Friday, January 19, 2007

American Pioneers

For the first time in the Open era, no American woman is seeded in the main draw of a major event. The names of the women who have carried the American flag for so many years - Capriati, Venus, Davenport, Seles - are all absent; one citing injury, another retirement and still others...well, we're not too sure. Yet the truth of the matter is, American women's tennis has become a minor-league contender at this year's opening slam: the girls have gone mediocre.

Through all the hoopla and hollering, two women have been somewhat of a saving grace for the stars and stripes this past week in Melbourne. Serena Williams - the perennial comeback kid - and Ashley Harkleroad, the little "Pebbles" from Rossville, Ga., that is looking to rekindle her teen success of 2003.

Williams played four tournaments in 2006, including a third-round exit at this very tournament to Daniela Hantuchova (who Harkleroad plays today). Before the week began, I predicted Serena would again be a third-round victim. Yesterday Nadia Petrova nearly gave truth to my oracle, taking a 6-1 5-4 lead and serving for the match. Yet Serena Williams, in truly Serena form, screeched out a stirring comeback, blasting Petrova with a 1-6 7-5 6-3 upset.

A win like this is what Williams needed. Her shaky second round win had many questioning her ability to compete with the top players again, and when the critics call, Serena usually answers. Now it will take back-to-back top-caliber wins for Serena to find herself in the quarterfinals: Jelena Jankovic awaits the younger Williams in round four.

And there might be a little revenge in Williams' blood, seeing that it was Jankovic herself that stunned then defending champion Venus at last year's Wimbledon. So if Serena can get her druthers together, clean up her 39 unforced-error mess from round three and use her deadly serve to give her the free points it can, I certainly see a solid future in week to for Williams.

As for Harkleroad, the married 21-year-old is looking to repeat a little history when she matches up with Hantuchova, the 15th seed, in the third round. Harkleroad leads their head-to-head matchups 2-0, both wins coming in the spring of 2003 on clay. The American dispatched the lengthy Czech 6-2 6-1 in the quarterfinals of Charleston before winning 9-7 in the third set of their second round bout at Roland Garros two months later.

Harkleroad brings not only history onto the court today, but quite a bit of confidence as well. After winning her opening-round match, Harkleroad had little trouble with 17th seeded Anna Lena Groenefeld, downing the German 6-2, 6-2.

For the American to get past Hantuchova, she'll have to take lessons from her opponent's recent troubles: the 15th seed needed a 6-4 in the third set performance to get past tricky Frenchwoman Emelie Loit in the second round. A little chop and block from Harkleroad? It just might get her a first-ever fourth round birth in a major.

Seeing American tennis in such a condition, Williams and Harkleroad would truly be American Pioneers - of 2007 - to advance into the second week in Melbourne.

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