Sunday, January 31, 2010

My Australian Open top 10

After the non-stop drama of the 2009 U.S. Open, this Australian Open seemed somewhat subdued to me, but it was very enjoyable. Here are my top 10 occurrences, in ascending order:

10. Why is this trophy so small? For the second year in a row, Laura Robson wound up a finalist in junior competition. Though she had moments of great play against Karolina Pliskova, she made a mess of her serve and was not able to compete when it counted. The exhausted Pliskova, who said she didn't think she could have won a third round, got the job done in a second set tiebreak.

9. Felicitazioni! Five Italians reached the third round of this year's Australian Open. That's impressive, but not really so surprising when you think about the competitive spirit of the Italians.

8. Could we get a cart, please? The Williams sisters collected yet another major doubles trophy--their eleventh--and defended their Australian Open title against Cara Black and Liezel Huber. Black and Huber did much better against the sisters this time, but "much better" just wasn't enough.

7. Were these Sharapova's doctors, by any chance? 2009 finalist Dinara Safina looked very good in her early rounds--so good, she was again a contender. She's been out for a while with a back injury, which, her doctors told her, was gone except for some bone edema. She was told by her doctors that the bone edema would gradually fade away, and--indeed--it was already doing so. But in her round of 16 match against Maria Kirilenko, Safina's back suddenly went out on her, putting her in so much pain, she could not move. She was unable to sit or lie down, and her luggage had to be packed for her so that she could return to Germany and get a medical consult. This is a really distressing matter, not only for Safina, but for fans, and for the tour.

6. Talk about having a bad day...Nuria Llagostera Vives and Maria Jose Martinez Sanchez, winners of the 2009 Sony Ericsson Championships (in which they defeated both the Williams sisters and Black and Huber) went to pieces in the third round against Maria Kirilenko and Agnieszka Radwanska. Llagostera Vives couldn't find her serve, and Martinez Sanchez couldn't find the court. The 3rd seeds were defeated 6-1, 6-2. Ouch.

5. Talk about having a really bad day...U.S. Open Champion Kim Clijsters got blasted off the court by Nadia Petrova in the third round. Petrova, when she is on, can beat anyone; Clijsters, who was not on, was decisively put out, 6-0, 6-1.

4. How do you solve a problem like Maria? Maria Sharapova didn't have the answer, and was taken out in the first round by countrywoman Maria Kirilenko. It wasn't much of a comeback for the former world number 1; that Maria problem will have to be solved, too.

3. Allez! Justine Henin, working with a wild card, had to face a very tough Elena Dementieva in the second round, and got past her, 7-5, 7-6. She then went all the way to the final, playing her new attacking game. She didn't win the Open, but it's clear that Henin is back in a big way.

2. Red and yellow everywhere! Chinese flags were flown like never before at a tennis tournament when both Li Na and Zheng Jie made it all the way to the semifinals. Li put on quite a show, and gave eventual champion Serena Williams an especially tough match, which went to two tiebreaks.

1. Just call her Aussie Serena...Serena Williams won her fifth Australian Open singles title, giving her the most Australian wins in the Open Era. She may have been strapped, bandaged and achy, but little things like that don't stop the world number 1 from picking up another big trophy.

Black and Paes win Australian Open mixed doubles championship

Top seeds Cara Black and her partner, Leander Paes, won the Australian Open mixed doubles title yesterday, defeating the unseeded team of Ekaterina Makarova and Jaroslav Levinsky 7-5, 6-3.

This is Black's fourth major mixed doubles title. She said that, last year, Paes promised her they would win the 2010 Australian Open.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Australian Open--what they said

Does it sometimes help to get a bit angry with yourself?
Who knows? I don't mind it. But it's probably not ideal.
Laura Robson

You never lost 15 points in a row and then won at the end.
Really? Well, I lost so many in a row I thought, Gosh, I was up 15‑40 at one point and could have broke her. I lost so many points. I thought, Well, at least I won the first set. It was better. I thought, Thank God I won the first set.
Serena Williams

...she's a real champion. She plays the right shot at the right time. She served great at that time. After that, mentally was a little bit harder to stay in the match.
Justine Henin

If it had gone to three sets, how were you feeling? You looked tired.
I think I was tired. It was very hot. I don't think I would win in the third set.
Karolina Pliskova

Can you reveal a little bit more about the strapping, what was involved there, what you were protecting?
Well, I had--well, where do I start? How much time do we have?
Serena Williams

Serena Williams defends Australian Open championship

In the middle of the Justine Henin's second Australian Open championship set against defending champion Serena Williams, I leaned over to get a look at her feet. You see, I thought she might have borrowed Melanie Oudin's shoes, so strongly did her belief click at that moment. Henin, who has made up her mind that her "second career" will be one of attacking--rather than her signature defending--tennis, was setting up most of her shots just right against Williams, but was then failing to execute them because of repeated unforced errors.

To make matters worse, she continued to struggle with her serve. By sheer force of will and talent, she took four games off of Williams in the first set. Then, serving at 2-3 in the second set, she faced a break point. Williams failed to convert, and that was when the switch got turned on in Henin. Suddenly, her game plan began to work because her shots became fluid and deadly accurate. She held for 3-all, then immediately broke Williams, held at love, then broke her again at love to take the set 6-3. Going into the third set, Henin continued to roll until a fifteen-point win streak ended. She continued to create break points throughout that set, but by this time, Williams had elevated her serve--and her whole game--to the point that she took back the momentum and never let it go.

That is, of course, vintage Serena. Ask Victoria Azarenka, or any number of other players who have gone on a roll against her, only to find that the now 12-time major champion almost always finds a way to regain her dominance. Williams' serve, of course, has a lot to do with this ability, but the rest of her game also becomes spot-on, once she has confidently placed the big serve.

At one point in the third set, Williams hit was she thought was an ace. Henin challenged it, and it did turn out to be a fault. No problem--Williams then hit a real ace on the second serve. That is the type of thing Henin--whose serve continues to be way too shaky--was up against. Williams won the third set 6-2, fell onto her back, then got up to receive her fifth Australian Open trophy.

There is no denying that Henin is back, and that the new attacking game is going to benefit her. (It will be interesting see if she puts it on big display during the clay season, when she doesn't really need it.) Like so many other players, though, she needs to do something about her service game. Williams is not the only good returner on the tour, and Henin will continue to run into trouble, despite her extreme talent, if she does not do something about her serve. I do like this new Henin at the net, however. Her coach has been pushing her for years to go to the net more, and it appears she has finally heeded his advice.

Williams, unfortunately, once again explained her third-set momentum by telling the press she had to "man up." Will someone please explain to Serena Williams that finding a way to be tough and brave is not a male quality? A woman of Williams' stature continually contributing to the ubiquitous sexism of professional sports makes it even more difficult for women and girls to be recognized as athletes--and people--on their own terms.

Serena Williams continues to play either superior tennis or tennis that takes her through until she can play superior tennis. At this point, the only real question about her future is how well her body will hold up. On the other hand, she appeared at the Australian Open championship match wrapped and bandaged to the hilt, and--though pushed to three sets--won the title.

Williams has now won more Australian Open singles titles than any other woman in the Open Era.

Homan wins Australian Open women's wheelchair championship

Korie Homan, the world's second-best woman in wheelchair tennis competition, has won the Australian Open, defeating 2nd seed Florence Gravellier 6-2, 6-2.

In the absence of her countrywoman and long-time doubles partner, Esther Vergeer, Homan was seeded first. Vergeer, whose win record is a story in itself, did not enter the Australian Open this year because she wanted to take some time off from competition.

Gravellier and Aniek Van Koot won the doubles title, defeating 2nd seeds Lucy Shuker and Daniela Di Toro 6-3, 7-6.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Karolina Pliskova wins Australian Open junior girls championship

For the second time in two years, Laura Robson is the junior girls Australian Open finalist. Robson was defeated 6-1, 7-6 by Karolina Pliskova of the Czech Republic in a match that went terribly wrong for Robson at the end.

After winning the first set handily, Pliskova went up a break immediately in the second set. But when she served for the match at 5-4, Robson broke her. Robson then held at love, and the momentum of the match appeared to have turned dramatically. She was unable to break Pliskova, however, so the match went into a tiebreak.

Robson got a mini-break right away and went up 4-1, but Pliskova eventually got the score even at 4-all. When Robson committed her second double-fault of the match, Pliskova went up 6-4. Robson saved a match point with a down-the-line winner, but then double-faulted again on the second match point.

Robson defeated Pliskova's twin, Kristyna, in the semifinals.

The new junior champion, who was seeded 6th at the tournament, hit thirteen aces in the final.

Allaster says drug-testing procedures should be changed

In light of the recent Yanina Wickmayer incident, Sony Ericsson WTA Tour Chairwoman and CEO has called for revisions to drug-testing procedures. Says Allaster:
Everyone in the sport has zero-tolerance for doping. We are united as all governing bodies to comply with the WADA code. I think the whereabouts program is good, but some of the procedures within the whereabouts program need to be modified for our sport. We have been active in giving our feedback to WADA on the whereabouts program, our feedback and our athletes' feedback on what should take place as it relates to the whereabouts program. Do we think the rules need to be changed? Yes, we are advocating for changes to the whereabouts program.

"What we have been saying," Allaster added, "is that what works for all sports doesn't work for our sport procedurally, when they are in competition and they are in competition ten months a year."

