More remarkable than any feat in tennis outside the majors, the Indian Wells-Miami double title requires many factors to fall together for those who would complete it: sustained form across twelve matches, resilient fitness in heat and humidity, efficiency in early rounds, the ability to raise one’s level in later rounds, adjustments to contrasting playing styles, and—perhaps—a bit of luck from fortuitous upsets late in the draw. Since Federer completed a stunning pair of doubles in 2005-06, only one player on either Tour has matched his accomplishment, but several have come close. We take a look at each of the leading threats to rampage through March in both the ATP and WTA.
Djokovic: The aforementioned architect of an Indian Wells/Miami double, the Serb demonstrated his improved fitness by sweeping these arduous draws early in his spectacular 2011 campaign. Even before he became the fearsome member of the big four, moreover, he came within a match of the same feat by finishing runner-up at the first and champion at the latter in 2007. Last year, Djokovic came within a tiebreak of the Indian Wells final before defending his Miami crown. The slow courts should favor his more physical style over Federer’s preference for short points, and he currently holds the momentum in his rivalry against Murray with three straight victories. Entering the Dubai semifinals, Djokovic had won 16 straight matches and 26 of his last 27, opening a massive lead as world #1.
Murray: Four years ago, he came within a win of the double when he fell to Nadal in the Indian Wells final before sweeping Del Potro and Djokovic to win Miami. Often at his best on North American hard courts, Murray has won six of his eight Masters 1000 titles there—but has lost three straight matches at Indian Wells, where he has advanced past the quarterfinals just once That futility in the desert, which should suit a high-percentage game adaptable to variable conditions, has stemmed from emotional hangovers after losses in the Australian Open final. Although he lost there again this year, Murray seemed less distraught afterward, so he could bounce back sooner. He might well avoid long-time nemesis Nadal at both events but probably will have to reconquer the Djoker at least once.
Berdych: A Miami finalist in 2010, he never has reached the final at either of the tournaments in any other year and has won just one Masters 1000 shield. Nevertheless, Berdych has grown more consistent in the last several months against players outside the elite, and he will take comfort from the knowledge that he may not face either Federer or Nadal. Securing his fair share of success against Murray over the years, he never has defeated Djokovic on a hard court. For a player of his size and (limited) mobility, Berdych handles slow courts unusually well because his groundstrokes still can power through them, while he often will have the time to run around his backhand for forehands.
Del Potro: The only active major champion outside the Big Four, he does own a somewhat recent victory over Djokovic and momentum against Federer following two victories last fall. But Del Potro never has defeated either Djokovic or Murray on an outdoor hard court, at least pending his Dubai semifinal against the former. Most of his notable successes have come on faster courts like those at the US Open or the year-end championships, where his forehand can break open rallies more quickly. Although his fitness has proved unreliable in the heat, his four-title surge during the summer of 2008 showed that he can stay torrid for a long time when his game starts to sizzle.
Federer cannot complete the double because he has not entered Miami. Nadal? Well, he remains entered in both tournaments as of this writing and thus will have a chance to complete a feat that he never quite has approached. In the reality of his comeback, however, Nadal surely cannot sweep twelve straight hard-court matches in elite draws and conclude an exhausting four weeks by winning Miami for the first time after losing three finals there. Nor might he want that accomplishment, for it surely would drain him before the crucial clay season.
Sharapova: Within one win of a 2006 double, when she won Indian Wells and finished runner-up to Kuznetsova in Miami, she has produced outstanding results at each of the March mini-majors in the last two years. Denied only in the finals of both 2012 tournaments, Sharapova has started this year with a relentlessness similar to what she showed last year despite a surprising loss to Li Na in the Australian Open semifinals. She has not defeated Azarenka on an outdoor hard court since 2009, but she towers above the rest of the Indian Wells field in credentials. Much more complicated is Miami, where she has lost all four of her finals and must hope for someone else to dispatch Serena.
Azarenka: Undefeated entering Indian Wells for the second straight year, she often has raced to a fast start early in the season before losing momentum as injuries accumulate. Last year, she won Indian Wells with ease but arrived significantly depleted in Miami, where she could not survive the quarterfinals. The world #2 shares Djokovic’s affinity for a surface that showcases her transitions from defense to offense as well as her returning prowess. Apparent niggles with her fitness already have surfaced this year in every tournament that she has played, however, leaving her durability still in doubt. Rarely has she won titles in consecutive weeks.
Radwanska: By contrast, the Pole whom Azarenka ruthlessly has suppressed since the start of 2012 has demonstrated her ability to win key titles in consecutive weeks. Radwanska swept the Premier Five/Premier Mandatory pair of Tokyo and Beijing in 2011, catalyzing a surge that has not yet ended, and she should welcome the slow courts. The defending champion in Miami, where she defeated Venus and Sharapova last year, she should approach the pressure of that status with her characteristic tenacity. But Radwanska has reached a major semifinal only once because of her failure to outlast the WTA’s fiercest aggressors through a seven-round tournament, and the same pattern might undo her in the attempt to win consecutive six-round tournaments against the best in the sport.
