Wk.7- It's Gotta Be the Shorts
Picture, if you will, a player who at one time was saddled with a reputation for playing well in, but ultimately losing, big matches against top players, often going out with a series of physical ailments that caused them to wilt down the stretch. It led some to question the maybe-too-emotional player's intestinal fortitude when it came to ever consistently succeeding at the very top level of the sport.
It was all a big mistake, of course, as the player's results this past January in Melbourne more than proved. Of course, since this IS WTA Backspin, naturally, such a description pertains to one Victoria Azarenka. But, really, it once could have been used to describe Novak Djokovic at one point, as well.
Now, I'm not saying that Azarenka is going to evolve into the dominating player that Djokovic has over the course of the past year. But their stories aren't all that different, and I'm not even counting the easy-to-make comparison of the two players when it comes to their #1 rankings and recent season-opening winning streaks. Anyway, Azarenka's current 17-match run is still dwarfed by the Serb'a 41-0 start to '11. The feats aren't really all that comparable. At least not yet. Djokovic has a strangle-hold on the ATP tour at the moment. Azarenka can't say the same, but her '12 results are starting to make one wonder if that might not be the case for long.
In many ways, like how Djokovic's' career arc dramatically transformed about sixteen months ago, Azarenka''s surely has, too, starting with the shaky weeks she experienced precisely one year ago, when a pair of poor Middle East performances -- 3rd Round (to Pennetta) and 1st Round (Hantuchova) losses in Dubai and Doha l- led her to contemplate a Vaidisova-esque early retirement (well, at least before her grandmother set her straight). For the Serb, everything that used to be considered his weaknesses -- chiefly his stamina and "stomach" for sticking it out when times got really rough -- are now his strengths. When he's down, he's far from out. When he's up, it's time for his opponent to start thinking about his next event.
For Azarenka, also, her fitness and emotional mindset were often stumbling blocks preventing a player with obvious talent from taking the next step in her career. Azarenka's passion has never been at issue -- "I will always play with my heart and with my passion," she recently said -- but her ability to handle her intense desire to succeed, and angry frustration when she didn't, surely was. Her always-high number of retirements/withdrawals/heat illness-related exits, all without the presence of a major injury that took her off tour for an extended period, had started to raise a few skeptical eyebrows. Of course, much of what Azarenka has managed to turn in her favor can be chalked up to the 22-year old's natural maturation (or as close to "natural" and "maturation" as a big time tennis player can get), but it's also gone hand-in-hand with a more intelligent approach to her tennis career, on and off court.
"It's hard to say it's one thing. Behind (the success) is a lot of hard work, some unfortunate losses last year, and some good losses I learnt from last year," Azarenka has said. "I have a better mind, a clearer mind. I know what I am doing."
Even since she put her athletic life into a proper context last year after hitting a personal low point, she's gradually become a player who can put away an opponent without mercy, doesn't beat herself and, slowly but surely, has built her fitness level up to a point where it and her quite-possible paranoia about injuries (which made her TOO cautious, leading to unnecessary pull-outs when finding a way to muster through when she wasn't 100% would have been a crucial learning experience) are a thing of the past. If Djojokvic has his gluten-free diet to (partially) thank for kicking him in the butt, maybe Azarenka has her coach Sam Sumyk, who she credits with the training techniques that have allowed her to increase her stamina and overcome her past physical dificulties, building her confidence higher and higher with every bit of success.
Azarenka was more in control of her body, mind and game in Melbourne than she's ever been. But, after a late pull-out from Fed Cup play, it was right to be on alert to see how she handled her post-slam win's immediate aftermath, especially considering how difficult a time other first-time slam winners have had of late under similar circumstances. So, her title run in Doha last week might have been even more impressive -- and important -- than anything that happened Down Under. Of course, that might be a chicken-or-the-egg, which came first, situation.
