Monday, April 04, 2011

Wk.13- To Live and (Not) Die in (F)LA

With so many body parts and service games littered all over the grounds in Miami like the wreckage of a demolition derby, much credit should be given to Victoria Azarenka. While much of it comes because of her ability to ultimately win the title, nearly as much could be assigned to her simple ability to survive. Many times in the past, she's failed to do so.

In many of the matches that Azarenka won in Miami, and some in which she didn't play at all, it was hard to not scream, "Can anybody hold serve around here?," inside your head at least a few times. Or at least until you realized it was but a pipe dream, so it was better to simply enjoy the drama of it all. That said, once the smoke clearned and the 21-year old from Belarus was declared champion, you had to think that it could be a very important moment in her career.

Or not? Who knows?

Remember, Azarenka won this same title two years ago, only to spend the last twenty-four months being unable to clear the familiar benchmarks that might finally elevate her into the upper echelon of WTA stars with grand slam dreams. She's often vanishing from big events in dramatic fashion... usually on a stretcher, or with multiple trainers flanking her as she's led from the court. There have been fewer players more star-crossed than the would-be star that is Azarenka. Injuries, self-defeating anger jags, food poisioning, concussions, blown leads, issues with stifling conditions. It's always been SOMETHING that has stalled her progress, and usually it's been very easy to cast a few raised eyebrows in her direction for not taking care of things on her end in order to allow herself to be the player her talent says she could be. She's up to #6, so the numbers say she SHOULD only be a few short steps away. But she's been here before, and I'm not sure I'm convinced yet that her time might be coming soon. Just as Indian Wells has twice served as the one event where all of Daniela Hantuchova's promise was on full display, Miami could very well be that for Azarenka. She obviously enjoys playing there, but she had a lot of help from her opponents over the latter stages of this two-week event.

Still, it serves all to take a look at the players that Azarenka has climbed over to win her pair of titles in Miami. In 2009, she defeated the likes of Sam Stosur, Svetlana Kuznetsova and Serena Williams. This time, Kim Clijsters, Vera Zvonareva and Maria Sharapova fell. Collectively, those players are 25-16 in grand slam finals in their careers. Azarenka has yet to reach her first slam semifinal, though.

Surviving in Miami is one thing, but doing so elsewhere is still something that Azarenka must learn to do.

MIAMI, FLORIDA (Premier+ $4.5m/hard outdoor)
S: Victoria Azarenka def. Maria Sharapova 6-1/6-4
D: Hantuchova/A.Radwanska d. Huber/Petrova

