Monday, March 18, 2013

Wk.11- Indian Wells Serves up a Sugar Rush (& a Caro High)

Was that an earthquake that occurred in Indian Wells? Well, yeah. But it was also the sound of Maria Sharapova breezing through town, taking a handful of scalps with her on her way out.

One of those aforementioned victims in the California desert was former #1 Caroline Wozniacki, who the Russian put down rather forcefully by a 6-2/6-2 score in the final. While Sharapova was the WTA tour's sugary star of the past two weeks, Wozniacki's re-introduction to the late-rounds of a big stage event was nearly as noteworthy.

Since the last quarter of 2012, when she ended an uncharacteristically long title drought with wins in Seoul and Moscow, Wozniacki has been sporting a more and more "Caro 2.0" -- well, 2.0-ish -- look. Finally recognizing, though more than a tad late, that she had to make a few changes in her game if she was going to re-ascend the WTA ladder and, maybe, one day contend for the elusive slam title that eluded her while she was ranked #1 for 67 weeks from 2010-12, the Dane has slowly but surely reacted -- though she likely wouldn't admit to that, and would instead assert that she came to the conclusion herself, with the usual assist from Piotr -- to all the criticism of her "pusher," "too-defensive" game style that simply wasn't enough to claim major titles, no matter her ranking. Some of the changes came about during the coaching stint of Thomas Johansson, since left by the side of the road in favor of her long-time coaching arrangement with her father. But many of the Swede's talking points linger. And Caro's shown progress, too. The new service stance. The lessened racket tension (10 lbs.) that has given a bit more pop to her shots. The new willingness, at least against players whose games are conducive to it (C-Woz used to just blow by them with her usual game, never seeking to try new things in order to develop a more aggressive mindset that might help her down the road when she faced bigger-hitting, more accomplished players), to move forward and aggressively push the issue occasionally during points. Having come into '13 as fit as a proverbial fiddle, more so than she's ever been in her career, even Wozniacki's speed and defense have been positively effected. It's all gotten her back into the Top 10 (she just inched up to #9), and her Indian Wells final run was her best result in a tournament so big since she won the title there in 2011.

Does this mean that Wozniacki is back in the slam conversation? Um, well... no. Of course not. But after putting up her two worst slam results ever last summer (back-to-back 1st Round exits at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open), she's at least looking like a solid quarterfinalist (or maybe a round better, with a good draw) at the remaining majors this season (she reached the 4th Round in Melbourne). She's (mostly) playing, looking and sounding like a player who wants to be #1 rather than a player who was #1 once, as she did all of last season. But the sort of cat-and-mouse, more varied "chess" moves -- defense, drops, some forward momentum and even, uh, some moonballs, too -- that work against the likes of lesser players, or even highly-ranked ones like Angelique Kerber (the Dane's semifinal opponent) who have similar games to Wozniacki's, still doesn't really push Caro past a top-tier power player in good form, as Sharapova was on Sunday. Sharapova is the sort of roadblock that stands in the way of a player like Wozniacki come slam time, and there are normally multiple versions of the Russian in her path to a possible title, too... and not all of them have extra sample packages of Sugarpova in their tennis bags, either. Against an on-her-game Sharapova, the power coming at her from the other side of the net didn't give Wozniacki the time to pull off the shots she could in earlier rounds, and when the opportunities did present themselves she wasn't in the correct mindset to attempt to really take advantage of them. "Today there wasn't time for chess," the Dane admitted afterward.

While Wozniacki has improved, so has the top of the women's game. The 1.0 Wozniacki of a few years ago that was ranked #1 probably wouldn't have a far different ranking from the Wozniacki of today if that Dane could be dropped via time machine onto the 2012-2013 WTA landscape. Serena is back. Vika has risen. And a post-shoulder surgery Sharapova has become a more consistent server and improved mover than the one that Wozniacki handled 3 & 4 and 1 & 2 in hard court matches at the '10 U.S. Open and I.W. in '11. While that Dane might not be as successful now, if the 2.0-ish version could be placed back into the 2009-10 mix she might have actually won a slam or two. Wozniacki was told a while ago about the "luck" of timing, but she steadfastly (naively, or overconfidently?) stated that she "had time" to become the slam champ that everyone was trying to push her to become. She might understand now what she was being told then, and has reacted accordingly. Better late than never, I guess. Maybe her time will come around again. If it does, maybe she'll be better prepared for it.

