The Bottom Half
I don't think that it's too much of a surprise that Victoria Azarenka, the #2 seed, made it to the semi finals. She came into the US Open on a bit of a tear having defeated Serena Williams in Cincinnati. Beating Serena she was agile, mobile and totally dialed in. So the Open should've been a cake walk to the semi's for her right? No. Instead she's struggled badly at times and while she obviously won the five matches she's played so far the bottom half of the draw was considered the softer of the two and yet both Alizé Cornet and Ana Ivanovic took her to three sets. She's been sluggish and her movement hasn't been the best. She moved better during her quarterfinal match against Daniela Hantuchova who, while having no real weapons against her still managed to give her a bit of a hard time.
No one expected Flavia Pennetta to be in the Final Four. Why would they? She was the top Italian player a few years back but injury had dropped her to the second tier of the main tour. Of course, being European, she wasn't expected to do all that well in Flushing Meadows.
Only one other woman coming into the semi's has played consistent tennis.
Flavia steamrolled Nicole Gibbs of the United States and then faced her country woman Sara Errani who admitted after her loss that she is not enjoying the pressure of being a top player one bit. She might enjoy it more if she ironed out some of the kinks in her game - no serve - but she seemed after the match to want to go in her room, close the blinds and curl up in the fetal position on her bed.
Back to Flavia. After defeating a fading Svetlana Kuznetsova Flavia faced Simona Halep, a player who had been on fire coming into the Open. I thought Flavia would lose here but she needed a second set tiebreak to defeat Halep. Her Round of 16 match was against another country woman, her long time friend Roberta Vinci. Vinci couldn't handle the situation and it's Flavia who is into the semi final.
On paper this should be a romp for the woman they call Vika. A lot of matches are romps on paper. You can criticize the weakness of the bottom half of the draw but since they're "random" there isn't anything to say right? You play whoever is standing across the net from you. With Vika's form coming into the semifinals and Flavia being a first timer in this situation in my mind this match is a toss up. Vika should win. But I won't be surprised if she doesn't.
The Top Half
Li Na. Serena has admitted to having alter egos, personalities that are very different from her normal one. She's given them names. Ms Li's fans have provided her with one. her name is Madame Li. Madame Li takes no shit. She is focused, moves well, and controls the court. Li Na, not so much.
Li's path to the semifinals saw her play Olga Govortsova and Sofia Arvidsson before facing the much hyped Laura Robson. She easily defeated all three women. Her next opponent was one Jelena Jankovic who provided Li with another easy win.
Ekaterina Makarova was the one to finally force Li to play hard winning a second set tiebreaker 7-6(5). Li closed her out with a 6-2 third set.
Li is presently being coached by one Carlos Rodriguez. You all remember him. the Éminence Grise behind Justine Henin. He seems to have brought Li in ready for whoever she faces and whatever they throw at her.
Let's see. Best (only) serve in the WTA. Keen court sense. Great movement. Able to adapt. Confident. Prepared. What skills doesn't she have?
On her way to the semifinals she faced Francesca Schiavone whom she beat badly but showed much respect. Next came Galina Voskoboeva who was followed by Yaroslave "Golden Set" Shvedova. Next came the rematch with Sloane Stephens, who was getting the full star treatment in the New York press. This was supposed to be a war between the old and the new. Serena won 6-4, 6-1. Serena's quarterfinal match was against Carla Suarez Navarro who took out Angelique Kerber. Carla had less to bother Serena with than Dani Hantuchova had to annoy Vika. I didn't even watch the match, the only match of Serena's I didn't watch. Score was 6-0, 6-0.
It's easy to say Serena will beat Li. But I think this'll be tight. Rodriguez wants to show he's more than a controlling s.o.b. He's broken Li's game down and is in the process of putting a new one in place. Let's not forget Serena is a different presence on court than she was a few years ago. Because of the intangibles I think this is a toss up as well.
This is Tornado Alicia Black. She has a sister named Hurricane Tyra Black. I'm going to say it. Both are poised to take the junior ranks by storm. I'm so sorry but it has to be said. Tornado is 15 and playing the Junior US Open. She's done well so far. And let's not make her the next big thing okay? She's 15.
A friend of mine came into town from North Carolina, a friend I hadn't seen in over five years. She's a tennis fan too so it was a no brainer that we would spend a day at the Open.
We went on Sunday hoping to get somewhat affordable tickets into Ashe. That didn't happen so we got grounds passes and walked around, had a nice meal indoors in air conditioning, and sat in front of Ashe to watch Serena vs Sloane.
The USTA is doing fans a great service by alerting us to who is on the practice courts. There were a lot of people there but look who we got to see. Fans were eagerly anticipating neck rolls, sucked teeth and general unpleasantness with the two women on the practice courts at the same time.
None of that happened from what I could see. What I did see was Sloane go through the motions of a practice session while her USTA Player Development coach stood and watched Serena and her team go through a real practice. Sloane was barely on the practice courts twenty minutes, if that long. In fact she seemed bored to even be there. Richard Gasquet, whom you see was also on the practice courts, was working hard. Sloane didn't even stay long enough to work up a sweat.
There are a lot of things Sloane needs to work on with her game. It's also possible that she had an earlier, better work out that I didn't see. But what I did see is a somewhat arrogant player whose ego is outstripping her accomplishments at the moment. Less photo shoots and covers on the sports pages. More work off court. Lots of player have the talent. The ones at the top know that it's not enough.
Now that there are fewer matches I'm watching ESPN's coverage and not streaming from the US Open App. The American tennis establishment seems to still be upset about the cheers for Gaël Monfils against John Isner the other night. Have they been emphasizing the European origin of the remaining players all along or has this just been a thing since the other night? I don't remember "European" or "Australian" or "British" being used as an epithet back in the day. But almost every match I watched was talking about the Europeans as if they are some sub species of humans. They're tennis players. Tennis is an international sport. It's a major sport everywhere but the United States where it seems the people at the top want to keep it a strictly country club phenomenon.
Bitch and moan all you want commentators, USTA hierarchy and yes, former players. The United States has no one right now who can challenge the top players, all but one of whom come from that place, you know, Europe. As long as US players think Chipotle provides a proper sports diet and that fitness and practice, you know, match preparation, scouting are things to do when the mood strikes you, we'll continue to be a second rate tennis power. Watching Sloane Stephens coach do nothing to work with his charge while watching Serena's practice says all you need to know about why US tennis is in the state it's in.
It's work people. Lots of it. And you're doing your players a disservice by not making them do it.