Monday, April 04, 2016

Wk.13- Vika Being Vika

So, are we there yet? Huh? Are we there yet? Huh? Are we there yet?

Victoria Azarenka's impressive month-long U.S. hard court winning spree has put her squarely in the driver's seat of the WTA's 2016 story as we head into the heart of the spring. Quite a feat when you consider that she's not the world #1, nor was she the winner of the season's first slam two months ago. But the new world #5's back-to-back "Sunshine Double" in Indian Wells and Miami has included wins over those two players, #1 Serena Williams and #2 Angelique Kerber, as well as a victory over a very game world #4 Garbine Muguruza on her way to her most recent moment of glory in South Florida. You're rarely going to see a more definitive statement made on tour by anyone not named Williams.

But is it enough to relieve us of the constant picking of Vika's nits, her on-court quirks and the persistent noting of all the things she does or does not do between the lines that really have nothing to do with the renewed and refreshed quality of her game and results? Are we THERE yet? Can Vika simply be Vika without all that coming along for the ride?

Yeah, I know. That's probably too much to ask. It's taken Serena nearly twenty years to even come close to being accepted for who she is... and even that's not a "complete win" yet. So with the good must come "the rest."

While Azarenka pulls off the first sweep of the Indian Wells & Miami women's singles titles in eleven years, leads the tour in titles (3), wins (22), win percentage (95.7%), consecutive wins (12 in a row, and 13 without a loss) and Road to Singapore points we'll have to accept that we'll also have to hear faint rumblings in the stands whenever she appears to look at someone sideways, frets about a mistake or anxiously moves closer to victory. We'll live with that. For now.

While she wins yet another title, having learned from her false steps in Melbourne (where she lost her only match in twenty-three 2016 outings) and won twenty-six of the twenty-nine sets she's played since then, we'll have to live with whining commentators who still manage to bitch-and-moan about the sounds she makes on court while she's putting forth an often flawless, pinpoint account of herself in a big stage match with even bigger stakes. We'll live with that, too. For now.

While we marvel at the return of Vika's quickness of foot, her continued lethal return game and an improved serve made more dangerous (if sometimes still a tad wonky) because of her willingness to use it, we'll also be faced with continued laments about her being "testy" or "moody" on court, and inane complaints about how she "doesn't smile." We'll also sneer and try to remember the last time we saw Rafa Nadal smile or court during a heated match (hint: never) and make note how many times his actions and reactions are said to be examples of how great a competitor he is as opposed to somehow being a demerit-worthy offense because he's failing to project a "fun attitude" (fact: 100 times out of a 100). Yes, we'll even bite our tongue and live with that, as well. For now.

In the mean time, we'll wait. For the nitpickers to catch on to the fact that, for Azarenka, the fun IS the winning, and the celebrating of it after the task is complete (and if she wants to "dab," let her be). And that the process, albeit sometimes a little overanxious, includes wanting to win EVERY point. Every perfect point. To not allow the opponent on the other side of the net to ever get the scent of victory, and to only see the Belarusian's back as she pulls away. The oh-so-human quality that some choose to overlook is that, no matter how hard she tries, she'll likely never win EVERY point, so she'll never be fully satisfied in the moment... but that will only push her to try even harder next time out to make it so. She'll still make mistakes, but she'll try to learn from them and be better the next time. And the time after that. Or "die" trying. There will be blood, but that's just part of the game she plays.

If some can't see the beauty in that, then so be it. We'll have to choose to pity them. For now.

In the mean time, we'll watch as Azarenka attempts to experience the highest of highs all over again. Once more wanting it all, only this time after having actually lost it. And, after a great deal of hard work, trial and error, seeing a bright light at the end of a now much-shorter tunnel and with the idea of getting it all back no longer being something best left to daydreams and mind's eye moments in the middle of a workout.

One day, maybe everyone will see Azarenka for what she is rather than having the constant need to point out what she isn't, as if she needs to be something other than what she already is. Why walk in a flat-footed fashion when doing so on the balls of her feet will do? Her knack for traversing the court in a stance that could be described as either perpetually leaning forward, as if perched in a starter's gate, or a "strut" is emblematic of her personality. Why point out that half her shoe isn't always touching the court? Maybe one day the entire package that is Azarenka will be enough. After the past month, are we there yet?

No. Not yet.

But, so be it. From this vantage point, it's easy to be content to just have Vika back. THAT Vika. True Vika. A short while ago, as recently as last season, there was the worry that her downturn in fortunes might have caused her to try a little TOO hard to fit into the boxes inside which so many wish to contain her. But it was a needless worry. As it's turned out, while she may have publicly mellowed a little over the last two years, she hasn't lost a bit of her unique "Vika-ness" where it counts -- on the court. In fact, after realizing how fleeting success could be, she may now want it back even more than before. Which is saying something.

So far, her results in 2016 are bearing it out, too.

The shorts aren't the only thing back. So is "Vika being Vika." And that's all right. Glorious, even.