[Mia Week 2 - Monday-Sunday]
PLAYER OF THE WEEK: Victoria Azarenka/BLR

...Azarenka's sixth career singles title came after she pushed through a pair of early three-set victories (over Lucie Hradecka and Dominika Cibulkova), then was fortunate enough to have the likes of Clijsters, Zvonareva and Sharapova play far from their best against her. Still, Azarenka withstood potential late-stage comeback bids by both Clijsters and Sharapova under the same sort of circumstances during which she's lost leads to top players in the past (vs. Serena, as well as Wozniacki), so what she accomplished here really shouldn't be lessened. And, as she noted after the final, it was HER play that forced Sharapova into so many errors (well, true, but Sharapova was pretty much like that all week long). Still, more WTA matches are lost than taken, it seems, and especially in the shadow of such finals as the winning one put on by Djokovic and Nadal on Sunday, that makes it that much easier for the tour to continue to be knocked even during a season that has never been anything less than supremely compelling since Week 1. Maybe if a few top players could find a way to hold serve in big moments, that particular conversation wouldn't take place so often. But until then...
RISER: Andrea Petkovic/GER
...Petkovic continued to be the true revelatory player of the '11 season in Miami, reaching the semis after notching wins over current #1 Wozniacki and former #1 Jankovic before finally going out to another former #1, Sharapova. Oddly enough, in the straight sets loss to the Russian, Petkovic held game point in all six games in the 2nd set, only to lose it at love. She jumped back into the Top 20 today, after having spent a couple of weeks there earlier this season after her QF run at the Australian Open (during which she'd defeated Sharapova).
SURPRISES: Daniela Hantuchova/Agnieszka Rawanska (SVK/POL) & Casey Dellacqua/AUS
...why "surprise" for Hantuchova and Radwanska? Well, because of what I realized when looking up their career doubles titles. Did you know that A-Rad's Miami crown is only the second of her career, and the first since she claimed Istanbul in '07 with her sister Urszula? Even more shocking to me was that this title was Hantuchova's first doubles title since 2006, even though off the top of my head I've always considered her to have a far more high-level doubles presence over the years (maybe because of her career Mixed Doubles grand slam?). Anyway, the Slovak last won a tour women's doubles championship in Rome '06 with Ai Sugiyama. This was her ninth overall title, with six different female partners. Meanwhile, speaking of doubles, Dellacqua continued her ITF comeback last week in the $25 challenger in Ipswich, Australia. The Aussie and Olivia Rogowska won their third straight doubles title, extending their winning streak to twelve matches (13-1 in '11). Dellacqua lost again in her opening match in singles, though, and has now gone a full calendar year without a victory on the singles courts.
COMEBACK: Maria Sharapova/RUS wasn't pretty, but it was effective enough. Not "Supernova," but "SufficientNova." Even while Sharapova put up a great result at a second straight high-level Premier event, a Miami RU after reaching the SF in Indian Wells, she had to battle herself all the way. She got some great wins along her path to the final, dominating Sabine Lisicki and Sam Stosur and contantly putting down Petkovic after having outlasted Alexandra Dulgheru late into the night one round earlier. But she ended the tournament with eight total aces against forty-five double-faults. In the past, Sharapova pulled off her best results while in great form throughout a tournament, sweeping past opponents and rarely facing adversity. That blueprint for success seems to be a thing of the past, and any future success she'll be able to attain might have to come while trying to outrun her own deficiences on a given day and match. It's a harder and more dangerous path to travel (well, for anyone not named Serena, at least) than what she's been used to, but she at least showed over the last month that it IS possible for her to defeat TWO opponents in a single match multiple times over the course of an event. Winning a big title like that, though, is still a hurdle she's yet to overcome. But she's back in the Top 10, and at least might now be able to avoid those horrendous early-round match-ups that have hindered the progression of her slam results over the past year.
VETERAN: Anabel Medina-Garrigues/ESP
...suddenly, AMG might be again be in the running this clay season to add that elusive tenth career singles title and -- altogether now -- join Anna Smashnova as the only WTA player with ten or more singles crowns but zero grand slam quarterfinal results. Her recent upswing continued in Miami, as she notched wins over Ksenia Pervak, Shahar Peer and Elena Vesnina en route to the 4th Round. In doubles, she reached the semifinals with fellow Spaniard Maria Jose Martinez-Sanchez.
FRESH FACES: Alexandra Dulgheru/ROU & Sally Peers/AUS
...Dulgheru's fight is finaly coming to the forefront again. After a disappointing start to her '11 season, the Romanian reached the Miami QF with wins over Chanelle Scheepers, Johanna Larsson and Peng Shuai. In the quarters, she pushed -- but didn't outlast -- Sharapova in a 3:28 match that went past midnight as the Russian was raining errors all over the place. Meanwhile, in the same Ipswich challenger event in which Dellacqua won the doubles, fellow Aussie Sally Peers, 19, claimed the singles title with wins over Olivia Rogowska, Yurika Sema and Lesya Tsurenko 5-7/7-5/6-0 in the final.
DOWN: Caroline Wozniacki/DEN, she's human. As if all the carping about her ranking didn't already prove it. For the first time in a while, C-Woz seemed to hit something of a physical wall in Miami. Rather than win back-to-back Indian Wells and Miami titles (Djokovic did it, though), the Dane noticably ran out of fight against Petkovic in the 4th Round. Maybe if she'd been able to convert one of the three set points she had in the opening set, things would have been different over the course of two sets. But a fatigued Wozniacki simply didn't have three sets in her on this day. Oh, well. At least she's now got a chance to rest up and prepare for the bulk of the EuroClay sea... umm, check that. Yep, she's playing again this week in Charleston. While it's sometimes looks and sounds better to follow along party lines and do everything the tour wants a player to do, being the #1-ranked player and an ever-present ambassor for women's tennis doesn't necessarily mean you have to play EVERY week. She's still young, and everything she does (or doesn't do, to be more accurate) causes more hand-ringing and finger-pointing that it likely should, but Wozniacki's got to start to cut down her schedule at some point for the sake of her own longevity.
ITF PLAYER: Marina Erakovic/NZL
...after recently enjoying winning a challenger title in Mexico, Erakovic decided that once was not enough in '11. So she went out and won a $25K event in Pelham, Alabama last week, defeating Caroline Garcia, Madison Brengle, Roxane Vaisemberg and Renata Voracova in the final. Hmmm, Pelham 1, 2... anyone for 3?
JUNIOR STAR: Irina Khromacheva/RUS the #8-ranked junior in the world, 15-year old Khromacheva won her first career pro singles title at a $10K challenger in Ribeirao Preto, defeating Slovak Viktoria Malova in the final. This was only the fourth main draw appearance in an ITF event for Khromacheva, a AO Girls quarterfinalist this year. She's yet to appear in a main draw WTA event, having lost in Australian Open qualifying in January in her only attempt at a tour-level event so far.