In whatever order things have played out, Azarenka's week in Doha, especially coming on the one-year anniversary of her Middle East pause for reflection, seems to have provided proof that she's in this for the long haul. Sometimes, what solidifies a champion's grip is a seemingly small thing, like how Azarenka reacted to falling and injuring her ankle in the semis against Agnieszka Radwanska. She admitted later that, in the past, she might have retired, or pulled out of her next event. This past weekend, though, she played through, took out A-Rad in straights, then defeated Stosur in the final to win her third title of '12. Sometimes there's a fine line between overreacting (pulling out) and hurting oneself in the long run (playing on and making things worse), and learning to recognize the difference between the two can mean everything. Last week, Azarenka showed that she "gets it."
Since the end of the '11 season, there has been much talk of Petra Kvitova being "The One," the player of her generation. It's an open title that has been floating around aimlessly without any serious takers since Serena Slam settled the previous argument a decade ago. The money is still on Kvitova being that player, but... maybe it's Vika.
The one thing that separates Azarenka from Djokovic the most is the Serb's recent domination of Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer. While Azarenka has managed to settle scores with the like of would-be-#1's such as Kim Clijsters and Maria Sharapova (though not Serena, even while she's come close), she's still yet to prove she can handle the most obvious opponent for "Best of Gen" honors -- Kvitova. So far in '12, where Vika 2.0 has ruled the WTA roost, we haven't seen them face off. Of course, that's been because of the Czech's failings, not those of the Belarusian. But the fact remains that Kvitova has defeated Azarenka four straight times, including in last year's WTA Championships final. The last time Azarenka bested Kvitova was at the 2009 Australian Open, more than a year before either player reached their first slam semifinal.
We won't be seeing an Azarenka/Kvitova tête-à-tête in Dubai, either. After backing out of Doha with an Achilles injury, Kvitova withdrew from Dubai with an illness. Suddenly, the "injury shoe" is on the other foot. The Czech has played just two Fed Cup matches since Melbourne, and slipped to #3 in the rankings. While she's been away, Azarenka, who leap-frogged her from #3 into the #1 spot, has built up her lead over the field. She now leads #2 Sharapova by 1580 points, Kvitova by 2040 and the increasingly "irrelevant" (at least in this discussion) Caroline Wozniacki by nearly 3000.
"I am also a year older and I behave more like a lady than a crazy kid," Azarenka says of her personal transformation since last February.
So, while we will surely continue to see shades of the Whack-a-Vika mindset that nearly overtook Melbourne -- any article on the shrieking issue counts, I say -- what's happening on the court that really matters is giving reason for the rest of the players in the WTA to worry about just what sort of little monster Azarenka is developing into before their eyes. Maybe even Petra.
*WEEK 7 CHAMPIONS*
DOHA, QATAR (Premier $2.168K/HO)
S: Victoria Azarenka/BLR def. Samantha Stosur/AUS 6-1/6-2
D: Huber/Raymond (USA/USA) d. Kops-Jones/Spears (USA/USA)
BOGOTA, COLOMBIA (Int'l $220K/RCO)
S: Lara Arruabarrena-Vecino/ESP def. Alexandra Panova/RUS 6-2/7-5
D: Birnerova/Panova (CZE/RUS) d. Minella/Voegele (LUX/SUI)
PLAYER OF THE WEEK: Victoria Azarenka/BLR
...Vika is leaving traces of her kisses on a awful lot of trophies lately. This weekend, the object of her affection looked a little like the Maltese Falcon. Lately, it's been difficult to determine what's been the most impressive aspects of Azarenka's triumphs -- the ease with which she sometimes dispatches her opponents (she allowed one game to Mona Barthel, five to Yanina Wickmayer and three to Sam Stosur), her newly-steely mindset or her improved fitness and/or champion-like view on how to handle the sort of injury paranoia that always seemed to lead her around by the nose in years past. With three titles under her belt just seven weeks into the season, she's the fastest three-time champ on tour since Amelie Mauresmo won her third in Week 7 in 2006. In recent seasons, it took quite a while for a player to reach the total -- Justine Henin (Week 18 in '07), Maria Sharapova (Week 15 in '08), Azarenka (Week 13 in '09), Kim Clijsters (Week 32 in '10) and Caroline Wozniacki (Week 14 in '11). On another note, Azarenka's 17-0 start is the best start on tour by any player since Sharapova won her first eighteen in 2008, and her's now played in five straight finals dating back to last October.
