For The Love of the Game
January 25, 2009 -- If tennis fans hadn't fallen in love with Jelena Dokic, the comeback kid of Australia, they did during the on-court interview immediately after her defeat of Alisa Kleybanova 75 57 86. The commentator asked Dokic about the little stuffed toys attached to the outside of her tennis bag. Come to find out, Dokic talks to them when she gets in a pickle on court. "They are like my coaches," she added with a sweet smile that drew thunderous applaud.
If you weren't left smiling, you cried. Her wildcard rise to the quarterfinals of this year's Australian Open, after a five-year hiatus that involved intensive psychotherapy and personal courage no one would likely want to muster, demonstrates the mystery and magic of human nature and its resiliency. You have to love an unsung hero.
In the second set Dokic served for the match, but couldn't close it out. When a winning shot was imminent she choked. Kleybanova was no one to fool around with. Her tenacity was well known, given the fight she put up against Ivanovic. But Dokic had let her back in the match. The quarterfinal berth was up for grabs.
The problem for Dokic was footwork and balance. She couldn't quite get her feet to the ball and set up properly for put-away shots. These unforced errors usually popped up at the end of lengthy rallies, which Kleybanova specialized in. During one such point, the big Russian rocketed an acute forehand crosscourt. It landed inches from the net, under the tournament's chair. Up ran Dokic. She swung with abandon back crosscourt, but her shot found the net cord. The crowd sighed with disappointment. Had she arrived at the ball a second earlier she might have won the point.
But Dokic's tenacity and heart, along with the crowds collective heart, out did Kleybanova in the third. Down an early break -- 0/3 -- Dokic pulled even at 3/3. It was game-on for both women.
As the minutes ticked by and points mounted for each player, signs of weariness crept into Kleybanova's game and body posture. She got to balls, but her shots turned defensive. Dokic moved her back and forth, sensing the predicament of her opponent. Both ran on adrenalin.
At 7/6, Jelena transformed into a true tennis champion. She had the needed break of serve. She had the match on her racquet. All she needed was four little points -- the biggest of the match. She served three aces. She lost a point. She closed the game, and the match. She fell to her knees in joy and relief.
"We love you because you are courageous," the broadcast journalist said on court.
"I was really exhausted," Jelena began. "I kept fighting and it paid off."
Jelena Dokic said she came to the Australian Open to get past the first round. She figured she'd be on vacation by now instead of on Rod Laver Arena.
Next up for Jelena Dokic is Dinara Safina, who barely escaped disaster today against the feisty Frenchwoman Alize Cornet. However, Dinara came through 62 26 75, saving two match points at 5/2.
Jankovic sent packing
Marion Bartoli (#16 seed) doesn't get much respect in the women's game. Although she put Justine Henin's hopes of a Wimbledon title on hold in 2007 with a surprise defeat in the semifinals, Marion's dance with the WTA, the press and fans hasn't been a rhythmic one.
Bartoli has a quirky serve, for instance. The windup is bizarre from a technical perspective; however, at contact point she's right on the money. No real complaints there. She hits with two hands off both sides, which is different, but you see juniors swing like this at least until they build some body muscle and tone. Then they drop one hand on the forehand side.
However, Dr. Martin Bartoli, Marion's father and coach, has never suggested that she change her style. In fact, he developed her tennis based on what he learned watching Monica Seles. Hit the ball on the rise. Hit it as hard as you can and flat. Go for angles. Never look back. And, that's exactly what Marion Bartoli did today on Rod Laver Arena, drubbing the #1 seed Jelena Jankovic 61 64 in one hour and eighty-two minutes.
"I couldn't get any rhythm," Jankovic said in her press conference. "It was a bad day for me and a good day for her. My opponent was on fire."
Marion Bartoli beat the Jankovic hands down. She couldn't do anything because Bartoli crushed her with a lock-tight strategy and execution. Throughout most of the match Jankovic looked as if she wanted Bartoli to come around and play the type of tennis Jankovic likes... you know, a little defensive, lots of topspin, and balls about waist high. Bartoli didn't want any part of Jankovic's pitiful allure.
"I was confident [coming into this match] because I played really well my last match against [Lucie] Safarova," Marion said in her press conference. "I wasn't overwhelmed by the situation. Everything went in today. It was just a great match."
Marion Bartoli is in this championship full blast. She has lost weight, is healthy, and hungry for victory. Not one of the other women -- Vera Zvonareva, Dinara Safina, and Jelena Dokic -- in her draw for the quarterfinal round has won a major. Dokic is a wildcard, to boot. It's an open road ahead for them.
As we come into the final week, the competitors and champions remain primed to break back, grit their teeth, play one point at a time, hit the lines if necessary, and take a little off their serves if that's what it takes to win. Andy Roddick, James Blake, and Serena Williams are the three Americans left standing. Will they have what it takes to persevere? To stay focused? To beat the heat? To dig deep enough to make the difference? To write history?
Stay tuned. There's more to come from Down Under.