[Miami Week 2 - Monday-Sunday]
1. Mia 4th Rd - Clijsters d. Ivanovic
Cough, cough. Choke, choke. Let's see, you're up 5-1 in the 3rd set against a player with a bum shoulder who's been griping about being "forced" to play events by the tour. It would seems you'd be in prime position for a win, especially when you hold five match points in a match shuffled off to an outside, TV-less court thanks to earlier rain delays. Well, that wasn't the case with Ivanovic. She "pulled a Novotna" and lost a seemingly un-losable match, while KC went on and was but a shell of herself in her next match against Azarenka. Considering AnaIvo's past, I wonder if this is but the beginning of another slide?
2. Mia QF - Sharapova d. Dulgheru
In a 3:28 drama-filled contest that lasted past midnight, Sharapova put on maybe the gutsiest performance she's had in three years. Dulgheru broke her serve four times in the 1st set, and TPFKATS double-faulted on set point. Eleven games in, she'd already exceeded thirty errors. Dulgheru couldn't take the match, but she extended the Russian and forced her to find ways to overcome herself AND the Romanian. Of the eighteen breaks of serve in the match, ten of them came in Sharapova's service games. She had over 75 unforced errors, and nastily turned her ankle after taking a bad step following a serve at 5-5 in the deciding set. Down 6-1 in the tie-break, Dulgheru still refused to give up. Sharapova ended up winning the TB 8-6, and maybe BOTH players' seasons were turned around over the course of a single match.
3. Mia 4th Rd - Petkovic d. Wozniacki
The last German woman to beat a reigning #1 was named Huber. Anke Huber. But she wasn't as multimedia as Petkovic.
4. Mia QF - Petkovic d. Jankovic
In the fifteen-minute final game, Petkovic finally broke Jankovic's serve with a clean backhand crosscourt winner to put away the three-hour match. Naturally, dancing followed.
5. Mia QF - Azarenka d. Clijsters
Azarenka might have had visions of Serena-in-Oz dancing in her head when her 6-3/5-1, 40/15 2nd set lead was quickly turned into a teetering-on-the-edge-of-disaster 2nd set lead of 5-3, 30/30 with the prospect of things getting back on serve and leading to a 3rd set a distinct possibility. But, as she did all week, Azarenka survived and lived to play another day. Or two.
HM- Mia Final - Azarenka d. Sharapova
Azarenka lost a two-break lead in the 2nd, only to see the Russian drop serve down 4-3 after having managed to get herself back into the match. Sharapova double-faulted on break point, broke Azarenka in the next game, then lost her serve yet again to end the match. She held serve just once the entire afternoon.