Sunday wasn't one of those times.

When Sharapova opened the final by breaking the Dane at love, you sort of knew what was coming. Wozniacki had just two break points of her own on Sharapova's serve all day (she went 0-for-2), while the Russian outdistanced her by an almost obscene 33-2 advantage in winners. It was the fitting ending to a two-week tournament in which Maria was the star -- well, maybe #1b behind Rafa, when all was said and done -- of the hard courts in the desert. Truthfully, it's been a while since Sharapova has been able to close the deal on HC, the very surface that was her best prior to her '08 shoulder surgery. Before her career flashed before her eyes nearly five years ago, the '06 Indian Wells champ was 13-6 in hard court finals, but came to I.W. having gone 2-9 in them since, including 1-8 in her previous nine, and 0-6 since she last won a HC title in Cincinnati in 2011. Since the surgery, while she's slowly struggled to make her service game a consistent part of her attack again, she's still not been able to control matches with it like she did from 2004-08 when she banked a pair of hard court slam championships. Thing is, somewhat like Wozniacki, Sharapova has had to improve the parts of her game that used to be wanting in order to make up the difference, giving her the improved all-around game that has made her a post-surgery force on clay, which used to be her worst surface. While still not the tour's best mover on court, she's greatly improved her court coverage, as well as allowed her groundstrokes to become her "new serve," so far as them serving as the epicenter from which her game resonates. If she serves well, too, then she's capable of blowing players off the court without mercy (see the first half of January's Australian Open). If not, she can still find a way to muddle through and win against just about everyone, save Serena and Azarenka.

Speaking of the AO, we saw a preview there of the sort of player Sharapova could still ultimately become again on hard courts. At still just nearly 26, she's striving to get better, and the poaching of former Li Na coach Thomas Hogstedt at the start of 2011 has proven to be a true career-reviving move. For the clay, and maybe now on hard court. Indian Wells was Sharapova's first title of any kind since winning Roland Garros last spring, and it moved her past an injured Azarenka -- who easily defeated Maria in last year's final -- into the #2 position in the rankings. But Sharapova doesn't really care about numbers like that anymore. Like any future Hall of Famer, she's more worried about padding the career slam resume that had "Career Grand Slam winner" added to it in 2012.

While it was Maria's power that kept Wozniacki at bay and reacting defensively most of the time (ask Serena about that, as she's never forgotten the '04 Wimbledon final, nor let Maria do so, either), it was one of the few moments when the Dane did have time to play a little chess that was maybe the Russian's most impressive. Looking to move a well-behind-the-baseline Sharapova into the net, formerly a sure-fire way to win an "easy" point against her, Wozniacki pulled off a nice drop shot into the far corner of the ad service box. But it was run down by the "speedy" (well, let's not get carried away... I'll just say she's no longer slow, nor nearly as awkward-looking running towad the net as she used to be) Sharapova, who then used a wonderful slice backhand into the corner that spun away from the Dane and made Wozniacki scramble and stretch to get a racket on the ball, which Sharapova then put away for an easy winner. That was a point played by the same player who looked ready to win Melbourne about two months ago, but somehow didn't.

Oh, well. She still has Paris. And maybe London and New York, too.

S: Maria Sharapova/RUS def. Caroline Wozniacki/DEN 6-2/6-2
D: Makarova/Vesnina (RUS/RUS) d. Petrova/Srebotnik (RUS/SLO)


