Thursday, January 25, 2007

Quick--someone do the Heimlich maneuver

The women's quarterfinals and semifinals at the Australian Open were largely unsatisfying because of an epidemic of choking among top players. Though it can be argued that Shahar Peer lost her quarterfinal to Serena Williams because of last-minute fear, her overall performance was strong and steady--typical of the young Peer. But the other rounds left a lot to be desired.

Martina Hingis faced an especially errror-prone Kim Clijsters. To be fair, though, at least half of the errors that went down on paper as "unforced" were indeed forced--by the guile of Martina Hingis, who is still the best point constructor in the business. Hingis drew Clijsters around the court, trapped her in corners, and changed the pace on her at key moments. She took the first set, too, but Clijsters stepped it up to take the second. Hingis began the third set with a break, but later, seemed to fade, not physically--fitness no longer appears to be an issue in Hingis's comeback--but rather, mentally. She said later that it concerns her that she is no longer free-swinging and fearless.

The other problem is that Hingis's newly improved serve, which she desperately needed, gave out on her by the quarterfinals. Had she served the way she did in the other rounds, the outcome may have been different. I'd say that her service game was a big part of her loss, but the other part was definitely a choke toward the end.

The Sharapova/Chakvetadze quarterfinal was another exercise in frustration. Using Hingis-like tactics (she is sometimes called Little Hingis) to throw Sharapova off balance, Anna Chakvetadze put on an impressive show of clever tennis in the first set, but was clearly nervous. She lost the set in a tiebreak, and her performance in the second set was very good, but both sets shared one characteristic: Chakvetadze would go to great lengths to set up a winning point--often with impressive strategy--then, when the moment came to hit the winner, she would blow it. Many of these were easy shots, too. In the end, Sharapova took it, 7-6, 7-5, because a tactically superior Chakvetadze choked.

But Chakvetadze's choke was small-time compared with the one that followed. Surprise semifinalist Serena Williams (the same Serena Pat Cash said would "never return to the top again") played the hard-hitting, very talented young Nicole Vaidisova, and if ever the term "deer in the headlights" applied to a tennis match, it was here. The match was entertaining, largely because Williams pulled out every shot she ever had, and I give Williams all credit. But she had some help from the temperamental Vaidisova, who, after she lost the first set tiebreak (in which Williams double-faulted on both her serves at one point, giving her opponent a huge opening), promptly returned to her chair and broke her racquet. This is typical behavior for Vaidisova, and if it had helped her purge her anger, it would have been okay.

But it didn't. Vaidisova returned to the court for the second set a different person. She looked mopey and slumpy, and before she knew it, she was down 1-5. This was when the match became interesting because suddenly, Vaidisova's body language changed, and you just knew she was about to surge. She did, winning the next three games. She also saved five match points, but Williams prevailed on the sixth.

There were a couple of truly terrible line calls in this match, and the umpire just sat there like a brick. Under the new challenge system, some umpires neglect their duties and leave the whole responsibilty to the players. When Vaidiosova got a bad line call, she didn't challenge it, for reasons we will never know. And when Williams got one toward the end of the match, she couldn't challenge it because she had used up her challenges under this new--and terribly flawed--system.

The hallmark of the match, however, was that Vaidisova could not handle the pressure of a Grand Slam semifinal, and it probably didn't help that Serena Williams was on the other side of the net. As Mary Carillo said, "I'm number 81 in the world--just try to beat me!"

The other semifinal was between Maria Sharapova and Clijsters, and we will probably never know what Clijsters was thinking while she was on the court. Known for sudden meltdowns, the extraordinarily athletic Belgian, playing in her final Australian Open, hung around the baseline while her opponent--who used to be afraid to go to the net--repeatedly rushed the net and hit winner after winner there. The maturity of Sharapova's game was on complete display in this match, just as it was throughout the U.S. Open. The pattern never changed: Clijsters stayed back, Sharapova moved forward and won points. Sharapova won the match, 6-4, 6-2, despite playing a terrible service game and double-faulting eight times.

Sharapova's service game has been off throughout the tournament, and if she cannot get it back, it could spell trouble for her in the final, despite the fact that she is expected to win. Serena Williams may not be in top form, but she has knocked out some pretty talented players (albeit with their help) to get to the final.

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