**WTA 2009-11 - active players**
[Singles Titles]
11...Caroline Wozniacki (3/6/2)
7...Kim Clijsters (1/5/1)
5...Serena Williams (3/2/0)
19...Caroline Wozniacki (11-8)
9...Kim Clijsters (7-2)
9...Vera Zvonareva (4-5)
9...Venus Williams (4-5)
8...Dinara Safina (3-5)
[$2m+ Premier Titles]
5...Caroline Wozniacki (2011: 2)
2...Kim Clijsters
2...Jelena Jankovic
2...Dinara Safina
2...Venus Williams
[All Premier-level Event Titles]
8...Caroline Wozniacki
3...Svetlana Kuznetsova

3...Marion Bartoli
3...Vera Zvonareva
2...Kim Clijsters
2...Li Na
2...Caroline Wozniacki
NOTE: includes '11 wins over Clijsters, Henin, Ivanovic, Jankovic, Safina, Sharapova, S.Williams, V.Williams, Wozniacki

2000 Bratislava (w/ Karina Habsudova)
2001 Luxembourg (w/ Elena Bovina)
2002 Amelia Island (w/ Arantsa Sanchez-Vicario)
2002 New Haven (w/ Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario)
2005 Birmingham (w/ Ai Sugiyama)
2005 Filderstadt (w/ Anastasia Myskina)
2006 Doha (w/ Ai Sugiyama)
2006 Rome (w/ Ai Sugiyama)
2011 Miami (w/ Agnieszka Radwanska)

*Backspin March/early-April Awards - Wk.9-13*
1. Caroline Wozniacki: won second 2011 P9 event in Miami, and secured #1 ranking heading into the clay season
2. Victoria Azarenka: a great result in Miami again, but '09 win there didn't propel her to the "next level" of slam success
3. Maria Sharapova: it hasn't been pretty, but she managed to reach at least the final four in back-to-back P9 events and return to the Top 10
4. Andrea Petkovic: she's proven to be the best German since the end of the Graf Era, and has room to improve still more
5. Jelena Dokic: her Kuala Lumpur title was only nearly nine years, multiple nation switches, several injuries, numerous coaches, at least one false start, a jailed father -- and a bunch of other things we'd probably rather not know about -- in the making. Hey, so what's the big deal? Wink, wink.
HM-Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, Marion Bartoli, Mirza/Vesnina, Hantuchova/A.Radwanska

RISER: Peng Shuai
FRESH FACE: Christina McHale
ITF PLAYER: Anastasiya Yakimova
JUNIOR BREAKOUT: Alison van Uytvanck

We're two months away from Roland Garros, so as the clay season begins this week in Charleston and Marbella, it would seem to be a good idea to take a peek back at what happened at this time of the year the past two seasons. Does the past give us a good idea about what will happen on tour between now and late May? Well, considering no one saw "Francesca Schiavone: Grand Slam Champion" coming, I guess not. But it still doesn't hurt to be reminded of a few things:

2009: In the Charleston final, Sabine Lisicki defeated Caroline Wozniacki to take the title and declare herself as a player to watch. Oh, if only Sabine knew then what would await her over the next two years. Hmmm, then again, maybe it's better that she didn't. Dinara Safina won big titles in Rome and Madrid, and reached the RG final. Imagine if SHE knew what would come next. Meanwhile, the player that Safina lost to in Paris was Svetlana Kuznetsova. Geez, talk about a bad trend. Maybe there was something in the water in '09?

