Tuesday June 1st, 2010

If Rafael Nadal has the most formidable set of arms in tennis, Samantha Stosur's can't be far behind. Stosur has been coming on fast in the women's game, increasingly recognized as a threat to the elite, and on Memorial Day it became official. The powerful, smooth-flowing Australian took down four-time champion Justine Henin at the French Open and clearly won the battle of self-assurance.

For months, Henin has been warning people about her anxiety. Once a player who thrived on the utter chaos of her private life, channeling adversity into pure magnificence on court, she has returned from retirement in a swirl of uncertainty. Her life in general: sublime. Staring down a crucial point after a long, hard struggle: no way of knowing.

"I am going to have to work on my nerves, especially," she admitted after taking a second-round loss to Gisela Dulko at Indian Wells. "You have an opponent who wants the same thing as you want, so you have to try to stay calm. It isn't that easy for me."

Over the course of her comeback year, Henin has blown commanding leads against two of her chief rivals on tour: to Kim Clijsters in Brisbane, to Serena Williams at the Australian Open and to Clijsters again in Miami. Once a supreme "closer," finishing off outclassed opponents with a flourish, Henin now struggles with the concept of superiority.

Viewed in the most positive light, it only adds to the intrigue when Wimbledon comes around later this month. The women's tour has taken some major hits lately, on many fronts, but if you can't envision a compelling pair of semifinals from this group -- Henin, Serena Williams, Maria Sharapova, Stosur, Kim Clijsters (injured foot willing) and five-time tournament champion Venus Williams -- perhaps you've joined the Jeff Tarango Fan Club.

Say this about Henin: She fought her heart out to get past Sharapova in a Roland Garros third-rounder that felt more like a final. As Justine explained afterward, "I fought and I dared." But that match was more about the two of them, resurrecting the spirit of competitive fire in a women's field often sadly lacking in that category. Who comes back to win a second set after Henin just won her 40th straight at the French? Sharapova, and damned few others. Even for those put off by her incessant shrieking, it was inspiring to watch Sharapova back in form, serving without pain and crushing her groundstrokes, after such a long period away from the game. (Good sign: Coming back less than 24 hours after two punishing sets against Henin in cold, rainy weather, Sharapova showed no ill effects.)

Unlike Andy Roddick, mentally beaten on clay before he even gets off the plane, Sharapova has worked hard to improve on that surface. As much as she belittles her clay-court movement, she's not nearly the "cow on ice" (her words) who lumbered about the surface in past years. She just needed a bit more consistency on her groundstrokes against Henin, and undoubtedly she'll remember two points above all.

Leading the third set 2-0 and 0-40 on Henin's serve, Sharapova netted a routine backhand that would have clinched the game (the ensuing points were vital, but Henin earned the hold on her own merit). Later, at deuce during Henin's service break for 4-all, Sharapova uncorked one titanic bomb after another, enough to wilt most players, but a brilliantly defensive Henin stayed in the point until Sharapova finally blasted a forehand into the net.

Henin still has plenty of fight. She wants her first Wimbledon championship in the worst way, and she'll be a force at the All-England Club. The Williams sisters certainly need no introduction, nor does Clijsters, who will be looking for her first title there. Stosur is the new face in this crowd, and what a pleasure she is to watch. No shrieks, no taunting of the opponent, no gamesmanship, enviable form, and one of the few truly rhythmic toss-and-serve motions in the women's game.

Stosur is now 18-2 on clay, including a very convincing victory over Vera Zvonareva in Charleston, where TV analyst Pam Shriver declared it "the best performance in a final by an Australian woman since Evonne Goolagong won Wimbledon in 1980." Henin had expressed plenty of respect for the 26-year-old Stosur, saying before the match, "She has beautiful qualities on clay because she plays kind of a man's tennis." That's a big-time compliment in this sport, and as Serena looked ahead to the quarterfinals, she lauded Stosur as "fast" and "strong" with "a great serve.

"She also has confidence, very calm on the court, very quiet," Williams said. "I don't know that she has a real weakness."

For all the young players trying to crash the party, it seems likely that the road to Wimbledon glory leads through maturity.

* * *

Roddick's performance was shameful, in that he got one look at his least favorite venue in the world (Court Suzanne Lenglen) and knew he was beaten, even against 114th-ranked Teimuraz Gabashvili, but we've seen that act before. Much more disappointing, from the standpoint of American men, was the surrender of Sam Querrey.

