Sunday, September 09, 2012

(S)e(rena) = mc²

There have been quite a few entries in the "Theory of Serena" canon over the years, and one of the guiding laws of "Serenativity" has always been, when given the opportunity, never, ever fail to take advantage of it, for it might be the only one that you'll get.

It was a tennis physics lesson that Victoria Azarenka, within two points of becoming the second woman (Martina Hingis in '97) in the last seventeen years to win both hard court slam titles in a single season, was reminded of during in the 2012 U.S. Open women's final.

When the Belarusian world #1 won in Melbourne in January, she did so with the air of an MMA fighter. But on Sunday afternoon in New York City, Azarenka learned that you can't take your foot off the neck of Serena Williams in the 3rd set, because in one move she'll have YOU on your back with HER foot on your throat. And that's essentially what happened in the final four games of the final, as Williams once again escaped from the jaws of defeat to claim her fifteenth career slam crown.

The final wasn't one of the "great matches," as it was portrayed by CBS commentators in its latter stages, but considering the shenanigans we're often seen in U.S. Open finals over the last nearly twenty years, it surely rates as a very good, entertaining contest. Especially the dramatic 3rd set, the first seen in a women's championship match at Flushing Meadows since 1995, and one which helped make this final the longest at the Open since 1981.

But the match didn't seem like it'd last nearly that long at the start.

Much like she did against Maria Sharapova in the semifinals, Azarenka fell behind early, as Williams broke her to take a 2-0 lead, and Vika didn't hold serve until 3-1. But while she was on the verge of getting swamped, Azarenka wasn't going to give in like so many recent U.S. Open runners-up (Mary, Sveta, Vera), and you could sort of tell that was the case simply by the tone of her brief exchange with the umpire after a dispute about whether a replay challenge she'd won should have resulted in her being awarded a point (she SHOULD have been) or a service point being re-played (which the umpire ruled, though the incorrect "out" line call had come either simultaneously with, or after, Serena had hit her errant return). The umpire said that the call had been "not that late." "Not THAT late," Vika said with a smirk, then added, "You're hilarious," as she walked away. No outburst of anger, just a measured statement of her opinion, with a touch of punky attitude to let the chair know how she really felt. It's that controlled emotion, and the desire to get the last word, that has propelled Azarenka to the top of the sport in '12.

She was going to get her game into a higher gear, it was just a matter of whether she could do it in time to make a match of things. She didn't. At least not in the 1st set. In game #8, Serena destroyed an Azarenka second serve with a backhand winner to get to triple set point. With a 16-2 edge in winners, she won the set at 6-2 in just thirty-four minutes.

But once the 2nd set began, Azarenka picked up and cleaned up her game enough to not give anything more away, while Williams' game noticeably slipped, starting with her serve. Serena opened the set by double-faulting on break-point in game #1. In a nod to past controversy, Serena was called for a foot-fault in game #4, but she let it go (somehow, though, judging by the size of the linesman that made the call, even if she'd been so inclined, I doubt she would have entertained any notions of threatening to force-feed HIM any tennis balls) and held for 1-2. After Azarenka saved a break point and held a game later, she grabbed an opportunity to get a seeming stranglehold on the set in game #5. On her fourth break point of the game, Azarenka stepped inside the baseline to attack a Serena second serve, hit the second of two consecutive backhands, then closed on the net, forcing Serena into an error and getting the break for 4-1. Eventually, Vika held to take the set 6-2, though both players sported 1st serve percentages of less than 50%.

As had been the case in her semi against Sharapova, Vika's best tennis came in the 3rd set. But, unlike versus the Russian, she failed to maintain that same level of focus and consistency when it counted the very most -- in the would-be final moments of a potential championship run.

In the 3rd, Serena held for 1-0 with three big serves, including two aces, the second on game point. In game #2, Azarenka held in a three-deuce, two-break point game with a forehand down-the-line and volley combo. She followed up with a break of Williams' serve after a deep return kicked off a short rally, which Vika won when Serena shot a ball beyond the baseline.

But with a chance to truly put the heat on Williams, Azaranka couldn't quite complete the takedown. Up 40/15 on serve, a series of errors allowed Serena back into the game. In a rally heavy on crosscourt groundstrokes, Azarenka's down-the-line shot and overhead behind Serena -- it caught a line -- got her back to game point for 3-1. But Serena saved it with a lob and unreturnable forehand, then used another huge return of serve to get a break point. Williams secured the break with a swinging forehand shot for 2-2, as Azarenka muttered to herself about the errors that had prevented her from streaking ahead in the set. Serena held with an ace for 3-2, but two games later opened the door for Azarenka. A double-fault put Williams in a love/30 hole, then an Azarenka shot jammed her and she was down love/40. Azarenka broke at love for 4-3, then held for 5-3. She got to 30/30 on Serena's serve in game #9 before Williams finally held, giving Vika a chance to serve for her second career slam title.

