Monday, August 19, 2013

Wk.33- A Mini-Open in Microcosm?

If last week's action, both on and off court, in Cincinnati is any indication, the U.S. Open is going to be a must-see slam.

It's always tempting to try to get a read on the upcoming Open by examining the tournaments that lead up to the final slam of the year. Cincinnati was no exception. With a packed field, the last big get-together of the tour's top players before things shift to Flushing Meadows was ripe with drama:

Maria Sharapova was bounced by Sloane Stephens, who was in turn bounced by Jelena Jankovic. Then Jimmy Connors was fired by Sharapova after serving as her coach for just ONE match. Marion Bartoli retired... not from a match, as she did a week ago, but from tennis. Period. Just six weeks after winning Wimbledon, too. Sam Stosur split up with coach David Taylor, as well. While Petra Kvitova, who won the U.S. Open Series a year ago, was taken down by Caroline Wozniacki, dropping the Czech's record in North America this summer to a less-than-mediocre 4-3.

But all that paled in comparison to the goings-on in Sunday's women's final between Serena Williams and Victoria Azarenka, the fifth #1-vs.-#2 match-up of the season (as many as the previous three seasons combined), but just the second ever under such circumstances between the current top two ranked women in the world. The last time it happened was earlier this year in Doha, when then-#1 Azarenka took out then-#2 Serena in the final, only to see Williams take her top ranking away a day later.

Serena, of course, is often an unstoppable force on (especially now, as she's come to favor the clay) any surface. And when she's in "Greatest of All Time" mode, there's no "often" about it. Serena just is. But that's usually not the case when it comes to Williams facing off with Azarenka on hard courts, where the Belarusian has been the tour's dominant player the last two seasons. A healthy Vika on hard courts is a confident one capable of facing down Serena like few, if any, other players ever have been. Coming into the final in Cincinnati, Serena was 29-2 on hard courts this year, and sported a 12-2 career mark against Vika. But Azarenka was 24-1 on hard courts herself in 2013, and many of their previous match-ups on the surface have proven to be included in arguably what has been the best sustained stretch of matches by one player against Williams since Justine Henin was defeating Serena in consecutive grand slam meetings in 2007. Their past is littered with intriguing match-ups, from Azarenka's defeat of Williams in the '09 Miami final to their multiple dramatic meetings in Melbourne, and from last year's U.S. Open final (Vika served for the title) to this year's decider in Doha. Azarenka knows she can defeat Williams on hard court, which is something that no current player can honestly say with TOTAL conviction (so that leaves Stosur off the list, I guess) about any match with Serena.

Not anytime. Not anywhere.

And Serena knows it, too. She respects Vika's ability to defeat her on the court, maybe like she hasn't any player since Venus in the Sisters' heyday. And while Serena was suffering from several aches and pains, from her stomach to shoulder to arm, last week in Cincy, Azarenka, too, was still returning to form after injuring her knee at the All-England Club in June. All in all, it was as even a match-up as one could hope for eight months into a WTA season that is often a battle of attrition as much as it is one of forehands, backhands and serves.

Early on, Azarenka was stuck in neutral. Williams won the 1st set at 6-2 in twenty-six minutes. But, have no fear, one game in the 2nd set lasted nearly that long all by itself. In that game, Serena held to close to 4-2 in a 20-minute, 13-deuce game in which she saved eight break points. But, showing the emotional maturity that has characterized her greater success the past two seasons, Azarenka didn't let the failure to get the break of serve break her stride and produce any volatile outbursts. Instead, she held at love one game later and soon took the set at 6-2, setting up a deciding 3rd set under oddly similar circumstances to those in their U.S. Open final match last year, which also saw them trade off 6-2 sets in the same order.

Last summer in New York, Azarenka served at 5-3, and things seemed to be heading in that direction in Cincinnati, too. She broke for 4-2, and held a game point for 5-2, only to see Williams surge, as she often does, to break for 4-3, hold and get another break for a 5-4 lead after an Azarenka shot on break point was overruled and called out on Serena's replay challenge. But, again, Vika didn't let the moment overtake her. Instead, as Williams failed to get a single first serve in in Game #10, Azarenka broke and then held for 6-5. After Williams held, it would all come down to a tie-break.

