Monday, October 31, 2011

Wk.43- Watch Your Back, Caroline

Let the 2012 campaign begin, for there's more than enough meat left on 2011's remaining bone to promise to make the next twelve months a tasty season to come.

At the 2011 WTA Championships in Istanbul last week, Petra Kvitova once again showed why she may be the answer to so many of the tour's "credibility" problems. Busting her way through a group of all the world's best players not named Serena, she, just as she did at Wimbledon this summer, managed to give still more weight to the belief that she could be the WTA's long-awaited, next dominant player.

Not that Victoria Azarenka's week was all that "shabby," either. Riding the wave of momentum from her title in Luxembourg, the Belarusian cruised into the Championships final and, just as she did in the semifinal before the Czech's SW19 grass court triumph, proved herself to be a worthy foil for eventual champion Kvitova once again. Even with Kvitova's career 4-2 series edge on Azarenka, with four straight wins (Vika hasn't defeated her in nearly three years, at the '09 Australian Open), this is surely a continuing rivalry that tennis might like to see blossom.

As two-thirds of the twentysomething brigade that crashed the semis at the All-England Club about four months ago, Kvitova and Azarenka look poised to take down the Danish-born #1-ranked player in the world in due time. The two faced off for the right to secure the year-end #2 ranking in the Istanbul final, and either (or both) might very well push that Dane down to #3 (or #4, if Maria Sharapova cooperates) in the early weeks of next season. Essentially, Kvitova actually ended up coming up just one of her brief walkabouts (vs. Li Na at Roland Garros, or Vera Zvonareva in Tokyo?) short of picking up enough of the necessary points THIS year to end the season as #1. It seems a fait accompli -- or at least nearly so -- that she'll become the next Czech-born women's #1 at some point in 2012. That is, unless Azarenka beats her to the post.

Contrast those two players' weeks with that of one Caroline Wozniacki.

Rarely has a #1 player looked less so than she did in Istanbul. A year after reaching the Championships final and losing to Kim Clijsters, Wozniacki looked far worse for wear than she ever has in what should have been an opportunity to "prove" something against her peers. Coming up far short on the court, she also continued her metamorphosis from "breath of fresh air" to "stale buttered bread" off it. Rather than a "Barbie" performance, the Championships got a "Polly Parrot" routine from the Dane.

The "Ms. Backspin" crown won't become official for about a week or so, but, unfortunately, that's probably just long enough for Wozniacki -- never a serious contender for the honor, even with back-to-back #1 seasons -- to further ingratiate herself with Stacey Allaster by suddenly becoming an advocate for another of the Tour CEO's shortsighted pet projects. After Allaster recently sounded off about the "scourge" of grunting on the tour, the Dane, too, immediately jumped on board this past week by accusing "some" fellow players of essentially "faking it" by literally sounding off during points in order to mess with their opponent's ability to judge the power of their shots (hmmm, I guess C-Woz's opponents don't have to worry about that, and not because of her generally silent demeanor on court, either).

"If you grunt loudly, your opponent can't hear how you hit the ball. I think there are some players who do it on purpose. They don't do it in practice and then they come into the match and grunt," she said, further noting how often fans tell her they watch matches with the sound turned down because of the noise.

I suspect that by this time next year, with Allaster (who, it should be noted, publicly defended the validity of Wozniacki's ranking earlier this year), locked up as the tour's Chairwoman until 2017, Wozniacki will continue to be her dutiful "Water Girl," backing up her calls for a court-side "grunt-o-meter," and then maybe even proposing a worldwide law that states that all women from Canada shall hereby be addressed by the title "M'Lady" and will be given full immunity from prosecution from any crime, no matter how minor ("park anywhere you like, M'Lady, even on the lawn"), as well as be allowed to live tax-free, rent-free and with complementary medical care anywhere on earth.

And she'll announce this stance on "Stacey Allaster Day" in Toronto.

Of course, I could be wrong.

