Monday, March 19, 2012

Wk.11- Vicious Vika

Like a multicolored maven of magnificence, Victoria Azarenka has taken Indian Wells by storm.

In this weekend's cold weather California final, a flush-cheeked Azarenka was winningly clad in a day-glow yellow headband, long-sleeved blue top, her (now-trademark) white shorts over black down-to-the-calf bicycle pants, and white shoes with day-glow yellow laces. It might not have been the most fashion-conscious ensemble on court, but more crisply-attired opponent Maria Sharapova won't likely be able to easily get it out of her head for all sorts of reasons that have nothing to so with whether or not any of Azarenka's many color combinations worked. After all, she saw an earlier version of the same line in Melbourne... and she's still having recurring nightmares about it more than two months later.

Sometimes, the clothes seem to make the champion (see Stosur in NYC, and Sharapova there, too), but, in Vika's case, the champion is making the clothes. In fact, so far, it seems to be a perfect marriage. Literally.

Even Azarenka's timing of her illnesses seems to be spot-on this season. In an event that saw players falling off left and right due to the virus that spread over the grounds, the Belarusian got over her own touch of the bug early in the first week. Sure, it might have played a part in her very nearly collapsing against Mona Barthel in the 2nd Round (she led 6-4/5-1, then saw the German serve for the match in the 3rd), but once she got past that iffy moment, Azarenka was simply stunning. After Barthel won twelves games off her after being one game from defeat, against the likes of multiple slam champ Svetlana Kuznetsova, rising Julia Goerges, new world #4 Agnieszka Radwanska, slam semifinalist Angelique Kerber and former #1/current #2 Maria Sharapova, Azarenka allowed 3, 4, 2, 7 and 5 games, respectively, over the course of her next five matches. With her 23-match winning streak now a thing of beauty to behold in the daylight, Azarenka has opened a virtual gulf between herself and the rest of the field in the rankings (something that won't likely change soon, even with Miami and Marbella title points next to come off her totals). She leads Sharapova by 1800 points, Petra Kvitova by 2560, and Caroline Wozniacki, who was ranked #1 just two months ago, by an obscene 4320. If anyone on tour is thinking about nipping at her heels right now, they'd better wear a mouth guard if they want to avoid getting their front teeth caved in.

Or at least is seems that way.

When a player is performing as well a Azarenka has in '12, it sometimes seems as if they'll never lose. Of course, she will. But it could be a while as, for the first time, some of those consecutive match win marks aren't looking quite as far out of reach as they did back in Melbourne. At this point, she's just waiting for a proper challenger. As Azarenka has risen to the top of the sport, would-be #1 Kvitova has lingered in something of a haze. If she's the player she's so often seemed to be, the Czech will soon be inspired to her own form of greatness in response to Azarenka's. That's how all this is SUPPOSED to work. One player spurs the next, and vice versa. That's how great rivalries -- and champions -- come about. Surely, the WTA needs Petra (or Serena?) to make the next move, because the only other "rising" Top 10 players on the '12 ledger -- Sharapova and Radwanska -- have so far been treated like pesky gnats by the racket-wielding Belarusian this season. Radwanska, especially so. A constant critic of Azarenka's on-court shrieks, the Pole just learned what the blowback is when a Vika a scorned. She was nearly double-bageled by her last week, and was forced into a mock "celebration" when she managed to finally get one game off the #1-ranked player in the world. Maybe that'll teach her to poke Azarenka with so many verbal sticks... but I hope not. As punishing as such beatdowns are for the player being beaten down, they're actually sort of fun to watch. I mean, isn't Roger Federer great fun to watch when he's being as "Federeresque" as he can be? On numerous occasions this season, Azarenka has shown to have similar no-mercy-will-be-shown abilities. Such a thing isn't always enjoyable to watch, but I've come to really enjoy watching Vika grind her opponents into dust. She just has a way about her when she does it that practically demands to be watched and respected.

It's funny. Azarenka's well-earned post-final victory dance included probably her most uncomfortable-looking moves of the past two weeks (or maybe it was just me, simply because it's hard to top Andrea Petkovic's more natural, original routine). The heaviest lifting she did? Umm, maybe trying to get that huge Indian Wells champion's trophy over her head after the match. Well, unless it was getting that million dollar check into her back pocket, that is.

