Saturday, October 2, 2010

Pan Pacific Open Semi-finals - October 1, 2010

After a couple of quiet weeks characterized by bad weather and a rather uninteresting sports calendar, October finally arrived and with it the Toray Pan Pacific Open. It was this week's stop on the WTA tour and it actually started back on September 25th, but I waited for the semi-finals which took place yesterday.

The Tournament

The Pan Pacific Open (PPO) has been around since 1984 but was originally played in January after the Australian Open. Tokyo also hosted the Japan Open Tennis Championships in September, which had both women's and men's competitions, so that the women's tour made two stops here. I suspect that was a bit much for all but the most ardent tennis lover as the PPO was moved to September in 2008 and then last year the Japan Open lost their women's competition. Now the last week of September sees the PPO while the Japan open takes the first week of October.

The PPO is considered a Premier 5 Event on the tour, making it one of the more lucrative competitions outside the four majors. It is not as high-profile as the Premier Mandatory tournaments, but it still attracts big-name players such as world #2 Caroline Wozniacki and one-time #1 Maria Sharapova, who has fallen to 15th at this time. Serena Williams was also scheduled to be here but she was forced to pull out as she is still recovering from foot surgery.

Ariake Coliseum

Located near Tokyo Big Sight, the Ariake Coliseum is a single-court stadium with a retractable roof. It is next to Ariake Tennis Forest Park which is where the other courts are located as a single court cannot handle all the matches for a tournament.

It has hosted the Japan Open since it opened in 1987 but the PPO only moved here in 2008. As you can see above, there are five seating levels, ranging from courtside (¥16,000 or nearly $200 - yikes!) to unreserved seating at the top for ¥4,000 (add ¥500 if you buy the tickets on match day). I was fortunate to find a lady who was desperate to sell an ¥8,000 ticket so I took one off her hands at a reasonable discount, but was disappointed with the location, which was at one end of court. However, only the courtside seats were protected by ushers, and with the stadium perhaps a quarter-full, it was not a problem to move to a better seat. Turns out this was a ¥12,000 location, which is just crazy by my book. The picture below shows the view from the end seat.

This was my first time inside the stadium and I liked the set-up. It was a beautiful day so the roof was open for the entire time, which made a huge difference. The concourses were wide and there were a number of food options scattered throughout. At the main entrance was a small souvenir booth and other information stands. There was a large board with the draw and results, which was useful as I hadn't been following the tournament closely.

As this is tennis, fan movement is limited. If you leave the seating area during play, you are not allowed to return to your seat until after the 3rd, 5th, 7th etc. game when the players take a break to switch ends. Most fans respected this rule although a few did get up during play for whatever reason.

There are two simple scoreboards with no video replay, although when challenges are made, they are shown here (see the next section).

Ariake is easily accessible from Kokusai Tenjijo station on the Rinkai Line as well as the Ariake Tenisunomori station on the Yurikamome monorail. If you like tennis, I would recommend a day here, but just buy the cheapest ticket and move around; it's a surprisingly open venue.


I trust that everyone is familiar with tennis, so I won't explain the scoring or the rules here. I will quickly touch on challenges though. A relatively new addition to the game, each player has 3 challenges per set. When they disagree with a line call, they simply tell the chair umpire they are challenging the call. The Hawk-Eye system is in place and the results are shown on the scoreboard. The path of the ball is displayed and if any part of the ball touches the white of the line, it is in. If the call was correct, the player loses a challenge, but if the call was in error, it is reversed and the challenge remains. It's very interesting addition to the game and over the day, I'd say about 1/4 of challenges were reversed. This is not a slight on the line judges; it's simply impossible to accurately judge a ball traveling that fast on a consistent basis.

The Singles Matches

As it was the semi-finals, there were four matches on tap. The first two were singles, with doubles following.

Match 1 - Caroline Wozniacki (#1) vs Victoria Azarenka (#8)

The first match of the day started just after one with top-seed and world #2 Caroline Wozniacki of Denmark (above) taking on Belarus' Victoria Azarenka (below), ranked 11th and seeded 8th. It turned out to be a fascinating battle, not due to the great talent on display, but because both players were incapable of taking charge.

Tennis is a game in which your serve should control your destiny. If you lose a service game (known as being broken) you need to break back to stay in the set. Breaks shouldn't be that common, but in this match they were the rule.

Azarenka broke to open the match but immediately gave the game back with two double faults (she had 12 on the day). After Wozniacki held, Azarenka was broken again to go down 3-1. Three service holds made it 5-2 but Azarenka double faulted on set point to lose the first set 6-2. Most of these games went to deuce two or three times, so the set took 48 minutes.

Wozniacki served to start the second set and it went like this: break, break, break, break, hold, hold, hold, hold, break, break, break, break. Ugh. It was not pretty as neither player could take a 2-game lead. At 6-6m a tiebreaker was required, which Azarenka won 7-3 after challenging a call that had made it 4-4. The call was reversed and Azarenka went up 5-3, taking the next two points to even the match at a set apiece.