Australia-Spain Fed Cup contest one to watch

Fed Cup World Group II members Australia and Spain have announced their team members for the upcoming Fed Cup event, and the match-up looks really competitive. Here are are the teams:

Samantha Stosur
Alicia Molik
Casey Dellacqua
Rennae Stubbs

Anabel Medina Garrigues
Maria Jose Martinez Sanchez
Carla Suarez Navarro
Nuria Llagostera Vives

The matches will be played in Australia on an outdoor Plexicushion hard court. Both teams feature their nations' best players, with doubles experts on both sides.

Also in World Group II, the teams from the Slovak Republic and China could bring some excitement to Fed Cup play:

Dominika Cibulkova
Daniela Hantuchova
Magdalena Rybarikova
Kristina Kukova

Zheng Jie
Peng Shuai
Lu Jing-Jing
Zhang Shuai

These matches will be played in the Slovak Republic on an indoor hard court.

Friday cat blogging--Australian Open edition

"Oh, Alona, I can't look anymore."

Australian Open--what they said

We've run out of tape and been borrowing tape from everyone.
Serena Wlliams

I don't know exactly how I'm going to feel before walking on court. I wouldn't say it's something new for me. But since I'm back, it's pretty new, and it came very quickly. I have to deal also with that, that I thought it wouldn't come that early.
Justine Henin

...I feel like I really, really peaked against Sam Stosur, which was ‑‑ I played amazing. Hopefully I'll be able to pull that tennis out again.
Serena Williams

Is it a plus that you're going in unseeded on the comeback, that the expectations are probably not there that would have been if you were number 1?
Well, when you have to play Dementieva in the second round, you're not happy that you're not seeded.
Justine Henin

...I was like, Serena, I guess it's easier to hold at 3‑2 instead of 4‑3. I thought it was break point. I didn't know it was match---I mean, I need to play all my matches like this without knowing the score. I think it would help.
Venus Williams

Robson goes to Australian Open junior girls final

Laura Robson defeated Kristyna Pliskova 6-3, 6-1 in the semifinals of junior competition in Melburne yesterday. Robson will play Pliskova's twin, the 6th-seeded Karolina, in the final. Karolina Pliskova ended the run of Tang Hao Chen by defeating her 2-6, 7-6, 6-2.

Williams sisters defend Australian Open doubles title

The good news for Cara Black and Liezel Huber is that they were not quickly dismissed from the court in their latest contest with Venus and Serena Williams. The bad news is that they lost again. The Williams sisters won the Australian Open women's doubles championship today by defeating the world number 1 team 6-4, 6-3. Such was their dominance, they dropped only one set the entire tournament.

Black and Huber did everything they could think of to get the defending champions off their game. They lobbed, hit balls down the middle, and focused on being aggressive. They played well, in fact--better than they did the last couple of times they played the sisters. But their efforts were not sufficient to win the title.

Venus and Serena have now won eleven major doubles titles. If they enter the remaining majors this year--and especially if they can pull off a French Open win--they have a good chance to win the Grand Slam.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Williams vs. Henin for Australian Open trophy

Wrapped in bandages, pushed hard by Victoria Azarenka, and taken to the very edge by Li Na--Australian Open defending champion Serena Williams is still standing. Though she says she is at the point at which she has hit "one forehand too many," Williams is never to be underestimated.

Neither is her opponent in the final, Justine Henin. Henin, just back from what turned out not to be retirement, is hitting the ball harder and is coming to the net more than she did in the first part of her career. If there is really such a thing as a "dream final," we may have it in Melbourne. Provided Williams does not run out of energy or fall victim to too much pain, this match has the makings of a very high-level affair.

Oddly, the two have never met before in a final of a major, so there is already some extra drama attached, just through the luck of the draw. Henin says that Williams is her ideal opponent in a major final because she has to find out whether she can beat the best in the world.

To get to the final in Melbourne, Williams defeated Urszula Radwanska, Petra Kvitova, Carla Suarez Navarro, Samantha Stosur, Azarenka, and Li. Henin's path went through Kirsten Flipkens, Elena Dementieva, Alisa Kleybanova, Yanina Wickmayer, Nadia Petrova, and Zheng Jie. Both women, obviously, had some very impressive wins.

If Williams defends her title in Australia, she will receive her twelfth major trophy; if Henin wins, it will be her eighth. However it turns out, a rivalry has been resumed.

Australian Open--what they said

She just goes for broke when she faces match points.
Serena Williams, referring to Li Na

I was really curious about what I was going to feel on the court, and how my recovery would go. For me, it's not only a dream; it's a surprise.
Justine Henin

This was a great day for China, for you two women. Where are the men? Where are the Chinese men?
The Chinese men in China.
What are they doing in China, all these men?
Still sleeping. They didn't wake up....
Li Na

She serve is more stronger and she move faster. I feel I move so faster, but she's the better for me, yeah.
Zheng Jie, referring to Justine Henin

I think we respect each other a lot for that. We're both real fighters. We want to win. And I think maybe we helped each other, yeah, to get better.
Justine Henin, speaking of Serena Williams

I'm very happy she's in my way now because I know she's the best.
Justine Henin, referring to Serena Williams

Before the game I have little bit nervous because, you know, this is first semifinal in Australian Open. Also, she is my favorite player. I know is very tough match.
Zheng Jie

What qualities does she have?
Well, I think the better question would be: What qualities don't she have? She has everything from really a serve, which you might not think, but she has a really good serve, to both great backhand and forehand.
Serena Williams, referring to Li Na

I think maybe she's tired also because we played two hours on the court. I mean, if someone running two hours on the court, I think nobody still exciting. I think everyone was tired after two hours.
Li Na

The last time you played Serena was Miami 2008.
Don't talk to me about that one.
Justine Henin

Have you given yourself a timeline...?
Oh, God, no. Yeah, I say till someone takes me out back and shoots me.
Serena Williams

Babos upset in Australian Open quarterfinals

The top Australian Open junior girls seed, Timea Babos, was upset today by Kristyna Pliskova. The unseeded Pliskova defeated Babos 6-4, 4-6, 7-5.

Ester Goldfield took only one game off of 2008 junior girls Wimbledon champion Laura Robson, and Kristyna Pliskova's twin, Karolina Pliskova, defeated Daria Gavrilova. Also, Tang Hao Chen continued her impressive run with a win over 5th seed Silvia Njiric.

The Pliskova twins are in different halves of the draw, and could therefore play one another in the final.

Henin easily overcomes Zheng to advance to Australian Open final

It took wild card Justine Henin just 51 minutes to win her Australian Open semifinal match against Zheng Jie, who--along with Li Na--made Chinese tennis history with her Melbourne run. Zheng, whose serve is a major flaw in her game, could do very little to hold back Henin, who served beautifully and allowed her opponent to win only one game. Henin's 6-1, 6-0 victory gives her a meeting with Serena Williams in the 2010 final. Williams is the defending champion, and has won the Open four times. Henin won the tournament in 2004.

Raymond & Stubbs, together again

No one said the "l" word, or even the "g" word, but tonight's lengthy and very entertaining Tennis Channel feature on Lisa Raymond and Rennae Stubbs was as much about their former romantic relationship as it was about their history of playing doubles together. With the world of women's pro tennis constantly straining itself to broadcast "No lesbians here!" in a variety of ways, it was a surprise to see Raymond and Stubbs chatting about their relationship, their breakup, and their enduring love for one another. Even more surprising was that the story was done by a media organization that has made no effort to curb its sexism.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Williams survives two tiebreaks to defeat Li and advance to Australian Open final

Serena Williams knew she had to win her Australian Open semifinal match in straight sets. She looked weary, and ran mostly on willpower through parts of the match. That wouldn't have been too difficult for Williams on an ordinary occasion, but there was nothing ordinary about the way opponent Li Na played today.

Li, whose tennis career has been interrupted repeatedly, first by retirement from the sport (which, for some reason, is ignored when retirements followed by returns are mentioned), and then by serious injuries which kept her out for months at a time. She tends to become anxious and make too many errors; sometimes I think she has this problem because her momentum gets interrupted so frequently.

Today, though, Li kept her anxiety in check much better than usual. She did make too many unforced errors, but she also hit some breathtaking winners.

In the first set, Williams went up an early break, and served for the set at 5-4, but was broken on the fourth break point. The set went to a tiebreak, and Williams went up a mini-break right away; then Li put the tiebreak then back on serve. The defending champion then went up another break. Li made a crucial error when she drew Williams to the net, and then--with an open court before her--chose to hit the ball with moderate power directly to Williams. This error put Li down another break, and--though she saved one set point--she lost the set when Williams took the tiebreak 7-4.

In the second set, Li had opportunities to break Williams, but could not take advantage of them. The 16th seed did not face a break point until she served at 4-5, and then the anxiety emerged, causing her to go off her game and face two match points. Li pulled herself together and saved both of them, but after the game went to deuce, she faced a third match point. She saved that one, too, then held for 5-all when she hit a cross-court forehand that forced Williams to hit wide.

Williams held easily, then Li, at 40-30, made another unforced error, followed by another one, which gave Williams her fourth match point. In the most thrilling moment of the match, Li put pressure on Williams, running her off the court in a tense rally, which Li won. She then held, forcing another tiebreak.

Williams again grabbed a quick mini-break and just kept going until she had a 6-1 lead. Then she let out a mighty yell as she hit an ace for match point.