Kvitova: Feckless in North America until last year, she suddenly erupted during the US Open Series with two titles and a semifinal. Kvitova can tear through a draw or multiple draws without warning, as she showed by emerging from a slump to claim the Premier title in Dubai without dropping a set, including a victory over Radwanska. She never has defeated Serena and has struggled lately against Sharapova, while she astonishingly has not faced Azarenka since the latter’s rise early last year. More dangerous with every round that she advances further into a tournament, Kvitova will hope to avoid dark horses early in both draws and find the patience necessary to win rallies on the slow courts.
Among the key reasons why no woman has completed the double lately is the presence of the Williams sisters in Miami but not in Indian Wells. Their dominance at the former tournament, near their Palm Beach Gardens home, once inevitably forestalled the champion of the desert from repeating in Miami. While the tottering Venus probably cannot win a title of this magnitude, Serena remains the favorite at any non-clay tournament that she enters when healthy. Healthy she may not be, considering her injury-hampered hobbles through Melbourne and Doha, but the month of rest since the latter tournament may have allowed the world #1 to recover.
By Maud Watson
Caroline Wozniacki’s career hit another snag earlier this week when she was surprisingly bounced out of the Malaysian Open in her opening match by qualifier Wang Qiang. The loss completes a trio of disappointing weeks for the Dane, but being dismissed as top seed after holding a match point against a qualifier ranked 186 was definitely the bottom of the barrel for the former World No. 1. Wozniacki attributed the defeat to a lack of energy and focus, but there were apt to be other factors at work here, with the most likely culprit being a need to change coaches and subsequently revamp her approach to the game. She’s no longer spinning her wheels. She’s virtually stalled and in danger of going fully in reverse. She must take a page out of Radwanska’s book and commit to replacing her father with a new coach (and give that coach a fair trial run) and make adjustments to her game, or else she’s very likely to go by way of players like Safina and Jankovic. She has too much potential to let that happen, but that’s what’s going to unfold if she fails to get out of her own way.
Testing the Waters
Mardy Fish fans have reason to rejoice as the American announced that he is planning to make his return to tennis at the upcoming BNP Paribas Open after a six-month layoff due to heart issues. Fish has already twice had to postpone his return to competition, pulling out of both San Jose and Memphis, but his agent reports that Fish has been practicing and working out for three to four hours a day and feels confident about getting back out on the courts. If all goes well with his heart, Fish is optimistic that he’ll be able to play a full schedule for the remainder of 2013. Fingers crossed that this is the case. Not only would it be great for him personally, but with the recent struggles of John Isner, American tennis could use some good results from Mardy.
Asked and Answered
Or, at least plans are being formulated. After an increased amount of chatter from the players – including the Big 4 – asking that more measures be put in place to test for PEDs, the governing bodies of tennis seem to be preparing to take action to meet those demands. The slams and both tours announced their respective commitments to contribute more funding to the ITF anti-doping program, with reports coming out that Wimbledon and the US Open are set to double their annual contribution. The increased funding would mean that the ITF could soon look into providing more out-of-competition testing, blood testing, and possibly even funding a biological passport program. The bureaucratic machinery of tennis tends to move slowly, but it’s encouraging to see that matters on this particular front appear to be moving forward. It would be nice to squelch the baseless doping allegations that have hit tennis the last couple of years.
If there was one tournament victory last weekend that could potentially prove pivotal, it was Petra Kvitova’s win in Dubai. Granted, with Serena, Azarenka and Sharapova all absent, it wasn’t quite the star-studded field that had contested Doha a week earlier, but there was still plenty of talent in the pool vying for Dubai. In the end, it was Kvitova who built on her performance the previous week, all but taking the match out of the hands of her opposition by producing the kind of lights out tennis we know she’s capable of playing. The win couldn’t have come at a better time either with both Indian Wells and Miami looming. The Czech has historically struggled to produce her best at the big North American events (though she did manage a title in Montreal last summer), but with her victory last week, she should be feeling confident about her game irrespective of where she’s competing. The game needs her back at the top, and perhaps her run in Dubai will propel her to bigger and better things this coming spring.
On the heels of the news that the ATP Board of Directors approved the 2013 prize money distribution at Indian Wells comes word that BNP Paribas has extended its sponsorship of the prestigious event through 2018. At a time when a number of other tournaments are struggling to find title sponsors, this is welcomed news but by no means a surprise either. BNP Paribas began its sponsorship of Indian Wells in 2009, and in that time, it has seen the tournament blossom into an event that in various aspects, rivals the majors. Hopefully, with the continued support from BNP Paribas, we’re likely to continue to see the year’s first masters evolve and encourage other tournaments to follow suit.
There is something fitting about two of the WTA’s most dramatic personae triumphing on Oscar weekend. From Dubai to Bogota, spectators were treated to two comeback stories. One may have had a bigger budget, but both protagonists, Petra Kvitova and Jelena Jankovic, provided compelling drama throughout their title runs.
Amidst a star-studded cast of characters in Dubai (even without top seeds Serena Williams and Victoria Azarenka) the plot focused on tragic heroine Kvitova. An active, if static competitor, the Czech starlet was faced with questions as to whether she could build upon or at least maintain the form she rediscovered in Doha en route to a three-set defeat to Williams in the semifinals.
Jankovic by contrast is a more passive participant in the sport. A gifted counterpuncher who once topped the world rankings, the Serb was playing in a small South American clay tournament rather than an event closer to home to avoid the ignominious prospect of playing qualifying at the latter. This week, the ostensibly washed-up glamour girl was simply looking to string matches together, something she could do in her sleep during her hey day, now a task with which she has struggled since winning the prestigious Indian Wells event in 2010.
