Read about what to expect from the first Premier Mandatory tournament of 2013 as we break down each quarter of the WTA Indian Wells draw in detail!
First quarter: For the second straight year, Azarenka arrives in the desert with a perfect season record that includes titles at the Australian Open and the Premier Five tournament in Doha. Able to defend those achievements, she eyes another prestigious defense at Indian Wells on a surface that suits her balanced hybrid of offense and defense as well as any other. In her opener, she could face the only woman in the draw who has won multiple titles here, Daniela Hantuchova, although the more recent of her pair came six long years ago. Since reaching the second week of the Australian Open, Kirsten Flipkens staggered to disappointing results in February, so Azarenka need not expect too stern a test from the Belgian. Of perhaps greater concern is a rematch of her controversial Melbourne semifinal against Sloane Stephens, who aims to bounce back from an injury-hampered span with the encouragement of her home crowd. Heavy fan support for the opponent can fluster Azarenka, or it can bring out her most ferocious tennis, which makes that match one to watch either way. Of some local interest is the first-round match between Jamie Hampton, who won a set from Vika in Melbourne, and Kuala Lumpur runner-up Mattek-Sands.
The most intriguing first-round match in the lower section of this quarter pits Laura Robson against the blistering backhands of Sofia Arvidsson. In fact, plenty of imposing two-handers highlight that neighborhood with those of Julia Goerges and the tenth-seeded Petrova also set to shine. The slow courts of Indian Wells might not suit games so high on risk and low on consistency, possibly lightening the burden on former champion Wozniacki. Just two years ago, the Dane won this title as the world #1, and she reached the final in 2010 with her characteristic counterpunching. Downed relatively early in her title defense last year, she has shown recent signs of regrouping with strong performances at the Persian Gulf tournaments in February. On the other hand, a quick loss as the top seed in Kuala Lumpur reminded viewers that her revival remains a work in progress. She has not faced Azarenka since the latter’s breakthrough in mid-2011, so a quarterfinal between them would offer fascinating evidence as to whether Caro can preserve her mental edge over her friend.
Second quarter: Unremarkable so far this year, Kerber has fallen short of the form that carried her to a 2012 semifinal here and brings a three-match losing streak to the desert. Even with that recent history, she should survive early tests from opponents like Heather Watson and the flaky Wickmayer before one of two fellow lefties poses an intriguing challenge in the fourth round. For the second straight year, Makarova reached the Australian Open quarterfinals, and her most significant victory there came against Kerber in a tightly contested match of high quality. Dogged by erratic results, this Russian may find this surface too slow for her patience despite the improved defense and more balanced weapons that she showed in Melbourne. Another woman who reached the second week there, Bojana Jovanovski, hopes to prove that accomplishment more than just a quirk of fate, which it seems so far. Also in this section is the enigmatic Safarova, a woman of prodigious talent but few results to show for it. If she meets Makarova in the third round, an unpredictable clash could ensue, after which the winner would need to break down Kerber’s counterpunching.
Stirring to life in Doha and Dubai, where she reached the quarterfinals at both, Stosur has played much further below her ranking this year than has Kerber. A disastrous Australian season and Fed Cup weekend have started to fade a bit, however, for a woman who has reached the Indian Wells semifinals before. Stosur will welcome the extra time that the court gives her to hit as many forehands as possible, but she may not welcome a draw riddled with early threats. At the outset, the US Open champion could face American phenom Madison Keys, who raised eyebrows when she charged within a tiebreak of the semifinals in a strong Sydney draw. The feisty Peng, a quarterfinalist here in 2011, also does not flinch when facing higher-ranked opponents, so Stosur may breathe a sigh of relief if she reaches the fourth round. Either of her likely opponents there shares her strengths of powerful serves and forehands as well as her limitations in mobility and consistency. Losing her only previous meeting with Mona Barthel, on the Stuttgart indoor clay, Ivanovic will seek to reverse that result at a tournament where she usually has found her most convincing tennis even in her less productive periods. Minor injuries have nagged her lately, while Barthel has reached two finals already in 2013 (winning one), so this match could prove compelling if both silence other powerful servers around them, like Lucie Hradecka.
