?"
"I have to. There is no other way, you know. Because really it's sad what I did today."
Dinara Safina

"From every loss I have to learn and have to analyze what I have done wrong, what I have done good, which is not the case today. I don't think I've done anything right today."
Jelena Jankovic

"When did you realize she really wasn't going to come back into the game?"
"When the last point was over. Because, you know, against her it's never over until you won the match."
Marion Bartoli, speaking of Jelena Jankovic

"She started losing tournament after tournament and she was panicking. Of course she was depressed, but not because of me. She became the fourth best player in the world because of me."
Damir Dokic, in his "apology" to his daughter

"I've won five games, why don't I win six, no matter who the opponent is across the net?"
Samantha Stosur

"I just don't know how many more times I need to prove that either I play or I ready to go home."
Dinara Safina

"How do you think she'll (Azarenka) go against Serena Williams?"
"I don't know. I'm not in the mood for that."
Amelie Mauresmo

"...her ranking should be much higher. She's a top-20 player, for sure."
Elena Dementieva, speaking of Sam Stosur

"It's gonna be some bad days and some days of, let's call, 'survivor days'."
Elena Dementieva

"Come to the court and completely like just shadow is playing. Like, you know, Dinara is there, but just not me."
Dinara Safina

"I telling myself, 'Hit the ball', and just arm doesn't go because my mind is just stupid."
Dinara Safina

"How hard is it for you to shake off a loss like this? Will you be thinking about it for days, weeks?"
Jelena Jankovic

Dinara "Thrill Ride" Safina goes to the quarterfinals

I have become so accustomed to Dinara Safina's last-minute, brink-of-defeat wins that when Alize Cornet served for the match at 5-3 in the third set in the Australian Open fourth round, I still expected Safina to win the match. 

I was right. Safina broke Cornet while saving two match points, then held, then broke Cornet again, winding up with with a 6-2, 2-6, 7-5 victory. 

Safina was on fire in the first set, going quickly to 5-0, but in the second set, she lost her way, returning to some old habits. She overhit the ball on many occasions, and looked close to having a meltdown. Cornet waited for Safina's errors, which were many, and she was rewarded. But when the sleeping giant was awakened, there was little Cornet could do to control the inevitable.

Number 2 seeds win one game in 3rd round

Hsieh Su-wei and Peng Shuai have defeated the Australian Open 2nd seeds, Anabel Medina Garrigues and Virginia Ruano Pascual, 6-0, 6-1 in the third round. The 2008 French Open winners had problems with their service games, achieving a first serve win percentage of only 30.

Bartoli sends Jankovic out of Melbourne

I wrote earlier that Jelena Jankovic needed to raise her level of play if she were to defeat Marion Bartoli in the round of 16. She did not, and she is now out of the Australian Open, defeated 6-4, 6-1.

What I am about to say is not intended to reflect in any way on Bartoli's wonderful performance (in fact, anyone who reads this blog regularly knows I admire Bartoli): Something is wrong with Jankovic.

I have already heard some people say that Jankovic played fairly well in the match, and that she was just outplayed by Bartoli. Those people must have seen a different match from the one I saw. In the match I saw, Jankovic's signature skill--her movement--was sluggish, her swing was off, and her recently improved serve was nowhere to be seen. She has been this way since she arrived in Melbourne.

What are we to make of this? I, of course, do not have the answer, but I have a clue. When the season began, Jankovic complained that she did not feel comfortable in her new, bulked-up body. I can't help but wonder whether that is the problem--that the usually speedy, resourceful and intuitive Jankovic just doesn't know what to do with this new distribution of weight.

There is also the matter of preparation. Jankovic did not compete in any of the warm-up tournaments, and she had to withdraw from the Hong Kong exhibition when she became ill. The answer could be as simple as: She just wasn't ready.

Whatever is going on, I hope we see a solution soon. In the meantime, Marion Bartoli is back in form, and when she is in form, she is hard to beat. She is also healthy, and I certainly hope she remains that way; injury has impeded Bartoli's career for too long.

Australian Open round of 16 looks exciting

Four of the major contenders are still standing. Serena Williams, Jelena Jankovic, Dinara Safina, and Elena Dementieva have hit their way into the fourth round of the 2009 Australian Open. They are joined by several players one might expect to still be standing, inluding Marion Bartoli, Vera Zvonareva, Victoria Azarenka, Zheng Jie (isn't is nice to say that?), and Svetlana Kuznetsova. The mercurial Nadia Petrova is still around, too, as well as Dominika Cibulkova, Carla Suarez Navarro, Alisa Kleybanova, Alize Cornet, Anabel Medina Garigues, and...drum roll...Jelena Dokic.

These should all be enjoyable matches, and some of them could be dramatic.

Jankovic vs. Bartoli: Bartoli plays well against Jankovic, as a rule, and unless the world number 1 raises her game to a level higher than she has been playing, she could fall to the Frenchwoman.

Petrova vs. Zvonareva: Petrova is Zvonareva's nemesis. Zvonareva has beaten her only once in their careers.

Safina vs. Cornet: Safina says she has more game inside her than what is coming out. Now would be a good time to bring it out; she's going to need it against Cornet, and--if she advances--against the rest of the second-week field.

