Korean Open--Match Reports
I checked out some of the matches at the Korean Open (aka the Maria Open) today, and I thought I'd share some thoughts. Before I begin, let me say that all opinions are mine and mine only and are not meant to be taken as the absolute truth, etc, etc. Okay, let's commence:
It's a holiday season here in Korea; it's called Chuseok, and it's the Korean equivalent of Thanksgiving. Most people leave Seoul to visit relatives in their hometowns, so I was curious as to how the attendance for the tournament would be.
I arrived around 11 a.m., and paid about $11 (a good deal, especially since a ticket lets you sit anywhere) to get into the stadium. Shinobu Asagoe had just wrapped up a bagel first set against Seiko Okamato. Watching the second set, it became quickly clear how she did it. Shinobu was just murderous with her forehand, moving Seiko around at will. And I was struck by the difference in watching a tennis match in person and on TV. Shinobu was hitting so hard, that it was almost unimaginable that there were other women who actually hit a lot harder (Serena, et al.). I've got to say if you've never seen pro tennis in person, then you really haven't experienced pro tennis. Anyhow, Seiko tried her very best trying to defend (she ran and ran and ran), but Shinobu was merciless. Shinobu finished Seiko off 6-0, 6-2, and hit a tennis ball into the crowd with a big smile (little gestures like that come off really endearing when you're in the crowd yourself).
The next match--Maria vs. Sacrificial Lamb--wasn't scheduled to start for over an hour, so I wandered over to the outside courts. There were players warming up, stretching, etc. One blonde player started her practice by taking two rackets and hitting both left-handed and right-handed forehands (I kid you not!). It was bizarre. I looked over at the draw that was posted, and I was disappointed to see that the names of Maria Kirilenko and Ashley Harkleroad were nowhere to be seen (what the... weren't they on the entrance list?). Also, I was shocked to see Yoon-Jeong Cho had gone out to Samantha Stosur. Bummer.
Suddenly, I saw a crowd quickly start to gather around one of the courts, so I thought a match was starting. I wandered over and saw the Star of the Show: Maria Sharapova. She was starting her practice session with two young guys and her father. Bodyguards were careful to make sure people stayed a respectful distance away. It was funny, because two players were practicing on the very next court, and people could watch them right next to the court, but of course, that wasn't possible for the one and only Maria. Maria started out by kicking a rubber ball soccer-style across the net with one of the guys. It was cute, but I had no idea how in the world it would help her tennis game, but hey, what do I know? Anyhow, people were eating it all up, taking pictures with cameras and the cellphones with built-in digital cameras (it's the latest craze here). The comment most often heard was "She's so tall!" And yes, she was. She looks even taller than she really is, because she's so leggy (I think she knows it too, wearing red short shorts that revealed every inch of her legs). Overrated or not, she IS a very pretty girl with star quality. I was pretty impressed by her hitting, too. Her groundstrokes seemed very technically sound, somewhat similar to Lindsay Davenport's strokes. In that aspect, she's superior to her predecessor and doppelganger Anna Kournikova. I think Anna might have had more natural talent and more of an imaginative game, but Anna also had technical hitches in both her serve and her forehand that proved to be her doom whenever she wasn't playing at full confidence (Venus is experiencing something similar these days). But Maria's shots seemed to flow naturally and should hold up technically, even under pressure. And also unlike Anna, Maria seemed comfortable hitting the ball both flat and with topspin (Anna never really learned to control the ball with topspin when she was off). Before too long, Maria whisked off surrounded by her cadre of bodyguards, and I made a beeline to the stadium to grab a good seat for her upcoming match.
People began streaming into the stadium to see Maria (of course), and by the time she and Emmanuelle Gagliardi made their entrance, I'd estimate the crowd to be about 4,500. That's a solid crowd for an early-round weekday session, I thought. There was definitely a big-time buzz in the stadium, much more than the challenger event or even the Davis Cup matches (featuring hometown hero Hyung-Taik Lee) that were held at the same venue. In fact, I think there were more people there today than the Tier II event in Manhattan Beach I went to a number of years back on a weekday. And needless to say, the reason for all of that was Maria-mania. She's so obviously the center of attention that it was funny. Unlike Japan, Korea is more about honesty and realism than tact and diplomacy, and you got a sense of that from the tournament program (I didn't buy one, but I peeked over at the one the guy next to me was reading). On a two-page spread of Maria, it read: "Welcome, Maria." No need for "and other players." Then there was the multi-page feature entitled "Everything about Maria: A-Z." It had Maria-related entries for something from every letter of the alphabet. I can't remember all of them, but I recall B was for Boyfriend ("Does Maria have one?"), D was for Dream, U was for US Open, and Z was for Zero (I didn't get to read why).
