Wk.7- V is for Viktory
"V" is for victory, as well as the unnecessary-but-still-annoyingly-needed vindication of one Victoria Azarenka.
In Doha, even while she was nit-picked by television commentators (hard to believe, huh?) and trumped in the headlines by Serena Williams, who'd managed to swipe her #1 ranking even before the world's top two players met in the final, Azarenka proved that the "Vikification" of the WTA tour is still an ongoing process. While Vika dropped to #2 in the rankings today, that fact in no way diminishes the fact that she was lifting a championship trophy on Sunday, having shown herself more than capable of standing up against the greatest force in the game and emerging in triumph, defeating Williams 7-6(6)/2-6/6-3 to defend her title in Qatar.
After showing her mettle in what has often been a crazily harsh spotlight in the early stages of this 2013 season, one thing has become clear. Azarenka, while still capable of being on the bad end of a beating by Serena (like any other human, great or small, on the tennis court) and an antagonistic media, has blossomed into the long-time perceived and current ACTUAL #1's only real rival on the WTA tour. No other player can legitimately enter a match with Williams and honestly harbor a belief, even if Serena is in anything resembling "decent" form (factoring in that the "quality spectrum" range of Williams' play is a widely-divergent, constantly-changing puzzle, even in her late-career renaissance), that she has a real chance to win if she can hold herself and her game together.
In the Doha final, as was the case in several of her outings over the course of the week, Serena, battling the flu, wasn't quite 100%. Starting slowly, she gathered steam as the match progressed, only to rise and fall on the in-and-out strength of her first serve. But her form was "decent," and not any sort of reason to discredit Azarenka's accomplishment. The level of Vika's play, too, was of the shifting-scale variety. She went up an early break in the third game of the 1st set, after failing to convert a break point in the first, on a Williams double-fault, but saw Serena get back on serve at 4-4. After having come within two points on multiple occasions of dropping the set, Vika grabbed a 5-2 lead in the tie-break. But a Williams ace, Azarenka DF and error soon gave Serena a set point at 6-5.
But then Azarenka seized her opportunity, rushing the net into the teeth of the Williams game and forcing an error on a passing attempt to get to 6-6. A backhand return winner put Vika up 7-6, then a great defensive save was followed by a wide shot from Serena that handed the TB to Azarenka. Serena had just a 54% 1st serve percentage in the set, winning (a low for her) 68% of those points. Four Williams DF (to 3 aces) added to her total of 26 unforced errors to Azarenka's 12.
In the 2nd, the stats flipped. While Williams slid and did the semi-splits -- going plop on her rear end -- after attempting to chase down an Azarenka drop shot at the net, she mostly controlled the action, taking the set at 6-2 with a 20-9 advantage in winners, while it was Vika with the 39% 1st serve percentage.
Azarenka grabbed a quick lead in the 3rd, breaking for 2-0 and then saving break point to get a crucial hold for a 3-0 lead. Up 4-2, Azarenka saw Serena challenge a sideline call. It went her way and made the score 15/15 rather than 30/love in Vika's favor. The "crazy kid" Azarenka -- and maybe the Vika vs. Sloane in Melbourne one, too -- might have let the change rattle her, but this one didn't. Instead, she put it behind her (after falling down 15/30, as she did several times in this match, she simply slapped a ball with her racket, and that was that). Azarenka pulled off an overhead shot off a Williams lob, then saw Serena push out her attempt at a winner as Azarenka went up 40/30 and then held for 5-2. Perhaps with the memory of being unable to serve out the U.S. Open final against Williams in her mind, Azarenka tried to end things with her great return game. A big return got her to a match point on Williams' serve, but then Vika failed to challenge a 1st serve (replays showed it long) on which her return had sailed long and erased the MP, even after a long look at the line. Williams went on to hold, and the memory of the moment might have lingered had Azarenka not quickly grabbed control on her service game while serving for the title at 5-3. Instead, she went up 40/love and made the game sort of routine. It finally ended two points later when Williams sprayed a return. Serena would soon be #1, but Vika was the champion.
