Friday, January 19, 2007

Choke Hold

(Melbourne, Australia - January 18, 2007)

Serving for the match against Serena Williams at 5-4 at the 2007 Australian Open, 5th-seeded (and WTA-ranked No. 6 in the world) Nadia Petrova had a gutcheck. And the check bounced, bouncing the Russian from the tournament and proving that Nadia Petrova will never be a champion. Her meltdown against an out-of-shape Serena (who is starting to look like a small SUV with monster truck tires on the back) also proved that she will never again beat Serena Williams (she's now 1-6 lifetime, last beating her in 2004). Or, as Pam Shriver - who along with Mary Carillo is the best female tennis commtator - put it after the match, it was a battle of The Warrior versus The Wimp. Serena was clearly the proud Warrior and Petrova was once again the self-doubting Wimp whose collapse after racing to a 6-1, 5-3 lead against Williams - perhaps her best chance ever to beat an opponent who has owned her - accentuated her mental weakness, that intangible chimera on her back that has enabled her to repeatedly snatch defeat from the jaws of victory against a number of Top 10 players (like Sharapova, a Russian who knows a thing or two about putting away a match and closing the deal). It's the thing that keeps her from advancing beyond the quarter finals of the Grand Slams (for the record: Australian Open QF 2006, Wimbleton QF 2005, U.S. Open QFs in 2004 and 2005).

Petrova's Mind Games and her Dostoyevsky-like flirtation with tragic misfortune began in the second set when, unable to cope with good fortune, she allowed an on-the-run Serena to get back in the game, mentally and physically. She had break points against Serena in Williams first two service games, yet blew her chances with ill-advised shots, continually allowing a gasping Williams to stop moving by repeatedly hitting shots to her forehand instead of running her ragged corner-to-corner across the baseline. Unable to hold her own serve, Petrova found herself in a 0-3 hole. Battling back to go up 5-3, she again had Williams working to hold serve, yet let her off the hook.

At 5-4 with Petrova to serve for the match I turned the set off and started to watch Rosselini's OPEN CITY, for I knew she would get nervous and blow her chance to dethrone the 2005 Australian Open winner (Williams' last win in a major in the past two years). But came back, like a moth to the flame, to witness the inevitable meltdown. Quickly behind on her serve, Petrova blew it. At 30-40 she inexplicably tried a too-cute drop shot (why now?) when all she had to do was just put the ball anywhere over the net to beat a scrambling (and off the court) Serena. Serena held serve and then Petrova, now serving to stay in the match at 5-6, once again put herself in the hole. (What is it with these tragic Russians? Is Sharapova the only one with a killer attitude who can close out tough matches?) Serving to stay in the match, Petrova double-faulted at set point and was well on her way way down the road to ruin.

By the third set Petrova was in Anna Karenina mode, a train wreck in the making, willfully throwing herself on the tracks by falling behind 2-0, then 5-2. It was all over save the racquet smashing and self-recriminizations.

"Coffee is for closers," Alec Baldwin admonished Jack Lemmon in Glengarry Glen Ross, cutting him off from the pot for not closing real estate deals. Petrova is clearly no coffee achiever, and she let a very big pot get away from her last night. When will she get a better chance to beat Williams - unfit, rusty, nervous - again? Warrior Williams knows she always has a choke hold up her sleeve against the tentative wimps.

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