Maybe it was refreshing to hear such candor from an athlete, but Querrey went too far in explaining his lifeless first-round exit. "Not into it," he said. "Mentally not there. I just wanted to go home." Worst of all, he admitted that when he gets in this frame of mind, "I just tank some points."

I've always been baffled by the excitement over Querrey as a looming force in American tennis. This is a guy who doesn't look, act, talk or even play the part. There can't be anyone in tennis more boring to watch. And now he quits -- in a Grand Slam event, no less -- because he's grown tired of Europe?

For all the excellent things Querrey has done this year, from Davis Cup to his dismissal of the rogue Wayne Odesnik in Houston to his pair of tour wins over best friend John Isner, "tank" roars straight to the top. He has imposed on himself a reputation that will be difficult to shake. Here's hoping he has a lot more fortitude than he has shown so far.

* * *

Things got tense in the escalating feud between Jelena Jankovic and Ana Ivanovic, and while some chastised Jankovic for blatantly mocking Ivanovic's fist-pumping, I thought it was wonderful. Expose it, ridicule it, bring it into public light. This is an outright epidemic on tour, and it needs to be stopped.

Credit Ivanovic for an incisive response: "You know what they say: Sport doesn't build character. It shows it." But Jankovic said the words that count: "When you do that in a player's face, especially after your opponent missed an easy ball, I don't think it's fair play. That can be a little irritating."

Sharapova has reached the point where she's pumping her left fist while checking into a hotel, pouring a cup of tea or brushing her teeth. Henin hasn't shaken that annoying habit of yelling "Allez!" when her opponent screws up, and as the incomparable Mary Carillo said on the NBC telecast during the Sharapova match, "I really wish she'd stop doing that. That really stinks."

As for Ivanovic's post-match comments after a 6-3, 6-0 loss in the second round to Alisa Kleybanova, one can only step back in amazement:

"I don't think I played that bad, actually," she said.

Oh, please. You were awful.

"I didn't think I did too much wrong out there."

Outside of everything, you're right, that's true.

"I really feel I belong at the top."

On the basis of what?

Maybe Ivanovic has simply been worn down by the dreary atmosphere of post-match press conferences, where she hears a lot of idiotic questions, and can't wait to get out of there. Maybe she's just a bit dim. In any case, the tour wouldn't mind seeing a bit of fight from its glamour queen.

* * *

NOTES: Colleague Jon Wertheim addressed the issue of paltry French Open crowds in his blog, and the point he made -- wealthy patrons preferring to stroll the grounds or avoid any kind of foul weather -- also applies to the U.S. Open. Not so at Wimbledon. Every match is jam-packed, every court, all the time. Many of those fans waited years for the privilege, and they seem completely in love with the game. Wouldn't miss a second of it . . . Did Brad Gilbert really say that? "Gabashvili absolutely rocks the ball," he told reporters. "Him and the Russian (Evgeny Korolev), they might hit it harder than anyone in the world." . . . As Andy Murray went down in straights to Tomas Berdych -- lost in "one of those periods of introspection that are impossible to fathom," wrote Neil Harman in the Times of London -- Berdych couldn't help but notice Murray's vacant demeanor. "My coach told me when the match was suspended, 'He's looking like he doesn't want to play,'" Berdych said. Murray has worn that look, more often than not, for months. He has long been touted as the great British hope, but judging from the exasperation in England, he's getting more Scottish all the time. . . . Venus Williams, shrugging off the controversy over her "illusion of nudity" outfit: "It's really not about anything other than that skin showing." Boy, it sure isn't . . . ESPN's "Outside the Lines" did a long piece on Venus' attire and raised the question: Would we hear this same commotion if it were a man?" Hold on; just think about that for a moment. For a man to cause such a stir, he'd have to be out there in speedos -- only. How else would the issue even come up? . . . Venus lost to an inferior opponent, Nadia Petrova, to the drone of indifference. It's simply not a story. Happens to Venus far too often . . . Rafael Nadal isn't particularly eloquent in English, as a rule, but he did a nice job reacting to the notion of the French Open abandoning Roland Garros: "I think it should remain here, because we can breathe the history of tennis within these walls. If we move elsewhere, we're going to lose part of our soul."

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