Thursday, January 09, 2014

Australian Open Preview, Pt.1: State of Victoria on Alert for Serena Overthrow


After emerging victorious on the court in successive Januarys while simultaneously battling off-court with the Aussie fans and media Down Under, in hardly-veiled attack plans known colloquially in this space as "Whack-a-Vika" and "VikaGate," is the story going to change for the good, the worse, or somewhere in between, for Victoria Azarenka in 2014?



If there is about to be a violent -- or even velvet -- overthrow in Melbourne of the state of Victoria, the probable conquering army will consist of the singularly powerful force known simply as "Serena."

While such an "official" change of power in Australia wouldn't be anything that resembled a surprise, it's important to note just how effective -- even when she's battled her own game, especially her serve, on certain occasions -- the Belarusian has been over the last two seasons, not just in Melbourne, but in the last four hard court majors. Starting with her maiden slam title run at the AO in 2012, Azarenka has gone a combined 26-2 there and at the U.S. Open, reaching all four finals, and pushing Serena Williams to three sets in a pair of championship-deciding matches at Flushing Meadows. She enters Melbourne on a 14-match Australian Open winning streak.

**THREE-PEAT AO CHAMPS IN OPEN ERA - WOMEN**
1969-71 Margaret Court
1974-76 Evonne Goolagong
1988-90 Steffi Graf
1991-93 Monica Seles
1997-99 Martina Hingis

Still, even with so much to hang her hoody on, from Day 1, the odds are stacked against Vika when it comes to a third straight AO title run. While there have been five women who have three-peated in Melbourne in the Open era, it's been fifteen years since Martina Hingis was the last to do it.



But even if Azarenka slips out of the winner's circle this time around, that doesn't mean that the women's title is anyone's to grab. Even if Serena wasn't in the mix, the history of "outsider" champions in Melbourne is almost shockingly limited. In the forty-five Australian Opens held since the start of the Open era, only six women ranked outside the Top 4 seeds have been crowned champion (and two of those were title runs from an on-the-comeback-trail Serena), and thirty-seven of the forty-five winners were seeded #1, #2 or #3.

**LOW-SEEDED AO CHAMPIONS - OPEN ERA**
Unseeded - 1978 Chris O'Neil, AUS
Unseeded - 2007 Serena Williams, USA
#12 - 2001 Jennifer Capriati, USA
#7 - 2005 Serena Williams, USA
#5 - 1979 Barbara Jordan, USA
#5 - 2008 Maria Sharapova, RUS
#4 - 1995 Mary Pierce. FRA
#4 - 1997 Martina Hingis, SUI

In other words, while the actual slip in the rankings of each woman was slight, one can make a case that the AO title chances for both Li Na (the two-time finalist who fell from #3 to #4 in the rankings a week ago despite defending a title in Shenzhen) and Agnieszka Radwanska (she slipped to #5 at the end of '13 after a winless effort in the Tour Championships) took significant hits when the two women's rankings ticked down just one spot in recent months.

So, if the odds of a Top 3 woman emerging as champion in Melbourne are especially great, who has the edge there? Again, all signs point to it being one of two women. #3 Maria Sharapova has lost fourteen straight times over a ten season stretch to #1 Williams, and she's 1-6 against #2 Azarenka on hard courts since 2010. Last year, after an historically great start in the AO, the Russian failed to even get to a match versus either Vika or Serena, losing in the semifinals to Li.

Of course, this leaves us with Williams and Azarenka. They haven't met in the Australian Open in four years, but they faced off three straight years there from 2008-10, with Vika often showing the promise that would eventually lift her to the #1 ranking. Of course, the 2008-10 Vika was the "crazy kid" version. She went 0-3 in those matches im Melbourne, but had taken the 1st set from Serena in '09 before having to retire with heat illness, then led 6-4/4-0 and served for the match in '10 before crumbling under the pressure before she finally got her slam-winning mojo under control two years later. Williams, having survived the challenges, went on to win the Aussie title in both '09 and '10.

Since her tired, at best, or barely mediocre, at worst, end to last season, Azarenka has been dutifully preparing for the challenge of a 2014 season in which Williams seems in a better position to dominate the tour's majors than she has since "Serena Slam" more than a decade ago. The Belarussian has brought aboard a new teams of trainers and physios, worked to get back some of the fitness she lost over the course of the last year... and traveled the world over the past couple of months looking for enlightenment (hello, monks) and inspiration (what better place is there to find that than underneath a larger-than-life "RF" symbol?) wherever she could find it.