March 16, 2013 - Source: Matthew Stockman/Getty Images North America
...her Indian Wells win gives her at least one title in eleven consecutive seasons, a streak bettered only by players named Steffi (14 years), Chris (18) and Martina (a ridiculous 21... so you know I'm not talking about the Martina who was just elected to the HOF and then drafted by the two-time defending WTT champion Washington Kastles to replace Serena this summer). After week one wins over Schiavone and Suarez-Navarro, last week Sharapova knocked out Lara Arruabarrena-Vecino, Sara Errani, and Maria Kirilenko before wiping away Caro in the final. Though Errani held SP against her, and Kirilenko held her own, Sharapova never dropped a set through six matches.
RISERS: Maria Kirilenko/RUS & Ekaterina Makarova/Elena Vesnina (RUS/RUS)
...Kirilenko continues to be the best later-blooming Hordette on the WTA tour. At 26, she still hasn't managed to match the eight career titles won by former (even while she's still technically an active player) contemporary Anna Chakvetadze, but her title earlier this year in Pattaya WAS her sixth, though her first in over four years. At Indian Wells, the Russian put up a pair of Top 10 wins -- over A-Rad and Kvitova -- to reach the semifinals and inch a little bit closer (she's #13, 1134 points behind ranking-falling #10 Sam Stosur) to becoming the twelfth Russian to crack the WTA's singles Top 10 during her career. If it happens, she'd become the first Hordette to get her initial breakthrough since 2007 when, you guessed it, Chakvetadze accomplished the feat. Meanwhile, Kirilenko's countrywomen took the I.W. doubles crown. Makarova & Vesnina, both doubles Top 10ers, grabbed their third career title as a duo after managing to survive the massacre of so many high seeds during the tournament's first week. It's Vesnina's third career title just at Indian Wells, having won in '08 and '11 with Dinara Safina and Sania Mirza, respectively.
SURPRISE: Reka-Luca Jani/HUN
...come on, all together now. "Reka-Luca Jani! Reka-Luca Jani! Reka-Luca Jani!" That's three big cheers for the 21-year Hungarian, who claimed her circuit lead-tying third challenger crown of the season this weekend in a $10K in Madrid. Sporting a 24-3 record thus far in '13, Jani defeated Sofiya Kovalets in a 6-1/6-0 final. Go get 'em, RLJ.
VETERANS: Samantha Stosur/AUS & Nadia Petrova/Katarina Srebotnik (RUS/SLO)
...after an horrendous start to her season that saw her drop six of her first nine matches, Slingin' Sammy Stosur has finally started to gain a little '13 traction of late. Indian Wells wins over Madison Keys, Peng Shuai and Mona Barthel put the Aussie into the QF. She's put up a 5-1 record in her last six matches. But, naturally, Stosur being Stosur, a calf injury forced her into a walkover in her intended match-up with Angelique Kerber in the side of the draw that also saw Vika pull out on the same day. Look on the bright side, though -- after getting some traction, at least Sam didn't end up IN traction. Small victories. In doubles, THE stars of the season have been Sara Errani & Roberta Vinci. But don't forget about Petrova & Srebotnik. The veterans' I.W. final run is their fourth of 2013, including in their last three events. Thing is, after winning in Sydney in Week 2, they've lost all three of those finals. Oh, Nadia. Oh, Katarina.
COMEBACKS: Caroline Wozniacki/DEN & Angelique Kerber/GER
...rebounding from her recent upset at the hands of Wang Qiang, Wozniacki worked her way into her first final of 2013 at Indian Wells with some impressive wins over Alize Cornet (in 3 sets), Elena Vesnina, Nadia Petrova and Angelique Kerber. She beat the German in an interesting three-setter that'll probably be best remembered for a series of shots by both players that might have taken out some low-flying birds inside the stadium.

(moonball break)

Of course, Caro managed to avoid having to face Vika Azarenka in the QF after the top seed and defending champ pulled out with an ankle injury and the Dane was awarded a walkover (thus, the Belarusian is still 17-0 in actual matches played in '13, but with two fairly large asterisks next to her totals due to a pair of toe/foot/ankle-related walkovers).

