Monday, May 09, 2011

Wk.18- Kvitova Bloodies a Belarusan

On the eve of Sunday's final in Madrid, a nice argument could be made that Victoria Azarenka had morphed into THE star of this clay court season. With so many "if's" and "but's" surrounding the games of so many other players heading into Roland Garros, the 21-year old Belarusan seemed to be a player flirting with historic foreshadowing with a trip to Paris but two weeks away.

At least that was the direction in which I was edging for this week's Backspin. But then, once again, Petra Kvitova has saw fit to force herself into the conversation.

It was just a short time ago when, immediately after winning a hard court title in Miami, Azarenka jumped continents and won a tournament on red clay. A fairly unique feat over the past decade. After a Fed Cup cameo, she'd been leading eventual Stuttgart champ Julia Goerges before having to retire with a shoulder injury, but she rebounded in the early rounds last week in Spain. In her first three matches, Azarenka allowed a total of five games. In the semifinals, she even took care of some unfinished business by wiping away Goerges in straight sets.

Azarenka might still be about a month away from something great, but she had no answer for what Kvitova was dishing out in the final.

The other day, I saw a list of the current odds for players to win Roland Garros. Sure, those things don't mean much (and not even that, really), seeing that they're largely based on name recognition and current ranking. But, still, it's always interesting to see how some players are perceived in some corners before a slam. For all the doubt that gets heaped upon Caroline Wozniacki, it should be noted that she was listed as the "favorite," at 4:1 (second only to Rafael Nadal, at 2:5, and with better odds than Novak Djokovic, amongst ALL singles players listed as potential singles champs in Paris). I was slightly surprised to see Azarenka listed second on the women's list, tied with Vera Zvonareva, at 8:1. Next up? In order, Kim Clijsters, winner of back-to-back slams but likely to come to Paris with zero clay matches under her belt (if she shows up at all), '10 runner-up Sam Stosur, '09 champ Svetlana Kuznetsova, former #1 Jelena Jankovic, and '10 winner Francesca Schiavone.

To find Kvitova's "odds of winning" on that list, you'd have to scan down past '08 winner Ana Ivanovic (really?) and Serena Wiliams (I don't think even Serena could pull that one off), as she was nestled in at 25:1, tied with no less a "terre battue maven" than Maria Sharapova and others.

What's that all mean? Nothing, really. Well, other than we have no bloody idea how the next slam will play out. Of course, that's nothing new for Roland Garros. Ever since Serena picked up the Parisian component of her "Serena Slam" in '02, unless Justine Henin was lifting the Coupe de Suzanne Lenglen the woman who has each year has been something of an eyebrow-raiser. Ivanovic, the enigmatic Kuznetsova and the stunning run of Schiavone account for the last three championship moments, and it'd be best to buckle in for another similarly wild ride. No one who hasn't attended a Wozniacki family renuion could really view the Dane as the "favorite" in Paris at this point, but even as it's hard to escape the feeling that SOME first-time slam champ will soon be crowned you'd be hard-pressed to put a finger on the player who'd be the most likely to shine the brightest in the spotlight.

That said, Madrid might have been a step toward some clarity. Or not. Considering the faster clay surface at this event (which led to the swap in schedule positions with Rome, apparently at the players' request) isn't likely a good gauge of the near future, as it rewards aggressive play a bit more, well, aggressively, than the slower dirt in Paris. Before last week, Kvitova had never reached a semifinal in a clay court event. Still, in a field with no real "favorite," confidence and momentum might make up the difference.

"I think it's the best tennis I've played. I was very offensive."

That's what Kvitova said after her 7-6/6-4 win in the final over Azarenka. It's hard to dispute her. Thing is, Azarenka didn't play poorly at all. Yeah, she dished up too many short court balls and second serves, allowing Kvitova to seize opportunities like a hungry wolverine and display the same awesome form she did at the Paris Indoors in February, but Azarenka's inability to gain a steady foothold in the match was all about the Czech not allowing her to do so. The lefty sniper hit winners from everywhere, and her deep hard shots rarely gave the Belarusan time to do more than simply react in time to stay alive in the point for a few more strokes.