RISERS: Agnieszka Radwanska/POL & Lucie Safarova/CZE
...A-Rad just about yanked Azarenka around the court in the Doha semifinals enough to totally reset the 2012 WTA season. But when the Belarusian, after falling and hurting her ankle chasing after a drop shot, rather than exit the tournament and send up emergency flairs over her season, popped back up to defeat the Pole and take the tournament the following day, that particular potential storyline was scrapped. Still, Radwanska does seem to be setting herself up for a "big get" result soon (maybe as soon as this week in Dubai, with Kvitova removed from her half of the draw), as her great Fed Cup play was followed up with equally efficient results last week (especially that 1 & 1 win over Christina McHale after the American's nice wins over Peng Shuai and Shahar Peer). Also in Qatar, Safarova did what she often does -- flash hot, but still end up leaving a taste of slight disappointment behind. She got big wins over Caroline Wozniacki (saving 3 MP) and Svetlana Kuznetsova (who dropped all the way down to #27 today), but still couldn't advance past the quarterfinals.
SURPRISE: Alexandra Panova/RUS
...the 22-year old Hordette had a career week in Bogota. With wins over Mandy Minella, Gisela Dulko, Karin Knapp and Timea Babos, she reached her first career tour singles final, and became the second woman this season to play in both the singles and doubles finals at the same WTA event. But unlike Flavia Pennetta in Auckland, who went 0-2, Panova DID manage to take the doubles crown with Eva Birnerova.
VETERANS: Edina Gallovits-Hall/ROU & Marion Bartoli/FRA
...Gallovits-Hall came to Bogota having won the doubles title there the previous two seasons. She didn't three-peat (she reached the semis w/ Karin Knapp), but the 27-year old still had a pretty good week. In singles, her SF run came after wins over Julia Cohen, Mariana Duque-Marino (the 2010 Bogota champ) and #1-seed Marina Erakovic. Meanwhile, Bartoli continues to move along at a two steps forward, one step back pace for '12. In Doha, she put up wins over Anabel Medina-Garrigues, Tsvetana Pironkova and Lucie Safarova to reach the SF, but then was forced to retire early in the 2nd set against Sam Stosur minutes after injuring her calf. For a bit, as I watched the match, considering how she was acting and grabbing at the back of her ankle/calf, I feared she might have snapped her Achilles tendon... but, thankfully, seeing her lift up her foot while sitting in the changeover area washed away such worries. Still, one has to wonder about her seeming decision to go ahead and play in Dubai.
COMEBACK: Samantha Stosur/AUS
...it's been a too-easy overstatement to say that Stosur has been a disaster on the court since she won the U.S. Open. After all, she reached the Osaka final last October, and advanced to the WTA Championships semis. But her '12 campaign HAS been a bit troubling. Since she escaped Australia, though, she's been much better off. She led the Aussies to a Fed Cup tie victory, then last week continued her surge with a trip to the final in Doha. She won the rematch with her Australian Open conqueror Sorana Cirstea right off the bat, then notched wins over Petra Cetkovska and Monica Niculescu before outlasting Bartoli in the SF. She couldn't put up much of a threat against Azarenka in the final, but she's surely gotten her season turned around. Hmmm, AND she's finally stopped wearing on-court outfits that could pull double-duty as potato sacks. Coincidence?