Dokic vs. Kleybanova: Who knew such a match would exist in the fourth round?! Both players are coming in with a lot of confidence, but Dokic has a bigger trick bag. Still, there are many factors involved in who wins a big match--weather, nerves, etc.--and this could be entertaining.

Suarez Navarro vs. Medina Garrigues: Poor Suarez Navarro just dispensed with one countrywoman (Martinez Sanchez), and now she has to deal with another one. She was probably expecting to get Flavia Pennetta, but Medina Garrigues upset Pennetta, so it's two Spaniards again. Both players probably enjoy the high bounce of these courts, both players have a variety of court skills, and anything can happen.

Cibulkova vs. Dementieva: Cibulkova's fitness will be put to the test by one of the tour's best athletes. Cibulkova's best hope is to get inside Dementieva's head.

Kuznetsova vs. Zheng: Kuznetsova beat Alona Bondarenko for the first time yesterday, but it wasn't easy. She had to save three set points in the first set, and she didn't close the match until she had her sixth match point (she had some help with a double-faulting Bondarenko). Zheng doesn't have the head problems that Kuznetsova has, so the outcome depends--at least somewhat--on how confident the talented Russian feels when she walks onto the court.

Azarenka vs. Williams: One thing we can count on--this match will be loud. Both players are screamers, though in different ways. Both have strong groundstrokes and good volleys. Azarenka has to be filled with confidence after winning Brisbane, and Serena is--well, Serena. She tends to play her way into majors, expending just the energy she needs to in order to get to the second week. I do think we'll see three sets.

Allez!...and au revoir

Two Frenchwomen have advanced to the Australian Open round of 16--Marion Bartoli and Alize Cornet. And two Frenchwoman, Virginie Razzano and 2006 Australian Open champion Amelie Mauresmo --have not. Mauresmo played Victoria Azarenka today in the third round, and a quick look at the match must have pleased Mauresmo fans, for there was Mauresmo--lobbing and slicing, and executing her beautiful backhand. Closer observation, however, revealed that Mauresmo was behind a beat throughout the match. It wasn't so much that she needed more speed, but that she needed better anticipation. One of the TV commentators also mentioned that he thought the low bounce of the Rebound Ace court was just Amelie's cup of tea, but the higher bounce hurt her game.

Azarenka noticed this, too, and skillfully took Mauresmo out in straight sets, 6-4, 6-2. Azarenka's next opponent will be Serena Williams, and things should get pretty noisy. Bartoli plays number 1 seed Jelena Jankovic, and Cornet plays Dinara Safina.

Razzano lost in a close match (7-5, 7-5) against Dominika Cibulkova. She was defeated in the third round last year, too.

Friday, January 23, 2009

What they said

"So also here, we had a few good hits. I mean, she's very nice person. We been talking through this week, and also my coach and the coach of Jelena, they become really good friends here."
Alisa Kleybanova on Jelena Dokic

"I think I have a better game than I used to."
Jelena Dokic

"So the air conditioners haven't arrived for your shoes yet?"
"Maybe in ten years time they'll make that."
Jelena Jankovic

"I know what it's like to be down and to come back. I'm really proud and happy for her."
Serena Williams, speaking of Jelena Dokic

"She's just the type of player that likes to hit the first shot and that's it."
Ana Ivanovic, speaking of Alisa Kleybanova

"We've had a lot of difficult situations. I think we all know that. I made it difficult for myself and Tennis Australia and Craig Tiley. There's no excuse for that, no matter what I was going through.

"I've done some things that I'm not proud of. I cannot change that. I said that to everyone. I can just look forward from here, look into the future, and try to really work on things and work on our relationship."
Jelena Dokic

" I win too easy. That give me more confidence for next match."
Zheng Jie

"I seem to play well when I get down, for whatever reason. So once I got down, I was a little frustrated. I was like, You know, Serena, sometimes you just play better when you're down. I started playing better."
Serena Williams

"They're getting more and more emotional. Have to get that under control."
Jelena Dokic, speaking of her coach and her boyfriend

Damir Dokic needs to stop hitting that brandy

A heavy contender for the Absolute Tennis Father from Hell, Damir Dokic is selling his mansion and orchards and using the proceeds to open a tennis academy. Hey kids! Want to be subjected to constant abuse and insanity and get your parents to pay for it? Here's your chance.

Dokic said, "I'm struggling with how to help my child."

Can you say "delusional"?

Goings-on at the Australian Open

I didn't see but a bit of the match, but during the doubles competition between the Williams sisters and Ayumi Morita/Martina Muller, yet another streaker appeared on the court. Apparently, several people--but probably not Monica Seles--thought it was pretty funny.

Ai Sugiyama appeared to be cramping in the second set of her match against Jelena Jankovic, though--after treatment--she looked fine. Galina Voskoboeva wasn't as lucky; she retired at the end of her first third round set from either a shoulder injury or a back strain--I've heard both.

Kaia Kanepi must have folded under the pressure of playing on a big court in a major. The usually feisty performer gave Dinara Safina almost no resistance.

