Sunday, January 21, 2007

Mauresmo and Jankovic melt down; seeds fall like Australian rain

Fans of Amelie Mauresmo, and I count myself as one of the biggest, have come to expect bad days from her. In her round of 16 match agains Lucie Safarova, defending champion Mauresmo could not find her service game, and also forgot to use her recently-polished agression, giving the young Czech the win of her career.

Safarova had a very good 2005, and then sustained injuries in 2006 that kept her out of many tournaments. When she returned, her confidence was low, but playing in the Hopman Cup this year reignited her spark and made her ready for the Australian Open. I saw Safarova play in the 2006 Family Circle Cup, and was impressed with her cracking serve. It probably won't be enough to get her past countrywoman Nicole Vaidisova in the quarterfinals, however. Vaidisova made short work of Russia's Elena Dementieva, whose game has been on the skids lately.

For a week, the ESPN commentators talked about "the upcoming Hingis-Safina quarterfinal match" as though it were a done deal. This really surprised me since Safina's round of 16 opponent, Li Na, has done nothing but improve over the past several months. Li has raised her game to a level that I thought would likely get her past Dinara Safina, and it did. Now she faces Martina Hingis; they have never played each other (both took very long retirements from the tour), and the match should be a good one. Hingis's serve at this Australian Open is better than it has ever been in her career, and the contest is wide open. At this point in the tournament, Hingis simply has to keep the good serving up or she will be in trouble.

Li, by the way, had a 75% first serve percentage against Safina, and she scored with 72% of those serves.

Had Jelena Jankovic not played two weeks of grueling, non-stop tennis (she won Auckland, then made it to the finals at Sydney), I would have predicted a comfortable win for her over Serena Williams. But given what Jankovic's body and mind had gone through, with only one day of rest, I thought she would be gone by either the third round or the round of 16. She played miserably against Williams--so miserably, it didn't even look like Jankovic across the net. Williams, for her part, was a lot of fun to watch and did some incredible shot-making. However, her next opponent, Shahar Peer, is a lot fresher than Jankovic was, and will probably give the out-of-form Williams some trouble. Peer easily defeated the number 3 seed, Svetlana Kuznetsova in the round of 16.

Jankovic, in my opinion, is so loaded with talent that she is destined to win a Slam. But she also suffers from poor judgment. Her emotional meltdown over a line call at Wimbledon kept her out of the final, even though she was only five points from defeating Justine Henin-Hardenne. Given the heft of her talent and the likelihood that she would go far in both tournaments, it was not a good idea for Jankovic to play both Aukland and Sydney.

Maria Sharapova faces former top-10 player Vera Zvonareva, who ran over phenom and super-forehand Ana Ivanovic. This will be Sharapova's first real test (not counting the heat illness in the first round). People sometimes forget what a terrific player Zvonarareva is; her tumble from the rankings was due to her emotional difficulties on court. This should be a very good match, and has the potential to be a thriller.

Patty Schnyder meets phenom Anna Chakvetadze next. Schnyder has the skills to dismantle the game of almost anyone on the tour, but she doesn't seem to have the mental toughness to do it on a consistent basis. She is one of my very favorite players, and it isn't easy, being a Patty Schnyder fan. She took Alicia Molik out in the third round, and she can take Chakvetadze out. Will she? Chakvetadze is one tough phenom. She had problems for a while because of her court emotions, but she appears to have matured enough that her feeling are no longer an issue.

Kim Clijsters faces former world number 4 Daniela Hantuchova, and unless Clijsters has one of her meltdowns, she should easily move on to the quarterfinals.

Seeds 2, 3, 5, and 7 are already gone from the tournament (as well as ninth seed, Safina and phenom hope Jankovic), and the round of 16 isn't even over yet. Long rain delays and heat delays and the terrible Australian heat can probably be factored into some of this topsy-turvy turn of events. Some fans began with two most-likelys--Sharapova and Clijsters, and some of us also though Mauresmo stood a good chance to defend. Sharapova and Clijsters are still around, and suddenly, the walking wounded Serena Williams is looking good, too, though I still think that--when faced with a player who isn't about to drop from exhaustion--Williams will exit.

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