It is a truth universally acknowledged in the tennis world that, when Kvitova is playing her “A” game (even perhaps her “B+” game), she is among the fiercest competitors in the sport. Her hyper-aggressive style took her to great heights in 2011, including a Wimbledon crown and a Year-End Championships title in Istanbul. But Kvitova has been criticized in the last 18 months for her propensity to go off the rails. But as the Middle Eastern fortnight came to a close, the Czech’s game was in full effect, which helped her take out three top 10 opponents, including a net-rushing Sara Errani in the final. As flawless, positively cinematic as she seemed for most of the week, Kvitova still treated fans to some of her trademark drama with a sudden dip in form just shy of the finish line. The tireless Errani sensed her opportunity and switched tactics as she took the match to a decisive set. Somehow, Kvitova turned the match around right when she needed to as the final set got underway. As her “Pojd!”s grew louder, it became apparent how much the win meant to Kvitova, who closed in style and nabbed her first title of 2013.
As for Jankovic, the win in Bogota had more of an “indie” feel rather than a mainstream success. In a field far more reminiscent of an ITF Challenger than a WTA International, JJ only faced one player ranked in the top 100 en route to the final, dropping two sets along the way. In the title match, she faced clay court specialist Paula Ormaaechea, who had been ranked in the top 100 as recently as a month ago and took a set from Venus Williams at last year’s French Open. The Serb had lost her last five finals, which gave this match a “now or never” feel, one last chance for the aging veteran to turn around a spiraling career. By the scoreboard, Jankovic’s victory over Ormaechea was more straightforward than Kvitova’s in Dubai, but it lacked the Czech’s authoritative punch. Playing better defense than she had in the last year, Jankovic relied more on errors from her Argentine opponent than her own stellar play. The week wasn’t pretty from Jankovic, nor were the wins particularly impressive. Yet for the first time in what feels like forever, Jelena Jankovic won five complete, consecutive matches. She was far from her best, but wasn’t this kind of “against all odds” consistency the very thing that made her so maddening only few years ago?
The “match play versus confidence” debate is tennis’ equivalent to the chicken and the egg, but after playing week in, week out in search of wins (and the confidence that comes with them), the Academy finally recognized two of the hardest working women in tennis, and both Jankovic and Kvitova are starting to get a little of both.
By Maud Watson
Similar to Roger Federer last season, Serena Williams defied the odds by reclaiming the No. 1 ranking by virtue of her run in Doha last week. In doing so, she became the oldest woman to hold the coveted spot. With the way the ranking system works, Serena likely would have clinched No. 1 before Wimbledon anyway, but that doesn’t make the achievement any less remarkable. She put herself in that position with her fantastic second half of 2012, playing a more complete schedule and generally winning whatever she entered, and now she’s rightfully benefited from the fruits of her labors. With Azarenka’s withdrawal from Dubai earlier this week, the American is guaranteed to hold on to No. 1 through Miami. She’ll have her work cut out for her if she’s to hold on to that ranking and ultimately finish the season there, but for now, she can bask in the feeling that comes with accomplishing what seemed an impossible goal.
Victoria Azarenka may have lost her No. 1 ranking in Doha, but she arguably left with two things more important – the title, and a win over Serena Williams. By successfully defending her title, she also defended all of her points from that event. And with less to defend than Williams in the second half of the season, she’ll likely have plenty of opportunities to leapfrog the American in the rankings. But the bigger takeaway was the win she garnered over Serena. She came into that final with a clear game plan that more often than not, she executed to perfection. And while Serena didn’t play her absolute best, she was certainly better than the “two out of ten” she claimed, and it’s also safe to say that what Azarenka was doing on her end of the court had something to do with taking Serena out of her comfort zone. At the end of the day, Azarenka handled the majority of the big moments better, and that’s why she earned the victory. She’s got plenty of work ahead of her to even up the score with Williams, but Azarenka is steadily building a case that this may evolve into the rivalry the WTA so desperately needs today.
How Sweet It Is
It isn’t the biggest title he’s ever won, nor was it worth many points. It didn’t come against a stellar field, and there was very little fanfare. But despite all of that, Rafael Nadal’s tournament win last week in Brazil will likely rank among one of his most cherished memories. Playing in his second tournament in as many weeks since after returning from a seventh-month layoff, Nadal once again reached the final, and this time, he came up with the goods. It wasn’t an easy path to the title match, but it was one-way traffic in the final against Nalbandian. Even down a double break in the second, the Spaniard reeled off six straight games against the Argentine to earn his 51st title. The victory should give him a boost of confidence heading into Acapulco, where he should be more tested. But for now, Nadal can savor the moment. He’s not where he wants to be, but he’s squarely moving in the right direction.
With things threatening to turn ugly in a hurry, the ATP Board of Directors finally came around and approved the BNP Paribas Open’s proposed prize money distribution. The proposed distribution passed when one of the three tournament directors who had previously opposed it, changed his vote. The ATP’s decision should make both the players and officials at Indian Wells happy, and it’s a decision that also looks destined to initiate changes down the road. The matter has forced the ATP to review the rules regarding potential deviations from the conventional prize money breakdowns and create parameters to deal with similar scenarios in the future. It was the lack of a clear rule on the subject that led to the near-fiasco with Indian Wells this year. Hopefully the ATP won’t drag its feet in establishing parameters to deal with this type of scenario, as such a scenario only results in bad publicity and unnecessary headaches.