The ITF has fined Nicole Vaidisova $2,000 for failing to appear at her Australian Open press conference.

The only big match I've watched is the Serena Williams-Gisela Dulko thriller. The others--Venus Williams vs. Carla Suarez Navarro, Ana Ivanovic vs. Alisa Kleybanova, Daniela Hantuchova vs. Alize Cornet, Jelena Dokic vs. Paszek, Chakvetadze and Wozniacki--either Tennis Channel and ESPN didn't show them, or the matches were at 4 a.m. my time, which made them unwatchable. I haven't even been able to see repeats. The Williams-Dulko match was shown over and over, but it was one I saw live. This is frustrating because the Australian Open is the only major which I really can watch, except for the night matches. Work, alas, interferes with the other three majors. I'm hoping for a little rain, so Tennis Channel and ESPN will show some repeats, even though it isn't really that much fun to watch a match when you know its outcome. To make matters worse, I think that Wimbledon Live is no more, so my ability to view that major will also be limited. I always like to have one match going on TV, and another one on the computer.

So, even though I am watching a lot of tennis, I don't feel like I'm really seeing a lot of tennis. I enjoy watching ATP matches, and I have had a bit of luck seeing a couple of the good ones. But I feel cheated out of seeing most of the good women's matches.

Ivanovic and Hantuchova both out in Melbourne

Alisa "I'm a Russian, too" Kleybanova played three sets against 3rd seed Ana Ivanovic yesterday, and left the court with a 7-5, 6-7, 6-2 victory. Ivanovic has been having trouble with her ball toss, among other things, and Kleybanova was able to hang in and take advantage of the 2008 Australian Open finalist's vulnerabilities.

One of last year's semifinalists, Daniela Hantuchova, met the same fate. She was defeated 4-6, 6-4, 6-2 by Alize Cornet.

The top seed, Jelena Jankovic, struggled, too, though she managed to defeat Ai Sugiyama in straight sets. But Jankovic needs to seriously raise her form for the next round, in which she meets Marion Bartoli, who is never an easy opponent for her.

Dokic plays wild card right into the round of 16

She took out talented teenager Tamira Paszek. Then she took out former world number 6 Anna Chakvetadze. Now Jelena Dokic, who is artfully defining the word "comeback" in Melbourne, has taken out 11th seed Caroline Wozniacki. She had to go another three sets--3-6, 6-1, 6-2--but she took care of business.

I never thought we would see Dokic return to form. That she has is now the story of the 2009 Australian Open, as far as I'm concerned, and someone else would have to do something really spectacular to keep Dokic from becoming the comeback player of the year.

Friday cat blogging--new toy edition

Ziggy won't let go of his Hugga-Wugga

Until he falls asleep

What Safina said

"I'm in yellow--it makes me look good."
Dinara Safina, remarking on her new, very fit look

"I think it's gonna be great match. I hope they both can show their best. God knows who gonna win."
Dinara Safina, speaking of her brother's match against Roger Federer

"Would you (and Marat) play mixed doubles?"
"We did at Hopman Cup. That was enough."
Dinara Safina

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Venus falls in second round of Australian Open

According to many experts, Venus Williams was primed to win her first Australian Open title. She did some serious training for it in the off-season, and she has been playing extremely well. I also considered her a major contender.

But in the second round, Williams faced one of those players who is very, very talented, but also very streaky. On a good day, Carla Suarez Navarro can do just about anything, and yesterday, she had a good day, coming back from 1-4 in the third set, and saving a match point. She defeated Williams 2-6, 6-3, 7-5.

Venus's sister had her work cut out for her, too, playing a determined and aggressive Gisela Dulko, and dealing with a hurt ankle. She got through, thanks to Dulko's nerves and her own champion's attitude, but now there are questions: How is the ankle? Can she lift the level of her game? Her next opponent is Peng Shuai, and that should be a win for her, but after that, she faces either Vicotoria Azarenka or Amelie Mauresmo.

Schnyder out of Melbourne

14th seed Patty Schnyder has made an early exit from the Australian Open, taken out by Virginie Razzano, who defeated her 6-3, 6-1. I (thankfully) did not get to see this match, but I suspect the wind had at least something to do with Schnyder's dismal result. Schnyder's unfortunate second round result brings to eight the total number of seeds who have gone out.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

What they said

"I'm going to play long enough to challenge all the umpires I've argued with."
Rennae Stubbs, on the emergence of the challenge system

"Is this the best winning streak of your career?"
" I don't know actually. I didn't count."
Elena Dementieva

"It was a very tough second set, she started playing unbelievable, hitting winners left and right. She had a coupl e of opportunities but I always felt I wasn’t going to lose."
Serena Williams, on her match against Gisela Dulko

"The wind was a joke. Like it was hard to pick because it was so swirly. There were a few important points where I came to the net and I thought I had a smash, and then I had a backhand low volley. It was ridiculous."
Jessica Moore

"I'd like to get to the top 20, and then I'll say I'm back."
Jelena Dokic, on whether she is "back"

"How much improvement do you think you'll need to progress through these next few rounds?"
"A lot."
Amelie Mauresmo

This and that

I've already mentioned Jelena Jankovic's Australian Open dress (like the color, don't like the cut). Venus looks great in her yellow dress, and Dementieva--as always--looks good in orange. My favorite dress so far is Chakvetadze's, but, alas, we won't be seeing it anymore. Serena Williams wore a totally different outfit for her third round match. I liked the gray-patterned dress, per se, but I think it is a bit busy for Serena. 

