Maybe Victoria Azarenka should think about a stint on the professional Blackjack circuit. After all, 21 has been pretty good to her so far.
The WTA tour is littered with stories of top players with great potential ending up with careers that turn out to be far less thrilling than most would have hoped they'd be when their dreams were still big and possibilities were endless. At this point, the path from "It" girl to "Who's that girl?" has become something of a tennis cliche.
For a while there, it almost looked like Azarenka might be getting ready to wander down the well-worn path carved out on the tour's road map by the likes of the Ivanovic's, Groenefeld's, Hantuchova's and Safina's of the world. A top junior, she reached #6 in the world last October after winning three titles in the opening months of the '09 season. Her season-ending ranking once again rose, as her rise from #92 to #30 to #15 continued when she ended lear year at #7. But the emotionally-charged Belarusan often found that her biggest on-court enemy was herself, specifically her own anger and frustration when things didn't go as perfectly as she wished them to. As soon as she'd seemed to have learned to harness her intensity and play on a more even keel, she'd have a re-occurrence of the sort of malady that led to her collapse after holding a match point against Caroline Wozniacki at last year's season-ending championships.
One thing that has never been questioned about Azarenka, though, is her intense desire to succeed. Her on-court protestations never devolved into the sort of soul-crushing self-immolation moments that are routinely painful to watch. We often see THOSE on the WTA tour over the course of a season. But with Azarenka, the underlying feeling was that she never personally doubted her ability to win -- she was just livid with herself for not playing up to her ability. Visibly, it's a fine line between the two, but it's an important distinction. Self-destruction and immature frustration look very similar, but there IS a difference. No matter her talent, Dinara Safina's down-in-flames moments over the past two seasons make you wonder if she'll ever be able to mentally pick herself up and again be the player she once was (ditto for AnaIvo), but I always sort of looked at Azarenka's tripped-up-at-the-finish-line-and-PO'd-about-it results less a setback and more a spinning-her-wheels moment. The lingering belief was that she'd still eventually get to where she wanted to go, but it was just going to take longer than she and we might have anticipated. As her ranking threatened to drop out of the Top 20 after an injury-riddled spring/early summer, Azarenka entered this hard court season searching for a bit of sanity that would help her find a way back into the Top 10.
During a week in which she celebrated her 21st birthday, she found that sanity in Stanford.
Combined with her "unofficial" newly adult status, maybe the past week will go a long way toward helping her achieve a consistent level of maturity that could combine with her hard-hitting game and intense desire to succeed to produce the sort of NextGen champion that the tour is hoping against hope will emerge sometime over the next eighteen months in order to add a much-needed layer of competition to the WTA mix. During ESPN's coverage this weekend, Mary Carillo, Mary Joe Fernandez and Pam Shriver talked about how the women ranked #2 through #15 are sort of melding into a mass of players whose talents are interchangable. At the moment, with so many "stars" injured, on the way up, on the way down, or still trying to find their footing, their assessment couldn't be more on-the-mark. That's good news for #1 Serena Williams, but the tour really needs a few more viable "second options." I mean, really, Serena's Twitter rantings against the organizers of the men's ATP event in L.A. last week really SHOULDN'T be the top women's tennis story of the weekend... but the fact that it was says way too much about the perception of the non-Serena field of WTA non-stars and the attention they're able to garner.
Tossing aside what will become of Maria Sharapova, Justine Henin and others in the near future, could Azarenka eventually be the best remedy to that predicament? Maybe. She HAS shown an ability to give Serena all she's got -- leading in Oz before being felled by the heat in '09, defeating an injured Williams in Miami last March, then serving for the match against her in Melbourne this year -- and that's not something to be ignored. It's not a sure thing that Azarenka will reach that level, but she's got a good as or better chance than anyone else out there. It's just a matter of whether or not everything can come together for her.
In a week that saw her mow down the tournament's defending champ, then the #1 seed, and then follow that up by conquering Sharapova with ease in the final, Azarenka staked a claim to the WTA's future with a steady hand and furious racket... but not a furious temper. Ah, progress. Once again, she has our attention. Now, we'll see what she can do with it. She's still yet to reach a slam semifinal, and if she doesn't do it before that eighteen-month period is over, her name will once again be tossed around with the likes of all those other players whose careers have somehow come up short of expectations.
Stanford has allowed Azarenka to forestall any potential slide, and maybe pick up momentum. She still has time in '10 to continue her upward mobility in the rankings. A good Open and she'll have a shot to better that year-end #7 ranking from a season ago, then go into '11 with a mind to not just think and talk about taking a seat at the big table with the likes of Serena, but actually manage to claim a leading seat there.
After winning the final, Azarenka beamed that she could finally have some of her birthday cake now. Come New York, maybe she'll even be able to eat it, too.
