Monday, December 21, 2009

The Top 9 Intensely Dramatic Women's Matches of 2009

This was a crazy year for Women's tennis. That's c-r-a-z-y with a capital C. Quite frankly, the sport has become impossible to predict. It's a good thing I'm not a betting man, is all I can say.

Please realize that all this craziness is good for the game: the chaos is extremely entertaining. The spontaneity is the allure, and you never know what is going to happen next. The comebacks of Sharapova, Clijsters, Krumm, and now Justine Henin are taking the drama to a whole new level.

It's really hard to summarize just how superb 2009 was for women's tennis. And crazy. Did I mention crazy?

Without any further ado, here are 2009's top-9 intensely dramatic matches:

Intensely Dramatic Match #9: Bartoli over Venus Williams, Bank of the West Final

Venus was the heavy favorite in this one, but Bartoli proved once again that she is not a girl to be taken lightly. Just as she did against Jelena Jankovic in the 4th round of the Australian Open, Bartoli came out on fire. Venus was basically livin' on a prayer for the better part of two sets. Her 2nd serve was attacked ruthlessly by Bartoli.

Finally, late in the second set, Venus' prayers were answered. She struck quickly and grabbed the second set 7-5, by taking the final four games. Suddenly Bartoli's brilliant effort seemed as if it might be wasted. This was only their second all-time meeting - Venus had decisively beaten Bartoli in the 2007 Wimbledon Final - and it looked as if revenge may just have been a false dream for Bartoli. But Bartoli dug in and fought. She would not go away, even as the 2-hour and 43-minute battle seemed never ending.

Her feisty return game was the difference, and it didn't just enable her to exact revenge for her 2007 Wimbledon thrashing: it enabled her to score her first Premier-level victory of her career.

Intensely Dramatic Match #8: Kuznetsova Loses to Serena Under The Roof In Australia

Melbourne is like an oven. It's hard to keep it together when you are not sure if you are frying like an egg on a skillet. It's even harder to Beat Serena Williams when you feel like that.

Surprisingly, At the 2009 Australian Open, Svetlana Kuznetsova was doing just that. Until they closed the roof and gave Serena a chance to cool down. After the change in scenery Kuznetsova played like a iguana being tossed out a plane into the Arctic Ocean. She did get three points away from serving out the match - then Serena flipped the script. As the temperatures dropped to the 80's (from 120!), Serena got hot. She went on a stretch where she won 9 out of 10 games. Just like that the all-Russian semifinal at the 2009 Autralian Open was a no-go.

Intensely Dramatic Match #7: The Torture Match: Wozniacki over Zvonareva in Doha

This was a match for the fetishists out there who like their sports colored with a little of the rare and the raw. Vera Zvonareva was no stranger to pain this year, but it was Caroline Wozniacki's pain that made this match truly and horrifically dramatic.

Wozniacki, after seeing the trainer twice during the third set, serves for the match. Suddenly, she is stricken by the worst imaginable cramps. She falls to the court, rolls on her back, puts her hands to her side, and starts convulsing as if she is having an epileptic seizure. Perhaps she is being transported to another universe? It was hard to tell. After being warned by the umpire (Wozniacki has no injury time left) she is forced to either get to her feet, wipe the tears from her face, and continue serving for the match, or forfeit. Sunshine makes the right choice - she guts out the win first, and heads for the training table immediately after.

Intensely Dramatic Match #6: Oudin Over Sharapova in U.S. Open Stomach-Turner

You can't really talk about Women's tennis in 2009 without bringing up either Oudin or Sharapova. Both played major roles in shaping the drama and emotional color of the season. Sharapova was a wonderful story with her long-awaited comeback from shoulder surgery. She showed us a new level of commitment in her character, and she captivated us with a Roland Garros run that reminded us of just how valiant and good for the game she can be.

Oudin was our symbol of belief - a theme that runs through nearly every WTA contest. When the two fierce women clashed in the U.S. Open's 4th round, they did not disappoint. Some will say that Sharapova's 21 double faults lessened the quality of this match. To me, it only added to the drama. Not only was Sharapova fighting Oudin, she was also fighting herself.

Emotionally, this match was riveting. It was amazingly tense, but also high in emotional spirit. "I try to pretend like it's not, like, Arthur Ashe Stadium, playing Maria Sharapova," Oudin said. "Sometimes I just tell myself I'm playing one of my friends, so it's not a big deal."