And both women came to play.

Azarenka went up a mini-break at 2-0 with a drop volley winner, then 3-1 when a Williams forehand bounced off the net and outside the lines. She went up 4-2 with a volley and overhead smash combo, only to see Serena charge back again. A down-the-line backhand knotted the score at 4-4, and Williams took a 5-4 lead when Azarenka netted a forehand to lose back-to-back service points. Serving with the match on her racket, though, Serena would lose both her next two serve points, as well. The first came when she fired an open court shot past the baseline after Vika had raced to get a drop shot and run off the right side of the court. After nearly smashing her racket into the wall behind the baseline in frustration, Williams thought better of it and instead disappointingly leaned her head into it. Serena then followed up with a double-fault that gave Vika her first match point at 6-5. Serena saved it with a big, wide-bouncing forehand, but then Azarenka pulled off the shot of the match, taking a hard Williams forehand passing attempt and producing a low angled volley winner at the net.

It was a truly great shot, and the kind you see in career retrospectives when a player's prettiest and most fantastical shots are replayed to stoke wonderful memories of their time in the sport.

Of course, here all it did was give Azarenka a second match point at 7-6. She still had to make sure the shot MEANT SOMETHING. When Serena netted a forehand, awarding an 8-6 tie-break win to Azarenka, it finally did. Azarenka won 2-6/6-2/7-6(6) to take her first Cincinnati title, and leave Williams (somewhat shockingly) still without having ever won one of the biggest non-slam titles in the sport. She'd agreed after the semifinals that a Cincy title was on her "tennis bucket list."

Well, it still is.

Azarenka's win sets off sorts of bells and whistles when it comes to her standing as a top-level Williams opponent. This is her second win over Serena when she was ranked #1 (w/ '09 Miami), and in handing Serena her seventeenth loss in a final, Vika joins Venus as the only players who have beaten her three times in finals throughout her career. Not only that, but Azarenka is just the second player ever to defeat Serena in finals twice in the same season (Sharapova '04) and, as Serena drops to 20-5 in three-setters from 2011-13, Vika becomes just the fourth different woman to win two three-set matches against her in the same calendar year (and the first since Capriati in '04).

Truthfully, down the stretch of this match, I wondered if it was "smart" for Vika to actually win this battle over Serena. After all, she might be risking peaking too soon, and the prospect of having to defeat Serena AGAIN at Flushing Meadows might prove to be a longshot. But then I realized that Azarenka's summer game is likely still on an upward swing. Remember, after that ugly fall at Wimbledon, she sat out the early part of the summer hard court season. When she returned in Carlsbad, she often resembled, as she was, a rusty player who'd been out of action for a month. She wasn't perfect in Cincinnati, either. In the semifinals against Jelena Jankovic, it didn't seem like she'd ever hold serve. Even in the final against Serena, she took a while to get things going and clean up her game. But when she did, it was easy to recall, "Oh, yeah. Now I remember her."

This is the same woman, after all, who's won two of the last three hard court slam titles, and served for the match in the final of the third. There's no reason to think she won't have a good chance in three weeks time to claim what slipped from her grasp last September. On a high and with her confidence intact, Cincinnati might be just the prelude to Azarenka's game peaking at the Open, right on schedule. If she knows she can hold her own, and then some, against Serena, then Azarenka has no one to fear. Really.

Think about that for a brief moment. I know I like to.

The walks-to-her-own-beat Vika has always seemed to be a "perfect fit" for a slam in New York City. Maybe the time is right for her to prove it once and for all... beginning next week.

