Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Tennis Is Looking Up, Down Under

2010 Australian Open Early Round Round-up

The only thing that keeps me from getting depressed thinking about my upcoming birthday at the end of this month (my own little variant of Seasonal Anxiety Disorder) is...the first Grand Slam tennis event of the year! Here are some random thoughts about the first week's matches...

Justine Is Back, Ready to Slam!

Back for one more at the Aussie Open

She'll never be as popular as her countrywoman - and fellow un-retiree - Kim Clijsters , and she's always been too-tightly wrapped (each match seems to present an existential crisis), but Justine Henin is my favorite female tennis player and I'm glad she's back in her first Grand Slam, and only her second tournament (she lost that first tournament to Clijsters two weeks ago in Brisbane in three tight sets - after blowing match points in the second set), since retiring from the game 18 months ago. That's good for the game of tennis, as the women's pro tour needs the competition. In what commentator Chris Fowler called "perhaps the greatest second-round match in Grand Slam history," Henin met #5 Elena Dementieva, who was fresh over a big win over Serena Williams. But everyone knew how this one was gonna play out (was there ever any doubt?). Brad Gilbert nailed it best when he predicted Dementieva would get a big case of "the wobblies" (big game jitters) against an opponent who owned her on tour and the long-legged Russian went down in straight sets to her nemesis, 7-5, 7-6 (8-6).

Not Fade Away: Henin with another put-away

Dementieva was magnanimous and gracious in defeat, heaping praise on the player who hung another defeat at a major on her.

"She’s a great player,” Dementieva said afterwards, adding that it was like the petite Belgian had never left the game. "Playing against her, you really can learn a lot and improve your game. We really need these kind of players to increase the level of the game. So it’s great to have her back here on the tour.”

Dementieva: At a loss at what to do with Henin

Henin now has a 10-2 record against Dementieva, whose serve Justine broke on seven of 15 opportunities. Big wobblies indeed...

Serb and Folly

Ivanovich's ball toss form has really gone south

And speaking of poor serving, Martina Navratilova was spot-on when she pointed out the gist of former World No. 1 (ever-so-briefly), Ana Ivanovich's problems since her breakthrough year in 2008 when when she won the French Open and reached the Australian Open final. In a nutshell: She's lost her serve and hence her nerve. "Everything flows from the serve," Martina commented. "When your lose confidence in being able to hold serve, everything else follows." Ivanovic was able to get by her athletic but out-classed opponent, Shenay Perry, in straight sets (6-2, 6-3) - but don't count on her advancing too far with a serving game that is starting to resemble Dementieva's iffy form from a few years back. Navratilova quite rightly noted that Ana's serving woes all stemmed from a technical breakdown in her erratic ball toss - a technical deficiency that is also plaguing another former World #1, Maria Sharapova. Speaking of which...

Q: How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria? A: Beat Her!

I'm so glad 2008 Australian Open champ Maria Sharapova lost in the first round to her fellow-22-year-old, fellow-Roosk, fellow-Maria: Maria Kirilenko. For one thing, there was no way I could stomach Sharapova's hideous Creature from the Black Lagoon seaweed ensemble (shown below):

Sharapova as Seaweed Sally

I'm sick of these tennis stars with their sideshow fashion lines trying to pimp their game like it's red carpet time at the Oscars. Tennis players are paid to play tennis and their fans pay to watch them play tennis. If I wanna look at gear, I'll switch over to Sundance Channel's Full-Frontal Fashion show or dig out my Goth fetish mags.

My ears are also delighted that Sharapova lost, as her screeching has gotten really annoying. Unfortunately, her audio aura is never far from mind thanks to the presence of fellow Rooskie grunter Victoria Azarenka, who like Kirilenko advanced to the second round. (Click here to see a list of the Top 10 Grunters on the Women's Tour - half of whom are Russian or Belarussian - courtesy of the UK Telegraph)

Kirilenko says "Shush" to her compatriot

Another bonus to Sharapova's early exit is that it stops cold all those lazy network broadcasters like Dick "Shoulda Retired Years Ago" Enberg who babble on endlessly about her beauty and fashion sense, neither of which are justified. Sharapova strikes me as a charming personality, but when people talk about her a babe I gotta set the record straight: she's an albatross. (And certainly carries one around her neck since her shoulder injury.) Check out her 6-2 wingspan, with those wide-axle shoulders that only an ox would envy.

If you want babe-age, look no further than her first round opponent, the very-fit, very lovely world #58, Maria Kirilenko (who as a teen won a 2004 doubles title with Sharapova in Birmingham, England).

