Saturday, June 28, 2008

Grass Stains: Upsets Continue at Wimbledon

More Top Seeds Find Their Ass Is Grass

What a week of upsets at the All England Club!

On Wednesday, Australian Open champion and No. 3-ranked Serb Novak Djokovic fell to a focused comeback veteran, No. 75-ranked Marat Safin. On Thursday, 2004 Wimbledon champion and World No. 3 Maria Sharapova was defeated by 154th-ranked upstart Russian Alla Kudryavtseva and two-time men's runnerup and world No. 6 Andy Roddick was ousted by "the other Serb guy," the 40th-ranked Janko Tipsarevic. But the biggest upset was still to come...


World No. 1 Ana Ivanovic was mowed down in the third round of Wimbledon on Friday by 133rd-ranked wild-card Zheng Jie of China in straight sets, 6-1 and 6-4 - the latest victim of a series of upsets on the greens at the All England Club.

A Zing and a Zheng!

This was a collossal upset of David and Goliath proportions. Not merely because of the disparity in rankings, but because the towering 6-foot 1-inch 152-pound Ivanovic was undone by a tiny Chinese woman standing no higher than 5-feet 4-inches tall and weighing 130 pounds. I've been watching tennis long enough to know Asian women don't fare too well on the Eurocentric-dominated pro tour and in Grand Slams (except in doubles), mainly because they're fairly small. I know that sounds like a racial stereotype, but in tennis size (and especially height) matters. (Yes, Michael Chang won his lone Grand Slam at the French Open in 1989, but show me another Asian player who's a threat at the Grand Slams today.)

Zheng Plays Serb & Volley

The upset was also one for the record books, as Zheng became the first Chinese player ever to beat a reigning World No. 1. Speaking of record-breaking, Zheng was also the first Chinese player of her generation to break through at a Grand Slam event when she reached the Round of 16 at the 2004 French Open. And the first to win a Grand Slam when she teamed with Yan Zi to win the 2006 Australian Open doubles title. Zheng also helped China save face at the 2006 Asia Games by winning a gold medal in singles after top-seeded Na Li and the doubles team of Li Ting and Tiantian Sun were upset.

Ivanovic's loss also points out the sorry state of the WTA tour in the wake of Justin Henin's retirement. No one wants - or has the chops - to be the Queen! I seriously think that if Henin had stuck it out for another year she could have bagged the French, and U.S. Open crowns and seriously challenged the Williams sisters for the Wimbledon title (which increasingly looks to be an all-Williams sisters final this year). (Of course, the petite Henin - all 5-feet 5 1/2-inches and 130 lbs of her - was the exception to the Size Matters Rule, but then she had that "backhand for the ages" and French Existential Grit.)

Zheng Jie and Yan Zi at the 2006 Australian Open

Still, Chinese women seem to be the coming New Wave in women's tennis, following the ascent of the Russians in recent years, no doubt inspired by the 2004 Summer Olympics (where Li Ting and Tiantian Sun won the gold medal in women's doubles) and the upcoming 2008 Olympics in Beijing. Four Chinese women are in the top 100 singles: three from the People's Republic of China - Yan Zi (No. 44), Na Li (No. 45) and Shuai Peng (No. 55) - and Taiwan's Yung-Jan Chan (No. 72). And they excel in doubles, which gives them a volleying ability sorely lacking from most of today's big, heavy-hitting baseliners. In fact, the 24-year-old Zheng is known more as a doubles player, having won Grand Slam doubles titles in 2006 at the Australian Open and Wimbledon with Yan Zi (she's won 11 doubles titles with Yan Zi) and being ranked as high as No. 3 in doubles that same year (those Grand Slam wins also helped her achieve her career-best overall ranking of No. 27 in 2006). Her descent to No. 133 is partly due to complications arising from an ankle injury; needless to say Zheng's ranking should rise shortly after Wimbledon.

"How do you like us now?"

I think Ivanovic is a charming and talented young woman, but her imposing physique masks an inner fragility and vulnerability - clearly, she's finding the weight of being No. 1 to be too much to handle. Ivanovic had ascended to the No. 1 world ranking after beating Dinara Safina in a battle of nerves in the French Open final earlier this month, but her nerves undid her at Wimbledon. On Wednesday, the 20-year-old Serb barely squeaked by crafty French veteran Nathalie Dechy, who was two match points away from a win before a net cord and a lucky bounce opened the door for Ivanovic's eventual "Great Escape" in three sets. (The classy Gallic beauty Dechy, whose biopic would have to star Juliette Binoche, also suffered a freak "equipment" violation when she hit a winner against Ivanovich but had to replay the point because her hat fell off her head onto the field of play!) But there was to be no escape against the diminuitive but hard-hitting Zheng, who returned well and sent a barrage of flat, low and deep shots at Ivanovich that had her pinned to the baseline.

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