MIAMI, FLORIDA (USA) (Premier $6.135m; HCO)
S: Victoria Azarenka/BLR def. Svetlana Kuznetsova/RUS 6-3/6-2
D: Bethanie Mattek-Sands/Lucie Safarova (USA/CZE) d. Timea Babos/Yaroslava Shvedova (HUH/KAZ) 6-3/6-4

PLAYER OF THE WEEK: Victoria Azarenka/BLR
...Vika's 20th career title, her tour-best third of '16, is her second (w/ Brisbane) this season without dropping a set. Im Miami, she won all twelve sets she played against Monica Puig, Magda Linette, Garbine Muguruza, Johanna Konta, Angelique Kerber and Svetlana Kuznetsova. Maybe even more noteworthy, though, than her current winning streak is how Vika is doing it -- by winning the big points that eluded her last season, from her 2015 Week 1 loss to Karolina Pliskova to the multiple squandered "moments" vs. Serena over the course of the year. In 2016, which she began ranked outside the Top 20, those points are going in her favor as she's regained her lost step of speed with improved fitness, strengthened her serve and dedicated herself to moving forward with aggression. When she hits a rut (i.e. losing her serve, sometimes with a DF), rather than crumbling because of it (see Madrid '15) she almost immediately bounces back with a break of serve to wipe away her previous error. Quite simply, that's how major titles are won... especially those even bigger than Indian Wells and Miami.

Speaking of which, not only did her IW/MIA sweep put her name on a list with only Steffi Graf and Kim Clijsters, but Vika's third Miami title means she's also on another list that includes only Steffi, Serena and Venus as three-time winners. Yep, Vika is keeping quite the company again these days as (once again) the hottest player on tour, (still) the best hard court player in the game and (maybe?) the only true challenger for the Williams throne in '16 should Serena not emerge from her current funk. Of course, now comes another test -- carrying over this form to the surface (clay) where she's been the least effective during her career. Of her twenty titles, nineteen have come on hard court. Her one clay win was in Marbella in 2011, when she pulled the rare multi-surface, multi-continent, two-for-two title run after winning her last title in Miami.
RISERS: Timea Bacsinszky/SUI and Timea Babos/HUN

...finally looking truly healthy for the first time since her late '15 knee injury, and armed with her own personal "Gut Luck Charm," Bacsinszky is starting to put up the sort of results again that give hope to the notion that the job-loving Swiss might be able to maneuver through her huge points defense efforts at the next two slams (RG SF, Wimbledon QF) and not see her ranking experience a crushing blow. Her great defense and frustration-inducing game style (ask the Swarmette Queen about that) should play well in the upcoming clay season, but she also left the North American spring hard court circuit behind with something to remember her by, too. Miami wins over Margarita Gasparyan, Ana Ivanovic, Aga Radwanska and Simona Halep gave Bacsinszky her career best non-slam semifinal result, and she very well could have taken things a round deeper into the draw had she been able to convert more than two of the fourteen BP attempts she carved out for herself vs. Svetlana Kuznetsova in their final four match-up.

Babos has been at or near the top of the tour ace leaders list all season, but it has been the end-of-day results of her efforts that have allowed her to climb the WTA rankings ladder in the opening months of '16. In Miami, the 22-year old Hungarian knocked off Anna Tatishvili, Karolina Pliskova (her fourth Top 20 win) and Naomi Osaka to reach the 4th Round. She had a shot at her first Top 10 victory vs. Angelique Kerber, leading 3-1 in the 3rd set and holding BP's for a 4-1 bulge on the scoreboard but, similar to her fate during her QF run in St.Petersburg earlier this season when she had eventual champ Roberta Vinci in her sights, she squandered her lead and was defeated by her more veteran opponent. Babos will rise to a new career-high of #39 on Monday, and will likely continue to add big names to her victims list (which already included wins over the likes of Errani, Watson, Niculescu and Bouchard in '16 BEFORE the Miami Open). Always a doubles theat (often with Kristina Mladneovic), Babos had a nice effort in WD with Yaroslava Shvedova, too, following up a semifinal in Indian Wells with wins over Dellacqua/Stosur and Gasparyan/Niculescu en route to the final (where once again Bethanie Mattek-Sands, this time with Lucie Safarova rather than CoCo Vandeweghe, proved to be the duo's undoing).
SURPRISES: Elena Vesnina/RUS and Cagla Buyukakcay/TUR
...sometimes when a player starts to slip in the latter stages of a career, they don't ever really stage a true comeback (see Ms. Hantuchova), but after finishing outside the Top 100 (#111) last season for the first time in a decade, Vesnina is showing signs of a resurgence just four months from her 30th birthday. In Miami, the Hordette qualified with wins over Kateryna Kozlova and Tsvetana Pironkova, then put up main draw victories over Jana Cepelova and, in sometimes-dominating fashion (love and 6-2 sets surrounding a 2nd set TB loss), Venus Williams. A former Charleston finalist in 2011, Vesnina then punched her ticket for a return to the MD over the weekend, qualifying for her fourth different event this season by knocking off Spaniards Silvia Soler Espinova and Sara Sorribes Tormo to run her overall '16 singles won/lost record to 15-6.

Buyukakcay seems to have taken up residence in this category this year, and for good reason. The 26-year old Turk, one season after evolving into a clutch Fed Cup performer and winning the biggest title of her career (a $75K in November) has already additionally notched her career-best win (Safarova in Doha), career-best tour result (QF in Kuala Lumpur) and career-best ranking (#108) in '16, and it's only April. This weekend in Charleston, she was busy making her way through qualifying with a pair of victories over Julia Boserup (a hard-fought battle that saw her save three MP and win on her own third MP) and Ysaline Bonaventure.


VETERANS: Svetlana Kuznetsova/RUS and Angelique Kerber/GER
...proving once again that her highs at any moment can be, well, higher than those of pretty much everyone, Sveta continued her year-long career renaissance in Miami. The '06 champ at the event, she returned to the final with victories over Carina Witthoeft, Caroline Garcia, Serena Williams, Ekaterina Makarova and Timea Bacsinszky. If she'd won in the final over Vika Azarenka, Kuznetsova would have returned to the Top 10 for the first time since 2010, but she'll have to be content (for now) with a #13 ranking on Monday. She's only finished one season in the Top 20 since 2009, but her results over the last year give her a good chance to challenge for her sixth career Top 10 season in '16. Over the past twelve months (most since turning 30 last June), the two-time slam champ has reached two Premier Mandatory finals (Madrid & Miami), won the Kremlin Cup last fall and took the Sydney title in January.

