Wk.20- Brava, Serena
Serena Williams' barnstorming tour continued to wind its way through Europe last week, stopping off in Rome and, one week before the start of play in Paris, sending yet another momentous shockwave through a WTA tour full of players -- well, at least a half dozen or so of them -- hoping to maybe get a sniff at ultimate major success in what has traditionally been the world #1's least successful slam.
They all might have to reassess their expectations.
In fact, I'm tempted to say that what Williams did in the final on Sunday against Victoria Azarenka was the best she's ever played on clay, at least since she won the first leg of "Serena Slam" eleven years ago. I say "tempted" because, since her 1st serve numbers (just 45% in the 1st set) were a bit below par for much of this match it means she CAN actually play even better, I wonder if expressing that sentiment here might mean I'd only end up repeating myself after ANOTHER match about three weeks from now. And I wouldn't want to end up echoing my own words so soon, now would I?
Still, Serena looked like a REAL clay courter during her 6-3/6-1 win over Azarenka. Sliding into shots, using good defense to thwart potential Vika winners and extend points, then immediately turning that defense into offense with an even better ACTUAL winner one shot later. Why, she was almost the female version of Rafa Nadal out there. Oddly enough, Nadal came out on the court right after Serena's win and downed Roger Federer in the men's final by the exact same score, but in not nearly as a competitively played contest.
Considering she only one four games, and didn't hold serve until two games into the 2nd set, one would think that Azarenka would have had her share of angry antics and racket tosses, as usually occurs when she's frustrated, mostly with her own play, on Sunday. She did slam her racket once, after falling behind 5-1 in the 1st set, but wasn't hounded by negative reactions during the final. Largely, I suspect, because she knew that she was actually playing pretty well throughout, but that Serena was just simply playing even better. Such is what happens in an actual would-be big-time rivalry, or as close as we have at the top of a WTA right now dominated by the Big 3 (winners of five straight slams, last year's WTA Championships, all three London Olympics singles medals, and six straight high-level Premier titles, filling eleven of the twelve slots in the final in those events), and in the latest edition of a match-up that we'll surely see a handful more times before the end of the 2013 season.
The respect goes both ways when Serena faces Vika.
Despite the distance in the scoreline, Azarenka was close to making the Rome final a match. She held two break points on Williams' serve in the second game of the match, then finally cut the Serena lead to 3-1 two games later with her first break following her fourth BP attempt after having to seemingly hit multiple winners in a single point in order outlast the on-point Williams. Of course, Serena then turned around and broke back at love one game later. In the 1st set, won by Williams at 6-1 even with the 45% 1st serve percentage, Azarenka's downfall came on the weakened shoulders of a 5-to-13 winners-to-unforced errors total and, more importantly, on her 1-for-5 break point attempts stat.
In the 2nd set, Serena continued to pickpocket points seemingly owned by Vika. Five great "winners" off Azarenka's racket in a rally would ultimately be returned due to the great footwork displayed throughout by Williams, who'd then get back an ever BETTER shot to steal the point. Vika didn't go away, though. She got her hold for 1-1, staved off break point for 2-2, and then erased a Williams break with one of her own for 4-3. But after going up 40/15 in Game #8, Azarenka saw Williams wrestle away the game, and the match, for good. A poorly-timed double-fault on break point gave Serena the chance to serve out the match at 5-3, which she did with nothing remotely resembling a hiccup.
Naturally, when it comes to the clay season, it's ALWAYS good to be compared to Rafa. And it's easy to do so with Serena this year.
Like Nadal this spring, Williams has been tearing through the field on the clay. Undefeated on the surface in '13, winning fifteen straights sets and 32-of-35, she's 33-1 on clay over the last TWO seasons and is currently sporting a CAREER-best 24-match winning streak on all surfaces. With five titles in the books this season, the only pro player with more in '13 is, you guessed it, Nadal with six. While the Spaniard has reached eight straight finals, Serena has reached the final of eight of her last nine dating back to last season, and with wins in the Madrid and Rome finals over the world's #2 and #3-ranked players, respectively, she's now 25-4 against Sharapova and Azarenka combined for her career. In 2013 alone, Williams is 6-0 against the Top 10.
