Friday, October 25, 2013

Istanbul Day 4- Vets, a Czech & a Zombie! Oh, My! Vets, a Czech & a Zombie! Oh, My! Vets, a Czech & a Zombie! Oh, My!

On the final day of round robin play in Istanbul, it was all about how much the players wanted something.

A birth in the semifinals. A single match win. Or, in a specifically Belarusian case, to deliver one final punch to the heart of an old, stinging reputation... no matter how much it hurt.

Here's a recap of Day 4's matches:

(4) Li/CHN d. (2) Azarenka/BLR 6-2/6-1 a rematch of the Australian Open final, both women came in playing for an outright berth in the semis, give or take a few scenarios regarding two or three-set matches here and in the Jankovic/Errani contest that would close out the night. After having ruminated earlier in the week on her struggles with a lack of motivation in the closing months of the season, a feeling which she hadn't felt "in a while" (essentially, back when Vika was that "crazy kid" that she left in her past two seasons ago), the big question heading into Friday was whether or not the world #2 would rediscover that motivation with something on the line in what could be her final match of the season if she were to lose. Early on, things didn't look good. Azarenka's errors were loose and she fell behind 3-0 before holding serve to stem what could have been an embarrassing tide. It seemed to spark her, as Li's game went down just a notch at the same time. Azarenka saved game points and slapped a return winner to break the Chinese vet to get to 3-2. But, in Game #6, Vika winced at the end of a rally and bent over to stretch out her back. Moments later, she hurt herself more severely while serving and nearly fell down. Again, she attempted to work out some painful difficulty in the lower right area of her back. Soon, after Li had thrown in an error that cut her lead on Azarenka's serve to 15/40, Vika was being taken off court by a trainer for treatment. When she returned, she quickly lost the final point of her service game. Then the waiting game began. When would she retire from the match? As Azarenka had a difficult time moving around the court, often lumbering around in zombie-like fashion, she continued to try to stretch, would often push with violent aggravation on the area of the injury and even began to avoid her usual pre-serve move of flipping her ponytail over her shoulder with a flick of her torso, choosing instead to go the less painful route of using her hand to put her hair into position. When she was broken at love to end the 1st set after fifty minutes of action, her chance to win a straight sets match to automatically advance to the semis was gone, and it seemed a fait accompli that she would cut her losses and retire. But she never did. Azarenka started 2013 by showing that she was a "tough cookie" as she won in Melbourne. After a season that included injuries to her toe, ankle, knee and (finally) back, Vika showed today in Istanbul that she, indeed, is STILL a pretty tough biscuit. Even in a loss. In this case, a long, drawn out, sometimes painful to watch loss in which, in between and around more visits from the trainer, you couldn't help but try to read her mind as she screamed and winced in pain on points where she sometimes didn't even swing at a ball, constantly took deep breaths as she played through the tears in her eyes and various bouts of biting her own hand or wristband as if it were a stick placed in her mouth for her to chomp down on as she underwent battlefield surgery without any painkillers. Her sole purpose seemed to be to prove, maybe just to herself, that she could play through pain and avoid her very first in-match retirement of the 2013 season in her final match of the year. Since she played her first full season as a pro, in 2006, the season after which she'd been the junior #1, Azarenka had never had a season that didn't include a mid-match retreat due to illness or injury. The flow of retirements has been constant for Vika over the years:

2006: 1 (in an ITF event in Pittsburgh)
2007: 2
2008: 4
2009: 2
2010: 6
2011: 4
2012: 1

The Belarusian seemed determined to change that and avoid a "ret." in ANY of the scorelines of her 2013 defeats, be it by hook or by crook (much like how many accused her of operating at the Australian Open in January), and end what has turned out to be, while successful, also a very trying season for her with something resembling a final reputation-busting moment that maybe would finally put to rest all the past talk of a "fragile" or "faking" Azarenka who would retire at the drop of a hat, then come right back out and play a match a day or two later. As the 2nd set played out, it wasn't a question of whether or not Li would win, but how Vika would finish. As it turned out, Azarenka managed to hold serve for 5-1, even hitting an ace during the game (and following it up with as wry a smile as she could muster, as there was little room for much of anything but pain on her face). Li promptly served out the victory to reach her first-ever semifinal at this event, while Azarenka ends her season on a 1-5 slide since reaching the U.S. Open final. But today wasn't about winning a match for Vika, it feels like it was about proving a point. For what it's worth, she looks to have accomplished that goal. Hopefully the pain was worth it.