One event before heading to Charleston to defend her title there, Kerber saw her level of play gradually improve over the course of two weeks in Miami as she finally began to escape the shadow of her Australian Open win. She'll return to the #2 ranking this week after a semifinal run that included wins over Barbora Strycova, Kiki Bertens (when the Dutch retired due to illness on a sweltering day in which she'd taken the 1st set from the German), Timea Babos (Kerber came back from 3-1 down and BP's for 4-1 in the 3rd) and Madison Keys (her '15 Charleston final opponent). Once again, her final four match-up with Azarenka brought out the best in one player (and, at times, both) as the Belarusian's aggressive and totally-on-point game proved to be too much to overcome. With both nestled in the current Top 5, and Serena having a little harder time than expected rebounding from the disappointment of her stalled Grand Slam attempt last summer, Kerber and Azarenka look, to steal some recent words and apply them more generously than they were originally used, seem to be "carrying the sport" (with a little help from Aga) as we enter the spring of '16, producing great results and competition while the rest of the top women's players sort themselves out and the ATP continues to exist as something of a Djokovic Invitational in which no other players seem capable of stepping up and truly challenging the Serb on any front. His record 28th Masters 1000 title came this weekend with a third consecutive Indian Wells/Miami sweep -- his fourth in six years, and second straight AO-IW-Miami trifecta -- is giving his '16 season (so far, at 28-1, his only loss came because of an eye infection) the look of being even more dominant than his ridiculously overwhelming '15 campaign. Can you imagine what would be said about the competitiveness and depth of the women's game if, say, Serena pulled off that feat?

Hmmm, I wonder if the other ATP players have purchased knee pads yet?
COMEBACKS: Garbine Muguruza/ESP and Ekaterina Makarova/RUS
...well, did we finally see her again? You know, the Muguruza who has looked like a budding star in the past, and ended '15 in such a form that just about anything seemed possible, if not probable, for the Spaniard in the 2016 season. After a slow, cranky and backstepping start to the year, though, Muguruza was more resembling the inconsistent and possibly injury-prone (who knows how much the foot ailment she revealed in January has played a part in her incomplete form and focus) player of the past who had so much potential but was anything but a sure thing to live up to it. In Miami, at least, she showed the fight that was often missing from her previous (non-Fed Cup) outings this season. Muguruza came back from 3-0 down in the 3rd to Dominika Cibulkova in her first match, crushed the surging Nicole Gibbs (allowing one game) and then engaged eventual champ Azarenka is a two tie-break contest of SuperTennis in a Round of 16 contest that might just go down as the best and highest-quality straights sets match we'll see on tour this season. The best thing about it? It was the first time they'd ever faced each other. If the two meet up again to produce a similar result in a slam semi or final before the end of 2016, we'd all have to bow down to the performance spectacle as the two entertainers exit the stage. As it was, it was a stepping stone for Azarenka en route to a fabulous career achievement. For Muguruza, it might be a clue that we still could ultimately see the Garbi we thought we were going to see in 2016 before the end of 2016, lifting a BIG title trophy and alerting all that her time has arrived.

Meanwhile, the dual-threat career of two-time slam singles semifinalist and three-time WD/MX slam champ Makarova is picking up steam again after dealing with lingering injury since last summer. In Miami, the Russian notched wins over Lesia Tsurenko, Petra Kvitova and Elina Svitolina en route to the QF, where she made Kuznetsova work for three sets despite Sveta jumping to big early leads in all three stanzas. Her result only edges the former #8 (one year ago) back into the Top 30 in the new rankings, but her prospects are nothing if not looking up. In doubles, Makarova teamed with Barbora Strycova to reach the QF after upsetting the #2-seeded Chan sisters in the 1st Round, then the former #1-ranked duo of Hsieh/Peng one round later.
FRESH FACES: Elena Gabriela Ruse/ROU, Aleksandra Pospelova/RUS and Renata Zarazua/MEX
...18-year old Ruse has been on an ITF tear in 2016. The Swarmette reached her fourth consecutive singles final this weekend in the $10K challenger in Hammamat, winning her third title in the stretch with a 6-4/6-1 win over Julia Grabher. Also playing in her third doubles final during the period, she teamed with Katherina Hobgarski (she defeated her in the singles SF) to win a third '16 WD title. In all, Ruse is 31-2 in singles (19-1) and doubles (12-1) combined over her past four events.

Meanwhile, 17-year old Hordette Pospelova grabbed her first pro singles title in the $10K in Heraklion, defeating Germany's Laura Schraeder 6-1/6-4 to take the crown. The 2015 U.S. Open Girls Doubles champ with Viktoria Kuzmova, Pospelova also picked up her second doubles title in as many weeks with fellow Russian Alina Silich.

In Leon, Mexico the all-Mexican final of Zarazua and Ana Sofia Sanchez produced a three-setter won by the 18-year old, who grabbed a maiden ITF singles title (she'd been 0-2 in finals) to go along with the seventh career doubles crown she won at the event with Chanel Simmonds. Zarazua entered the event at a career-best #438, the fourth-highest ranked player from Mexico, and will rise to new heights once again, getting a bit closer to #311 Sanchez.
DOWN: Serena Williams/USA, Martina Hingis/Mirza (SUI/IND) and Simona Halep/ROU
...big names. Bad results... and something a little more complicated.