Though Li must be disappointed to have lost such a close match in her first big semifinal, she has a lot to be proud of. Unlike some opponents, she took it to Williams, and the results were entertaining, and--at times--thrilling.

Williams is obviously battle-weary, no matter what she says to the press. Various parts of her legs are wrapped like something from Room 64 in the British Museum, and from time to time, she looks rather tense. To complicate matters, she is also still involved in the doubles draw. On the other hand, she's Serena Williams, and she has vast resources of psychological energy and belief. She has also won the Australian Open four times, and that alone creates a nice motivation for the defending champion to keep going.

Australian Open semifinals feature 2 Chinese players

Congratulations to Zheng Jie and Li Na, the first Chinese women to reach the semifinals of a major tournament!

Zheng will play 2004 champion Justine Henin in the next round, and Li will play defending champion Serena Williams.

Doubles semifinals set

Australian Open Top seeds Cara Black and Liezel Huber defeated 7th seeds Alisa Kleybanova and Francesca Schiavone in the quarterfinals yesterday, and Maria Kirilenko and Agnieszka Radwanska, the 15th seeds, defeated Sally Peers and Laura Robson. Here is the semifinal draw:

Black/Huber vs. Kirilenko/Radwanska
Raymond/Stubbs (6) vs. Williams/Williams (2)

Raymond and Stubbs won the Australian Open in 2000.

USA and France announce Fed Cup teams

Playing for the USA when that country meets France next month in Fed Cup competition will be Melanie Oudin, Shenay Perry, Bethanie Mattek-Sands, and Liezel Huber. The event will take place on red clay in Lievin, France.

The French team will consist of Alize Cornet, Julie Coin, Stephanie Cohen-Aloro, and Pauline Parmentier.

Fed Cup play begins on February 7.

Australian Open--what they said

How does it feel to have a Chinese woman in the top 10?
Top 10?
Maybe I take one beer. Maybe two.
Li Na

...what was going through my head was I just had to hang in there and try to be more aggressive. The only thing I did is I probably backed up a little bit. I gave her more time to go for her shots.
Victoria Azarenka

Why do you think you weren't able to do that (close the match) when you've been able to do that so often in the past?
I don't know. I really wanted to. I can tell you that.
Venus Williams

This is a very difficult technical question I'm asking you.
When did you change the color of your hair?
Two month. No, I always change.
Many times?
Many, many, many times.
Just want to see different. Yeah. You should try, too.
Li Na

She's no pushover, that's for sure.
Serena Williams, referring to Victoria Azarenka

At 4-love, who started doing things differently, Serena or yourself?
Have you watched the match?
Victoria Azarenka

What do you say to people [who] say Wimbledon or the U.S. Open is your only hope of another major?
I don't know. Are you saying that?
Just making sure.
Venus Williams

You had your left calf bandaged.
I have everything bandaged.
Serena Williams

Serena comes back from the brink to defeat Victoria Azarenka

She may not have been wearing a yellow jumpsuit, but everything about Victoria Azarenka said: Serena Williams, you and I have unfinished business.

Williams (who was wearing a yellow tennis dress) and Azarenka, playing in the quarterfinals of the Australian Open, followed a familiar pattern in pro tennis: The higher-ranked player came out flat, and the lower-ranked one took advantage and played at an extremely high level.

Williams and Azarenka also met in the quarterfinal of last year's Australian Open. Azarenka handily took the first set 6-3, then had to retire in the second because of food poisoning, leaving a big "what if?" hanging in the air. Williams would go on to win the tournament.

Today, the reliably cranky Azarenka stepped onto the court looking out of sorts, rolling her eyes early in the first set when the first seed hesitated a moment before serving. But Azarenka is learning not to let her edgy temperament get the best of her. She quickly settled into the match, swinging freely, and overcoming Williams 6-4 in the first set. Though Williams had not been broken going into the quarterfinals, she was broken three times in the first set.

Anyone who is familiar with Serena Williams certainly wasn't expecting what happened next: Azarenka went up 4-0 in the second set. "When is Serena going to roar back?" had to be the question on most viewers' minds. Time was running out. And then she roared back, as she is known to do, working her way to 4-all. The set went to a tiebreak--and a really good one, I should add--which Williams won, 7-4.

Williams entered the third set as the force that she is, doing practically no wrong, and flummoxing Azarenka at almost every turn. She quickly went up 4-1, serving much better, and smacking fast and precise returns, especially on Azarenka's second serves. At one point, Azarenka just stopped and smiled as she stood helpless, watching the ball whiz by her. Williams won the set 6-2, and booked a place in the semifinals. Oh--and she hit 57 winners, including 17 aces.

Was there ever any doubt that Williams would come back in this match? Yes. Azarenka is a really good player with excellent instincts, who is headed toward better things. But not yet. Yes, there was unfinished business, but the world number 1 finished it--in style.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Robson advances to the quarterfinals

Laura Robson defeated Cristina Dinu 6-3, 6-3 today in the third round of Australian Open junior competition. Robson's next opponent will be Ester Goldfield.

Tang Hao Chen, who upset 2nd seed Heather Watson in the first round, also advanced to the quarterfinals when her opponent, Yana Buchina, retired.

Australian Open miscellany

Esther Vergeer, I just realized, is not competing in this year's tournament. That means, of course, that Korie Homan is seeded first in women's wheelchair competition. If anyone knows what happened to Vergeer, please post in the comments section.

As usual, umpires are not enforcing the 20-second rule in serving. And James Martin wants to know when they are going to enforce the no-coaching rule. He talks about Justine Henin (who was routinely getting signals from her coach during her match against Petrova), but Henin is certainly not alone in getting coaching from the stands. In fact, in an interview a couple of years ago, coach Carlos Rodriguez said he coaches Henin from the stands because "everyone else does it."

I know it was Australia Day yesterday, but planes constantly buzzing the stadium during a major tournament (or any tournament) is just uncalled for.

Caroline Wozniacki and the Radwanska sisters took some time to go shopping and see a movie before Wozniacki packed to leave Melbourne.

Some members of the Australian crowd have been mocking Victoria Azarenka's screaming, which commentators insist on calling "grunting." (It isn't, though it certainly serves the same purpose.)

Chinese takeout

Venus Williams was removed from Australian Open competition in the quarterfinals today by Li Na, who--in defeating the 6th seed 2-6, 7-6, 7-5--became the first Chinese woman in history to get to the top 10.

The match was interesting--and sometimes exciting--from a defensive point of view, but holding serve was definitely the major weakness of both players. There were 17 breaks of serve, and the match lasted almost three hours, invoking memories of the first round Jankovic-Paszek match of 2008. In the third set, Li didn't hold serve until the 8th game. She served for the match at 5-4, but was broken at love. She then broke Williams at love.

Li has always struggled with nerves, and she was clearly anxious when she blew her first two match points. But then she hit a monster forehand that bounced precisely on the line to get an ad point, and put away another stylish forehand on her third match point.

Each player hit 27 winners, each made over 50 unforced errors, and Williams double-faulted eleven times. Li, especially, was loose and focused when her opponent served, but tight and careless on her own serve. The match was was messy, yet--in its own way--hard-fought. The 16th seed will now play the winner of the Serena Williams-Victoria Azarenka quarterfinal.

Williams sisters pushed, but emerge as winners

8th seeds Bethanie Mattek-Sands and Yan Zi began their Australian Open quarterfinal match yesterday by staying close to the 2nd-seeded Williams sisters until almost the end of the set, something no other team has done. Mattek-Sands and Yan went on to win the second set, but then the Venus and Serena Williams went up an early break in the third. When they were up 5-1, the match appeared to be almost over, but then Mattek-Sands and Yan won three games in a row. The Williams sisters were able to prevail, however, with a 6-4, 4-6, 6-4 score.

In other quarterfinal matches, top seeds Cara Black and Liezel Huber defeated Victoria Azarenka and Svetlana Kuznetsova 6-3, 6-3, and 6th seeds Lisa Raymond and Rennae Stubbs defeated 13th seeds Gisela Dulko and Flavia Pennetta 4-6, 6-2, 6-2.

Australian Open--what they said

There was quite a commotion going on out there. First fighter jets flying over, then cannons exploding for Australia Day, helicopters. Were you tuning that out? Was it distracting?
Not really. I was quite focused on the match really.
You didn't hear it?
I did, of course. I'm focused, but not that focused.
Justine Henin

You played doubles yesterday. Because of your injury now, was it a mistake?
Well, if I would feel bad, you know, I would not play doubles. Physio, they did really good tape. I said to my partner, So I'm not going to run too much in the doubles, just help me a lot. She was help me actually a lot. I could sit on the bench and you could play without me.
Maria Kirilenko

Maria said you were very quick around the court, probably one of the quickest players. Do you work on that or are you just naturally fast?
Of course, I'm not too tall so I need more footwork, move so quick.
Zheng Jie

I'm saying she's playing faster tennis, closer to the lines. She tries to take time from you. She really tries to rip the ball. She doesn't stick into long rallies like as she used to, to really run everybody. She really tries to go for the winners. You know, I see her coming to the net these days more than she used to do.
Nadia Petrova, referring to Justine Henin big of a challenge is that when you know you have to be intense and focused all the time?
Well, it's a big challenge, but I think we can find a good deal. You know, I'm much more relaxed than I was in the past. That's for sure. I hope it's not only because it's the beginning and I'm not going to get crazy again in six months....
Justine Henin

They changed her backhand, they changed her forehand. I thought they were pretty snappy [already].
Mary Carillo, referring to Justine Henin

She is my favorite player.
Zheng Jie, describing her semifinal opponent, Justine Henin

Then the physio taped my right leg. Then after the break, you know, the five minutes' break, I start to feel it on the left again. I was kind of feeling pain everywhere.
Maria Kirilenko

I've had quite a sore shoulder throughout all the Australian Open. Today has been really the worst day for me. I started with some pain and couldn't really get my serve going. I was double-faulting a lot. I have a feeling, you know, I was just a little bit playing with my toss to avoid the pain.
Nadia Petrova

I can do a lot of things, but just not that.
Justine Henin, turning down a plate of Vegemite.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Henin and Zheng go to Australian Open semifinals

Nadia Petrova's great run at the Australian Open ended today. Playing with a sore shoulder, Petrova, at times, saw her formidable serve get away from her. After the match, she said she thought she was tossing the ball differently to avoid shoulder pain that became worse in today's match.