Third quarter: Another woman who has reached two finals this year (winning both), the third-seeded Radwanska eyes perhaps the easiest route of the elite contenders. Barring her path to the fourth round are only a handful of qualifiers, an anonymous American wildcard, an aging clay specialist who has not won a match all year, and the perenially underachieving Sorana Cirstea. Radwanska excels at causing raw, error-prone sluggers like Cirstea to implode, and she will face nobody with the sustained power and accuracy to overcome her in the next round either. In that section, Christina McHale attempts to continue a comeback from mono that left her without a victory for several months until a recent breakthrough, and Maria Kirilenko marks her return from injury that sidelined her after winning the Pattaya City title. Although she took Radwanska deep into the final set of a Wimbledon quarterfinal last year, and defeated her at a US Open, the Russian should struggle if rusty against the more confident Aga who has emerged since late 2011. Can two grass specialists, Pironkova and Paszek, cause a stir in this quiet section?
Not much more intimidating is the route that lies before the section’s second highest-ranked seed, newly minted Dubai champion Kvitova. Although she never has left a mark on either Indian Wells or Miami, Kvitova suggested that she had ended her habitual struggles in North America by winning the US Open Series last summer with titles in Montreal and New Haven. Able to enter and stay in torrid mode like the flip of a switch, she aims to build on her momentum from consecutive victories over three top-ten opponents there. The nearest seeded opponent to Kvitova, Yaroslava Shvedova, has struggled to string together victories since her near-upset of Serena at Wimbledon, although she nearly toppled Kvitova in their most recent meeting at Roland Garros. Almost upsetting Azarenka near this time a year ago, Cibulkova looks to repeat her upset over the Czech in Sydney when they meet in the fourth round. Just reaching that stage would mark a step forward for her, though, considering her failure to build upon her runner-up appearance there and the presence of ultra-steady Zakopalova. Having dominated Radwanska so thoroughly in Dubai, Kvitova should feel confident about that test.
Fourth quarter: Semifinalist in 2011, finalist in 2012, champion in 2013? Before she can think so far ahead, the second-seeded Sharapova must maneuver past a string of veteran Italians and other clay specialists like Suarez Navarro. Aligned to meet in the first round are the former Fed Cup teammates Pennetta and Schiavone in one of Wednesday’s most compelling matches, but the winner vanishes directly into Sharapova’s jaws just afterwards. The faltering Varvara Lepchenko could meet the surging Roberta Vinci, who just reached the semifinals in Dubai with victories over Kuznetsova, Kerber, and Stosur. Like Kvitova, then, she brings plenty of positive energy to a weak section of the draw, where her subtlety could carry her past the erratic or fading players around her. But Sharapova crushed Vinci at this time last year, and she never has found even a flicker of self-belief against the Russian.
Once notorious for the catfights that flared between them, Jankovic and Bartoli could extend their bitter rivalry in the third round at a tournament where both have reached the final (Jankovic winning in 2010, Bartoli falling to Wozniacki a year later). Between them stands perhaps a more convincing dark horse candidate in Kuznetsova, not far removed from an Australian Open quarterfinal appearance that signaled her revival. Suddenly striking the ball with confidence and even—gasp—a modicum of thoughtfulness, she could draw strength from the memories of her consecutive Indian Wells finals in 2007-08. If Kuznetsova remains young enough to recapture some of her former prowess, her compatriot Pavlyuchenkova also has plenty of time to rebuild a career that has lain in ruins for over a year. By playing close to her potential, she could threaten Errani despite the sixth seed’s recent clay title defense in Acapulco. Not in a long time has anyone in this area challenged Sharapova, though.
Come back tomorrow before the start of play in the men’s draw to read a similar breakdown!