FRESH FACES: Lara Arruabarrena-Vecino/ESP & Timea Babos/HUN
...geez, the Bogota trophy is sort of dinky compared to that majestic one in Doha, isn't it? Still, Arruabarrena-Vecino's glee isn't any smaller than Azarenka's today. The 19-year old Spaniard was the last of the four unseeded semifinalists standing in Colombia. With a QF having been her best tour result before last week, LAV became the third first-time WTA champion of the '12 season. She notched wins over Patricia Mayr-Achleitner, Eva Birnerova, Paula Ormaechea, Edina Gallovits-Hall and Alexandra Panova. Ranked down at #174, she's the lowest ranked player to win a tour singles title since an unranked Kim Clijsters won the U.S. Open in '09. But since that stat is sort of a "cheat," if you really want a TRUE "last time" player, let's go with the 2009 Warsaw champ, #201 Alexandra Dulgheru. LAV's result overshadowed that of 18-year old Timea Babos, who reached her first tour SF in Bogota after getting wins over Romina Oprandi and Yaroslava Shvedova. She also reached the doubles SF with Valeria Savinykh.
DOWN: Caroline Wozniacki/DEN & Sabine Lisicki/GER
...as the Dane's ranking has fallen, so has her hold as a big topic of WTA discussion. If, as #1, she'd lost to Lucie Safarova in her opening match in Doha, in her first action since the firing of coach Ricardo Sanchez, failing to convert triple match point from a 5-4, 40/love lead on the Czech's serve in the 3rd set, she would have surely gotten raked a bit over the proverbial coals once more for all she's not accomplishing. As it is, as the (too far back for #1 to even hear her shout at the moment) #4-ranked player, though, the defeat goes down as a tough loss to a player who can burn hot and go cold at a moment's notice with equal swiftness. The walls are starting to close in a bit on Lisicki in' 12. She hasn't had a very good start to her season, and has been nursing niggling injuries and illness throughout the early part of the WTA schedule. She went 0-2 in Germany's Fed Cup loss to the Czech Republic, then last week suffered a 1st Round loss at the hands of her more-in-form countrywoman Angelique Kerber. She might have gotten a break in Dubai, though, slipping into Kvitova's #2 slot in the draw (getting a 1st Round bye) as the new #9 seed rather than have to play her previously-scheduled 1st Round match against A-Rad. She might still meet the Pole in the QF, but at least she'll now have a shot to gather a bit of steam before then.
ITF PLAYER: Michelle Larcher de Brito/POR
...Larcher de Brito was the center of attention -- both for the hard groundstrokes and high-decibal level of her game -- a few years ago, but she's still looking for a big breakthrough on tour. At still just 19, she continues to put up good results on the ITF circuit, though. This weekend (as the world #151) she managed to add her name to the always-interesting list of champions at the $25K event in Surprise, Arizona, taking the title with victories of Heidi El Tabakh, Johanna Konta and Claire Feuerstein in the final.
JUNIOR STAR: Ashleigh Barty/AUS
...the 15-year old, #3-ranked junior won her first career ITF singles title in a $25K challenger in Sydney. Left in her wake were Aiko Nakamura, (new) countrywoman Sacha Jones and fellow Aussie Olivia Rogowska in the 6-1/6-3 final.
1. Doha 2nd Rd - Safarova d. Wozniacki
...4-6/6-4/7-6. If Wozniacki reaches the QF in Dubai, she might see world #1 Azarenka waiting for her there. Hmmm, I guess the Dane's new "under-the-radar" status would go out the window at that point, huh?
2. Doha 1st Rd - Kerber d. Lisicki 4-6/6-4/6-1
Doha 2nd Rd - Pironkova d. Kerber 6-4/6-1
...Kerber finally ran out of steal against Pironkova, but her win over countrywoman Lisicki pushed her into the Top 20 (at #20) for the first time in her career. Julia Goerges (#19) entered along with her, upping the number of Germans currently in the Top 20 to four. I don't know if that's a record or not, but it wouldn't surprise me in the slightest if that was the case.