But a bad shoulder wasn't Petrova's only problem. She made twice as many unforced errors as her opponent, Justine Henin, and allowed Henin to dominate in many of the big points. Henin's 7-6, 7-5 victory made her the first quarterfinalist to go to the semifinals. Henin struggled with her serve, too, but was able to slice off both sides to grab a number of rallies.

The day's second match, between Maria Kirilenko and Zheng Jie, had the makings of being a delightful contest, and--at times--it was. But Kirilenko--who has been playing singles, doubles and mixed doubles--just wasn't up to the task. She made some good shots, but was a step behind Zheng the entire match, her forehand was often vulnerable, and--to top it all off--she double-faulted at match point. Zheng, on the other hand, was focused and precise, she hit the ball cleanly, and her movement was excellent from start to finish.

Kirilenko's vulnerable thigh gave her trouble and she had to have treatment for it. After she lost the second set, though, Kirilenko picked up her game a bit, and--serving at 3-2--Zheng found herself at 0-40. She would go on to save four break points, and that was the last time she looked truly vulnerable in the set. She won the match 6-1, 6-3, and made only nine unforced errors.

Kirilenko, a player's whose game I have always enjoyed watching, had a good tournament, and is still in the doubles draw. This is Zheng's second semifinal at a major, but she has her work cut out for her: Her next opponent is Henin.

Clijsters withdraws from Fed Cup

Kim Clijsters has withdrawn from the Belgian Fed Cup team that competes against Poland next month. Justine Henin has already said she will not play.

Also, neither Williams sister will play when the USA competes against France. According to Venus Williams, she and her sister have business with the Miami Dolphins that conflicts with the season's first Fed Cup event. The Williams sisters are limited ownership partners in the Dolphins team.

Zvonareva enters Family Circle Cup

You'd think that, by now, Vera Zvonareva would be afraid to set foot (literally) in Charleston, but she has entered the 2010 Family Circle Cup. At last year's event, she took a nasty fall that resulted in a serious ankle injury. A couple of years before, she sustained a serious wrist injury in Charleston. Fortunately for fans, Zvonareva is willing to give it another go.

Zvonareva was a finalist in 2008, losing to Serena Williams at the tournament's 25th anniversary.

The world number 9 joins Melanie Oudin, Maria Sharapova, Victoria Azarenka, Serena Williams, and Caroline Wozniacki, who have already signed up for the tournament.

Urszula Radwanksa out for a while with back injury

Urszula Radwanska began having back pain again this week, and has been diagnosed with a spinal injury that will keep her off the courts for five or six weeks. Her exercise regimen will be limited so that her back can heal.

She's number 1!

Serena Williams' Australian Open round of 16 defeat (6-4, 6-2) of 13th seed Samantha Stosur not only put her into the quarterfinals; it also secured her spot as number 1 in the world. That's fitting, because Williams' performance was riveting. The quality and consistency of both her first and second serves were so high, that even an expert server like Stosur could do little but watch as one ace or near-ace after another came hurtling over the net.

Early in the second set, Stosur had triple break point, marking the first time in the tournament that anyone had break points against Williams. Williams saved all three, and that was that. Stosur has played better than she did in this match; but her performance was not bad. Williams' first and second serve percentages were 86 and 81, respectively. She hit 30 winners, including 10 aces, and was successful 12 of 13 times she went to the net.

The last match in the round of 16 was a three-setter played between 9th seed Vera Zvonareva and 7th seed Victoria Azarenka. Azarenka, in four previous meetings, had never taken a set off of Zvonareva, but last night, after giving up the first set 4-6 and going down a break in the second, she took the second two emphatically, winning ten games in a row to complete the match.

Azarenka's 4-6, 6-4, 6-0 victory books her a quarterfinal match against top seed Serena Williams. There is some drama here, since--at last year's Australian Open--Azarenka had taken the first set against Williams in the round of 16 when she fell victim to food poisoning and had to retire.

Spaniards upset in 3rd round of Australian Open

Maria Kirilenko is at it again. The woman who took out Maria Sharapova in the first round of the Australian Open has also--along with partner Agnieszka Radwanska--upset the 3rd seeds in doubles. Kirilenko and Radwanska, seeded 15th, soundly defeated Nuria Llagostera Vives and Maria Jose Martinez Sanchez in the third round today. The 6-1, 6-2 victory over the winners of the 2009 Sony Ericsson Championships is as surprising an upset as any we have had so far.

Next for Kirilenko and Radwanska are Laura Robson and Sally Peers.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Australian Open--what they said

Currently Rennae Stubbs, who played for the Washington Kastles, won the 2009 World Team Tennis title. She can tell you all about it. You know her, she'll tell you.
Billie Jean King, interviewed about the WTT exhibition match in Melbourne

I bet Heather [Watson] found it a quite different mindset playing a junior event with big expectations of her, compared to playing the women’s tour where she has nothing to lose.
Judy Murray

Tell us about your tattoo.
Yeah, because I was 16 years old with my boyfriend. Yeah, now it's my husband. So I just want for the long time to have something to do for the love. Yeah.
What is it?
Rose with heart.
Li Na

Surprisingly, the women’s side has had some interesting matches, too.
Ben Pronin

I swear they're hitting the ball harder. I didn't think it was possible.
Billie Jean King, referring to Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin

I know if I give her a chance, maybe she just beat me. So I was trying to hold on every point. I didn't want to give her chance.
Li Na

Li has beaten you the last two occasions. What does she have that you find difficult playing against?
I don't know. I had chances in both my matches and I didn't take them. Against her, you need to just play on your highest level the whole match through and keep concentrated and keep a lot of balls in play.
Caroline Wozniacki

What do you have to do to beat her (Serena)?
Play better.
Venus Williams

Venus Williams and Li Na go to Australian Open quarterfinals

Though she lost the first set, 6th seed Venus Williams was able to come back and defeat 17th seed Francesca Schiavone 3-6, 6-2, 6-1 today in the round of 16 at the Australian Open. Williams had problems with her serve in the first set, and Schiavone used her signature slice and spin to advantage. But as the match went on, Williams lifted the level of her game, and Schiavone became error-prone, missing several key opportunities to break her opponent.

Williams' opponent in the quarterfinals will be 16th seed Li Na, who defeated U.S. Open finalist and 4th seed Caroline Wozniacki 6-4, 6-3. Li is a big hitter and very talented hard court player who has been repeatedly hampered by serious injury, and who also has some issues with mental fragility. She tends to make a lot of unforced errors, and in today's match, she wound up with 34 unforced errors and 21 winners. Technically speaking, that isn't great, but when you consider that her opponent had 22 unforced errors and 3 winners, the ratio stat takes on a different meaning.

Wozniacki's thigh was heavily strapped, and she took a medical time-out, but said later that she was not in pain.

Li also defeated Wozniacki in the first round in Sydney this month. Li and countrywoman Zheng Jie have both reached the quarterfinals, creating yet another milestone in Chinese tennis.

Venus is WAY more talented than even I knew

From Eurosport:
...the seven-times Grand Slam winner later clarified on her Twitter page that she was in fact wearing a flesh-coloured top and shorts that she designed herself during her fourth-round clash with Francesca Schiavone.

Quote of the day

"It's better to play on Rod Laver than Margaret Court where nobody is watching. At least people keep you up because you're falling asleep there."

Svetlana Kuznetsova, commenting on playing late night matches

Henin goes to the quarterfinals

The much-anticipated match between the two Belgians, Justine Henin and Yanina Wickmayer, has resulted in a 7-6, 1-6, 6-3 victory for Henin, who now moves on to the Australian Open quarterfinals. The match, which contained seven breaks of serve, was widely regarded as a quality affair by those who saw it. (I was not one of those people. I couldn't stay up that late, though I tried. I think the high and bizarre drama of the Ladies National Figure Skating Championships did me in, too.)

Also advancing to the quarterfinals was Zheng Jie, who defeated Alona Bondarenko in a match that had its share of unforced errors (74 in all) and momentun swings. Zheng hit twice as many winners as her opponent, and--although Alona didn't exactly go Bondarenko on us in the second set--she did have an attitude slip that probably did her no favors. Bondarenko also performed poorly at the net. Zheng's 7-6, 6-4 victory gives her a quarterfinal meeting with Maria Kirilenko.

