Saturday, January 27, 2007

Day 13: Saturday, January 27

The day of the Women's final began with howling winds, overcast skies, and eventually rain showers, which meant that the roof of Rod Laver Arena was closed for the match. That was a good thing for the fans but not so good for Maria Sharapova, or so she said afterwards (i.e., that she would have preferred to have the roof closed on Day 2 when the Extreme Heat Rule went into effect). If you did not get a chance to see the Women's Singles final, I will give you a recap. If you did see it, then you know this--Serena Williams is back!!

Before I tell you about the Women's Singles final, let me say a few words about the Girls' Singles final that was played beforehand on Margaret Court Arena. As mentioned yesterday, the Girls Final featured No. 1 seeded Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova (RUS) against 16th-seeded Madison Brengle (USA). Because of the rain, the match started a bit later than the 12:30 time for which it was slated. Brengle must have broken serve in the first game, because she lost her serve just after I sat down in MCA, and that made the score 1-1. I was able to watch five more games before going to my seat in RLA for the WS finals, and Brengle was up 4-3 when I left. In the games that I watched, Madison seemed to be playing consistently and was moving the ball around although it was clear that Anastasia had good depth and power on her groundstrokes as well. Brengle has a nice rhythmic looping forehand stroke and drives it deep to the corners. She can also get pretty good pace on her backhand. I had noticed in the junior matches I had watched Friday that there were no IBM signs to indicate how fast the players were serving. At the time, I thought maybe it was to keep them from being concerned about how hard they were hitting the ball, which I assumed to be a good thing at the time. However, in the Girls and Boys' finals, the IBM trackers were on court, so I guess that was not the rationale after all. The average speed of the girls serves were around 150 km while the boys served as high as 205 km. Interestingly, Serena Williams hit 199 km on more than one occasion, so that tells you how hard she was serving. As to the outcome of the Girls Singles, Pavlyuchenkova edged Brengle in two tie-breaks, 7-6, 7-6 (for more on that match, see the Australian Open website: http://www.australianopen.com/en_AU/news/articles/2007-01-27/200701271169885300772.html). In light of those scores, I wish I could have seen more of the match. It certainly turned out to be much closer than the Women's singles final.

The Daily Schedule and Draw sheet had touted the match-up between Williams and Sharapova as a "Battle of Willpower." In previous matches, they had faced each other a total of 4 times, and each had won twice (Serena won in the Round of 16 at Miami in 2004 and in the semi-finals of the 2005 Australian Open which she also won; Maria won both times that she played in 2004--both times in final matches--at Wimbledon and the Tour Championships at the end of the year).

In this match, Sharapova won the coin toss and elected to receive, which seemed a bit odd at the time, until I remembered her comment after her semifinal match against Clijsters, that she would need to work on her serve since she had too many double-faults. From the moment Serena began to serve in the first game, she was totally focused. You could see it in the close-ups of her face as she changed ends. You could see it in how deliberate she was when she took her time to serve, and you could sense her intensity as she prepared to return Sharapova's serve. Unlike her match against Vaidisova, when Williams frequently seemed to be on the defensive, Serena took control from the start and dictated the pace and direction of shots before Maria could get into a rally. This put Sharapova on the defensive and meant she was always playing from behind. When the players changed ends with Serena up 5-0 in the first set, I noted that it looked like she was playing in the zone, and I am sure that was how Maria felt as well. On the first point of the 6th game, Sharapova hit a shot that nearly hit Williams, and it was clear from the replay on the big screen that Serena was none too pleased about that shot. That would turn out to be the only game that Sharapova won in the first set, as Williams held serve to win the first set, 6-1. In looking at the statistics for the first set, a woman sitting behind me noted that Williams had actually hit more unforced errors (7) than Sharapova (4), but of course the key statistic--winners--was where Serena had 15 to Maria's 5. In the second set, Serena jumped out to a 4-0 lead as well, before Sharapova came back to win her first game. In the second set, Maria managed one more game before Serena ended it 6-2 to win the final in less than an hour. To read more about the Women's Singles final, you can also go to the Australian Open website: http://www.australianopen.com/en_AU/news/match_reports/2007-01-27/200701271169870806507.html