3. Doha Final - Azarenka d. Stosur
...6-1/6-2. Stosur seemed to accept her loss here a little TOO easily for my taste, but I guess a player who sometimes struggles with confidence probably shouldn't beat herself over the head too much after losing to the #1 player in the world. She's now 0-6 against Azarenka, so one wonders if the Aussie had pretty much lost this match (in her head) before it began.
4. Bog Final - Arruabarrena-Vecino d. Panova
...6-2/7-5. The current crop of Spanish women are surely a long way from the Golden Years of Arantxa & Conchita, but LAV is the fourth different Spaniard to win a tour singles title over the past year.
5. Bog SF - Arruabarrena-Vecino d. Gallovits-Hall 6-4/6-3
Bog SF - Panova d. Babos 6-2/6-3
...I said at the start of last week that, with Erakovic as the #1 seed atop an "iffy" draw, the Bogota event didn't really look like a WTA event. Come the weekend, the final four players left in the draw were all unseeded (it's the second straight year it's happened in Bogota) and sporting triple-digit rankings. All were without career tour singles titles, three had never reached a WTA singles final, and two were teenagers. In the end, #174 defeated #118 in the final. One might say, once the red clay dust had settled, that the event looked more like a $25K challenger when it had ended than it did when it began.
6. Dubai Q1 - Jabeur d. Zheng
...6-3/7-6. The young Tunisian lost her next match to Arantxa Rus, but it couldn't take the shine off the '11 Roland Garros Girls champ's biggest career victory here.
7. Doha 2nd Rd - Niculescu d. Zvonareva 7-5/3-2 ret.
Bog 2nd Rd - Gallovits-Hall d. Erakovic 6-4/6-4
...it was Qatar and Colombia, rather than, say, New York, but it was Romanians who took out both #1 seeds last week.
8. Doha Doubles F - Huber/Raymond d. Kops-Jones/Spears
...6-3/6-1. The Americans, AO title or not, are running away with the "Best Doubles Team" title right now. Raymond career title #76 ties her with Jana Novotna, while Huber's share of the crown gives her 50 for her career.
9. Bog 1st Rd - Ormaechea d. Dokic
...4-6/6-3/6-4. Dokic was up a set and 1-1 when the rains came. After play was re-started, she fell behind 4-1 and the match was suspended for the day. Things got worse the next day. This was the Aussie's first trip to Bogota since 1999, so I wonder if she won't be seen there again until 2025?
10. Doha 1st Rd - Halep d. Hantuchova
...3-6/6-2/7-6. A week after defending her Pattaya City title, Hantuchova was ousted in the 1st Round and lost her Top 20 ranking.
11. Dubai 1st Rd - Goerges d. Kuznetsova
...2-6/7-6/6-4. Kuznetsova fell all the way down to #27 in the rankings today, then lost a few hours later.
12. $10K Portimao Final - Justine Ozga/GER d. Elena Bovina/RUS
...4-6/6-1/6-1. She didn't get a winner's check for her efforts. But, as I always say when it comes to Bovina... she's STILL pluggin' away on the challenger circuit.
Doha 1st Rd - Safarova d. U.Radwanska 6-3/6-4
Doha SF - Azarenka d. A.Radwanska 6-2/6-4
...hmmm, will A-Rad's public disapproval of Azarenka's noisy game increase exponentially as she loses to her more and more often?