Either way, while Wozniacki worries about being distracted on the court (ah, the reason for her slam losses has been found!), Kvitova is determined to get more fit this offseason, saying she'll soon be heading "for the mountains," hopefully with the end result an Agassi-like dedication to better cardio and quickness, and not the sort of search for "bulk and power" that ruined Queen Chaos' rise. With a little better fitness and footwork, plus the ingrained notion to play a bit more within herself (translation: hit the easy open court winner rather than try to bludgeon the ball as if trying to settle some ancient familial score and missing the court altogether), Kvitova would be an even more scary proposition for opponents next season. Fitting, considering her Istanbul triumph came on All Hallow's Eve. Meanwhile, Azarenka leaves '11 knowing she improved her approach in many areas over the past twelve months and saw the dividends it brought her. Two years ago, she couldn't quite reach the physical -- or emotional -- finish line at the end of the season (ironically, it was Wozniacki who showed her up on the court in Doha). This year, she crossed it, even if she wasn't quite the one who broke the tape. While it's easy to feel confident in Kvitova's successful fine-tuning, even if the level isn't quite as high with Azarenka, the long-term trends seem to be heading in an optimistic direction.

Can the same be said for Wozniacki? Is she in-tune enough with her actual place in the game to fix what is lacking, or will her stubbornness preclude it? Or is she even capable of it at all, as that possibility has to come into the conversation even more as time goes by? Even if she manages to keep her #1 ranking, it progressively becomes more and more hollow if Kvitova is joined by other generational counterparts in picking up slam titles while Wozniacki remains empty-handed. Thing is, with the band of twentysomethings joined by a healthy Serena and (maybe for a while) Clijsters, the Dane looks far less viable as a slam contender now than she did a year ago just because of the rising level of competition.

Truthfully, Kvitova has already improved more since she won Wimbledon than Wozniacki has since she became #1. She's noticably fitter. She overcame her post-Wimbledon dip quicker in '11 than she did after her '10 semifinal run, too. Plus, since winning at the All-England Club, she's gotten "Petra" stitched into all her shoes (courtesy of Nike), and her point-punctuating barks from Wimbledon have been "aggressionized" into piercing shrieks that had Chris Evert and Patrick McEnroe jokingly talking on ESPN2 about kicking off a campaign for Allaster to work to eliminate THOSE, too.

Well, at least I THINK they were joking. I guess one can never be too careful about giving the WTA head -- or her willing water-carrier, evidently -- any more bright ideas about how to "improve" the tour. Well, I mean, other than maybe mentioning that it'd "good for the game" to have a world #1 who actually wins slams and doesn't make it so easy for critics to sneer at the abilities of the computer's "best" player in the world. But, then again, I don't think that's going to be an actual issue for more than a few more months.

Of course, I could be wrong. But I don't think I will be.

WTA CHAMPIONSHIPS (Istanbul, Turkey/hard court indoor)
S: Petra Kvitova def. Victoria Azarenka 7-5/4-6/6-3
D: Huber/Raymond d. Peschke/Srebotnik