Hitting Her Stride?
Could it be that Petra Kvitova is finally ready to once again begin producing the kind of tennis that wins championships? The Czech had a good showing last week in Doha, nearly upending Serena in the quarterfinals. She’s continued to build on that momentum this week in Dubai, reaching the semifinals at the expense of World No. 4 Radwanska in the process. She hasn’t exactly played pretty tennis to reach that stage. In fact, much like Serena, she tends to litter the stat sheet. But if two good back-to-back showings are any indication, Kvitova may at last be starting to find her range. If that’s the case, and she proves able to balance those errors with winners, the rest of the field should be on alert. Kvitova possesses easy power and deceptive touch, making her a dangerous opponent capable of blowing most anybody off the court. The women’s game would greatly benefit from such a talented player back in the mix vying for the biggest titles, so with any luck, these last two weeks are a sign that we’ll continue to see Kvitova’s star rise as the season progresses.
Shifting down the Persian Gulf, eight of the top ten women move from Doha to Dubai for the only Premier tournament this week. In North and South America are two International tournaments on dramatically different surfaces. Here is the weekly look at what to expect in the WTA.
Dubai: Still the top seed despite her dethroning last week, Azarenka can collect valuable rankings points at a tournament from which she withdrew in 2012. She looked far sharper in Doha than she did for most of her title run in Melbourne, and once again she eyes a potential quarterfinal with Sara Errani. Although the Italian has rebounded well from a disastrous start to the season, she lacks any weapons with which to threaten Azarenka. Between them stands last year’s runner-up Julia Goerges, an enigma who seems destined to remain so despite her first-strike potential. If Sloane Stephens can upset Errani in the second round, meanwhile, a rematch of the Australian Open semifinal could loom in the quarterfinals. The top seed might expect a test from Cibulkova in the second round, since she lost to her at Roland Garros last year and needed a miraculous comeback to escape her in Miami. But Cibulkova injured her leg in Fed Cup a week ago and has faltered since reaching the Sydney final.
Having won just one match until Doha, Stosur bounced back somewhat by recording consecutive wins in that Premier Five field. The Aussie may face three straight lefties in Makarova, Lepchenko, and Kerber, the last of whom has the greatest reputation but the least momentum. While Makarova reached the quarterfinals at the Australian Open, Lepchenko displayed her newfound confidence in upsetting both Errani and Vinci on clay in Fed Cup—a rare feat for an American. Vinci herself also stands in this section, from which someone unexpected could emerge. Azarenka need fear little from either Kerber or Stosur, both of whom she has defeated routinely in most of their previous meetings, so a semifinal anticlimax might beckon. Not that Doha didn’t produce a semifinal anticlimax from much more prestigious names.
Atop the third quarter stands the greatest enigma of all in Petra Kvitova, who won four straight matches between Fed Cup and Doha before nearly halting Serena’s bid for the #1 ranking. Considering how far she had sunk over the previous several months, unable to string together consecutive victories, that accomplishment marked an immense step forward. Kvitova can capitalize immediately on a similar surface in the section occupied by defending champion Radwanska. In contrast to last week, the Czech can outhit anyone whom she could face before the semifinals, so she will determine her own fate. If she implodes, however, Ivanovic could repeat her upset when they met in last year’s Fed Cup final before colliding with Radwanska for the third time this year. Also of note in this section is the all-wildcard meeting between rising stars Putintseva and Robson.
Breaking with her usual routine, Serena has committed to the Middle East hard courts without reserve by entering both Doha and Dubai. Whether she plays the latter event in a physical condition that looks less than promising may remain open to question until she takes the court. So strong is the draw that Serena could open against world #11 Bartoli, who owns a Wimbledon victory against her from 2011 but has not sustained that success. The eighth-seeded Wozniacki proved a small thorn in her side last year by defeating her in Miami and threatening her in Rome, so a quarterfinal could intrigue if the Dane can survive Safarova to get there and if Serena arrives at less than full strength.
Final: Azarenka vs. Kvitova
Memphis: Overshadowed a little by the accompanying ATP 500 tournament, this event has lacked star power for the last few years. Rather than Venus, Sharapova, or Davenport, the top seed in 2013 goes to Kirsten Flipkens, a player largely unknown in the United States. This disciple of Clijsters may deserve more attention than she has received, however, rallying to reach the second week of the Australian Open in January after surviving blood clots last spring. Former finalist Shahar Peer and 2011 champion Magdalena Rybarikova attempt to resurrect their careers by returning to the scene of past triumphs, but lefty Ksenia Pervak may offer the most credible challenge to Flipkens in this quarter.
Of greater note is the hard-serving German who holds the third seed and should thrive on a fast indoor court. Although Lisicki has struggled to find her form away from grass, she showed flickers of life by charging within a tiebreak of the Pattaya City title earlier this month. Kristina Mladenovic, a potential quarterfinal opponent, delivered a key statement in the same week at the Paris Indoors, where she upset Kvitova en route to the semifinals. Before then, though, this French teenager had displayed little hint of such promise, so one feels inclined to attribute that result more to the Czech’s frailty for now.
