Sunday, January 19, 2014

Sharapova melted by Pocket Rocket at Australian Open

Where seeds fall, flowers bloom. It takes a bit of rain, and apparently, a lot of heat. Today it was 3rd seed Maria Sharapova who fell in the Australian Open  round of 16. Sharapova made her exit courtesy of Slovak Dominika Cibulkova, who now advances to the quarterfinals.

Sharapova served for the first set at 2-5 and was broken at love. She then broke back at 30 on her second set point when Cibulkova double-faulted. But even after she won the first set 6-3, Sharapova looked vulnerable. It was clear that she had to fight very hard against an opponent who had gotten the better of her in the past because she knows how to force the Russian into engaging in long rallies.

Sure enough, Cibulkova broke right away in the second set, and then easily held. Sharapova didn't win a game until she broke for 1-5. Then she held and broke again, but Cibulkova won the set 6-4.

After the second set, Sharapova took a medical timeout for a hip strain. There's a bit of irony here, since Sharapova's opponent has practically lived with a thigh or hip strain for much of her career, though she's been unbandaged and moving freely in Melbourne. Broken right away in the third set, Sharapova had to fight impressively to get to 1-3. And that was that: It was the only game the Russian won in the final set.

It was hard to tell how much the strain was bothering the Russian star. One of the commentators noted that, when there's a tweaky injury like that, a player just to wait and see how bad it's going to get, and then she can play on with relative comfort. That appeared to be the case today, but of course, only Sharapova knows. At any rate, Sharapova was outhit and outplayed by Cibulkova, who really does seem comfortable with her new racket, and who is hitting the ball as hard as ever. 

Cibulkova's second serve was quite impressive; Sharapova's wasn't. Sharapova also double-faulted eight times. What happens next for 'Pova? That's a conversation for another time. But, as she said after the match, she feels lucky to be healthy and back on the tour.

I wanted to burn insense in Hisense Arena after the Jankovic-Halep match, just to remove the bad vibes. This was Jankovic in her foulest mood, yelling at her box incessantly, failing to appear on the court when she was supposed to and forcing her opponent to just stand there and wait, and then--wait for it--complaining because Halep was playing too slowly. Throughout this drama, the chair umpire just sat there, apparently believing it was better to just let things take their course.

The players have such similar games that I wondered if either of them could really grab onto anything to get some momentum. During certain stretches of the match, they did both seem to be moving through Jell-O in order to make their shots. Halep took the first set 6-4 and then fell apart in the second. She became especially deficient in her serve. After the match, she said she had become suddenly very tired during the second set. I've heard Halep say this before, and I wonder what's going on there. At any rate, it didn't take much effort for Jankovic to win the second set 6-2.

It really looked like it was over for Halep, but she arrived for the third set a different woman. She picked her serve up again, and went into a very aggressive mode. Jankovic didn't win a game. Part of the reason for this lopsided score, however, was Jankovic's rash of unforced errors. She was just a mess. As for Halep, she needed to be more aggressive earlier in the match and not give herself so much work.

This is the Romanian's first time to reach a quarterfinal in a major. Her quarterfinal opponent will be Cibulkova.

And then there was Victoria Azarenka vs. Sloane Stephens. Hello, commentators! Azarenka is the two-time defending champion. That means she has actually won the Australian Open twice, and that she really exists. And after a week of "Blah blah Sloane," "Oh my Sloane"--it's the defending champion who will play in the quarterfinals. Did I say that Vika won in straight sets?

I couldn't really get that involved in the match. I was watching two matches at once, and as crazy as the Jankovic-Halep match was, I found it more interesting. I suppose it had never occurred to me that Azarenka would be upset by Stephens, so I just kind of watched that match in order to keep up with it. One of the things I did notice, however was that Stephens kept slipping in and out of killer mode and "I'll just stick around and see what happens" mode. You don't do this with Azarenka. She's a great mover, and she's equally adept at the baseline and the net. Stephens has a lot of skills, but she doesn't seem to have that much belief. Or maybe she lacks focus.

At one point, Stephens hit Azarenka in the groin with the ball. (Save that kind of thing for Liezel Huber, I say.) A couple of points later, Stephens had to duck because Azarenka's backhand volley was sailing directly for her head. Stephens smiled--and then applauded.

Azarenka's 6-3, 6-2 victory gives her a quarterfinal slot opposite the winner of the Agnieszka Radwanska vs. Garbine Muguruza match, which is yet to be played.


Todd.Spiker said...

You could tell about when the ESPN2 commentators apparently gave up Stephens: at 3-1 in the 2nd set, Evert started wondering aloud whether Sloane was really invested in the match, whether she wanted to get out of the hole she found herself in, and how she had "the pressure of the world on her shoulders" (nevermind that Evert said that Stephens had no pressure on her going into the match)... then a graphic went up showing the women who've three-peated as AO champions.

At that point, you could almost hear uninitiated viewers asking, "So... Azarenka's won this thing two years in a row? First time I've heard of it." After the match was over, Gilbert and McKendry talked of Vika's AO match winning streak and how she was the "overwhelming favorite" to take the title.

Hmmm, I guess they misplaced those notes BEFORE the match.

sunny nine said...

Who put that pressure on Stephens' shoulders? I heard Evert say something about maybe she had been touted too highly. The American media, and especially ESPN2 have touted her over and over and over and....again. Pressure is often coming from people like them.
Also I come back to something I said to you Diane, maybe privately, can't remember. It is all well and good that Stephens is performing at majors but it is the "small" tournaments (as she calls them) where she just doesn't care or can't win. Stephens NEEDS to focus on those tournaments (mandatory, premier 5's) to get far enough to play the top players. Then she may gain understanding into Azarenka, Li Na, even Serena. She has never reached a final of any WTA main tour. Stephens' has talent and I thought had improved but the negative body language didn't let us see if the improvement was there.