(here we go again... moonball break)

Meanwhile, Kerber continues to play rather than rest her lingering back injury. Still, she got I.W. wins over Irina-Camelia Begu, Yanina Wickmayer, and Garbine Muguruza before falling to Caro in the SF. It's the German's best result in more than two months, but you have to wonder if she'll eventually realize that maybe it would have been wiser to simply take a week or two off and get fully healthy heading into the clay court season.
FRESH FACE: Marcela Zacarius/MEX
...Zacarius, 18, won her first ITF title of the season in the $10K challenger in Metepec, Mexico. This is the teenager's third career circuit title earned in her native country. This time out, she notched a win over countrywoman Ana Sofia Sanchez before taking out Nicole Rottman of Austria by a score of 6-1/6-1 in the final. Zacarius had a shot at a title sweep, but she and Laura Pigossi lost in the doubles final to Rottman and Macall Harkins.
DOWN: Petra Kvitova/CZE
...hmmm, Kvitova plays without her coach in tow in the Middle East and she emerges as a self-sufficient, sometimes-dominating champion who resembles the Czech who took Wimbledon by storm two years ago. She comes to California, coach attached at hip, and proceeds to once again implode in the middle of a match and go down in a dishonorable blaze of un-glory in the Indian Wells quarterfinals. Is this one of those "if it looks like a duck, it's a duck" situations?
ITF PLAYER: Stephanie Vogt/LIE
...the 23-year old from Liechtenstein has now strung together back-to-back ITF challenger title runs, with the second coming this weekend in a $15K challenger in Bath in which Vogt defeated young Waffle An-Sophie Mestach in the final.
JUNIOR STAR: Louisa Chirico/USA
...recently, Chirico, 16, made it through qualifying in the $25K challenger in Surprise, Arizona, knocking off Jarmila Gajdosova and reaching the final. Last week, back on the junior circuit, she won the G1 level Banana Bowl in Brazil, defeating Italy's Alice Matteucci to secure the title.

1. IW QF - Kirilenko d. Kvitova
Kvitova served at 6-4/4-3, threw in four consecutive double faults in a game in the 2nd set and had thirteen for the match. At 2-3 in the 3rd, the Czech had consecutive DF's and found herself down 4-2. And the Big 3 stays the Big 3.
2. IW Final - Sharapova d. Wozniacki
Sharapova last won in Indian Wells in 2006, almost six months before her "Exquisite in the City" run on the hard court at Flushing Meadows. If Wozniacki had won she'd have tied Pam Shriver for the most career titles (21) in WTA history without having won a slam singles crown.
3. IW SF - Wozniacki d. Kerber
Caro was down...

a set and 2-0 here.
4. $15K Bath QF - Stevenson d. Kimmelmann
Yes, THAT Alexandra Stevenson, now 32 and fourteen years removed from her 1999 Wimbledon semifinal run as a qualifier. Ranked #508, she handily took out Julia Kimmelmann, who's arguably been the best player on the ITF circuit so far in 2013. The German is tied for the ITF lead with three titles with RLJ and Tara Moore, while Stevenson's only professional singles title came in a challenger back in 1998.
5. IW QF - Sharapova d. Errani
Errani had set points in the 1st.
HM- IW QF - Wozniacki walkover Azarenka
IW QF - Kerber walkover Stosur
the fans on the grounds at Indian Wells find out what it feels like to be a WTA fan "watching" back home during this tournament. "Hey, where are the women's matches?"

1. IW 4th Rd - Azarenka d. U.Radwanska
Vika defeats a Radwanska, then pulls out of the tournament with an injury before her next match. Hmmm. Coincidence?
2. IW 4th Rd - Kirilenko d. A.Radwanska
After a 20-1 start (with her "unofficial" FC zone wins), A-Rad has gone 3-3 since.

21...Martina Navratilova, 1974-94
18...Chris Evert, 1971-88
14...Steffi Graf, 1986-99
11...MARIA SHARAPOVA, 2003-13
11...Evonne Goolagong, 1970-80
11...Virginia Wade, 1968-78

**WTA FINALS - 2011-13**
16...Victoria Azarenka (11-5)
12...Serena Williams (10-2)
10...Petra Kvitova (9-1)
10...Agnieszka Radwanska (8-2)

28...MARIA SHARAPOVA, 2003-13
16...Elena Dementieva, 2003-10
13...Svetlana Kuznetsova, 2002-10
13...Nadia Petrova, 2005-12
12...Vera Zvonareva, 2003-11
12...Dinara Safina, 2002-09
10...Anastasia Myskina, 1999-05
9...Olga Morozova, 1969-75
8...Anna Chakvetadze, 2006-10