As she prepared to serve for the match, Azarenka found herself in position to become the first woman to win in Flushing Meadows after having dropped the 1st set in the final since 1994. Even with an AO title on her resume, serving for the U.S. Open was her chance to secure the "signature" win of her young career. Successfully pulling it off would allow her to say she'd personally taken an accounting at this event of all the reigning slam champs (the list, besides Vika herself: Sam Stosur, Maria Sharapova & Serena), and put them all down in head-to-head contests in less than a week. With both herself and Williams vying for the right to be looked upon as THE player of 2012, Azarenka had the heart of the season in her grasp... only to loosen her grip, and see Serena rip it out of her hands.

Twice in her match against Serena at the '10 Australian Open, Azarenka had served for the match, only to fail both times and eventually lose. She was about to experience a severe case of deja vu. At 5-4, Azarenka failed to adhere to the one guiding principle of "Serenativity" -- never, EVER, give Serena a second chance at life. Because she will take it, at your expense, and leave you gasping for air.

Quickly, Azarenka's errors put her down love/40. A final forehand into the net, her third error of the game, allowed Williams to break for 5-5. One game later, Azarenka made a poor decision to go for a drop shot (after one hadn't worked for her earlier in the set, and in many ways allowed Williams, who'd been plagued by sloppy footwork since the 1st set, to begin to rev her internal engines when she charged for the ball and put away a winner), which Serena retrieved with ease to take a 30/love lead before going on to hold for 6-5. After going up 15/love on Azarenka's serve, as Vika tried to force the first Open women's final 3rd set tie-break since 1985, Serena had won eleven of thirteen points when the match was on line and, in fact, Vika had had it on her racket.

Azarenka twice got to within a point of a breaker-forcing hold, but by then, Serena had gotten the scent of her 15th major title, and there was really no stopping her. Once she got to her first match point, which she did after the game's second deuce, it was just a matter of when. One point, in fact. Serena's return of a second serve resulted in a long backhand error from Azarenka and, after 2:18, Williams won 6-2/2-6/7-5, claiming her fourth U.S. Open title. Williams ended with a 44-13 edge in winners (13-0 in aces), and ran her career record against Azarenka to 10-1 with her fifteenth career win over a reigning world #1.

After the match, Azarenka didn't allow herself to get emotional over the loss, or how it occurred. She said she'll "have no regrets." She's really taken to embracing her new-found maturity... and that's why Vika will win this title someday. Well, just so long as the "it is what it is" attitude that she's seemed to pick up following summertime losses at the Olympics and here to Williams doesn't lead to a mindset where Azarenka feels as if the results of her matches with Serena aren't in her hands. I mean, that IS usually the case, as it is with EVERY player who faces an in-form Serena. But the true champion that Azarenka has found within herself in 2012 should always THINK that her ability to win is up to HER. It's all right to be angry that she lost. In fact, that anger, when focused, is what can make that belief come true one day. Just ask Serena, who's managed to turn the art of redemption into something of a blood sport during her various slam-winning career "comebacks."

About to turn 31 in about two weeks, Williams' march toward history has once again included some thunderously loud footsteps this summer. The latest: she's just accomplished a sweep of the Wimbledon & U.S. titles in a single summer for the first time by any woman in a decade (naturally, it was Serena who did it back then, too), and is now just the third woman to include a run to Olympic singles Gold (Graf '88 & Venus '00) in the same summer. She's in the best shape of her life, and seems to be more focused than ever. She's still only ranked #4, but it's just one of those numbers tricks that happen on occasion in the WTA rankings... and usually involve Serena.

As has been the case at multiple times over the past decade, when Serena is "on," even with all the advancement of the twentysomething set over the past year, she's very rarely -- if ever -- going to be bested. We're most definitely in the midst of another of those periods of time when "Serenativity" rules the land.

How long will the latest reign last? Well, honestly, it'll probably be up to Serena.

...of course, this wasn't the first time that Serena has come back from the brink of defeat to win a slam title. In fact, in seven of her fifteen major titles, she's stared down defeat only to get the ultimate last laugh in the end. The examples:

2003 AO: SF vs. Clijsters (2 MP)
2004 AO: SF vs. Sharapova (3 MP)
2007 AO: 3rd Rd. vs. Petrova (served for match) & QF vs. Peer (served for match)
2009 AO: QF vs. Kuznetsova (served for match)
2008 WI: SF vs. Dementieva (1 MP)
2010 AO: QF vs. Azarenka (led 6-4/4-0, served for match twice)
2012 US: Final vs. Azarenka (served for match)

...and that's not even counting the close calls she had at this year's Wimbledon against Zheng Jie (9-7 3rd set) and Yaroslava Shvedova (7-5 3rd set).