Part of an elite doubles team with compatriot Andrea Hlavackova, Lucie Hradecka has excelled on surfaces where her powerful serve can shine. Like Lisicki, she should enjoy her week in Memphis amid a section of opponents who cannot outhit her from the baseline. Among them is the largely irrelevant Melanie Oudin, who surfaced last year to win her first career title before receding into anonymity again. Neither Oudin nor the fourth-seeded Heather Watson possesses significant first-strike power, so their counterpunching will leave them at a disadvantage on the indoor hard court. But Watson has improved her offense (together with her ranking) over the last few months and should relish the chance to take advantage of a friendly draw. Interestingly, Hradecka’s doubles partner Hlavackova could meet her in the quarterfinals if she can upset Watson.
Finishing runner-up to Sharapova here in 2010, Sofia Arvidsson holds the second seed in this yaer’s tournament as she eyes a potential quarterfinal against one of two Americans. While Chanelle Scheepers anchors the other side of the section, Jamie Hampton could build upon her impressive effort against Azarenka at the Australian Open to shine on home soil. Nor should one discount the massive serve of Coco Vandeweghe, which could compensate for her one-dimensionality here.
Final: Lisicki vs. Hradecka
Bogota: Like the ATP South American tournaments in February, this event offers clay specialists an opportunity to compile ranking points in a relatively unintimidating setting. Top seed and former #1 Jankovic fits that category, having reached multiple semifinals at Roland Garros during her peak years. She has not won a title in nearly three years, but a breakthrough could happen here. In her section stand Pauline Parmentier and Mariana Duque Marino, the latter of whom stunned Bogota audiences by winning the 2010 title here over Kerber. As her wildcard hints, she never quite vaulted from that triumph to anything more significant. Serious opposition to Jankovic might not arise until the semifinals, when she faces the aging Pennetta. Once a key part of her nation’s Fed Cup achievements, the Italian veteran won their most recent clay meeting and looks likely to ensure a rematch with nobody more notable than the tiny Dominguez Lino blocking her.
The lower half of the draw features a former Roland Garros champion in Schiavone and a French prodigy who nearly broke through several years ago before stagnating in Cornet. Testing the latter in a potential quarterfinal is Timea Babos, who won her first career title around this time last year with a promising serve. For Schiavone, the greatest resistance could come from lanky Dutch lefty Arantxa Rus. Known most for her success on clay, Rus won a match there from Clijsters and a set from Sharapova, exploiting the extra time that the surface allows for her sluggish footwork. Also of note in this half is Paula Ormaechea, a rising Argentine who probably ranks as the most notable women’s star expected from South America in the next generation. Can she step into Dulko’s shoes?
Final: Jankovic vs. Schiavone
Check back shortly for the companion preview on the three ATP tournaments this week in Marseille, Memphis, and Buenos Aires!
Formerly riddled with upsets and surprise semifinalists, WTA draws grew relatively predictable in 2012 as a small group of women won virtually every marquee tournament. That trend continued when Azarenka defended her Australian Open crown after several young stars rose and fell. In Doha, more of the familiar suspects look likely to shine. Read a preview of the draw, quarter by quarter.
First quarter: Just as she did in Melbourne, Azarenka may need to defend her title to retain her #1 ranking with the second-ranked Serena Williams anchoring the opposite half of the draw. Also like the Australian Open, the medium-speed hard courts in Doha suit the top seed’s style more than any other surface, and one must feel sanguine about her semifinal hopes in this weak section. Several of the women surrounding her played Fed Cup over the past weekend, when most looked pedestrian at best against modest competition. Although she upset Azarenka once and nearly twice in 2012, Cibulkova extended a discouraging span that started with her double bagel in the Sydney final by retiring on the verge of victory in Fed Cup. Bojana Jovanovski and Daniela Hantuchova collaborated on a hideous comedy of errors this Saturday, while the sixth-seeded Errani faces the challenge of transitioning from the clay of the Italy-USA tie. This section could implode quickly, which might open a door for the rising Laura Robson to build on her Australian upset of Kvitova.
Second quarter: Two women of Polish descent bookend a section that contains two former #1s who have sunk outside the top 10. Having withdrawn from Fed Cup with a shoulder injury, Ivanovic remained in the Doha draw as she hopes to erase the memories of a first-round upset in Pattaya City, where she held the top seed. The Serb likely would collide with Australian Open nemesis Radwanska as early as the third round, however, so she may gain little more from Doha than she did last year. An all-German encounter beckons at the base of the quarter between the last two Paris Indoors champions: the fifth-seeded Kerber and Mona Barthel. Meeting the winner in the same round as the projected Ivanovic-Radwanska clash is world #11 Wozniacki, who fell just short of an Australian Open quarterfinal in a promising end to an otherwise miserable January. Kerber stifled her on multiple surfaces last year, though, while struggling to solve Radwanska’s consistency.
Third quarter: A 2008 champion at this tournament, the third-seeded Sharapova eyes a comfortable start to the tournament against a qualifier or wildcard. Rolling through Melbourne until her competition stiffened suddenly, she may find an opponent worthy of her steel in Sloane Stephens, although her fellow Australian Open semifinalist withdrew from Fed Cup this weekend. Looming on the opposite side is an encore of the 2011 Melbourne marathon between Kuznetsova and Schiavone, separated just by a qualifier and the dormant Bartoli (also a Fed Cup absentee). The Russian returned to relevance with an outstanding January considering the sub-50 ranking with which she started it before reaching quarterfinals at Sydney and the Australian Open. Her athleticism and rising confidence should serve her well against the Schiavone-Bartoli winner and against the eighth-seeded Stosur in the following round. Still struggling to regain her rhythm after ankle surgery during the offseason, the Aussie probably cannot defend her runner-up points in the vicinity of two multiple-major champions from Russia.