2010: A season ago, obviously, it was Barcelona and Roland Garros champ Schiavone who emerged as the ultimate star. But others made headlines, too. Sam Stosur won Charleston, and reached the finals at Stuttgart and Roland Garros (defeating both Serena and Henin in Paris). Jarmila Groth reached the Round of 16 in Paris, while Alexandra Dulgheru defended her Warsaw title and reached the Barcelona semis. Shahar Peer reached two SF (Madrid/Stuttgart) and the 4th Round at RG, where she lost to Serena. Maria Sharapova won her first career clay title in Strasbourg, Aravane Rezai won Madrid (defeating Venus in the final), while Maria Jose Martinez-Sanchez was the surprise champ in Rome. Largely forgotten since, Yaroslava Shvedova followed up her Barcelona semifinal result with a QF berth at Roland Garros. Jelena Jankovic, even in a mostly "off" year, reached the SF at RG, though she didn't win a clay title during the spring. Neither did current world #2 Kim Clijsters, who missed most of the clay season with the foot injury she suffered during Fed Cup play. #3 Vera Zvonareva didn't win one, either. #1 Caroline Wozniacki only claimed Ponte Vedra Beach (a tournament excised from the Road Map in '11), and lost to eventual champ Schiavone in Paris.

1. Samantha Stosur: hey, why not? As was the case with Federer in the year he finally won RG, Stosur has to be on her hands and knees thanking the Tennis Gods that the hard court season is over. She now has the chance to pull what has been a big bummer of a season out of the trash bin and turn it into something presentable. And on a Serena-less tour where holding one's serve is the quickest route from Point A to holding up a championship trophy, maybe her kick serve will finally begin to play havoc with her opponents' games when it bounces off the clay, and the slower nature of the surface will alow her just enough extra time to run around and smash forehands.
2. Francesca Schiavone: she's brought her best at recent slams since she won in Paris, and shame on us if we rule out any chance that she might be able to repeat against a field without a true Roland Garros favorite.
3. Kim Clijsters: sure, she's pretty much been a non-entity on clay for most of the last decade. Plus, she's carrying an injured shoulder and pissy attitude about the tour demands on the players into the 2Q. But if she's healthy and focused, she has to be expected to be a factor in Paris (where she hasn't played since '06) until at least the QF. Of course, I surely won't be picking her to win.
4. Caroline Wozniacki: she hasn't had GREAT results on red clay, but she's off to a better start in '11 than a year ago (she didn't win her first title until April, but already has two P9 events to her credit this season), and the surface would seem to be one where her consistency and defense would be able to be utilized to her advantage.
5. Jelena Jankovic: hey, SOMEONE has to be #5, right? You think Elena Dementieva is wondering whether or not she retired a year too soon? It surely felt that that might be the case last November, and nothing has changed five months later. JJ DID reach the semis a year ago, though, and if she got a few breaks, who knows? One thing's for sure... if she won the title, QC might accomplish what was thought impossible a year ago. No, not winning a slam -- pulling off a better post-match celebration than Francesca's.
Wild Cards- the "usual suspects," such as Ana Ivanovic (well, at least until she lost to KC last week), Dinara Safina (she bears watching with her recent upswing in results) and Svetlana Kuznetsova (she's won before, as ancient history as that already seems), plus a couple of young players, say Petra Kvitova (4th Round in '08) and Andrea Petkovic

CHARLESTON, SOUTH CAROLINA USA (Premier $721K/green clay outdoors)
10 Final: Stosur d. Zvonareva
11 Top Seeds: Wozniacki/Stosur
10 Doubles Champions: Huber/Petrova (Petrova also won in '09)

#1 Wozniacki d. #3 Jankovic
#2 Stosur d. #4 Bartoli
#2 Stosur d. #1 Wozniacki

MARBELLA, SPAIN (Int'l $221K/red clay outdoors)
10 Final: Pennetta d. Suarez-Navarro
11 Top Seeds: Azarenka/Kuznetsova
10 Doubles Champions: Errani/Vinci