As she did so in Spanish last week after the Madrid final (where, of course, Nadal also prevailed), Serena responded to the fans in Rome on Sunday with some Italian. The on-court interviewer even wondered if Williams might one day become an Italian. Serena responded with something humorous about pasta. Whatever it was she said, I'm sure we can all think of something that she might have said that would cause each of us to personally chuckle. So have at it, I say!
Meanwhile, the women who'll start trickling into Paris this coming week for next Sunday's start of play at Roland Garros, will all be wishing for Serena's long run of bad luck to continue -- i.e. something shocking and unforeseen coming down hard on Williams and once again preventing her from getting her hands on that long-overdue matching Coupe Suzanne Lenglen replica for her trophy case. After all, it's pretty much happened nearly every June for a decade now. From Justine's hand wave to Virginie's stunning upset, it's always something. What -- and who -- is to say something won't happen again?
Well, for one, Serena herself. And, this time around, that might just be enough.
*WEEK 20 CHAMPIONS*
ROME, ITALY (Premier $2.216m/RCO)
S: Serena Williams/USA def. Victoria Azarenka/BLR 6-1/6-3
D: Hsieh/Peng (TPE/CHN) d. Errani/Vinci (ITA/ITA)
PLAYER OF THE WEEK: Serena Williams/USA
...sure, it's somewhat hard to believe that Serena's current 24-match winning streak is a career-best, considering who we're talking about, but I guess it says more about the current version of Williams that she's accomplished such a run at age 31 than it does about the younger Serena of old's strange inability to have pulled off something similar. Riding into Paris after straight sets wins over Laura Robson, Dominika Cibulkova, Carla Suarez-Navarro, Simona Halep and Victoria Azarenka means Williams is undefeated on clay in pre-Roland Garros action for the second straight year. Of course, we all know how last spring's run ended in Paris, right? Well, so does Serena, even if she'll likely, sometime between now and Day 1 at RG next Sunday, again deny that 1st Round loss to Virginie Razzano ever “really happened.” And that can't be good news to the other 127 players who'll be in the draw, now can it?
RISERS: Simona Halep/ROU & Sara Errani/ITA
...Halep, 21, has reached three WTA singles finals in her career, but her qualifier-to-semifinalist run last week in Rome produced the best stretch of quality results of her career. After a successful qualifying run which included a win over Daniela Hantuchova, the Romanian defeated a two-time slam champ (Svetlana Kuznetsova), an ex-#1 (Jelena Jankovic, against who she saved two MP), a Top 5er and former slam runner-up (Agnieszka Radwanska) and a current Top 20er (Roberta Vinci) before losing to Serena in the semis, though she WAS up a break in the 2nd set of that straight sets loss. The result jumped Halep's ranking twenty spots to #44, not far below the career-high ranking (#37) she set last spring. On the other side of the Rome draw, Errani had one of those weeks that make you wonder whether she might have the Tennis Gods on her side as she heads to Paris to defend all those Roland Garros runner-up points. After a 1st Round bye and a win over Christina McHale, Errani was on the good side of a retirement (Kirilenko) and a walkover (Sharapova) from a pair of Russian Marias to reach yet another semifinal. In the semis, after getting blitzed in the 1st set by Victoria Azarenka, Errani overcame a 3-1 deficit in the 2nd and ended up serving for the set. Then her luck turned. She lost the final three games of the 2nd to Vika, then saw her and partner Roberta Vinci's 31-match clay winning streak come to an end in the final against Hsieh Su-Wei & Peng Shuai. Still, the duo will attempt to defend their '12 RG doubles title as the co-#1 ranked players in the world, while Errani's singles rank rises to a career-best #5 on Monday, as well.
