Tuesday, January 14, 2014

AO 2 - The Good News/Bad News Belarusian

Well, Vika Azarenka played today. "ยก Ay, yi !"

With temperatures rising into the triple-digits on the first day of what is expected to be a brutal heat wave this week in Melbourne, the hope for the two-time defending champ was that she could have an easy, quick time of things against Swede Johanna Larsson. After all, one of Vika's most memorable moments at the AO was her 2nd set retirement with heat illness against Serena Williams in 2009 when Azarenka was up a set in the match. Surely, one thought, she'd find a way to avoid prolonging today's proceedings and forcing herself to be running around on the court of Rod Laver Arena for any longer than necessary on Day 2. Right?

Yeah, riiiiiight. Oh, boy. Here we go again.

While Azarenka's serve, which could surely be better for a #2-ranked player, isn't something that opponents fear, it isn't a shot that sinks her on game day, either. Usually, her groundstrokes and return of serve are enough to make up for its deficiencies, and the Belarusian can generally corral that wanting part of her game before it becomes something that is so bad that it leads to shocking losses. At both of last season's hard court slams in Australia and the U.S., Azarenka scratched and clawed her way through six matches at each event, fighting her serve and bouts of general inconsistency all the way. Amazingly, she was successful in each attempt, reaching the finals at both Melbourne and Flushing Meadows, and then playing what was arguably her best, most focused match of the tournament once she got there. She won one of them, and took Serena Williams to three sets in the other. The one thing VikaBackers didn't want to see at the first slam of 2014 was a repeat of the early-round difficulty that made watching her AO/US slam matches such a head-spinning, eye-covering trip a season ago.

Well, apparently Vika didn't get that particular interoffice memo.

Emerging from the tunnel and walking out into the thick late morning heat on Laver, it was almost as if Azarenka was tempting fate by wearing a black hoody. As usual, it was pulled up over her head. Still, it was a case of so far, so good. Then, on the first point of the match, she double-faulted. Sigh. Soon, it was love/40. She saved three break points to hold in a game that lasted six minutes, but the die was cast.

While Larrson, 3-14 in career slam matches, held her own, Vika made a habit of falling behind in her service games. In her second, the score was 15/40. She saved three more break points, but not a fourth. When Azarenka's forehand shot sailed long, Larsson went up a break. Vika immediately broke back, then held after falling behind 15/30 in service game #3.

And it continued.

After a fairly easy hold in service game #4, Azarenka's errors, and Larsson's consistency, kept things close. In Vika's fifth service game, she was broken again, giving the Swede a shot to serve for the set at 5-4. Naturally, Azarenka broke back. She dropped her serve in service game #6, as well, giving Larrson another chance to serve for the set. Yet again, Azarenka's return of serve pulled things back even with another break to send things to a tie-break. Finally, there, Azarenka got a foothold, in the form of a 4-0 lead, and carried it out to a 7-2 win, ending the 1:12 set.

Meanwhile, most of the other top woman who'd also started their matches at 11 a.m. were already in the air-conditioned lockerroom.

In the 2nd, Azarenka got an early break and didn't look back. Well, until it came to finally salting away the match. Not wanting to get off the court TOO quickly, that took her four match point attempts to get done. In the end, Vika produced 32 unforced errors (to 27 winners), including seven double-faults (the last coming on one of the match points), in the 7-6(2)/6-2 contest that lasted 1:46.

After lifting her career a notch by mastering the Art of Getting it Done, Azarenka is now majoring in the Art of Finding a Way. The former is sometimes breathtaking, while the latter also takes your break away... but it usually happens when you exhale and shake your head at the latest "oh, geez" moment when Vika is on the court.

The good Vika news: as noted earlier, she's played similar -- or worse since, after all, today's game of chicken didn't go three sets -- matches to this one at the previous two hard court slams, and she still reached a pair of finals. All in all, Azarenka has now won fifteen straight matches in Melbourne, and is 27-2 in the last five hard court majors.

The bad Vika news: if she does this little dance a few more times in this heat, against better players than Larsson, she won't be the two-time defending AO champion for much longer.

The (more) good Vika news: she lucked out when an injured Jamie Hampton, a possible 3rd Round opponent and one who very nearly upset Vika at last year's tournament, withdrew from this AO over the weekend. The substitute for Hampton is Bojana Jovanovski, who's only advanced to one Round of 16 in her slam career, while the biggest threat in the section is Sloane Stephens, Vika's opponent in a controversial AO semi last year who's looking to protect big points in a slam for the first time in her career. The American advanced past Yaroslava Shvedova today 7-6/6-3 after falling behind 5-1 in the 1st, only to see the Kazakh's service implode with five DF when twice serving for the set prior to her spending much of the rest of the match getting iced down by trainers. As for the quarterfinals? Aga Radwanska, a player that Vika has dominated in the past, is in line. While the semis could bring Maria Sharapova, who hasn't defeated Azarenka on an outdoor hard court since 2009. So, if she can avoid tripping herself up, a FIFTH straight final in a hard court major is surely attainable.

The (more) bad Vika news: Serena might be waiting for her in that final. But that's a bridge to be crossed later, while you hope that no one involved is on New Jersey Governor Chris Christie's you-know-what list. (Sorry, American political joke there... haha.)

So, as inauspicious as this first match in Melbourne might have been for Azarenka, it could mean absolutely nothing. And, actually, a case can be made that she's now got her side of the draw just where she wants it.

Good luck with that, Vika.

...while Vika was successfully walking a not-quite-scalding hot tightrope in the first match of the day on Laver, Caroline Wozniacki (Hisense) and Simona Halep (Court) were simultaneously breezing through their early Tuesday matches elsewhere on the grounds.

The #10-seeded Dane, finding her form after a busy first two weeks of '14 that included a shoulder injury and her acceptance of Rory McIlroy's marriage proposal, took out Spain's Lourdes Dominguez Lino 6-0/6-2 in an hour and eight minutes, getting just the sort of start she needed at this slam. New coach Thomas Hogstedt, though, is already putting up plastic wrap around the court just in case the opposite occurs in the early rounds in Melbourne, recently noting how often it is that players -- Andy Murray, for example, when he started working with Ivan Lendl -- have poor early results during the beginning stages of a new coaching relationship. The Swede need not watch his back tonight, though.

Wozniacki has reached at least the Round of 16 five times in her six previous appearances in Melbourne, though she's only had such a result once in her last seven slams. So, one down, two to go to reach that modest goal for the former #1 at this AO.

Hmmm, I wonder if maybe Caro got in an extra workout later in the day... maybe by "pumping diamond," a.k.a. admiring her ring?

Meanwhile, #11 Halep came into this AO with just one match under her belt this season, a straight sets loss to Madison Keys in Sydney last week. Looking to back up her regular tour success with a nice slam run (her best career result is a 4th Round at last year's U.S. Open), the Swarmette started off on the right foot by eliminating Poland's Katarzyna Piter 6-0/6-1 in fifty-five quick minutes.

Later in the day, even if you didn't know the on-court temperatures, you might have been able to tell something was up just by looking at the match stats of the Aga Radwanska/Yulia Putintseva match. Clever as she is, A-Rad never makes a point of being consistently aggressive throughout a match, preferring instead to surprise her opponent with an uppercut in the form of a well-placed big serve, an unexpected winner or a sneaky advance to the net for a volley.

Well, against the young Kazakh, Aga was a different version of herself. And she had to be, too. After taking the 1st set at love in twenty-seven minutes, Radwanska dropped the 2nd at 7-5. In the end, she got her first official tour win since late last season (she was 0-3 in the Tour Championships, remember, and lost to Bethanie Mattek-Sands in her opening match in Sydney), winning 6-0/5-7/6-2, but it took nearly two and a half hours to do it. Pressed to avoid the sort of long rallies that she thrives on, Aga produced an uncharacteristic thirty-eight winners (vs. thirty-one UE's), including nine aces and 22-of-35 converted forays to the net.

...after nudging #25 Alize Cornet for the past two weeks for managing to become a champion (at the Hopman Cup) despite putting together just a 1-4 singles record so far this season, it'd be criminal if I didn't note that she got victory #2 today over Polona Hercog. Of course, keeping to form, I also have to mention that she did so by winning just one game, as the Slovene retired after completing just six points, suffering from a previous shoulder injury. The total match time was eleven minutes. Cornet must be harboring a guardian angel in her tennis bag.

Still... 2-4 is 2-4. It's better than 1-5, that's for sure.

...if this turns out to be Francesca Schiavone's final season, let's hope that she has a better time in Paris this spring than she has in her recent slam outings. Playing in her 54th consecutive major, the longest current streak on tour, the 33-year old Italian went down 6-3/6-4 at the hands of #20 Dominika Cibulkova. It's the 2010 Roland Garros champ Schiavone's fifth 1st Round exit at the last six slams.

Elsewhere, Zarina Diyas defeated Katerina Siniakova in a battle of qualifiers (so last year's junior finalists turned this year's qualifiers, Siniakova and '13 junior champ Ana Konjuh, are both out), and Anna Schmiedlova outlasted Timea Babos, winning 7-5 in the 3rd on her sixth MP. Additionally, Kiwi Marina Erakovic took out #21 Sorana Cirstea, Hobart champ Garbine Muguruza knocked off #24 Kaia Kanepi, Elina Svitolina took out #19 Svetlana Kuznetsova, an unseeded AO quarterfinalist a year ago, and Stefanie Voegele took out Kristina Mladenovic.

At least Mladenovic will now be refreshed for doubles.

Same goes for Peng Shuai, who wasn't the first -- and won't be the last -- to have difficulty with the heat in her three-set loss to Kurumi Nara.

DAY 2 WILD CARD WIN: Olivia Rogowska/AUS
DAY 2 AUSSIE WIN: Olivia Rogowska/AUS

...with things running behind schedule, the concluding night session match between Maria Sharapova and Bethanie Mattek-Sands looked like it was going to begin exceedingly late. But, thanks to Bernard Tomic once again living down to expectations by getting injured in quite possibly the first game of the match and then retiring after a 41-minute 1st set against Rafa Nadal, things didn't begin quite as late as expected.

In the end, Sharapova powered her way through the American, jumping ahead 4-0 before taking the 1st set 6-3. Mattek-Sands threatened to make things interesting late in the 2nd, breaking Sharapova to get back on serve at 3-3. At 4-4, BMS held two game points for a 5-4 lead that would have forced Sharapova to hold to stay in the set, but the Russian instead pulled off the break and then held to put away the match, winning 6-3/6-4 when Mattek-Sands' backhand return sailed long.

It's not the double-bagel that Sharapova began with against Olga Puchkova in last year's 1st Round in Melbourne, but it'll suffice. After all, we know how the 2013 AO ultimately turned out for Maria.

...DAY 2 "LIKE":

we actually got a few hours of live tennis coverage on Tennis Channel on Day 2, which meant a few hours of live tennis commentary from Martina Navratilova. That's always a good thing... especially when she latches onto a particular word and uses it every fives minutes.

Ah, the many happy returns of the sound of the word "twitchy" with a Czech-tinged twang.

...Vika is as Vika does, especially when she does Vika. See...

...and, finally, while there are some eye-opening national and continental records through the 1st Round -- the Serbs are 4-0, Slovaks 4-1 and North America a combined 10-4 -- the biggest news is on the "Nation of Poor Souls" front, where the (dis)honors surprisingly WON'T be going to the Aussies at this Australian Open. Almost shockingly, they went 3-3 in the 1st Round, with Sam Stosur leading the way. So, that leaves a group of NoPS contenders that includes Croatia (1-4), Great Britain (0-2) and the entire continent of South America (0-3). But I'm going to go another route.

After having such great slam success in recent seasons, and ending '13 by winning yet another Fed Cup, the Italians, while going 3-3 overall, saw both their top-ranked woman -- #7 Sara Errani, the "First Seed Out" and #12 Roberta Vinci) go out with a whimper in straight set losses on Monday, and the only Italian slam champ (Schiavone) do the same today. Errani & Vinci are the defending doubles champions at this AO, as well... so unless they totally reverse their fortunes the rest of this tournament, the Poor could actually continue to get even poorer.

WI: Great Britain (0-6 1st Rd.)
WI: Australia (1-3 1st Rd., Stosur & Dokic losses)
US: Czech Republic (2-5 1st Rd., Kvitova loses)
AO: Great Britain (0-4 1st Rd.; all on Day 1)
RG: Romania (1-5 in 1st Rd.; Cadantu double-bageled)
WI: Slovak Republic (1-3 in 1st Rd.; all 3 w/ WTA titles lost)
US: Germany (four of nation's five highest-ranked players out in 1st Rd.)
AO: Australia (1-6 in 1st Rd., 1-7 overall)
RG: Czech Republic (2-8 in 1st Rd.)
WI: Great Britain (1-6 in 1st Rd.)
US: Australia (1-4 overall, Stosur out 1st Rd., Rogowska double-bageled, only WC Barty to 2nd)
AO: Italy (top-seeded #7 Errani & #12 Vinci out 1st Round; Schiavone out 1st Rd. 5/6 slams)

[through 1st Rd.]
[North America/Atlantic]
8-4...United States
1-0...Puerto Rico
[South America]
[Russia & Eastern Europe]
[Western Europe & Scandinavia]
4-1...Slovak Republic
4-3...Czech Republic
0-2...Great Britain
1-0...New Zealand
[Africa/Middle East]
0-1...South Africa

TOP EARLY ROUND (1r-2r): xx
TOP QUALIFYING MATCH: Q1: Cristina Mitu/ROU def. #4 Anna-Lena Friedsam/GER 3-6/6-4/9-7
TOP EARLY RD. MATCH (1r-2r): xx
FIRST VICTORY: #18 Kirsten Flipkens/BEL (def. Laura Robson/GBR)
FIRST SEED OUT: #7 Sara Errani/ITA (lost 1st Rd. to Julia Goerges, GER)
NATION OF POOR SOULS: Italy (top-seeded #7 Errani & #12 Vinci out 1st Round; Schiavone out 1st Rd. 5/6 slams)
LAST QUALIFIER STANDING: 1st Rd. wins: Bencic/SUI, Diyas/KAZ, Hradecka/CZE, Kudryavtseva/RUS (also LL: Falconi/USA)
LAST WILD CARD STANDING: 1st Rd. wins: Dellacqua/AUS, Rogowska/AUS
LAST AUSSIE STANDING: 1st Rd. wins: Dellacqua, Rogowska, Stosur
IT (TBD): xx
CRASH & BURN: Nominees: #7 S.Errani & #12 R.Vinci (both out 1st Rd.), #6 P.Kvitova (lost 1st Rd. to Kumkhum)
ZOMBIE QUEEN: Nominees: #22 E.Makarova (down 3-0 in 3rd vs. Venus/1st Rd.); M.Keys (down break in 3rd vs. Mayr-A./1st Rd. - won 9-7 on 5th MP)
AMG SLAM FUTILITY UPDATE: lost 1st Rd. to (LL) Falconi/USA, once again failing to reach a slam QF in her career (so Anna Smashnova still has a buddy); 7 con. slam losses; 22 1st Round exits in 47 slams

All for Day 2. More tomorrow.


Blogger Hoergren said...

Just saw Maria Sharapova end a not so well played 1st rounder against Mattek-Sands. She's lucky that MS didn't play her best today otherwise she'd been out. 1st rounders are always difficult and even worse after a long injury break BUT she has to be careful not losing concentration as she did today. Caroline only lost concentration in the beginning of 2nd set and played a way better match than many others demanding to be in command. It looks good for IMHO.

Tue Jan 14, 07:58:00 AM EST  
Blogger Zidane said...

The way you describe how it is for your nerves to watch Azarenka play so reminds me of how it is for me to watch Kuznet play. Ahh, these players!

Tue Jan 14, 08:38:00 AM EST  
Blogger jo shum said...

I kept thinking vika's game now lacks a bit of fire since end of 2012. Though sumyk calmed her game and made her more than one dimensional. Now she has plan b, c to find ways to win, but I don't see plan A anymore. I wonder if she should have a different coach who is more aggressive minded now that she fully graduated from 'winning ugly'?

Though I am surprised aga was dragged to 3 sets, but 9 aces! Way to go.

So Kuzzy-Stephens is not meant to be.

Tue Jan 14, 09:49:00 AM EST  
Blogger Todd.Spiker said...


1st Round perfection ended up being overrated for Sharapova a year ago, so I guess we'll see how gradually improving each round works out. :)


At least now, unlike a few years ago, I still have the feeling that Azarenka will find a way to win when she's not in the best form. I'm not sure I ever would have felt that way with game-to-game Kuznetsova! :D


Yeah, I was hoping that we'd see a more re-charged Vika to start the season, but she's similar to the not-quite-filled-to-the-rim one we saw quite a bit last year. She changed her trainer/physio team in the offseason, so one wonders what might happen for next season if she continues to have to muddle through matches to get to wins.

For a bit, it looked like Stephens-anyone might not happen. If Shvedova hadn't dropped so far in that 1st set, it would have been interesting to see how Sloane would have reacted to being down a set against a player who has shown the ability to pull off slam upsets in the past.

Tue Jan 14, 11:10:00 AM EST  
Blogger Todd.Spiker said...

Hmmm, finally got a look at the doubles draw.

Dokic is playing with Storm Sanders. Yay! She walks on earth!

Also, Mladenovic is playing with... (wait for it)... Pennetta. Love that pairing! Of course, we might not see it for long -- they play Venus & Serena in the 1st Round. Sigh.

Tue Jan 14, 01:20:00 PM EST  
Blogger J said...

Who are you picking in Stosur vs Pironkova?

I'm torn because I really like Sam and want her to finally make the second week in Australia, but I've also loved Pironkova since her ridiculous run at the 2010 Wimbledon (I was definitely rocking out at my desk when I heard she won Sydney).

Tue Jan 14, 07:47:00 PM EST  
Blogger Diane said...

Oh my--Mladenovic and Pennetta. I like that, too. If not now, perhaps later.

Tue Jan 14, 08:45:00 PM EST  
Blogger Todd.Spiker said...

Jessica - as I'm sure you know, it's hard to ever pick any match with either one of them, and putting together makes me sort of feel like QC, ceaselessly repeating, "the end is the beginning, and the beginning is the end." ;)

I'm torn, too, for similar reasons. With either winning it'd be a nice result. If pressed, just because it's in Australia, on Laver, in a primetime spot, I'd probably go with Pironkova just because it doesn't sound like an environment where Stosur would be able to play without nerves getting the best of her. But, really, I'm just hoping for a little drama and a good, close match. :)

Tue Jan 14, 11:25:00 PM EST  
Blogger jo shum said...

Wow stosur won easily. That's surprising. What happened....

Wed Jan 15, 05:25:00 AM EST  

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