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WTA Best and Worst: Reviewing Thursday at the Australian Open

Jan 16th 2014

Heat ravaged the order of play on Thursday at the Australian Open, but the matches that did take the court during the afternoon and early evening did not lack drama.  Here is

Match of the day:  Match of the week, more like it.  Elsewhere on this site, Melbourne correspondent Matt Tewhatu offers his analysis from courtside and the interview room on the 208-minute epic between Maria Sharapova and Karin Knapp.  In this space, we’ll note simply a few of the key facts. Sharapova led this match by a set and a break before Knapp forced a deciding set.  The world No. 3 then came within a point of a double-break lead midway through the third set and held three match points as she served for it at 5-4 in the third.  Having spent her career in obscurity, Knapp somehow found the courage to respond each time.  But then it was Sharapova’s turn to stand firm in adversity.  With her back to the wall, she held serve to stay in the tournament three straight times and survived a multiple-deuce final game despite three double faults.  New coach Sven Groeneveld, who vaulted from his seat repeatedly, saw first-hand what he can expect from a charge who has won 33 of her last 37 three-set battles.

Agnieszka Radwanska

Gold star:  On a day when most favorites flailed and floundered for long stretches, Agnieszka Radwanska dismissed a solid opponent in Olga Govortsova without requiring a third set.  The world No. 5 played from behind for most of the second set, granted, but she did just enough on the key points at the end of it to pull through.  Radwanska’s game requires plenty of mental and physical stamina, so conserving energy is critical for her.

Silver star:  Never has Dominika Cibulkova left an impact on the Australian Open, yet that might change this year.  The tiny Slovak won by a far more convincing margin than any of the other women today, yielding just one game a round after she cruised past Francesca Schiavone.   

Boomerang effect:  A strange turnaround unfolded on Court 8 when world No. 11 Simona Halep roared back to oust American lefty Varvara Lepchenko.  The result did not surprise, considering Lepchenko’s ongoing struggles, but the manner of it did.  After Halep dropped five of the first six games, she reeled off 15 of the next 17 to advance with a scoreline as bizarre as any a three-setter can produce.

Lesson not learned:  After she served a first-set bagel in the first round, Caroline Wozniacki suffered a second-set letdown but escaped with a straight-sets win nevertheless.  The former No. 1 did exactly the same thing in the second round against Christina McHale, too good an opponent to let her escape the second set.  While Wozniacki ultimately prevailed by a whiplash-inducing scoreline of 6-0 1-6 6-2, she cannot afford to go walkabout for an entire set when she reaches the second week.

Carla Suarez Navarro

Spanish Armada:  This phrase usually calls to mind the outstanding generation of Spanish men that extended from Juan Carlos Ferrero and Carlos Moya to David Ferrer, Fernando Verdasco, and of course Rafael Nadal.  Less known for women’s tennis, Spain found plenty of cause for pride in the achievements of its top two WTA players today.  Pocket rocket Carla Suarez Navarro, armed with a sparkling one-handed backhand, improved to 6-0 across her career in matches that reach 6-6 in the final set.  Trailing for most of the third set against Galina Voskoboeva, Suarez Navarro stayed focused in the blistering heat and broke back at the last possible moment.  Spanish No. 2 Garbine Muguruza ran her winning streak to double digits with a victory in one of the day’s few routine matches.

More to Russia than Maria:  Russian tennis has been a one-woman show for most of the last few years.  Far out on Court 19 today, though, Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova reached the third round of the Australian Open for just the second time.  A former junior No. 1 with vicious groundstrokes, Pavlyuchenkova has reached quarterfinals at Roland Garros and the US Open in 2011.  But she had enjoyed less success at majors recently, so her start to 2014 offers hope.

Stat of the day:  One of the day’s first matches pitted counterpuncher Alize Cornet against fearless slugger Camila Giorgi.  The contrast in styles made statistical gaps a foregone conclusion from the start, but their starkness still staggered.  Cornet struck exactly six winners across the two and a half hours of their three-setter.  It was enough to win, largely because Giorgi committed 7373—unforced errors.  That is the equivalent of 18 free games handed to the opponent, and Cornet needed just 16 to advance.

Trend of the day:  One would think that knowledge of the heat would give players, especially top seeds, a sense of urgency to finish matches efficiently and return to the shade.  Think again.  Three-setter after three-setter clogged the schedule as drama rippled through every court.  At one stage in the early afternoon, four different final sets were underway in women’s matches.  The epics are entertaining for now, but will they cost their winners in the long term?

Too hot to handle:  Postponements of play on many outer courts forced matches there to unfold later than the schedule had promised.  But tournament organizers made the smart decision today in yielding to the oppressive heat.  They might consider adjusting their heat policy even further to permit closing the roofs on Rod Laver and Hisense Arenas during changeovers rather than only between sets.  As Sharapova observed, playing a no-tiebreak final set in these extreme conditions is a task too great to ask even of the world’s best athletes.