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!
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.
By Maud Watson
Just a Match
Defending champion Victoria Azarenka has once again reached the Aussie Open final, but unfortunately for her, that run is tainted by controversy thanks to a very questionable medical timeout taken by the Belarusian in her semifinal clash with Sloane Stephens. Odds were Azarenka was still going to win that match whether she did it in two or three. She’d outplayed the teenager throughout the bulk of the two sets, and Stephens has shown a tendency to play more poorly from ahead than behind against her higher-ranked opponents. But with no way to confirm the legitimacy of Azarenka’s claims, however, the decision to take the medical time out will always be labeled (and likely was) a dubious ploy. Azarenka at least had the brains to acknowledge the timing was bad, but she did herself no favors with fluctuating explanations for the time out, which partially explains why the media was so harsh with her. Part of the harsh treatment may have also stemmed from Stephens becoming the new media darling. And likely a chunk of the treatment was due strictly to the fact that it was Azarenka. After all, it’s not as though she’s the only high profile player from either tour to employ such tactics, and she’s certainly not the only one who has an established history of calling questionable medical time outs that appear to alter a match. But she’s not as popular as some of the other offenders, and so she paid a heavier price for it. It’s likely she really doesn’t care though, which is good, because when Azarenka walked off the victor Thursday night, she didn’t win any fans, just a tennis match.
The Forgotten One
What a difference a coach makes. Li Na has joked about how hard new coach Carlos Rodriguez has pushed her, but her results indicate that it’s been worth it. She’s been with the Argentine less than a year, and already she’s picked up multiple titles and is guaranteed of returning to the Top 5 in the rankings come Monday. Her trip to the Oz final is also a reminder to everyone that she’s still a major title contender. Even when it was down to the final four, many pundits only spoke of Azarenka or Sharapova winning the title, with a few over-excited analysts arguing Stephens was destined to go all the way. There was little mention made of the 2011 Roland Garros champion being the one to walk away with the trophy. But after an emphatic thrashing of Sharapova that saw the Chinese woman drop only four games, she’s forced everyone to take notice. She’s playing the better tennis than Azarenka as well, so perhaps Grand Slam title No. 2 is just on the horizon.
Leader of the Pack
Women’s tennis is definitely seeing a young crop of players poised to make a move up the rankings, and the undisputed leader of the next generation is Sloane Stephens. She didn’t necessarily have the most difficult draw at the Aussie Open, but it’s significant that she took out a number of young guns who will be her rivals over the course of the next decade. Her win over Serena was also huge, not just because it got her to the semis, but the manner in how she did it. Though Serena struggled with back spasms in the middle of the match, Stephens didn’t allow it to overly rattle her. Instead, she raised her level. Everyone kept waiting for her to crumble and Serena to step it up, but it was Stephens who proved the more composed and steady of the two. It was a watershed moment for the American, but she can’t rest on those laurels. The real test will be if she can now meet the increased expectations that come with her success Down Under, and with her game, variety, and personality, she looks equipped to do so.
Serena Williams’ impressive run at the majors came to a dramatic halt when she was felled by compatriot Sloane Stephens in the Australian Open quarterfinals. To say this loss was as monumental as her defeat to Razzano at the French would be a disservice to Williams. It was a quarterfinal, and unlike in Paris, she was carrying an ankle injury and was hampered by back spasms for a stretch of games in the middle of the match. But to chalk up the loss solely to those injuries would also be to shortchange Stephens, because along with the pain that Serena expressed on her face, we also saw some of that other “P” word – panic. Maybe it was the foot speed or power from her younger opponent. Maybe it was the knowledge that with a trip to the semis she could knock Azarenka out of contention for the No. 1 ranking. Maybe it was just the pressure of the old guard trying to keep out the new wave, or maybe it was a combo of things. Whatever it was, the veteran American began to press – something which more than one commentator suggested likely contributed to the flare of back spasms – and those winners that Serena seemed to crack at will in earlier rounds were suddenly flying long or catching the tape. Privately, Serena is apt to attribute the loss all up to injuries, but the rest of the field should take note. Serena also looked mentally vulnerable.