Note to Martina Navratilova: Even Patrick McEnroe says "no woman's land" (though he acts like he should get some type of Cady Stanton award for doing so), and he doesn't call the women "guys," either. Come on, Navratilova--there are no men on the court.

Tennis Channel's latest promo for Chris Evert has a voice-over that says Evert is "currently married" to Australian golfer Greg Norman. Ouch.

Speaking of Tennis Channel--Gabriela Sabatini is number 3 in the countdown of the "Five Greatest One-Slam Wonders." No one else from the women's tour was included in the top five or among the honorable mentions, though I imagine Jana Novotna was under consideration.

I really feel the absence of both Maria Sharapova and Katarina Srebotnik from this Australian Open. It would be nice to have Bethanie Mattek there, too, but she recently married and decided to take a little break.

ESPN commentators heard Dinara Safina's request that her name be pronounced correctly, and they are doing a good job of pronouncing it. Now, if they could just get around to correctly pronouncing some of the other names...

Have we already seen the most entertaining match of the Australian Open?

I expected two things from the Gisela Dulko-Serena Williams second round Australian Open match: I expected Dulko to take it to Williams, and I expected three sets. I was right on the first count. This was a match filled with a kind of silly tension. Williams could not always get her feet in the right place, and Dulko was pretty typically Dulko, constantly following brilliant shot-making with goofy unforced errors. Dulko's serve went back and forth from wonderful to fair. Her second serve was sometimes excellent; other times, it was so puffy that Williams destroyed it.

In the ninth game of the second set, we were treated to twelve deuces. During that game, Dulko held six set points. Both players were punch-drunk, just shaking their heads and grinning when their "sure things" slipped by. To add to the drama, Williams had to have treatment for an ankle injury. In the next game, there were six deuces, and Dulko was broken. 

Williams wound up converting only four of eighteen break points, but she was able to close the match at 6-3, 7-5. All credit to Serena, who never gives up, but Dulko pretty much beat herself. Still, the match was highly entertaining and exciting.

Dokic and the majors

In 2002, when Jelena Dokic was ranked number 4 in the world, she did not play in the Australian Open. That year, she reached the quarterfinals of the French Open, the round of 16 at Wimbledon, and the second round at the U.S. Open. Dokic played in the Australian Open only four times prior to this year, and she lost in the first round three of those times. In 1999, she reached the third round. She has already improved her Melbourne record by getting to the third round in 2009.

The best Dokic ever did at a major was to reach the Wimbledon semifinals in 2000; she was defeated by Lindsay Davenport, 6-7, 6-4, 6-0.

Current injury status at the Australian Open

Number 1 seed Jelena Jankovic played her second round with blisters on her feet (perhaps why her serve regressed?) yesterday.

Jelena Dokic is playing with a foot injury.

Svetalana Kuznetsova has an abdominal strain.

Alize Cornet has some type of shoulder injury.

Amelie Mauresmo says her thigh feels fine, but of course, it is vulnerable.

Kirsten Flipkens' back went out during her match against Jankovic.

Christina McHale, who probably did not adequately prepare for the heat, suffered cramps during her match against Jessica Moore.

Flavia Pennetta has played for a while with a foot injury.

Chakvetadze out of Melbourne

The resurgent Jelena Dokic has taken 17th seed Anna Chakvetadze out of the Australian Open. Dokic won their 2nd round match 6-4, 6-7, 6-3. Chakvetadze double-faulted 16 times, and made 50 unforced errors. However, she did hit 28 winners (Dokic hit 27).

While it is encouraging to see Dokic get to the third round, it is far from encouraging to see the talented Chakvetadze continue to struggle so much.

Dokic's next opponent is Caroline Wozniacki, and that should be a don't-miss match.

What they said

"Even I winning the matches and I still feel there is so much more inside, so I have to let it go."
Dinara Safina

"He said that you just basically have to enjoy and try to don't think too much."
Ana Ivanovic, on the advice given her by Roger Federer

"I can easily be 24 hours in the room without moving step from anywhere and just changing the channels on TV. That's how I am."
Dinara Safina

"I saw that I’m the 13th seed, I’m 113 (in the draw) and I played on Court 13. They say that it is unlucky for many people, but for me, it was lucky."
Victoria Azarenka

"The more you know, the worse you sleep."
Dinara Safina, on looking at the draw

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Defending champions out in first round in Melbourne

Defending champions and 4th seeds Alona and Kateryna Bondarenko did not make it through the first round in this year's Australian Open. Gisela Dulko and Roberta Vinci defeated them 6-2, 7-5. There won't be any hilarious interviews this year.

Some Australian Open observations

Dinara Safina did it her way today. She played passively and wound up losing her first set to Ekaterina Makarova. Once she fell behind, she became another player and took the match, 6-7, 6-3, 6-0. Here we go again...

