Friday, January 13, 2012

AusO 2012 -- The Women's Draw

Jennifer Capriati
It's time for the Australian Open. If I'm being perfectly honest, this is my favorite tournament to watch on TV. It's usually on at times that don't conflict with anything I want to watch (that's not quite as true here as it was in NYC but since the last two weeks of January are usually chock full o' reruns the AusO* being in prime time is perfect) and the sun is always shining there. I don't know what their winters are like, but if I were going to choose a different country to live in for a time (and I'd love to do that) Australia would almost certainly be the one I chose.

Plus, you usually get a handful of epic matches during the fortnight**. Andy Roddick and some guy only tennis fans have ever heard of, Pete Sampras and Jim Courier, Martina Hingis and Jennifer Capriati (twice), and Marat Safin and Roger Federer have all produced matches that really are among the most memorable of the Open Era. It used to be that many players wouldn't even make the trip down under for the AusO, giving us champions such as Chris O'Neil and finalists like Kim Warwick. You can google them if you want to know which gender they are. Fortunately that hasn't been the case for the women for about 30 years now, so my entire adult life has been filled with great AusO memories.

Rather than the standard list with comments for each player, I'm going to change it up and do it style – reporting on each quarter of the draw as its own section. Here we go.

Quarter One – Seeds (I'll only mention the ones I think are important) include Caroline Wozniacki (1), Li Na (5), Kim Clijsters (11), Jelena Jankovic (13), Daniela Hantuchova (20).

Caroline Wozniacki
I'm going to go out on a limb and say that neither Caro nor Li (I still am not confident I'm doing that right but that's how does it) are thrilled with the draws they've been handed. It's easy to say Clijsters got a rough draw because she may have to play the woman she beat in last year's final just to get to the quarter-finals this year, but she's seeded 11. She can't really bitch about where she ends up. Caro and Li, on the other hand (either a backhand or an off-hand forehand – something I was hitting a lot of before surgery), worked hard(ish) and kept their rankings high. The reward is supposed to be that you avoid playing the defending champion until the second week is well underway.

Be that as it may, this is the draw they've all been given. Wozniacki might never even get to see Li or Clijsters. She could lose to the previous version of herself in the fourth round. Caro is essentially Jankovic 2.0. Same game, same route to number one – play every week (Hingis used the same method for most of her career, but because she front loaded with five majors in her first three years no one ever called her on it). The main difference is that Jankovic always seemed bothered by the fact that she got to number one but couldn't win a major. I honestly think Caro couldn't care less. In just attitude (NOT talent), she is more Anna Kournikova and not-so-much Maria Sharapova.

Li Na
What about Li? I never thought much of her until recently. Even after she got to the final here last year, I wasn't that impressed. I thought she was sneaking in during a soft time to grab one moment of glory and then go away. And who knew how funny she is? Her assessment of her husband / coach: “For husband he always doing good job. For coach, sometimes I feeling he’s doing some stupid things.” But watching her this week in Sydney, I realized what I really love about her. When she misses, she misses like the worst hacker in the world. Balls were going into the flower pots on the side of the court, hitting the backdrop, the bottom of the net. One ground stroke hit the baseline – on her side of the court. And still she got to the final. This is someone who can forget the point she just played pretty quickly. She's, at least on paper, the favorite to get to the semi-finals.

Kim Clijsters
Of course, Clijsters may have something to say about that. Or she may not. It's hard to know where her game is right now. She didn't play for months, then got hurt in her first real tournament of the year. She's proven that one thing she has in common with Serena Williams is that she can walk into a major tournament cold and beat just about everyone in the draw without too much trouble. But her motivation is questionable. I know her goal is to play the Olympics in London this summer, but I think it's just as likely she'll be pregnant with her second child before the French Open. One thing in her favor is that she plays Daniela Hantuchova in the third round. That's good because IF she beats her, she'll almost definitely be ready for Li and Caro. It says a lot about her AND the state of women's tennis that even after barely playing since the French Open last year, she's still a threat to win the whole thing.
Semi-finalist from Q1 – Clijsters (I can't bring myself to bet against her)

Quarter Two – Seeds include Victoria Azarenka (3), Aggie Radwanska (8), Francesca Schiavone (10).

Vika down as usual
Yawn. I suppose it's fine that I burned about 800 words on the first quarter because I have little to say about this two-bit town of a quarter. For about the fourth (or 40th) time in a row, Azarenka comes roaring into a major with all the momentum. She just won Sydney. She's playing great. This is her time. Except it never is. And unlike Wozniacki, she's got the game to win a big one. Except she never does. Half the time she doesn't even finish. If only she got to play Serena Williams every time out. Not because she beats Serena (she's 1-6 against her) but because she COMPETES against Serena. If Vika could bring that game and that fire to every match she played, the only person she'd ever lose to would be Serena. Instead, it's entirely plausible that she'll hit herself out of a win against Radwanska in the quarter-finals. Or she'll literally hit herself by walking into a wall and get knocked out that way. It's a coin toss.