Kirilenko gets early birthday present from Safina

Poor Dinara Safina. After struggling for months with back pain, she was convinced that her back was 100% healed. But during her Australian Open round of 16 match against Maria Kirilenko, the pain came back, and came back so badly, Safina was forced to retire before the first set was over.

Safina has edema of the bone, and was told by her doctors that her back might occasionally get stiff and be a bit uncomfortable, but should have no pain. She said it did get stiff during practice, but--since she knew that could happen--she didn't think much about it. She took painkillers before the match, but after a few games in, the pain became so bad, she could not move.

Since the edema had been decreasing, Safina is puzzled as to exactly what happened. She is going back to Germany to see her doctors as soon as possible.

Kirilenko's birthday is today (if you happen to be in Australia, that is), so she probably couldn't ask for a nicer present than an advancement to the quarterfinals. Having Safina leave the draw this way, though, is sad, and it is big loss to the excitement of the competition.

Australian Open miscellany

U.S. Open junior champion Heather Watson, seeded 2nd in junior girls' competition in Melbourne, was upset today in the first round by Tang Hao Chen, 6-1, 4-6, 6-1. Watson, by the way, is one of five finalists (there were 303 nominations) who could win the Sportingbet Sports Personality of the Year award.

Justine Henin has now won 500 career matches.

Laura Robson and Sally Peers have made it to the quarterfinals, after defeating Vera Dushevina and Anastasia Rodionova in straight sets. Robson turned 16 on January 21.

Yanina Wickmayer, who struggled with back pain in her third round match, has withdrawn from doubles competition.

U.S. Open mixed doubles champion Carly Gullickson and her Australian Open partner, Bernie Tomic, have gone out in the first round. They were defeated today by Agkul Amanmuradova and Rik De Voest.

Australian Open--what they said

Where is that composure coming from?
Good question.
Nadia Petrova

Very strong with the women, but there are no men.
Yeah, is hard question. Everybody want know.
Do you know why?
Maybe men need more hard working. I don't know.
Zheng Jie, on Chinese pro tennis

I really want to finally be a complete player. I want to quit tennis knowing that, you know, I've done everything possible, I developed as much as I could, and I gave hundred percent of it.
Nadia Petrova

She started to play better and I started to play worse.
Svetlana Kuznetsova, on her 3rd set against Nadia Petrova

You're on a bit of a revenge run.
Oh, I like that. It's fun.
Nadia Petrova

I suppose right now I am getting the best of both worlds; that’s a Hannah Montana song I still keep singing all the time. Isn’t that awful? It proves I am still a junior.
Laura Robson

Saturday, January 23, 2010

U.S. Open champion, French Open champion...Nadia says "No problem"

Australian Open 19th seed Nadia Petrova, who demolished Kim Clijsters in the third round, took out 3rd seed Svetlana Kuznetsova today, 6-3, 3-6, 6-1. Both players made a lot of unforced errors, and Kuznetsova struggled with her second serve. There was reason to believe the third set would be close, but Petrova lifted her game and all but ran away with it.

I thought the "old Nadia" would be back last year, but she started the season with an illness, and then proceeded to have ups and downs. There is no denying Petrova's talent, but she has often had a problem with mental toughness. But so far in Melbourne, it has been her opponents who have had a problem.

Hiesh & Peng upset in Australian Open doubles

Hsieh Su-Wei and Peng Shuai, seeded 4th at the Australian Open, were upset in the 3rd round today in straight sets by 13th seeds Gisela Dulko and Flavia Pennetta. The winners, who are friends and occasional doubles partners, are likely to face 6th seeds Lisa Raymond and Rennae Stubbs in the next round.

5th seeds Nadia Petrova and Samantha Stosur were upset in the first round by Vera Dushevina and Anastasia Rodionova. Three other seeded teams have been upset so far.

Seeded first are Cara Black and Liezel Huber, 2nd seeds are Serena and Venus Williams, an seeded 3rd are Nuria Llagostera Vives and Maria Jose Martinez Sanchez.

Australian Open--what they said

Do you have any lucky charms or superstitions?
No, sometimes I watch things twice--like the line, the foot or the ball, but it’s nothing really important.
Francesca Schiavone

She (Kim Clijsters) said after the match she didn't feel the ball at all, and she maybe has that once a year. Do you have that sometimes or have you ever had it?
Yeah, I've had it. I've had it a lot more than once a year, unfortunately. So hopefully I won't have it too much.
Serena Williams

...I love playing in front of the Aussie crowd. Yeah, when the group of the yellow and green get going, they really get everyone else into it. Creates a great atmosphere out there. I know they're 100% behind me no matter whether I hit the ball in or out.
Samantha Stosur

With the way everything is and with the pressure, it's best if I don't play. Not because of me, but because of the team. I don't want to let the team down.
Jelena Dokic, on her decision to withdraw from Australia's Fed Cup team

He may have mentioned that he liked Venus, so I may have mentioned that I like Harry.
Serena Williams, on meeting Prince William

Dellacqua out, but not without a fight

Venus Williams defeated Casey Dellacqua in the third round of the Australian Open today. She took the first set, 6-1, but this was one of those sets whose score does not reflect the action that occurred. In the second, Dellacqua--who missed most of last season because of shoulder reconstruction--thrilled the Aussie crowd by going all the way to a tiebreak with Williams. Then she thrilled them a bit more by saving three match points when she was down 1-6. Williams then hit an ace to win the match. Dellacqua converted only one of eight break points; Williams converted three of thirteen.

In a strange turn of events, Dellacqua became Williams' third left-handed opponent in a row.

In 2008, Dellacqua defeated both Patty Schnyder and Amelie Mauresmo to get to the round of 16.

Williams' next opponent will be the fighting Italian, Francesca Schiavone, who defeated 10th

seed Agnieszka Radwanska, 6-2, 6-2. Schiavone is seeded 17th. Radwanska is now 0-4 against Schiavone.

With the exception of Daniela Hantuchova and Li Na, most of the other matches played today were uncomplicated. Li defeated Hantuchova 7-5, 3-6, 6-2. For Gisela Dulko, it was too little too late; Vera Zvonareva defeated her 6-1, 7-5.

Serena Williams defeated Carla Suarez Navarro 6-0, 6-3; Victoria Azarenka defeated Tathiana Garbin, 6-0, 6-2; and Sam Stosur defeated Alberta Brianti 6-4, 6-1.

Friday, January 22, 2010

We have a Belgian-basher, and her name is Nadia

Remember Nadia Petrova? Early in her career, she was thought to be The One among the Russians, and with good reason. Petrova has one of the best serves on the tour, she hits powerful and accurate groundstrokes, volleys very well, and is a clever strategist. What she lacked was mental toughness, but even that changed in 2006. That year, Petrova went on a clay court tear, and appeared poised to go the French Open final, perhaps emerging as the champion. But an injury she sustained during practice right before the tournament caused her to go out in the first round, and she has--for various reasons--never again attained the same level of success.

I was expecting a very close, three-set match between Petrova and Kim Clijsters in the third round of the Australian Open, but my expectations were not met. Instead, Petrova gave Clijsters a 6-0, 6-1 beat-down. Clijsters--who said she was unable to feel the ball the entire match--was considered one of the two women most likely to win the tournament, but Petrova had other plans. Obviously playing at the high level of which she has always been capable, Petrova now has to face a countrywoman, Svetlana Kuznetsova. Kuznetsova had a difficult time dealing with Angelique Kerber, whom she finally defeated, 3-6, 7-5, 6-4.

Both Kuznetsova and Petrova are known for running hot and cold, so anything can happen in their round of 16 match.

Friday cat blogging--Ziggy hangs with the girls edition

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Australian Open--what they said

I can say she broke top hundred, and I think she's better than she's ranked. So I think it just matters by time once she can get higher rank.
Dinara Safina, referring to Elena Baltacha

...we're still kind of thinking about going for the clay, not trying to avoid it as I did last year. But we'll see.
Elena Baltacha

Today was a bad game of tennis from me.
Jelena Jankovic

In the first set up two breaks, were you thinking that you were playing really well?
I wasn't actually thinking anything. That was a good thing.
Nadia Petrova

Are you a good cook?
I'm just starting, you know. Until now nobody got sick, so this is the positive.
Dinara Safina

Henin advances to round of 16

If Alisa Kleybanova wanted (and I doubt she does) to gather all the "what if"s and "if only"s and "almost"s from from her Australian Open third round match against wild card Justine Henin, she would have trouble finding a big enough box to put them in. Up a set and 3-1 and just two points form a 4-1 lead in the second set, Kleybanova fell victim to two mighty forces: the heat, and Justine Henin.

Henin looked a bit tired, was having some trouble with her left leg, and Kleybanova's big hitting put quite a bit of pressure on her. Just when the 27th seed looked like she could win the match in straight sets, however, she began to slow down and show considerable fatigue. After applying ice packs on her body, she looked less weak, but Henin took advantage and changed the momentum of the match. How many times have we seen Henin do this? She's down, then she gets an opening, crawls through it, and takes over.

Henin won the second set, then went up 3-0 in the second. But Kleybanova willed herself back into the match, and got the set back on serve. But then she was broken again, and by this time, Henin was practically performing a ballet on the court, coming out of nowhere with her exquisite backhand and taking control of the rallies. Kleybanova had break points and opportunities over and over, but she couldn't turn Henin back.