As for the match itself, Emmanuelle actually started off decently, cracking a backhand winner to start the match. The crowd, as Maria-enamored as it was, was very appreciate of both players, enthusiastically cheering good shots from both players. I was quite relieved, as the crowd's behavior was not that great from the challenger events I had attended previously. But with the good job done by the ushers, the signs posted everywhere, and the umpire's clear directions, there were no problems with ringing cellphones or people moving around during points. Anyways, back to the tennis. Maria started off her first service game with two straight double faults, but she quickly got back on track after that. She wasn't hitting Serena-style awe-inspiring winners, but she displayed solid, controlled aggression. Like I noticed in her practice session, her strokes were rock solid. Her forehand was clearly her big weapon, but I actually liked her backhand more; it was so deep and so reliable. In contrast, Emmanuelle's shots were very wristy and hit with considerably more spin. When she was hitting with confidence and had time to get set up, she hit some great winners. However, Maria usually hit the ball so deep and so cleanly, and Emmanuelle's shots soon started to break down under so much pace. Maria also hit numerous aces and countless service winners. The only parts of Maria's game that weren't all that impressive were her movement--she moves well, but not THAT well--and her net game--she only came to the net twice, both times for big swinging volleys that finished off the point; it was strange since she practiced so many volleys in the warm-up. Maria had a bit of a brain freeze in the second set when she couldn't get her returns in play (the best part of Emmanuelle's game was her serve), but she soon finished off the match 6-1, 6-3. Emmanuelle was clearly not pleased and quickly left the court, but even she seemed touch by the crowd's generous applause and waved as she left. I must say, Emmanuelle seemed a bit prickly during the match, especially to the ballkids. She has this strange habit of putting a ball in her skirt pocket, then asking for TWO more balls, then hitting one of them back to the ballkid. She did it EVERY single time she served. Why not just ask for one ball?
After the Maria Show ended, the crowd quickly dispersed, and so did I, wandering over to the outside courts where I saw the second and third sets of the Sunitha Rao-Miho Saeki match. I wanted to check it out because I remembered seeing Miho in Manhattan Beach in a doubles match years and years ago; Amy Frazier & Kim Po beat Miho & Ai Sugiyama in a great three-set match. I also remembered Miho played Anna in the Aussie Open match where Anna double faulted a gazillion times, then Miho seemed to disappear after that. Anyhow, Miho and Sunitha put on one heck of a battle. It was a WAR. Sunitha hit the ball very flat and had more pure power than Miho. However, Miho had a crafty, all-court game. She used moonballs, surprise net attacks, and (especially) drop shots very effectively throughout the match. I started watching wanting Miho to win, but as the match went on, I went over to Sunitha's side. There was something about Sunitha's almost dark intensity that appealed to me. It's like there's a storm going on in her soulful eyes; that's how I can express it. Sunitha had to hit at least three or four great shots to finish points off against Miho--Miho is SO fast and consistent; she reminded me of Aranxta Sanchez-Vicario--but she was able to do it and win the second set. The third set was a roller coaster from start to finish. Sunitha kept going up breaks and then being broken right back. Fittingly, they went to a third-set tiebreaker. Again, Sunitha went up an early lead, but Miho kept coming back. Match point was a microcosm of the entire match. Sunitha pummeled her forehand to put herself in an aggresive position, attacked the net, only to see Miho come up with an amazing pass full on the run. In the end, Miho was just a little too fast, a little too consistent, and had just too much variety. Miho is amazing, I gotta say. She doesn't hit the ball super-hard, but she does hit it quite hard, yet she basically NEVER misses. I'm not sure what her ranking is, but if she keeps playing like that, I wouldn't be surprised to see her in the top 50. As for Sunitha, she played great and showed a lot of heart, but she's going to need more variety (she needs to learn topspin) and be a tad more patient if she's going to reach the next level. She should work more on her fitness and her quickness, too. Every drop shot I saw Miho try won the point for Miho. But anyhow, Sunitha has a new fan in me.
Oh, and during that match, there was another commotion as Maria went back on the court for a post-match practice session. Again, people were zooming her with their cameras and cellphones. Again, Maria left the courts trailed by fans being held back by the bodyguards.
Finally, I re-entered the stadium to see the two hometown sweethearts Mi-ra Jeon (I can't believe she didn't get a wild card) & Yoon-Jeong Cho (I can't believe she lost) finish off Silvia Talaja & one of the Serra-Zanetti sisters in a doubles match. I caught the second set, and Jeon & Cho were rampaging, much to the crowd's delight. Talaja & Serra-Zanetti didn't really seem to care too much, and Serra-Zanetti's two-handed game just didn't seem suited to doubles at all. She was easily the weakest player on the court. The tennis wasn't all that interesting, but I was struck by how much the now-blonde Silvia resembles Steffi Graf (the same hair, the same nose!). Never having seen Steffi in person (sigh), I just imagined that it was her, albeit with a lot less game and a new two-handed backhand. And if there was a best legs contest in the tournament, it would come down to a two-women race between Maria and Mi-ra. And Yoon-Jeong looks a lot nicer after her chin surgery; I know it wasn't for cosmetic purposes, but she's a lot prettier now that her chin doesn't stick out.
All in all, it was a great way to spend a holiday, and I hope all of you guys get a chance to check out the WTA action in person. I definitely recommend it!
Last edited by tommyk75; Sep 28th, 2004 at 02:36 PM.