Kvitova got off to a quick stat, smashing an ace to put away the opening game. Soon after, she held break point for a 4-0 lead. Azarenka held, though, as Kvitova was never quite able to totally push her opponent off the ledge in the 1st set, after having done just that to Li Na in the semifinals on Saturday when, after seeing the match begin with five straight breaks, the Czech grabbed the match by the scruff of the neck and never let Li catch a breath until it was over, brushing her away as if she was a stink bug on her shoulder. Against Azarenka, who'd managed to hold on and force a tie-break, Kvitova didn't begin to assert a similar dominance until late. She won the final four points of the breaker to lock away the 1st set, then went up an early break in the 2nd.

Again, though, Azarenka managed to stay alive even while she always seemed to be having to exert all her energy just to keep even with Kvitova. After swapping breaks, Azarenka, after biding her time all match, finally had one moment where she might have grabbed an advantage. Down 4-3, she overhit a forehand beyond a virtually open court on break point while a scrambling Kvitova essentially had her back to the net after having chased an over-her-head shot to the baseline. It was Azarenka's only BIG error in the match, and when it happened I jotted down the note, "That's the match." A Kvitova hold for 5-3 meant she was only one more held service away from the title, and the prospects of the Belarusan averting her fate seemed impossible.

It was, too.

Azarenka managed to save a match point on her serve to force Kvitova to serve things out, but the Czech did not waver an inch under pressure. She won the game at love with a collection of points that included an ace, a service winner and an outright winner (one of forty W's in the match's twenty-three games) that only served as a collective final reminder of how effective she was in this match at keeping Azarenka's game at arm's lengh from her own with seize-the-moment aggression and deep groundstrokes that kept the Belarusan off balance.

The lack of a fabled past is no prologue for the Czech. She may have never posted great clay success before Madrid, but she'd never won a match on grass before her run to the Wimbledon semifinals last year, either. As the Madrid semifinals and final showed, once Kvitova's game gets rolling downhill it's a monster task to stop her forward momentum. There's a certain sense of Lindsay Davenport-at-her-best inevitability to Kvitova's game when she's on a roll, only with a wide LEFTY serve to create even more headaches and flustered reactions from opponents. It's not a good situation for the physical and/or mental health of a fallen opponent, either. After reaching five straight finals, Clijsters failed to reach the semifinals in her two post-Kvitova loss events before going off tour with a series of injuries and, after never allowing her emotions to get to her during Sunday's match, a frustrated Azarenka's feelings briefly betrayed her during the post-match ceremony, as she nearly broke down while addressing her coaches and the crowd.

Kvitova notched three Top 10 wins in Madrid (including one over Vera Zvonareva). In 2011, she's now defeated both '11 Australian Open finalists (actually, she's defeated five of the players who've filled the last six grand slam finalist spots), and three of the current Top 4 players in the world. She enters the Top 10 herself for the first time today, adding her name to the list of Czech tennis luminaries (and Nicole Vaidisova). Her best chance for great slam success over the next couple of months might be at Wimbledon, but with highlight-worthy moments over the past year on hard courts, grass and, now, clay it'd be sort of foolish to think she STILL has as equal a chance to pull off something magical at Roland Garros as the likes of AnaIvo or Sharapova. Plus, she's ALREADY won one title in Paris this year.

Then again, Azarenka could win Rome this week and the conversation will shift yet again.

Hmm, does anyone else get the feeling that things are going to get delighfully sticky in Paris in a couple of weeks?

