The Sharapova Express Derails

FLUSHING MEADOWS, NY – The Maria Sharapova Express hit a derailment today.

The 2006 US Open Champion was supposed to go pretty far in this tournament after fully coming back from her shoulder surgery and receiving the No. 3 seed.

But Italian Flavia Pennetta had something else to say about that with a 6-3 3-6 6-4 win over the Russian by the way of Florida in the third round of the US Open.

“I made way too many unforced errors,” she said.  “I fought back to get myself back in the match in the third set.  I think the first three, four games on every game I had a chance to win that game, whether it was a breakpoint or it was a game point on my serve, and I didn’t win those games.

“When you’re done 1‑4 and you get yourself back in a position where can you win again and start making errors, it’s just too inconsistent to win the match against her.”

Sharapova committed 60 unforced errors with 29 coming in the first set and 12 double faults in the match compared to only 35 self inflicted wounds by her Italian counterpart and only six giveaways.

She said she didn’t “feel comfortable” all game and just couldn’t get on track.

And when she got it in the third Sharapova couldn’t sustain her undefeated 2011 in third set. And even with that kind of confidence, it didn’t matter.

“I never think I’m going to lose the match, no matter if I’m 1‑4 or 0‑5,” she said. “I don’t have that mentality that I’m going to lose no matter how bad or how good I’m playing.  You can’t have that mentality.”

And thus another disappointing Open for the Russian. Even though she went to the Finals at Wimbledon, the 24 year-old leaves Flushing before Labor Day with the hopes of maybe a better Asian season this fall.

“I’m not really looking forward to a 14‑hour flight in a couple of weeks,” she said dryly.  “Yeah, the year is not over.  We’ve still got ‑‑ I think I still have three tournaments to go or so.

“Yeah, once they come then it will be time to play again and raise my level.  Until then, I just have to, you know, keep working in order for me to go out in the match and raise it.”

Maria Through The First With Good Open Chance

FLUSHING MEADOWS, NY – It’s pretty easy for Maria Sharapova to blame her sluggish start today on the weather.

Sure today’s conditions were perfect, but this past weekend kept her indoors.

“I think the last couple days have been tough on players,” said Sharapova after she downed the unseeded Heather Watson 3-6, 7-5, 6-3. “Obviously none of us practiced yesterday.  The day before was raining.  Everybody was trying to get 30 minutes on an indoor court, which is always a little bit tough.

“So I think it was just going out there and trying to find that consistency.”

So the 2006 US Open Champion spent yesterday in her hotel room, playing with her dog, going to the gym and taking in what was open in New York City.

Yet, her dog may have been trying to tell her something during the storm yesterday.

“My dog kept like going back to his little bag,” she said.  “It kind of freaked me out because that’s a sign he wanted to go home.  Maybe the hurricane was going to be bad.  We were lucky, yeah, that it was just a little rain.”

New York was lucky yesterday and the No. 3 seed was lucky today when she survived the match with British Watson, even though she committed 58 unforced errors (39 in the first set) and eight double faults.

“I don’t think I did enough to make her feel like she had any pressure in the first set,” Sharapova said.  “You know, I’d hit one, two good balls, then hit an error.  Whether it was a centimeter or two out, it doesn’t matter, it’s still an error.”

Even with the slow start, Sharapova was too much for Watson. Using her power game, she was able to squeak by in the second set and then dominate the third to advance in this version of the US Open. She is the new Maria, someone who is older, wiser and out to prove she isn’t washed up at the tender age of 24.

Instead, after years of injuries and inconsistencies, Sharapova is ready to dominate again. A year of resurgence saw her win in Rome and then Cincinnati, while losing the finals in Miami and of course Wimbledon. It was good enough to rank her No. 3 in Flushing, and one of the odds on favorites for the tournament.

“Well, I just feel like this year I’ve improved,” she said. “Last year I felt like I would play a couple good matches and then I’d play a bad match.  I didn’t have that sense of consistency, and that’s something I felt like something that has changed this year.”

Even at her still young age, Sharapova is the grizzled veteran on the circuit. And much like any other sport, she has made adjustments. Where she was a pure power player before, the Russian by the way of Florida is now a more complete player, with a defensive game to go with her attack.