... in the Women's Doubles final, Sara Errani & Roberta Vinci defeated Andrea Hlavackova & Lucie Hradecka in straights sets, adding a U.S. Open title to their previous slam win at Roland Garros this year. This was the Italian duo's eighth title of the season, the most on tour in '12. the junior singles final, wild card Samantha Crawford defeated #4-seed Anett Kontaveit (EST), 7-5/6-3. Crawford is the second straight Bannerette (w/ Grace Min in '11) to win the U.S. Open Girl's crown -- that's the first time that's happened since 1994-95 -- and the fourth North American crowned a junior champ at the last five slams. Taylor Townsend (USA) won at this year's Australian Open, while Eugenie Bouchard (CAN) claimed Wimbledon.

In the Boy's, Canada's Felip Peliwo backed up his Wimbledon junior crown with another in Flushing Meadows, defeating Brit Liam Broady, 6-2/2-6/7-5 (hmmm, the same score as the women's final). Peliwo reached the final at all four slams this season.

...and, finally, on Monday, in what seems like the the twentieth consecutive post-Sunday final at the Open, Andy Murray will face Novak Djokovic. Once again, the Scot will be trying to become the first British man to win a grand slam title since Fred Perry in 1936. He'd also become the very first man in history to win Olympic Gold and the U.S. Open title in the same summer.

#4 Serena Williams/USA def. #1 Victoria Azarenka/BLR 6-2/2-6/7-5

#3 Andy Murray/GBR vs. #2 Novak Djokovic/SRB

#2 Errani/Vinci (ITA/ITA) def. #3 Hlavackova/Hradecka (CZE/CZE) 6-4/6-2

#2 Bryan/Bryan (USA/USA) def. #5 Paes/Stepanek (IND/CZE) 6-3/6-4

Makarova/Soares (RUS/BRA) def. #4 Peschke/Matkowski (CZE/POL) 6-7/6-1/12-10

(WC) Samantha Crawford/USA def. #12 Anett Kontaveit/EST 7-5/6-3

#2 Filip Peliwo/CAN def. #13 Liam Broady/GBR 6-2/2-6/7-5

#4 Andrews/Townsend (USA/USA) def. #2 Bencic/Uberalova (SUI/SVK) 6-4/6-3

#8 Edmund/Ferreira Silva (GBR/POR) def. #6 Kyrgios/Thompson (AUS/AUS) 5-7/6-4/10-6

24...Margaret Court
22...Steffi Graf
19...Helen Wills-Moody
18...Martina Navratilova
18...Chris Evert
12...Billie Jean King
12...Suzanne Lenglen
[total slam titles - active - singles/doubles/mixed]
30...SERENA WILLIAMS (15-13-2)
22...Venus Williams (7-13-2)
11...Lisa Raymond (0-6-5)

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)
[U.S. Open - Open era]
1973 Margaret Court, AUS (31)
1974 Billie Jean King, USA (30)
1987 Martina Navratilova, USA (30)
2012 Serena Williams, USA (30)

1970 Margaret Court, AUS
1972 Billie Jean King, USA
1976 Chris Evert, USA
1982 Chris Evert-Lloyd, USA
1983 Martina Navratilova, USA
1986 Martina Navratilova, USA
1987 Martina Navratilova, USA
1988 Steffi Graf, GER *
1989 Steffi Graf, GER
1993 Steffi Graf, GER
1995 Steffi Graf, GER
1996 Steffi Graf, GER
1997 Martina Hingis, SUI
2000 Venus Williams, USA *
2001 Venus Williams, USA
2002 Serena Williams, USA
2012 Serena Williams, USA *
* - also won Olympic Gold

14...Venus Williams (7-7)
7...Maria Sharapova (4-3)
4...Svetlana Kuznetsova (2-2)

**2012 TITLES**
4...Victoria Azarenka
4...Sara Errani
3...Maria Sharapova
3...Agnieszka Radwanska
5...Liezel Huber/Lisa Raymond
3...Andrea Hlavackova/Lucie Hradecka
2...Marina Erakovic/Heather Watson
2...Serena Williams/Venus Williams

306...Martina Navratilova
299...Chris Evert
278...Steffi Graf
212...Venus Williams #
210...Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario

2010 Venus Williams, USA
2011 Samantha Stosur, AUS
2012 Serena Williams, USA
[AO winners]
2011 Andrea Petkovic, GER
2012 Victoria Azarenka, BLR

[recent U.S. Opens]
2005 Lisa Raymond & Samantha Stosur, USA/AUS
2006 Nathalie Dechy & Vera Zvonareva, FRA/RUS
2007 Nathalie Dechy & Dinara Safina, FRA/RUS
2008 Cara Black & Liezel Huber, RSA/USA
2009 Serena & Venus Williams, USA/USA
2010 Vania King & Yaroslava Shvedova, USA/KAZ
2011 Liezel Huber & Lisa Raymond, USA/USA
2012 Sara Errani & Roberta Vinci, ITA/ITA
AO: Svetlana Kuznetsova & Vera Zvonareva, RUS/RUS
RG: Sara Errani & Roberta Vinci, ITA/ITA
WI: Serena Williams & Venus Williams, USA/USA
US: Sara Errani & Roberta Vinci, ITA/ITA

AO: Ksenia Pervak, RUS
RG: Kristina Mladenovic, FRA
WI: Noppawan Lertcheewakarn, THA
US: Heather Watson, GBR
AO: Karolina Pliskova, CZE
RG: Elina Svitolina, UKR
WI: Kristyna Pliskova, CZE
US: Daria Gavrilova, RUS
AO: An-Sophie Mestach, BEL
RG: Ons Jabeur, TUN
WI: Ashleigh Barty, AUS
AO: Grace Min, USA
AO: Taylor Townsend, USA
RG: Annika Beck, GER
WI: Eugenie Bouchard, CAN
US: Samantha Crawford, USA

Victoria Azarenka -- 2005 Jr. Champ; 2012 Women's RU
Lindsay Davenport -- 1992 Jr. Champ; 1998 Women's Champ & '00 RU
Martina Hingis -- 1994 Jr. RU; 1997 Women's Champ & 1998-99 RU
Svetlana Kuznetsova -- 2001 Jr. RU; 2004 Women's Champ & '07 RU

(4th Rd.) Wozniacki/Jankovic; (QF) Clijsters/Wozniacki
(1st Rd.) Clijsters/Wozniacki; (4th Rd.) Azarenka/Ivanovic;
(SF) S.Williams/Azarenka
(1st Rd.) S.Williams/Jankovic; (3rd Rd.) Clijsters/Ivanovic;
(QF) S.Williams/Wozniacki; (QF) Sharapova/Clijsters;
(SF) S.Williams/Azarenka; (F) S.Williams/Sharapova
(QF) S.Williams/Ivanovic; (SF) Azarenka/Sharapova;
(F) S.Williams/Azarenka
7-0...Serena Williams
3-1...Kim Clijsters
2-3...Victoria Azarenka
1-2...Maria Sharapova
1-3...Caroline Wozniacki
0-2...Jelena Jankovic
0-3...Ana Ivanovic

18...Martina Navratilova
14...Lindsay Davenport
13...Venus Williams
11...Steffi Graf
10...Gabriela Sabatini
[S.Williams' #1 wins]
5 - vs. Martina Hingis
3 - vs. Victoria Azarenka
2 - vs. Jennifer Capriati
2 - vs. Justine Henin
1 - vs. Lindsay Davenport
1 - vs. Venus Williams
1 - vs. Caroline Wozniacki