Rivalry. Officially. On.
The only other member of the tour's current "elite" under consideration for a "rivalry" with Williams, unless the Petra Kvitova we saw in Doha continues to round into form and re-joins the discussion, would be #3 Maria Sharapova. But she hasn't beaten Williams in nine years, and rarely ever gets close when they play. Factoring in the Russian's quick exit at the hands of Serena in this weekend's semifinal, Sharapova hasn't taken a set off her since 2008. In the five matches they've played since 2011, she's averaged just 3.4 games won in each set.
Before Sunday, Azarenka, too, had had little "end game" success against Serena. She'd lost nine straight matches to Williams, and was 1-11 against her in career meetings. A dominating number, but one not nearly as such in reality, especially on hard court. She beat Williams (though she was somewhat hobbled by injury in that one) in Miami in '09, months after having to retire due to the heat after winning the opening set against Serena in Melbourne. A year later at the Australian Open, Azarenka led 6-4/4-0 before Williams staged one of her patented comebacks. Then, at last year's U.S. Open, Vika led Serena 5-3 in the 3rd set of the final, and served for the title at 5-4, only to crumble just enough to allow Williams to climb back and pick up the large cache of ranking points that ultimately led to Azarenka losing her #1 ranking today.
Of course, as was the case last year when Sharapova took away Vika's top spot for a month during the spring, Azarenka might not be out of #1 for long. If she reaches the final in Dubai and doesn't see Serena on the other side of the net, she can take back her computer crown. If Serena's there, she'd have to beat her again to do it. Sure, considering Williams' history, that'd probably be an unlikely outcome... but, of all the players on tour, Vika's the one that would at least have a SHOT to do it.
No matter what comes next, what began thirteen months ago in Melbourne continues. Sure, there were still whispers and shouts in Doha about the happenings in Melbourne. At this point, although it's still a hassle to listen to, so what? There was still an umpire putting Azarenka in a no-win situation by consulting her on a line call for her opponent, too, and the "vultures" perched to attack whichever decision she'd make -- even after it was to make no decision at all. And let's not even get into Tennis Channel announcers harping on whether or not Vika is loved by her fellow players (So what if she is or isn't? It hasn't exactly hampered Sharapova's career that she's usually kept the rest of the tour at arm's length), or whether or not it was unsporting for Azarenka to raise her hand a few times to slow down Serena's serving rhythm during the final. Never mind the fact if Andre Agassi had done such a thing during his playing days -- and I'm pretty sure he did -- it'd been called a "genius" tactical maneuver, while with Azarenka it's worthy of raised eyebrows and accusations. But, also, let's not drag Williams into the fray and essentially declare -- as Brett Haber and Ashley Harkleroad did -- that she must have some animosity against Azarenka simply because she mentioned the "tactic" to the chair umpire. Pretty please. Not because Vika should be given a pass when it comes to such inspection, but just because it diminishes EVERYONE involved.
Yeah, I know. Good luck with that.