Oudin's mental approach worked, and she advanced to her first-ever Grand-Slam quarterfinal.

Intensely Dramatic Match # 5: Pennetta over Zvonareva in 4th Round Thriller at U.S. Open

This one was the quintessential cliffhanger. Pennetta, sure to die, facing 6 match points in the 81-minute second set (four at 5-6 and two more in the tiebreak), wiggled her way off the cliff.

In the third set she slammed Zvonareva 6-0. It wasn't much of a set, but the second set was good enough to more than make up for a lack of down-the-stretch drama. Emotionally, Zvonareva's collapse was difficult to watch. So close to victory, and hurting so much physically (who could forget the tape on both knees and her ankle?), it was torture for the Russian to lose. Each of those match points drove her more over the cliff that Pennetta had just found refuge from.

Intensely Dramatic Match #4: Kuznetsova Pays Serena Back at Roland Garros

This match lasted nearly three hours, and when a clay-covered Kuznetsova finally outlasted Serena in three thrilling sets, she was well on her way to the French Open Crown. Beating Serena can open a few doors for you, especially if you do it at the right time. But it wasn't so simple for Kuznetsova. Serving, and one point away from going up 5-2 in the 2nd set, she took a spill on the clay. Before she could get it brushed off, Serena had drawn even in the match.

But the 3rd set, typically the domain of Serena, surprisingly went Kuznetsova's way. She played courageously, going for her shots and hitting out with wild abandon to keep Serena off balance. It was too much for Serena to handle. This was a monumental affair, and one that proved that Sveta is in that small group of players that can handle Serena when she doesn't beat herself.

Intensely Dramatic Match #3: Jankovic Rips the Rug From Underneath Dementieva in Cincy Semi

This match was so nerve-wracking I thought Elena Dementieva's hockey-playing boyfriend was going to pass out in the stands. After Jankovic squandered three match points at 5-4 in the deciding set, it appeared all but over when Dementieva took a 6-2 lead in the third set tiebreak. Somehow Jankovic blocked out the pressure and played flawlessly for the next six points, outlasting Demetieva in rallies and gaining momentum with each successive point. She had done the unthinkable: reeling off six consecutive points to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. This one has to go down as 2009's most fantastic finish.

Intensely Dramatic Match #2: Wozniacki Breaks Through against Kuznetsova

This was the one that put Caroline Wozniackin on the map. After being thrashed in the first set, the tennis world was introduced to the guts of Wozniacki. The 19-year-old had to fight ridiculously hard to get into a second set tiebreak, but when she did - it was on!

Many say that Kuznetsova became careless and went for too many winners in the latter stages of this match, but the real story was that Wozniacki was coming of age right before our eyes! Her backhand was flawless, and she covered the court remarkably well.

In the end, Kuznetsova was forced to go for more and more, and when she wasn't up to the task, Wozniacki was well on her way to her first Grand-Slam final. She would later defeat Oudin and Wickmayer before finally falling to Clijsters in the final, but it was in surviving 2nd and 3rd set tiebreakers against Kuznetsova where Wozniacki first earned her Grand-Slam stripes.

Intensely Dramatic Match #1: Serena Breaks Dementieva's Heart in the Wimbledon Semis

Some matches have everything. Drama, tension, athleticism, strategy, shot making, and emotion. When we talk about Serena coming back from match point down in the Wimbledon semis against Dementieva, we are talking about everything - and a whole lot more. This match was captivating from the very start because right away it was obvious that Dementieva was in rare form. The Russian was playing perfect tennis against Serena, and before long it looked like she was going to send Serena off for an early shower.

But we should have known better. Serena got in the trenches and proceeded to gut out another signature comeback. "Elena played so well, we gave the crowd a wonderful match," Serena said. "It was really hard. It's definitely one of my more dramatic victories, for sure."

And that is what made this match so memorable. The drama. The agony. The fact that Dementieva had taken her game to a new level - and it still wasn't enough. Serena, the poster child for the slogan "fortune favors the bold," responded to being match-point down in the 10th game of the final set in typical fashion: She rushed the net and punched a backhand valley off the top of the tape. It skidded over the net chord and Dementieva saw the clouds roll in. It was the longest Wimbledon Semifinal in Open Era history - If it wasn't the best, I'd like someone to let me know what was.

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