(Hmmm, IS there a professional Blackjack circuit? Maybe Azarenka should just stick with tennis. It looks like it might work out for her, after all.)
*WEEK 30 CHAMPIONS*
STANFORD, CALIFORNIA (Premier $700K/hard outdoor)
S: Victoria Azarenka def. Maria Sharapova 6-4/6-1
D: Davenport/Huber d. Chan/Zheng
ISTANBUL, TURKEY (Int'l $220K/hard outdoor)
S: Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova def. Elena Vesnina 5-7/7-5/6-4
D: Daniilidou/Woehr d. Kondratieva/Uhlirova
PLAYER OF THE WEEK: Victoria Azarenka/BLR
...career title #4 -- the first since winning in Miami sixteen months ago -- came in Stanford with victories over Ayumi Morita, Melanie Oudin, defending champ Marion Bartoli (from a set and 3-1 down), #1-seed Samantha Stosur and Maria Sharapova. Now back up to #12, Azarenka's intentions to successfully get back into the Top 10 are suddenly looking far better than they were about a month ago.
RISERS: Elena Vesnina/RUS & Jarmila Groth/AUS
...Istanbul runner-up Vesnina came oh-so-close to having a spectacular birthday on Sunday, as she led Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova 7-5/4-0 in the final in her first appearance in a tournament decider since she lost in New Haven last August. She didn't get to celebrate her 24th by winning the match, but maybe this result is a sign that Vesnina's doubles success is finally helping the reactionary Russian (only ranked #60 heading into Turkey) edge closer to returning to the great singles form she showed at times in '09. Meanwhile, Groth, too, went down at the hands of Pavlyuchenkova in a close match in Istanbul, dropping a SF meeting in a 7-5 3rd set. Still, after following up her back-to-back slam Round of 16 results in Paris and London by being named MVP of the WTT finals, where she led the Kansas City Explorers to the "championship," and then immediately putting together a final four run at this tour event, Groth's forward movement is evident.
SURPRISE: Agnieszka Radwanska/POL
...A-Rad is a known dangerous opponent whose smart game can be effective on all surfaces, but it's still easy to be guilty of not seeing her coming. Her game style prevents her from imposing any sort of will on top opponents, but if they're not on their game she's capable of giving anyone a go. She made some of her first career headlines by upsetting Maria Sharapova at the U.S. Open in '07, and has hovered right around #10 in the rankings for a few seasons now. Her SF run in Stanford ended when she lost to Sharapova, after having won the 1st set, but it was enough to once again lift her back to #10 in the singles rankings. With so many injuries striking so many of the players most consider to be Top 10ers (even if their rankings don't currently bear it out), might Radwanska actually be able to finish a third straight year in the tenth slot in the Top 10? If so, it would say a great deal about her steady-but-unspecatular consistency, but also much about the inability of so many players "better" than the Pole to either stay on the court physically and/or mentally over the same stretch.
COMEBACK: Maria Sharapova/RUS
...if Sharapova were Serena then her week in Stanford would be a sure sign that she was laying the groundwork for another grand slam title. After all, the Russian showed great nerve in gutting out some long, tough matches in California even though her serve often wavered and led her into a few nasty crevices on the court. But, still, when she needed it, Sharapova used her that serve to climb back into important games and go on to claim victory. Her lengthy nighttime wins over Elena Dementieva and A-Rad were some of the more encouraging results she's had this year. But Maria isn't Williams. While Serena uses tune-up events to work off her match rust, then generally pulls off her slam heroics after she's been forced to overcome great adversity, whenever Sharapova's game shows any signs of weakness it usually means she's not ready for a huge slam fortnight. When she's won slams (or seriously contended for them) she's looked like a champion from Day 1. The Open is still about a month away, but right now Sharapova looks like a player who'll reach the QF with a good draw, maybe even the SF, but will have to head into 2011 still in the process of finding her path all the way back from the recent injuries that have left her in the middle of that muddled mass of nearly interchangable players ranked between #2-#15 that the ESPN commentators were talking about this weekend.
VETERANS: Lindsay Davenport/Liezel Huber, USA & Kimiko Date-Krumm/JPN
...the teaming of Davenport and Huber had the making of something very interesting when it was announced a while back, and that notion played out on the court in Stanford. The pair won the title, defeating Chan Yung-Jan/Zheng Jie in the final in a 10-8 3rd set super tie-break. It's Huber's 43rd career doubles crown (4th in '10), and Davenport's 38th (and first since winning Memphis with Lisa Raymond in '08). Bigger still, the win pushed Huber past the Williams Sisters and back into the #1 doubles ranking on the WTA computer. Cara Black is currently #6. Earlier in Stanford, Date-Krumm continued to serve in her role as the living embodiment of the state of Dinara Safina's career. The Russian is back in action, but her 1st Round match in California ended the same way as her previous opening round meeting with Date-Krumm did at Roland Garros -- with the Japanese vet emerging victorious. This time, Date-Krumm erased a 6-4/5-4 deficit to grab the 1st Round win, then went on to push Elena Dementieva to three sets in the 2nd Round, as well.