Speaking of Safina, she said in her interview today that she never does any sight-seeing in any city. Perhaps, she said, when she is older, seeing different places in the world will interest her.

I really like the color of Jelena Jankovic's dress, but I don't like the cut. I don't like that cut on anyone, but especially not on someone who has bulked up the way Jankovic has.

Daniela Hantuchova's outfit has become a bit controversial. On the one hand, one could say there is a bit of conflict in Hantuchova's statement that female tennis players should be observed for their tennis and not their bodies. On the other hand, one could say that people have an unnatural aversion to women's nipples.

Jelena Jankovic's serve has improved so much lately, but during her match against Kirsten Flipkens, it looked like the old Jankovic serve.

It still puzzles me that Olga Govortsova and Edina Gallovits are not playing doubles together very much. I think they have played together only once since their fabulous run in Charleston. I wish they had teamed up in Melbourne.

Drama on Court 6, and other heated issues

Christina McHale, the U.S. wild card into the Australian Open main draw, showed everyone today what a good tennis player she is. McHale played Australia's Jessica Moore in a match that became dramatic in the third set, when McHale developed a bad leg cramp. Toward the end of the set, after getting treatment, she was limping, and she was showing signs of cramping in other parts of her body.

What then ensured was a meltdown by Moore, who looked totally lost. The ESPN commentators stirred up their own drama when they had a heated discussion about the unfairness of the cramping rule (Pam Shriver dissented, saying that lack of fitness is not the only reason for cramping--that some people just sweat more). Somehow, McHale remained standing, though she eventually lost, 7-9 in the third. It was frustrating to see the better player go out, but it also appeared that McHale had not properly prepared for the intense Australian heat.

In the meantime, the 15-year-old French wild card, Kristina Mladenovic, threw everything she had at 14th seed Patty Schnyder and took the first set, 6-2. Schnyder took the second set at the last moment--undoubtedly causing her fans to sweat like the players in Melbourne--then cruised through the third. Mladenovic hit more than twice as many winners as Schnyder, but she also committed twice as many unforced errors.

Yesterday, it was Julia Goerges who impressed us with her forehand and her angles. Today, we had the pleasure of watching Kristina Barrois, who lost to Elena Dementieva, but who displayed a lot of finesse, had a nice court presence, and even threw in some serve and volley. Barrois eventually let nerves get the best of her, which was a lucky thing for Dementieva, who looked unprepared and sluggish.

Those watching the comeback progress of Anna-Lena Groenefeld will be unhappy to learn that she is out of the Australian Open. Groenefeld was defeated by Elena Baltacha, the last Brit standing. Nicole Vaidisova is also out, defeated by Severine Bremond.

And finally, Melinda Czink, who is already having the best season of her career, added to her success by defeating Sorana Cirstea in straight sets.

What they said

" wasn't going one way, it just keep going in circles. You never knew. ...I had no clue where the ball is going. I tried to hit a cross-court. It ended up behind the net, down the line. That was probably the worst part of it all."
Jarmila Gajdosova, discussing the wind

"Were you worried towards the end of the second set? Three years ago you went out in the first round."
"Playing the same court actually. Yeah, I was thinking about it. I was like, Oh, no, it's going to happen again."
Elena Dementieva

"The goal is to focus on the big events--of course the Grand Slams--but also to try to win a tournament again, which I haven't done for a couple years."
Amelie Mauresmo

"Mauresmo is not a walk in the park, is she?"
Elena Baltacha on her second round

"One year I wasn't able to come back and defend my title. One year I went crazy. A couple of years I went completely crazy. So hopefully I'll be able to stay focused this year."
Serena Williams

Monday, January 19, 2009

Radwanska out, Garbin in

The official shock match of the Australian Open, so far, is the defeat of world number 9 Agnieszka Radwanska in the first round. Knowing the wild inconsistency of both Bondarenko sisters, it did cross my mind that Kateryna could have one her very good days. She did, defeating Radwanska 7-6, 4-6, 6-1. It took Bondarenko four set points to take the first set, but she kept going, eventually cruising through the third.

Just as surprising, however, is the defeat of Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova by Tathiana Garbin, 6-4, 2-6, 7-5. I do not intend to demean Garbin at all by saying this; it's just that Pavlyuchenkova is one of the tour's most promising young players, and many of us assumed she would go to the second round. But Garbin has something Pavlyuchenkova does not have--experience. Garbin was down 0-4 in the third, then 3-5, and Pavlyuchenkova held a match point.

It is often very difficult for young players to handle the pressure of playing in a major, and it may take Pavlyuchenkova a while to become comfortable with this pressure.

This and that

Jelena Jankovic has a new clothing sponsor, ANTA, a Chinese sportswear company. The deal includes tennis shoes. Obviously, signing Jankovic is quite an accomplishment for ANTA.

Maria Sharapova says she spent her holiday time continually wrapping gifts, helping some male friends shop ("Shopping with or around men is a nightmare to begin with, but during Xmas time it's a complete disaster. They're constantly complaining about the prices at the checkout.") and cooking and doing jigsaw puzzles with her grandmother.