PLAYER OF THE WEEK: Petra Kvitova/CZE now, Kvitova's breath is so ever-present on #1 Wozniacki's neck that she can read the washing instructions on the tag inside the Dane's collar. Just 115 points back on the computer, the Czech ended up tying Wozniacki for the tour season lead with her sixth '11 title in Istanbul. With a 5-0 Championships record -- with wins over #3 Azarenka, #6 Stosur, #7 Zvonareva, #8 Radwanska & top-ranked Wozniacki -- she ran her post-U.S. Open 1st Round debacle record to 13-2, and pushed her season indoor mark to 19-0 heading into the Fed Cup final being held under the roof this weekend in Moscow.
RISERS: Victoria Azarenka/BLR & Samantha Stosur/AUS
...Azarenka wasn't able to grab her biggest-yet title in Istanbul, but she DID reach her biggest career final to cap off a year in which she advanced to her first slam SF and climbed to a career-high ranking. Dominating wins over Samantha Stosur, Li Na and Vera Zvonareva showed that she's capable of still being in top form at the end of a long season. Now, if she could just manage to stay on the court and out of the trainer's room a little more often throughout the year in 2012, she might just get into a season-long battle for #1 with the likes of the Kvitovas, Sharapovas and Serenas of the WTA. Stosur, for her part, showed just how much winning the Open seems to have helped her confidence (good news for Oz?). In the Istanbul Round Robin, she got her first win over Sharapova in ten tries, nearly double-bagled Li and took one of the only two sets off Kvitova all week in the SF. As it turns out, her '11 year-end ranking matches her #6 finish of '10... but, oh, what different seasons they were.
SURPRISE: Diana Enache/ROU
...the Swarmettes have starred on a number of occasions on the WTA tour in '11, and they've been a big part of the action on the ITF circuit, as well. Combined, they've won 22 titles, including five $100K events. It's Enache, 23, who has won more challengers than any other Romanian this season. She picked up her fourth this weekend in the $10K in Antalya, Turkey, taking out Maryna Zanevska in the final.
COMEBACK: Anne Keothavong/GBR
...after reaching the tour-level Luxembourg event's semis in Week 42, Keothavong went back to play in front of a bunch of Brits in the $75K in Barnstaple in Week 43. While the big news early in the week was the 2nd Round meeting of Laura Robson and Heather Watson, it was Keothavong who was the last woman standing in the end. She won the singles, defeating Marta Domchowska in the final, and won the doubles with Mona Barthel, too.
VETERANS: Liezel Huber & Lisa Raymond, USA/USA
...Huber and Raymond have been storming through the tour ever since the end of Wimbledon. Their Championships title -- the fourth of Raymond's career, and Huber's third -- means they won four of the six biggest doubles titles contested on tour since everyone left London in July. The win assured Huber of her first solo season-ending doubles #1 rank, after finishing as co-#1 with partner Cara Black from 2007-09. Not only that, but with her time in the top spot carrying over into the '12 season, Huber is slated to pass Black on the all-time "Weeks as Doubles #1" list early next year, leaving only Martina Navratilova ahead of her in WTA history.
FRESH FACE: Michelle Larcher de Brito/POR
...keeping as far away from Allaster and Wozniacki as possible, the often-called-"loud" Larcher de Brito was "hiding out" in Puerto Rico last week. While she was there, she picked up her second ITF crown of the season in the $25K challenger in Bayamon. Following victories over Catalina Castano and Madison Brengle, Larcher de Brito spoiled Monica Puig's homecoming by taking the Puerto Rican out in a 6-3/6-2 final win.
DOWN: Caroline Wozniacki/DEN & Maria Sharapova/RUS
...both of these two arrived in Istanbul last week with a shot to finish the 2011 season in the #1 ranking. While Wozniacki ultimately held onto the top spot for the second straight season -- becoming the first to do so since Justine Henin in 2006-07, Sharapova fell to #4 and left the event early with a 0-2 record, sloppily lost Round Robin leads against Stosur and Li, and her lingering ankle injury. Still, the Russian is probably the one with the most (at least early season) upside for 2012. She at least knows how to get where she wants to return, while with Wozniacki it's still an open question. As if finishing fourth in her Group in Istanbul, complaining of Azarenka-esque in-match dizziness and endorsing Allaster's latest waste of valuable time wasn't enough, she then took on a "Yoko Ono-ish" bent when boyfriend Rory McIlroy's former agent blamed her for interfering and leading to the golfer's split with Chubby Chandler's International Sports Management team. From distracting attempts-at-people-pleasing press room antics and #1-without-a-slam question curtness, to outright lying about her coaching situation during the U.S. Open, Wozniacki seems to have somewhat lost sight of the forest for the trees, professing an "all for the Tour" attitude while often conducting herself in a manner that only (unintentionally) shines an even harsher light on what she has not accomplished in her career. I've said in the past that I enjoyed the friendly-and-outgoing Wozniacki's take on things in spite of her (too?) fitting comparisons of another blonde European who reached #1 without winning a slam, but the expiration date on that line of thinking has pretty much come to an end (I think the "bell" went off with the "brown-noser" grunting comments, to tell you the truth). A year ago, I said the pre-2011 offseason was going to be super important for Wozniacki's further development into an effective, "true" #1. It seems obvious now that that time off was wasted (it'll be interesting to see how nearly-#1 Kvitova comes into '12 after maybe better utilizing HER off time). I'd say the same thing about THIS offseason, but I'm not sure I believe it anymore. She maybe has already missed her opportunity. I know I, for one, no longer expect such offseason (or in-season) pragmatism from her when it comes to doing what's best for her game. And, really, what kind of notion is that to be forced to have about the player ranked #1 in the sport? And, unlike that other EuroBlonde, she doesn't have the innate power and go-for-the-throat abilities in her game that only needed to be effectively tapped in order for her to reach her potential. Wozniacki has to learn new tricks, and I'm not convinced she's really willing to do it. Hmmm, does this mean she qualfies as something of a version of the original Barbie's not-quite-as-good-as-the-original friend Midge? As part of the '12 preview in December, I'm going to be debuting the first Backspin "Grand Slam Master List." It'll rank, in order, the top 25-or-more preseason "most likely" potential slam champions for next year. Somehow, even if I don't necessarily see Sharapova winning a fourth slam in '12, I get the feeling that there's a good chance she still might come in at a higher position on the charts than the seeking-her-first Dane. That could change, of course. But I won't be holding my breath.
ITF PLAYER: Kimiko Date-Krumm/JPN
...fresh off her Osaka doubles titles, 41-year old Date-Krumm rediscovered her singles sweet spot in the $100K challenger in Poitiers, France. After taking out Vesna Dolonts, Marina Erakovic, Alexandra Panova and Regina Kulikova, KDK defeated Elena Baltacha 7-6/6-4 in the final.
JUNIOR STAR: Anett Kontaveit/EST
...the 15-year old Estonian, the #18 junior in the world, claimed her third ITF title of the year in the $10K in Stockholm. After upsetting #1 seed Marion Gaud in the QF, she defeated Syna Kayser in the final.