MADRID, SPAIN (Premier $4.5m/red clay outdoor-indoor)
S: Petra Kvitova def. Victoria Azarenka 7-6/6-4
D: Azarenka/Kirilenko d. Peschke/Srebotnik

...the 21-year old has already reached a slam semi, and defeated Clijsters on the heels of her Australian Open-winning turn, but she thinks her match against Azarenka was the best she's ever player. So far, at least. This week, season title #3 (tying Wozniacki for the tour lead) combines with her first-ever Top 10 ranking (she's the sixth Czech to accomplish it, and it's a single-week jump of eight spots that got the job done in a heartbeat, as she and Serena pretty much flopped places on the computer) and a current eight-match winning streak (after a 16-1 stretch to start the season) that she'll carry into a $100K challenger this week. Oddly enough, it's her second $100K event this year (she made a cameo appearance in another in between her poor/possibly injury-related Indian Wells/Miami results), but at least she has an excuse -- she gets to briefly go back home to the Czech Republic, since the tournament is in Prague.
RISERS: Victoria Azarenka/BLR & Julia Goerges/GER
...Azarenka came THIS CLOSE -- well, or as close to it as Kvitova would allow -- to becoming the first woman to sweep both the singles and doubles titles at a WTA event in 2011. In wins over Vera Dushevina, Sofia Arvidsson and Arantxa Parra-Santonja early in the week, she lost a total of five games. After winning in three sets over Lucie Safarova, she brushed aside Goerges in the SF and looked to be a good bet for two titles. Then came Kvitova, and so much for that. Her doubles title with Maria Kirilenko, their second as a duo (Cincinnati '10), came after defeating Kveta Peschke and Katarina Srebotnik in the final, but one can't help but wonder if their earlier victory over Gisela Dulko and Flavia Pennetta might have felt even better, considering that was the team that Azarenka/Kirilenko blew that huge lead against in the AO Doubles final in January. After such a disappointing loss to Kvitova, it'll be a good mental exercise for Azarenka to prove that she quickly put it behind her and get right back into the swing of things this week in Rome. Meanwhile, Goerges didn't have the same ultimate success she did in Stuttgart, but there WAS something strikingly familiar about her turn in Madrid. For one, she AGAIN defeated Wozniacki, this time in the 3rd Round rather than the final. She also got victories over Kaia Kanepi, Dinara Safina and Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, the last of which ran her winning streak to ten matches before it was ended by Azarenka.
SURPRISE: Lucie Safarova/CZE
...last week was another of those weeks where you marvel at how Safarova can occasionally rise up and string together several really good results in between her generally-mediocre results the rest of the season. In Madrid, she notched wins over Anabel Medina-Garrigues (in the 1st Round, fresh off her Fes title), Jelena Jankovic and Jarmila Gajdosova en route to the QF one year after she advanced to the semis there.
COMEBACK: Sorana Cirstea/ROU
...less than two years ago, Cirstea was ranked #23 and getting preferential schedule treatment at the All-England Club. Flashforward to last week and the 21-year old Romanian was ranked outside the Top 100 (#102), was riding a four-match WTA main draw losing streak and hadn't won two MD matches at a tour event since last August in Copenhagen (one of her wins that week came over Kvitova, by the way). She still hasn't gotten her WTA tour house back in order, but she stepped down to the $100K Cagnes-Sur-Mer challenger last week and ended up walking away with the title. Wins over Maria Elena Camerin, Lara Arruabarrena-Vecino, Anna Tatishvili and Pauline Parmentier in a 6-7/6-2/6-2 final sealed the deal.
VETERANS: Li Na/CHN & Bethanie Mattek-Sands/USA
...coming into Madrid, Li had come up with one lonely win since her run to the Australian Open final in January. She finally pulled herself out of her tailspin, though, running off victories over Maria Jose Martinez-Sanchez, Iveta Benesova, Roberta Vinci and Bethanie Mattek-Sands before getting steamrolled in the final set and a half against Kvitova in the semifinals. Speaking of Mattek-Sands, who might end up being the highest-ranked American woman participating at Roland Garros in two weeks, she pulled off victories last week over a pair of players who've lifted slam title trophies in Paris, plus Vania King (who's lifted a few doubles slam crowns of her own). The pelts of Ana Ivanovic and Francesca Schiavone were the shiniest and most worthy of displaying, though, for Mattek-Sands. The win over Schiavone was the American's career first over a Top 5 player.
FRESH FACES: Alison van Uytvanck/BEL & Yuliana Lizarazo/COL
...yep, she's at it again. Van Uytvanck, 17, won her circuit lead-tying third ITF title of 2011 by defeating Justyna Jegiolka 6-7/6-4/6-2 in the final of the $10K Edinburgh, GBR event. Her week's work gives her a 24-1 challenger record this season to go along with her 15-0 junior mark. Meanwhile, Lizarazo, 17, won the $10K in Wiesbaden, GER with wins over Siliva Njiric, Mihaela Buzarnescu and Marcella Koek in the final. It's the Colombian's second career ITF title, but her first this season.
DOWN: Ana Ivanovic/SRB, Svetlana Kuznetsova/RUS & Francesca Schiavone/ITA
...with Paris two weeks away, the last three RG champions were unceremoniously dumped out of Madrid. AnaIvo in the 1st Round by Mattek-Sands, joined by Kuznetsova in the same round by Dominika Cibulkova (leading to the Contessova yet again announcing that she was changing coaches). After Tweeting this weekend about how much she loved Rome, Kuznetsova went out today and lost to Greta Arn. Well, I guess she'll have more time to enjoy the city now. Meanwhile, Schiavone lasted until the 3rd Round, and got a win over Sara Errani, but still was felled earlier than expected by Mattek-Sands.
ITF PLAYER: Melinda Czink/HUN
...the 28-year old Hungarian claimed the $50K challenger in Indian Harbour Beach, Florida with a 4-6/6-1/6-4 win in the final over Alison Riske. She also won in Dothan two weeks ago, giving her a current 13-1 run, and an 18-2 ITF mark since mid-April.
JUNIOR STAR: Irina Khromacheva/RUS
...the 15-year old Hordette, the #5-ranked junior in the world, won her second consecutive ITF challenger title in the $10K event in Casarano, France. Her 10-0 run was complete with her victory in the final over Germany's Anne Schaefer.

