fourth round

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Dust in the Wind: Schiavone and Kuznetsova Continue Their Downward Slides

Once one of the game's best rivalries, Francesca Schiavone and Svetlana Kuznetsova struggle to find their footing on a Tour that has left them behind.

Tennis is a cruel sport.

A seemingly endless grind, a single season spans nearly ten months across six continents. Where athletes on team sports sign contracts guaranteeing a paycheck, the math is much simpler for a tennis player. Win, and collect ranking points and prize money. Lose, and be content with the minimum of each.

With no solid foundation, a player cannot afford to risk bouts of injury or apathy, lest she forfeit the chance to put her hand in that elusive pot restricted to the game’s elite. One-namers like Serena, Venus and Maria have paid their dues as multiple Slam champions and ambassadors to the sport. If ever they suffer a prolonged absence from the game, the Tour is only too obliged to make their return as seamless as their reign atop the rankings had been.

Where, then, does that leave the game’s more temporal stars, the ones who are “good for tennis,” but not necessary to the sport’s survival? The ones who maintain the backbone of the Tour for a decade or better, and even indulge in a little glory hunting of their own, only to find the twilight of their careers colder than expected?

Such seems to be the case as the WTA event in Rome wraps up its first day of main draw play. Two former French Open champions, Francesca Schiavone and Svetlana Kuznetsova, both suffered brutal losses of the emphatic variety. The hometown favorite Schiavone got out to an early lead against Dutchwoman Kiki Bertens only to fade after losing the opening set in a tiebreaker. To say Kuznetsova lost today would imply that she showed up in the first place; facing a junior French Open champ in Simona Halep, the Russian paled against her undersized Romanian opponent, winning only two games in a little over an hour.

Was it really two years ago that these two women played what is easily regarded as one of the best Slam encounters of the decade (if not the Open Era)? Late into the night on Hisense Arena, the veterans played nearly five hours of physical and gutsy tennis for a spot in the Australian Open quarterfinals. The see-sawing nature of the match had little to do with mental lapses or painful chokes; instead, match points were saved with stunning winners that often punctuated arduous rallies. When Schiavone, once deemed a fluke Slam champion for her run at the French Open, put away the overhead to seal a 16-14 final set, she had clinched the No. 4 ranking.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bBbLO06fBCU

Now, with both women likely to be unseeded heading into the season’s second Slam, such a monumental night must feel like a funny memory. The Italian star had a second romp to the French Open final later in 2011. Since then, it has been a slow, painful decline in both form and motivation. Kuznetsova’s struggles have been perhaps longer, as she has attempted to make 2013 the year she comes back from a long injury layoff that saw her miss the entire second half of 2012.

But where Sharapova and the Williamses were given wildcards to tournaments in which their injury-affected rankings could no longer allow them, Kuznetsova hasn’t benefited from the same patrons. The two-time Slam champion (and former World No. 2) was forced to play qualifying into the Premier event in Dubai earlier this year, and was afforded no special seeding in Australia, where she made an improbable run to the quarterfinals.

It cannot be said that either Kuznetsova or even Schiavone fail to provide the same level of entertainment as their more illustrious peers. With flashy games and flashier personalities, both were much loved when they were stalwarts of the sport’s upper echelon, and continued to be looked on affectionately by journalists and die-hard fans alike, even as their careers appear to be entering their final chapters. Yet the odds are fair that Kuznetsova/Schiavone, once a blockbuster second week match-up, could be a first round match far from Court Philippe Chatrier.

We often don’t know what we’ve got until they’re gone, but while neither woman’s results have warranted real shake-ups in the seedings, the question of respect to worthy champions and war-weary veterans remains.

Maria Kirilenko: Not Another Dumb Blonde in Melbourne

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On behalf of blondes everywhere, the blonde jokes need to stop.

We don’t think the capital of California is the letter C. We don’t take an inordinately long time to finish puzzles because the boxes says “2-4 years.” We don’t peel M&Ms and we try not to get stuck on broken escalators.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4Ol4oWChjzk

Then again, maybe these jokes are for the best. They make you underestimate us, so you never see us coming. Maybe that’s how Maria Kirilenko was able to sneak into the fourth round of the Australian Open. The 25-year-old Russian is likely hard-pressed to ever go anywhere unnoticed, but the No. 14 seed has definitely been under the radar at the start of this year’s Australian Open.

It must be difficult to be Maria Kirilenko.

Not in the ways you would think. Indeed, the 25-year-old Russian does not need sympathy because she is blessed with stunningly good looks, the endorsements and photo shoots that come with that, and a hockey-playing fiancé who worships her.

No, take pity on her because she has all those things but still wants to let her game do the talking.

With every excuse to rest on her laurels, Kirilenko continues to put in the long hours to get the most out of her petite frame and (relatively) underpowered game. An all-court player with no standout weapon, the Olympic bronze medalist in doubles has been steadily improving in the last few years and emerged at the start of this season fitter and more ready than ever to make her mark on the singles court.

A fan favorite (for obvious reasons), Kirilenko is not without her critics. Those detractors would probably tell you that she is overrated, given special attention because of her looks and with her recent engagement to Alex Ovechkin, destined for a Kournikova-esque fade out of the tennis world.

To believe all of that is to assume Kirilenko is another dumb blonde. Take it from those who watched her third round encounter with Yanina Wickmayer; “Kiri” is a smart cookie.

She was smart enough to withstand the Belgian’s early barrage. She was cool enough not to panic when that relentless stream of winners caused her to fall behind an early break. Instead, the Russian steadied herself and stayed with Wickmayer, who continued to belt winners one minute and miss only by millimeters the next.

The eventual tiebreaker was a tense affair, for it promised a massive momentum boost to its winner. Unwilling to crack beneath the weight of the moment, Kirilenko stuck to her game plan and mixed expert defense with intelligent offense, all in the effort to keep her emotional foe off-balance.Her patience was rewarded when she nabbed an essential mini-break to take the first set, but Wickmayer would not go away quickly. She persisted early in the second set with her signature aggression as a means of pegging the crafty Kirilenko to the back of the court, and began sneaking up to the net with unheard of efficiency.

But by that point, it was too late. The Russian was already dialed in and ending points earlier and earlier thanks to some flawless angles, and ran away with the second set to set up a meeting with presumptive favorite, Serena Williams.

Many will write off this match before it even begins. Kirilenko lacks the punch to keep up with the American powerhouse who has only lost one match since Wimbledon. But to underestimate the Russian would be a grave error in judgment. Be smart.

Kirilenko certainly is.

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