Fourth quarter: Among the questions looming over this tournament is the health of Serena Williams, the prohibitive favorite in Melbourne until multiple injuries overtook her. Serena probably would not participate in an event like Doha unless she felt confident in her condition, however, so one should take her entry at face value for now. As she has reminded rivals over the last several months, few can break her serve on a non-clay surface when she is healthy, and she should overpower clay specialists in the early rounds like Medina Garrigues and Vinci. Of greater suspense is the identity of the woman who will emerge from the section occupied by Kvitova, who clings to the seventh seed in a manner far from convincing. Although playing a Fed Cup tie on home soil may have boosted her spirits, she has not strung together victories at a WTA tournament since last August. Often troubled by the task of defeating a compatriot, she could meet Fed Cup teammate Safarova in the third round. Before then, Beijing nemesis Suarez Navarro lurks in a challenge for her consistency. And Russian veteran Nadia Petrova adds an entertaining mixture of power and petulance to a section full of fiery personalities.
Come back on Friday to read a semifinal preview!
One week after the 2013 Davis Cup began, Fed Cup starts with four ties hosted by European nations. We look ahead to what viewers can expect from the women’s national team competition. Having gone 7-1 in Davis Cup predictions, will our hot streak continue?
Czech Republic vs. Australia: The first of the ties features the only two members of the top ten playing a Fed Cup World Group tie this weekend. But they also are the two most abjectly slumping women in that elite group, having slumped to equally deflating second-round exits at the Australian Open after imploding at tournaments earlier in January. The defending champions hold a key trump card if the match reaches a decisive fifth rubber, where their experienced doubles duo of Lucie Hradecka and Andrea Hlavackova should stifle whatever pair the Australians can compile. An ideally balanced team with two top-20 singles threats and a top-5 doubles team, the Czechs thus need earn only a split in singles, while the Aussies must get a victory from Dellacqua, Gajdosova, or Barty. Even in that scenario, they would need Stosur to sweep her singles rubbers, not as plausible a feat as it sounds considering her habit of embarrassing herself with national pride on the line. The boisterous Czech crowd might lift Kvitova’s spirits, similar to last year’s final when she eked out a victory as Safarova donned the heroine’s garb. But she too has struggled early this year, leaving the stage set for a rollercoaster weekend.
Pick: Czech Republic
Italy vs. USA: To paraphrase the producers who initially turned down the musical Oklahoma: no Williams, no Stephens, no chance. Like that show, which became a smash hit on Broadway, this American Fed Cup team has exceeded expectations in recent years when understaffed. Singles #1 Varvara Lepchenko enjoyed her breakthrough season in 2012, edging within range of the top 20, and Jamie Hampton announced herself with a three-set tussle against eventual champion Azarenka at the Australian Open. Hampered by a back injury in Melbourne, Hampton likely will trump the inconsistent Melanie Oudin after she showed how much her groundstrokes and point construction skills had improved. That said, Oudin has compiled plenty of Fed Cup experience, and her feisty attitude that so often thrives in this setting. Doubles specialist Liezel Huber, although past her prime, should provide a plausible counterweight to the top-ranked doubles squad of Errani and Vinci. The bad news for an American team, however, is the clay surface and the fact that their opposition also has proved themselves greater than the sum of their parts. Both inside the top 20 in singles as well, Errani and Vinci look set to take over from Schiavone and Pennetta as women who rise to the occasion in Fed Cup. Home-court advantage (and the choice of surface that accompanies it) should prove decisive.
Russia vs. Japan: Surprised at home by Serbia in last year’s semifinals, the Russians had become accustomed to playing final after final in Fed Cup during their decade of dominance. Even without the nuclear weapon of Maria Sharapova, the ageless Shamil Tarpischev has assembled troops much superior in quality to the female samurai invading from Japan. All of the Russians rank higher than any of the visitors, while Maria Kirilenko, Ekaterina Makarova, and Elena Vesnina all reached the second week at the Australian Open (Makarova reaching the quarterfinals). And world #31 Pavlyuchenkova reached the final in Brisbane when the new season started, although her production has plummeted since then. At any rate, Tarpischev has many more options for both singles and doubles than does his counterpart Takeshi Murakami, who may lean heavily on the 42-year-old legend Kimiko Date-Krumm. Older fans may recall Date-Krumm’s victory over Steffi Graf in Fed Cup, which came in the friendly confines of Ariake Colosseum rather than Moscow’s sterile Olympic Stadium. Kimiko likely will need a contribution of Ayumi Morita, who just defeated her in Pattaya City last week and has claimed the position of Japanese #1. One could see Date-Krumm or Morita swiping a rubber from Kirilenko or Makarova, neither of whom overpowers opponents. But it’s hard to see them accomplishing more.
