Sunday, June 01, 2008

Searchez la Femme

Lame Ladies at the French Open

Justine Henin, we miss you!

I've spent the last week watching the Tennis Channel's (once again excellent) coverage of the 2008 French Open (aka Les Internationaux de France de Roland Garros or Tournoi de Roland-Garros) at Roland Garros in Paris and I've yet to see a quality women's tennis match. Trust me, I really want to believe the erroneous hype consistently perpetuated by people who don't follow tennis seriously that women's professional tennis is better and more exciting than the men's game and that recent World No. 1-by-default (following Justin Henin sudden retirement from the WTA just two weeks before Roland Garros) Maria Sharapova is A) the sexiest Russian female athlete since Anna Kournikova and B) womens tennis' reigning Queen, but alas, I cannot do it. Myopic though they be, I still have eyes that see with proper magnification and I'm sorry to report that the women's game has never been more lame.

Ah, Justine: It was all yours for the taking

Oh, Justine, this so would have been your fifth French Open title had you showed up, even if you played half-heartedly. You could have stayed up drinking wine all night in a Left Bank cafe pondering existentialism and sulked all day on the red clay courts and still have beaten these pretenders to your throne with their dull power games and primordial grunting. The towering Amazons were there like a set of 10-pins, ready to be bowled over - 5-10 XXL Serena and 6-2 Venus Williams, 6-1 Sharapova, 6-1 Ana Ivanovic and 5-10 Jelena Jankovic. (Admittedly, Ivanovic and Jelena Jankovic are cruising through the field at Roland Garros, but then they haven't really been seriously challenged by any players of note)

Maria Sharapova seems like a nice, articulate young woman of 21. I have nothing against her, but I'm so sick of these know-nothing guys who always wink and mutter what a babe she is, in the same way they only know one other female tennis player, the ridiculously over-hyped Anna Kournikova who was never ever on tennis' radar screen. Sharapova is only hot if you think an albatross with blonde hair and pimples is hot - and that grunting wouldn't sound so sexy it you heard it coming from a bathroom stall. And as for being an "exotic Russian babe," she speaks like an American Mall Brat, having spent almost as much time living in Florida as Russia. World, get over it!

Russian Toward the Exits

And as for being the game's reigning Queen, Sharapova is still a work-in-progress. Yes, she won the Australian Open earlier this year and, admittedly, she is one of only a handful of WTA players with that increasingly rare "killer instinct" (I'd put her right behind Serena Williams in that regard) who can put games away. Even Henin, though methodic and workmanlike, had moments of "existential crisis" when it came time to closing out matches (much like her equally talented rival/headcase Amelie Mauresmo).

Sharapova: The Sound & The Fury

But at Roland Garros, Sharapova could never maintain her form long enough to close in for the kill. She should made an embarrasingly early exit in the First Round but somehow managed to escape with a 6-1, 3-6, 10-8 victory over fellow Russian Evgeniya Rodina, a match in which Sharpova had 68 unforced errors (to her inexperienced opponent's mere 28) and double-faulted 17 times! That's inexcusable at the pro level. I don't even double-fault that many times on the public courts around town! Rodina is a counter-puncher whose lack of anything remotely resembling a power game let Sharapova off the hook in the deciding third set when she was leading 4-3 and looked ready to break her opponent to go up 5-3 and serve for the match; instead, Sharapova somehow managed to hold to pull even at 4-4 and then ride it out until the end.

She then struggled through three sets with unknown American Bethanie Mattek (6-2, 3-6, 6-2), making 51 unforced errors and double-faulting 10 times. But she couldn't escape her bad form in her next match against fellow Russian (and Marat Safin's kid sister) Dinara Safina, 6-7 (6-8), 7-6 (7-5), 6-2. Safina should have won the first set and Sharapova (up 5-2 with match point and then up 5-2 in the tiebreaker befor elosing the next five points!) should have won the second set, but counter-punching baseliner Safina deserved the match by the time the pair played for all the marbles in the third set. Too bad she won't go much farther; despite improved fitness training, she's still a baseliner with limited mobility - being particularly exposed by Sharpova's drop shots.

Meanwhile, Sharapova's charm seemed to slip away as easily as her game as the end neared. According to Associated Press reporter Howard Fendrich, "Maria Sharapova did not go quietly. No, her departure from the French Open was filled with sound and fury: her stroke-accompanying shrieks, her self-loathing shouts between points and the spectators' hearty boos and high-pitched whistles that ushered the No. 1-seeded woman to the exit." After the match, Sharapova left Court Suzanne Lenglen without acknowledging the crowd, saying "I can't please everyone. It's not in my job description."

