Monday, April 06, 2009

Wk.13- No Longer Star-Crossed, but Sun-Kissed

Ah, remember when the 2009 WTA season was shaping up to resemble a long road to nowhere?

You know... about two weeks ago?

At that point, the tour's most famous face hadn't played a singles match since last August, the reigning '08 #1 had fallen off her wild rollercoaster in an oddball way that only SHE could pull off -- by trying TOO hard to get better, the player who'd risen to power in the absence of La Petit Taureau last spring had yet to fully prove that she wasn't the person most surprised by and unprepared for Justine Henin's exit from the stage, and Marat's sister was finally playing like... well, Marat's sister. It says a great deal about the '09 campaign that the top story of the year heading into Miami revolved around a player who DIDN'T play and a boycott that NEVER happened in Dubai. Perhaps sensing the direction of things to come, Tour chief Larry Scott managed a hasty-but-lucrative escape to the Pac-10 athletic conference.


But have no fear, someone always manages to step into the breach and breathe new life into everything. In 2009, it's Victoria Azarenka.

After Miami, it's safe to say that the Belarusian's head-to-head series with world #1 Serena Williams this season has moved into the tour's spotlight and might direct the plotline for the remainder of '09. Strangely enough, this storyline has been built upon a what-could-have-been, what-might-be scenario. In Melbourne, Azarenka was taking it to eventual Australian Open champ Williams before being felled by the heat. This weekend in Florida, Azarenka handled a Serena hobbled by thigh and ankle injuries in a 6-3/6-1 final which ended with her claiming the biggest title of her career. They've yet to face each other on an even playing field this season, but the appetite has sufficiently been whetted for the moment when it will occur... just in case a watershed moment is waiting in the wings. After all, we've been down this road with Serena and a young, formerly gangly upstart before.

The last time a lanky blond European made headlines by bumping up against Serena her name was Sharapova, and the result of their tête à tête changed the landscape of the tour. Five years ago, the Russian went Supernova at Wimbledon and became the game's biggest star, but never lost her reputation as a player striving for bigger and better things ON the court, as well.

It's easy to try to link up all the connections and similarities between Sharapova and Azarenka, pointing out why the Belarusian might be primed to be a worthy successor to her "throne" (her movement and net play, for example, means she can enter big matches with multiple gameplans for victory), but the most important trait they seem to share might be their unwavering desire for more.

Azarenka, 19, has taken a little longer to begin to live up to expectations than many phenoms, and shouldn't have as much difficulty adjusting to the suddenly higher-class environment in which she now finds herself. After going 0-for-4 in finals prior to this season, she won her first in Week 1 in Brisbane. Three months later, she's put the biggest non-slam event on the schedule in her win column.

Next on the agenda? Grand slam success. Suddenly, there's really something to look forward to on the WTA tour this spring.

All in all, many things are looking up for the maybe-not-so-star-crossed tour as the 1st Quarter of the season comes to a close: Sharapova is closer to getting back on the court... umm, or at least the odds say that MUST be the case, even if the big date doesn't arrive until after New Year's, I guess; Wimbledon and the U.S. Open are just around the corner, meaning the Williams sisters move to center stage again as they attempt to defend their titles there; Kim Clijsters will be back in action soon, which should provide all sorts of watercooler chatter no matter what happens in KC II (and might even eventually drag you-know-who out of retirement); and while Ana Ivanovic might remain a so-far-unsolvable riddle, Jelena Jankovic has proven to be no stubborn simpleton, realizing her overtraining error before it was too late to save her season -- meaning we might welcome back Queen Chaos into the fold by summertime.

Serena and Venus, both thankfully experiencing simultaneous resurgences just when the tour needed them, are the women's game's best long-running storyline. Their life and times on tour are set to take place in a third different decade next year, but sometimes even a well-worn recipe for success needs a new ingredient to liven things up just a bit.

As Maria sets (hopefully temporarily) in the east and/or west, Azarenka may just be the sun... or at least a very savory spice.