CINCINNATI, OHIO US (Premier $2.216m/HCO)
S: Victoria Azarenka/BLR def. Serena Williams/USA 2-6/6-2/7-6(6)
D: Hsieh/Peng (TPE/CHN) d. Groenefeld/Peschke (GER/CZE)

PLAYER OF THE WEEK: Victoria Azarenka/BLR
...Vika's win in the Cincinnati final ended Serena's latest winning streak at fourteen matches and got the Belarusian career title #17, tying her on the WTA all-time list with Mary Pierce and Kerry Melville-Reid. Azarenka's run included wins over three former or current #1's -- Wozniacki, JJ and Serena -- as well as Vania King and Magdalena Rybarikova. She's currently one of only four players in professional tennis with three or more consecutive seasons with at least three singles titles. She's the only woman, as Nadal, Djokovic and Murray round out the list.
RISERS: Hsieh Su-Wei/Peng Shuai (TPE/CHN) & Simona Halep/ROU
...with Errani/Vinci's dominance having waned as the season has progressed, and with so many other previously successful doubles pairings having ended or in flux, Hsieh/Peng have seized upon multiple opportunities to grab big titles. The pair's win in Cincinnati is their third of '13, as they took out Makarova/Vesnina in the semis and Groenefeld/Peschke in the final. The trio of titles ties them for the tour lead with the Italians and Petrova/Srebotnik, but Hsieh/Peng's collection of titles (they also won in Rome and Wimbledon) is the "most desirable" of the lot. This was their seventh overall title as a duo. Meanwhile, Halep was something of an accidental wrecking ball in Cincy. After getting a 1st Round win over Hsieh, her win over Bartoli ended the Wimbledon champ's career, and her victory over Sam Stosur was soon followed by the announcement of the Aussie's split with coach David Taylor. Halep's own run ended in the QF against Serena, but it was another fine week for the Romanian, who is now ranked #23, just one slot below the career-high she set last month.
SURPRISE: Lyudmyla Kichenok/UKR
...the 21-year old Ukrainian took the $50K challenger in Kazan, Russia, defeating countrywoman Valentyna Ivakhnenko in the final. Lyudmyla's sister Nadiya is ranked higher -- #120's to #250's -- but this is her sixth career circuit crown and extends her streak of seasons with ITF singles wins to five (Nadiya has won all three of her ITF titles the past two seasons). Of note, Kichenok defeated Evgeniya Rodina in the QF. The 24-year old Muscovite was in her first action since the qualifying in Miami in March '12, and ultimately claimed the doubles title w/ fellow Hordette Veronika Kudermetova.
VETERANS: Jelena Jankovic/SRB & Li Na/CHN
...a week after winning just her second career doubles title, Jankovic surged back in singles by reaching the semifinals in Cincinnati, where she won a title in '09 and reached the final in '11. Wins over Sabine Lisicki, Ekaterina Makarova, Sloane Stephens and Roberta Vinci set up a match with Azarenka in which the Serb failed to take advantage of the Belarusian's rather pronounced serving issues. Still, JJ is back up to #11, with a shot to climb back into the Top 10 for the first time since May '11 if/when Bartoli's name drops out of the singles rankings. Li was the defending champ in the same Cincinnati event. After getting wins over Lauren Davis and Angelique Kerber, she had a shot -- several, in fact -- to push Serena to the limit in the semifinals. After coming back from a 4-1 1st set deficit, Li served for the set, only to double-fault on set point at 5-4. She was up a break twice in the 2nd, and served for that set at 5-4, as well. She ended up losing 7-5/7-5. Still, other than Serena, Li was the only player to reach the semis at both Toronto and Cincy heading into the Open.