TOP QUALIFIER: #1q Magdalena Rybarikova, SVK
TOP EARLY-ROUND (1r-2r): #7 Samantha Stosur/AUS
TOP MIDDLE-ROUND (3r-QF): #4 Serena Williams/USA
TOP LATE-ROUND (SF-F): #4 Serena Williams/USA
TOP QUALIFYING MATCH: Q1: (WC) Krista Hardebeck/USA def. Tamaryn Hendler/BEL 7-6(9)/5-7/7-6(3)
TOP EARLY-RD. MATCH (1r-2r): 2nd Rd. - #6 Angelique Kerber/GER def. Venus Williams/USA 6-2/5-7/7-5
TOP MIDDLE-RD. MATCH (3r-QF/Doub.): Mixed Doubles 2nd Rd. - Makarova/Soares (RUS/BRA) def. Clijsters/B.Bryan (BEL/USA) 6-2/3-6/12-10
TOP LATE-RD. MATCH (SF-F/Jr.): Women's Final - #4 Serena Williams/USA def. #1 Victoria Azarenka/BLR 6-2/2-6/7-5 (first three-set US Open final since 1995)
TOP ASHE NIGHT SESSION MATCH: 2nd Rd. - #6 A.Kerber/GER def. V.Williams/USA 6-2/5-7/7-5 (2:45, ends at 12:20 am)
FIRST WINNER: Anna Tatishvili/GEO (def. Foretz-Gacon/FRA)
FIRST SEED OUT: #27 Anabel Medina-Garrigues/ESP (lost to Hradecka/CZE)
NATION OF POOR SOULS: Germany (four of five highest-ranked Germans fell in 1st Round)
CRASH & BURN: #8 Caroline Wozniacki/DEN (lost 1st Rd. to I.Begu/ROU -- was Open #1 seed in 2010-11; second straight 1st Rd. slam loss)
ZOMBIE QUEEN: #1 Victoria Azarenka/BLR (in SF, came back from being down a set and a break vs. Sharapova in SF; reaches first U.S. Open final)
LAST WILD CARD STANDING: Mallory Burdette/USA & Kristina Mladenovic/FRA (3rd Rd.)
IT: Laura Robson/GBR (best British slam result since 1998)
Ms.OPPORTUNITY: #10 Sara Errani/ITA (first Italian in U.S. Open SF)
COMEBACK PLAYER: #12 Ana Ivanovic/SRB (best slam results since won '08 RG)
BROADWAY-BOUND: "Future Sloane" (entering the spotlight... eventually)
LADY OF THE EVENING: #4 Serena Williams/USA
DOUBLES STAR: Ekaterina Makarova/RUS

All for Day 14. More tomorrow.


Blogger jo shum said...

I feel sad about vika not seizing that moment which really counted. But how can we blame her, after she stuck in there point by point. She was in the last slam, playing Serena in the final, at US open. She got to the final point because she was more consistent and mentally strong even when her game is still inferior of Serena's. She ought to be proud. It is really a breakthrough year for her, incredible. She is a very young champion and is wearing it well. It is unfortunate that she had to face Serena in the final, any other she would have won. But also because of that, she has now turned heads and finally people recognized vika for what a great tennis player she is. She did let her tennis talk.

She really picked up her game almost to full speed. It was quite a slump at RG, grass season saw her picking up and huge improvement durng US open. She built unbelievable well during clutch moments since Olympics carrying her to US open. In the end, I think the experience of handling the pressure was a bit more important. I hope she will take heart and realize how well she played and that she will and can beat Serena in the future. Can't wait to see her performance in next tournaments. Not sure if she will be demotivated or motivated to do well....

Todd, see, you should have included vika in your MVP list. I have never seen such dramatic change /improvement in one player from last year to this. What's amazing is not so much about her physical game. But how different she carries herself on court, her demeanor and her mindset, like a 180 degrees flip. Her intensity is unmatched by anyone right now, the ability to hold and to comeback, is as consistent as her play. Boy, if she can improve her serve. Her future is brighter than ever. I really hope she will continue to be positive....

Somehow I still don't quite see Petra raising her level. She only plays A game and A game only. Still looks like a shadow of Maria to me.

Mon Sep 10, 10:47:00 AM EDT  
Blogger Todd.Spiker said...

Well, there WILL be a year-end MVP list pertaining to just the 2012 season, so Vika will be battling it out for a top spot there. :)

Mon Sep 10, 12:36:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Eric said...

You know...if Murray can pull this off, each of the Big 4 will have a "home slam" where they first broke through that kind of fits their personality.

Happy go Lucky Djoko and AO
Gritty Rafa and FO
Genteel Roger and Wimbledon
Rough around the edges Murray and USO

And 2012 will be the year where each of them won at their home base.

*knock on wood

Mon Sep 10, 06:14:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Eric said...

ok as soon as i posted that...murray started to i deleted my comment.

Mon Sep 10, 06:19:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Eric said...

er...i guess i didn't delete my comment...

Mon Sep 10, 09:23:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Eric said...

All I want to know is -- did Lendl smile? I wasn't watching so I didn't see it...

Mon Sep 10, 09:24:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Zidane said...

Murray said he nearly saw a smile. I, for one, did not see any smile in the few secondes the camera was on Lendl.

Mon Sep 10, 09:28:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Eric said...

I didn't realize that this was the first major that neither Rafa nor Federer were in the final 4 in 8 years....since FO 2004!!


Mon Sep 10, 11:09:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Todd.Spiker said...

Yeah, that was the line of the night! Murray, after he and Carillo's talking about Lendl had actually elicited a slight facial expression from him, joked, "I think that was almost a smile." We almost saw teeth!

Very tired... I think I'll post the recap for the final on Tuesday. Unless I get a late night second wind (or the caffeine kicks in), that is. ;)

Tue Sep 11, 12:12:00 AM EDT  

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