Serbia vs. Slovakia: This tie in Nis looked nice a few days ago, slated to feature two gorgeous women—and only slightly less gorgeous games—in Ana Ivanovic and Daniela Hantuchova. Adding a bit of zest was another former #1 Jelena Jankovic, who always has represented Serbia with pride and determination. When both of the Serbian stars withdrew from the weekend, then, the visitors suddenly shifted from slight underdogs to overwhelming favorites. Granted, the hosts still can rely on the services of Bojana Jovanovski, who fell just short of the quarterfinals at the Australian Open in a breakthrough fortnight. Beyond the 15th-ranked Cibulkova, Slovakia brings no woman in the top 50 to Nis. A more dangerous talent than her current position of #58 suggests, though, Hantuchova should fancy her chances on an indoor hard court against whomever Serbian captain Dejan Vranes nominates for singles between Vesna Dolonc and Alessandra Krunic. She has shone in Fed Cup while compiling a 27-12 singles record there, whereas even Jovanovski has played just seven singles rubbers. Hand a slight edge to Slovakia in the doubles rubber as well because of Hantuchova’s experience in that format, where she has partnered with Magdalena Rybarikova (also here) to defeat the Serbs before.
Come back on Monday for previews of the ATP and WTA tournaments next week, following the format of last week’s ATP preview.
Comparing the WTA to the ATP is called farfetched. Comparing the ATP to the WTA is called insulting. However, few fans of either disciple can dispute the similarities between 2011 Wimbledon Champion Petra Kvitova and Juan Martin Del Potro, winner of the 2009 US Open.
Both juxtapose lethal games with breathtaking power against soft-spoken demeanors and “gentle giant” reputations. Both have amazed spectators with their shared ability to play unbeatable tennis and end points at will with thudding winners. Both shocked the tennis world with ruthlessly won Slam titles that seemed less like blips and more like the starts of dynasties.
Yet despite all of their talent and proven potential, both have found it difficult to back up their big wins and to challenge the game’s best (or more consistent?) players. By all accounts, Kvitova had a solid 2012 that featured two Slam semifinals and wins atop her nemesis, the North American hard court. But it was far from the dominating display that her ’11 Year-End Championships win seemed to foreshadow. Various injuries kept her from top condition. Her confidence has taken an undoubted hit as she starts 2013 with early losses to Laura Robson and Kristina Mladenovic who, with equally fearless games, are arguably younger versions of herself.
Where the Czech’s form has ebbed and flowed, the ATP’s top Argentine suffered a traumatic wrist injury a mere months after his US Open triumph. Sidelined for nearly an entire season, Del Potro has struggled to rebuild his career in the last two years. While he has made steady improvement, even capturing the Bronze medal at the London Olympics, he too has dealt with bouts of erratic form. In his first major outing of 2013, he crushed his first two opponents only to lose his way against Jeremy Chardy in the third round.
Still, it cannot be denied that, on any given day, either player could dig out of these patches of poorer form and go on a run at a Grand Slam tournament. Such a run would be considered as jaw-dropping and awe-inspiring as their first victories.
Such is the characterization of “Peak Pierce” Syndrome.
The notion of “Peak Pierce” is brought up in online tennis circles as a half-meme, half-miracle-of-nature. Centered around French superstar, Mary Pierce, a “Peak Pierce” performance is one of sheer dominance, a brilliantly effortless display of power. An undeniable talent, Pierce’s career lasted nearly twenty seasons. Of those twenty, she made Grand Slam finals in four of them: 1994, 1995, 2000 and 2005. Such winless stretches are unheard of in today’s game; for Mary, it mattered neither her age nor the players against whom she competed. When she was playing “Peak Pierce” tennis, the Frenchwoman could dominate the sport in the way we were coming to expect Kvitova and Del Potro to do.
But Mary Pierce is one of the sport’s greatest tragedies. Subjected to an abusive father, Pierce will be remembered as much for “The Jim Pierce Rule,” the first WTA legislation against out of control tennis parents, as for her dominating performances and inspiring perseverance. Her tortured past is looked on by many as the reason why she is among a small group of Slam champions to retire with only two (the majority of Slam Champions have either one or more than three).
Perhaps the examples of Del Potro and Kvitova provide evidence that they, along with Pierce, are simply too talented to be consistent. An oxymoronic concept, to be sure, but few can argue that when these three are playing their best tennis, they are among the best in the game. We have seen each of these players post dazzling statistics, and seen them hit incredible winners. How could anyone be expected to maintain such superhuman form?
Whether a fan values combustible brilliance or dependable consistency depends on what players that fan prefers, but the real issue is whether we, as fans or pundits, can feel right about criticizing these streaky players, belittling their accomplishments by calling them “underachievers.” Of course, it would be great if Mary could have “Peak Pierce’d” into a Golden Slam, if Petra had taken the #1 ranking that seemed all but assured 12 months ago, or if Juan Martin could have taken out Federer at the Olympics to compete for a Gold medal.
Their lows are surprising, frustrating, and even sometimes comical when they fail to find the court. But there are few things for which I would trade the memory of Petra Kvitova demolishing the field to capture the Wimbledon title, of Juan Martin Del Potro handing Roger Federer his first US Open loss after going undefeated in Flushing for five years, of Mary Pierce saving her best tennis for the end of her career and reaching two Slam finals in the process.
These highs, in my opinion, make everything, even “Peak Pierce” Syndrome, worth it.
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.