COMEBACK: Caroline Wozniacki/DEN
...every time Wozniacki looks to be making a few positive steps toward progress (Indian Wells finalist, anyone?), she immediately turns the story back the other way. So it's probably best to not put TOO much credence into the Dane's QF run in Cincinnati, which included wins over Monica Niculescu, Peng Shuai and Petra Kvitova, as well as a respectable loss to Azarenka. While Wozniacki's title drought stands at ten months, and she's reached just one final this season, she moves back up to #8 (with the now-retired Bartoli still at #7) in the new rankings and heads off for New Haven, where her history includes four straight titles (2008-11) and a virtual adoption ceremony by the Yale football team. Is the opportunity there for some real progress before the start of the Open? Maybe.
FRESH FACE: Eugenie Bouchard/CAN
...up until the final, it looked as if the teenager might end up going to Flushing Meadows as the only player to take a set off Serena since Wimbledon, which Bouchard did in the opening set of her 2nd Round match against Williams in Cincy last week. Of course, she ended up losing the match, but it didn't dim the continued ascension of the Canadian, the '12 Wimbledon girls champ who added a qualifying run in Cincinnati (def. AMG & Dolonc) to a season resume that already included a singles semi in Strasbourg, Fed Cup heroics, and a tour doubles final with Taylor Townsend in Washington, D.C..
DOWN: Maria Sharapova/RUS
...playing in her first match since she lost early at Wimbledon, injured her hip, split with coach Thomas Hogstedt and picked up Jimmy Connors as a replacement, Sharapova was bounced from the Cincinnati draw by Sloane Stephens in a three-setter in which the error-prone Russian lost a set and a break lead and saw the American's nerves and game hold far better than hers down the stretch in the final set. Naturally, Sharapova then promptly fired Connors, in either a worrisome shifting-the-blame-because-she-has-no-answers move, or a brilliant one that succinctly ends what seemed an odd course of action in the first place AND effectively puts her disappointing summer behind her -- out of sight and out of mind -- as she heads back to The City. Still, with the Open set to begin one week from today, next to Roger Federer, is there any top player heading into the season's final slam in seemingly worse shape for success? And considering the suddenly-fast-falling Federer put in a competitive effort against Rafa Nadal in Cincy, maybe even Fed's prospects look better than Maria's right about now.
ITF PLAYER: Kristina Kucova/SVK the $50K challenger in Craiova, Romania, 23-year old Kucova claimed her second ITF circuit crown of 2013, and the fifth of her career. After upsetting top-seeded Estrella Cabeza-Candela, Kucova notched wins over youngster Ana Konjuh and vet Alberta Brianti in a three-set final.
JUNIOR STAR: Katerina Siniakova/CZE
...the 17-year old Czech, the #3-ranked junior, won her second ITF crown of the season in the $25K challenger in Westende-Middelkerke, Belgium. After knocking out Waffle Ysaline Bonaventure in the QF, Siniakova took out fellow Maiden Katerina Vankova in the final. Siniakova, who won both the Roland Garros and Wimbledon junior doubles titles this year, reached the Australian Open girls singles final in January.