Sister Act, Deux

Of the other heavyweights in the Land of the Giants, I really thought Henin's retirement had paved the way for Serena Williams to steamroll her way to another French Open title (she won it in 2002), but it was not to be for her or big sis Venus. In fact, the Williams sisters played like they still had jet lag one week after arriving in Paris, both losing on the same day to unknowns - and they could have lost even earlier in the tournament if any of their opponents had anything close to a power game.

For too long the sisters have gotten by on pure athleticism and - in Serena's case, that inner "competitve gear" (aka "killer instinct") that she can kick into place to vanquish opponents who who dare to seriously challenge her. But Serena's lack of fitness (no matter what she says about her training, she's a big girl built more like Babar the elephant's Queen Celeste than a tennis player, and always looks out of breath whenever an opponent runs her on the court instead of letting her settle in on the baseline and dictate play with her big ground strokes) and horrible net play. Serena may have cruised to wins over overmatched fellow Yank Ashley Harkleroad (6-2, 6-1) and France's own Mathilde Johansson (6-2, 7-5), but she was found out by veteran Slovenian player Katarina Srebotnik, whose deep ground strokes, solid serving and consistent net play ran Serena ragged, 6-4 and 6-4.

Serena: Amazing Grace?

Meanwhile, Venus' reluctance to come to net (where her imposing 6-2 height and US Air Force-certified wingspan make any opponent's return virtually impossible), combined with the usual litany of high double-digit unforced errors, ensured defeat at Roland Garros. Against Israeli qualifier Tzipora Obziler - at 35 the oldest player in the tournament - Venus made 39 unforced errors (to her opponents' 17) and dropped a set before eventually pulling away 6-3, 4-6, 6-2. Obziler used steady serving, deep forehands and net volleys to scare Venus before the American finally imposed herself at the net to shorten the rallies in the final set and make the great escape from the First Round (where she has succumbed in years past to Austrian interlopers such as Barbara Schett and Barbara Schwartz).

She got legs but don't know how to use 'em

Then it was on to play another old-timer, Tunisia's stylish 30-year-old Selima Sfar, whom Venus vanquished 6-2 and 6-4, but looked not the better player for it, merely the bigger and more powerful. It was a lot closer than the scoreline suggests. Venus would eventually lose in the Third Round, upset by 26th-seeded Flavia Pennetta of Italy 7-5 and 6-3 only hours after her sis Serena had succumbed to Srebotnik.

East Side Stories

The women's draw is now strictly an East Side Story, whittled down to three Russian, two Serbs and an Estonian. At this point, it's looking increasingly like No. 2-seed Ana Ivanovic's title if she can reign in her "niceness" and continue to pummel her opponents like she did that pretty Czech girl the other day. She'll meet No. 3-seed Jelena Jankovic next in an all-Serbian semifinal. Jankovic also has a shot, but she lacks Ivanovic's big serve and I don't think she has the focus/heart/"killer instinct" yet. On top of that, she didn't look at all impressive in her 6-3, 6-2 victory over unknown Spanish qualifier Carla Suarez Navarro (who had a powerful one-handed backhand but no forehand). More importantly, Jankovic is 1-5 lifetime against Ivanovic, including a loss earlier this year on hardcourt at Indian Wells and a 0-1 record against her on clay.

Though Elena Dementieva and Dinara Safina have made it to the quarterfinals, the only other contender I see with a real chance is Svetlana Kuznetsova, who bullied Nadia Petrova 6-2 and 6-1 in another all-Russian Third Round match and should finish off Estonian upstart Kaia Kanepi in her next match. Kuznetsova should prevail over whoever wins the Dementiva-Safina match (I'll take Safina in that all-Russian quarterfinal). Even though Kuznetsova lost her way the last few years, she once had the killer instinct of a champion, winning a U.S. Open in 2004 and finishing runner-up there last year to Henin. Can she reclaim her focus to steal one away from a Henin-less French Open? We'll find out shortly.

(Oh, and in case anyone's wondering how the the contenders listed above might have done against a still-active Justine Henin: As of March 24, 2008, Henin had a career record of 4-0 vs. Ana Ivanovic - including a win in last year's French Open final -and was 9-0 vs. Jelena Jankovic, 7-2 vs. Elena Dementieva, 5-1 vs. Dinara Safina, 16-2 vs. Svetlana Kuznetsova and 1-0 against Kanepi - beating the Estonian 6-2 and 6-0 at their only meeting earlier this year in the quarterfinals at Sydney.)



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