Henin's 3-6, 6-4, 6-2 victory means that, in the round of 16, she will face another Belgian, Yanina Wickmayer. Since Wickmayer had to go through qualifying, she has now played six matches. Today's match was a tough one against Sara Errani, who doesn't mind standing at the baseline for a very long time, getting back a number of balls. Wickmayer and Errani played for over two and a half hours, with Wickmayer winning 6-1, 6-7, 6-3. The Belgian hit 52 winners, including nine aces.

It wasn't all about Belgians. Maria Kirilenko, who upset Maria Sharapova in the first round, defeated Roberta Vinci 7-5, 7-6. And another Russian, 2nd seed Dinara Safina, ended Elena Baltacha's run in just 57 minutes. Safina played expertly, posting a 6-1, 6-2 score, and looking very much like the top-three player she is.

Bondarenko sends Jankovic out of Melbourne

There were times--especially in the second half of the second set--that Jelena Jankovic actually looked like herself in her Australian Open third round match against Hobart champion Alona Bondarenko. But most of the time, she was flat, slow and on the wrong foot. Meanwhile, Bondarenko--who isn't known for staying cool and collected on the court--was the picture of steadiness, serving well throughout, and repeatedly finding wicked angles just out of reach of the 8th seed's racquet.

This was a fine performance from Bondarenko, regardless of Jankovic's level of play. Though in nine other attempts, she had taken only one set off of Jankovic, this time, she got into a cross-court groove early, and stayed in it to win the match 6-2, 6-3. Bondarenko has reached the third round of a major several times, but this is her first time to reach the round of 16.

Note to Tennis Channel

I know you don't care how you pronounce the names of players who are not from the U.S., but I'm still suprised that no one has edited Kevin Frasier's "Chris Everett" out of one of your shows. As of today, I'm even more surprised that no one has edited Justin Gimelstob (who shouldn't even be on your staff)'s "Chris Everett" out of one of the new shows.

Thanks, though, for including the French Open Virginie Razzano-Tathiana Garbin match among the top 10 best shots of 2009. It was one of my favorite matches of the year, and those who didn't see it missed a great show.

A look at Henin's Melbourne draw

How much harder is the Australian Open competition going to get for Justine Henin, now that she has defeated 5th seed Elena Dementieva and made it to the third round? Is there anyone waiting for her who can beat her?

Henin's third round opponent is the spirited Alisa Kleybanova, who is seeded 27th, and who isn't one to wilt away when things get tough. Kleybanova is a big hitter, and my understanding is that she has improved her fitness.

In her first round match against Jelena Dokic, Kleybanova hit eleven aces and double-faulted ten times; she wound up winning 84% of her first serves, as well as 43% of her second serves. In the second round, when the Kleybanova played Sorana Cirstea, she won 71% of her first serves and 53% of her second serves. Her winner-to-unforced error ratio is about even so far.

If Henin defeats Kleybanova, waiting for her will be either Sara Errani or fellow Belgian, Yanina Wickmayer. And while we know that Errani can wear out the impatient with her indefatigable baseline play, I'm going to assume--for the sake of this post--that Wickmayer will advance. If Wickmayer can raise her game to the level of her second set against Flavia Pennetta, the match could be a thriller. But "if" is the operable word here.

If Henin defeats Wickmayer, then she is most likely to face either Svetlana Kuznetsova or Kim Clijsters. In the past, Henin has served as both players' worst nightmare, so either match would be dramatic, despite all the attention being paid to a potential Belgian-Belgian clash.

Should Henin make it out of the quarterfinals, she could play Jelena Jankovic (the Worst Nightmare scenario makes another appearance here), Dinara Safina, Marion Bartoli, or even a surprise semifinalist. That part of the draw is hard to predict. If Henin then goes to the final, the general assumption is that she will face defending champion Serena Williams. Williams doesn't look especially vulnerable to anyone in her half of the draw, though--if she has an off day and "goes crazy," as she likes to put it--someone could take advantage and replace her in the final.

The commentators are all abuzz about Henin's service problems, but Henin has had these problems since returning from a lengthy illness many years ago. At times, she is capable of serving very well, too, and we all know how mentally tough she is. Her draw, however, is not necessarily a walk in the park, Melbourne or any other.

That Fed Cup spirit is still alive

There are now 32 women remaining in the Australian Open draws, and five of them are Italian. Francesca Schiavone, Sara Errani, Alberta Brianti, Tathiana Garbin, and Roberta Vinci have all made it into the third round. Only Italy's top player, 12th seed Flavia Pennetta, is out, removed from competition by Yanina Wickmayer.

Brianti upset 21st seed Sabine Lisicki in the second round, and will play 13th seed Sam Stosur next. Schiavone will play 10th seed Agnieszka Radwanska, and Garbin will play 7th seed Victoria Azarenka. Errani gets wild card Wickmayer, and Vinci will play Maria Kirilenko.

Nice job, Italy!

Australian Open--what they said

...I'm playing much better than I was. It's just that expectation that sometimes I put on myself, and it's very overwhelming. And then I use so much energy. And then when it counts the most, I'm behind.
Ana Ivanovic

...your next opponent looks like Hantuchova. Tell us a little bit about that. What do you expect from her game?
Tough to play because we are good friend. Of course, we have to fighting on the court, because opponent. We can say hello after or before, but I don't think she want to say hello on the court.
Li Na

One of my favorite shots in tennis to watch is the fluid, athletic serve of Serena Williams.
Pam Shriver

Brits get through first round of doubles

In Australian Open first round doubles competition, it was a good day for the British. Three British women--Laura Robson, Elena Baltacha and Sarah Borwell--won their doubles matches. Robson, playing partner Sally Peers, defeated Jill Craybas and Abigail Spears. Baltacha and Liga Dekmeijere defeated Lucie Safarova and Aleksandra Wozniak, and Borwell and Raquel Kops-Jones (Spears' former partner) defeated Polona Hercoq and Petra Martic.

Ivanovic and Lisicki upset in Melbourne

It wasn't pretty, but Giselo Dulko upset 20th seed Ana Ivanovic in the second round of the Australian Open Wednesday. Regardless of whom you wanted to win, you had to be frustrated watching these two switch from hitting thrilling and sometimes clever shots to making careless errors, faster than you could say "mental fragility."

Dulko went up 4-1 quickly in the first set, but it didn't take Ivanovic long to catch up, and the momentum continued to swing throughout the entire match. Ivanovic won the first set in a tiebreak. Dulko fought hard to take the second set 7-5, and the third set looked for a while like it would never end. Dulko went up 5-1, but Ivanovic fought her way back to 3-5. When Dulko served for the match at 5-3, she was broken. She had a good chance to win the match on Ivanovic's next serve, but couldn't do it. Anyone who had watched the third set--and who is familiar with Dulko--could have placed good money on the probability of her not being able to win the second time she served for the match, at 5-4. And, sure enough, when she served for it the second time, she was broken again. Finally, on her sixth match point, Dulko broke Ivanovic and won the final set 6-4.

Between them, Dulko and Ivanovic double-faulted 21 times (10 and 11, respectively). Both women are capable of serving very well, but they failed to do so. It was very difficult for them to serve into the sun, so court conditions did contribute to their difficulty. Ivanovic had repeated problems with her ball toss, and--on some occasions--didn't retrieve her toss when she should have. Ivanovic--though she had good moments--looked unsure of herself throughout much of the match, including the last half of the third set.

To make matters worse, the match was officiated by a chair umpire whose bizarre overrules made me wonder how on Earth she was permitted to sit in the chair. One of them occurred on Dulko's fifth match point--which should have given her the match. All of them were inexplicable.

For all of its frailties, including a total of 146 unforced errors, the match was entertaining. Dulko hit a number of beautifully disguised drop shots, and Ivanovic played well at the net. There were 16 breaks of serve, and the match lasted 2 hours and 42 minutes.

Gisela Dulko has a problem closing matches. Ana Ivanovic has a problem with serving and with confidence. And then there is Sabine Lisicki, who just can't seem to steady herself when she needs to. I've seen Lisicki play with high accuracy and confidence, but she can also play carelessly, rushing her shots. I didn't get to see the second round match she played against Alberta Brianti, but the stats are revealing: Lisicki hit nine aces, had good service percentages, hit almost twice as many winners as Brianti...but also committed nearly twice as many unforced errors as her opponent. Brianti won, 2-6, 6-4, 6-4. There was quite a battle toward the end, but Brianti obviously hung in.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Henin advances to 3rd round of Australian Open

Justine Henin, just back from what turned out not to be retirement from pro tennis, made a noise when she reached the final at Brisbane recently. Today she made another one, taking out 5th seed Elena Dementieva, 7-5, 7-6, in the second round of the Australian Open.

There was plenty of drama in this match. Henin served for it at 5-4 in the second set, and again at 6-5, but was broken both times. Dementieva, who held set points in both sets, went up a quick mini-break in the tiebreak, but Henin then reeled off three points to become the victor.

Both women struggled with their serves, and both made 50 or more unforced errors; Henin, however, hit twice as many winners as her opponent.

Henin is joined in the third round by two other Belgians: Kim Clijsters, who defeated an in-form Tammy Tanasugarn, and Yanina Wickmayer, who upset 12th seed Flavia Pennetta.

