Saturday, September 5, 2009

At Flushing Meadows, Many Fallen Women

Victoria Azarenka is the latest top-seeded women's player to lose at the U.S. Open. Photo by Philip Hall courtesy of usopen.org.



THE seeds are falling! The seeds are falling!

There is an epidemic of top-seeded female players being upset at this year’s U.S. Open in the early rounds. At the end of Day 5 yesterday, the number stood at 10. Count them, TEN, of the top 20 players out.

It started with beleaguered former World No. 1 and last year’s French Open champion Ana Ivanovic of Serbia (11) who was sent packing in the first round by Ukranian, Kateryna Bondarenko. The latest casuality came yesterday afternoon when the No. 8 seed Victoria Azarenka of Belarus was eliminated in the third round by No. 25 seed Francesca Schiavone of Italy.

By comparison, on the men’s side, only two of the top 20 players are out – No. 18 Dave Ferrer of Spain in the second round to Jose Acasuso of Argentina and No. 19 Stanislas Warwinka of Switzerland in the first round to Nicolas Lapentti of Ecuador. In fact, on the men’s side, only two Top 10 players have dropped a set – No. 2 seed Andy Murray of Scotland, and Spaniard (3) Rafael Nadal, who last night got a minor scare from 32-year-old Nicolas Kiefer of Germany in the most electric match featuring a highly-seeded player all tournament.

On the women’s side the highest ranked players in the top 20 to go are the fourth and fifth seeds, Elena Dementieva of Russia and Jelena Jankovic of Serbia, respectively. In the top 10, the number is three, including Azarenka. Also out: Agnieszka Radwanska of Poland (12), Marion Bartoli of France (14), Samantha Stosur of Australia (15), Virginie Razzano of France (16), Amelie Mauresmo of France (17) Patty Schnyder of Switzerland (19).

There is even trouble at the very top. No. 1 seed Dinara Safina has struggled all tournament, needing three sets to beat both opponents so far, providing more fodder for those intimating that she is not qualified to be the No. 1 player in the world. Will she be in better form today when she meets Petra Kvitova of the Czech Republic? Venus Williams looked so rickety in her first round match that the commentators were calling for the record books to ascertain whether a No. 3 (or Venus herself) seed had ever exited in the first round of a Grand Slam. To her credit, Venus has pulled it together for the moment. She'll need to be in top form for her next match.

What’s going on in women’s tennis. Is it nerves? Serves? Lack of belief? Conditioning? State of mind? I think it’s a bit of all of the above, and some intangibles that a name can’t be put to. One can only hope they will be addressed straightaway for the good of the players, the game and the fans. Yet, this turbulence does have an element of excitement because it suggests that there are a number of strong up and coming players – future champions, perhaps – who will keep the women’s game interesting, attractive and, lucrative. On the otherhand, did the spoilers just get lucky? Of the 10, four lost in the next round; six will play today.

Does the turbulence also say something about a damning lack of consistency at the top of the game? Heretofore, the results of this week on the women’s side – in professional tennis, period – were unheard of in Grand Slam tennis. It is on these stages that players typically bring their A-game. Once upon a time, you could go your own way the first several days of a Grand Slam. When you tuned in on the weekend, you knew you would see Chris and Martina and Hana and Pam and Zina and Steffi and Monica and Gaby and Lindsay and Jennifer ...

ED fans who have not been keeping up with the U.S. Open, will be in for a surprise if they tune in today to see that it is not she who will be playing Maria Sharapova, but the 17-year-old Georgia peach, Melanie Oudin. Dementieva’s upset was shocking really. Of late, she’s been one of the most consistent players on the tour, particularly during the U.S Open series. She’s worked extremely hard on her serve and it has paid off. She was impressive in her wins over Serena Williams and MS to take the Rogers Masters last month. But MO took the match from ED. The match stats show that it was close, and ED’s serve did not let her down, though she did have nine double faults to MO's three. MO will be way out of her depth in her third-round match against MS this afternoon, who no doubt prefers her to ED.

Some of the upsets were technical only. Kim Clijsters prevailed over 14-seeded Marion Bartoli, but Clijsters is unseeded only because she has not been playing. The former world No. 1 came out of retirement after motherhood and being bitten by the tennis bud. This is the 2005 U.S. Open champion. Incidentally, she beat Venus in the fourth round on her way to that championship and she meets Venus in the fourth round tomorrow ...

It may be frustrating, humiliating and discombobulating, but the women’s game is not a snoozefest, a claim that some don’t believe can be made for the men’s. “Let’s go back to the boring, predictable men’s tennis,” Pam Shriver almost spat as she finished calling Azarenka’s loss yesterday.

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