23 January, 2012

Australian Open - Week One Stories & Matches That Matter

As often happens when you follow something as closely as I follow tennis, you lose a bit of the everyman's perspective of the game.  Case in point, a new acquaintance asked me if I had seen that Christina McHale lost her third rounder to Jelena Jankovic.  Before I could reason that, "Hey, it's nice that a non-fan even knows who McHale is" (he didn't mention Jankovic by name), or "At least I can replace some of my pre-scripted small talk with a tennis discussion of some depth," my insidery, knee-jerk response was "Eh, does it matter?"  A beer or two fewer down the gullet by that point and I likely would have demurred and gone into a broader discussion of the game and other players worth watching, but the fact remains, I said it and I meant it.  We...fans...all know, there are two distinct tournaments in every major and two distinct sets of storylines.  They can simply be defined as week one and week two. Every match and player in the draw matter, but some matter exponentially more than the others.  With all due respect to the often impressive American prospect, she's strictly a first week story at this point in her career.  You see, moving from the former group to the latter is perhaps, not the US Open as advertised, the toughest test in tennis.

This isn't about a player getting to the fourth round or the quarterfinals, mind you?  It's about a player belonging there.  Sara Errani might have made the quarterfinals at this Australian Open (and our congratulations for doing so), but she's not a second week story.  She's a holdover.  A good player, of course, but her only real chance of winning the whole shooting match is if the players' cafeteria dishes up a few plates of bad pasta.  Errani can beat anyone on a day when she's playing her best, but 99,999 times out of 100,000 what she does in the draw has little to no bearing on who holds up the winner's trophy on the second Sunday.  She's a first week player.  The first week is all about watching storylines develop, uncovering compelling characters, reveling in the unexpected.  When I'm attending a major, the first week is my favorite part of the tournament.  There's lots of matches on lots of courts, none of my favorites have been knocked out yet; it feels like anything can happen.  That said, it's the part that's forgotten before the trophy is handed out.   What it isn't, completely, at least, is the province of champions.

For over three years, Maria Sharapova wandered in the wilderness of the yips (in all honesty, she still visits more often than she would like to), but nonetheless she was always a second week story.  She wasn't even necessarily getting there, 3rd round here, 4th round there, nonetheless, win or lose, it mattered where Sharapova was in the draw.  How she was playing affected other players' possibilities of winning the tournament.  Sharapova was and is a headliner, both a champion and a potential champion.  It's nothing to do with Maria's being a game transcending star either, it has to do with her being one of the best players in whatever tournament she entered.  David Ferrer is a second week player.  He might not win the big one, but at the end of the tournament, you know he was there.  You know the guys at the end of the event went through him, maybe even directly to hoist the hardware.

The other big first week stories are the wins and losses of "sentimental favorites."  Players who once mattered in the grand scheme of a major, but due to age, injury, bad luck or some combination of the three are now nice stories, but not important ones.  Players like Juan Carlos Ferrero, Tommy Haas and yes, Lleyton Hewitt, fall neatly into this category these days.  Top level players in their day who headlined major draws, but today...strictly first week fodder  All are elder statesmen whom the game has, to some extent, passed by.  When they line up against the top players of the current era, they play with the pride of champions, just not the game.  Their names draw a crowd, commentators revel in reminding us how dangerous a player with their pedigree can be, but by the end of the first week, we expect them to be swept away.  Gone, so that we and the players still in the draw can get down to the business of deciding a champion, the business of the second week.

When you talk about hoisting hardware, one of the best in the business has long been Serena Williams.  A 13-time major champion, Williams is the ultimate second week story.  In fact, the only current players in her league when it comes to being second week stories are Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal.  These three are more than second week stories, they're all but penciled into the semifinals whenever they deign to appear at a major.  To wit, Serena Williams spent almost exactly a year off the tour after winning Wimbledon in 2010 due to a foot injury and ensuing health challenges that were indeed life-threatening.  When she came back, having played just two tour matches in literally a year, she was immediately installed as the bookmakers' second favorite to win the title.

There are 127 matches in each major.  Some matter, most don't really.  Serena's matches matter, they always do.  If she's in the draw, she's expected to contend.  One way or another, the road to crowning a champion goes through Serena Williams.  Five times in Melbourne, that road has ended with Serena Williams hoisting the hardware.  Today, Ekaterina Makarova sent Serena home in a 6-2, 6-3 loss in the 4th round of the Australian Open.  The ankle might have been an issue, but from this pundit's TV, it looked more like Serena was just outplayed.  She was listless, she couldn't rely on her serve and to her credit, Makarova never let up.  The Russian smacked winners all round the court and left Williams yelping in self-directed rage.

There have been other upsets in this Australian Open, Samantha Stosur is long gone; Marion Bartoli didn't stick around much longer.  They're successful players, but they're not second week stories.  As she leaves Melbourne without the title, we have to wonder, how long will Serena continue to be one?

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