Saturday, January 23, 2016

The characters may change, but the plot stays the same

It happens now, every time a major rolls around: Many seeded players, including top ones, are eliminated in the first two rounds of play, and their elimination becomes the "shock" news. But is it really so shocking at this point? Of course, there are always going to be some upsets, which is part of the drama of sports, but this many this soon? Something is wrong.

It's easy to blame the calendar for this problem, yet the ATP uses virtually the same calendar, and its early round upsets in majors are not as consistently overwhelming as the WTA's. Many of us question players' decisions to participate in a post-season league--I still see no reason for this league to even exist--but again, the ATP participates in it, too, so it isn't a self-imposed problem just for women.

Illness has played a significant role, lately, as well as injury. But even those factors don't provide the entire answer to the puzzle. Of course, it would be easy to say "The top echelon of the women's tour is filled with head cases," but even that theory defies the consistency of the problem.

In the meantime, some seeds are doing well, thank you very much. Defending (and six-time) champion Serena Williams has looked totally stunning on the courts, and so has two-time champion Vika Azarenka (if you don't count the dabbing). 2008 champion Maria Sharapova is easily into the round of 16, and 7th seed Angelique Kerber has also skillfully eased into that round. And while she may not be a top seed (she's number 21), much is expected (at non-clay majors, anyway) of Ekaterina Makarova, and she, too, has made it look easy.

12th seed Belinda Bencic hasn't been quite as steady as the others, but she has played her way into the round of 16. And of course, 4th seed Aga Radwanska has strealthily moved through her first three rounds.

A highlight of the first week--and I'm sure, when it's all over, a highlight of the tournament--was the third round match played between Kiki Mladenovic and Daria Gavrilova. I expected this to be high quality and drama-filled, and it was. Unfortunately, I had to watch it as a replay because it occurred in the middle of the night, my time--and my luck. The more I watch these two, the more impressed I am with them, though Mladenovic clearly needs to settle down (Calling Bartoli-tamer Mauresmo! Come to the locker room now, and bring playlists!) so that the errors can be reduced.

Gavrilova, though she may be a brand new Aussie, is the darling of this tournament, and really, who better to take on that role? Not since Jelena Dokic made her dramatic comeback at the Open in 2009 has the Australian crowd had a woman who was able to stir up so much excitement. Can Gavrilova do what Dokic did and reach the quarterfinals? To do so, she would have to defeat another remaining highly seeded (10) player, Carla Suarez Navarro.  That task could get tricky, and that match will certainly be one to watch.

One can't talk about the first six days of the tournament without mentioning Naomi Osaka. The young Japanese player lost to Azarenka yesterday, which was to be expected. She undoubtedly lost so easily, however, because she sustained an injury in her 2nd round match that clearly hampered her huge first serve. It would have been interesting to see what a non-injured Osaka would have done against Azarenka, but I'm sure we'll get that opportunity at a later date. Osaka's wins over Donna Vekic and Elina Svitolina were most impressive.

Also worth mentioning is Johanna Konta, Great Britain's number 1 player, and one cool head. Konta is now in the round of 16, having defeated Denisa Allertova in the third round. It's been almost 30 years since a British woman has performed this well in Melbourne.

The story of the tournament so far, however, has to be Zhang Shuai, who until now, had never gotten past a first round at a major, despite making fourteen tries. Her dismal record changed after the Australian Open first round, in which she beat none other than 2nd seed Simona Halep. And as if that weren't enough, Zhang then defeated Alize Cornet in the second round. That would have been impressive enough, but yesterday, the 27-year-old Chinese player defeated Varvara Lepchenko, and advanced to the round of 16. Her next opponent will be Madison Keys. Before play began in Melbourne, Zhang (a qualifier, who has now won six matches) was thinking of retiring from the sport.

Play begins today on Rod Laver Arena with 12th seed Belinda Bencic challenging 5th seed Maria Sharapova. And that brings me to what I consider to be the lowest moment of the past week: It's offensive enough when commentators discuss how "Russian" Sharapova is, or when interviewers ask her if she "feels" Russian. But commentator Doug Adler actually "accused" Sharapova of being "American" (a nomenclature I don't like, but I'm not the one using it); the tone was clear. Fortunately, Elise Bergin quickly explained, in so many words, that only Sharapova can determine what her nationality is. You think?


Fred66 said...

I blame on-court coaching on the women's tour for the many seeds losing early at the Slams. They can win a lot of matches and get into the Top 20 or even the Top 10 with their coach doing all their thinking for them but as soon as they get to the Slams and they have to figure out tricky opponents on their own they are exposed as immature, flaky matchplayers. It just amazes me that the WTA thought this was a good idea, the visual of a man coming on court to tell a woman what to do and how to do it. And it's helping to create a whole generation of players who are way to dependent on their coach.

Shalini said...

Fred66 makes a very good point about the on court coaching! I also think that the shaky seeds are a sign of many good young up and comers. Many of the top seeds at this open lost to players who are still in the draw so that has to mean something.
Does anyone know what happened to Muguruza? She looked like she had received life shatteringly bad news before she stepped on the court.

Diane said...

I'm with you, Fred. On-court coaching is the worst idea the WTA ever had.

Shalini, I still haven't heard what happened to Muguruza. Clearly, something was very wrong. Also, Barbora played a gorgeous, clean match and would have made things difficult under any circumstance.

Shalini said...

Yes! BZS did herself proud. Not sure if she has a chance against Vika who is looking formidable.

Graham Giles said...

Good post Diane. Another reason why women can play erratically; I hesitate to say this as a guy here but women get, er, 'monthly' problems which men don't get and this inevitably impacts upon their performance.

There are prescription medications which are supposed to help women through this time but players are reluctant to use them because they contain compounds that show up on the banned substances list. I believe this was why Barbora Strycova had the problem she had with the tennis authorities a couple of years ago.

I doubt you'll hear too much about it though when so many sports reporters, especially at post match conferences, are both male and a lot older than the players so the players aren't likely to feel comfortable speaking up about it.

Here's a blog post by a British player discussing the problem;

Diane said...

Some of us had a discussion last night about that, Graham--it's a perfectly legitimate issue to bring up :) I think that a lot of women can do okay with an otc NSAID. Those with chronic really bad pain have the option of using a low-dose birth control pill, which works quite well. But the non-chronic, occasional bad pain is another matter. Also, migraine headaches can be triggered by menstrual distress, and there can be nausea and weakness. Just one more issue that needs to be addressed more seriously....

Diane said...

Oh, and thanks, Graham!