As much as I'm enjoying this career-defining run, one has to keep a watchful eye on WTA reality (and not the Martina-on-DWTS kind, either). Truthfully, I hope that Azarenka slows down a bit as the season moves along. At least a little. Her winning streak is maximizing the number of matches she's playing at every turn, and for a player who has had so many "illness" and "injury" issues in the past, even for one who seems to have put all that behind her, there comes a point when winning can be too much of a good thing. She'll soon be arriving at another fork in the road for her development into a true champion -- one at which she'll have to learn how to continue her progress while also scheduling smartly in order to remain healthy and peak at the right times during the season. Traversing that potential bump in the road with skill might be the only thing keeping her from putting together one of the more remarkable WTA seasons in recent memory.

As has been the case in all twenty-three of her matches in 2012, it'll all be up to Vika.

S: Victoria Azarenka/BLR def. Maria Sharapova/RUS 6-2/6-3
D: Huber/Raymond (USA/USA) d. Mirza/Vesnina (IND/RUS)

PLAYER OF THE WEEK: Victoria Azarenka/BLR

...Azarenka's winning streak is starting to grow some hair. At 23 matches and counting, she's already got the longest season-opening WTA streak since Martina Hingis' 37-match run in 1997. As far as more recent in-season streaks, she's closing in on matching Justine Henin' 25-match string in 2007, and could challenge LPT's 32-match winning stretch covering the 2007-08 seasons. As it is, Azarenka has now reached six straight finals going back to last season, won four straight titles, and won five of six events. After losing the first four finals of her career, she's now triumphed in twelve of the last sixteen.
RISER: Angelique Kerber/GER
...before she was ridden out of town by Azarenka in the SF, Kerber had been living under a cloud in Indian Wells. After saving two match points against Sloane Stephens in the 2nd Round, the German saved three against Christina McHale in the 3rd. A straight sets win over Li Na put her in her fourth SF of 2012, tying for the tour lead with Vika. Of course, Azarenka is 4-0 in those matches, while Kerber in 1-3. Nevertheless, Kerber's ascension continues. She's up to #14, one spot behind countrywoman Sabine Lisicki, with #10 Andrea Petkovic maybe short on holding onto the top-ranked German title.
SURPRISE: Nadia Petrova/RUS one glorious Indian Wells moment, Petrova showed once again just how good she CAN be. Getting some measure of revenge for her loss in that 3rd Round nighttime doozy against eventual champion Sam Stosur at last year's U.S. Open, Petrova won a nearly three-hour rematch in the 3rd Round. Of course, the future American citizen's (Miami native Nadia has applied) good vibe didn't last too long. She lost in the next round to Maria Kirilenko. Oh, Nadia.
VETERANS: Liezel Huber/Lisa Raymond (USA/USA) & Maria Sharapova/RUS
...the drumbeat of Azarenka's dominance has sort of drowned out that of Huber & Raymond. With their Indian Wells title, they, like the Belarusian, have won four straight titles (and claimed both high-level Premier events in '12, as they joined Azarenka as champions in Doha, too). In defeating '11 champs Sania Mirza & Elena Vesnina in the final, the veteran American pair wrapped up their eighth title as a duo in the approximately ten months that they've been a team. To put that into perspective, far-more-longtime pairs Peschke & Srebotnik and Benesova/Zahlavova-Strycova (both with 9 titles) are already looking over their shoulders. Meanwhile, Sharapova knows something about being overshadowed by Azarenka. The Russian has climbed back to #2, reached a slam final and the deciding match in Indian Wells, but has had the look of disappointment seemingly plastered all over her face these days whenever Azarenka's name comes up in conversation. Unfortunately for her, she even brought up the "revenge" word heading into her AO final