During her journey back, which she called it “the process” she had many pitfalls, but her hard work is now looking like it is paying off.

“Well, it’s just great to still be a tennis player,” she said.  “I’ve said this many times.  I’m very fortunate to do what I do, obviously, to do it at a high level and to win tournaments and to win big matches obviously.

“It gives you tremendous amount of confidence and delight that the work you’ve put in, you know, is paying off.  It’s the time that you spend away from the courts, the time that people don’t see what you put into the sport of trying to get back there.  Just to play a match, and then do it over and over again, not many people experience that feeling, see it.

“So to be able to prove to yourself that you’ve put in that work and there you are at that stage again, giving yourself these opportunities to win Grand Slams again, it’s a good feeling.”

And now with the first round hiccup out of the way, Maria Sharapova seems poised for her Open run.

Of course let’s hope there are no more hurricanes.

Caroline Big Under the Sunshine (With A Great Dress Too)

FLUSHING MEADOWS, NY – The only thing brighter than Caroline Wozniacki’s game today may have been her dress. The exclusive adidas design features a florescent yellow inseam to go with it more earth tone appeal.

“Well, I’m so lucky that I am the face of adidas and Stella McCartney and I have my own special line that no one else is wearing,” Wozniacki said.  “I think that’s really nice. For me it’s important to feel good on court and of course to look good.  Then I can focus on my tennis at 100%.”

Of course, the size of the dress is something that has turned a few heads, which is a big tight compared to other outfits.

“I think it’s nice.  I definitely am sure I’ll get a lot of male fans now,” she laughed.

Actually Wozniacki could have worn a burqa out there and still turned won over fans after beating Maria Sharapova, 6-3 6-4, to advance to the quarterfinals. The 20 year old showed tremendous confidence on the court and fought back her toughest challenge to date.

“I was going out there and I knew I could win,” said Wozniacki, who now improves to 19-1 since Wimbledon.  “But I knew it was going to be tough.  I knew that I had to fight for every point.  I knew that she wasn’t going to go away.  I knew she was going to hang in there and keep fighting till the end.”

The No. 14 seed may have fought, but she made just too many mistakes today. With 36 unforced errors, 9 double faults and a putrid 1-8 on breakpoints, Sharapova essentially made it easy for Wozniacki.

“Against someone that’s playing really well, playing with a lot of confidence, it’s really important to take those chances that you have, the very few that come your way,” she said. “I felt like I played a couple of good points and then, you know, make an easy error, hit a return long or miss a first serve, give her many looks at second‑serve returns.  You know, didn’t feel like I put much pressure on her.

The biggest fight in the match came in the first set after Wozniacki went up 4-1. Sharapova raged back to bring the set back on serve with the Russian serving to tie it up, but the Dane was able to the break the 2006 Champion back and went on cruise control from there.

No matter what Sharapova tried to do, Wozniacki had an answer. When she won a few points with the light lob to bring her opponent in from the baseline, the winner of the Pilot Pen Championship was able to have an answer.

And even when she fell down, Sharapova wouldn’t capitalize, by shooting the ball over the line.

“Well, you know, at first I was like, Okay, I should have hit that first shot better,” Wozniacki said.  “But then I was, Okay, I’m at the net.  Then I see her lobbing me.  Okay, I have to go back.  Then I fall on my butt.  I’m like, Okay, well, tough luck, I lost this point.  Then I look back, and I couldn’t see whether it was in and out.  Then I look at the linesman, I see it’s out.  I’m like, Okay, I was pretty lucky.

“You know, I thought it was quite funny, too.”

But to Sharapova this was no laughing matter, as the former champion apparently still have a ways to go before she can get back to the top.

Today was just another step.

“Obviously, losing a match, 30 minutes later, you’re not the happiest person in the world,” said Sharapova who now falls to 12-15 since Wimbledon. “But at the end of the day, I’m sure you’ve heard it many times, but it’s a tennis match.  You’ve just got to look back at the match and what you should have done differently, what you need to work on.”

Safina Ousted Early In China

Dinara Safina’s struggles continued. A week following an early exit at The Pan Pacific Open in Tokyo, the No.1 ranked Russian fell this time in the second round at The China Open to hometown wildcard Zhang Shuai 7-5, 7-6.