*WEEK 7 CHAMPIONS*
DOHA, QATAR (Premier $2.369m/HCO)
S: Victoria Azarenka/BLR def. Serena Williams/USA 7-6(6)/2-6/6-3
D: Errani/Vinci (ITA/ITA) d. Petrova/Srebotnik (RUS/SLO)
CALI, COLOMBIA (WTA $125K/RCO)
S: Lara Arruabarrena-Vecino/ESP def. Catalina Castano/COL 6-3/6-2
D: Castano/Duque-Marino (COL/COL) d. Molinero/Pereira (ARG/BRA)
PLAYER OF THE WEEK: Victoria Azarenka/BLR
...#1 ranking or #2 ranking, the best hard court player in the world simply went about contining to build her own personally funky empire in Doha. All Vika did was get a win over new-#1 Serena, #4 Agnieszka Radwanska as well as Top 10er Sara Errani, and threw in a double-bagel defeat of Christina "Stepping Stone" McHale in windy conditions for good measure. She only lost one set all week (to Serena, of course), and erased at least a few memories of her failure at last year's U.S. Open when she finally served out a match in the 3rd against Williams. One year after starting her season by winning twenty-six straight matches, Azarenka has won all fourteen she's played this year. And with her every move, sound, facial expression and bounce of a tennis ball under constant and intense examination every second she's on (and off) court, one can make a strong case that this run might be even more impression than the one from twelve months ago. After all, after Vika rose into the #1 spot on the heels of a handful of players who either couldn't handle the pressure of the position or were slam underachievers, she onto it for nearly a full year, reached a slam final in NYC, and has already defended two very large titles (one a slam) this season while being hounded at every turn. Many have tried to knock Azarenka off the rails with many string-less weapons, but she's managed to come back at her detractors with precisely what she SHOULD -- big victories on actual courts. Wins in the court of public opinion might be elusive for Azarenka for still some time, but as long as she takes care of business where it really matters, the nattering nabobs of negativism won't be able to put Vika into any corners. Nobody puts Vika in a corner (well, except for Serena on one of THOSE days). And while many may continue to try, it shouldn't go unnoticed that the tactics seem to have helped to only make Azarenka stronger. Whoops.
RISERS: Sara Errani & Roberta Vinci, ITA/ITA
...it seems as if Errani & Vinci are taking to heart their claim (and ranking) as the very best doubles pair in the world. After coming from behind to defeat the Williams Sisters in Melbourne and take an Australian Open title last month, surging back from a 4-0 deficit against Groenefeld/Peschke in the 3rd set tie-break to win 11-9 and advance to the final, then winning a 10-6 deciding tie-break there against Petrova/Srebotnik (who beat the Italian in the Sydney final in Week 2) likely seems like "child's play." Errani & Vinci, along with getting Team Italia's clinching Fed Cup win a week ago, have now reached four consecutive finals in 2013, and their win in Doha stretches their title streak to three.
SURPRISE: Catalina Castano/COL
...the 33-year old received a wild card into the WTA $125K Challenger in Cali, Colombia and rode that and home nation crowd support to wins over Nina Bratchikova, Sesil Karatantcheva and Elina Svitolina to reach her first tour level final (though whether these 125 tournaments will ultimately be viewed as "full" tour events is still a question) since 2005 in Budapest. She also teamed with fellow Colombian Mariana Duque-Marino to take the doubles, the second title (w/ Bastad '12) shared between the two.
VETERANS: Serena Williams/USA
...naturally, Serena has to get a mention here. Even with her loss in the final, she was assured of climbing back into the #1 ranking today for the first time since 2010 as soon as she successfully completed a comeback from 4-1 down in the 3rd against Petra Kvitova in the quarterfinals. She added yet another win over Maria Sharapova before the three-set loss to Vika. It's Williams' sixth move into the #1 spot, and at 31 she's the oldest woman to ever spend time there (she'd already become the fourth-oldest when she was last #1 at age 29). Meanwhile, Kuznetsova's return from her injury-marred '12 campaign continues. In Doha, she got wins over Bethanie Mattek-Sands and Marion Bartoil, and on Monday in Dubai (where she's reached the final three times) she qualified for the main draw by geting a Q3 round win over Anabel Medina-Garrigues.
COMEBACKS: Caroline Wozniacki/DEN & Paula Ormaechea/ARG
...sure, the biggest Wozniacki headline in Doha centered around her father, but that doesn't mean her QF run there should be overlooked. She got good wins over Sorana Cirstea and Mona Barthel, and had a shot to push A-Rad (leading 3-1 and 4-2 in the 2nd set, and serving at 5-3) in their final eight match-up. She lost in straights, dropping to 6-19 in career matches against Top 5 players, but Doha was still something for the Dane to build upon. Ormaechea had to retire due to injury from a crucial Fed Cup match last weekend during Argentina's loss -- from 2-0 up -- to Sweden in World Group II play. But she rebounded well in Cali. The world #195 got wins over Maria-Teresa Torro-Flor, Estrella Candela-Cabeza and Alexandra Panova to reach the semifinals, the 20-year old's best-ever result at an tournament as large as the $125K WTA Challenger series event.