It is hard to build confidence without winning matches, but hard to win matches without having built confidence. Such is the situation in which Petra Kvitova has found herself lately, struggling to string together any victories as illness and injury have combined with a loss of form. In the night session on Rod Laver Arena, her struggles sprang to the surface in an ugly three-setter against Laura Robson, to whom she succumbed 2-6 6-3 11-9 after an improbable series of twists and turns.
Bearing some tape on her right ankle, the British teenager started in the most dreadful fashion imaginable by dropping her serve at love with two double faults, a forehand error, and a netted volley. A smartly angled backhand winner in the next game appeared to revitalize her fortunes, and two double faults from Kvitova set up a chance to regain the break, which she handed back to Robson with a gruesomely netted forehand. Despite another difficult service game, the younger woman escaped with consecutive aces towards her opponent’s forehand.
Following the two-game swing to Robson was a two-game swing for Kvitova, who began to find the range on her weapons more consistently than the Brit. She still remained very much bang-or-bust on serve, striking two aces and two service winners to outweigh a double fault and a wildly sprayed backhand in the sixth game. Rarely able to hit more than a few balls at the time before her opponent ended the point one way or another, Robson could establish little rhythm to settle into the match.
The teenager wielded plenty of powerful weapons herself, especially on her forehand, and she produced some inspired shot-making from that wing on the occasions when Kvitova gave her time. Those occasions came infrequently as the eighth seed’s high-risk style reaped rewards against an opponent often caught on the back foot. Lacking much experience against the weight of shot that Kvitova can unleash, Robson struggled to position herself or find the right amount of depth behind the baseline to defend her court adequately while looking for opportunities to attack.
An insurance break offered Kvitova two chances to serve for the set, but she clanked double faults on her first two set points just before Robson’s forehand caught fire. A long game ensued, unwinding through a series of oscillations between the ridiculous and the sublime on both sides. After she saved six break points, many created by blistering second-serve returns from Robson, Kvitova finally found consecutive first serves to close out the set.
Extending through deuce after deuce, the game illustrated how much the Czech depends on her first serve. With it, she took control of the point immediately and permitted no opportunity for Robson to regroup. Without it, she exposed herself nearly defenseless to explosive returns from which she could not recover.
Into the second set continued the staccato rhythm of points that ended after just a handful of strokes. Showing some fine resilience, Robson halted Kvitova’s run of games at five with a strong hold, and two more double faults left the Czech in another deuce situation. Then, the British teenager’s groundstrokes began to find the net with alarming consistency, a product of her flat swings. Robson lacks a margin for error when her timing goes awry at all on those shots, and her notoriously flammable temper began to simmer. Nevertheless, she clung to her serve in a match still searching for momentum.
A wildly sprayed backhand by Kvitova, who continued to betray a lack of belief, set up Robson with her eleventh break point and ninth break point of her previous three service games. Once she converted it with a penetrating return, the Brit survived a difficult service game of her own as her opponent alternately scarred lines and missed the doubles alleys with her shots. Particularly representative of her woes was a forehand putaway inside the service line that she smacked into the middle of the net.
Trying to regain the rhythm on her first serve, Kvitova experimented with taking some pace off the shot to increase her percentage, but Robson continued to punish her with returns. More wayward groundstrokes from the reeling eighth seed handed her opponent a 5-1 lead. When consecutive double faults threw her a lifeline, however, she seized it opportunistically to record a love hold. Just as the balance of power threatened to tip against her once more, though, Robson drew level again.
Now in a dogfight, Kvitova needed to start the third set positively. She did so, narrowly, with a hold of serve that displayed more consistency in rallies. That trend continued into the next few games as she broke the increasingly frustrated Robson with more accurate returning and started to find a groove with her first serve. Somehow releasing the tension in her shoulders, Kvitova began to swing more freely in the manner that had brought her to the top. The reprieve proved temporary, though, for another pair of double faults not only raised her total to 14 but set up a break point that Robson exploited.
Handed another break courtesy of Robson’s wavering serve, Kvitova tossed it back directly with a break at love. All the same, she clung to a 4-3 lead in the final set despite her increasingly downcast body language. When Robson held once more, Kvitova faced a dire moment with a break point that would have given her opponent a chance to serve for the match. Down crashed consecutive aces, a stunning and stunningly timely response to the adversity. Although the game would not ended until several points later, with another ace, Kvitova had Robson where she wanted her: serving to stay alive.
Or so she thought. Winning the first point of the tenth game, the Czech edged close to the finish line, only to see Robson outlast her in several tense rallies. With the rare hold in hand, the teenager broke Kvitova for the opportunity to serve for the match, but it quickly slipped away from her with loose forehand errors. A second-serve ace produced the first of six straight holds that brought the match to 9-9, not without Kvitova saving another break point in the fifteenth game.
The quality of the tennis improved distinctly over these last several games as both women fought valiantly with their backs to the wall. In the nineteenth game, Robson broke through when she followed a Kvitova backhand error with a sensational forehand return winner down the line. Drained of energy and hope, the Czech mustered no resistance as the teenager fired down a series of first serves en route to closing out the match at love. The triumph marked her second straight over a major champion in the second round of a major, following her upset of Clijsters at the US Open. For Kvitova, however, the loss marked her eighth in her last twelve matches and yet another dispiriting stage in a downward spiral that merely has deepened with time.