It's easy to place Serena in this category when she loses because, well, it's always a bit of a surprise when she does. Her current title-less stretch, though, comes under new circumstances. Seven months ago, Williams seemed perched to pull off a Grand Slam and, well, since she's already on the "Mt. Rushmore" of tennis history, let's just say carve out a second image of herself on that mythical piece of rock in the sport's mind's eye. The semifinal loss to Roberta Vinci in New York was devastating to Serena, so much so that she took off the rest of the year. Her loss to Angelique Kerber in the AO final was an eye-opener, but it was acknowledged that the German had arguably never been better. Vika in Indian Wells? Azarenka's always been THIS CLOSE to defeating Serena, and actually had done so in finals before. So, no biggie. "She'll rebound in Miami," where she's dominated and is comfortable, was the belief. But then she didn't, losing in the 4th Round to Svetlana Kuznetsova in an effort that in no way resembled the Williams who'd won eight previous titles in Florida. Her current four-event title drought is her longest since 2011-12 (during the early stages of her post-embolism return), and as her 35th birthday looms before the end of this season it's important to not forget that Serena won't be around forever, and will likely become a somewhat "lesser," though still lethal, version of herself before then. Could that version already be with us?

Has that Vinci loss already become something of a before-and-after "line of demarcation" in Serena's career? As in there was the Serena B.V. (Before Vinci), and the one A.V. (After Vinci). After being nearly untouchable in three-setters before the Vinci match (18-1 in '15, 53-11 since '10), the 3rd set defeat at the hands of the Italian has now been followed by an 0-2 mark (def. by Kerber and Kuznetsova) in 2016. Williams is still Williams, but is something significantly different in Serena's mind as well as those of her opponents in crunch time now? Are some of those matches that used to be wins now going to be losses? It's happened before, to much younger #1's. Remember the original version of Martina Hingis, who was never really the same after losing that Roland Garros final in devastatingly disheartening fashion to Steffi Graf in 1999? A win in Paris would have completed a Career Slam for the then-18 year old. In her next slam she was upset in the 1st Round in London by Jelena Dokic, and while the five-time slam winner reached four more major finals in her career she never won another.

Granted, Serena's results in the four-event "drought" are still SF-RU-RU-4th, and she's a combined 13-4 starting with the semifinal defeat at the Open. But, still, what happened thus far this season makes it worth flagging that Vinci match as a potential late-career turning point. Just in case.

The other WTA #1's who left Miami without any hardware were Hingis & Mirza, who have crashed rather hard after seeing their 41-match winning streak come to a sudden halt in Doha. One year after sweeping the Indian Wells and Miami titles in their first two events as a team, the Dreamers won just one match in both events this time around as they were dealt another 2nd Round exit in Florida by Gasparyan/Niculescu and failed to win a title for a third straight hard court tournament for the first time. While such a hangover after a long spotless streak is hardly shocking, the upcoming clay court season that is set to begin introduces a new chapter in their short history. With their aura gone (they're 2-3 since going 41-0), and with clay traditionally being the worst surface for both players (they were upended twice on the dirt by Mattek-Sands/Safarova a season ago, and the Bannerette/Maiden pair reintroduced themselves to the winner's circle this weekend), just how long might this title-less stretch last? The longest Hingis/Mirza have gone without a title is five events, a period which included four clay and one grass event last spring.

Halep's inclusion here is a more nuanced selection, considering that for most of her time in Miami (and Indian Wells) the Swarmette has at least resembled some version of the former #2-ranked slam finalist who seemed on the cusp of something greater. But wins in Miami over Daria Kasatkina, Julia Goerges and Heather Watson (giving her a 6-1 IW/MIA mark heading into the QF) were but the two steps forward in the Romanian's climb back into top tier contention (she hasn't won a title in over a year now, remember, and has slipped outside the Top 5) that were followed by the one (& a half?) step back that took place during her final eight loss to Timea Bacsinszky. In a scene that played out in very similar fashion to the tone-setting past losses to Ekaterina Makarova that showed Halep to be severely lacking in fight when frustrated by a player who gets back many shots and forces her to create her own pace with various spins, drops and the like. After declaring herself fit and back in fine form a short while ago, a frustrated, angry and tired (physically, but more mentally) version of the Romanian emerged, one who didn't seem to have the will to dig in, "embrace the grind" and find a way around her opponent. After Halep won the 1st set, the Swiss took over and didn't look back. While it wasn't as ugly as her get-me-out-of-here losses to the Russian, there was a definite sense of deja vu.

The familiar sight of coach Darren Cahill imploring Halep mid-way into the 3rd to show something, anything that made it look like she wanted to win were met with silence. Calls to at least begin by breaking down Bacsinszky's forehand, going to it "five out of six shots" and to run around her FH on the Swiss' second serve to hit a winner and, essentially, "show a pulse" (my words) were followed by Halep seeming to show a desire to do so for a point or two, but to then just give up trying to traverse the long road back. Again, it wasn't as ugly a sight as in the past, but maybe it's just become too common a sight with Halep over the last year or so to be shocked by it all anymore. Either way, it's a noticeable red flag after a mostly smile-inducing North American hard court run.

The thought was that Halep had turned a corner over the past month. And maybe she has in some areas, but it's hard to see her truly BACK until she finds a way to overcome her own perfectionist tendencies vs. players intent on frustrating her, not losing focus when she meets up with a style of play that is obviously a personal pet peeve (and a blue print for crafty players to knock her off), acting as an insect that crawls inside her head and drives her crazy as it gnaws away at her inner ear. That sucker needs to be flushed out. Now.