Last week, she fell in the second round after a bye in three tight sets to 132 ranked Kai-Chen Chang. At least the enigmatic younger sister of Marat Safin could take solace knowing Pan Pacific was marred by many upsets including Venus Williams, Elena Dementieva and Caroline Wozniacki, who got sick.

This time, Safina lost to No.226 in the world by committing 20 unforced errors and a dozen double faults which were her undoing. It probably spells the end of her reign as No.1 with second ranked American Serena Williams needing only a Round Two win over Ekaterina Makarova to take over the top spot. Perhaps the recent disappointments that also included a third round Open exit to Czech Petra Kvitova have finally taken their toll on the emotional Russian who was reduced to tears and cancelled her post match press conference.

“I’m just having some bad losses right now,” she said in a statement.

“So many matches that are very close, ones that I should win, having set points or match points every time. It’s very disappointing. I would like to take a break now, and I’m very upset with myself.”

Who could blame her? It’s been an emotional roller coaster that included her rise to No.1 getting to two grand slam finals before wilting, plus a Wimbledon semifinal appearance. Perhaps that’s what she needs.

“I wasn’t thinking about the result, I was just thinking about learning as much as I could from her,” a more pleased 20 year-old Zhang said. “She was not on her best form, she was impatient and made lots of mistakes.”

Staying with the upset theme, Venus was eliminated by Russian teen Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova 3-6, 6-1, 6-4. Ironically, it was the second consecutive week Pavlyuchenkova sent the seven-time slam winner out of a tournament.

The prior week, the No.3 ranked player fell in two tightly played straights. However, this time she came out firing capturing the opening set.

“She started way aggressive today. She wanted to kill me, I guess,” Pavlyuchenkova said. “I had nothing to lose. I just tried to move her around as much as I could, just hit as hard as I could in the court and just enjoy the match.”

It was the younger Russian who controlled the final two sets by playing cleaner tennis while Venus went off. In particular, her serve unraveled with the 29 year-old American finishing with an uncharacteristic 14 doubles.

“She played really well, unfortunately sometimes I made errors too soon in the play,” Williams lamented.

For Pavlyuchenkova who’s highly thought of, it was another step in the right direction as she prepares for a big 2010.

“I want to win a Grand Slam really so much,” she expressed after advancing to a third round encounter against Canadian Aleksandra Wozniak, who bested Frenchwoman Alize Cornet 7-5, 6-4. “[Maria] Sharapova won it when she was 17, really quite young also. And others before. So, why not? I can do this.”

Another first round upset victim was Wozniacki, who fell in three sets to Spaniard Maria Jose Sanchez Martinez, 6-7 (5), 7-6 (2), 6-0. Perhaps the U.S. Open runner-up wasn’t fully recovered from her sickness that forced her to retire last week in a loss to Wozniak. Open semifinalist Yanina Wickmayer fared no better dropping a three set decision to Russian Alisa Kleybanova 5-7, 6-3, 6-3.

Daniela Hantuchova advanced to a second round meeting against Nadia Petrova by posting a straight sets win over Carla Suarez Navarro. Meanwhile, advancing to the third round were two-time slam champ Svetlana Kuznetsova and China’s Li Na as did Alona Bondarenko.

One player not participating is Ana Ivanovic, who’s had a forgetful season. She pulled out with an upper respiratory problem. It’s just as well.

Federer Still Shows Class In Defeat

FLUSHING MEADOWS, NY – Not much bad can be said about Roger Federer. Even in defeat, he was as gracious as ever and that’s even after the tough five-set loss in the US Open Finals in the Juan Martin Del Potro, 3-6, 7-6 (5), 4-6, 7-6 (4), 6-2.

“I thought it was a tough match from the start,” Federer said. I think even the first set was, you know, pretty close. I think both getting used to the conditions. It was kind of tough starting around the 4:00 time because the shadows moving in and stuff.

“I got off to a pretty good start, and had things under control as well in the second set. I think that one cost me the match eventually. But I had many chances before that to make the difference. So it was tough luck today, but I you thought Juan Martin played great. I thought he hung in there and gave himself chances, and in the end was the better man.”