1. WTA rr #2 - Wozniacki d. A.Radwanska
Wozniacki didn't produce much to write home about in Istanbul, but she DID ultimately win the match against the player who has, at times, looked like a better version of herself in recent months. C-Woz overcame A-Rad's 4-2 lead in the 1st, going up 5-4, 40/love before seeing her Polish friend come back to nip her and take the early advantage in the match. It was the first set Radwanska had taken off Wozniacki in four years. In the 3rd, it was Wozniacki's quick lead that dwindled, as her 4-1 (and 4-2, 40/love) bulge ended up as a much closer 6-4 victory.
2. WTA rr #8 - Kvitova d. Wozniacki
The most unsurprising stat of the day: Kvitova led 36-6 in winners. Midge complained of dizziness in this match, but one might surmise that the Czech could have had something to do with her condition. Unceremoniously dumped out of the Championships with this loss, Polly can now "look forward" to 2012 and contending with a potentially better version of the new world #2. And, by then, no matter what Allaster says or does, finding a way to avoid being overwhelmed will fall solely on the Water Girl's (hey, now's the time to try out a few new '12 season monikers, I guess) shoulders.
3. WTA Final - Kvitova d. Azarenka
Kvitova again flashed BOTH sides of her on-court personality, virtually trampling over Azarenka en route to an as-dominant-as-it-looks 5-0 1st set lead, only to suddenly slip down the error-strewn rabbit hole and suddenly find the set tied at 5-5 twenty minutes later. She caught herself in time, though, edging ahead late in the set and winning it via an Azarenka error of Kvitova's fourth set point. In the deciding 3rd, the Czech won the big early points, saving four break points and coming back from a love/30 hole the second game. From there, she broke in the next game and kept her lead all the way to the finish line, ultimately ending with an impressive 42-23 lead in winners against the Belarusian, who's game, unlike the aforementioned Dane's, doesn't exactly preclude a high number of her own in that category. If we're lucky, maybe they'll get another shot at a similarly compelling match in the latter stages of a slam in '12.
4. WTA rr #9 - A.Radwanska d. Zvonareva 1-6/6-2/7-5
WTA rr #11 - Kvitova d. A.Radwanska 7-6/6-3
in the fight to reach the semis, A-Rad overcame a 5-3 3rd set deficit and three match points to defeat Zvonareva, and only needed to win one set off Kvitova to assure herself a Final Four spot. She led 5-1 in the 1st against the Czech, only to be eventually caught in the undertow of Kvitova's big wave of shots. Thus, Zvonareva was the player to advance out of the the Group, not Radwanska. Epic fail.
5. WTA rr #12 - Bartoli d. Azarenka
Azarenka wandered through the proverbial desert, wondering whether or not she should try to win this "meaningless" match, overcoming a 4-0 1st set hole to take the stanza before blowing a 2nd set lead and then being whistled off the court by fans for a perceived lack of desire to give full effort in the 3rd and drag out her day-before-the-SF match any longer than necessary. Meanwhile, Bartoli got some nice practice before heading to Bali for the T.O.C.
6. WTA SF - Azarenka d. Zvonareva
Vera ended up going 1-3 in Istanbul. Not exactly a good confidence-building effort before the Fed Cup final.
7. WTA rr #10 - Stosur d. Li
And, thus, Li's career-altering season ends with a rather pathetic whimper.
8. $50K Saguenay CAN Final - Timea Babos/HUN d. Julia Boserup/USA
The Hungarian defeated an American to take the title, and also notched an earlier win over Croat Mirjana Lucic. But Timea became Canada's "Public Enemy #1" with defeats of national faves Eugenie Bouchard and Gabriela Dabrowski, as well as a win in the Doubles final (with Jessica Pegula) over Dabrowski and Marie Eve Pelletier.
9. $75 Barnstaple GBR 2nd Rd - Laura Robson/GBR d. Heather Watson/GBR
And the Brits begin to look toward 2012 and beyond.
10. $25K Hamanako JPN Final - Karolina Pliskova/CZE d. Junri Namigata/JPN
Week 43's sisterly update includes a win by one of the Pliskova sisters. Kristyna lost in the QF following a 1st Round Doubles loss by the siblings.