Stay positive,stay fighting,stay brave,stay ambitious,stay focused,stay strong ???? #mentalityiseverything #adidas

A photo posted by ivana jorovic (@jorovicivana) on

ITF PLAYERS: Ivana Jorovic/SRB and Madison Brengle/USA
...18-year old Serb Jorovic claimed the $50K challenger in Croissy-Beaubourg, France by putting together a title run as an unseeded entrant, knocking out Virginie Razzano, #1 Elizaveta Kulichkova, Alexandra Panova, #8 Oceane Dodin and #2 Pauline Parmentier in a three-set final. A former girls #1 (June '14), Jorovic never won a junior slam crown, losing the Roland Garros final to Daria Kasatkina two years ago. But this win gives her a career 9-0 mark in ITF challenger singles finals (she 1-0 in doubles, too) and will lift her ranking to a career-best (somewhere around #150) this week.

One year after losing the $50K Osprey final to countrywoman Alexa Glatch, Brengle returned to Florida and cleaned up that minor mess while claiming her eighth career ITF singles title. BrengleFly, the #1 seed, put up wins over Lourdes Dominguez-Lino, Amra Sadikovic, Samantha Crawford and Rebecca Peterson to reach the final, then after Lara Arruabarrena finished off her semifinal win over Maria Sakkari on Sunday faced off with the Spaniard for the crown. Arruabarrena led the contest 6-4/4-2 before Brengle battled back to make her 26th birthday a happy occasion for yet ANOTHER reason. It's her third career $50K title, matching her biggest win.
JUNIOR STARS: Tereza Mihalikova/SVK and Kayla Day/USA
...#9-ranked girl Mihalikova, 17, claimed her second straight ITF title at the $10K challenger in Manama, Bahrain and improved her career mark in pro singles finals to 4-0. The Slovak -- who failed to defend her '15 AO junior title in January, but did reach the final -- was the #6 seed in the event, but ultimately knocked off three seeds en route to the title: #3 Prerna Bhambri, #2 Fatma Al Nabhani and #7 Anna Kalinskaya (the #3-ranked girl) in the final. Mihalikova, who won her other '16 singles title in Sharm El Sheikh in February, teamed with Kalinskaya to take the doubles. The duo are the reigning Australian Open girls doubles champs.

In the Grade 1 U.S. International Spring Championships in Carson, California it was 16-year old Kayla Day defeating fellow 15-year old Bannerette Claire Liu (def. #1 Amanda Anisimova in the SF) in the final, 4-6/6-4/6-3. Day's evolution into what will be the highest-ranked U.S. girl (she entered the week at #13, but now should pass #6 Sonya Kenin) has been either gradual or swift, depending on how you look at it. While the Californian lefty is just 1-2 in MD junior slam matches (she lost in the 1st Round of last year's U.S. Open girls to fellow Week 13 honoree Mihalikova in her last outing), she's been putting up good results everywhere else since late last season. She stepped in to lead the U.S. to the Junior Fed Cup 16's final (going 4-0 in '15 FC play, including a win over '16 mover Elena Rybakina) and won the Grade 1 Yucatan Cup (def. Usue Arconada and Bianca Andreescu), was felled by Liu in the 3rd Round of Eddie Herr but immediately rebounded by reaching the Grade A Orange Bowl final (losing to Andreescu) in December.
DOUBLES: Bethanie Mattek-Sands/Lucie Safarova (USA/CZE)
...don't look now, but here they come again.

Playing together for the first time since the WTA Finals (due to Safarova's illness), the Dynamic Doubles Duo jumped right back on the proverbial WD horse in Miami, winning their first title in their first event together -- just like they did last year in Melbourne to kick off a season which saw them win three other titles (including RG) and solidify their place as the #2 team on tour (and breathe down The Dreamers' necks, too, before the Czech's illness put up a temporary roadblock). While Hingis/Mirza saw their untouchable aura crumble in Indian Wells and Miami, Mattek-Sands built her own fortification on home soil, for not only did Azarenka, Djokovic and Herbert/Mahut complete the "Sunshine Double" IW/MIA two-fer, but so did BMS. The hard way... with two different partners, having won two weeks ago in the desert with CoCo Vandeweghe. But it was the most fun duo on tour who were in their element right from the start in Florida, opening up with a win over Keys/Stephens, then completing their title run without dropping a set vs. the likes of Kasatkina/Vesnina, Hlavackova/Hradecka, Xu/Zhang and Babos/Shvedova in the final.

BMS/Safarova were 2-0 vs. Hingis/Mirza (though both were on clay) in '15, but happenstance and the Czech's absence prevented any other meetings between the two teams during the world #1 team's 41-match winning streak. So, this could be very interesting very soon.

#TeamBUCIE LETS DO THIS!!! #tennis #miamiopen2016

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She's still got Instagram game.

Happy Easter!!

A photo posted by Maria Sharapova (@mariasharapova) on

And is keeping to the spring routine. (With news apparently coming in June.)

Morning sandbox

A video posted by Maria Sharapova (@mariasharapova) on

Friday mornings with this background???? #weekend

A photo posted by Maria Sharapova (@mariasharapova) on

And while Maria jogs, others stand while sitting.

1. Miami 4th Rd. - Azarenka d. Muguruza
A sure-fire nominee for the best two-set match of the year, this Grandstand (????) hosted match produced some of the highest-quality, gut-busting tennis we'll likely see all season long. The 1st set alone was fit for a time capsule, set to be opened (if we're lucky) around the time everyone meets up in Paris, London or New York in order to inspire the masses. Muguruza led the TB 6-4, only to see Azarenka raise her game and save two SP and win 8-6. In the 2nd, Vika led 2-0 and held from love/30 down for a 5-2 advantage, then reached MP from 15/40 down two games later. Right on cue, the Spaniard saved two MP via volley (#1) and overhead (#2) shots, then broke the Belarusian on a net cord dribbler to get back on serve at 5-4. Muguruza held at love in game #12 to force another TB, which simply gave Azarenka another opportunity to lift her game in clutch. She grabbed a mini-break lead at 2-1, went up 4-1 and finally won on her fourth MP.

