by Pete Bodo
Well, the days and matches are dwindling down to a precious few, and the thumbs up/thumbs down meme is beginning to outlive its usefulness. That's okay, because this was to be the last day for that approach anyway. I'm off, and off to, Easy Ed McGrogan's big day (no, he doesn't get his driver's license — he's getting married!). I'll be back on Sunday, though, to write about the finals. I will post a Crisis Center for you each day as well.
Now, let's get down to business, at what has turned into perhaps the most "predictable" (as in, upset-free) of Olympic tennis events, despite having been held on the least predictable surface, under conditions that were by any stretch of the imagination an experiment. Nobody knew just how the courts at the Olympic tennis venue, the All-England Club, would hold up under stress and wear when the official Wimbledon tournament was completed a scant three weeks earlier. And nobody knew how the stress of competing for your nation rather than yourself would affect players in best-of-three matches on slick grass. The most unpredictable aspect of these Olympics has been its predictability. So, onward:
I neglected to single out Kei Nishikori of Japan for a thumbs up yesterday, but only because we were eager to get my report up at the usual time, and Nishikori's upset of Spain's David Ferrer went right on into the British dusk. Nishikori beat the No. 4 seed, 6-0, 3-6, 6-4, and ended up as the lowest seed (No. 15) to make it to the fourth round — and the only "outsider" to crack the elite rank of the quarterfinalists. That upset was huge, not least because it came late in the tournament, but also because Ferrer is a tough out at the best of times, and usually dominates players who rank below him.
Nishikori ran into a customarily tough Juan Martin del Potro of Argentina today, but he went down swinging, 6-4, 7-6 (4). Nishikori hit as many aces as Delpo, he hit just three fewer winners (18), and made four fewer unforced errors (16). This tells you that he was just outplayed in a high-quality match. I guess outfoxing a small guy and then outgunning a big one on back-to-back days was just too big an assignment for Kei — as it would be for almost anyone else as well.
Venus and Serena Williams of the USA simply crushed No. 2 seeds Sara Errani and Roberta Vinci of Italy, 6-1, 6-1. Early in the second set, when it looked as if the Italians might break back, Venus and Serena collided as both of them called for a very short drop volley and raced toward it — Serena along the net, Venus from the backcourt.
This being the Williams sisters, both women wanted to field the tricky ball. As Justin Gimelstob aptly observed, both of them want the ball in a critical moment, and that's part of what makes them great. But the women collided as they arrived at the ball together. Venus went down, hard, and lay on her back. Serena, barely able to keep her feet, ended up well off to the side of the net post.
The ball ended up crossing the net and dropping for a winner as the astonished Italians looked on.
Maria Kirilenko of Russia is a player who, despite her obvious good looks, can get lost in the woodwork of the pro game despite being a consistent high-achiever. At 5-foot-9, she's not too big, not too small. She has decent power, but lacks menacing weapons. She's a typical baseliner, yet is proficient enough at the net, with sufficiently soft hands, to be an excellent doubles player. She's been in around around the Top 20 for a long time, and has won five singles titles, but more than twice as many in doubles. It's small wonder that she gets lost in the shuffle despite having much to recommend her.
Kirilenko presently is just one notch below her career-high singles ranking (14), and coming off her best Grand Slam result yet, a tough three-set quarterfinal loss at Wimbledon to losing finalist Agnieszka Radwanska. Given that she's such a textbook case of the good but not great player, someone who's more than journey woman but far from being a champion, nobody really anticipated that she would take down No. 6 seeded Petra Kvitova of the Czech Republic. But Kirilenko managed it, winning 7-6 (3), 6-3. And she's also punched her ticket into the medal round of the doubles.
The unseeded team of Sabine Lisicki and Christoper Kas of Germany defeated Liezel Huber and Bob Bryan of the USA in the mixed doubles in 7-6 (5), 6-7 (5), 10-5 thriller (all mixed doubles matches are decided by the super tiebreaker [first to 10 points] when the teams split the first two sets).
It was touching to see that Lisicki had overcome the disappointment she must have felt after she squandered numerous chances in her losing effort against Maria Sharapova of Russia just yesterday. The winners of the mixed doubles gold medal will become an instant trivia question, because this is the first time that mixed is a medal event in the Olympic games.