At the time of writing, we know who one of the men’s finalists will be, and that’s Novak Djokovic. The Serb was the odds makers’ favorite to make the final, so his presence there isn’t shocking. But the manner in how he got there was. There was nothing to indicate that his Round of 16 encounter with Stan Wawrinka would be anything special. He’d gotten the better of the Swiss No. 2 since 2006, so when he found himself down a set and 5-2, you could forgive him and anyone else for being shocked. But as he’s so often done, he dug deep, and when it came to those few crucial points that separate the men from the boys, it was Djokovic who came out on top. He refused to crack and managed to eek out a win 12-10 in the fifth. Questions about the impact of that five-hour epic on his chances for the title immediately followed, but Djokovic proved his fitness by winning six of his next seven sets, routinely defeating Berdych and then drubbing Ferrer en route to the final. He’s going to have to step up his game irrespective of it’s Federer or Murray he faces on Sunday, but battle tested and sufficiently recovered and rested, the odds still favor him.
Barring a toe injury that kept her from finishing a warm-up event in Brisbane, Victoria Azarenka has not lost a match all year. There have been a few tense moments during her matches in Australia, most notably when she fell behind a break to American Jamie Hampton in the third, and most recently when she squandered five match points against Hampton’s compatriot Sloane Stephens. But the World’s No. 1 has been solid when it matters most and finds herself in her second consecutive Australian Open final.
If only she could be as clutch when she trades the racquet for a microphone.
In another serious gaffe, the Belorussian spoke to Sam Smith after her win over Stephens:
The crux of Smith’s question spoke to Azarenka’s “difficulties” in finishing off the feisty American, who was in her first Slam semifinal. However, the former player and commentator was referring to the medical timeout Azarenka took before the start of the final game, one that lasted nearly ten minutes and required the top seed to leave the court.
Evidently under the impression that Smith was asking about her inability to serve out the match at 5-3, Azarenka laughed off the scary prospect of having avoided “the choke of the year” and admitted to feeling “overwhelmed…one step away from the final.”
Smith’s first question made a brief reference to the timeout, but when she got no answer, she moved on. The decision not to press Azarenka about her apparent injury, both by Smith and later Tom Rinaldi, only fueled the speculation further and gave the defending champion more rope with which to hang herself.
To Smith she admitted, “I just couldn’t lose, that’s why I was so upset!” When Rinaldi asked her why she left the court, she said she could not breathe and had “chest pain.”
By the time she made it the formal press conference, Azarenka faced a lengthy interrogation about her injuries and their legitimacy. Azarenka defended herself and called her prior diction “my bad.” Critical of the MTO process, Patrick McEnroe called for an overhaul of the rule itself so players like Azarenka are not “able to manipulate the rules.” Stephens’ coach David Nainkin called what happened to his charge “cheating within the rules.”
All of this came days after her battle with Hampton, who was visibly hampered despite bringing her higher-ranked opponent to the brink of defeat. During another one of her now-infamous on-court interviews, Azarenka accidentally implied Hampton’s injury was not as bad as it seemed, quipping, “Can I have a back problem?”
Hampton was later revealed to have two herniated discs.
How can the woman who can seemingly do no wrong on the court be so inept the moment she steps off of it? She combines perfectly timed, almost balletic groundstrokes with a boxer image, usually taking the court with earbuds in and hoodie up. Prickly between points, her signature celebratory moves include finger spinning and tongue wagging. Often (to quote rival Maria Sharapova) “extremely injured,” she has become notorious for withdrawing from smaller events only to show up on the biggest stages playing flawless tennis.
A woman that cannot afford even one bad quote, Azarenka is quickly compiling a chapbook full of verbal “oops,” one big enough for the tennis community to want to ride their No. 1 out of town on a rail.