U.S. television coverage of the Australian Open does not always feature the awards ceremony, so I will fill you in on some of the highlights. It took 10-15 minutes to set up the stage and usher in the speakers. After they did, the award for runnerup was presented to Sharapova, who showed her respect for Williams when she said: "First, I want to congratulate Serena. I know that you can never underestimate Serena Williams. I don't think many of you in the media expected to see her here in the finals, but I did. I know how tough she can be. She's a great champion." [Are you listening, Tracy Austin?]. The presentation of Serena as Australian Open Champion was even more compelling since she dedicated her win to her sister Yetunde, who was shot and killed in Compton, CA several years ago. It was a tragic event that Serena and Venus have both been reluctant to talk about after their tennis matches, and Serena was understandably emotional when she dedicated her play to her late sister. It was quite moving.

The Women's Singles final was followed by the Men's Doubles final, featuring the No. 1 seeded team of Bob and Mike Bryan (USA) vs. second-seeded Jonas Bjorkman and Max Mirnyi, about whom I have written before. Although the Bryan brothers are from the U.S., I had never seen them play (live) so it was a pleasure to see this match. Unlike previous teams that Bjorkman and Mirnyi had been able to subdue with winners after 4 or 5 shots, the Bryan brothers seemed to anticipate where so many of their shots were going, and that made for some great rallies, and unanticipated returns of shots. Both sets appeared to be going to tie-breaks, but instead the Bryan brothers were able to break serve in the 12th game of each set to win in the final, 7-5, 7-5. This would be the last time to hear the Swedish cheering squad and they too met their match in a group of young boys and girls who were determined to outyell the Swedes. I must say that the cheering duel almost rivaled the play on court.

One final match remained following presentation of the Men's Doubles awards, and that was the Boys' Singles final. This Australian Open was the first time that a Grand Slam had featured a junior final on the center court. Since one of the finalists was a boy from Australia, Brydan Klein, that may have entered into the decision to stage the Boys' final in Rod Laver Arena. Klein's opponent was the No. 1 seed, Jonathan Eysseric (FRA). There pairing appeared to be as lopsided as the rankings of Williams (#81) and Sharapova (#2) going into their final. But the rankings proved to be deceptive in the Boys' final as well. Apparently the Player Development program in Australia has benefited the young Aussie, although having the crowd in his court, so to speak must have helped as well. Brydan won the first set rather easily, 6-2, but went down to his lefty opponent Eysseric, 3-1 in the second set. It appeared that the seeding might hold to form as the young French player showed the form that prompted his seeding. Eysseric had remained poised throughout his first set loss and that allowed him to put together a second set win, 6-4. But Klein was not through after all, as he fought back to win the third set, 6-1. Needless to say, the Aussie crowd gave a warm ovation to Brydan Klein for his victory, but even more when Patrick Rafter was introduced to do the honors of awarding the trophy.

That was it for the play in Rod Laver Arena on Saturday, but there were two other matches besides the Girls' Singles that were played on Margaret Court Arena. I am sorry that I did not get to see those, as they were the Men's and Women's Wheelchair Singles finals. In the Women's Wheelchair Singles final, the No. 1 seeded Esther Vergeer (NED) defeated 2nd seeded Florence Gravellier (FRA), 6-1, 6-0. The Men's Wheelchair singles went the distance as No. 2 seeded Shingo Kuneida (JPN) outlasted 3rd seeded Michael Jeremiasz (FRA), 6-3, 3-6, 6-4. Perhaps one day the three matches that were played on MCA will also be played in RLA.

In the meantime, I am finishing yesterday's entry on Sunday and it is nearly time to leave for today's matches. Before the Men's Singles will be the Mixed Doubles Final. I only wish Jonas Bjorkman were still in the MXD:-) Hope we get to see some good matches. Cheers!

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