(WC) Safina d. #4 Dulgheru
Szavay d. Dominguez-Lino
Szavay d. (WC) Safina

...ah, the picks section. Well, so far in 2011 when I've zigged, the players have zagged. When they've zigged, I was the one zagging. I guess I should have know that the 1Q would turn out to be my worst ever when it comes to picking champions when I had Serbia winning the Hopman Cup in Week 1, then saw the team reach the final only to have to pull out because of Ivanovic's injury. So far, it's the only event (though an unofficial one) that Djokovic has played in that he hasn't won in '11 (he's off the best start on the ATP tour by any man since 1986). It's pretty bad when the "highlight" has been picking Clijsters in Melbourne (giving me two wins in a row, as I'd picked Groth in Week 2), since which I've crash in ugly 0-for-11 fashion (though I have had five of my champion picks this season reach finals, only to lose or not play... not that that means much when only "W's" matter). Truthfully, the only real sign of a light at the end of the tunnel came when Clijsters DIDN'T win in Miami after I'd sworn off picking her for the rest of the season. Things could have gotten worse, but they didn't. Whew!

So, this week I'll go with chalk semifinalists in Charleston, and see if defending champ Stosur can pull her season back onto the rails in the final. In Marbella, I'll go with anything but chalk. So, I guess this means that #1-seeded Azarenka will carry over her good Miami mood and have a great Marbella experience, while #10 Hantuchova or someone like that will take Charleston. Sheesh.

All for now. The 1Q Backspin Awards arrive in a day or so.

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Blogger Diane said...

One more thing about Hantuchova: When Sugiyama retired, Hantuchova stopped playing doubles. She talked as if she were stopping for good, but she did eventually resume. Anyway, there's a blank space in her resume because of that.

Tue Apr 05, 12:31:00 AM EDT  
Blogger Todd Spiker said...

Weird. It always seemed like she was playing more. Now that you mention that, though, I DO remember her talking that way (and how it didn't seem to make any sense for her to stop, since she'd been successful w/ partners other than Sugiyama). I guess the memories of her early accomplishments were strong enough to linger.

Tue Apr 05, 10:39:00 AM EDT  
Blogger TennisAce said...

Todd, I just had to stop reading and comment. Women's tennis is different from men's tennis. The women's final in Miami had its own share of drama and should not be compared to the men's final.

What I dislike is this apparent need to focus on what the women did wrong and compare it to what the men did right. Azarenka played a fantastic match on Saturday. Her ROS which for me is her greatest asset, comparable only to Jankovic and the WS on Tour, made Sharapova only hold serve once. That is confidence. She moved beautifully and she placed the ball very well and wonder of wonders she out hit Sharapova from the baseline. Azarenka won that match. Sharapova did not lose it. If she lost the match because she was never able to hold serve, then that is her problem and Azarenka's win should not be downgraded because of it.

Tue Apr 05, 09:19:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Todd Spiker said...

I only mentioned the Djokovic/Nadal match in passing, and even then only because it will surely be mentioned as an example of how so often the men's matches are decided by a player playing better than another player who is also playing well. That's sometimes the case with the women, too, but usually commentators leave that part out and only focus on the negative. Case in point: Wozniacki's reign at #1.

On that topic, can you imagine if a women's player was undefeated through April? The storyline likely wouldn't mainly be about how well that woman was playing, but at least some of the discussion would probably be about how the rest of the field wasn't very good since they couldn't get a win against her.

Considering that you said that you "stopped reading" to comment, I should mention that I did note later that Azarenka, probably sensing what might be said, made a point of saying after the match she'd forced Sharapova into her losing performance. True. Thing is, though, breaking Sharapova's serve isn't really the feat that it used to be. Personally, I didn't really find the action too compelling until Sharapova finally at least began to make things intestesting late in the 2nd. Of course, by then it was far too late. I gave credit to Azarenka for holding firm and pulling out the win, considering in the past she's found ways to fumble away matches not too different from that one.

I do admit, though, that I'm probably looking for a reason to be cautious about Azarenka right now, considering I've tended to want to jump the gun in the past while thinking that one good result will mean that she'll finally begin to live up to her promise. I just wish that she'd gotten a little better push back from the likes of Zvonareva, Clijsters and Sharapova. If she had and STILL won, I'd feel more confident that she'd officially turned something of a corner.

Fri Apr 08, 02:27:00 AM EDT  

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