The stats for a two-setter were quite wonderful. Vika had nine aces to Muguruza's seven, and had a 73% 1st serve percentage to 61% for the Spaniard. Not to mention the healthy winner totals, and success at the net.

Well, now they have. And it was a doozy. Bring on Vika/Garbi II!
2. Miami SF - Azarenka d. Kerber
If not for Azarenka/Muguruza, this would have been the sterling example of a great straight sets battle (even if the final scoreline might not suggest the measure of firepower, guts and glory displayed in this match by both players). In their third match-up already this season (Vika won in the Brisbane final, then Kerber won in Melbourne... with all three times the victor ultimately winning the title), points were won rather than lost. Kerber played with a strapped thigh that left her wincing at the conclusion of some points, but it didn't seem to hold her back or lower the level of fight in her blood. Both played with aggression, and the German made Vika work overtime for everything she got. But after being out-attacked by Kerber in the AO QF, Azarenka made a point to not be beaten to the punch this time. In the closing moments of the 2nd set, Azarenka's (still) occasional service foibles (the result of going for more on her serve) led to Kerber very nearly being able to push things to a 3rd when Vika double-faulted and fell behind love/30, then DF'd again to break herself. But Vika was not to be denied, as she improved her head-to-head record vs. Kerber to 7-1. Again, though, that record speaks more to Azarenka's ability to raise her game vs. stiff competition than it does the quality of Kerber's game in their match-ups. When these two meet, it's right to expect something great. Once again, they didn't disappoint.


3. Miami Final - Azarenka d. Kuznetsova
While Azarenka failed to hold serve after taking a two-break 3-0 lead in the opening set (there were breaks in eight of the first nine games of the match), her return game was in lethal form. After back-to-back DF handed Kuznetsova her first game in game #4, Azarenka immediately broke back a game later. It set the tone for the entire final, as a virtually untouchable Azarenka prevented Sveta from holding serve for :50, until the Russian finally avoided being broken when she held for 1-1 in the 2nd set. Naturally, though, Vika held and then broke her in the next two games. Kuznetsova's other hold came after she'd fallen behind 15/40, and Azarenka broke her one final time to close out the match with a return and backhand-to-the-corner combination.

4. Miami 4th Rd. - Kerber d. Babos
Kerber escaped the Doi Trap in Melbourne and went on to win the Australian Open, and after she managed to avoid an upset at the hands of Babos it appeared that history may repeat itself. Vika took care of that, though. Still, the German finding a way to win after being down 3-1 in the 3rd set -- with BPs for 4-1 -- and erasing the Hungarian's own GP for a 4-2 lead and turning it into a break to level things at 3-3 (Kerber ultimately won five of the final six games to advance) is surely a good opening act for the sort of never-say-die clay court run that will serve as her lead-up to the second slam of 2016. Meanwhile, the loss dropped Babos to 0-9 vs. Top 10 players.

5. Miami QF - Kuznetsova d. Makarova
Kuznetsova nearly gave this one away. Multiple times. She led 5-2, 40/love in the 1st but was broken, then dropped serve at 5-4 and 6-5, too, and Makarova breezed through a 7-3 TB to steal the set. Kuznetsova served for the set at 5-3 in the 2nd, but fell behind love/40 and dropped serve again. But she broke Makarova to force a 3rd. There, at 4-2, Sveta was broken again, but finally served things out after breaking her fellow Hordette in game #9. All in day's work.

6. Miami QF - Bacsinszky d. Halep
Frustrated by Bacsinszky's lack of pace, an angry Halep became more and more frustrated and gradually missed easy shots that only served to dig her hole even deeper. Implored by Cahill to fight, she was never able to reclaim her focus. The question now will be how much this return to (bad) form will stick with her as we head into the clay season, where she wasn't exactly at her best last season despite the high hopes she carried with her into the spring.

7. Miami 3rd Rd. - Kerber d. Bertens
...1-6/6-2/3-0 ret.
Bertens. who qualified with wins over Konjuh and Vekic and then notched MD victories over Zheng Saisai and Pavlyuchenkova, looked very good early in this one until she was ultimately taken out by gastrointestinal illness in the Florida heat.
8. Miami 3rd Rd. - Muguruza d. Gibbs
If this Garbi shows up in, say, Paris... may the Tennis Gods bless the souls of the field. Well, most of them, anyway.
9. Miami QF - Kerber d. Keys
This one was hardly of the level of the knock-down, drag-out battle that brought both players to their knees at the conclusion of their clash in the Charleston final last year. As it is, while Keys was the youngest player to reach the Round of 16 in Miami (which included no teens for the first time in tournament history), she's been the epitome of "slow and steady it goes" since her AO semifinal run last year. There's been no stark, Sloane or Genie-like fall, but no titles, either. It's been a full year since she even reached a final. But she shows occasional flashes, and has avoided the sort of early slam exits that often go along with the "what comes next" when a young player makes a big leap. Her 3rd-QF-4th-4th slam results since Melbourne are something to build on, which she's been able to do mostly without the usual harsh spotlight. She's even parted ways with a famous coach without much fanfare or whispers. Whether this works out remains to be seen, but if it doesn't it'll do so a lot more quietly than has been the case with other players who've gone down a similar path.
10. Miami QF - Azarenka d. Konta
Konta's week still included wins over Danka Kovinic, Elena Vesnina and Monica Niculescu as she added another "first/best Brit" honor to her collection.