rematch with Vika in IW. Ummm, maybe Maria should leave the "revenge" to a player more willing and able to beat an opponent over the head with it... like, say, Vika, and Serena, another player who has never let Sharapova forget about her belief that 2004 was an aberration in their series history. Other than a Rome match last season in which Azarenka retired after having won the 1st set, the recent match-ups between the current world #1 and #2 have taken a decidedly ugly turn, as far as Maria is concerned. In 2010, Azarenka took out Sharapova 6-4/6-1 in Stanford. A year ago, Sharapova lost in the Miami final to Azarenka 6-1/6-4. In Melbourne, it was 6-3/6-0. In Indian Wells, it was 6-2/6-3. That's what they call a trend, and to turn it around is going to likely take a change within Azarenka, not Sharapova.
COMEBACK: Ana Ivanovic/SRB
...AnaIvo woke up the echoes of her 2008 Paris self in Indian Wells, taking down BOTH of the events 2011 finalists -- Caroline Wozniacki and Marion Bartoli -- in back-to-back matches to reach the semis. Of course, as with everything with AnaIvo since she won in Roland Garros, things are subject to change. In fact, they may have already done so. She went out in the SF to Sharapova via retirement due to an injured hip. Two steps forward. One step back.
FRESH FACE: Garbine Muguruza-Blanco/ESP
...the 18-year old Spaniard qualified in the $25K Clearwater challenger in Florida, then knocked off Melinda Czink, Arantxa Rus and Stefanie Voegele before "putting a Vika" on fellow teenager Grace Min (6-0/6-1) in the final.
DOWN: Caroline Wozniacki/DEN the end, the Dane's Indian Wells run was closed out in the 4th Round, but she was a bit lucky to even last that long. She trailed Sofia Arvidsson 6-3/5-4 in the 3rd Round, but the Swede tired out and Wozniacki outclassed the heavier hitter down stretch with her better fitness and good defense. It worked against a Top 50-ish player whose best results come in Memphis and Fed Cup zone play. Against a current Top 20er, former #1 and slam winner, though, she was tossed out rather handily by an in-form AnaIvo, 6-3/6-2. As has been the case since she stopped improving, Wozniacki had little chance against a hard-hitting shotmaker who was actually hitting her shots between the lines. With the scoreboard forcing C-Woz into breaking her own pattern of defense backed up by defense, with a little defense thrown in for good measure, she was a lost Dane. Since such a more offensively-minded gameplan isn't something she strives to be able to employ with her practices all week, there was little chance her makeshift Plan B would work against Ivanovic as long as the Serb didn't suffer some sort of Kvitova-esque continental drift on court. Ultimately, in what was a very important tournament for her, she didn't even come to defending her '11 IW title. As a result, she's dropped out of Top 5 for the first time in ages (below new #4 A-Rad, as well as #5 Sam Stosur) and is a little bit more irrelevant now than she was two weeks ago. Now far she'll slide will depend on how long it takes her to recognize the new reality of her place in the game.
ITF PLAYER: Aleksandra Wozniak/CAN
...A-Woz's under-the-radar "mini-comeback" continues. At least on the ITF circuit. She claimed the $100K Nassau challenger in the Bahamas over the weekend, taking out Olga Savchuk, Riki Fujiwara, Gail Brodsky, Bojana Jovanovski and Alize Cornet (6-4/7-5 in the final) along the way. It's the second straight season in which Wozniak has won a $100K, having won in Vancouver in '11.
JUNIOR STAR: Anna Danilina/KAZ
...the tour's "throng" of notable Kazakhs is still growing. It numbers somewhere around a half dozen now (one of which makes an appearances in the "Matches of the Week," by the way). 16-year old Danilina added her name to the roster last week, winning her first Grade 1 event in Brazil's Banana Bowl. She got wins over Bannerette Chalena Scholl, who'd won back-to-back G2 and G1 events coming in, and Sweden's Ellen Allgurin in the final.