With luck, her efforts will fuel another round of memorable meetings with Williams. It's something we've sort of come to expect, and if it fails to continue in '14 a large part of the WTA's story this season will be far less intriguing and enjoyable. After all, in 2013, in what was quite possibly Williams' "best season," Azarenka still managed to find success against her. A pair of three-set wins in the finals of Doha and Cincinnati tied her with Venus Williams for the most CAREER wins in finals (3) over Serena, and Vika became the first woman in nine years (Sharapova '04) to prevail over her in two finals in the same season. Finally, the WTA and its fans have gotten the opportunity to embrace something that resembles a rivalry. Even if Williams' Week 1 win in the Brisbane final did extend her head-to-head advantage over Azarenka to 14-3, many of their match-ups have been close affairs, with the two-way highway of respect evident even as the American comes out on top far more often than the Belarusian in the end. Still, no matter how resilient she's been in the last three hard court majors, Azarenka has gone 0-8 against Serena in slams during her career.

Even if she's not at her best, Azarenka is never intimidated by Williams and, unlike Sharapova, who has been similarly competitive against Serena of late, she's actually proven that she CAN defeat the late-stages-of-her-career version of Williams that has finally brought together all the tremendous possibility of her talent and spun it into grand slam gold. It's because of this that, while a final that would include Li or Sharapova, or some other less likely competitor, would provide a worthy opponent for what would probably be either Williams or Azarenka on the opposite side of the net, the WTA and tennis could hardly do better than to have another Serena/Vika battle for a slam title on its hands. If it happens in Melbourne, it'd be their third final match-up in the last six majors.

Another chapter would unfold, only this time at Rod Laver Arena. And everyone would be watching. Again.

I didn't bestow Azarenka a while back with the honor of inheriting Justine Henin's old "Face of Backspin" moniker for nothing. Vika has earned her place in this space's heart over the past two seasons, and it's come to the point where, despite her iconoclastic roots, it'd be nice to see her finally embraced by even her most ardent and consistent critics -- the Aussies. While the energy and in-your-face nature of New York would seem to "fit" Azarenka best of the four grand slam cities, Melbourne has become the toughest "get" when it comes to winning over the crowds, even after capturing back-to-back titles there. Those title runs in the face of controversy and sometimes outright hostility toward her have been career-defining, as Vika has morphed from "crazy kid" into a champion before our -- and her own -- eyes. But, when the last two Australian Opens concluded, she still seemed something like an uninvited Aussie house guest, being tolerated while she emptied out the refrigerator, then politely kissed goodbye by the same hosts who'd talked about and disparaged her both behind her back and in front of her face for two weeks straight. While a literal Connors-esque, one-finger "salute" to her detractors would have been understandable, maintaining her dignity and taking home the hardware surely served the same purpose, at least in a figurative sense.

As the 2014 edition of the AO arrives, winning over the fans in Melbourne, maybe even more so than winning another title in Melbourne, might be an even larger accomplishment for Azarenka were she to pull it off. Sure, bucking history and taking title #3 would be great, but might losing help her win hearts and begin to break down the minds of the playing-hard-to-get crowds of Melbourne? Remember, the Aussies, almost en masse, went so far as to embrace Barbie as "Aussie Kim" simply because she was engaged to Lleyton Hewitt. After that relationship went bad, with the Australian fans so desperate to root for a contending women's player at the AO, Clijsters kept the nickname even as she married an American basketball player. She didn't actually win the Australian title until 2011, after she'd come out of retirement. So, maybe if Vika acts more like an Aussie in Australia and, you know, loses, the first step toward a more friendly relationship will have been taken.

Of course, I'm kidding. Well, sort of. Either way, winning or losing might not be ultimately in Vika's hands.

Part XVIII of the rivalry or not, and two-time defending AO champ in the mix or not, this Australian Open is Serena's to win or lose. (Somehow, I feel like this will be just the first of four times I'll utter a similar-sounding phrase this season.) As Williams goes for career slam #18, she's also looking for the third US/Australian Open combo of her career and her sixth overall AO crown (only Margaret Court has more in the 92-year history of the tournament). She enters Melbourne on a 22-match winning streak.

*SLAM TITLES AFTER AGE 30*
4...Serena Williams (2 at 30, 2 at 31)
3...Martina Navratilova (2 at 30, 1 at 33)
3...Margaret Court (2 at 30, 1 at 31)
2...Billie Jean King (30 & 31)
2...Chris Evert (30 & 31)
1...Virginia Wade (31)
1...Ann Haydon Jones (30)

*BACK-TO-BACK US/AO TITLES - since 1988*
1988-89 Steffi Graf
1989-90 Steffi Graf
1991-92 Monica Seles
1992-93 Monica Seles
1993-94 Steffi Graf
1997-98 Martina Hingis
2002-03 Serena Williams
2003-04 Justine Henin-Hardenne
2008-09 Serena Williams
2010-11 Kim Clijsters

Some people have never cuddled up to the notion of Serena running roughshod over the field. But, when it happens, I rather embrace it. I mean, how can one not enjoy the experience of watching the best player in the world play like, well, the best player in the world? When she's gone, at least in the early-going, it's going to leave a hole in the tour that will be difficult to fill, though entertaining to watch many try. In these late chapters of Williams' career, she's not just playing the field, she playing against history, too. So, Navratilova and Evert, Wills-Moody, Graf and Court are -- or will soon be -- her "opponents," too. We may never see another woman walk down a similar path again, and I hope everyone can see fit to fully enjoy taking that journey with her... whenever, and wherever, it eventually ends.