Australian Open--what they said

I expected her to play a little bit different. I was a little bit frustrated first game because I felt she used to be more aggressive on the court. She used to play flat. I think she tries to play a little bit more with spin. And when I play her in Beijing, I thought she played more inside, yeah.
Svetlana Kuznetsova, referring to Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova

On the court, age doesn't matter....
Venus Williams

I don't look back anymore. I used to do that a lot actually. I'm fed up with doing that now. I just want to look forward. There's no need to look back.
Elena Baltacha

I noticed you did a bit of juggling on the court during the match. Have you ever considered and alternative career in soccer?
No, I don't do today my best today yet. I can do better.
Svetlana Kuznetsova

I just walk out on the court, I saw all the fans was from her. So I was a little bit nervous. Yeah, the match beginning, I just tell myself, Don't play three set. If play three set, maybe I got nervous.
Li Na

Did you feel like you had a point to prove, given that the tournament organizers wouldn't give you a wild card, they made you play qualifiers?
No, not really. I don't think I have to prove to anyone anything.
Yanina Wickmayer

Are you looking forward to the clash in Fed Cup, which is next weekend, in Poland?
Are you Polish?
Yes, I am.
That's why I was crying when you gave the prize money. That's how Polish people are.
Did you want me to give it to you?
Kim Clijsters

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Now, for the "What do I know?" department

I was looking forward to a tasty third round match between Svetlana Kuznetsova and Aravane Rezai at the Australian Open, but Rezai won't be there. The 26th seed was upset in straight sets by Angelique Kerber in the second round today. I didn't get to see this match, and I was pretty surprised by the result. Rezai is one of the players I thought might even pull off a big upset.

I also thought that, given the court surface in Melbourne, Maria Jose Martinez Sanchez would defeat Zheng Jie, but I was wrong about that, too. Zheng won 2-6, 6-2, 6-3, and the last game was a bit of a thriller itself. When Zheng served for the match at 5-3, Martinez Sanchez saved three consecutive match points. She then had a break point but could not convert it. Zheng then had a fourth match point, which Martinez Sanchez also saved. Martinez Sanchez got a second break point, but didn't convert that one, either. Finally, on her fifth match point, Zheng prevailed.

I was a bit surprised to see Elena Vesnina go out in the first round, but given her inconsistency lately, I suppose I shouldn't have been. The 28th seed lost to Tathiana Garbin, a player I enjoy watching. Melinda Czink lost in the first round, too, to Stephanie Voegele, in a very tight match--7-5, 6-7, 9-7.

Kaia Kanepi spent the last part of her second round second set looking at break points she couldn't convert. I lost count--there were around eight, then--on her first game point--Nadia Petrova won the set and the match.

Maria Kirilenko continued her winning ways, moving to the third round with a win over Yvonne Meusburger. In her first round match, Daniela Hantuchova went from 0-4 down in the third set and won against Victoriya Kutuzova. And Elena Baltacha upset 30th seed Kateryna Bondarenko in straight sets; Baltacha advances to the third round.

Wickmayer upsets Pennetta in Melbourne

When I first saw Yanina Wickmayer play--it was a few years ago in a Fed Cup match--I was impressed by the way she could pound the ball. I kept an eye on her, and I'm glad I did, because now, she's learning how to pound the ball with accuracy. Playing 12th seed Flavia Pennetta today in the second round of the Australian Open, Wickmayer looked like a woman on a mission. And the last half of that mission might be called "shock and awe," as the Belgian relentlessly whacked her forehand at Pennetta, returning shots like an animated ball machine.

In the first set, Wickmayer was always just a step ahead of Pennetta, but Pennetta used her signature tough-mindedness and cleverness to bring the set to a tiebreak. It was in that tiebreak, however, that Wickmayer completely took over, taking advantage of Pennetta's service problems, and posting a 7-2 score. After that, with Pennetta's errors increasing as her confidence shrank, Wickmayer bounded around the court with finely controlled aggression, getting the job done efficiently, with a 6-1 score.

There were some outstanding rallies, and on several occasions, it looked as though Pennetta were about to turn the whole thing around, but she just couldn't do it. I'm sure it didn't help that the only other times the two have played each other--in Linz last year, and in the recent Auckland final--Wickmayer won. It isn't easy to push Flavia Pennetta around, but Wickmayer's prior wins against her certainly must have given her confidence.

Recent events could have brought Wickmayer's spirits down, but instead, they seem to have lit a fire under her. Stay tuned...

Dementieva vs. Henin in Rod Laver Arena tonight

Though first round play continues, second round play will also be in effect today at the Australian Open, and that includes the most anticipated second round of the tournament, when 2004 Australian Open champion and wild card Justine Henin meets 5th seed Elena Dementieva. Dementieva won the Sydney lead-in tournament, and is obviously in excellent form.

Henin and Dementieva have met eleven times, and Henin has won nine of those matches. The 2010 Australian Open courts are playing rather slow, which does not give either player an advantage, since both play well on slower surfaces. The two have not played each other since 2007, however, and things are somewhat different now, in that Henin is just coming back from a non-retirement, and Dementieva now struggles less with her serve.

3 seeds upset in 2nd day of Australian Open play

Both 18th seed Virginie Razzano and 23rd seed Dominika Cibulkova were upset in the second day of play at the Australian Open today. Razzano was defeated in straight sets by Ekaterina Makarova, and Cibulkova was taken out by Vania King in a bizarre three-hour wind-filled thriller. Also, Anabel Medina Garrigues, seeded 25th, was defeated by Karolina Sprem.

Serena Williams, Jelena Jankovic and Marion Bartoli had pretty straightforward wins. Top Australian player Samantha Stosur had to go three sets, but was victorious, as was her countrywoman, Casey Dellacqua.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Australian Open--what they said

"We didn't know until 10:00 last night we were first on today. A bit tired from doing absolutely nothing."
Katie O'Brien

"I thought I played well and served good. I'm very happy to have victory...."
Ana Ivanovic

"I'm not in that [underdog] position anymore now. I'm the player that I've always played against."
Sam Stosur

The heavy bandage on your leg, was that just a precaution?
Yeah, I've been having it strapped all week, all last week as well. So just keep it up and making sure I'm able to keep moving as best as I can.
Is it for a knee problem or a hamstring situation?
Well, my age, you know, it's several...
Serena Williams

"Niculescu, I've had problems with her in the past. I'm actually hoping it's Jankovic."
Katie O'Brien, referring to her next round

And finally...clueless quote of the day--and probably of 2010:
"I don't think gender had anything to do with it. We're just so surprised when a woman does something like that."
Mary Joe Fernandez, on whether reaction to Serena Williams' U.S. Open behavior was in any way gender-based

Australian Open miscellany

Defending champion Serena Williams has never lost in the first round of a major. She won her 41st major tournament first round today.

Barbora Zahlavova Strycova and Regina Kulikova have broken an Australian Open record. Their first round match lasted 4 hours and 18 minutes, making it the longest women's match in tournament history. It should be noted, however, that the match was played in pieces because of rain delays.

I think JJ's Australian Open dress is fabulous.

The threat to move the Australian Open out of Melbourne is gone. Tournament officials have signed a $363 million contract to re-develop the tournament complex. The contract guarantees that the tournament will stay in Melbourne at least until 2036.

Anne Keothavong, who has to sit this Australian Open out, picks Serena Williams to win, and her second pick is Kim Clijsters.

Vania King, the opponent who wouldn't leave

Often, during a major tournament--on an outer court where there are no television cameras--dramatic upsets occur. Today in Melbourne, 23rd seed and French Open semifinalist Dominika Cibulkova was the victim of such an upset. She and Vania King played for just over three hours in a match that had so many odd momentum swings, it probably left people in the stands shaking their heads in disbelief.

King won the first set 6-3, which was in itself a surprise. Things got very serious for Cibulkova in the second set, when King--serving at 5-4--held a match point. Cibulkova saved that match point with a winning backhand, and went on to win the set in a tiebreak. She then went up 5-1 in the third, but King just would not give up. She saved four match points, and the next thing we knew, it was 5-all. King then held, and won the match on her opponent's next serve.

Cibulkova reached the round of 16 at last year's Australian Open, so this loss is going to hurt her ranking. King, who is ranked number 79 in the world, gets either Anna-Lena Groenefeld or Roberta Vinci in the next round.

Australian Open: Some thoughts on day 1

It wasn't what we were expecting--chilly, windy weather with multiple rain delays. The rhythm of the first day was a frustrating one, but having two courts that could be covered helped hold back some of the frustration. The weather probably left the biggest impression on me, but there were some other issues that gave me plenty to think about:

Maria Sharapova just wasn't ready to compete. It didn't help her that Maria Kirilenko played the match of her life and kept her head about her. Sharapova continued to have trouble with her serve, she was not that fast on the court, and she was repeatedly dominated by her opponent.

It was Sharapova's press conference, however, that left me with the most troubling impression. Usually, her press conferences are composed of a combination of eye-rolling barbs and dreadful cliches. And while I was glad to see and hear something a bit different, I was also somewhat spooked by Sharapova's demeanor. Thoughts of the iconic Hitchcock "icy blonde" intruded while I watched the Russia superstar contain herself so rigidly, and with such a minimum of affect, that I wondered just how tightly wound she really was. It was as though a pod person were taking Sharapova's place among the reporters: She looked like Maria, she sounded like Maria, but she appeared to have stolen the very essence of Maria.

Yanina Wickmayer appeared to have finally let herself feel all of her feelings. She apparently played terribly, but still managed to win. The Belgian has been through a lot, almost getting banned for two years, not getting a wild card, and then forced to go through qualifying. She has to be mentally tired, and one wonders if she can recover.