1. IW QF - Azarenka d. A.Radwanska
Barthel aside, Azarenka is becoming pretty adept at putting a boot on an opponent's neck and driving them into the court with evil intention. Against A-Rad last week, she seemed to give the Pole Cat a little extra twist with her ankle, like she was snuffing out a match... or at least the opportunity for Radwanska to complain about all the noise it was taking to dispense of her so quickly. Actually, this one was almost worse than the final score indicates. Vika led 6-0/5-0, having come back from love/40 down on A-Rad's serve at 4-0. Speaking of 4-0, that's Azarenka's record against Radwanska, the player directly behind the Belarusian when it comes to most match wins this season, in 2012.
2. IW 3rd Rd - Petrova d. Stosur
Oh, Nadia! She had a very Lisickian end to the 1st set -- ace, ace, ace -- and, after failing to convert match points in the 2nd set, came back to win in a deciding tie-break in the 3rd. At 2:47, this one still wasn't as long as their Flushing Meadows tussle last summer.
3. IW 4th Rd - Kerber d. McHale
Considering how McHale reacted the last time she blew a match at Roland Garros last year, are we to expect a big result from her next time out?
4. IW 3rd Rd - Wozniacki d. Arvidsson
Arvidsson actually got a win over then-#1 Wozniacki last year in Bastad, but it came when the Dane retired in the 2nd set, after having lost the 1st, with a shoulder injury. Remember, Bastad was the one-week-after-Wimbledon event that should never have been on her schedule to begin with.
5. IW Final - Azarenka d. Sharapova
I guess the thoroughness of Azarenka's defeat of Sharapova is evident when the first match-up of the WTA's Top 2 players since 2010, and the first in a final since 2008, fails to even break into the top four match-ups of the week. With her twelve career titles, Azarenka is now just two crowns behind Jennifer Capriati for 32nd on the all-time WTA list. The two closest active players above her are Sharapova (tied for 21st w/ 24) and Wozniacki (26th w/ 18).
6. $25K Poza Rica MEX Final - Yaroslava Shvedova/KAZ d. Monica Puig/PUR
Finally, Shvedova gets into the singles winner's circle, albeit on the ITF circuit. She got additional wins over Ximena Hermoso, Alexandra Krunic and Jana Cepelova. It's her first singles title of any kind since 2008.
7. $25K Clearwater FLA 2nd Rd - Camila Giorgi/ITA d. Aravane Rezai/FRA
It's starting to look like all hope just might be lost for the No-Reason-To-Be-As-Opionated-As-She-Used-To-Be Pastry.
8. $10K Miyazako JPN Final - Makoto Ninomiya/JPN d. Yumi Miyazaki/JPN
Miyazaki's name didn't help her in Miyazaki. Well, maybe it did in the 2nd set.
9. $10K Amiens FRA Final - Isabella Shinikova/BUL d. Ysaline Bonaventure/BEL
Congrats to Shinikova, but I'm here to talk about the new Waffle. A runner-up result is pretty good for a 17-year old qualifier ranked outside the Top 1000, I'd say.
10. $10K Manavgat TUR Final - Ana Savic/CRO d. Jasmina Tinjic/BIH
The Croat has won three straight ITF singles tournament titles.

$100K Nassau QF - Anne Keothavong d. Karolina Pliskova 7-5/6-4
$100K Nassau QF - Alize Cornet d. Kristyna Pliskova 6-1/6-1
not this week, girls.

**2012 WTA FINALS**
2 - Daniela Hantuchova (1-1)
2 - Flavia Pennetta (0-2)

**RECENT #1 vs. #2 MATCH-UPS**
2001 Sydney Final - #1 Hingis def. #2 Davenport
2001 Tokyo Final - #2 Davenport def. #1 Hingis
2002 Wimbledon Final - #2 S.Williams d. #1 V.Williams
2002 US Open Final - #1 S.Williams d. #2 V.Williams
2003 Australian Open Final - #1 S.Williams d. #2 V.Williams
2003 Filderstadt Final - #1 Clijsters d. #2 Henin-Hardenne
2004 Australian Open Final - #1 Henin-Hardenne d. #2 Clijsters
2004 Filderstadt Final - #2 Davenport d. #1 Mauresmo
2004 Athens Olympic Final - #1 Henin-Hardenne d. #2 Mauresmo
2006 Antwerp Final - #2 Mauresmo d. #1 Clijsters
2008 Sydney Final - #1 Henin d. #2 Kuznetsova
2010 WTA Chsp SF - #1 Wozniacki d. #2 Zvonareva