But before we burn a 23-year-old woman at the stake, let us remember with whom we are dealing. Victoria Azarenka is, above all things, an athlete. The “swagger” for which many deride her is proof of that. What goes on with an athlete’s mind and body is sacred to them and ultimately irrelevant to the task at hand.
As Azarenka was asked about her “difficulties,” there was no doubt that she believed Smith (and others) were referring to her near “Choke of the Year.” How often do we criticize players for blaming injuries on missed opportunities? Yet here is a woman who made no excuses, blamed mind before body, and the media calls for a crucifixion.
There are many things about Victoria Azarenka that grate. Her honesty should not be one of them.
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.
In the most shocking result of the 2013 Australian Open to date, the 19-year-old rising star Sloane Stephens capitalized on an ailing Serena Williams to reach the semifinals in just her seventh appearance at a major main draw. Rallying from losing the first set, Stephens conquered not only her injured but still formidable foe but her own nerves in a 3-6 7-5 6-4 rollercoaster that knocked out the title favorite.
Off to a shaky start on return, Serena allowed Stephens to hold comfortably in her first two service games. The teenager showed no nerves in her debut on Rod Laver Arena, a smaller venue after all than the US Open’s Arthur Ashe Stadium, where she had played before. Serena’s early sluggishness thus might have caused concern had she not continued to excel behind her serve, which Stephens could not solve. The first set thus resembled the first set of their Brisbane meeting, an encounter that stayed on serve until the veteran broke the youngster late. Not through three service games did Stephens even lose a point on serve, while Serena conceded only two points in her first four.
In the crucial eighth game, that leisurely rhythm changed completely. Offered an opportunity when the teenager sprayed a careless forehand on the first point, Serena stormed to triple break point with more focused shot-making. Two of the break points slipped away on a crisp net approach by Stephens and a forehand error by Serena, but a moderately forceful inside-out forehand produced the only break that the elder American needed. She served out the set despite some uncharacteristically tepid groundstrokes and a wandering first serve, and from there the outcome seemed certain.
While Stephens continued to stand toe to toe with Serena’s athleticism and power in long rallies, the cracks began to appear in her still-raw game. A wild inside-out forehand handed another break to the 14-time major champion at the start of the second set. To her credit, the teenager rallied to hold her next service game and place Serena in a spot of bother at deuce. In reaching that stage, she retrieved a sparkling cross-court forehand from her opponent before transitioning from defense to offense and finishing the point at net.
Remarkably, a dip in Serena’s form restored the set to level terms. An emboldened Stephens capitalized on the opening and edged ahead with a solid hold before she again took her opponent to deuce in the next game. Starting to concede pedestrian errors, Serena struggled to deliver the decisive blow in rallies that grew ever longer as the teenager defended ever more doggedly. The pace on the veteran’s first serve plummeted dramatically, denying her the free points on which she relies. More willing to play the aggressor than earlier in the match, Stephens struck for a break that allowed her to serve for the set.
In apparent discomfort over the previous few games, Serena looked reluctant to play more than a few strokes on any set point. She unleashed two vicious second-serve returns to reach 30-30, but Stephens opened the court smoothly to reach set point. There, a nervous backhand sailed over the baseline, and a double fault completed the swing from set point to break point. Able to stay in the rally long enough to profit from another Stephens error, Serena moved back on serve and summoned the trainer.
An issue with the superstar’s lower back appeared the culprit, rather than the ankle that she had twisted earlier in the tournament. Serena returned to gallop through her service game with the assistance of a jaded Stephens, who had sat through the interruption rather than keeping herself in rhythm by practicing swings at the baseline. Still serving at a greatly reduced pace, she held at love and looked much crisper on return than on serve. For her part, a clearly (and understandably) rattled Stephens struggled to keep her footwork crisp and sharpen her focus on the game.