21...Pam Shriver
19...Manuela Maleeva-Fragniere
19...Nancy Richey
16...Elena Dementieva

4...Errani/Vinci, Jan-Feb (3-1)
3...PETROVA/SREBOTNIK, Feb-Mar (1-3)*
* - active streak

31...Martina Navratilova
30...Steffi Graf
17...Martina Hingis
12...Serena Williams*
11...Lindsay Davenport
11...Chris Evert
11...Gabriela Sabatini
10...Justine Henin
* - active

14. Kim Clijsters (41)
15. Conchita Martinez (33)
16. Tracy Austin (30)
17. Arantxa Sanchez Vicario (29)
19t. Hana Mandlikova (27)
19t. Gabriela Sabatini (27)
21. Amelie Mauresmo (25)
22. Jana Novotna (24)

MIAMI, FLORIDA (Premier $5.185m/hard outdoor)
12 Final: A.Radwanska d. Sharapova
12 Doubles Champions: Kirilenko/Petrova
13 Top Seeds: S.Williams/Azarenka

=Round of 16=
#1 S.Williams d. #18 Cibulkova
#8 Wozniacki d. #6 Li
#18 V.Williams d. #4 A.Radwanska
#10 Bartoli d. #7 Kvitova
#8 Errani d. #12 Ivanovic
#3 Sharapova d. #14 Kirilenko
#11 Petrova d. #6 Kerber
#2 Azarenka d. Hampton

...rematches galore, including Sharapova/Kirilenko and Azarenka/Hampton (if Vika actually plays, that is). Venus over Sloane into the 4th Round, as Stephens might have a shot at the rare double (in the 3rd Round) of defeating BOTH Sisters in the same season. Another possible interesting 3rd Rounder -- Petrova vs. JJ in the "All-Ricardo S., I Don't Know Any Ricardo S." Bowl! And welcome back, Na. Finally.

#1 S.Williams d. #8 Wozniacki
#10 Bartoli d. #18 V.Williams
#3 Sharapova d. #8 Errani
#11 Petrova d. #2 Azarenka

...just because I have doubts that Vika will even play, and I don't want it to screw up these picks TOO much.

#1 S.Williams d. #10 Bartoli
#3 Sharapova d. #11 Petrova we go.

#1 S.Williams d. #3 Sharapova

...if Maria were to win this one and end her eight-year losing streak to Serena, then watch out.

Mid-Miami awards next week. All for now.


Blogger Eric said...

Okay, I realize this is a women's tennis blog...but srsly, all the people who say that Rafa is a sandbagger need to stop. When did it become a bad thing to be humble? He's a down-to-earth guy and he's appreciative of his good fortune. There's nothing wrong with that.

/end rant.

Mon Mar 18, 04:22:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Todd.Spiker said...

I agree. And, remember, if a player is thought to go too far in the other direction they get treated like Vika. Hard to win.

Mon Mar 18, 05:11:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Leif Mortensen said...

I think you are right about Caro 2.0 and nice to see you're pointing out the same improvements to her game as I. It's also nice that you brought the clip with the moonballs it's great fun for both the audience and tv viewers. It's the best match in IW IMHO this year. It's of course a fine win for Sharapova and nice to see her back on top again. Again a nice article from you - well done.

Mon Mar 18, 05:33:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Todd.Spiker said...


Thanks. And, yeah, all that was ever being asked of her was for her to try some new things. It took some time, but she finally "read the tea leaves." Maybe McIlroy's success spurred her to want to "take the (unofficial) lead" back from him? :)

Mon Mar 18, 05:42:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Eric said...

This is such a good article by Steve Tignor.

Mon Mar 18, 06:00:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Todd.Spiker said...

Updated post with Miami picks (was thinking that draw would come out later).

Mon Mar 18, 06:12:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Todd.Spiker said...

Eric -

Good one. In the end, the shoulder surgery that once looked like it might wreck or limit Sharapova's career legacy might end up being the moment that ultimately defines her career because of what she does AFTER it, and how persistent she was in her efforts to get back what she lost.