1. Cin 2nd Rd. - Stephens d. Sharapova
Sharapova blows a set and 2-0 lead. Damn you, Connors! Sharapova has sixteen winners vs. sixty-two errors. Damn you even more, Connors!
2. Cin 3rd Rd. - Jankovic d. Stephens
After Stephens held her nerve late against Sharapova, it was another case of Sloane being Sloane here as she and Team JJ combined for eighteen breaks of serve... and some very loud cheering from Jelena's brother in the stands.
3. Cin 2nd Rd. - Halep d. Bartoli
And then -- poof! -- La Trufflette was gone.

4. Cin SF - Azarenka d. Jankovic
The match started with six straight breaks of serve, and in nine of the ten games in the 1st set. Vika rebounded well, though, I'd say.
5. Cin 1st Rd. - Kleybanova d. Arvidsson
Arvidsson led 3-1 in the 3rd, and served for the match at 5-3. But, on her third match point, Kleybanova notched her first tour victory since March 2012.
6. Cin Doubles 1st Rd. - Huber/Llagostera-Vives d. Mladenovic/Voskoboeva
With Voskoboeva in 2013, Mladenovic is 12-8 with one title. With everyone else, Mixed partner Daniel Nestor included, she's 26-6 with four titles.
7. Cin Doubles QF - Makarova/Vesnina d. Huber/Llagostera-Vives
Vesnina vs. Huber, Part XIV... or at least it seems like it.
8. Cin 1st Rd. - Rybarikova d. Goerges
The German has lost six straight, and is 1-8 in her last nine matches.
9. Cin 2nd Rd. - Li d. Davis
Davis has been a veteran magnet lately, drawing matches against Kuznetsova (twice), Bartoli, Zakopalova and Li in her last two events.
10. Cin 3rd Rd. - Vinci d. Errani 6-4/6-3
Cin Doubles QF - Goerges/Zahlavova-Strycova d. Errani/Vinci 4-6/6-2/11-9
Vinci knocked off Errani (again), and then they joined together later in the day, with similar results. For Errani, anyway.
11. Cin 3rd Rd. - Wozniacki d. Kvitova 3-6/6-2/6-3
Cin QF - Azarenka d. Wozniacki 6-3/7-6
at one point, Kvitova looked as if her career might go the way of Azarenka's, as she narrowly missed rising to #1. But it's been more Wozniacki-like the last two seasons... and now she's even losing to the Dane. The Czech is starting to resemble the biggest WTA "talent tease" of the last decade. Meanwhile, Wozniacki just passed Kvitova by in the rankings, too, which is saying something (and nothing good) about Petra, considering C-Woz's now-longstanding difficulty in trying to regroup from her own tumble from the top of the WTA pyramid.
12. Cin Doubles Final - Hsieh/Peng d. Groenefeld/Peschke
ALG & Peschke pulled an "anti-Rafa," losing in the finals of both the Rogers Cup and Cincinnati.
HM- New Haven Q2 - Morita d. Medina-Garrigues
Next stop for AMG: a Flushing Meadows exit before the QF.

1. Cin Final - Azarenka d. S.Williams
As anticipated, all the madness of Melbourne seems like it happened ages ago. The best answer to it all, as always, comes via the court. Serena has known this fact for a while. Now Vika does, too.
2. $50K Craiova Final - K.Kucova d. Brianti 7-5/3-6/6-4
$50K Kazan Final - L.Kichenok d. Ivakhnenko 6-2/2-6/6-2
other sisters were more successful than Serena over the weekend.
3. Cin QF - Li walkover A.Radwanska
even a Radwanska has familial obligations. The summer hasn't exactly been kind to Aga.

3...Venus Williams
2...Elena Dementieva
2...Justine Henin
2...Maria Sharapova
1...5 players
[most in single season]
2...Maria Sharapova (2004)

5...Jennifer Capriati
3...Justine Henin
3...Patty Schnyder
3...Sandrine Testud
3...Venus Williams
2...Elena Dementieva
2...Martina Hingis
2...Amelie Mauresmo
2...Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario
2...Samantha Stosur
1...18 players
NOTE: Hingis & Paola Suarez won additional matches w/ 3rd set retirements by Williams

1998 Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario
1999 Sandrine Testud
2001 Jennifer Capriati
2004 Jennifer Capriati
2013 Victoria Azarenka

Doha (HC) - #1 Azarenka/BLR d. #2 S.Williams/USA
Indian Wells (HC) - #3 Sharapova/RUS d. #10 Wozniacki/DEN
Miami (HC) - #1 S.Williams/USA d. #2 Sharapova/RUS
Madrid (RC) - #1 S.Williams/USA d. #2 Sharapova/RUS
Rome (RC) - #1 S.Williams/USA d. #3 Azarenka/BLR
Toronto (HC) - #1 S.Williams/USA d. #27 Cirstea/ROU
Cincinnati (HC) - #2 Azarenka/BLR d. #1 S.Williams/USA
Tokyo (HC) - September
Beijing (HC) - October

**2013 WTA FINALS**
5...Maria Sharapova (2-3)
4...Sara Errani (1-3)
3...Simona Halep (3-0)
3...Agnieszka Radwanska (2-1)
3...Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova (2-1)
3...Li Na (1-2)
3...Sabine Lisicki (0-3)

3 - S.Williams vs. Sharapova [Miami/Madrid/RG] - SW 3-0
3 - S.WILLIAMS vs. AZARENKA [Doha/Rome/Cincy] - Aza 2-1
2 - A.Radwanska vs. Cibulkova [Sydney/Carlsbad] - tied 1-1

6 years - Rafael Nadal, 2008-13
3 years - VICTORIA AZARENKA, 2011-13
3 years - Novak Djokovic, 2011-13
3 years - Andy Murray, 2011-13
2 years - Serena Williams, 2012-13
NOTES: Federer (3 titles, 2008-12), A.Radwanska (2011-12)