Federer just had a bad day. His serve was off and he had an uncharacteristic 62 unforced errors in the match as well as 11 double faults. Del Potro admitted his first set was nothing but nerves, and he caught himself in the second, which means the Maestro was having even a harder day than the score indicated.

“I thought I had him under control for the first two sets,” Federer said. “I should never have lost so many chances. It was just a pity. I think if I win the second set, I’m in a great position to come through. Unfortunately, I didn’t win that and that was it.”

Although he composed himself after the match was over, you have to believe Federer was frustrated. In the third after holding to make the score 5-4, he was caught by the television cameras cursing at the chair umpire about the allowance of Del Potro’s challenge. The five-time champion makes no bones about his disdain for the “Hawk-Eye” system used in replays. And this time was no different.

“You know, what I think about Hawk-Eye,” he said. “Shouldn’t be there in the first place. So then second question shouldn’t happen. It is what it is.”

As is Federer who is the same classy player win or lose. And this loss will mean nothing for his legacy. Federer is still the best ever, even with the 2009 record of 2-2 in Grand Slam finals.

“Unbelievable,” he said. “Unbelievable run. Being in all major finals and winning two of those, I’m losing the other two in five sets. Sure, I would have loved to win those two as well. Being so close, I think was two points from the match today. That’s the way it goes sometimes.

“But year has been amazing already and it’s not over yet. Got married and had kids, don’t know how much more I want.”

Clijsters Comeback Continues With The Ouster of Venus

The comeback continued. Kim Clijsters battled through to a quarterfinal date with No.18 Na Li by getting past No.3 ranked American Venus Williams 6-0, 0-6, 6-4 today at a supportive Ashe Stadium.

The 26 year-old Belgian has looked strong in her return to the game after taking a couple of a years off to marry former Villanova hoops star Brian Lynch and start a family. After decent results in two warmups, she’s shown no ill effects ousting two quality players to reach the final eight.

In Round Two, she got the better of Marion Bartoli bouncing back from a set down to advance in three. A round after dropping only two games, it figured to be tougher versus an old rival. But it was the more agile Clijsters who prevailed against a heavily taped Venus, who’s still battling knee tendinitis. Her run in singles is over but she’s also scheduled to play a fourth round doubles match with young sis Serena, who easily dispatched of Daniela Hantuchova, 6-2, 6-0 advancing to a quarter against either Vera Zvonareva or Flavia Pennetta in tonight’s night session.

The 2005 Open winner came out razor sharp breezing through the first set against a struggling Williams who couldn’t find the range. Meanwhile, Clijsters’ forehand was working helping build an early set lead. It was the first time her opponent had been bageled at the tournament since 1997 when Martina Hingis did it against an unseeded Williams in the final.

Perhaps it was too easy because the second set was a complete role reversal as it was Venus who elevated her game finally ratcheting up the serve and keeping more balls in play. Suddenly, Clijsters had a rough stretch with her forehand going cold and even tossing in a pair of double faults that helped Williams rebound quickly. Before the stunned Ashe knew it, they’d witnessed two ugly, uncompetitive bagel sets in just 49 minutes.

Surely, the deciding set would be better by default. With the crowd urging on both players, it was as each finally kept rallies going giving fans some more entertaining points that included some great hustle from Clijsters. Her speed seemed to get to Williams who missed on a few routine volleys including an overhead. That probably was the difference as she was able to dig in earning an early break which she never relinquished.
A jubilant Kim Clijsters celebrates her victory over Venus Williams to make the U.S. Open quarters in her return.

A jubilant Kim Clijsters celebrates her victory over Venus Williams to make the U.S. Open quarters in her return.

It still wasn’t easy putting away the seven-time slam winner who held her serve the rest of the more competitive 52-minute set, forcing the crowd favorite to serve it out. Showing some nerves, Clijsters missed a couple of shots to drop the first two points eventually falling behind 15-40. But she valiantly fought off two break chances with some solid hitting including an inside out forehand winner.

After drawing an errant backhand, she finally came to match point. With the crowd in a frenzy, she calmly struck a great wide serve which Williams barely got a racket on to clinch victory.

“It was unbelievable. I don’t know what to say,” an excited Clijsters expressed to CBS reporter Mary Joe Fernandez. “It was such a weird match, especially those first two sets. But after I lost the second at 6-0, I said, let’s start over and start a new match.”