And speaking of Maria, you can see some of her family photos here.

During the Australian Open first round match between Anne Keothavong and Anna Chakvetadze, something occurred that I'm sure is very rare: At the beginning of the third set, Chakvetadze proceeded to serve when Keothavong was supposed to serve. For some reason, Keothavong kept quiet, and the umpire didn't even notice that something was wrong.

The rumor is that Ana Ivanovic and Fernando Verdasco have ended their much-publicized love affair.

What they said

"Today I was really, really nervous. I don't know if I ever had my right hand that tight, you know. Pretty much cramped up, especially in the third set."
Jelena Dokic

"One problem that I had was my feet were burning."
Jelena Jankovic

"Always I put too much pressure to me, I must win, I must win, always I was thinking."
Kimiko Date Krumm, on why she retired from the tour

"I always ice my shoulder. It's just something I think I'm probably going to have to do for the rest of my career."
Casey Dellacqua

"Today I wasn't doing so much stepping in as I probably would like to. That's something that I worked on in off‑season. Hopefully, you know, in my next match I can implement that."
Ana Ivanovic

"It's really emotional to win today. What I had to go through, it's really great to have this win. I don't think a lot of people know what it means to me. It's great to be here at a Grand Slam."
Jelena Dokic

First day in Melbourne brings no surprises

The first day of the Australian Open went pretty much as I thought it would. I expected Kimiko Date Krumm and Kaia Kanepi to have a very close three-set match, and they did. From viewing the scoreboard, this appeared to be a pretty exciting contest, and I hated to see either of them lose. But someone had to win, and that someone was Kanepi, 6-4, 4-6, 8-6.

I also expected Jelena Dokic to win her match against Tamira Paszek, which she did, 6-2, 3-6, 6-4. And I expected Galina Voskoboeva to defeat Agnes Szavay because that's what players to these days--they take Szavay out in the first round. I don't know what's going on with Agnes, but this is n turning out to be more than a 2008 problem. Perhaps she should do what Flavia Pennetta did, and play in some small tournaments in order to get her confidence back.

Szavay was not the only seed to exit; Maria Kirilenko was defeated by Sara Errani, 6-0, 6-4.

Of interest among the losers was Julia Goerges, whose forehand was on fire in her first set against Ana Ivanovic. Goerges got tight toward the end of that set, though, and in the middle of the second set, she looked physically spent, probably from the heat.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Australian Open experts' predictions

Peter Bodo--Serena Williams
Greg Garber--Serena Williams
Tracy Austin--Venus Williams
Steve Tignor--Venus Williams
Bonnie D. Ford--Serena Williams
Tom Perrota--Venus Williams
James Martin--Jelena Jankovic
Jon Levey--Serena Williams
Bud Collins--Venus Williams
Corina Morariu--Venus Williams
Matt Wilansky--Ana Ivanovic
Ravi Ubha--Venus Williams
Jon Wertheim--Elena Dementieva

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Australian Open first round matches of interest

Here are some first round matches in Melbourne that are especially interesting:

Karolina Sprem vs. Tsvetana Pironkova--Pironkova is known as a giant-killer, and her opponent is hardly a ginat, but the chronically injured Sprem--when she is healthy and has trained--can be a formidable foe. Pironkova's baseline game will be put to the test by Sprem's hard hitting.

Sania Mirza vs. Marta Domachowska--One inconsistent player faces another inconsistent player in this match. Mirza is more consistent than Domachowska, but on a good day, Domachowska can be deadly.

Maria Kirilenko vs. Sara Errani--Kirilenko has a lot more variety to her game than Errani, but Errani is relentless at the baseline. This could be a long one.

Magdalena Rybarikova vs. Vera Zvonareva--Zvonareva should win this one, of course, but Rybarikova is likely to give her a beneficial workout.

Kimiko Date Krumm vs. Kaia Kanepi--Date returns to the Australian Open after a 13-year absence, and she has her work cut out for her with Kanepi.

Daniela Hantuchova vs. Casey Dellacqua--Under ordinary circumstances, I would just say "too bad for Australia," but these are not ordinary circumstances. Dellacqua had a very good run in last year's Open, and Hantuchova has not been able to come back to form after experiencing a really bad foot injury.

Caroline Wozniacki vs. Shahar Peer--In theory, this should be a thrilling match, but Peer isn't as sharp these days as she used to be. Still, being in a major could motivate her. Wozniacki is one of the hottest players on the tour, and Peer--when in form--is one of the most determined.

Jelena Dokic vs. Tamira Paszek--Last year, Paszek took Jelena Jankovic to the brink in the first round, in a marathon of broken service games. This year, she will meet a former world number 4 who appears to have gotten back some of her form. Anything could happen.

Anne Keothavong vs. Anna Chakvetadze--If ever an upset were brewing, it would be here. The extremely talented Chakvetadze just can't seem to get it together, and Keothavong keeps improving.

Elena Vesnina vs. Julie Coin--The "out of nowhere" players meet. For several years now, Vesnina has been a fairly good doubles player, but has not done that well in singles. But her 2009 season has begun with solid results, and it will be interesting to see how far she can go. Coin, for her part, pulled off the upset of the year (perhaps the decade) in the 2008 U.S. Open, and has continued to progress.