So, let "Serenativity" unsue... unless Vika can martial her forces once more in Melbourne over the next two weeks. The verisimilitude of Vika has prevailed before. Who knows? Maybe it could again.

I know I'd like to see her get the chance to try.



Part 2 of the AO preview, with the quarter-by-quarter overview and WTA/ATP predictions, arrives this weekend.

All for now.

8 Comments:

Blogger jo shum said...

Yea it's amazing even after many times a try, vika was never intimidated by Serena. And probably why Serena respects her too. Vika knows full well she was beaten fair and square, simplify outplayed. But the fact that Serena has to pull out 10 aces to beat her (as well as the over 20 aces in wimby in 2012 says a lot).

Though I sometimes complain about vika's form of late, but the fact that she could still pull a win and a final after that wimby fall should not be forgotten. Quite stubborn minded I say.

On the Sydney front, definitely didn't see it coming as Kerber now stands a good chance to win. And the Petra in kvitova.... Very funny. I still think, kvitova is so similar to early version of Maria. Absolutely talented but completely without plan B.

Thu Jan 09, 06:54:00 AM EST  
Blogger Leif Mortensen said...

Fully agree with you about Petra BUT you have to credit a very well playing Pironkova who hasn't got a gunner arm as Petra that she could outplay her like she DID. Womens tennis has grown and the level of play is much higher than just 5 years back. It's nice in one way and sad in another way as I don't want women to develop into body builders - sorry Serena.

Thu Jan 09, 08:40:00 AM EST  
Blogger Diane said...

I have to put Li into the AO mix for the title. For me, it's Serena, Vika or Na. I don't count others out--I just have a feeling that those are the three.

Thu Jan 09, 12:53:00 PM EST  
Blogger Todd.Spiker said...

Jo-

It'd be nice if Vika could play well from the start in Melbourne, and not have to scratch out wins like she did there last year, then again in NYC. As happened again in Sydney, though, she's shown an ability to clean up her game a bit once the final arrives and give herself a chance to win. Still, it'd be nice...

Leif-

Oh, yes. Pironkova played well, as she often does against top players. But, as you know, with Kvitova helping her opponent it always tilts the perception of and course of a match. As well as Pironkova played, if Kvitova had player better herself the match would have at least gone three sets.

Well, I think Serena's body type is just a bit larger than most of the other women. She comes by her strength naturally, as even if a teenage Serena showed up again on the scene some 15 years after she originally did, she'd likely be right in the mix for slams all over again.

She's a bit of an anomaly, even as the equipment of the sport has helped increase the power potential of all the players. But when she's absent from the scene one day, I suspect the increased variety of champions will be interesting to see. Players with no power at all won't necessarily be winning slams, but having the ability to pull it out in crucial moments (as Aga has learned is necessary now) might not be as essential an element to winning them as it is at this particular moment.

Diane-

Yeah, I agree that the winner will seem to have to come from those three. Looking back, though, I thought it was interesting just how rarely the AO winner has been ranked outside the Top 3. It sort of made Li's fall to #4 this week seem more significant, especially since it could mean she might now have to face Serena in the semis rather than in a potential final (we'll see how the draw looks, I guess... if she instead has Vika in her side of the MD, her chances to win will increase greatly). Of course, since Li has reached two AO finals, she can surely overcome that slight little bit of history against her. Serena/Li was my preseason AO final pick.

Not sure anyone could beat Vika & Serena back-to-back, though.


Thu Jan 09, 03:02:00 PM EST  
Blogger Todd.Spiker said...

Hmmm, a sign of wild things to come in Melbourne?

Q1: Bencic d. #1 Fichman 6-3/6-1

Two of the top four women's Q-seeds lost in the opening round.

Thu Jan 09, 03:17:00 PM EST  
Blogger Diane said...

Does this mean I have to stop bench-pressing and doing tricep pulls?! Say it isn't so :). Actually, if it weren't for an old injury, I'd be doing even more body-building than I do now.

Another player who comes by it naturally is Stosur. She says she has had very well-defined muscles for most of her life. I thunk she and Serena both look terrific.

Thu Jan 09, 04:56:00 PM EST  
Blogger Diane said...

I "think" (I probably thunk, too)

Thu Jan 09, 04:57:00 PM EST  
Blogger jo shum said...

mmm, so much about stosur improving in australia. went out in straight sets.

Fri Jan 10, 03:14:00 AM EST  

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