FRESH FACES: Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova/RUS & Valeria Solovieva/RUS
...not that long ago, Sports Illustrated featured Pavlyuchenkova in it's "Where Will They Be?" faces-to-watch listing (15-year old American Krista Hardebeck -- a two-time Backspin "Junior Star" weekly winner in '10 -- found herself on the latest SI list last week, by the way), and the former Russian junior #1 has starting to assert herself more and more on the main tour over the past year. After ending '09 by twice upsetting Venus Williams, she won her first career title earlier this season in Monterrey. Last week in Istanbul, she won her tour lead-tying second crown of the season, notching wins over the likes of Magdalena Rybarikova, Sorana Cirstea and Groth, then erasing that set and 4-0 deficit in the final against countrywoman Vesnina as she won 2010's second all-Russian singles final. Meanwhile, 17-year old Solovieva claimed her first career ITF challenger title by taking the $10K in Bree, Belgium. The Pocket Hordette (she's only five-foot-nothing) defeated Myrtille Georges 5-7/6-3/6-3 in the final.
DOWN: Samantha Stosur/AUS
...Stosur, the #1 seed in Stanford, managed to reach the semis, coming back from a break down in the 3rd set in the QF against Yanina Wickmayer to do it. But once there, her problems shining on a fast surface -- and total inability to touch Azarenka on the court, against whom she's 0-4 and has never won a set -- led to a 6-2/6-3 defeat. It's another disappointing result for the Aussie, and one has to wonder whether or not it might weigh on her mind over the course of what's left of the North American hard court season leading into the U.S. Open, where Stosur has failed to even make a minor dent throughout the course of her career. She really hasn't been the same player since she was stunned in the Roland Garros final by Francesca Schiavone. Part of that can be placed at the feet of the changes of surface from the clay courts where Stosur has thrived the last two seasons, but the Slingin' one's battles with her own belief in her game in never something that can be overlooked when one considers that it's now been two months since her exploits in Paris and she's yet to find a way to carry-over that momentum. If the "use it or lose it" maxim holds true, it might already be too late.
ITF PLAYER: Jelena Dokic/AUS
...when the Fair One is healthy and motivated she's still capable of stringing together multiple good results. She appears to be both at the moment, as she's reeled off ten straight victories after having won just seven total matches in her first ten main draw/qualifying events in 2010 . On the heels of her recent win in the $50K challenger in Contrexeville, Dokic claimed a second straight ITF crown with a win in the $75K event in Bucharest. She took out Zuzana Ondaskova 3-6/6-4/7-6 in the final, winning her seventh career challenger title (all in the past three seasons), to pull off a back-to-back title jaunt for just the second time in her career (she won two straight $25K events in May '08). She showed great closing ability in her final two matches in Romania, winning a 3rd set tie-break 7-0 against Lourdes Dominguez-Lino in the SF, then a 7-3 TB against Ondraskova. It's the first time in the Aussie's career that she won a 3rd set tie-break in a singles final.
JUNIOR STAR: Tara Moore/GBR
...the 17-year old Brit, a quarterfinalist in the Wimbledon Girls competition last month, won her second career ITF title (and first since July '08) in Chiswick, Great Britain. She defeated Ireland's Amy Bowtell 6-3/6-4 in the final.
1. Stan QF - Sharapova d. Dementieva
...6-4/2-6/6-3. In 2:46, Sharapova overcame fifteen double-faults to put away a rusty Dementieva, who was playing just her second match since losing in Paris. At 3-3 in the 3rd, in a game in which she hit both ther 14th and 15th DF, an undaunted Sharapova still relied on big serves to dig herself out of trouble and hold. She then broke for 5-3 and the rest was history. Obviously, the heart is still there. The form? Not quite yet. In fact, if these two were to meet at Flushing Meadows, a more battle-tested-by-then Dementieva might be able to flip this result.
2. Istanbul Final - Pavlyuchenkova d. Vesnina
...5-7/7-5/6-4. After the 3:11 marathon, the crowd serenaded Vesnina with a chorus of "Happy Birthday." Pity for her that that'll probably be her only good memory of this encounter. Of note, only 19-year old Pavlyuchenkova and Caroline Wozniacki have managed to win tour titles as teenagers so far in 2010.
3. Stan Doubles Final - Davenport/Huber d. Chan/Zheng 7-6/6-7/10-8
Copenhagen Doubles 1st Rd - Keothavong/A.Smith d. Black/Erakovic 6-4/7-5
... Huber climbs back to #1. Black doesn't.
