MELBOURNE, Australia -- Another afternoon, another seed bids adieu in Melbourne...
The Australian Open didn't register the Richter Scale reading of Serena Williams' upset loss yesterday, but Maria Sharapova, the No. 3 seed and a former Aussie Open champion, was defenestrated by Dominika Cibulkova of Slovakia, 3-6, 6-4, 6-1.
Three quick thoughts on Cibulkova's victory over Sharapova:
• This is an upset but not an UPSET. Sharapova missed the second half of 2013 with a shoulder injury, so this event was a comeback of sorts and Sharapova still carries the tennis equivalent of ring rust. She came within two points of defeat against Karin Knapp in the second round, and was lucky to pull out that victory.
Today, she looked tentative for considerable stretches of the match, struggled -- as she often does -- with her serve (eight double faults) and was hampered by a hip injury that necessitated a call to the trainer. Against a steady veteran on the order of Cibulkova -- who gets a lot of balls back in the court, prolongs points and isn't going to fade on account of fatigue -- Sharapova was going to have to play her best to win. Cibulkova didn't fade, and Sharapova didn't play her best.
• A lot of credit is owed to Cibulkova. Nicknamed the "Pocket Rocket," she stands only 5-3 -- a full foot shorter than the opponent today -- but she managed to play bigger than her height would suggest. She's using a new racket this tournament that is uncommonly wide and heavy, and it's imbued her with considerable power. As usual, Cibulkova played her share of defensive tennis, but she battled Sharapova from the baseline.
What's more, she held her nerve. After going up 5-0 in the second set, she lost four games before finally closing out the set, 6-4. In the third set, she was simply superior on every dimension. This was a big occasion for her -- Grand Slam fourth-rounder; Rod Laver Arena; third set against a bona fide star -- and she was the more poised player on the court this afternoon.
• It will be interesting to see where both players go from here. Apart from heading to Sochi, where she will commentate at the Winter Games for NBC, Sharapova will need to check on her hip and then clean up her game if she wants to make another run at a Grand Slam title.
As for Cibulkova, she has a highly winnable match against either Jelena Jankovic or Simona Halep for a shot at her first Major semifinal. With Serena Williams out of the picture, the women's draw is wide open, a gaping canyon of possibility for all remaining players.
Can we get some props for the "Genie-Army," the group of fans who support Canadian Eugenie Bouchard and give her presents such as kangaroos and koala stuffed dolls? I find them endearing, and they shout catchy chants while rooting for Bouchard as well.
-- Deepak, Beverly Hills, Calif.
• I'm going to play the grumpy old man (or father of a daughter) here. I would like this army disbanded. There's something faintly creepy about this. Granted, Eugenie Bouchard is 19, not 17; but this recalls the slobbering Kournikovamaniacs [supporters of Anna Kournikova] -- come to think of it, they were called Anna's Army -- from a generation ago. The t-shirt that reads "Eat. Sleep. Genie. Repeat" strikes me as particularly icky. Without turning this into a late night dorm room discussion about feminism and whether women are empowered or undercut when they leverage sex appeal, it would be nice if you had a sense that this support group had at least a de minimis interest in Bouchard's tennis. Sermon over. Carry on.
So Roger Federer just trounced Teymuraz Gabashvili and still hasn't lost a set at the Australian Open. I'm assuming the reporting narrative currently is "Federer's back feels great! The new racket is paying dividends! Edberg's coaching is working wonders!" Nevermind the fact that all three opponents weren't even in the top 75 of the ATP rankings. But if Federer plays Tsonga and loses in three or four sets, doesn't the narrative have to become "Federer can't consistently beat top 10 players at the majors?" Full Disclaimer: I am a huge Rafael Nadal fan, but I still think my point is valid. What do you think? Thanks for the mailbags!
-- Zac, Offshore Brazil
• Love the "offshore Brazil" tag.
1. You can only beat the players put in front of you.
2. The draws have a way of regressing to the mean. Federer had a soft "strength of schedule" in Week One. His Week Two potential draw: Tsonga, Murray, Nadal, Djokovic.
3, "Federer can't consistently beat top 10 players at the majors." I think that's unduly harsh. But he doesn't need to beat Top 10 players consistently. He needs to beat them once.
Excellent article about finishing in tennis; great analogy with relief pitching in baseball. You mentioned Justine Henin and Ivan Lendl who had trouble closing early in their careers, but became exceptional at finishing matches. Martina Navratilova had a penchant for choking early in her career that she conquered. Jennifer Capriati, despite winning three Grand Slams, was one of the worst finishers I remember. When she served for a match, I expected her to lose her serve. I think her inability to close cost her two Slams, minimum. What do you think?
-- Andrew, Hummelstown, Penn.
• I would like to see some analytics here. Who among us wouldn't love a chart of "Percent of Closure when serving for a match"? Follow the sport and you can intuit this. When, for instance, Lucie Safarova had Li Na on the ropes the other day, the reflexive remark: "Let's she if she can close." When she didn't, it shocked no one. Conversely, when Ivanovic was able to serve out Serena yesterday, it triggered significant surprise.
In the middle of my 'Gender and Communications' class I made what I thought was an innocuous comment. I said yes, while Serena Williams is probably the greatest women's tennis player ever, she would still lose every time to any man in the main draw of any Grand Slam tournament. True?
-- Dominic Ciafardini New York
• True. And Florida State would not beat the worst NFL Team. So what? They're still champions.
• Brian Gray of Durham, N.C. on the pros wearing sunblock: Sunblock must be applied about 30 minutes before sweating or it will not have time to absorb into the skin before sweat washes it away. Thus, is must be applied in a cool locker room, not courtside. It would be great role modeling for fans to see it applied but, alas, not possible in the locker room and impractical courtside.
• TennisDeb of Milwaukee, Wisc. on the question of, snow notwithstanding, what's the coldest conditions in which one can still play outdoor tennis? Personally I've played when it's been 24F with no wind. The worst thing are your hands are cold until you warm up; you can't wear gloves to play tennis like you can for running. The balls don't fly around as much when it's cold out, but I'd rather play in 24F than 112F any day!