Aleksandra Wozniak vs. Sabine Lisicki--Another upset is likely in this match. Wozniak has not lived up to her Bank of the West Classic championship status, and Lisicki has been looking rather confident.

Sorana Cirstea vs. Melinda Czink--Last year, we wouldn't have even noticed this match, but Czink has turned her fortunes around considerably, and now, anything can happen.

Victoria Azarenka vs. Petra Kvitova--Azarenka, after being in four finals, recently won her first. Kvitova just won her first tournament, too. Expect a good match.

Australian Open qualifiers set

Twelve women have made it through qualifying to enter the Australian Open main draw:

Stephanie Dubois
Kimiko Date Krumm
Alberta Brianti
Victorya Kutuzova
Karolina Sprem
Katalin Woerle
Melanie Oudin
Julia Schruff
Chanelle Scheepers
Elena Baltacha
Katie O'Brien
Sesil Karatantcheva

Pacific Life Open is now BNP Paribas Open

The Pacific Life Open tournament in Indian Wells has been renamed the BNP Parisbas Open. BNP Parisbas will be the sponsor of one of tennis's largest tournaments for the next ten years.

Quote of the day

"I said that I feel like I'm the best player, because I would feel weird sitting here saying I'm not the best."
Serena Williams

Friday, January 16, 2009

Quote of the week

"You are probably the best player right now on the tour."
Elena Dementieva to Dinara Safina at the Sydney awards presentation

Dulko and Pennetta win Hobart

Friends and former doubles partners Gisela Dulko and Flavia Pennetta have won the 2009 Moorilla International tournament in Hobart. The unseeded team upset top seeds Alona and Kateryna Bondarenko, 6-2, 7-6 in the final.

Dulko and Pennetta have played together several times before, and they won in Bogata in 2006. This is Dulko's seventh Sony Ericsson WTA Tour doubles title, and Pennetta's fourth. Those of us who saw them play an unforgettable exhibition match in Charleston in 2007 consider them not just good doubles players, but also very funny and entertaining women.

Dementieva wins Medibank International

Elena Dementieva has just won her second event of the season, the Medibank International tournament in Sydney. Last week, she won the ASB Classic in Auckland. In Sydney, Dementieva defeated Dinara Safina, whom she also defeated in the final of the Beijing Olympics. Dementieva posted a score of 6-3, 2-6, 6-1 in the Sydney final, and goes to Melbourne as a contender for the Australian Open title.

In doubles, the team of Hsieh Su-Wei and Peng Shuai defeated Nathalie Dechy and Casey Dellacqua, 6-0, 6-1. The surprising scoreline is explained somewhat (I did not see the match) by the service stats--Dechy and Dellacqua were not having a good serving day.

Kvitova wins her first title

Petra Kvitova has won her first Sony Ericsson WTA Tour title. She defeated Iveta Benesova, 7-5, 6-1 to win the Hobart International tournament. The left-handed Kvitova, who reached the French Open round of 16 last year, is ranked number 49 in the world. That ranking will be higher, of course, on Monday.

Friday cat blogging--Cozy afternoon edition

Tarzan relaxes with a friend

She may not be going to Melbourne

But you can still see her latest outfit.

Seles to be inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame

Monica Seles, one of the most talented players to ever take part in the tour, will be inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame this summer. Seles won nine majors, 53 singles titles, six doubles titles, and was number 1 in the world for 178 weeks.

Larcher de Brito watch--Michelle out of Melbourne qualifying

Portugal's Michelle Larcher de Brito has lost her second Australian Open qualifying round. Larcher de Brito, seeded 14th in the qualifying competition, lost in straight sets (6-2, 6-3) to Alberta Brianti. She defeated Margit Ruutel in the first round.

Other players who have been eliminated from qualifying include Yuliana Fedak (2nd round), Yan Zi (2nd round), Arantxa Rus (2nd round), former world no. 14 Elena Bovina (1st round), Emelie Loit (1st round), Ioana Olaru (2nd round), Andreja Klepac (2nd round), Eleni Daniilidou (2nd round).

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Australian Open just a few days away

The defending champion will not be in Melbourne, but there are others eager to grab the first major title of 2009. Who are they, and what are their chances? Here are some players to watch:


Ana Ivanovic: Ivanovic was last year's finalist. She lost the final in respectable straight sets to Maria Sharapova, and then she went on to win the French Open. But a thumb injury put Ivanovic out of the game for a while, and when she returned, she seemed less confident. Despite her very impressive skills, Ivanovic can be a streaky player, and it may be too early in the season for her to make a seven-match run. But if she is on her game, anything is possible.

Serena Williams: You can't say "Serena Williams" and "Australian Open" without all our minds turning back to 2007 when the unseeded Williams came seemingly out of nowhere and won in Melbourne, allowing her opponent, Maria Sharapova, to take only three games in the final. There is every reason to believe that Williams, who ended 2008 by winning the U.S. Open, could win again. She appears to be healthy, and when she is healthy, she is a contender. She seemed pretty tired and out of sorts after her Sydney semifinal, but she has time to rest and refresh herself.