Watching Valerie Tetreault was a highlight of the evening. I had never seen her play before, and--while she appeared stunned by the occasion in the first set of her match against idol Kim Clijsters--in the second set, she put on a lovely display of tennis.

I wish I had gotten to see Justine Henin play Kirsten Flipkens.

Pam Shriver really needs to get away from the subject of Wickmayer (she was going on and on last night) and find something else to talk about. I do agree with her that the chair umpire in the Maria-Maria match set a poor example by allowing both players to take as long as they wanted to prepare for their serves. Can't chair umpires enforce the most basic of rules?

Wickmayer squeaks past Dulgheru

Some time after I wrote my 2009 summary, I realized--with regret--that I'd forgotten to mention Alexandra Dulgheru. Dulgheru won Warsaw, her very first tournament on the Sony Ericsson WTA Tour, beating Sara Errani, Daniela Hantuchova and Alona Bondarenko. After pulling off this highly unusual feat, she won only one more match. One imagines it was too much too soon.

She came close, on Monday, to winning a big one. Dulgheru's Australian Open first round match against would-be 16th seed (but in reality, qualifier) Yanina Wickmayer was interrupted more than once by rain. I saw very little of it, but the stats indicate that it wasn't something we'll be seeing on TV in the future. Wickmayer wound up with 80 unforced errors and 26 winners, and Dulgheru's results weren't that much better.

In the next round, Wickymayer will play either world number 12 Flavia Pennetta or former world number 6 Anna Chakvetadze. She will need to clean up her game quite a bit if she plans to compete.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Australian Open--what they said

What did you think of Maria's outfit or costume? Do you ever pay attention to things like that?
"It was blue, I think, like PowerAde...."
Maria Kirilenko

"You have to push yourself and work on your weaknesses day to day. It's not the sport where you're the best, you just win by the name. No, you have to every day work."
Dinara Safina

"So she definitely played some tricky tennis. I would like to say she's an opponent that's very hard to read. She has a technique that's really hard to read."
Kim Clijsters, referring to Valerie Tetreault

"At the end of the first set, I actually had the cramps a little bit, but nobody know."
Maria Kirilenko

How would you describe your sense of confidence right now?
"Well, I'm leaving on Monday of the first week, so that explains a lot."
Maria Sharapova

"...what I found difficult was when I went back out again, because my legs were really cold obviously from the ice. I didn't want to warm up too much because I thought, I'm gonna start cramping again. Because I'm a very physical kind of player, I like to kind of go to the back of the court and jump around and really get myself pumped up. I found it quite difficult that I had to kind of get really flat, and then just before the points I had to get myself up again, you know? That was a little bit difficult, because sometimes if you go too flat, then you just go flat full stop. Because I'm very intense all the time, I found it a little bit difficult."
Elena Baltacha, on overcoming cramps in her first round match

"Calm, calm down, it's only first round"
Maria Kirilenko, explaining her finger-to-the-lips gesture after her 1st round victory

Hit for Haiti raises $400,000

The spontaneously organized Hit for Haiti, an exhibition held yesterday in Melbourne to raise money for Haitian earthquake victims, has brought in around $400,000 The pre-Australian Open event featured two teams, including participation by three Sony Ericsson WTA Tour players--Serena Williams, Kim Clijsters and Samantha Stosur.

Tickets went for $10 a person, and many additional contributions were made. Maria Sharapova donated $10,000.

Sharapova out in 1st round in Melbourne

Maria Kirilenko, a fan-frustrating under-achiever on the Sony Ericsson WTA Tour, found all of her strengths today in her 3-hour and 22-minute Australian Open first round match against countrywoman Maria Sharapova. Kirilenko has always had a varied and sometimes elegant game, but her consistency and focus often leave her, especially when things get tough.

Not today. Kirilenko, facing an error-prone and sometimes sluggish Sharapova, held her nerve, repeatedly scooped successful forehands off the ground, and consistently moved her opponent into corners. Down an early mini-break in the first set tiebreak, Kirilenko came back to win it, 7-4. Sharapova won the long second set 6-3, and it wasn't much of a stretch to believe that she could work her way into a match win.

However, Kirilenko quickly went up a break in the third, and then went up 3-0. And even as Sharapova worked to bridge the gap, Kirilenko's confidence did not leave her. She served for the match at 5-3 and was broken, as Sharapova showed the determination for which she is known. Sharapova then held, but if there was doubt in Kirilenko's mind, it didn't show; she won on her second match point.

Because of rain, the match was played with the roof on. Just 11 minutes short of the longest Australian Open women's match in history, the sparring of the two Marias was both competitive and entertaining. Sharapova played only exhibition matches prior to the tournament, which appears to have hurt her. She struggled with her ball toss, and she committed 77 unforced errors, including 11 double faults (she also hit 9 aces).

But credit to Kirilenko, who was a tough and effective opponent, sending the 14th seed home in the first round of a major, and pulling off a newsworthy upset.

10 questions to ponder as we prepare to watch the Australian Open

The year's first major, played in intense heat, is a special kind of test for players who are just getting adjusted to a new season. Though a change in court surface has greatly reduced the number of ankle injuries at the Australian Open, the heat remains a major factor in how many players fare. The conditions are tough and require special preparation. Training in a hot climate is very helpful, and it is also essential that players hydrate even more than usual.

Partly because of the return of the Belgians, we are looking at a different mix among top players this year. Here are 10 questions worth asking before play begins in Melbourne:

1. Is Justine Henin ready to undergo the grueling conditions in Melbourne, or will her body need more time to adjust?

2. Now that Maria Sharapova has returned to using her original service motion, can she play freely without worrying about her shoulder, and can she acquire the momentum necessary to go deep into the tournament?

3. Despite her assurances that her knee injury is not serious, will Serena Williams be able to move as well as she needs to?

4. With new expectations on her, can Kim Clijsters continue to play aggressively and fearlessly?

5. Will Yanina Wickmayer be able to use her emotional fire to her advantage, and has going through her recent trials (including having to qualify in Melbourne) given her a push toward maturity?

6. Which Belgian--if any--will make it out of the "Belgian quarter"?

7. Literally, can Sabine Lisicki take the heat?

8. Will Caroline Wozniacki's psychological toughness at the Sony Ericsson Championships give her an edge?

9. Can Jelena Jankovic approach the Australian Open as a tabula rasa?

10. How will last year's emotional run affect Jelena Dokic on the Melbourne courts in 2010?

New medical rule goes into affect at 2010 Australian Open

As of now, a WTA or ATP player who suffers from--for lack of a better term--"simple cramping" during play cannot take a medical break. If an injury, such as a muscle spasm, causes the cramping, the player may take a medical break, and she may take a medical break if heat illness is the cause of cramping.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Sharapova to debut her clothing line at Australian Open

Maria Sharapova, Chang Kai-Chen, Julia Goerges, Anastasia Pivovarova, and Madison Keys will have something in common in Melbourne next week: They will all be wearing the new Maria Sharapova/Nike collection. The collection, so far, includes seven tennis dresses and a number of tand and skirt combinations. Sharapova will wear a two-layer dress in Melbourne.

Wickmayer into the Belgian quarter

Yanina Wickmayer, who should have been seeded 16th, has qualified for the main draw of the Australian Open. As a final flourish, she won her third qualifying round 6-0, 6-0. However she has been put into a quarter that already contains Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin, and--for good measure--Kirsten Flipkens.

Here is how the "Belgian quarter" breaks down:

Flipkens plays Henin in the first round. Assuming Henin wins, the wild card Belgian will then most likely have to play Sydney champion Elena Dementieva, who gets Vera Dushevina in the first round.

Wickmayer, if she gets past the first round, will most likely have to face Flavia Pennetta. Clijsters appears to have a less stressful early-round job, but--lurking in her section of the quarter are Nadia Petrova, Aravane Rezai and Svetlana Kuznetsova.

At any rate, only one Belgian--if any--will emerge from that quarter.

Quote of the day

From an interview in Melbourne with Serena Williams:

Last time we saw you in a Grand Slam, there was that little incident in New York. How is your anger management coming along?
Was it anger management, do you think?....How is your writing coming along?

Friday, January 15, 2010

Bondarenko wins Hobart

Alona Bondarenko won her second Sony Ericsson WTA Tour title today in Hobart. Bondarenko, seeded 4th, defeated 2nd seed Shahar Peer 6-2, 6-4.

To reach the final, Bondarenko defeated Lucie Safarova (by retirement), Alize Cornet, 7th seed Zheng Jie, and number 1 seed Anabel Medina Garrigues.

Bondarenko is currently ranked number 32 in the world.

Chuang Chia-Jung and Kveta Peschke won the doubles final, defeating Chan Yung-Jan and Monica Niculescu 3-6, 6-3, 10-7. Both teams were unseeded.

Australian Open experts' picks

Jon Wertheim--Serena Williams
Bonnie D. Ford--Justine Henin
Tom Perrotta--Maria Sharapova
Kamakshi Tandon--Kim Clijsters
James Martin--Kim Clijsters
Ravi Ubha--Kim Clijsters
Greg Garber--Justine Henin
Matt Wilansky--Kim Clijsters
Abigail Lorge--Svetlana Kuznetsova
Sandra Harwitt--Kim Clijsters
Steve Tignor--Kim Clijsters
Peter Bodo--Kim Clijsters