4. Stan Final - Azarenka d. Sharapova
...6-4/6-1. Playing the final at 12 noon after having had to go three sets at night for a second straight evening in the semis probably didn't really play in Sharapova's favor in this one, but Azarenka was playing well enough that it may not have made a difference.
5. Stan 1st Rd - Date-Krumm d. Safina
...4-6/7-6/6-2. Maybe Dinara will get her revenge on Kimiko before she turns 40. Unfortunately for Safina, "she" might not necessarily be referring to the 39-for-only-two-more-months Date-Krumm.
6. Istanbul 1st Rd - Sevastova d. Kvitova 6-2/0-6/6-4
Istanbul 2nd Rd - An.Rodionova d. Pironkova 6-1/3-6/6-2
Istanbul 2nd Rd - Baltacha d. Schiavone 6-4/6-2
... Those slam results won't help ya now, seeeee.
7. San Diego Q - Lucic d. Stevenson
...7-6/7-6. Remember when... these two were Wimbledon semifinalists back in 1999? Come 2021, maybe Pironkova and Kvitova will have a similar reunion match that hardly anyone notices?
8. Stan Q - Hampton d. Mattek-Sands 6-4/6-3
San Diego Q - Vandeweghe d. Mattek-Sands 6-1/4-6/6-3
... Sure, Hampton and Coco are fine young upstarts... but these aren't the sort of results that Mattek-Sands wants to be experiencing at this point in her career.
9. $25K Vigo Final - Andrea Hlavackova d. Katie O'Brien
...6-2/6-0. The usually-a-doubles-specialist-on-the-big-tour Czech wins her third challenger singles title of the season.
10. U.S. Open National Playoff Final - Alexandra Mueller d. Alina Jidkova
...6-0/6-3. The 22-year old, world #447-ranked American takes out the 33-year old Russian to gain a berth in the U.S. Open qualifying draw.
HM- San Diego Q - Vandeweghe d. Stephens
...4-6/7-6/7-5. Sloane is the current American girl to watch, but Coco DID win the U.S. Open junior title in '08, remember.
**MOST 2010 WTA TITLES**
[all with 2]
Belgian Barbie, BEL
Elena Dementieva, RUS
Justine Henin, BEL
ANASTASIA PAVLYUCHENKOVA, RUS
Aravane Rezai, FRA
Francesca Schiavone, ITA
Maria Sharapova, RUS
Agnes Szavay, HUN
Serena Williams, USA
Venus Williams, USA
**2010 WTA FINALS**
4...Venus Williams (2-2)
4...Maria Sharapova (2-2)
4...Justine Henin (2-2)
3...Serena Williams (2-1)
3...Elena Dementieva (2-1)
3...Samantha Stosur (1-2)
3...Vera Zvonareva (1-2)
3...VICTORIA AZARENKA (1-2)
3...Flavia Pennetta (1-2)
**2010 WEEKS AT DOUBLES #1**
23...LIEZEL HUBER, USA (15 w/ Black, 8 solo) *
15...Cara Black, ZIM (all w/ Huber)
8...Serena Williams, USA (all w/ V.Williams)
8...Venus Williams, USA (all w/ S.Williams)
* - current #1
**CAREER WEEKS AT DOUBLES #1**
**WEEKS RANKED SIMULTANEOUS SINGLES/DOUBLES #1**
102 - Martina Navratilova (1984-85, 1986-87)
29 - Martina Hingis (1998, 1999, 2000)
8 - SERENA WILLIAMS (2010)
7 - Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario (1995)
3 - Lindsay Davenport (2000)
3 - Belgian Barbie (2003)
SAN DIEGO, CALIFORNIA (Premier $700K/hard outdoor)
09 Final: (in L.A.) Pennetta d. Stosur
10 Top Seeds: Jankovic/Stosur
(WC) Ivanovic d. #6 Bartoli
#3 Zvonareva d. #5 Pennetta
#3 Zvonareva d. (WC) Ivanovic
...a bit of a roll of the dice here, but my luck hasn't been good the last few weeks anyway. So, what the heck. That semifinal Zvonareva/Pennetta match-up would be a chance for the Russian to exorcise a few American hard court demons against the Italian. AnaIvo is probably a stretch, but she's due for one of those weeks where she reminds everyone of what she USED to be capable of.
COPENHAGEN, DENMARK (Int'l $220K/hard outdoor)
10 Top Seeds: Wozniacki/Li
#1 Wozniacki d. (Q) Chakvetadze
#2 Li d. #3 Kvitova
#1 Wozniacki d. #2 Li
...C-Woz is back home in Denmark, so she would seem to be a logical choice.
All for now.
NEXT: Performers of the Month