Dinara Safina: I named Safina the most exciting player of 2008 because of her heart-stopping performances in Berlin and at the French Open. She came from behind over and over, finally burning out during the final in Paris. She won the U.S. Open Series, but toward the end of the season, we saw her burn out even more. It's hard to judge what state of mind Safina is in right now, or what state of mind she will get herself in for the Australian Open. But she has the game to win it all, and she has earned the right to be called a contender.

Jelena Jankovic: Could this be Jankovic's first major? She withdrew from the Hong Kong exhibition because of illness, and she is also having trouble adjusting to her new, bulked-up physique. That doesn't sound like a formula for winning, but this is Jankovic we're talking about, and--as Todd Spiker reminds us--with her, it's always something. Her back goes out, she has a virus, she can't find her mother, her back goes out again, she has to adjust to her new body, and so forth. So no matter what is going on with Jankovic, she can still win three tournaments back-to-back--or lose the U.S. Open. Is she a contender? Absolutely.

Venus Williams: We have come to expect Venus to win Wimbledon, or to be in the final, at any rate. But we have not seen her win another major in a while. Williams is healthy, and has been playing extremely well. There is every reason to believe that she can win a major that is not held in England, and it might as well be the Australian Open, which she has never won, though she was a finalist in 2003, when she lost to her sister in three sets.

Elena Dementieva: Her serve has improved vastly. It's now good enough to win her a major, but there are two Elenas--one fights to the last second and wins, the other goes to pieces mentally. We've been seeing more of the second one lately, and we do not know which one will be in Melbourne.


Caroline Wozniacki:
There are signs that this could be a very good year for Wozniacki, although anything can happen. The fiery player has gained confidence, and--unless she is a perfectionist-- her near-win over Serena Williams in Sydney has to make her feel good. She is coming into the season's first major with quite a bit of authority.

Alize Cornet: Fans have been waiting to see whether Cornet can perform well on surfaces other than clay. It appears that she can, though clay may always be her best surface. I called Wozniacki "fiery," and that is also a good term to describe Cornet. The young Frenchwoman is fun to watch, too, with her hot-headed personality and her springing court movement.

Victoria Azarenka: Azarenka goes to Melbourne weighing much less because that long-screeching monkey is finally off her back. Her victory in Brisbane makes her something she was not before--a winner.

Agnieszka Radwanska: Radwanska's focus and accuracy make her a threat. The precise baseliner may not have the fire or movement of a Wozniacki or a Cornet, but she has a habit of putting the ball in the right place--over and over.

Flavia Pennetta: What a pleasure to be able to put Pennetta into this category. She has always been a better player than her results indicate, and now the results are beginning to catch up to the talent. Pennetta has heart, and she has the ability to hang in for the long run.

Dominika Cibulkova: She's supposed to be too short to play tennis, but apparently, she ddn't heed that warning. She is certainly capable of creating an upset in Australia.

Zheng Jie: She went from a year of injury recovery to a year of glory. This is one doubles specialist who is stirring things up in singles.

Nadia Petrova: It is entirely possible that Petrova will bomb out of Melbourne early, but it is just as possible that she will stick around and use her big serving and precise volleying to cause headaches. With Nadia, you never know.

Amelie Mauresmo: If that thigh injury is the old adductor problem, forget it. But if it's just a passing thing, this would be a good opportunity for the 2006 champion to prove she's still got it. She began the season playing impressively, and it would be nice to see her have a long stay in Melbourne.


Patty Schnyder:
Schndyer's looping forehand and stunning drop shots are always worth watching. Though she loses it from time to time, she generally has an excellent serve, and in 2008, we saw something new--a much improved Schnyder backhand. The tour's biggest under-achiever is always a pleasure to watch, though frustration often sets in with her fans: Patty's problem is not her serve, her volley, or her groundstrokes; Patty's problem is her head. The Trickster almost always puts on a great show, though, and here's hoping she gets to put on several.

Amelie Mauresmo: A tennis writer once said about Mauresmo that "tennis flows from her," and that is the best description of Mauresmo I have ever heard. "French flair," Mary Carillo calls it, and--a few years ago--the U.S. Open Series nicknamed her "The Artiste." Every generation has a player of great grace--Maria Bueno, Evonne Goolagong, Hana Mandlikova, Gabriela Sabatini--and the current generation's picture of grace is Amelie Mauresmo. With her beautiful one-handed backhand and deadly volleys, Mauresmo is definitely worth watching.

Daniela Hantuchova: I wish I could list Hantuchova as a contender, or even someone who could make trouble, but she isn't looking that dangerous these days. Still, the 2008 semifinalist has an elegant game that is a pleasure to see.

Maria Kirilenko: Inconsistency keeps Kirilenko from improving her ranking, but--like Hantuchova--she has a poise and elegance to her game that makes me want to watch her as much as I can.

Jelena Jankovic: You can watch Jankovic for her speed alone, but there is much more to watch--her footwork, her stunning backhand down the line, her never-ending antics, and her winning smile, even in near-defeat.