MIAMI, FLORIDA USA (Premier $4.5m/HO)
S: Victoria Azarenka def. Serena Williams 6-3/6-1
D: Kuznetsova/Mauresmo d. Peschke/Raymond

PLAYER OF THE WEEK: Victoria Azarenka/BLR
Azarenka's knocked off the #1 (Serena) and #2 (Safina) players in the world at her last two events and is 23-2 on the season. Her Miami hit parade also included wins over Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, Anna Chakvetadze, Agnes Szavay, Sam Stosur and Svetlana Kuznetsova.
RISERS: Li Na/CHN & Zheng Jie/CHN
neither Li nor Zheng managed to upset Serena, but they made her work and possibly helped cause the left leg injuries that eventually led to her demise. Li, finally healthy (for now), had the most impressive week, knocking off Urszula Radwanska, Aleksandra Wozniak, Vera Zvonareva and Ekaterina Makarova. Against Williams in the QF, she had multiple opportunities to grab a strangle-hold on the match in the 2nd set, but failed to do so and -- wouldn't you know it -- saw the entire ball of wax slip away in the 3rd. Zheng got a win over Alize Cornet, then pushed Williams to three sets in the 4th Round.
SURPRISES: Samantha Stosur/AUS & Agnes Szavay/HUN
two of the more unpredictable players had good times in Miami. Stosur, especially, showed her mostly-untapped singles potential when she reached the QF with victories over Sofia Arvidsson, Sybille Bammer, Dinara Safina and Amelie Mauresmo before finally crashing out against Azarenka. With every passing week, it truly looks like Szavay might have turned things around. Her string of relief-inducing results continued in Miami with wins over Francesca Schiavone and Ana Ivanovic before she, too, was bounced by Azarenka in the 4th Round.
VETERANS: Serena Williams/USA & Iveta Benesova/CZE
Serena didn't get her record-breaking sixth Miami title (and third straight), but she did enough to maintain the #1 ranking after outlasting Venus, Zheng and Li, all in three-setters, before her thigh and ankle injuries made her a sitting duck in Azarenka's shooting gallery. Meanwhile, Benesova has reached a new career-high ranking of #25 after her QF run in Miami that included wins over Sabine Lisicki, Gisela Dulko and Anabel Medina-Garrigues.
FRESH FACE: Ekaterina Makarova/RUS
Makarova has a knack for getting her best results at the bigger tournaments on the schedule. In Miami, she reached the 4th Round with wins over Chan Yung-Jan, Ai Sugiyama and Nadia Petrova.
DOWN: Dinara Safina/RUS, Jelena Jankovic/SRB & Ana Ivanovic/SRB
Azarenka's title coming on the heels of Vera Zvonareva's in Indian Wells was fitting, considering those two players have so effectively leaped over (or are set to challenge) these three "heir apparents" as their results -- all were dumped out early in Miami -- have taken a turn for the worse in '09.
ITF PLAYER: Evgeniya Rodina/RUS
remember her? She's the Hordette who nearly knocked off Sharapova at Roland Garros a while back. Now 20, she won the $50K in Khanti-Mansiysk, Russia this weekend. After a win over Ksenia Milevskaya, she took out Anna Lapushchenkova 6-3/6-2 in the final.
the 15-year old Hungarian won the Japan Open G1 event in Nagoya, defeating Japan's Miyabi Inoue 4-6/6-3/6-3 in the final. She's now the #4-ranked junior in the world.

1. Mia SF - S.Williams d. V.Williams
Serena held onto the #1 ranking with this win, which knotted the Sisters' all-time series at 10-10.
2. Mia QF - S.Williams d. Li
Li led 24-18 in winners, but her 0-for-6 mark on 2nd set break points (she was 3/12 for the match) allowed Serena to survive... and Dinara to stay #2.
3. Mia Final - Azarenka d. S.Williams
Everyone remembers the '04 Serena/Sharapova match at Wimbledon, but the oft-forgotten meeting in the season-ending championships final saw Sharapova barely escape an injured Williams, who tried to end points quickly due to her inability to move around the court. Unlike Sharapova. Azarenka had no such problem with the cornered Serena, purposely moving the ball around the court in order to attack Williams' lack of movement.
4. Mia QF - Kuznetsova d. Wozniacki
I guess we'll soon find out if Kuznetsova's success in Miami had anything to do with Olga Morozova, or whether her best event of the season came as a result of the Contessova ending the coach/pupil relationship of opposites and getting to spread her wings. Looking at this match, it was hard to tell whether the "comeback" was isolated. After all, Kuznetsova led 5-2 in the 2nd set and twice served for the match, but failed to salt away the victory. Finally, in the 3rd, she put C-Woz away on a sixth match point in the 2:54 match. As has been the case with Kuznetsova for far too long now, it appears her season results could go any which way (including loose).
5. Mia Doub Final - Kuznetsova/Mauresmo d. Peschke/Raymond
Still, Kuznetsova did end her Miami run with a title of a different sort.
HM- Ponte Vedra Beach Q3 - Bartoli d. Karatantcheva
I guess Bartoli's appearance in the qualies was another case of a late entrance and/or mishap. She got a lot of work, though, reaching the main draw today after a tight three-setter with Sesil. She also had to go three sets against Lauren Albanese in the opening qualifying round.
HM- Ponte Vedra Beach 1st - Madison Keys d. Alla Kudryavtseva
The 14-year old American, a main draw wild card beneficiary, got herself quite a nice scalp in PVB in her WTA debut today.