FRESH FACE: Lara Arruabarrena-Vecino/ESP
...a year ago this week, then-teenager Arruabarrena-Vecino claimed her first tour level singles title in Bogota. This past weekend in Cali, she grabbed her second, albeit at the first of the tour's 2013 three-event $125K Challenger series. In Colombia, the 20-year old Spaniard notched wins over Chiara Scholl, defending champ (when the tournament was a $100K ITF event) Alexandra Dulgheru, Teliana Pereira, Paula Ormaechea and Colombian crowd fave Catalina Castano in the final.
DOWN: Sloane Stephens/USA
...Current Sloane hasn't exactly found smooth sailing since her Australian Open run/"preview" as Future Sloane. In Doha, she lost in the 2nd Round to Klara Zakopalova despite twice serving for the match, being up a break in the 3rd set on three occasions, and holding four match points. Then, today in Dubai against Sorana Cirstea, she led 7-5/3-1 but ended up losing in three sets.
ITF PLAYER: Julia Kimmelmann/GER
...already with the ITF website spotlighting her for her work in January, the 19-year old German (#440) is weaving some magic in February, as well. In a $10K in Leiman, Germany (the hometown of Boris Becker), Kimmelmann defeated Turkey's Pemra Ozgen in the final to grab her circuit-best third crown of '13 (6th career) and run her season record to 23-1.
JUNIOR STAR: Barbara Haas/AUT
...the 16-year old Austrian reached the final of the $10K challenger in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt, losing to Russian Marina Shamayko.
1. Doha Final - Azarenka d. S.Williams
...7-6/2-6/6-3. Sure, a touch of the good could be erased if she were to lose to Serena in Dubai at the end of this week, but that she stared down and outlasted Williams here should be enough to stoke Azarenka's confidence for much of the rest of this season.
2. Doha 3rd Rd - Kvitova d. Petrova
...4-6/6-3/6-4. Maybe Kvitova learned something from her Fed Cup comebacks, after all. She won from 6-4/3-1 down here, saving five break points at 2-3 in the 2nd and holding at the end of a four-deuce game. She was also down 3-1 in the 3rd. Oh, Nadia. Oh, Petra!
3. Doha QF - S.Williams d. Kvitova
...3-6/6-3/7-5. Though she was only up a single break, Kvitova led 4-1 in the 3rd. Of course, there's no shame in losing to Serena when she gathers herself in the late stages of a match, as she did here. It's just what she does. You know, like hitting an ace on match point. Yep, she did that here, as well.
4. Doha 2nd Rd - Zakopalova d. Stephens
...4-6/7-6(5)/7-6(5). Four match points. We need that time machine. Stat!
5. Cali Final - Arruabarrena-Vecino d. Castano
...6-3/6-2. It's somehow comforting to be seeing Spanish women winning titles on the red clay again, don't you think?
6. Doha 2nd Rd - Barthel d. Kerber
...6-1/6-2. Kerber was 0-for-7 on break point attempts in the 2nd set.
7. Doha 3rd - Wozniacki d. Barthel
...7-6/6-3. Of course, the story here was Piotr Wozniacki arguing with the chair umpire after she'd overruled a call, then getting his way when she reversed the call and re-played the point. Somehow, he wasn't ushered away from his seat. Oh, and another thing -- is right behind the chair umpire really a good place for a player's coaches and friends to be positioned during a match?
8. Doha SF - Azarenka d. A.Radwanska 6-3/6-3
Doha SF - S.Williams d. Sharapova 6-3/6-2
...Vika was 6-0 against A-Rad in 2012, and '13 isn't getting off on a much better foot for Aga, either. Meanwhile, Serena has now beaten Sharapova ten straight times over the last nine seasons.