Maria Kirilenko: The Total Babe Package

Boy howdy! And the Moscow beauty turns 23 next week, which makes her a fellow Aquarian like me (albeit with decades of age difference!). Check out her official web site:


Melanie Oudin: All over but the shouting (and the finish)

Of course, another unimaginative broadcasters' fave is America's Sweetheart, world #49 Melanie Oudin, whose 15 minutes of fame expired long ago. All that blabbering about her "Heartbeat of America" pluck and Norman Rockwell spirit. Bollocks! She's still a kid and still learning the game. She got lucky last year beating some Russians whose rankings were perhaps a little over inflated to begin with (including a rehabbing Sharapova who is still not 100% and two notorious big-game chokers in Petrova and Dementieva). Anybody see Oudin in Fed Cup action in 2009? She went 1-3, needing three sets to defeat an Argentine with a world ranking of #132 (Betima Jozami) while losing to Agentina's #36 Gisela Dulko and Italy's #18 Franesca Schiavone and, in the final, #12 Flavia Pennetta. Yet she won the Fed Cup's BNP Paribas Heart Award. Pathetic - pure hype. Let's move on, shall we? I get the feeling the Great American Hopeful is just the female Donald Young. Oh, by the way, she lost in the first round to #91-ranked Russian (they're everywhere!) Alla Kudryavtseva, 2-6, 7-5, 7-5.

The Bitch Is Back

Serena says: "Feets don't fail me now!"

It's still Serena Williams tournament to lose (unless the resurgent Belgians, Henin or Clijsters, can stop her - or the very sharp-looking, very hungry world #3 Svetlana Kuznetsova, who twice has lost in the finals here - both times to Justine Henin) but Serena's already lost the sexism argument. When asked by a broadcaster about her U.S. Open final implosion last September, Serena claimed that the whole thing was blown out of proportion because she was a woman and that she would not have been penalized $92,000 for threatening the female linesperson if she was a man. WTF??? (What The Foot-fault???) Where did that conspiracy theory come from? Johnny Mac, Nasty, and Connors on their worst days never threatened a referee or linesperson like Serena did. Even Darren Cahill pipped that he thought she got off pretty lucky with not getting suspended for her U.S. Open doubles final with sister Venus the next day, pointing out that in any other sport (certainly in soccer of baseball) such behavior would have merited an automatic suspension. Serena does her best talking on the court, not off it. Play on, Serena - and watch your feet (and your mouth - it goes without saying!).

Now, I haven't caught much of the men's action, though I saw that Roger Federer had a pretty tough first-round draw against Maria Kirilenko's big-serving pal, world #37 Igor Andreev. Roger Federer had never faltered in an opening match of a major played on a hard-court surface, but he was pushed and pushed hard by Iggy. If the Henin-Dementieva match was the perhaps the toughest second round clash in Grand Slam history, you could make an argument on the men's side for this first-round match (no to mention that five-set second-rounder between Juan Martin Del Potro and James Blake). Don't forget, Andreev has a history of giving Federer a difficult time, having pushed Federer to a five-setter in the fourth round two years ago at the U.S Open. As Federer knows from last year's Wimbledon final, any time you go up against a big server, there's a chance for an upset...

And speaking of big servers, the only full match I've seen so far was Andy Roddick's first rounder against The Boy from Brazil...

Give A-Rod A Hand - But Just One!

Hands-off: A-Rod learns less is more

I'm no Andy Roddick fan, as I've always thought he was a hot-headed one-trick pony in dire need of some humility, but I think he's gotten some following his spirit-crushing defeat to Roger Federer (who else?) in last year's Wimbleton final (the match of the year and an all-time classic, as far as I'm concerned). His work ethic has never been questioned (you don't stay in the Top 10 and win at least one title a year for 10 consecutive years without being dedicated to your work!) but now he's playing really well since he's added a one-handed slice backhand to his game. In his straight-set win over young Brazilian Tomaz Bellucci, he used it almost exclusively (I don't recall seeing more than one or two two-handed backhands the entire match). As the Zen saying goes, A-Rod's new shot is the equivalent of one hand clapping.

A-Rod's backhand was always his weak spot, but since he added the slice it's become, dare I say, a weapon. No, he doesn't hit winners with it, but uses it to set up points. Another two-hander, Raphael Nadal, has similarly added the one-handed slice backhand to his ever-expanding arsenal, with similar results - as has Novak Djokovic. It may mean these players have to play additional shots instead of going for outright winners on the backhand, but that's what constructing points and strategy is all about. Just ask Roger Federer on that score!

Ok, back to watching some more late-night tennis...

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