11. Charleston Q2 - Krunic d. Jaksic
The Bracelet is back! And a Serbian Good Luck Charm on the comeback trail cuts no slack, not even for a fellow Serb. Speaking of comebacks, Krunic's opening Q-round win came over Melanie Oudin, playing in just her second event of the season.

12. $10K Sao Jose Campos Final - Nadia Podoroska d. Gabriela Ce
The 19-year old Argentine improves her career mark in ITF finals to 7-2. Oh, Nadia!

HM- $50K Osprey Final - Muhammad/Townsend d. Chirico/Stewart
...6-1/6-7(5) [10-4].
Whew! Talk about a close call. I mean, the USTA surely would have been in a pickle if Chirico/Stewart had won this one, considering they'd have had to figure out how to screw over Stewart but also award her partner Chirico (you know, like what happened during last year's "playoff" circumstance between the two). But, thankfully, their Bannerette counterparts made it a non-issue.

The Miami Open, looking out for the best interests of those who help to promote and cover the event. Umm, or not.

At least there's Alize...

1. Miami 4th Rd. - Kuznetsova d. Serena Williams
Sveta ends an error-prone Serena's 20-match Miami win streak, counting up eight aces and taking the match away from the world #1 despite dropping a 1st set which she probably should have won. Up a double-break at 3-0 in the 3rd, Kuznetsova saw Williams get one break back, but then quickly fall behind 15/40 while trying to back it up a game later. Serena got to game point, but ultimately broke herself with her ninth double-fault of the day. There was little doubt after that. In the end, the Hordette had just thirteen unforced errors to Serena's fifty. And, as usual, the seen-it-all Russian continued to be the most understanding personality on tour...

2. Miami 4th Rd. - Bacsinszky d. Aga Radwanska
The Swiss out-Radwanska'd Radwanska with her quick feet and varied, off-speed game to get her fourth career Top 5 victory. Aga has pulled out of the tour's only '16 stop in Poland (she was the #1 seed) this coming week in Katowice with a shoulder injury. Timea, meanwhile, still loves her job.

3. Charleston Q2 - Naomi Osaka d. Cepelova
#2 Q-seed Osaka takes out Cepelova to reach the main draw. The usually star-crossed Cepelova, remember, reached her career zenith (so far, since you never know... she's still just 22) in Charleston back in 2014 with her only tour level appearance in a final after running off a fabled string of wins over (take a deep breath) Melanie Oudin, SERENA WILLIAMS, Elena Vesnina, Daniela Hantuchova and Belinda Bencic. At least the Slovak still made the MD as a lucky loser.
HM- U.S. Int'l Spring Championships (Jr.) Doubles Final - Hurricane Tyra Black/Shibahara d. Branstine/Johnson
...5-7/6-1 [10-3].
The unseeded first-time Bannerette duo storm all the way to the title in their maiden pairing, taking out the #8-seeded U.S. pair in the final in Carson.

Mutual ???? @manny_the_frenchie #miamiopen

A photo posted by Victoria Azarenka (@vichka35) on

Back on clay ?? #grind

A video posted by Daria Gavrilova (@daria_gav) on

1991 Monica Seles (L-W)
1994 Steffi Graf (W-W)
1996 Steffi Graf (W-W)
1999 Serena Williams (W-L)
2000 Lindsay Davenport (W-L)
2000 Martina Hingis (L-W)
2005 Kim Clijsters (W-W)
2006 Maria Sharapova (W-L)
2012 Maria Sharapova (L-L)
2013 Maria Sharapova (W-L)
2016 Victoria Azarenka (W-W)

8...Serena Williams
5...Steffi Graf
3...Venus Williams

**2016 WTA FINALS**
2...Sloane Stephens (2-0)
2...Angelique Kerber (1-1)
2...Genie Bouchard (0-2)
2...Serena Williams (0-2)
NOTE: Misaki Doi is 0-1 in WTA finals, 1-0 in WTA 125 finals in 2016

69...Serena Williams
49...Venus Williams
43...Martina Hingis
35...Maria Sharapova
23...Caroline Wozniacki
18...Aga Radwanska
17...Petra Kvitova
16...Svetlana Kuznetsova

Brisbane - Victoria Azarenka
Shenzhen - Aga Radwanska
Auckland - Sloane Stephens
Kaohsiung- Venus Williams
Miami - Victoria Azarenka

1995 -
1996 -
1997 2-1 (Serna)
1998 9-5 (Sanchez-2,Testud,Spirlea,Hingis)
1999 8-5 (Testud-2,MJ.Fernandez,Venus,Graf)
2000 7-1 (Capriati; +2 3rd set ret.-Hingis/Suarez)
2001 7-4 (Capriati-2,Seles,Hingis)
2002 9-3 (Rubin,Henin,Schnyder)
2003 6-2 (Henin,Mauresmo)
2004 9-4 (Capriati-2,Davenport,Sharapova)
2005 8-0
2006 2-1 (Mauresmo)
2007 6-4 (Dementieva,Henin,Schnyder,Bammer)
2008 9-4 (Venus,Li,Dementieva,Safina)
2009 11-6 (Petrova,Stosur,Kuznetsova,Schnyder,Koukalova,Venus)
2010 6-2 (Stosur, Jankovic)
2011 5-1 (Zvonareva)
2012 7-1 (Razzano)
2013 10-3 (Azarenka-2,Lisicki)
2014 7-3 (Ivanovic,Cornet,Venus)
2015 18-2 (Bencic,Vinci)
2016 0-2 (Kerber,Kuznetsova)
[most 3rd set wins]
5...Jennifer Capriati
4...Venus Williams
3...Justine Henin
3...Patty Schnyder
3...Sandrine Testud
2...Victoria Azarenka
2...Elena Dementieva
2...Martina Hingis (+1 3rd set ret.)
2...Amelie Mauresmo
2...Arantxa Sanchez
2...Samantha Stosur