**2009 "PREMIER-PLUS" $2+m FINALS**
Dubai - #6 V.Williams/USA d. #58 Razzano/FRA
Ind.Wells - #6 Zvonareva/RUS d. #7 Ivanovic/SRB
Miami - #10 Azarenka/BLR d. #1 S.Williams/USA

3...Elena Dementieva (2-1)
2...Venus Williams (2-0)
2...Vera Zvonareva (2-0)
2...Serena Williams (1-1)
2...Marion Bartoli (1-1)
2...Dinara Safina (0-2)

(last title)
Elena Bovina, RUS (2004)
Gisela Dulko, ARG (2008)
Daniela Hantuchova, SVK (2007)
Michaella Krajicek, NED (2006)
Emile Loit, FRA (2007)
Shahar Peer, ISR (2006)
Virginia Ruano-Pascual, ESP (2003)
Iroda Tulyaganova, UZB (2001)
Aleksandra Wozniak, CAN (2008)
Zheng Jie, CHN (2006)

Jan - Aust.Open 4th - #17 Bartoli d. #1 Jankovic
Feb - Dubai SF - #6 V.Williams d. #1 S.Williams
Apr - Miami F - #10 Azarenka d. #1 S.Williams
ALSO: Hong Kong exhibition: V.Williams d. Jankovic, Paris SF: Dementieva w/o S.Williams

1. Laura Robson, GBR
2. Noppawan Lertcheewakarn, THA
3. Ana Bogdan, ROU
4. Timea Babos, HUN
5. Ajla Tomljanovic, CRO
6. Simona Halep, ROU
7. Kristina Mladenovic, FRA
8. Silvia Njiric, CRO
9. Elena Bogdan, ROU
10. Lauren Embree, USA

1. Victoria Azarenka, BLR
2. Vera Zvonareva, RUS
3. Serena Williams, USA
4. Ana Ivanovic, SRB
5. Marion Bartoli, FRA

RISER: Vera Zvonareva, RUS
SURPRISE: Agnes Szavay, HUN
VETERAN: Iveta Benesova, CZE
FRESH FACE: Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, RUS
DOWN: Dinara Safina, RUS
ITF PLAYER: Darya Kustova, BLR
JUNIOR STAR: Maryna Zanevska, UKR

And the very unscientific results are in for the first-ever Backspin poll. Look for another poll soon.

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, CALIFORNIA USA (Int'l $220K/Green Clay Outdoor)
08 Final: Sharapova d. Cibulkova (A.Island)
09 Top Seeds: Petrova/Wozniacki

Lisicki d. A.Bondarenko
Wozniacki d. Cibulkova
Wozniacki d. Lisicki

...Petrova is the #1 seed, but not surprisingly she's never seemed to fully recover from her offseason illness. It's about time for Wozniacki to get on the board with a title this year.

MARBELLA, SPAIN (Int'l $220K/Red Clay Outdoor)
08 Final: (new event)
09 Top Seeds: S.Williams/Jankovic

Suarez-Navarro d. Cirstea
Medina-Garrigues d. Schiavone
Medina-Garrigues d. Suarez-Navarro

...last I checked, Serena hadn't yet pulled out of this one, but that has to be coming, right? This is the debut of the Conchita Martinez-directed tournament, so I'll stick with an all-Spanish final, healthy/unhealthy Williams or no Williams.

1Q Backspin Awards and "Odds & Ends Between Miami and Paris" are coming later this week. All for now.


Blogger Eric said...

todd do you know anything about this madison keys girl? only 14 and taking out alla!

Mon Apr 06, 10:29:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Todd Spiker said...

Well, she's had a fairly storied junior career so far. Bigger than most of the girls her age, and powerful with a large serve (Venus and Serena are her idols), she was the first full-time resident at the Evert Academy.

Here's a very nice article about her from a year ago. With today's result, it looks like she might be coming along even better than she was then.

Mon Apr 06, 10:55:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Eric said...

thanks todd!! i *knew* you would know :)

Tue Apr 07, 06:47:00 AM EDT  

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