Down break point, however, she cracked a smooth inside-out forehand winner to prevent Serena from finishing the match too comfortably. Trailing 0-30 in turn, two points from a final set, the veteran unleashed a series of dazzling forehands to compensate for her wilting serve. From deuce, Serena dropped the next two points with routine errors to send this quarterfinal most unexpectedly into a deciding set.
Holding serve despite some adversity, Stephens settled her nerves better at the start of the third than she had at the end of the second. Her shoulders slumping and head dropping, Serena nevertheless managed to hold serve routinely. But another series of impotent errors left her infuriated with herself, hammering her racket onto the court with more ferocity than she had shown on her groundstrokes. While probably ill-advised for her back, that release of angst jolted her with energy. She saved a break point in the next game with a magnificent first serve down the center stripe, signaling her renewed commitment to the battle.
A badly botched forehand from Stephens brought the third set to 2-2. Holding for the loss of just a single point, the underdog did not lose heart when the previous opportunity disappeared. Serena visibly exhorted herself as she climbed out of trouble again, salvaging a game that she trailed 15-30. To be fair, Stephens contributed to the escape by plunking a routine second-serve return in the net that set up game point and missing another straightforward backhand to end the game. On the third point at 3-3, Serena covered the court brilliantly as she willed herself past the pain in outlasting her opponent through a long rally. Two vital break points came and went soon afterwards, the teenager’s retrievals forcing the veteran to hit one shot too many. With a forehand sent over the baseline, Stephens allowed a third break point, and this time Serena found the net with her backhand. The fourth time proved the charm as the latter’s defensive scramble left the former with a difficult ball on the baseline that she netted, probably having thought that she had won the point on the previous shot.
An unfortunate miss from Stephens seemed to give Serena an early foothold in her next service game, but a forehand error and a double fault positioned the younger American at break point. Although the first vanished, the second ended with a netted groundstroke for 4-4. Unable to keep the momentum in her corner, Stephens fell behind quickly again. A smooth backhand drop volley brought her to 30-30, but a forehand down the line brought Serena to deuce, and a massive forehand return earned another break point. The women traded stunning forehand winners down sidelines as the deuces continued to trickle until Stephens found just enough consistency to eke out a grinding hold.
On the brink of defeat, Serena dropped the key first point with a loose forehand, only to draw level with a smash. Stephens survived a poor decision on an approach shot when the pass sailed well over the baseline, leading to 15-30. Two netted backhands later, a drained and aching Serena yielded the battlefield to her young challenger, ending her hope of capturing another Australian Open or another Serena Slam.
Ultimately handling a difficult situation with poise, Stephens won her first career major quarterfinal and improbably has reached the final four in Melbourne. She will face world #1 Victoria Azarenka in a match that again seems a foregone conclusion on paper. With the confidence of today’s victory behind her, however, perhaps Stephens can inject intrigue into that semifinal as well.
Today unfold the remaining quarterfinals in Melbourne, which will decide who joins Sharapova, Li, Djokovic, and Ferrer in the final four of the season’s first major. We break down key facts to know and trends to watch in these four matches on Rod Laver Arena.
Azarenka vs. Kuznetsova: Fans who have followed women’s tennis only over the last few years might find it surprising that an unseeded Russian owns a winning record against the world #1, who has looked nearly unstoppable at hard-court majors in 2012-13. A two-time major champion, Kuznetsova won their first three clashes several years ago, while she remained in her prime and Azarenka still early in her development. More relevant are their two meetings last year, both won by Vika in straight sets. The world #1 routed Kuznetsova in their only recent hard-court encounter, ten months ago at Indian Wells, as her baseline consistency proved more than adequate to exploit the erratic lapses in her opponent’s fading game.