1. Mad 3rd Rd - Goerges d. Wozniacki
Once again, Goerges mugged Wozniacki in front of everyone. Of the Dane's six losses this season, two have come at the hands of Goerges, meaning half her defeats that have come against Germans. Interestingly, five of the losses weren't against the "top tier" players that have traditionally given her trouble, but were to women ranked outside the Top 10. At the time, four of them were ranked outside the Top 20. At this point, believing C-Woz can manuever her way through seven matches in Paris is going to take an awful lot of blind faith.
2. Mad 3rd Rd - Kvitova d. Zvonareva
Since losing to Zvonareva in the Australian Open QF in January, the Czech has gone on to get victories over three of the current Top 4-ranked players in the world.
3. Mad Final - Kvitova d. Azarenka
The one Top 4 player Kvitova hasn't defeated in '11 -- Wozniacki -- sports a game that doesn't necessarily rack up high totals of winners-per-match. Azarenka surely isn't averse to the stat, though. Still, that Kvitova far outdistanced the Belarusan 40-to-10 in winners in this match sort of makes you wonder what that stat would look like if the Dane and the Czech met on a day when Kvitova was in as good a form as she was this weekend.
4. Mad 3rd Rd - Cibulkova d. Sharapova
Just like in their '09 QF match-up at Roland Garros, though Sharapova's nine games won are far more than two she notched against the Slovak two years ago.
5. Mad SF - Azarenka d. Goerges 6-4/6-2
Mad SF - Kvitova d. Li 6-3/6-1
not a bad week for Madrid's final four. Three rise to career-high rankings today -- #4 Azarenka, #10 Kvitova and #20 Goerges -- while Li pulled off by-far her best result since reaching the AO final.
6. $50K Prague Final - Hradecka d. Ormaechea
A week after losing in the tour-level Barcelona final, Hradecka went back home to the Czech Republic and walked off with her second ITF crown of the season.
7. $50K Prague Doubles Final - Kustova/Ar.Rodionova d. Savchuk/Tsurenko
Call it a case of "sisterly revenge." A few weeks after her sister Anastasia was victimized by Savchuk and Tsurenko in Australia's pull-your-hair-out Fed Cup loss to Ukraine, Arina achieved a bit of familial payback in the Prague doubles final.
8. $50K Fukuoka Final - Tanasugarn d. Chan
Soon to celebrate her 34th birthday, Tanasugarn entered this event with a 1-5 record for the 2011 season. Still, the younger likes of Chan, Zheng Saisai, Sachie Ishizu and Erika Sema were no match for her in Japan.
HM- Daytona Beach G4 Final (Jr.) - Alexandra Kiick d. Jennifer Brady/USA
Fresh off her Easter Bowl semifinal loss to eventual champion Kyle McPhillips, 15-year old American Kiick won this one. Her name is included on the growing list of American players with pro athlete fathers -- Alexandra Stevenson, Sloane Stephens and the Gullicksons amongst them -- Kiick's surname is familiar to American sports fans because her dad Jim was a running back for the Super Bowl winning Miami Dolphins clubs of the 1970s, including the fabled undefeated '72 team.