**2011 WTA TITLES**
6...Caroline Wozniacki, DEN
3...Victoria Azarenka, BLR
3...Agnieszka Radwanska, POL
3...Roberta Vinci, ITA

**2011 WTA FINALS**
8...Caroline Wozniacki (6-2)
5...Marion Bartoli (2-3)

4...Caroline Wozniacki, DEN
3...Agnieszka Radwanska, POL
2...Victoria Azarenka, BLR
2...Serena Williams, USA
2...Vera Zvonareva, RUS

Victoria Azarenka, BLR - Miami & Marbella (March-April)
Serena Williams, USA - Stanford & Toronto (July-August)
Agnieszka Radwanska, POL - Tokyo & Beijing (October)
PETRA KVITOVA, CZE - Linz & WTA Championships (October)

12...Victoria Azarenka, March-April (ended by Goerges/ret.)
12...Kim Clijsters, January-February (ended by Kvitova)
12...Serena Williams, July-August (ended by walkover, won 6 more matches)
11...Li Na, January (ended by Clijsters)
11...Petra Kvitova, May (ended by Li; also lost in ITF $100K final during WTA streak)
11...Sabine Lisicki, June (ended by Sharapova)
11...Agnieszka Radwanska, Septeber-October (ended by Safarova)
10...PETRA KVITOVA, October (current)
10...Julia Goerges, April-May (ended by Azarenka)
10...Maria Sharapova, May-June (ended by Li)
10...Caroline Wozniacki, August-September (ended by S.Williams)