45...Steffi Graf, 1987
42...John McEnroe, 1984
41...Novak Djokovic, 2011
37...Martina Hingis, 1997
37...Martina Navratilova, 1978
36...Martina Navratilova, 1983
33...Chris Evert, 1981
32...Steffi Graf, 1994
32...Steffi Graf, 1995
31...Bjorn Borg, 1980
31...Steffi Graf, 1989

25...Justine Henin, 2007 (32-match streak w/ 7 wins in '08)
24...Justine Henin-Hardenne, 2005
22...Kim Clijsters, 2005
22...Lindsay Davenport, 2004
18...Maria Sharapova, 2008
18...Nicole Vaidisova, 2005
NOTES: Sharapova won 19 con. in 2006 (with walkover loss after 8th win); Serena Williams won 18 con. in 2011 (with walkover loss after 12th win)

[$4.5m+ / $2.05m+ / $600K-$1m]
11...Caroline Wozniacki (2-3-6)
4...Maria Sharapova (0-3-1)
4...Agnieszka Radwanska (1-1-2)
4...Elena Dementieva (0-1-3) - retired

With the late draw and start of play, I'll post the Miami picks later. And, since I didn't want to crowd it so close to the updated "All-Backspin Team," I'll be posting the previously-promised "All-Time Anti-Backspin Team" during THIS tournament.

All for now.


Blogger jo shum said...

miami will be a nice challenge for vika, with proper field of her past conquerors in the same place. well, guess it's the luck of number 1, her draw looks pretty comfortable in first few rounds. i think she has a good chance of defending the title.

venus and petra in second round, i suspect it may turn out to be a much error sewn match...but i do like to see how ivanovic will flare agains kvitova.

sam and serena rematch! can't wait. this time if serena's been practicing, she might get her revenge from last us open.

caro is not getting anywhere far with her draw, definitely can't beat goerges or kim.

pova has a comfortable draw too, but doesn't matter, she won't beat vika anytime soon.

Mon Mar 19, 11:39:00 PM EDT  
Blogger rcm said...

I am really enjoying watching Vika. I don't get why people flip out over the "shrieking". I find the men's grunting much more distasteful. Sounds as though they are straining to accomplish a certain other "physical task". Vika's shorts? Finally some common sense. The men dropped the long pants without that much fuss. The "dress" thing is an anachronism. I'm hoping that as Vika continues to play well, and to bring out the best in her competition the focus will be more on the terrific tennis playing! Finally some consistent competitors in the women's game?

Tue Mar 20, 11:11:00 AM EDT  
Blogger Eric said...

Hi Todd,

I'm guessing the win-streak list starts in 2004? I think Serena had a 21 or 22 win streak to start 2003 and Venus had a 35? win streak in 2000...during summer of Venus Part 1??

You know, regarding scheduling...maybe it just seems like she's playing a lot of we've kind of been conditioned to players playing less recently...but really, she's just participated in the biggest tournaments in the schedule (besides sydney)...

But i agree...i guess djokovic lost steam as the year progressed too and it would be a shame if the same happened to vika...

@rcm - good point about the mens...exertions... :) but hey UFC is a huge sport too and no one seems to care about the obvious connotations...

Tue Mar 20, 01:06:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Diane said...

Did you all hear Pam Shriver bashing Vika's warmup ensemble before the Indian Wells final? I have no idea what that was about. If it comes out of Shriver's mouth, though, it's either something ridiculous or something glorious!

Tue Mar 20, 05:41:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Todd.Spiker said...


Yeah, I think Azarenka has done well with her schedule so far. I don't know if she's scheduled to defend her Marbella title or not, but that'd probably be one that'd be best to skip.

I just went back and used the notes I've kept for recent seasons. I didn't want to go back too far for "recent." :)


Awl, I missed that "Whack-a-Vika" moment. Truthfully, if she continues to play like she has been, she could play in a Bozo the Clown outfit and it'd be hard to criticize it too much. :)

(Well, as long as she didn't wear the big shoes.)

Tue Mar 20, 06:20:00 PM EDT  

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