Monday, January 23, 2017

8 women, 8 stories

There are eight women left in the Australian Open draw, and they represent a variety of interesting--and in some cases--inspiring, stories.

Serena Williams is there, competing to win her 23rd major. Williams got quite a fight from Barbora Strycova in the round of 16, but emerged the winner in straight sets. A six-time champion in Melbourne, the world number 2 will once again be the world number 1 if she wins the event. Just about everything in Serena's career is inspiring, and at 35 years old, her very realistic quest for number 23 is history-making in itself.

And then there's Venus, aged 36, who was more or less written off a few years ago because of the struggles she had to endure because of her illness (and its continual misdiagnosis, even though her symptoms were obvious). Now that she has a stable health management system, it certainly can't be easy to compete at the top  level, but here she is, in the quarterfinals. The last time she reached the quarterfinals of the Australian Open was in 2010, and she was defeated in that round by Li Na.

Perhaps the most inspiring story is that of Mirjana Lucic-Baroni, who described herself yesterday as a "tough little cookie, and very, very stubborn." Indeed. Lucic-Baroni, who is 34, was considered a tennis prodigy in the late 90s. At the age of 15, she (and Martina Hingis) won the Australian Open women's doubles championship. Two years later, Lucic-Baroni reached the semifinals in singles at Wimbledon.

It looked as though nothing could stop the young Croatian star, but sadly, she was the victim of long-term abuse from her father, which caught up with her. She left the tour, but returned in 2007, and has played the role of giant-killer ever since. Now, 18 years after her Wimbledon run, she's in another major quarterfinal, and it's hard to imagine anyone who wouldn't be heartened by this turn of events.

The rest of the stories aren't as dramatic, but they have merit. Take, for example, Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, the next-gen Russian hope who just never quite met what many considered her great potential. Pavlyuchenkova, a world number 1 junior player, has had issues with fitness and consistency, and just, well, the Russian thing. But when she's good, she's very, very good, with superb court anticipation. And here she is, into the quarterfinals.

Karolna Pliskova went from scoring a disappointing finish in major after major until last year, when she reached the final of the U.S. Open. The Czech Fed Cup beast is now arguably the hottest player on the tour, and so far, she hasn't let anything stop her in Melbourne--not even being down 2-5 in the third set to Jelena Ostapenko. And it just might be that third round-of-16 set that gives Pliskova the super-confidence she needs to become an even bigger story.

Garbine Muguruza's Melbourne story is one that's buried on page nine, so to speak. The French Open champion has moved quietly and very efficiently through the draw and has barely been noticed by commentators and fans. Yes, Muguruza can be brilliant, and then suddenly, she can just "mugu around" and drop out of competition. So far, though, she's given us no reason to believe she isn't in Melbourne to win, and she also has the advantage of knowing what it feels like to be in a really big final and walk away with the trophy.

CoCo Vandeweghe's story is one I didn't think I'd be able to tell. The hard-hitting, big-serving U.S. player has had issues with fitness and issues with consistency and self-management. She would look as though she were getting it all together, but then self-destruct yet again. But lately, Vandeweghe has done a much better job of taking control of matches. It probably hasn't hurt that she's been hanging out on the doubles court with Martina Hingis.

Finally, Jo Konta's "meteoric rise" has been much discussed this past week. Observers are shaking their heads at the Brit's sudden ascent into the top 10, but really, if you were paying attention, you weren't shocked by Konta's rise up the rankings. It seemed practically inevitable. The British star has a big, effective serve and the attitude of a winner. She has superb court-management and self-management skills. What's not to like?

The quarterfinal include three players from the USA, two unseeded players and three players who hold at least one major championship title.

Soon, there will be only four stories. Here is the quarterfinal draw:

CoCo Vandewege vs. Garbine Muguruza (7)
Venus Williams (13) vs. Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova (24)
Karolina Pliskova (5) vs. Mirjana Lucic-Baroni
Johanna Konta (9) vs. Serena Williams (2)

No comments: