After the close of a fortnight at once surprising and unsurprising, we review the notable figures in the WTA field at the Australian Open. Grading influenced by expectations, quality of competition, and other factors in addition to raw results.
Azarenka: The first woman in over three decades to win her second major by defending her first, she consolidated her position as world #1 in the rankings and public enemy #1 in the eyes of many. What the media and general public may refuse to acknowledge is that Azarenka showed fortitude in regrouping from the controversy swirling around her semifinal—and from a miserable start to the final—to halt an extremely talented opponent on a torrid streak with virtually everyone in the arena cheering lustily against her. Her competitive desire rivals anyone on the Tour, and that attribute forms a key component of her success at elite tournaments notwithstanding her tendency to carry it too far at times. Like her or not, Azarenka is here to stay with a game perfectly suited to the moderately paced hard court’s that have become the dominant surface and a determination to win at any price. She probably will spend most of her career as a polarizing figure, but she appears to thrive on the hostility around her and relish the challenge of overcoming it. When the dust settled, moreover, her tears at the end suggested that she may have matured during the emotionally fraught fortnight after all. A
Li: Endearing herself to audiences around the world, Li smiled even when she twisted her ankle for the second time in the final and slammed the back of her head into the court. She smiled even as an Australian Open final slipped away from her for the second time after she had come within two games of her second major title. The best player here for most of the tournament, Li trumpeted her return to relevance by defeating consecutive top-four opponents Radwanska and Sharapova in straight sets. Not until after her first ankle injury, in fact, did she even lose a set here. When all of the components of her game click together, any opponent other than Serena will struggle to overcome someone with no apparent weakness. Much of the credit probably goes to coach Carlos Rodriguez for providing the discipline that she had lacked, but her ability to battle through injury after injury illustrated her inner steel. And, unlike the equally fierce competitor across the net in the final, she mingled that steel with the grace and warmth that emerged from that smile. A+
Sharapova: Continuing a trend that has defined many of her performances at the Australian Open, she mowed down several overmatched opponents to march deep into the draw, only to get mowed down herself late in the second week. We learned nothing new about Sharapova this tournament, instead receiving reminders that she can demolish or be demolished on any given day without warning. That said, her lack of match preparation did not appear to cost her, and her loss to Li hinged much more upon the Chinese star’s excellence than her own fallibility. Some threw excessive-celebration flags on Sharapova for her victory over an aging Venus, which unjustly obscured that transcendent performance in a nearly flawless stretch that set multiple Australian Open records for dominance. Her post-tournament ranking of #3 feels exactly right. B+
Serena: As with Sharapova, we learned nothing new about Serena. She continues to carve up the WTA like a cantaloupe when she is healthy and hungry, but she cannot overcome injuries as impressively as she once could. One cannot doubt that she would have finished off Stephens if not for her second injury of the tournament, and it is difficult to imagine the struggling serve of Azarenka or even the streaking Li stopping her after then. Depending on how her ankle recovers, though, Serena should regain the #1 ranking soon. Incomplete
Stephens: Putting aside the fact that she benefited from Serena’s injury, this tournament marked a decisive breakthrough for Stephens. Many players have lost to an injured Serena before, and it appeared that she would when she choked away a second-set lead and later trailed by a break in the third. Despite her competitive rawness, she managed to regroup in both instances and settle herself to record a career-defining win. Also satisfying was her convincing victory over fellow phenom Robson, and she should take Azarenka’s dubious medical timeouts as a compliment, illustrating how worried her resilience in the second set had made the world #1. A
Radwanska: Now just 1-6 in major quarterfinals (0-4 here), with her only victory a three-setter over Kirilenko, she did little to refute her reputation as a player who struggles to translate her success to the places that matter most. Radwanska entered the tournament having won consecutive titles in Auckland and Sydney, so she had not even dropped a set this year until she ran into the Li Na buzzsaw. She had chances to win that first set and turn around the momentum in the second, but once again she could find no answer to an opponent capable of outhitting her consistently without imploding at key moments. It’s still difficult to see Radwanska winning a major unless the draw falls just right. B
Makarova: As a clever wit noted on Twitter, she excels in places that end in –bourne. Winning Eastbourne as a qualifier once, Makarova reached her second straight quarterfinal in Melbourne by upsetting world #5 Kerber. Her defense and lefty angles created a scintillating combination to watch, perhaps honed by her doubles expertise. Once she fell behind early against Sharapova, she let too much negativity seep into her body language, but that match seemed unwinnable anyway. B+
Kuznetsova: One of three Russian women to reach the quarterfinals, this two-time major champion has revived her career in impressive fashion. Kuznetsova finally strung together a series of confidence-boosting victories at a prestigious tournament, displaying poise late in a tight third-setter against Wozniacki just when she might have crumbled in years past. Her sparkling athleticism set her apart from many of the more programmatic women at the top of the WTA. B+
Kerber: Similar to her performances at the preparatory tournaments, her Melbourne result was unremarkable in either a positive or negative sense. She fell before the quarterfinals for the third straight hard-court major since reaching the 2011 US Open semifinals, still looking tired from her busy season in 2012. That post-tournament ranking of #6 seems inflated—until you look at the women directly behind her. B-
WTA #7-9: This trio won two total matches at the Australian Open, finding a variety of ways to collapse. Last year’s quarterfinalist Errani could not hold serve against fellow clay specialist Suarez Navarro in an ominous sign for a year in which she must defend large quantities of points. Last year’s semifinalist Kvitova could not finish off Laura Robson amid a horrific cascade of double faults and groundstrokes dispatched to places unknown. Her confidence even more tattered than her game, the former Wimbledon champion nears a pivotal crossroads. At least one expected home hope Stosur to shatter Aussie dreams as painfully as possible, which she accomplished by twice failing to serve out a match against Zheng before dumping a second serve into the middle of the net down match point. F
Wozniacki: Many, including me, thought that she would fall to Lisicki in the first round. Let off the hook when the German self-destructed yet again, Wozniacki capitalized on her second life to win two more matches. Then the poise that she displayed at her best late in close matches deserted her as she fell two points short of closing out Kuznetsova. (As colleague David Kane has noted, that match posed a striking counterpoint to her earlier matches against the Russian.) Out of the top 10 after the tournament, Wozniacki continues to stagnate without much sign of recovery. C+
Pavlyuchenkova: Like fellow Brisbane runner-up Dimitrov, she crashed out of the tournament in the first round. What happens in Brisbane stays in Brisbane, or does it? Pavlyuchenkova has much to prove after a disastrous 2012 but plenty of talent with which to prove it. C
WTA young guns: From Stephens and Keys to Robson and Watson to Gavrilova and Putintseva, rising stars from around the world asserted themselves in Melbourne. The future looks bright with a variety of personalities and playing styles maturing in our midst. A
Kvitova vs. Robson: Hideous for the first two sets, it grew into the greatest WTA drama of the tournament not stoked by Azarenka. The question of whether the budding teenager could oust the major champion hovered through game after game that mixed the sublime with the absurd. It was hard to applaud, and equally hard to look away even as it careened deep into the Melbourne night. B
Errani/Vinci vs. Williams/Williams: Two of the greatest legends in the history of the sport faced the top doubles team, en route to their third title in the last four majors. After three sets and over two and a half hours, the Italians survived two American attempts to serve for the match and struck a blow for the value of doubles as more than a format for singles stars to hone their skills. This match also marked a rare occasion when David felled Goliath in a WTA dominated by the latter. A-
Women’s final: Seemingly everything imaginable happened in this profoundly gripping, profoundly weird climax to the tournament: fireworks, a concussion test, 16 service breaks, and a starker good vs. evil narrative than most Hollywood movies. As the service breaks suggested, the quality of tennis fluctuated dramatically from one point to the next with both women struggling to find their best form at the same time. Meanwhile, the dramatic tension soared to Shakespearean levels as the WTA produced its third straight three-set major final. A
Enjoy this tournament review? Come back tomorrow for the ATP edition.
James Crabtree is currently in Melbourne Park covering the Australian Open for Tennis Grandstand and is giving you all the scoop directly from the grounds.
By James Crabtree
MELBOURNE — Conflicting with popular opinion The Great Wall of China is alive, travels extensively and has a broad sense of humour.
Maria Sharapova met the wall Thursday, and attempted to use all her artillery to beat it. In fact, Li Na defence was better than just a wall. The Russian champion, who is known to hit the ball harder than anyone, only served to hit something that would be absorbed then sent back with interest.
Sharapova, perhaps relishing her fortune and thinking towards a final that wouldn’t include Serena Williams, started horribly. The first points on Sharapova’s serve went to Na as back to back double faults. In contrast Li Na started reliably, not giving any points away. The next few games were close and if you weren’t paying attention you wouldn’t have realised that Na had raced out to a 4-1 lead.
This was the wrong script. Sharapova, who had barely lost a game all tournaments, was now losing games. In contrast Li Na was beating a player she had lost her last three meetings with.
The Russian showed a brief reprisal by securing the next game on a wild Na forehand, and the Russian attack seemed imminent.
The cavalry never came, with Sharapova’s inability to play smart tennis that included variations in pace and angle. Na rounded out the set on an easy service game.
The second set started with more of a tussle. Sharapova served well and the score line was a much more even 2-2, with Chris Evert predicting a victory for the Russian, via twitter.
Still, Na’s game plan was solid. A strategy that may have been inspired by her new coach Carlos Rodriguez, and Justine Henin’s former.
Just like the first set Li Na was winning the tough points, the longer rallies and all the important deuce and advantage points. All the games were furthering her lead.
There was to be no Sharapova comeback predicted by Evert. All in all this was a tough and tense encounter that did not reflect a 6-2 6-2 score-line. It was however Li Na’s day, literally, in the sun.
The stats rarely lie. Sharapova had 17 winners and 32 unforced errors whilst Na had a much more even 21 winners and 18 unforced errors. “Today, as I said, I felt like I had my fair share of opportunities. It’s not like they weren’t there. I just couldn’t take them today.” Sharapova stated after her loss.
Sharapova’s conceded twelve games today. In the five matches prior she conceded a total of nine.
Nobody would have predicted Serena Williams and Maria Sharpova to lose in consecutive days.
After the match Li Na thanked the crowd, whom are quickly considering her part of the family. She added she “always plays well in Melbourne,” a fact that is becoming more apparent every year. A fact that would work well in her favour Saturday against Azarenka, a player she has lost her last four meetings with.
We offer a tour of the three semifinals on Thursday as the Australian Open reaches its penultimate stages in both the men’s and women’s draws.
Sharapova vs. Li: The two highest-earning women in the WTA prepare for their latest chapter in one of its most curious rivalries, defined largely by the ebbs and flows in Sharapova’s career. Sweeping all five of her meetings with Li before shoulder surgery forced her sabbatical, she struggled with this opponent’s steadiness and steeliness in dropping four straight upon her return. The tide turned markedly in 2012, however, not long after Sharapova had signaled her resurgence by reaching finals at Wimbledon and the Australian Open. Winning a clay encounter of excruciating suspense in the Rome final, she dismantled Li with ease in both of their hard-court meetings for the loss of seven total games.
Under this rivalry runs the intriguing undercurrent of their coaches. While Sharapova works with Li’s former coach, Thomas Hogstedt, her semifinal foe has enlisted the services of Justine Henin’s former coach, Carlos Rodriguez. Just as Hogstedt surely can impart valuable insights to his charge, then, so can Rodriguez from his experience watching the Belgian duel with Maria on a multitude of grand stages. In their 2012 meetings, Sharapova showed a commitment to breaking down Li’s forehand, her more powerful but less reliable wing. Although most fans know these women best for their backhands, their forehands again could play a key role in determining the outcome, for they generally mirror the responses of both women to pressure.
Pressure is not something with which Sharapova has grown familiar this fortnight, in which she has dropped just nine games. But she has saved an astonishing quantity of game points and break points in winning nearly all of the multiple-deuce epics that she has played. Li, who also has not lost a set, showed similar fortitude in sweeping the vast majority of her long games against Radwanska, toppled by her in the quarterfinals. Not lacking for courage or fortitude, each woman will take audacious swings at any opportunity that presents itself in a match full of splendid shot-making—and abysmal errors as well.
Azarenka vs. Stephens: Rarely do opponents collide for the first time in a major semifinal, but even more rarely does a woman reach a major semifinal in just her seventh main-draw appearance at one of the four elite tournaments. While Sloane Stephens probably would not have reached the semifinals without Serena’s back injury, she deserves credit for keeping her composure despite her inexperience when that match stretched deep into a final set. Now, the 19-year-old faces the challenge of rebounding within a day from the most important victory of her career, not an easy feat to achieve even for someone of greater experience.
Not suffering from any physical woes at this stage, Azarenka has not looked quite her unbeatable self of early 2012. The top seed did look more impressive in her quarterfinal than in any previous stage of her title defense, outlasting a severe first-set test from a resurgent Kuznetsova. As the tournament has progressed, Azarenka has begun to serve with greater authority, a key against an opponent in Stephens who still does not earn many free points on her serve. If the defending champion can claim and consolidate an early lead, the underdog might fade. All the same, the American teenager does not look the complacent sort who would content herself with reaching the semifinals. Stephens brings a precocious willpower to the court that bodes well for her future as an elite contender, and she likely will force Azarenka to earn her third straight berth in the final of a hard-court major. What remains unlikely is the potential of her still-developing games to threaten the extremely polished, balanced weapons wielded by the world #1.
Djokovic vs. Ferrer: Twice before have they intersected on Rod Laver Arena, Djokovic winning both in straight sets. He swept the Spaniard in two semifinals at the US Open as well, conceding only one total set in those two matches. Outside the clay where Ferrer plays his best tennis and Djokovic his worst, in fact, the Serb has dominated this rivalry relentlessly with the strange exception of the year-end championships. Denied in all four of his major semifinals, by one of the ATP Big Four each time, Ferrer must overcome a significant mental hurdle to make his Sunday night debut.
Finding the confidence that eluded him for so long in marquee matches, Ferrer did record a minor breakthrough last fall by securing his first Masters 1000 shield. And he has become a far more consistent threat at majors in the latter stages of his career, reaching the quarterfinals or better at each of them for the first time in a season last year. At this tournament, however, he has hovered a few notches below his finest form, fortunate to escape his compatriot Almagro in the previous round when the latter failed to serve out the match three times. Famous for his consistency, Ferrer donated more errors than usual in that match and repeatedly struggled to hold serve, an ominous sign ahead of his battle with the best returner in tennis history. An ominous sign for Djokovic, meanwhile, lies in the nine sets that he has played across the last two matches, which have forced him to dig deeper into his reserves of energy at this stage than he would prefer.
Nevertheless, every man who has played a five-hour match before the final—except the perennially star-crossed Andy Roddick—has won the Australian Open, and the world #1 has won 19 consecutive matches at the major that has witnessed his greatest successes. Aiming to move just one victory from a historic Melbourne three-peat, Djokovic should weather Ferrer’s limited offense with ease and chip away at his defense inexorably in a grinding baseline encounter.
For the second straight year, Maria Sharapova faced countrywoman Ekaterina Makarova in a rematch of an Australian Open quarterfinal a year ago. Even more emphatic in the sequel, the world #2 continued her inexorable march deep into the Melbourne draw with a 6-2 6-2 victory that featured little suspense after the first five games.
Carrying the confidence from her upset over Kerber into this match, Makarova started promisingly by varying the placement on her first serve. She struck a body serve and a serve down the T for winners, while a fine forehand winner contributed to the love hold. With an ace and stinging forehands, Sharapova held her own game almost as easily. A double fault thrust Makarova into trouble early in her next game, leading to a pair of break points. Swinging her opponent wide with a well-angled backhand, Sharapova drew first blood.
Quickly erasing the arrears, Makarova constructed a thoughtful rally around her own sets of angles to mitigate the damage done by her opponent’s first serves. A double fault by Sharapova took the game to deuce, from where the lefty gained the upper hand in the next two points and finished them with poise. For the first time this tournament, an opponent had reached 2-2 in a set with the second seed. The pressure of that situation, minor as it might seem, represented an important step forward for Makarova in her effort to reverse last year’s setback. But she could not build upon the momentum, yielding a double fault of her own on break point to hand Sharapova the advantage again.
The 2008 champion had struggled with her first-serve percentage during her previous two victories, although it had not cost her then. Considering Makarova’s more dangerous returning, Maria needed to find a steadier rhythm on her first serve to obtain more convincing holds. She connected with just enough of them to pull ahead 4-2 in the first set, consolidating the break. As her own return threatened to make inroads again on Makarova’s serve, the underdog showed fine reactions and timing in retrieving bombs that might have gone for winners against less alert opponents. Handed a deuce situation with a wild forehand from her compatriot, though, Sharapova set up a break point by painting the same corner with consecutive forehand bombs. A blistering backhand return earned the insurance break.
Bringing down the curtain on the set was a second-serve ace, her third ace of the match. Sharapova had won the opening stanza by the same score that she had against Makarova at this stage a year ago. During a multiple-deuce game to start the second set, she clawed back from 40-15 for the second straight time on her opponent’s serve but needed five break points to secure the early advantage with a punishing forehand. Midway through that epic struggle, Sharapova even scrambled to retrieve a Makarova laser with her left hand, producing a desperate lob that her compatriot netted.
Angling her serves effectively to keep the lefty off balance, the world #2 raced through another comfortable hold. At 30-30 in her second service game, Makarova urgently need to avoid a break-point situation, and she fought off the prospect with one of the longest rallies to that stage. Holding serve when Sharapova missed a second-serve return, she stayed within range. A love hold from the favorite again left Makarova with a critical service game of her own. This time, she could not survive it. After two routine groundstroke misses positioned Sharapova at double break point, the second seed answered a crafty lefty angle with an even more audacious backhand angle that permitted no reply.
Consecutive double faults left her trailing 15-30 in her next service game, but she advanced to 5-1 behind otherwise steady tennis. The former champion missed two potential winners by inches on the first two points of Makarova’s service game and a third on the last. While she could have concluded the match with a break had she unleashed those rockets with more accuracy, Sharapova still held a commanding lead. Her relative inefficiency mattered little as she closed out the match emphatically with an ace on the first opportunity.
Dropping just nine games en route to the semifinals, Sharapova next will face Li Na. The two highest-earning women in tennis, the Russian and Chinese superstars have collaborated on a strange but intriguing rivalry. Their latest episode will open play on Thursday afternoon in Melbourne.
By Jesse Pentecost
Being essentially a radioactive substance, a tournament draw at a tennis event conforms to a fixed and exponential rate of decay. At Grand Slam level, each event discards precisely half its mass as charged particles every two days, although inevitably some of the particles are more charged than others. Some are less so: Gilles Simon was an almost-inert particle. Janko Tipsarevic discarded himself. Four half-life cycles are complete, and the original 128 participants have been reduced to just eight. Nuclear scientists usually refer to this point as the ‘quarterfinals’, which has recently passed over into the common vernacular, whereupon it was adopted by tennis. To those watching on television, the ‘quarterfinals’ represents the point at which a Major really slides into gear. For those still roaming the grounds, the opposite is true.
To attend a Major tournament in its first few days is to be immersed utterly in tennis. You learn to breath it or you suffocate. There are singles matches happening on every court, even those so remote from the center that they boast radically different atmospheric conditions. However, the rate at which tournament draws decay means that by the first weekend even the showcourts are hosting farcical ‘Legends’ doubles matches featuring Mansour Bahrami or Henri Leconte slipping racquets down their trousers, in the probably justified hope that the capacity crowd will watch anything. It certainly doesn’t hurt attendance. (At the US Open they were so worried that top-class tennis would bore the crowd that they finagled in Adam Sandler and Kevin James to contest a night session on Arthur Ashe Stadium.)
Even by the second round, the remote courts are repurposed for doubles, then after that to mixed doubles, and then to the juniors. By the second week they’re exclusively the province of wind and ghosts. Today, out by Court 15, I idled with the charmless phantasms and listened to the faint roar of human voices emanating from Rod Laver Arena. But then, what do you expect? That’s the way it works.
Some clearly expect more. Judging from those I talked to, no few of the grounds pass holders were suffering acute disappointment at the discovery that they wouldn’t be able to see Roger Federer or Serena Williams play, except on the big screen in Garden Square – which is like paying to watch television in the sun – or on the practice court, which is about as perilous as venturing into a mosh pit. Still, many do venture in, willingly. Regardless of age, an elbow to the face is a small price to pay for the chance to stare at Maria Sharapova as she confers with her coach.
One of the fans I spoke to must have been in her fifties. I’d earlier encountered her as she waved her flag at Sara Tomic, and she proudly showed me her autograph haul. Her pride was later surpassed by disappointment when the announcement came through that Federer’s practice session had been moved indoors, away from adoring eyes. She clearly had a mental check-list of players she simply had to see – perhaps she had a real list secreted about her person – and now at least one name would have to remain unchecked. Alas, she didn’t have tickets to Rod Laver Arena – no one told her they’d be necessary – but resolved to watch Federer play the ‘Canadian boy’ tonight from Garden Square, which is actually circular.
Then again, another man I spoke to said he preferred to watch the matches on the big screen. According to him, you weren’t supposed to eat or drink in the main arenas; you’d be shushed by snooty patrons for opening a packet of crisps, or sipping your beer. There was always the possibility that I’d discovered the world’s noisiest eater, but it’s unlikely. Somehow he’d confused Rod Laver Arena with an art-house cinema in a Cistercian monastery. For the record, eating is permitted, not to say encouraged. The lines of RLA ticket-holders bearing trays of Heinekens and nachos provided overwhelming visual evidence of this. Still, he too would watch Serena and Roger from Garden Square. At least it was a gorgeous evening.
Anyway, my point is that plenty of people don’t quite realise what they’re getting themselves in for when they buy a grounds pass in the second week. They expect to see big name players plying their trade. I suspect this partly reflects the distortion inherent in televised sports. On television the second week of a Major appears to have as much tennis as the first, except it is better quality and more exciting. After four rounds of build-up, suddenly the top players are playing each other.
An astute fan might notice that the coverage is increasingly confined to the main court, but to the casual viewer all the courts look the same anyway, and they have no interest in knowing where anything is occurring. Hisense Arena, Rod Laver Arena – on television they’re all just confusing names for an identical swatch of cobalt across which exceedingly fit young men and women scamper. But when you’re on the grounds, and all you have is a grounds pass, they’re impenetrable zones of privilege from which the unwashed masses are excluded. I should stress that this isn’t true for everyone. There were plenty of people watching doubles on Showcourt Two because it was preferable to watching Andy Murray and Simon on Hisense.
In any case, the broadcaster works hard to convey the impression that the grounds remain frenziedly active, even as the last weekend draws near. But anyone visiting the grounds on the second Monday will encounter a strikingly different event than they would have on the first Monday (and I can barely imagine what it’s like at the US Open, where there’s a third Monday). So, while the Australian Open gathers pace and surges towards the finals, spare a thought for those still flooding the grounds, who might feel like the tournament is already over, and that they missed it.
When the quarterfinals begin, the action in singles compresses to Rod Laver Arena for the rest of the escalating drama. Here is a tour of what to expect from an all-Russian match, an all-Spanish match, and two collisions between top-eight contenders.
Li vs. Radwanska: These two top-eight women have compiled a history of closely contested meetings that has taken a few curious turns lately. After Radwanska won their first match of 2012, Li swept three straight on the second-half hard courts that included two routs. Aga’s revenge came with a flourish at Sydney last week, when she broke her former nemesis repeatedly en route to a straight-sets triumph, although she struggled to deliver the decisive blow. That match marked Li’s only loss of a season against twelve victories and a title, while Radwanska has won all 26 of her sets and has collected two titles.
Relatively unheralded as a contender, Li has progressed quietly through the draw but has looked very efficient in doing so as she has spurred memories of her 2011 final and 2010 semifinal here. Neither player should dominate on serve, despite solid efforts in that area from both here, so rallies should unfold that contrast the Chinese star’s flow with the Pole’s syncopation. Designed to disrupt, Radwanska’s smorgasbord of spins and speeds will test the rhythmic Li, who will aim to take time away from the world #4 by striking the ball early and constantly redirecting her groundstrokes. The woman who can impose her tone more thoroughly should prevail in a clash of mentally resilient competitor.
Ferrer vs. Almagro: Fond of playing Nadal to Almagro’s Ferrer, the man who will become the top-ranked Spaniard after this tournament never has lost to his compatriot. Some caveats apply, however, such as the dearth of outdoor hard-court meetings in a rivalry predictably centered on clay. Not since 2006 have these two quarterfinalists met on a surface similar to Rod Laver Arena, since when both of their games have improved dramatically. Moreover, Almagro often has kept their encounters extremely close, taking Ferrer to final sets in half of them and holding match points in a final-set tiebreak at Madrid last year.
Through the first four rounds, Ferrer has looked slightly the superior player. Recording his best performance at a hard-court major to date, Almagro needed five sets to escape an inexperienced American in his first match, and his dominance over the higher-ranked Tipsarevic lost some of its luster when the Serb retired. Also experiencing more difficulty than expected against an unheralded American, Ferrer rebounded from that four-setter to demolish a former tormentor in Nishikori. That match should boost his confidence for a more familiar foe in a quarterfinal where the favorite’s compact two-handed backhand will contrast intriguingly with the underdog’s florid one-hander.
Sharapova vs. Makarova: When they met in the same round here last year, the more famous Russian permitted just five games. Like the all-Spanish quarterfinal, the all-Russian quarterfinal offers the latest edition in a head-to-head controlled exclusively by one player. Sharapova has lost just one set in four meetings with Makarova, although they played two tight sets in Miami most recently. Mauled badly by Maria’s return on this court before, the lefty’s serve must sustain the pressure more successfully this time, and a high first-serve percentage would play a vital role in achieving that goal.
Not expected by most to reach consecutive quarterfinals in Melbourne, Makarova claims that she learned from last year’s experience to become a more mature competitor at this stage. The often fiery Russian indeed looked composed when she upset world #5 Kerber in a tight two-setter, at least outside a wobble late in the first set. From that passage of play, as well as her flirtation with surrendering a 5-0 lead to Bartoli, one still suspects Makarova when the pressure rises. Pressure has not entered Sharapova’s vocabulary at this tournament, where she continues to set records of implausible domination. Never before has anyone lost just five games en route to the Australian Open quarterfinals, which raises the question of how she will respond when and if some adversity does arise. In a battle between two women who love to create outrageous angles, Sharapova will hope to make Makarova rue her professed eagerness to reverse last year’s disappointment.
Djokovic vs. Berdych: Winless against the Serb on a hard court, Berdych notched his only victory over him en route to the Wimbledon final three years ago, his best result at a major to date. Once Djokovic evolved into his invincible self when 2011 began, the Czech never came close to repeating that feat. Part of this lopsided rivalry has hinged on the contrast between Berdych’s forehand-reliant game and the world #1’s groundstroke symmetry, which offers him a far greater advantage in backhand-to-backhand exchanges than any edge that his opponent can claim in forehands. Also, Djokovic’s movement allows him to track down the first strikes that Berdych can hurl at him more effectively than can most players, returning them with the depth necessary to maneuver himself into the rally.
On this occasion, though, Berdych may harbor some legitimate reason to hope. The cathartic but exhausting epic with Wawrinka, which sprawled across five hours, may have left him drained of the energy to grind down the Czech’s offense as he has in the past. By contrast, his challenger has reached this stage without dropping a set or engaging in any physically taxing battles. If Berdych claims an early lead, he could test Djokovic’s resilience. All the same, the world #1 proved his nearly supernatural ability to rebound from one marathon to the next in Melbourne last year when he spent nearly 11 total hours on court in consecutive matches against Nadal and Murray. Berdych should not gamble on a depleted Djokovic entering the court at his best major.
In the wake of her statement triumph over Venus Williams, world #2 Maria Sharapova faced the challenge of avoiding complacency as she prepared for a fourth-round encounter with the unremarkable Kirsten Flipkens. At first, that challenge did seem to trouble an inconsistent, uninspired Russian, who struggled through a few protracted games. Once she settled into the match, though, Sharapova added a breadstick and a bagel to the waffles of Belgian bakeries by dispatching Flipkens 6-1 6-0.
Battling through three deuces, Flipkens needed several game points to light up the scoreboard with an encouraging “1” next to her name—more than two of Sharapova’s three previous opponents had accomplished. That encouraging start stemmed in part from a slightly scratchy series of groundstrokes by the second seed, who missed two routine inside-out forehands. Once she stepped to the service notch, however, Sharapova produced a confident hold and built upon it for an easy break of serve. If Flipkens failed to seize control of the point with the first stroke or two, her more powerful opponent typically wrested it away.
Sharapova continued to look a bit flat, at least in comparison to her sparkling performance against Venus. One wondered whether her motivation simmered at a low ebb for a foe of whom she knew little. With two double faults and two errant forehands, she offered Flipkens a pair of break points in the fourth game, which extended through several deuces. A challenge erased a third break point by handing the Russian a backhand winner, and the 12-minute game finally ended with a hold.
Deploying drop shots to great effect, Flipkens tried to move Sharapova into the net on uncomfortable terms whenever the opportunity invited. After she had led 30-0, though, she soon faced break point following a thunderous return winner from the second seed. Seizing the insurance break with a backhand pass, Sharapova established her authority over the first set. An uneventful hold preceded a long game on the Flipkens serve in which the Belgian held several game points before yielding on her second set point under the pressure of her opponent’s weight of shot.
Despite her pedestrian play for much of that set, Sharapova still had recorded her sixth bagel or breadstick of the Australian Open. One sensed that her level would rise in the second set as the quarterfinals beckoned, and such proved the case. Losing just five points through the first five games of that set, she mirrored a dip in her opponent’s level with cleaner tennis in most areas, although her first-serve percentage continued to languish. It appeared briefly that Flipkens would hold when she held three game points at 1-6, 0-5. True to her remorseless character, however, Sharapova saved all three and ripped a forehand winner down the line on her first match point.
This match did not represent a peak performance from the second seed, the scoreline notwithstanding. But Sharapova still has lost only five games in four matches here, illustrating how quickly she can find her rhythm at the start of a new season and how well this surface suits her. She should face a more worthy opponent in the quarterfinals, compatriot Ekaterina Makarova, although their meeting at the same stage last year ended with a comfortable victory for the more heralded Russian. Few players ever have plowed so deep into a major with such a tsunami of momentum, and Sharapova could not have asked for a more auspicious start here.
Since Anastasia Myskina, Maria Sharapova and Svetlana Kuznetsova announced Russia’s arrival in women’s tennis in 2004 with their Grand Slam triumphs, the nation took a stranglehold on the WTA rankings. Serena Williams once joked that she should just be called “Williamsova” at the 2009 Wimbledon Championships, where the main draw contained 24 -ovas and seven -evas. “I just know the standard: everyone is from Russia,” she quipped. “Sometimes I think I’m from Russia, too. With all these new -ovas, I don’t know anyone, I don’t really recognize anyone.”
At one point during 2008, Russians made up 50% of the world’s top 10, with Kuznetsova, Elena Dementieva, Dinara Safina, Vera Zvonareva and Anna Chakvetadze all occupying places in the elite. That came in the period when Sharapova was sidelined with a shoulder injury. They swept the podium at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, with Dementieva winning gold, Safina taking silver and Zvonareva winning bronze. However, in the 2012 year-end rankings, there were only four in the top 20, or 20%.
That led to the question: where have all the Russians gone? Dementieva’s retirement, coupled with injuries to Safina, Chakvetadze and Zvonareva, made many feel as though the days of Russian dominance on the WTA were over. Their mantle of churning out multiple quality WTA players all at once had now been taken up by nations such as Germany and the Czech Republic, and the longstanding tennis powerhouses of the United States and Great Britain have multiple young stars with bright futures.
The answer is: the Russians never really left, they were just taking a vacation.
With Sharapova, Kuznetsova, Maria Kirilenko, Ekaterina Makarova and Elena Vesnina all making the second week Down Under, it marks the first time that Russia has had more than two players reach the second week of a major event since the 2011 US Open.
Little needs to be said about Sharapova and Kuznetsova, arguably the two greatest Russians in terms of career accomplishments, who have six Grand Slam titles between them and 40 overall titles. Kuznetsova’s reascension has been particularly notable, as she missed almost half of 2012 due to a knee injury.
Kirilenko, perhaps one of the hardest workers on the WTA, makes the most of what she has. In addition to being a standout doubles player, Kirilenko reached her career-high ranking in singles in 2012. She and countrywoman Nadia Petrova, who’s had a late-career renaissance in her own right, won the bronze medal in doubles at the Olympics; she finished fourth in singles, losing to Victoria Azarenka in the bronze medal match. Kirilenko’s had success Down Under before, as she reached the quarterfinals in 2010 after upsetting Sharapova in the first round; she’ll have an extremely tough test against Serena Williams.
Makarova has had her greatest successes in places called ‘bourne. The lefty stormed to the title at the WTA Premier event in Eastbourne as a qualifier in 2010, beating Flavia Pennetta, Nadia Petrova, Kuznetsova, Samantha Stosur and Azarenka in the final. She’s perhaps best known for her upset over Serena Williams at the Australian Open last year en route to the quarterfinals, and matched the feat this year by taking out Angelique Kerber. Her 11-5 record Down Under is her best mark out of all the majors. If the US Open was held in Bourne, Massachusetts, she’d probably win it.
Vesnina, who reached the fourth round of the Australian Open in her Grand Slam debut in 2006, matched the feat this year. In her seventh career final to open the year in Hobart, she dethroned defending champion Mona Barthel to finally win a WTA title. She’s taken out two seeds this week, No. 21 Varvara Lepchenko and No. 16 Roberta Vinci.
In addition, Valeria Savinykh scored an upset win over Dominika Cibulkova in the second round and junior standout Daria Gavrilova qualified for her first Grand Slam main draw and had a second round showing.
As the old cliché goes, it’s always about “quality, not quantity.” As the Russians on the WTA have proved over the past decade, you can have both.
At the start of the second week, all of the singles matches shift to the three show courts. We organize our daily preview a bit differently as a result, following the order of play for each stadium. From here to the end of the 2013 Australian Open, you can find a preview of every singles match in Wizards of Oz.
Rod Laver Arena:
Kerber vs. Makarova: When two left-handed women last met on Rod Laver, the match unwound deep into a final set. Viewers can expect less drama but higher quality from a meeting between the world #5 and a Russian seeking her second straight quarterfinal here. In this round last year, Makarova recorded probably the best win of her career in upsetting Serena, and she rekindled some of those memories with a three-set upset of Bartoli. Advancing through the draw more routinely, Kerber reached the second week here for the first time and will look to exploit the ebbs and flows in her opponent’s more volatile game. Makarova will aim to take time away from the German counterpuncher, in part by opening the court with wide serves behind which she can step inside the baseline. In a close match, Kerber’s outstanding three-set record and her opponent’s relative frailty under pressure could prove decisive. The German won all three of their 2012 meetings in straight sets.
Ferrer vs. Nishikori: Despite his clear superiority in ranking and overall accomplishments, the fourth seed might feel a bit anxious heading into this match. Nishikori has won two of their three previous matches, both at significant tournaments. More notable than his victory over Ferrer at the Olympics was a five-set thriller that he won from at the US Open, which introduced the Japanese star to an international audience four years ago. Chronically beset by injuries, Nishikori overcame a knee problem early in his first match and has won nine straight sets. As he pursues his second straight quarterfinal here, like Makarova, he cannot afford to encounter any physical issues in a grinding encounter filled with protracted rallies and few outright winners. Ferrer wore down Baghdatis, a former nemesis here, in a routine third-round clash as his level rose with the competition, but now it rises again.
Sharapova vs. Flipkens: Perhaps benefiting from the guidance of retired compatriot Clijsters, Flipkens has reached the second week at a major for the first time. Still, she defeated nobody of greater significance than Zakopalova to reach that stage, and it is difficult to see any area of her game that can trouble the rampaging Russian. Following her two double bagels, Sharapova conceded just four games to Venus in a highly anticipated encounter that turned into a demonstration of just how crisply she has started the season. The Belgian’s best chance may lie in the hope that the world #2 enters this match a little complacent or satiated with her statement triumph, not likely from someone of her professionalism. Their only previous hard-court meeting, in Luxembourg ten years ago, bears no relevance to what might unfold here.
Ivanovic vs. Radwanska: Early in their careers, the Serbian former #1 hit through the Pole’s defenses with her serve-forehand combinations. As Ivanovic has grown more erratic with time, the balance of power has shifted towards Radwanska with three straight victories in 2009-10 before a retirement from the former in their most recent meeting. All of those matches have stayed very close, though, which can give the Serb as she realizes that she will have chances against a player who will not overpower her. Stalling in the fourth round of majors for most of the last few years, Ivanovic has suffered a long string of losses to top-four opponents. Currently undefeated in 2013 with two titles already, Radwanska has shown greater discipline and steadiness here (no surprise, really) than the flustered former #1, who has oscillated wildly in form. Expect the fourth seed to outlast and outwit Ivanovic in an entertaining battle.
Djokovic vs. Wawrinka: Not exactly known as a steely competitor, the Swiss #2 has acquired a reputation for folding at majors against elite opponents—not just Federer, but Djokovic and Murray has well. He has lost his last ten meetings against the defending champion, last winning in 2006, although three times since then he has won the opening set. Demolishing his first trio of victims without dropping serve, Djokovic has not shown any vulnerability that might offer Wawrinka a reason to believe. Granted, the latter has not lost a set here either, but a matchup with the world #1 in a night session on Rod Laver Arena seems like the type of environment calculated to bring out the worst from the Swiss and something near the best from the Serb. Parallel to Sharapova and Flipkens, one struggles to imagine any part of the underdog’s game that can threaten the favorite consistently.
Almagro vs. Tipsarevic: Never before have they met on a hard court, discounting an Abu Dhabi exhibition. To no surprise, the Spaniard defeated the Serb comfortably when they met at Roland Garros last year, the most favorable surface for the former and the least favorable for the latter. Almagro remains almost as lethal a threat on hard courts as on clay, producing a handful of fine results in Melbourne and New York behind an impressive serve and plenty of groundstroke first-strike power. Both men can strike winners down the line from either groundstroke wing, nor will either hesitate in attempting a bold shot at any moment. That factor, combined with their proximity to each other in the rankings, bodes well for a tightly contested match, as does their mixture of impressive and unimpressive results in the first week.
Li vs. Goerges: If Almagro and Tipsarevic never have met on a hard court, this pair of women never has collided at all. Whereas Li rolled through the first week without dropping a set, Goerges needed to claw through a long three-setter in her opener against Dushevina and salvage a third-round epic against Zheng after the Chinese served for the match. Despite the accumulated fatigue, that resilience under pressure might aid her in a match likely to feature several twists and turns between two streaky women. Under Henin’s former mentor, stern taskmaster Carlos Rodriguez, Li has hinted at improving her consistency from one tournament to the next. Starting the year with a title and a Sydney semifinal, she enters this match with an 11-1 record in 2013. On the other hand, Goerges has wobbled through a long span of the unpredictability typical of WTA Germans, leaving her stagnant until this week.
Margaret Court Arena:
Anderson vs. Berdych: The first South African to reach the second week of a major since Wayne Ferreira ten years ago, Anderson did it the hard way by winning the last two sets of a five-setter against Verdasco. Few players have started the year more impressively than he has, marching from a strong week at the Hopman Cup to the Sydney final and now a week in which he twice has won matches after losing the first set. But Anderson may find himself eyeing adversity again when he meets a man who won all four of their matches last year. The last two of those reached final sets, offering him some hope in this contest of crackling serves, ferocious forehands, and meager backhands, which should produce repeated holds and perhaps some tiebreaks. Berdych has dominated the opposition through three rounds with the relentless focus that he does not always show, although he has not faced anyone of a quality approaching the South African.
The most anticipated match of the first week in the women’s draw, the collision between Maria Sharapova and Venus Williams turned into a proclamation of the former’s brilliance rather than the suspenseful epic for which many had hoped. Superior in every area to the seven-time major champion, the career Grand Slam holder notched a 6-1 6-3 victory that echoed her dazzling efforts from the previous two rounds against a much more dangerous foe.
Establishing the staccato tone of the rallies from the outset, both women swung for early winners rather than constructing points. Each of them struggled on serve initially, Venus starting the match with a double fault and Sharapova missing a series of first serves. With a barrage of forehands that kept her opponent off balance, the second seed started the match by breaking serve. Not subdued a whit, the American nearly broke back directly by cracking explosive returns on the Russian’s second serves. Three straight forehand errors from Venus allowed Sharapova to escape the game, however, and she collected her 27th consecutive game of the tournament when her own sterling returns subjected her opponent to pressure that contributed to a double fault.
Soon staring at a 0-4 deficit, the seven-time major champion rallied her spirits for a solid service hold that halted a streak of 28 straight games by Sharapova to start the season, a record in tennis history. A service winner toward the Russian’s forehand, a tactic that had worked well for her earlier, followed steadier groundstrokes. But that ray of hope marked the last flicker of positive news for Venus in the first set, which Sharapova captured soon thereafter with relentlessly aggressive tennis despite persistent struggles with locating her first serve.
The American’s fortunes only could improve in the second set, it seemed, and she started reasonably well by winning two points on her opponent’s serve. From there, though, a hold preceded a love break and a love hold to position Sharapova at 6-1, 3-0. Her back to the wall, Venus fell behind triple break point in what represented essentially triple match point. The veteran found the range on her groundstrokes when she most needed them, in addition to an impressive first serve that saved the last break point. Suddenly errant with her own groundstrokes, Sharapova lost the next five points to throw Venus a lifeline. Her control continued to waver during the ensuing service game, which started with two netted groundstrokes on the first three points. Still searching for her own rhythm, Venus donated four unforced errors to assist her opponent in retaining the 4-1 lead.
The last point in that fifth game unfolded in scintillating style with an escalation of percussive groundstrokes, though, the type of point that most fans anticipated from the match. Running desperately to track down Sharapova’s baseline bombs in her next service game, Venus produced the scrambling defense that had fueled much of her success over the last decade. The second seed responded by delivering a mighty statement of her own, crushing a first-serve return for a clean winner and then pounding a backhand winner down the line.
Down double break point again, Venus benefited from an unforced error on Sharapova’s return and stayed in a rally long enough to elicit an overeager groundstroke. The shot-making from the Russian struck back with a second-serve return winner that created a third break point, but another unforced error let it vanish. In control of most rallies, Sharapova nevertheless looked a little edgy as she could not quite deliver the terminal blow. Fortunately for her, Venus netted consecutive forehands to end the multiple-deuce game and hand her opponent two chances to serve for the match, celebrated with a fistpump and fierce roar from across the net.
That additional breathing room proved vital for Sharapova, who failed to find her first serve or her focus in the ensuing game. With some crisp returning, Venus reached triple break point before a series of expertly placed serves leveled the game at deuce. Sharapova compensated for a sluggish error on the next point with a breathtaking get, but Venus eventually converted her fifth opportunity with the poise of a champion who refuses to yield. Dropping serve for the first time in the tournament, she showed a tremor of vulnerability.
Back within range, Venus still needed to hold. She won an entertaining cat-and-mouse point at the net early in the next game, and she answered a fine Sharapova drop shot with a tidy slice of her own that set up a smash. Able to hold without facing a break point for just the second time in the match, the veteran began to look more confident in general. Perhaps thinking ahead to the next game, Sharapova dumped a second-serve return in the net to extend the match.
A rocketed forehand winner and a fine first serve quickly moved her to 30-0 before an ill-conceived challenge and a wild backhand evened the game. With a long forehand return, Venus set up a match point. Sharapova would not need another.
Crunching an ace down the center service line, the world #2 completed an authoritative 6-1 6-3 rout that vaulted her into the second week with an intimidating statement. Sharapova revealed just how much this victory over a Williams sister meant to her with a pulsating series of fist pumps and primal screams before striding to the net. Once there, she shook hands with her fellow legend courteously, shifting from ferocious to gracious in an instant.
Due to face Kirsten Flipkens in the fourth round, Sharapova towers above her section of the draw and will have soared even further in belief with this victory over a champion of such quality. This victory recalled her dominant performance against Lindsay Davenport in the first week of her 2008 title surge here. For Venus, meanwhile, the scoreline did not reflect her valiant effort late in the second set, when she came within two points of erasing a substantial deficit and improbably clawing back into the match. Once she puts this evening into perspective, she should feel proud of the way that she competed even if not satisfied with the result.