Shenzhen - Li Na, CHN (W)
Cali 125 - Catalina Castano, COL (L)
Miami - Serena Williams, USA (W)
Charleston - Serena Williams, USA (W)
Strasbourg - Alize Cornet, FRA (W)
Nuremburg - Andrea Petkovic, GER (L)
Palermo - Roberta Vinci, ITA (W)
Palermo - Sara Errani, ITA (L)
Bastad - Johanna Larsson, SWE (L)
Bad Gastein - Yvonne Meusburger, AUT (W)
Suzhou 125 - Zheng Saisai, CHN (L)

**#1 vs. #2 MATCH-UPS - 2010-13**
2010 WTA Chsp 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 Chsp SF - #2 Sharapova d. #1 Azarenka
2013 Doha Final - #1 Azarenka d. #2 S.Williams
2013 Miami Final - #1 S.Williams d. #2 Sharapova
2013 Madrid Final - #1 S.Williams d. #2 Sharapova
2013 Roland Garros Final - #1 S.Williams d. #2 Sharapova
2013 Cincinnati Final - #2 Azarenka d. #1 S.Williams

July - Wimbledon 4th Rd: #24 Sabine Lisicki d. #1 Serena Williams
August - Cincinnati Final - #2 Victoria Azarenka d. #1 Serena Williams

3...Sara Errani/Roberta Vinci, ITA/ITA
3...Nadia Petrova/Katarina Srebotnik, RUS/SLO
2...Timea Babos/Mandy Minella, HUN/LUX
2...Raquel Kops-Jones/Abigail Spears, USA/USA
2...Ekaterina Makarova/Elena Vesnina, RUS/RUS
2...Bethanie Mattek-Sands/Sania Mirza, USA/IND

NEW HAVEN, CONNECTICUT USA (Premier $681K/hard court outdoor)
12 Final: Kvitova d. Kirilenko
12 Doubles Final: Huber/Raymond d. Hlavackova/Hradecka
13 Top Seeds: Errani/Kerber

Halep d. #4 Wozniacki
#8 Cibulkova d. Cirstea
Halep d. #8 Cibulkova

...I used to refer to this as the Wozniacki Open. Is that still possible? At least the Dane is in the New Haven draw and coming off a decent result. I'm still not picking her, though. Not yet.

PLUS: U.S. Open Qualifying

Carl & Carla's special announcement is imminent... and so is the U.S. Open Preview.

All for now.


Blogger jo shum said...

I thought Serena saved 8 bps instead of 7.

I honestly think vika would get a beat down after the semi performance. But her match against JJ must have called her fighting spirit back up and some of her ground strokes back too. No, I don't think both Serena nor vika played well at all. But vika's mental game is intact. I think she is like Serena a lot, she scraps through when needed as long as she wins. She doesn't have to play well from the beginning, but can work her way through.

I still think if Serena is in top form, vika doesn't have too much a chance. But no one can all the time. So I guess all in good time.

By the way below link is funny from vika's semi match. Apparently she didn't recall her reaction at all. :)

Mon Aug 19, 10:15:00 AM EDT  
Blogger Diane said...

Jo, that's funny. It actually looks like a clip of Djokovic "doing a Vika."

Mon Aug 19, 11:13:00 AM EDT  
Blogger jo shum said...

Diane, thought she has a lot of personality even when people make fun of her. Redfoo asked why she stuck her bud out like that, and vika said she didnt do that. Then this was posted and she saw and thought it was hilarious. Entertaining stuff.

Mon Aug 19, 12:05:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Todd.Spiker said...

Jo - Yep, just checked -- it was eight. I'd written down seven in my notes during the match. I guess I missed one. Well, I'll chalk it up being blinded by the light of the match. :D

Mon Aug 19, 12:59:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Todd.Spiker said...

Sharapova out of U.S. Open with shoulder injury.

Hmmm, I wonder if Jimmy Connors is to blame for this, too?

A-Rad moves up to the #3 seed.

Wed Aug 21, 11:58:00 PM EDT  

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