The third set was more of the same as Azarenka was broken on her first three service games to fall behind 5-0. But Wozniacki (serving above) couldn't close it out and let her opponent win 4 straight before finally making a great winner to take the match 6-2, 6-7 (3) 6-4. The match took 2:50:59 (yep the official clock has seconds!) and was rather tiring to watch.

Ultimately Azarenka was done in by too many unforced errors. Both players stayed on the baseline but Wozniacki's strategy was just to play calmly, keep Azarenka on the run, and make fewer errors. Azarenka was more powerful but often sent shots long or into the net, and Wozniacki capitalized to make it to the final. Those who watch the final will be glad that Azarenka is out; she had a very loud grunt on every shot and also pumped her fist whenever she won a point. Very annoying. She also threw her racket once and seemed close to meltdown at that point. Wozniacki was definitely the more mature of the two but even she chucked her racket after a bad shot, but it seemed rather forced.

Match 2 - Francesca Schiavone (#5) vs Elena Dementieva (#7)

The second match saw French Open champ and world #8 Francesca Schiavone of Italy (above) take on Russia's Elena Dementieva (below) who was just two spots below her in both seeding and world ranking. Both are heavy grunters so it was a noisy afternoon but this tilt was better as Schiavone attacked the net more often, forcing Dementieva to make passing shots, which she did on a regular basis.

After the first marathon, I didn't as pay much attention here so there's a lack of details on the recap. It was 4-4 in the first set (two breaks each) when Dementieva made a couple of great shots to break the Italian at love. Serving for the set, Dementieva then racked up 3 straight points before a Schiavone winner and a double fault left the Russian with just set point. But Schiavone couldn't complete the comeback, sending the ball into the net and giving Dementieva the first set.

The second set was similar. Trailing 3-5, Schiavone saved two match points to hold serve and then broke Dementieva in the 10th game to make it 5-5. But again she was unable to hold serve in the penultimate game, losing four game points, any of which would have given her the 6-5 lead. Dementieva didn't waste the opportunity, taking the final game despite a couple of double faults, the final point coming on a sharp forehand winner down the line.

The crowd enjoyed this match with both ladies playing power tennis with the occasional foray to the net. There were several great winners by both but Demetieva was the better player. I found a point-by-point summary and Dementieva took 78 out of 142 points (55%). The match took 1:51:32 so it was nearly dark by the time it ended.

The Doubles Matches

Match 3 - Iveta Benesova/Barbora Zahalova-Strycova vs Lisa Raymond/Rennae Stubbs

Doubles tennis is an entirely different game, and much faster paced. Whereas in the singles, a game took 5-6 minutes on average, these points were much quicker as rallies are difficult to sustain. Furthermore, if a game went to deuce, it was decided on the next point, so the typical game lasted just 3-4 minutes.

The first match saw two unseeded teams with Czech pairing of Iveta Benesova and Barbora Zahalova-Strycova (serving above) facing veterans Lisa Raymond (USA) and Rennae Stubbs (Aus). I only watched the first few games of the first set before getting bored and venturing off to see Dementieva's autograph session (along with half the crowd it seemed). The Czechs won the first set in a tiebreak and when I returned, they already had a 3-0 lead in the second, which they easily won 6-2. The picture below is Stubbs getting hit in the head with a shot. Well, it looks like that but it's an illusion - her partner Raymond is preparing to return the ball as Stubbs looks back.

The match only took 1:14:52, but by then it was nearly 8 pm, so I skipped the final match of the day and headed home. It seems to have been a good decision as that one went to a third set. But in doubles here, the third set is a simple tiebreak to 10 points. Shahar Peer (ISR) and Shuai Peng (CHN) defeated Yung-Jan Chan(TPE) and Liezel Huber (USA) 10-5 in the tiebreaker to advance.

The Finals

Today saw the final matches. I didn't go as I was at Chiyotaikai's retirement ceremony (more on that tomorrow). However, that won't stop me from letting you know the results: Wozniacki won the women's title, coming back after losing the first set 6-1. With the win, Wozniacki moves closer to the world #1 ranking, which she will obtain if she makes it to the quarter-finals in Bejing next week.

Meanwhile Benesova and Zahlavova-Strycova took the doubles title, winning the final tiebreak 10-8 after splitting the first two sets.

Next Up

Tennis is not a sport I can watch every day. It was good to see the top players in the world but after a while, each point blends into the next. I much prefer team sports where so much more can happen. So even though the men's tour is in town next week, I'm not sure I'll go. I'll follow the draw and if Rafael Nadal and Andy Roddick advance, I might head over for some quarter final action on Friday.

Otherwise, it will be a quiet October, with just some Top League Rugby and Futsal on the schedule. The bj League does get underway but as I've mentioned before, their marketing is sorely lacking. Japan Times writer Ed Odeven wrote a piece on this which lists 20 ways to improve the league, although most are from a reporter's point of view. One thing he forgot is that teams should have a relatively consistent home arena; the Tokyo Apache don't play in Tokyo until January!



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