Reviving her career this month, the Russian has swept nine of her last ten matches and showed surprising poise in closing out a tense three-set contest against Caroline Wozniacki. Also shown by Kuznetsova in that fourth-round match were her skills at the net, where she won all but two of twenty-five points as she relied on her natural athleticism to improvise as necessary. A player of equal athleticism, Azarenka prefers to play rallies tethered to the baseline unless she can move forward to finish points easily. The Russian will need to continue her all-court play to trouble Vika, for her meager serve will win her few free points, and—recent improvements notwithstanding—she cannot outhit her consistently from the baseline. Kuznetsova might win a set if she catches fire at the right time, but she ebbs and flows too much to defeat an opponent of this caliber.
Serena vs. Stephens: Three weeks ago, they met in a Brisbane encounter that showed how much promise the future of Stephens may hold. The young American did not look overawed by a veteran who mentors her at times outside competition, swinging freely and even looking disappointed when a close first set slipped away from her, as though she had expected to win. Nevertheless, Serena did stifle her routinely in the end, and one expects the 14-time major champion to bring a greater level of intensity to a major quarterfinal. Stephens thus must raise her level even higher to keep this match competitive.
Due to enter the top 20 after the Australian Open, the highest-ranked teenager in the WTA sparkled in ousting fellow prodigy Laura Robson after the latter’s victory over Kvitova. Somewhat less splendid was her three-set battle against the less dangerous Bojana Jovanovski, who nearly snatched away their match after Stephens had won the first set. In her first major quarterfinal, the 19-year-old must play less passively than she did then, for the authoritative progress of Serena leaves her little margin for error. Only slightly less commanding than Sharapova, the older American has lost just eight games in four matches as opponents have found no answers to her first strikes on serve and return.
Chardy vs. Murray: Before he vaulted into unexpected prominence by toppling Del Potro, Jeremy Chardy recorded two victories over top-eight opponents at consecutive Masters 1000 tournaments last summer. The latter of those, in Cincinnati, came against a Murray weary from his gold-medal campaign at the Olympics. Exploiting that opportunity, Chardy had claimed no success at all in their previous four meetings, winning one total set.
The outlook on this match depends in part upon how much one attributes the Frenchman’s upset of the former US Open champion to his own brilliance and how much to his opponent’s listless tennis. Chardy deserves credit for building upon that victory by overcoming the tenacious Seppi in four sets, but he remains a diamond in the rough with no prior experience at this stage of majors. Also very raw is his game, which relies almost exclusively upon his forehand in a groundstroke asymmetry that the balanced Murray tends to dissect in other opponents. The Scot has not found his most convincing form this fortnight, despite winning all twelve of his sets, and he has complained of inconsistent timing during practice as well as matches. Known for several days now, those issues have persisted and could deplete his confidence if the underdog bursts out to a sizzling start. Heavy hitters on a hot streak, even those much lower in the rankings, often blasted through Murray before he soared to major glory. Has that pattern ended, or will Chardy become the latest in an Australian Open tradition of surprise finalists and semifinalists, from Gonzalez and Baghdatis to Tsonga and Verdasco?
Federer vs. Tsonga: Beyond the Montreal tournament, the GOAT has impaled Tsonga on his horns in eight of their nine matches, establishing him as the clear favorite here. Among those victories was a straight-sets demolition in an Australian Open semifinal three years ago and another in a quarterfinal at the 2011 US Open. Tsonga’s only victory outside Montreal does raise some eyebrows, though, for this upset in a Wimbledon quarterfinal marked the first time that Federer had lost a major after winning the first two sets. He never broke serve in the final three sets of that match, a slightly concerning fact in view of his struggles to break serve through much of his first four rounds here.
But Federer has looked the better player of the two by a distinct margin, and perhaps the best player of the tournament despite the most challenging draw of any contender. The Swiss superstar still has not dropped a set after dispatching rising stars Tomic and Raonic. Even areas of frailty in recent years have held firm for him, such as his backhand and his movement, while he has not even lost his serve or faced serious pressure in more than a handful of service games. Not an elite returner, Tsonga should not test Federer much more severely in that department than his previous victims, and he suffered familiar lapses of focus in meandering past an overmatched Gasquet a round ago. The immensely talented Frenchman could not claim a victory over any top-eight opponent in 2012, an alarming trend for someone with his previous successes against them. At the outset of 2013, a sturdy effort against Federer would give Tsonga and new coach Roger Rasheed a reason to believe that the worm may turn.