18.Arantxa Sanchez (29)
19t.Hana Mandlikova (27)
19t.Gabriela Sabatini (27)
21.Amelie Mauresmo (25)
22.Jana Novotna (24)
23.Caroline Wozniacki (23)
24.Pam Shriver (21)
26t.Nancy Ricey (19)
26t.Manuela Maleeva-Fragniere (19)
28t.Petra Kvitova (17)
28t.Aga Radwanska (17)
28t.Kerry Melville-Reid (17)

Indian Wells - Serena Williams, USA (L)
Shenzhen - Xu Yifan/Zheng Saisai, CHN (L)
Hobart - Birrell/Wolfe, AUS (L)
Kaohsiung - Chan/Chan, TPE (W)
St.Petersburg - Vera Dushevina, RUS (L)
Indian Wells - Mattek-Sands/Vandeweghe, USA (W)
S.Antonio 125 - Nicole Melichar, USA (W)
Miami - Bethanie Mattek-Sands, USA (W)

12...VICTORIA AZARENKA (March-current) #
10...Aga Radwanska (January)
20...Martina Hingis (January-February)
19...Hingis/Mirza (January-February)
10...BETHANIE MATTEK-SANDS (March-current)
# - Azarenka 13 con. wins w/ walkover after first victory

3 - Victoria Azarenka
1 - Sara Errani
1 - Hingis/Mirza
1 - Angelique Kerber
1 - Svetlana Kuznetsova
1 - Francesca Schiavone
1 - Carla Suarez-Navarro
1 - Elina Svitolina
Overall Fed Cup MVP: Karolina Pliskova
Slam Q PoW: Naomi Osaka (AO)

Hey, why not have ALL the top players were the same outfit? Go ahead. I mean, in a sport that desires individual personalities who'd mind if- ...what's that? Oh. Nevermind.

What was it I was saying last year about wishing for the sport to institute a rule -- at least in slams, we can throw a bone at the problem there, right? -- that prevents players from wearing identical outfits when they're facing off on the same playing field? You know, like pretty much every other sport on earth (even in golf, you rarely even see players wearing the exact same thing).

Yeah... pipe dreams.

Meanwhile, Sloane and Shelby get a photo...

But Katie gets a car...


15 Final: Kerber d. Keys
15 Doubles Final: Hingis/Mirza d. Dellacqua/Jurak
16 Singles Top Seeds: Kerber/Bencic

#1 Kerber d. #14 Kasatkina
#10 Stosur d. #8 Keys
#1 Kerber d. #10 Stosur

...Patty Schnyder failed to make it through qualifying, and Jelena Jankovic pulled out due to injury. But Angelique Kerber and Andrea Petkovic ('14 champ) could meet in the QF, one year after Kerber defeated her countrywoman in the semis a year ago en route to the title. Kerber leads the head-to-head 7-3. But Kasatkina lurks in a possible SF match-up with whichever German might survive.

15 Final: AK.Schmiedlova d. Giorgi
15 Doubles Final: Bonaventure/Schuurs d. Barbieri/Knapp
16 Singles Top Seeds: #3 Ostapenko/#2 AK.Schmiedlova (#1 A.Radwanska w/d)

#5 Giorgi d. #3 Ostapenko
#4 Cornet d. #6 Tsurenko
#4 Cornet d. #5 Giorgi

...I don't know how likely this final match-up is. But imagine how much fun it'd be.

And, finally...

Speaking of Vika, the 1st Quarter Backspin Awards arrive here later this week.

Who will the the Player-of-the-Quarter? The duo with the most titles, the woman with the most wins or the Australian Open champ? Hmmm.

"Eeny. Meeny. Miney. Moe."

Don't worry, though. There will be no blood here.

All for now.


Blogger jo shum said...

I actually like how stubborn she is. She is more mature and tries to being good spirit with the press but when comes to crunch time, she really doesn't care. Haha.

"I am definitely motivated for the clay season," Azarenka said. "I've always liked to prove people wrong. It motivates me. When people say clay is not my favorite surface, I'm going to work hard to make sure it's my favorite surface. I will do the work. Do the adjustments. I'm looking forward to going after it."

Mon Apr 04, 05:02:00 AM EDT  
Blogger colt13 said...

Jo Shum, aren't all the great ones a little different? Serena's the grumpy one, Maria is the ice queen, Vika is the goofy one, with the dancing and dabbing, etc. But they all have IT. The combo of talent and belief that they are the best.

The opposite is Halep, who has the talent without the belief.

Mon Apr 04, 10:02:00 AM EDT  
Blogger Eric said...


Nicole Gibbs certainly won me over with her article...

Mon Apr 04, 06:09:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Eric said...

Daria Kasatkina's attitude reminds me of Marat Safin... and the way she hits the ball reminds me of Dinara Safina. I think she's going to be great on clay with her high looping, angled shots.

Todd, who's your "hottest prospect" among the youngsters?

Wed Apr 06, 12:23:00 AM EDT  
Blogger Todd.Spiker said...

We're pretty much on the same wavelength with Kasatkina. At the moment, I'd pick her.

Wed Apr 06, 01:47:00 AM EDT  

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