**LONG SEASON WIN STREAKS - since 2006**
25...Justine Henin-Hardenne, 2007 *
19...Maria Sharapova, 2006
18...Maria Sharapova, 2008
17...Justine Henin, 2006
17...Serena Williams, 2008
17...VICTORIA AZARENKA, 2012
* - Henin won 7 more in '08, giving her 32 straight overall
NOTE: S.Williams won 12 con. matches in '11, then 6 more after a walkover loss
**WEEKS AT WTA #1 - since 2009**
67...Caroline Wozniacki, DEN
62...Serena Williams, USA
26...Dinara Safina, RUS
4...VICTORIA AZARENKA, BLR
4...Jelena Jankovic, SRB
1...Kim Clijsters, BEL
**MOST WTA FINALS - since 2009**
24...Caroline Wozniacki (15-9)
15...VICTORIA AZARENKA (11-4)
12...Maria Sharapova (5-7)
12...Vera Zvonareva (5-7)
10...Serena Williams (7-3)
10...SAMANTHA STOSUR (3-7)
**MOST 2012 WTA SF**
3...VICTORIA AZARENKA (3-0)
3...Angelique Kerber (1-2)
2...MARION BARTOLI (1-1)
2...Daniela Hantuchova (2-0)
2...Petra Kvitova (0-2)
2...AGNIESZKA RADWANSKA (0-2)
**2012 LOW-RANKED SEMIFINALISTS**
#174 Lara Arruabarrena-Vecino, ESP (Bogota - W)
#159 Hsieh Su-Wei, TPE (Pattaya - SF)
#133 Timea Babos, HUN (Bogota - SF)
#128 Edina Gallovits-Hall, ROU (Bogota - SF)
#118 Alexandra Panova, RUS (Bogota - RU)
DUBAI, U.A.E. (Premier $2.0m/hardcourt outdoor)
11 Final: Wozniacki d. Kuznetsova
11 Doubles Champions: Huber/Martinez-Sanchez
12 Top Seeds: Azarenka/Kvitova (w/d)
#1 Azarenka d. #7 Schiavone
#5 A.Radwanska d. #4 Stosur
#1 Azarenka d. #5 A.Radwanska
...last year's runner-up is already out, and the hoped-for meeting in the final between Azarenka and Kvitova fell through with the Czech's withdrawal. Another title, which would run her streaks to six finals, four titles and twenty-two matches, would totally turn around Azarenka's Bad Times in the Middle East memory from '11, and inch her closer to Henin's recent WTA best streak of 32 match wins in 2007-08. At least without Kvitova tempting me in the draw, I won't be leaving Azarenka out there for Carl to pick.
MONTERREY, MEXICO (Int'l $220K/red clay outdoor)
11 Final: Pavlyuchenkova d. Jankovic (Pavlyuchenkova won 2010-11)
11 Doubles Champions: Benesova/Zahlavova-Strycova (team won 2010-11)
12 Top Seeds: Vinci/Errani
#1 Vinci d. #4 Dulgheru
#2 Errani d. #3/WC Cirstea
#2 Errani d. #1 Vinci
...Errani's recent injury issues make me leary of this one, but it's clay -- so it's something of a crapshoot, anyway.
MEMPHIS, TENNESSEE USA (Int'l $220K/hardcour indoor)
11 Final: Rybarikova d. Marino
11 Doubles Champions: Govortsova/Kudryavtseva
12 Top Seeds: Petrova/Pervak
#1 Petrova d. #4 Erakovic
Marino d. Tsurenko
Marino d. #1 Petrova
...I was prepared to go with Sloane Stephens as a longshot pick, but she's already out.
#3 wozniacki d. #1 azarenka (ret.)
#5 a.radwanska d. #4 stosur
#5 a.radwanska d. #3 wozniacki
...Carl mad!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Carl no like Todd stealing Vika pick!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Todd get win last week with Vika, and Carl get NOTHING. Now, maybe happen again. Carl have to make big move. Pick Vika to hurt self in SF, Caro to reach final. But A-Rad to win. Sort of looong trip to Carl being right -- sniff, sort of like hunting trip for wooly mammoth Carl take with father long time ago. But Carl get rug-size pelt on that trip. See if happens again.
#1 vinci d. #8 dominguez-lino
#3/wc cirstea d. (wc) shvedova
#1 vinci d. #3/wc cirstea
...Carl no pick Dokic here again after last week. Carl outsmart self there. (Editor's Note: I won't even try to make a joke about that line -- it sort of speaks for itself.)
#1 petrova d. rodina
marino d. tsurenko
#1 petrova d. marino
...Carl had good feeling about Marino, but (again!) Todd stole Carl's pick.
All for now.