Maria Sharapova is on fire (more on that below). As hot as that that brilliant vermilion dress. But she has one big problem, and it isn't the woman she's playing in the semifinals, fellow Russian Maria Kirilenko. It's Serena Williams of the USA, who won her 15th consecutive match today, a 6-0, 6-3 pasting of that other lady in red, Caroline Wozniacki of Denmark.
The scary thing is, she didn't even play all that well, and that's bad news for Sharapova. For this is no doting, distracted mommy, nor a gangly blonde who may have won Wimbledon too soon that she'll be facing. It's the most powerful force ever seen in women's tennis, and I have even more bad news. She's steamed that, unlike her sister Venus Williams, she's managed to miss out on winning an Olympic singles gold medal. She hasn't won a single one of those, but has won everything else, often many times over.
The last attempt to turn Sharapova vs. Williams into a rivalry followed the latter's relatively close match with Sharapova in the fourth round of Wimbledon last year, 7-6 (9), 6-4. But Williams won their next two matches by identical 1-and-3 scores. As someone once said, "It's only a rivalry if both players win a few. . ." and Sharapova hasn't beaten Williams since late 2004 (Williams leads the head-to-head, 8-2). Let's see if they both survive their semis.
That's Roger Federer of Jupiter, er, Switzerland, who moved into the semis today with a win over Long John Isner of the USA, the scores were 6-4, 7-6 (5). It was the day after Swiss hopes had been crushed in a number of Olympic events, including the men's doubles in tennis. Federer and his partner, Stan Wawrinka, were the defending champs but they walked away with squat — just like the other hopeful Swiss athletes scattered throughout London.
But who better to shoulder the load of Swiss depression than "the maestro," who grinned after the match and said, of yesterday, "We (Swiss) were getting a little nervous."?
What can you say about his outstanding performance against one of the most dangerous players anyone may have the misfortune to meet on grass? Isner converted an outstanding 71 percent of his first serves, yet Federer, who served 63 percent, won more of his first serves than did Isner (albeit by a narrow 78 to 75 percent margin).
The first point of the second set tiebreaker was a classic. Isner hit a second serve that Federer handled with a dink return that drew Isner to the net. The American hit a drop volley with his forehand, just as Federer had anticipated. He passed Isner with a picture perfect down-the-line backhand.
Maria Sharapova, who's from Bradenton, Fla, but plays for the Russian team, was fighting for a place in the medal round (semifinals), and she turned in a gold-worthy performance against retiring hausfrau Kim Clijsters, an unseeded quarterfinalist from Belgium.
The No. 3 seed, Sharapova looked terrific. Clijsters had a banner day at the service notch, converting 76 percent of her first serves, yet Sharapova shoved many of them right back down her throat (you can read my Racquet Reaction to the match elsewhere), thanks to the shot that's been the catalytic ingredient in what is shaping up as Sharapova's career year — her service return.
Clijsters, a part-timer for various reasons including injury, is still dangerous. But I don't think she's had enough recent experience against seasoned, dedicated professionals like Sharapova. While many of the points were exciting, Sharapova blew out Clijsters in the first set and cut through her life a knife through butter at crunch time in the second set. Sharapova was nice enough to give her post-match interview in perfect English, without a trace of Russian accent.
I understand that living up to expectations when you've won Wimbledon at age 21, but Petra Kvitova of the Czech Republic is developing into a disappointingly erratic — and to her fans, maddening — player. She had a great opportunity to make the medal round at the Olympics and had a surprisingly kind draw all the way to the quarterfinals and her match today with Maria Kirilenko.
All credit to Kirilenko, but didn't you also expect more out of the slumping Kivtova and this manageable draw she was given? At the start of the year, she was a few swings of the racquet from becoming the new No. 1. Instead Victoria Azarenka of Belarus grabbed the honor. Kivitova has had some decent results since then (remember, in tennis you're graded on a curve) but more ghastly ones. She should wait until she's at least as experienced, and has been through as much (good and bad) as Li Na of China before she emulates her.