[recent doubles champions]
2004 Nadia Petrova & Meghann Shaughnessy, RUS/USA
2005 Lisa Raymond & Samantha Stosur, USA/AUS
2006 Lisa Raymond & Samantha Stosur, USA/AUS
2007 Cara Black & Liezel Huber, ZIM/USA
2008 Cara Black & Liezel Huber, ZIM/USA
2009 Nuria Llagostera-Vives & Maria Jose Martinez-Sanchez, ESP/ESP
2010 Gisela Dulko & Flavia Pennetta, ARG/ITA
2011 Liezel Huber & Lisa Raymond, USA/USA
[career WTA Chsp. doubles titles]
11...Martina Navratilova
10...Pam Shriver
3...Lindsay Davenport
3...Natasha Zvereva
[best WTA Chsp. singles debuts]
1979 Tracy Austin (RU)
1981 Andrea Jaeger (RU)
1994 Lindsay Davenport (RU)
1996 Martina Hingis (RU)
2001 Serena Williams (W)
2004 Maria Sharapova (W)
2011 Petra Kvitova (W)
[undefeated in WTA Chsp. finals]
3-0...Kim Clijsters, BEL (2002-03,10)
2-0...Justine Henin, BEL (2006-07)
1-0...Silvia Hanika, GER (1982)
1-0...PETRA KVITOVA, CZE (2011)
1-0...Jana Novotna, CZE (1997)

6...Kveta Peschke/Katarina Srebotnik, CZE/SLO
4...Iveta Benesova/Barbora Zahlavova-Strycova, CZE/CZE
3...Sara Errani/Roberta Vinci, ITA/ITA

237...Martina Navratilova
163...Cara Black
124...Natasha Zvereva
117...Lisa Raymond
111...Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario
# - as of October 31; Huber will surpass Black's total in opening weeks of 2012

1975-77 Chris Evert
1978-79 Martina Navratilova
1980-81 Chris Evert
1982-86 Martina Navratilova
1987-90 Steffi Graf
1991-92 Monica Seles
1993-96 Steffi Graf
1999-00 Martina Hingis
2004-05 Lindsay Davenport
2006-07 Justine Henin

#1 - Martina Navratilova
#2 - Jana Novotna
#3 - Hana Mandlikova
#4 - Helena Sukova
#7 - Nicole Vaidisova

TOURNAMENT OF "CHAMPIONS" (Bali/hard indoor)
10 Final: Ivanovic d. Kleybanova
11 Top Seeds: Bartoli/Peng

Marion Bartoli

FED CUP FINAL (Moscow/hard indoor)
10 Final: Italy d. USA

=Czech Republic at Russia=
CZE 3-2

Tomorrow, part one of the 2011 Backspin Awards arrives. Next week, after the Fed Cup & TOC recap, "Ms. Backspin" (hmmm, I wonder who she could be?) will officially be crowned in the second half of the BSA's. Following that, the 2011 season comes to a close with the WTA Yearbook.

All for now.


Blogger Todd Spiker said...

Late news: Allaster somewhat changed her tune on regulating the "scourge" that is grunting, so I suspect that Wozniacki will likely dial back her parrot act a bit in coming weeks and months, too. Geez, Stacey needs to keep her mouthpieces a little more up to date.

Mon Oct 31, 08:52:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Diane said...

I've watched Wozniacki (from a stadium) for years, and that "Oompah!" is neither silent nor infrequent. She grunts with every shot. I'm fine with it, but somehow her grunting is okay and other players' grunting or other sound-making isn't?

Mon Oct 31, 09:01:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Todd Spiker said...

Yeah, as Allaster (now) says, it's something of a "natural" thing. Trying to determine intent and level of "hinderance" is opening up a can of worms that is more trouble than it's worth. Maybe she, too, has come to that conclusion over the past few months.

I'd love to be privy to the behind-closed-doors discussions that led to her sudden change of opinion... which it is, of course, no matter how hard she seems to be trying to now act as if she wasn't really as serious about the "decibal measuring" idea that SHE brought into the conversation a few months ago.

Wed Nov 02, 03:02:00 AM EDT  
Blogger Diane said...

Perhaps it was the trophy ceremony that "spoke volumnes" to her. Kvitova and Azarenka took the big prizes. After all, Allaster's original statement was in defense of the players.

Wed Nov 02, 09:51:00 AM EDT  

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