Mon Mar 18, 06:18:00 PM EDT  
Blogger jo shum said...

Sharapova has the nicest quarter , Serena and LI could be interesting. Vika, depending on her injury, her second round could be tough with big hitters like keys.

Tue Mar 19, 02:07:00 AM EDT  
Blogger Todd.Spiker said...

Hmmmm, an interesting "Backspin Flashback" HERE from when Azarenka took the Stanford title in August 2010. Even before she was anywhere close to being fully embraced by this space, I think it can be read between the lines that there was something inside the Belarusian that was going to be something that I could run with.

(Oh, and even back then I see that the notion of an A-Rad threat coming when no one was paying attention was lingering in the air. Ha!)

Ah, sometimes you don't even realize when you're foreshadowing the future. ;)

Wed Mar 20, 01:28:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Todd.Spiker said...

Interesting how things work out:

1) Lauren Davis loses in final Miami qualifying round to Mallory Burdette
2) Burdette loses 1st Round match to Magdalena Rybarikova
3) Vika withdraws and Davis replaces her in 2nd Round slot (w/ 1st Round bye) vs. Madison Keys
4) Keys holds 3 MP in 3rd set TB (at 6-3), but Davis ultimately wins on her own 2nd MP at 9-7

So, in this case, Davis was a REALLY "Lucky Loser."

Fri Mar 22, 10:50:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Todd.Spiker said...

And Stephens gets a walkover from Venus for an undetermined injury. Though, considering Venus' situation, that long match with Date-Krumm the other night probably spelled doom for her ability to get herself to this much-anticipated match.

Sat Mar 23, 05:03:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Diane said...

My understanding is that Venus has a lower back injury. Unfortunate, and now I wonder if she'll withdraw from Charleston.

Sun Mar 24, 01:01:00 AM EDT  
Blogger Leif Mortensen said...

Caro and Petra out. Caro met a better player and Petra might have had problems with the humidity. Heard some people chatting about an idea about turning this tournament into a clay event - good idea I think. But one thing WTA should demand before the next mandatory is a better TV coverage - 4 WTA and 11 ATP yesterday - that's not okay, and if I'm not remembering wrong Madrid is even worse. Come on WTA it's the tournaments under the slams! I think with what happens in Miami it's dangerzone because of a certain creatur - mark my words.

Sun Mar 24, 03:13:00 AM EDT  
Blogger jo shum said...

Kvitova....almost feels like Dubai doesn't count from her last 2 tournaments .,,,

Sun Mar 24, 08:32:00 AM EDT  
Blogger Todd.Spiker said...

Yeah, with Venus there are always so many possible ailments to choose from at this stage in her career.

Shhhh. It might hear. You-know-who IS the defending champ, after all.

Unfortunately, the same thing came to mind after she won the U.S. Open Series last summer, too. Of course, much of this is because of the high expectations created by Wimbledon, too.

Sun Mar 24, 01:31:00 PM EDT  
Blogger jo shum said...

For one set and half Maria was posed and for the third set she completely went away. My conclusion is that WTA players should never have on court coaching. You don't want to let your opponent knows that you are in any bit of discomfort. In this respect I love the attitude of vika in this 2 years, she once said she knew exactly what needs to be done. It's only about execution. I actually was looking forward to Maria finally beating Serena in 10 years. But I also was looking forward to Serena turning the tide around. It was entertaining for first 2 sets.

Sat Mar 30, 11:26:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Todd.Spiker said...

Of note, Williams' comeback prevented what could have been a rather interesting post-match discussion, and a similar one to those that normally find Serena on the other side of the equation than she would have been this time around. Remember, a loss in the Miami final to Sharapova would have meant that Serena would have recently lost finals on the court this year to both the current #3/AO winner Azarenka and #2 Sharapova, while herself being ranked ahead of them at #1 in spite of those results. Usually, it's Serena with the on-court victories but ranking-deficits, rather than the other way around.

It might have been interesting to see how people would have attempted to spin that one. ;)

Sun Mar 31, 12:28:00 AM EDT  

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