Vika's parting 2013 interview is up at the WTA website.

(5) Kvitova/CZE d. (8) Kerber/GER 6-7(3)/6-2/6-3
...this one was quite simple: winner goes to the semis, while the loser ends her season. And right off the bat, Kvitova's game was clean. She hit two aces in the first game, and soon got a break to go up 3-1. Up 4-2, though, the Czech opened the door for Kerber by letting a few errors and a double-fault creep into her game. The German grabbed the chance, and Kvitova gave her another error to break herself for 4-3. Good serving from Kerber got the 1st set into a tie-break where Kvitova took a 2-1 lead and had an open court forehand for a 3-1 advantage, only to overcook the shot and sail it long. It sent her into a slide, as more Kvitova errors and another double-fault, coupled with good defensive play from Kerber, saw the German win three of the Czech's four remaining service points, and six of the final seven points overall, to take the set. Kerber held at love to open the 2nd, and had two break points in Game #2. But Kvitova held and soon took a break lead at 3-2. Back-to-back DF from Kerber led to her losing a 40/15 lead and being broken again for 5-2. Kvitova served things out to produce her 37th three-setter of the year, breaking her tie with Patty Schnyder (2005) for the most ever on tour in a single season. There, the women traded breaks on three straight service games to start before Kvitova saved two break points and held to take a 3-1 lead. From there, she avoided the sort of slips in her play that have bedeviled her the past two seasons. Instead, it was Kerber who blinked. Down 5-3, but up 30/15 with a chance to hold and force Kvitova to serve out the match, the German missed on a mid-court forehand down-the-line into an open court. This time Kvitova was the one who took the opportunity and ran with it, or at least made Kerber run because of it, dragging her from one side of the court to the other with angled ground strokes to get to deuce. Two Kerber errors ended the proceedings and gave the Czech the final spot in the semifinals. 31-4 in her last 35 indoor hard court matches, Kvitova will next face Li.

(6) Errani/ITA d. (7) Jankovic/SRB 6-4/6-4
...this turned out to be the only match that held no "live" significance, as far the semifinals are concerned, in this entire event. That's a pretty good record for these Championships, I'd say. JJ wanted to win, but she didn't run through a wall to do it, for a win over the Italian wasn't likely to mean much when it comes to facing Serena on Saturday. Kudos to Errani, though, who seems to have gotten back a bit of her former fire after baring her soul at the U.S. Open about her difficulty handling the pressure of her recent success. Errani came in with a very mediocre (at best) record in the second half of the season, and injured herself in her opening day loss to Azarenka. With doubles and Fed Cup still on her '13 agenda, she could have pulled up and not given this event her all and no one would have held it against her. But she didn't do that. Instead, she acquitted herself well in her second match against Li, and then more than did the same here while getting her first-ever career match win at this event. Sure, while serving at 5-3 for the 1st set against JJ, Errani failed to put things away, making her 0-4 while serving for sets this week in Istanbul. But she didn't let it get her down, and broke Jankovic to take the set instead. In the 2nd, Errani failed to convert two match points and fell to 0-for-5 when serving for a set. But, again, she came out a game later and went up love/40 on Jankovic's serve. Finally, on her fourth match point, Errani won the match on a JJ error. The stats showed how much Errani wanted this one, as she was much more aggressive than usual, hitting 20 winners to just nine errors (3 in the 1st set) and going 10-for-16 at the net.

...JJ MOMENT OF THE DAY: while Jankovic surely had some good ones during her conversations with the Croatian chair umpire (from whom she elicited a laugh more than once, when she wasn't admonishing the Serb to get ready to return serve after being tired out after a particularly long 2nd set rally), since I don't know exactly what they said to each other I'll go with the point in which Jelena's ponytail got caught in her racket on her follow-through in the middle of a point. It caused her to throw up her arms and then stand for a moment with her normally tightly-pulled back hair a mess atop her head, with one of those oh-so-Jankovician looks of exasperation on her face. Have no fear, though... she simply pulled her hair back even tighter and went on with the next point.

...FACES IN THE CROWD: Piotr Wozniacki sitting next to a rather glum-looking Caroline during the Li/Azarenka match. Guess that trip to Turkey didn't turn out to be a working one, after all, huh? Curses, you plucky little Italian! Ah, but speaking of the Woz clan, regular site commenter Leif ("Hoergren"), from Backspin's "Scandinavian Outpost," noted to me yesterday that the father Wozniacki has now said that the official reveal of the name of Caro's "mystery coach" (all right, I'M calling him/her that, not the Danish clan) will be next week. Bated breath. No, really... it'll be interesting to see who'll be fired by next spring if Caroline gets off to a slow start in 2014.

Kidding. Well, sort of.

...if Serena gets her 14th and 15th straight WTA Championships victories this weekend, which would give her a season-ending 18-match winning streak that is second this season behind only her own 34-match springtime run, she'd finish 2013 with a 78-4 record. That's a .951 winning percentage, which would rank as the ninth-best season win percentage in WTA history, and the best since Steffi Graf in 1989. The current Top 10 (fewer than 10 losses, minimum 50 matches won):

.989 - Martina Navratilova, 1983 (86-1)
.977 - Steffi Graf, 1989 (86-2)
.975 - Martina Navratilova, 1984 (78-2)
.974 - Steffi Graf, 1987 (75-2)
.968 - Martina Navratilova, 1982 (90-3)
.967 - Martina Navratilova, 1986 (89-3)
.960 - Steffi Graf, 1988 (72-3)
.953 - Margaret Court, 1973 (102-5)
==.950 - Serena Williams, 2013 (currently 76-4)==
.949 - Chris Evert, 1978 (56-3)
.948 - Margaret Court, 1970 (109-6)

...and, finally, Tennis Channel's recent poll asked which player was most likely to win her first major title in 2014. The results:

34% Sloane Stephens
26% Angelique Kerber
25% Agnieszka Radwanska
12% Caroline Wozniacki
3% other

I'm tempted to go with "other" just because the pool of possibilities is so much larger, and quite possibly more likely than any of the other four women included on the list. As for them, though, I'd embrace a run by Aga (at Wimbledon, no doubt, but you have to wonder if she'll ever have as clear a shot there as she did this summer) the most, and would find one from the Dane the most interesting potential result, and not just because of what might have happened to everyone else to make it possible, either. Of course, Stephens would be the BIGGEST story... but with a busy offseason ahead, much more pressure to succeed next season and a whole lot of slam points to defend, you've got to think a slip from her current #11 ranking might be likely, and "34%" might be closer to referring to her chances of reaching her first tour FINAL rather than lifting her maiden slam crown.

A little quiet would do Sloane some good, and results of polls like that probably won't help that become a reality.

(1) S.Williams (3-0; 6/0 sets) *
(5) Kvitova (2-1; 4/3) *
(8) Kerber (1-2; 3/4)
(3) A.Radwanska (0-3; 0/6)
(4) Li (3-0; 6/1) *
(7) Jankovic (1-2; 3-4) *
(2) Azarenka (1-2; 2/4)
(6) Errani (1-2; 2-4)
SF: S.Williams vs. Jankovic, Li vs. Kvitova

*2013 WTA SF*
13...SERENA WILLIAMS (11-0 +W)
9...Agnieszka Radwanska (4-5)
8...Victoria Azarenka (6-1 +L)
8...LI NA (3-4)
7...Maria Sharapova (5-2)
7...Sara Errani (4-3)
IN WTA CHSP. SF: Kvitova's 6th SF of '13 (she's 4-1 so far)

(1) Errani/Vinci (ITA/ITA) vs. (4) Makarova/Vesnina (RUS/RUS)
(3) Petrova/Srebotnik (RUS/SLO) vs. (2) Hsieh/Peng (TPE/CHN)

All for now.


Blogger Diane said...

I pick Aga as the most likely of the four to win a major next year, but--if she gets some help in the head department--I choose Kerber as my no. 2 most likely.

That doesn't mean that either of them is actually going to win one, but they are definitely contenders.

I'm having trouble conceptualizing Future Sloane--much more fun to think about Current/Future Simona or Future Genie :)

Fri Oct 25, 07:20:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Todd.Spiker said...

Ha! Probably because it's easy to have questions about how enjoyable (or quite the opposite) it might be to see Future Sloane become a reality in a current timeline, considering how Current Sloane is often hard to take when she doesn't have major titles backing up the notion in her own mind that everything she says is as clever as she often thinks it is. ;)

Fri Oct 25, 07:50:00 PM EDT  

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