3...Caroline Wozniacki, DEN
2...Victoria Azarenka, BLR
[last two seasons]
9...Caroline Wozniacki (6/3)
6...Kim Clijsters (5/1)
4...Victoria Azarenka (2/2)
3...Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova (2/1)

**2011 WTA FINALS**
5...Caroline Wozniacki (3-2)
3...Kim Clijsters (1-2)
[Premier $2m+]
Dubai - #2 Wozniacki/DEN def. #23 Kuznetsova/RUS
Indian Wells - #1 Wozniacki/DEN def. #17 Bartoli/FRA
Miami - #8 Azarenka/BLR def. #13 Sharapova/RUS

**2011 Premier $2m+ DOUBLES CHAMPIONS**
Dubai - Liezel Huber/Maria Jose Martinez-Sanchez, USA/ESP
Indian Wells - Sania Mirza/Elena Vesnina, IND/RUS
Miami - Daniela Hantuchova/Agnieszka Radwanska, SVK/POL

Pattaya - Sara Errani, ITA (L/W)
Acapulco - Arantxa Parra-Santonja, ESP (L/L)
Charleston - Elena Vesnina, RUS (L/W)

[in Top 10, date first reached]
Martina Navratilova (1975) - reached Top 10 after defection
Hana Mandlikova (1980)
Helena Sukova (1984)
Jana Novotna (1989)
Nicole Vaidisova (2006)
[career titles]
51...Martina Navratilova, 1974-81 (won additional 116 as U.S. citizen, 1981-94)
27...Hana Mandlikova, 1978-87
24...Jana Novotna, 1988-99
10...Helena Sukova, 1982-92
10...Regina Mariskova, 1976-81
6...Nicole Vaidisova, 2004-06
4...PETRA KVITOVA, 2009-11
4...Lucie Safarova, 2005-08

Sydney 2nd Rd - #31 Dominika Cibulkova, SVK
Australian Open SF - #11 Li Na, CHN
Doha Final - #3 Vera Zvonareva, RUS
Miami 4th Rd - #23 Andrea Petkovic, GER
Stuttgart Final - #32 Julia Goerges, GER
Madrid 3rd Rd - #27 Julia Goerges, GER

ROME, ITALY (Premier+ $2.05m/red clay outdoors)
10 Final: Martinez-Sanchez d. Jankovic
11 Top Seeds: Wozniacki/Schiavone
10 Doubles Champions: Dulko/Pennetta

#3 Azarenka d. #1 Wozniacki
#6 Stosur d. #4 Li
#3 Azarenka d. #6 Stosur shows how poorly this segment has been going when correctly picking both finalists in Madrid -- even while still getting the champion wrong -- constitutes as a soaring "victory." Of note, this bad run began by hitting on a Kvitova/Clijsters final in Paris, only to have the Czech provide me with a big "L" on the ledger by taking the title. Maybe the similar result in Spain (as before, though, I can't be angry with Petra about it) means the end of my sideways run of of luck. Of course, I guess it could just as easily mean the bad times just got another re-charge. I'll remain optimistic and go with Azarenka again, thinking that a third go-around with her will be a charm this clay season.

All for now.

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