Wednesday August 31st, 2011

French Open champion Li Na's struggles continued with a first-round loss at the U.S. Open. (

In tennis, weeks can feel like months, months can feel like years and years can feel like decades. The fits and starts can be difficult to track, and it seems like last month's champion is this month's dog. Fans have a short memory. You're only as good as your last result, right?

Well, that's depressing. And now, because I spent the day stuck in my head thinking about it, I'm depressed, too.

You see, last month's champion really is this month's dog. Petra Kvitova lost to No. 48 Alexandra Dulgheru on Monday, failing to win a set in her first Grand Slam tournament since being crowned Wimbledon champion and continuing her struggles during the summer hard-court season. And on Tuesday, another slumping recent major winner, French Open champion Li Na, fell in straight sets to 53rd-ranked Simona Halep amid a barrage of unforced errors. With Kvitova and Li out, and Australian Open champ Kim Clijsters not defending her title here because of injury, this marked the second time in the Open era that the reigning women's champions at the first three Grand Slams of the year did not reach the second round of the U.S. Open. (The first time it happened was 1971, when major winners Margaret Court and Evonne Goolagong didn't play the U.S. Open.)

I can't blame Kvitova (who is 2-3 since Wimbledon) or Li (who is 6-6 since the French Open) for suffering from a residual hangover after their history-making runs to their maiden major titles. Everyone knows they have too much talent to be losing in the first round of a Slam. Kvitova is a fantastic player to watch when she's playing well, and at 21, she's the first member of Generation Next to break through on the big stage. Her Wimbledon title was a great sign of hope for the future of tennis. Now we'll have to wait awhile to see if that future pans out in reality.

As for Li, 29, I'm just sad she won't be around to drop amazing quotes like this one as she spoke Tuesday about her back-to-back first-round exits in New York: “I mean, normally I like hard court a lot.  But I think these two years I just doing s--t.”

She's not wrong.

Speaking of drop-offs, Mikhail Youzhny was hoping to find some mojo at a place where he thrived last year. But the No. 16 seed unluckily drew Ernests Gulbis and lost in straight sets Tuesday, his third consecutive first-round flameout this summer. It's amazing what can happen in a year, and while Youzhny hasn't done much to keep us talking about him, sometimes it takes a return to a tournament you've done well at to put your slump in context. The head-bashing Russian finished 2010 in the top 10 thanks in large part to his semifinal appearance in New York, but a back problem and other injuries have slowed his ascent. Sure, no one expected him to make a deep run this year, but it would have been nice to see him surprise us.

Of course, if we're going to talk about the cruelty of this sport when it comes to how quickly careers and expectations can change, there is none other than Ana Ivanovic, who seems to have an otherworldly ability to smile through the pain. There was a time when the Serb's streak of winning at least one match at the majors was second only to Serena Williams'. That string ended with a defeat to Kateryna Bondarenko at the 2009 U.S. Open, and since then Ivanovic has crashed out in the first round of three other majors. Now it feels like a shock when she actually advances, regardless of the opponent.

Well, she actually did win one Tuesday, coming back from a break down in the first set to defeat Ksenia Pervak 6-4, 6-2. This was no ordinary victory for Ivanovic. She unsuccessfully fought back tears after the match as she revealed that her grandfather, Milovan Ivanovic, died a few days ago. The emotions so overwhelmed her that tears welled up as she served for the match (she was broken) and then called for a trainer to come out as she got dizzy. "He had a good life," she said softly, again holding back tears. Now she's trying her best to put it aside and focus on having a good tournament. "That's what he would have wanted," she said.

And then there's Andrey Golubev. Poor, poor Andrey Golubev. The man had a five-month dry spell in which he lost 17 consecutive matches, a drought he snapped only two weeks ago in Cincinnati. Drawn against defending champion Rafael Nadal on Tuesday night, it would have been a non-event if he rolled over and took his beating. Instead, Golubev found himself up at least one break in all three sets. He served for the second and third sets. He had seven set points in the second set. He was up two breaks in the third set, 5-2. But the thing is, when you've gone so long without winning, sometimes you just forget how to do it. Golubev's inability to close, with Nadal winning 6-3, 7-6 (1), 7-5, was an excruciating thing to watch and a reminder that these players aren't robots and this isn't a video game. They're human. They're fallible. They're just ... normal.

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