HM- Dubai 1st Rd - Putintseva d. Robson
...6-4/2-6/7-6(6).. A good win today for the young Russian-turned-Kazakh.
1. Doha 1st Rd - U.Radwanska d. N.Kichenok 6-2/6-0
Doha 2nd Rd - A.Radwanska d. An.Rodionova 6-3/6-2
...the Radwanskas kept running into other WTA sisters in Doha.
2. Doha 3rd - S.Williams d. U.Radwanska
...6-0/6-3. Some were more potent than others.
**OLDEST WTA SINGLES #1's**
31 years, 5 months - SERENA WILLIAMS (February '13)
30 years, 11 months - Chris Evert (November '85)
30 years, 10 months - Martina Navratilova (August '87)
29 years, 7 months - Lindsay Davenport (June '06)
29 years, 2 weeks - Serena Williams (October '10)
**WTA FINALS (active), 2011-13**
16...VICTORIA AZARENKA (11-5)
13...Maria Sharapova (5-8)
12...SERENA WILLIAMS (10-2)
12...Caroline Wozniacki (8-4)
10...Agnieszka Radwanska (8-2)
9...Petra Kvitova (8-1)
9...Li Na (4-5)
**2013 WTA SF**
3...VICTORIA AZARENKA (2-0+L)
3...Mona Barthel (2-1)
3...Li Na (2-1)
3...AGNIESZKA RADWANSKA (2-1)
2...SERENA WILLIAMS (1-0+W)
2...MARIA SHARAPOVA (0-2)
2...Sloane Stephens (0-2)
**CAREER (active) TIER I + $2m+ PREMIER TITLES**
NOTE: Safina (5)
**RECENT #1 vs. #2 MATCH-UPS**
2010 WTA Championship SF - #1 Wozniacki d. #2 Zvonareva
2012 Indian Wells Final - #1 Azarenka d. #2 Sharapova
2012 Stuttgart Final - #2 Sharapova d. #1 Azarenka
2012 Beijing Final - #1 Azarenka d. #2 Sharapova
2012 WTA Championship SF - #2 Sharapova d. #1 Azarenka
2013 Doha Final - #1 Azarenka d. #2 S.Williams
DUBAI, UAE (Premier $2.0m/hard outdoor)
12 Final: A.Radwanska d. Goerges
12 Doubles Champions: Huber/Raymond
13 Top Seeds: Azarenka/S.Williams
#1 Azarenka d. #7 Stosur
#2 S.Williams d. #6 Kvitova
#2 S.Williams d. #1 Azarenka
...I mean, wouldn't the odds be in favor of this outcome?
BOGOTA, COLOMBIA (Int'l $235K/red clay outdoor)
12 Final: Arruabarrena-Vecino d. Panova
12 Doubles Champions: Birnerova/Panova
13 Top Seeds: Jankovic/Cornet
Arruabarrena-Vecino d. #1 Jankovic
#2 Cornet d. #4 Schiavone
#2 Cornet d. Arruabarrena-Vecino
...Pennetta makes her long-awaited comeback in this event, by the way. Who's in favor of an "old school" final between Flavia and Francesca? It would probably be a "last of its kind."
MEMPHIS, TENNESSEE USA (Int'l $235K/hard indoor)
12 Final: Arvidsson d. Erakovic
12 Doubles Champions: Hlavackova/Hradecka
13 Top Seeds: Flipkens/Arvidsson
Davis d. (Q) Keys
#2 Arvidsson d. #4 Watson
#2 Arvidsson d. Davis
...surprising things sometimes happen in this one (hence, Davis and Keys, the latter of which plays Lisicki in the 1st Round), but Arvidsson has been in the final three times and has won both of her two career titles here. A rematch of the '12 final could take place in the 2nd Round, though.
All for now.