by Pete Bodo
Things sure can change in the blink of an eye, although for our purposes it might be better to say "overnight." Before we parse the women's semifinal matchups, let's note two seismic events that occurred while most of us here in the eastern seaboard of the U.S. slept: Rafael Nadal was beaten in straight sets by David Ferrer, and Justine Henin reportedly retired from tennis for the second time in fewer than three years. Even in today's "should I stay or should I go" world, you have to believe that this time, Henin is gone for good.
Injury played a role in both of these big stories, but it was by no means the major part. Let's take Rafa's case. He picked up some sort of virus that seemed to influence his results in Doha (where he lost in the semifinals to Nikolay Davydenko) and the disease, or its lingering effects, apparently stayed with him. Last night, Rafa took a medical timeout after just three games for what appeared to be a problem with his left leg or lower back. Later, he suggested that his weakened condition due to the virus probably left him vulnerable to other injuries. “I don’t have to tell you what I felt on the court, but it is obvious I did not feel at my best. I had a problem with the match at the very beginning, and after that, the match was almost over.”
Almost, though, is a big word in tennis. And even though Ferrer generously acknowledged that Rafa was not in fighting trim last night, let's not forget that this win was a long time coming for Ferrer, the No. 7 seed who's played second-fiddle as a Top 10 "gimme" for the top players for a long time. Maybe Ferrer's problem was psychological, maybe it had to do with his game. In any event, he's always been more a barometer of the greatness of others than his own. He's has always been the ante at the high stakes table. Beat him, and you can include yourself among the elite, even though Ferrer himself has never been accepted into that company. Now, he's making his bid to take that next, crucial step.
Henin's decision to quit for good comes as absolutely no surprise here. I never felt that her heart was in her comeback, and often raised that issue once she faded from the scene following that elbow injury at Wimbledon. Never has so seemingly routine an injury loomed so large, and the silence from the Henin camp in the months following her withdrawal, and right up to the start of this year, was ominous. Actually, I'm surprised that she played at all this year.
Henin has never been a player who easily or convincingly expressed joy, which is sad and makes me feel for her. The closest she came, I think, was when she won her last French Open title (2007), with members of her newly reconciled family present. That was a long time ago, and not long before she first retired in 2008.
Since her comeback in 2010, we've grown accustomed to watching this great champion grow more introverted, less concerned with superficial things, including her appearance, but also less secure on the court. And the latter was a killer.
Back in the day, I often called Henin "the Sister of No Mercy" because she reminded me of a nun. She seemed overly severe. She dispassionately whacked her opponent's backsides, seemingly for a higher cause (if you're of a certain age and attended Catholic school, you'll know what I mean). That cause, of course, was "the beautiful game." Has a person so strikingly plain ever had such a shimmering, artistic game?
If you're the sort of person who believes that John McEnroe drove Bjorn Borg out of tennis, you might also be inclined to believe that Kim Clijsters rousted Henin out of the game for good. After all, the two were rivals for the hearts of their fellow Belgians, and over the years there was plenty of sniping and even some ugly controversy. (Clijsters' own father, Leo, accused Henin of using performance enhancing drugs.) Some of it was expected; after all, Belgium is a small country, and the two players had a spirited, see-saw rivalry since the very beginning. (Kim leads Justine, 13-12.)
Perhaps significantly, Henin embarked on her 2010 comeback leading 12-10, but Clijsters whipped her three times in just half a year; all three were three-set matches, two (Brisbane and Miami) were barnburners ending 7-6 (6) in the the third, and it was in their match at Wimbledon that Henin slipped and damaged her right elbow. Nevertheless, she finished the match and took everyone by surprise when she revealed that she had a bad elbow.
I don't believe McEnroe drove Borg out of tennis, but I believe Clijsters might have driven out Henin. But does it really matter? The important thing is that the Henin comeback has ended, and badly. It's a pity, and I hope she finds happiness or at least satisfaction in whatever else she chooses to do. It would be naive to ignore the fact that in the end Clijsters has the last laugh, after having to watch Henin version 1.0 utterly eclipse her as a champion. Clijsters still has plenty of time to add to her resume, perhaps even to catch up with Henin in the Grand Slam title count. And her opportunity begins tonight in the Australian Open semifinals. Let's have a look at them:
Caroline Wozniacki (No. 1 seed) vs. Na Li (No. 9): I can't recall a No. 9 seed in recent memory who looked nearly as good as Li has since the very beginning of the year. She won the tournament in Sydney a few weeks ago, beating Clijsters in the final, and she has not only won every set she's played in Melbourne, but given up four games to her opponent in only one of those games. That compact game and Li's low center of gravity make subtle demands on opponents, because balls hit relatively flat and at a modest trajectory take time away from opponent. Li's winner to unforced error ratio is negligible, which tells you that she's going for her shots.
However, Wozniacki is a talented retriever and a very consistent baseliner. Her height (5-10) and reach will help against Li's drives. I also look for Wozniacki to attack Li's serve; she's barely cracking the 100 mph barrier with her first serve (but converting an impressive percentage of first serves; she's served no worse than 65 percent and as high as 81). I picked Wozniacki to win this event and had Na Li as my darkhorse choice, so I can't lose here. I'm going with Wozniacki in a thriller.
Kim Clijsters (No. 3) vs. Vera Zvonareva (No. 2): The fact that Zvonareva has showed up at the appointed place tells you something right off the bat, given the doubts most pundits had about the sustainability of her outstanding play last year. Can anyone doubt that she's a deserving No. 2? And now she has another opportunity to insert herself into the conversation at the top of the game.
Based on what I've seen of Clijsters, particularly in her match with Agnieszka Radwanska last night, I believe that she's beatable. She's had lapses of form, or concentration, or confidence in a number of her matches, and gotten away with them. I believe Zvonareva can—and will—make her pay the price. She's won three of her last four against Clijsters, to pull the H2H up to 6-3. Unfortunately the match that everyone remembers is not the Zvonareva win at Wimbledon, but Clijsters' blowout victory in the U.S. Open final.
I'm thinking that final in Flushing was an example of really bad, unavoidable timing; all credit to Clijsters for bringing her A-game. But tonight I expect to see Zvonareva get some payback. Granted, Clijsters can club any opponent off the court. But if you can weather the storm when she's playing well and extend the points, you can expect to get opportunities and critical lapses. And keeping the ball low (Zvonareva has a fine slice backhand) pays off against Clijsters, who likes to take it right in her wheelhouse. Radwanska made the kind of inexplicable errors that nobody who lives by her wits ought to commit at some key moments last night; Zvonareva won't make those unless she caves to the pressure. I look for her to keep it together and advance to the final.
Both of these matches should go three sets. You can blink, without missing too much.