Yesterday, the up-and-coming Sloane Stephens fought off a mid-match surge from a game opponent to reach her debut Grand Slam quarterfinal. After taking the deciding set 7-5, the bubbly American was pleased to have put on a show for the crowd, and promised another one when she played her mentor and idol, Serena Williams.
Leave it to the media to turn a show into a circus.
As the match unfolded, Stephens seemed to establish an unassailable advantage over her equally inexperienced opponent, Bojana Jovanovski. A heavy hitting but inconsistent player from Serbia, Jovanovski was deemed a beatable foe, one who would easily bend to the will of the quickly rising American teenager.
As the second set reached a critical juncture, however, Stephens began to retreat and revert to a safer, more defensive style. Jovanovski had been missing badly up to that point, so waiting for the error was not a completely ill conceived strategy. Yet, in doing so, she made an almost fatal mistake: giving Bojana Jovanovski a short ball is like feeding live bait to a shark.
The No. 3 Serb hits groundstrokes like missiles, and is an exciting player to watch when she is striking the ball well. Most comfortable playing in Australia, she had her breakthrough tournament in Sydney two years ago where, as a qualifier, she reached her first Premier semifinal. A week later, she pushed then-world No. 2 Vera Zvonareva to three tight sets at this very tournament. Since then, she won her first WTA title last summer in Baku and is also a player on the rise, give or take a few hiccups and patches of poor form.
Despite her obvious talent, she is still better known for the quirkier aspects of her life and bio. For one, not a televised match of Jovanovski’s goes by without a retelling of the embarrassing story where the Serb traveled to the famed WTA event in San Diego via Carlsbad only to wind up in Carlsbad, New Mexico.
Quirkier still is her unusual grunt. Oft-described as a sound similar to a sneeze (“ha-choo!”), it is definitely one of the stranger sounds one hears during a tennis match, but is not nearly as off-putting as many seem to think. Having watched the majority of her US Open singles campaign, I can say that it was hardly as noticeable in person as it is when amplified by the on-court microphones.
But as Jovanovski began to take control of a match she seemed well and truly out of last night, the focus centered not on her screaming winners, but on the alleged screaming itself. Stephens lost the plot and allowed her fiery opponent back into the match. Instead of giving praise to Jovanovski for not giving up and playing some inspiring offense, she was castigated, mocked and name-called for her grunting.
A lot of people take issue over noises that aren’t perceived to imply exertion. “How does shrieking assist a person in hitting a ball?” asks a public often corralled by visibly disgusted commentators (for more on grunting and the hindrance rule, I refer you to unseededandlooming’s comprehensive take on the matter). But as bizarre as Jovanovski’s grunt sounds, it is still a grunt at its very core.
And if you stopped to watch the Serbian bombshell scurry about the baseline, you would see a shockingly high level of exertion, mixed with some extreme torque and intensity.
What makes Jovanovski so electrifying on the court is the reckless abandon with which she hits every ball. The notion that “a tennis ball is there to be hit” is taken to delirious extremes during her matches, much to the delight of those who enjoy “Big Babe Tennis.” In fact, it was her tentative serve, the one shot in her repertoire that lacks her almost hysterical punch, that did her in late in the third set against the American, who eventually regrouped to serve out the match herself.
In her first Slam fourth round appearance, Bojana Jovanovski did herself proud. She recovered from a lackluster beginning and found her range in impressive fashion, only to fall just short of the finish line. In all, the week that the Serbian star had was a tremendous effort, and definitely as much noise with her tennis as she did with her grunting.
You may not like Bojana’s grunt from an aesthetic point of view, but it is hard to argue that her bite doesn’t match her bark.