Aggie Radwanska
Radwanska ended 2010 playing pretty good tennis. She got to the semi-finals in Sydney, where she lost to Azarenka. But she won the first set 6-1, so it's not like she can't compete with her. She beat Vika last fall in Tokyo. Of the top eight seeds, Radwanska has by far the sweetest draw. Unfortunately she doesn't really have enough game to do anything about it. Even if she gets to the last four, she has to hope Clijsters or Li self-destruct. She has nothing to beat either of them.

The only other dangerous player in this quarter is Schiavone. I like her, so I hope she does well. I just think in a fourth round match with Radwanska, Aggie is playing too well to lose to her.
Semi-finalist from Q2 – Radwanska (I'm as compelled to bet against Azarenka as I am to bet for Clijsters)

Quarter Three – Seeds include Maria Sharapova (4), Vera Zvonareva (7), Serena Williams (12), Sabine Lisicki (14).

Maria Sharapova
The draw as a whole is bottom heavy. But the bottom half of the draw is top heavy. This is the quarter with the most potential to produce the champion. It is unlikely that it will be Maria Sharapova, but she could stay in the tournament long enough to rack up triple digits in double faults (which she should reach by the quarter-finals). The one thing that is certain is that Maria won't go home because she gave up. It's hard for me to root against her (even though trying to watch one of her matches is like watching paint dry while someone continually flicks turpentine at you) because she competes so hard until the bitter end. I respect that a great deal. I really hope she has another major victory in her, but she's got to pull that serve together if she's going to do it.

I'd have a lot more to say about Zvonareva if she weren't staring down the barrels of Serena Williams' guns in the fourth round. If ever Vera were going to pull it together to win a major, I believe it would be here. It's the most forgiving of the slams. Fragility isn't always a deal-breaker. Just ask Jennifer Capriati, who won the AusO twice. But she's not likely to beat Serena. She's only beaten her twice in her career and one of those times was last summer in Serena's first tournament back after her brush with death. Williams will be looking to exact her revenge.

What about Serena? The poet Madonna once said, “Time goes by. So slowly.” But it does indeed go by. And if we compare Serena's career to Madge's, you might say Serena is at about Confessions on a Dancefloor. There's no doubt that she can still come up with the goods, but it doesn't seem as spectacular now. I don't think Serena's game is gone by any means, but her time might be gone (or at least going). She's got the same motivation issues as Clijsters and if her sister can't come back in any meaningful way, this might just not be what Serena wants to be doing anymore. That said, she has as good a chance as anyone to win this. Contradictory? Exactly.

Sabine Lisicki
If it were ever someone's moment to stand up and be noticed, this is Sabine Lisicki's. She got to the semi-finals of Wimbledon and the round of 16 at the US Open last year. She's got all sorts of game. She's also snake-bit with injuries and illnesses. Of the 128 players in the women's draw, she is the most likely to spontaneously combust in the middle of a point (only because Azarenka would set herself on fire rather than have it happen randomly). If she can hold it together and hold her nerve, she could have a hell of a story to tell come the end of the month.
Semi-finalist from Q3 – Serena Williams

Quarter Four – Seeds include Petra Kvitova (2), Sam Stosur (6), Ana Ivanovic (21).

Six of the nine players who have won major tournaments in their careers are in the bottom half of the draw. The two most recent champions are in this quarter. So you might think me cheeky for contending that Q3 is the better quarter. Well, consider this. Since 2008, no one not named Serena William or Kim Clijsters has followed up a slam victory with another slam victory. Not just consecutively; not at all. Period.***
Petra Kvitova

Steffi Graf
Mary Pierce

If anyone has the potential to join that elite group, it's Petra Kvitova. I was watching her play the other day and it was like I was watching a composite of Mary Pierce, Steffi Graf and Maria Sharapova (only left-handed). She hits everything like she means it, and walks around the court the same way. But up a set and a break against Li this week, with a chance to become number one if she won the tournament, she just went away. Is she really ready to be the next big thing? We'll see.

Evonne Goolagong
Sam Stosur
Sam Stosur is the current US Open champion. Of all the other majors, this court surface is most similar to the one in New York. Only slower. Often significantly slower. And it's been awhile since an Aussie has been able to win the AusO. It used to happen all the time. I'm pretty sure Margaret Court and Evonne Goolagong have 375 AusO championships between them. But to find the last Australian woman to hold the trophy you have to go all the way back to 1978 when – you guessed it – Chris O'Neil won. But almost certainly one of these two women will be the semi-finalist from this quarter.
Ana Ivanovic

Ana Ivanovic? She's just pretty and I like her name.
Semi-finalist from Q4 – Petra Kvitova

Clijsters def. Radwanska (three sets, come from behind)
Kvitova def. Williams

Kvitova def. Clijsters (three sets, the last of which will be about as pretty as Margaret Court)

*I just coined the term AusO as the shortened term for the Australian Open. If you like it, spread it far and wide. Just remember, you heard it here first.
**I completely agree that fortnight is kind of a douchey word, but it works well when talking about a two-week tennis tournament.
***Svetlana Kuznetsova owns two major championships, but only one of them was won since 2008.

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