The former champ proved she is still a contender. Now, she’ll draw Li, who got through in straights over Italian Francesca Schiavone (26), 6-2, 6-3. In her career, the 27 year-old from China has never made a semi in a major with this matching her best result that came in 2006 at Wimbledon. Clijsters owns a 3-1 head-to-head record taking two of three on hard courts. However, the last two have gone three sets with Li winning two years ago in Miami.

One thing it guarantees is there won’t be an all Williams semi showdown. But just maybe we’ll get a battle of two Open champs with the winner heavily favored to win the title.

“I’ve been working really hard the last seven, eight months and I’m enjoying it,” Clijsters said. “It’s something that’s really important for myself, as long as I can focus on tennis and have fun on the outside as well.”

You Gotta Believe In Oudin

CBS veteran commentator Dick Enberg beckoned:

“Ooo! Oooo! Oudin,” following American Melanie Oudin’s second consecutive upset at Ashe- this time getting the better of former U.S. Open champion Maria Sharapova in a topsy turvy three-hour three setter that had plenty of drama.

The 17 year-old Atlanta, Georgia native showed maturity beyond her years rallying from a set down to pull out a 3-6, 6-4, 7-5 win in front of a very supportive packed house. Not surprisingly, with Sharapova still struggling mightily with a new serve since her return from shoulder surgery, the match featured 16 breaks with each fiery competitor getting eight.

Unfortunately for the 22 year-old Russian star, she bent last dropping serve when a focused Oudin hit a return forehand winner smack on the line for a fifth straight break. Neither player could handle holding but this time, the gritty kid maintained her composure by getting more first serves in to serve it out. On match point, she went for an ace up the tee drawing a short Sharapova reply. With Ashe Stadium sensing the end, Oudin didn’t miss rifling a crosscourt forehand winner before dropping her racket in disbelief and screaming in delight as loud cheers followed.

Her opponent greeted her at the net and then came a nice postmatch interview with CBS’ Mary Joe Fernandez who also doubles as her Fed Cup coach. It was a great moment as she emotionally thanked everyone for “<em>cheering for her.</em>”

How could they not? This girl is very easy to root for because of the effort she puts in. Sure. She admitted to benefiting from a few of Sharapova’s nightmarish 21 double faults. But this was still a three-time slam winner who didn’t give up despite the dreadful serve. In the second set, Oudin led 5-1 before Maria made things more interesting forcing the youngster to courageously serve it out.
<blockquote>“<em>I’ve always been so competitive,</em>” Oudin said. “<em>I go out there and fight as hard as I can. I have ‘Believe’ on my shoes. That’s what I did today. I ended up winning and I’m just so happy.</em>“</blockquote>
It was even more unpredictable in the final set where Oudin was so close to a double break lead for 4-1 but a determined Sharapova saved every break point holding before using an injury timeout to treat her right forearm. The tactic worked as her younger opponent slowed down getting broken to level at three all. But every time you thought the more experienced champ had the momentum, her inconsistent serve let her down. When she wasn’t tossing in doubles, it was Oudin who was outhitting her from the baseline. No small feat given how much power Sharapova can generate.

A true testament to Oudin’s will and also her footspeed which was evident all match with some incredible defense played even producing many of her 22 winners. She converted eight of 26 break chances to Sharapova’s eight for 14. But in the end, the emerging American star held her nerves closing out a great champion.

Indeed, it was well earned as was her comeback win over another Russian, No.4 seed Elena Dementieva a round prior. And so, Oudin moves onto a Round of 16 match against one more Russian, No.13 Nadia Petrova, who easily dispatched Jie Zheng 6-4, 6-1.

Can she keep it going? Oudin’s part of the section includes former Open winner Svetlana Kuznetsova and 19 year-old No.9 seed Caroline Wozniacki. But first, she’ll have to get past Petrova.

It’s hard not to get excited. There’s so much fight in her. Even though she missed earlier chances to finish off Sharapova earlier, Oudin never got down instead continuing to be positive.

Amazing stuff from the 5-6 girl who won’t turn 18 until later this month. She might be short in stature but not in heart.

“I just kept fighting as hard as I could, tried as hard as I could,” she said. “I just can’t even believe it.”