SURPRISES: Hsieh Su-Wei & Peng Shuai (TPE/CHN) and Paula Ormaechea/ARG
...Hsieh & Peng winning a doubles title -- their fifth as a duo -- in Rome isn't a huge shocker, but that they did it at the expense of world #1's Errani & Vinci in the final, ending the Italian pair's 31-match clay clay court winning streak, is. Kinda, sorta. Elsewhere, in a $50K challenger in Saint-Gaudens, France, Ormaechea continued on her quest to replace the now-retired Gisela Dulko as the best female player not only in Argentina, but the entire continent of South America, as she swept the singles and doubles crowns. En route to the ninth and biggest title yet in her career, Ormaechea notched victories over Ekaterina Bychkova, Teliana Pereira, Vania King and Dinah Pfizenmaier in the final. Now ranked at #134, Ormaechea is already the highest-ranked Argentine, with her sights set next on the South American #1, one of her Saint-Gaudens victims, #128 Pereira.
VETERANS: Jelena Jankovic/SRB & Samantha Stosur/AUS
...for a bit, after wins over Tsvetana Pironkova, Bojana Jovanovski and Li Na, JJ looked like she might be up to putting in another deep run in a big tournament. Up 3-0 in the 3rd set in the Rome QF, Jankovic seemed destined for a third SF-or-better result at a Premier event (after Charleston & Indian Wells) this 2Q, but then she blew that lead, and two match points, against Simona Halep. Oh, well. Stosur, on the other hand, is just looking for some good results. Any good results. Still seeking her first semifinal of the season, the Aussie didn't get it in Rome. But she did get wins over both Hsieh Su-Wei and Peng Shuai (giving both enough extra rest to allow them to combine their efforts to win the doubles title), as well as Petra Kvitova, before pushing Victoria Azarenka to three sets in the QF. Sure, Sam's now 0-3 (with an additional walkover loss) in quarterfinals this season, but... well, small steps, right?
COMEBACK: Alisa Kleybanova/RUS
...welcome back, Alisa. Again. In March of last year, the Russian returned for a brief stint in Miami (she got a 1st Round win over Johanna Larsson) after having been receiving treatment for Hodgkin's Lymphoma following the diagnosis of the disease in May '11. Since having admitted that she returned to action too soon, the 23-year old, a Top 30 player a few years ago, returned once again last week in a $10K challenger in Landisville, Pennsylvania. She made it through qualifying, then ended her weekend with an eighth straight victory in the final over American Natalie Pluskota, winning 6-3/6-0 to claim her first ITF crown since 2010 and, more significantly, her first in what will hopefully be a wonderfully successful comeback story. Which I guess it already is.
FRESH FACES: Sloane Stephens/USA & Ons Jabeur/TUN
...hmmm, let's see. No ridiculous controversies. No ticking off of all-time greats. No blown leads in winnable matches, either. Just those things would constitute an "up" week for the slumping Stephens since her Melbourne heights, but throw in her first back-to-back match wins -- over Flavia Pennetta and Kiki Bertens, the latter from a set down -- since defeating Jovanovski and Serena at the Australian Open and it was a REALLY good week for the American recently named the "most marketable" player on the WTA tour in a recent listing. Sure, she got blasted by Sharapova in the 3rd Round in Rome, but the rest outweighed the end. Meanwhile, in a $50K challenger in Kurume, Japan, Ons Jabeur won her third singles title in her last four events. On a 20-1 run in recent outings, the 18-year old defeated Waffle An-Sophie Mestach in a final for the second consecutive week.
DOWN: Caroline Wozniacki/DEN & Agnieszka Radwanska/POL
...Wozniacki's clay court slide continues, as she blew a 4-0 3rd set lead over Bojana Jovanovski in the 1st Round in Rome, leading to her fifth loss in her last six matches. She heads to Brussels this week as the #1 seed, largely because of the absence of last year's champion, A-Rad. Radwanska withdrew late in the week due to the continuation of the shoulder issues she's been experiencing -- and taping up -- for about a year now. A-Rad lost in the 2nd Round in Rome to Simona Halep, her second consecutive one-and-out result.
ITF PLAYER: Lucie Safarova/CZE
...back home in the Czech Republic, Safarova, the world #27 and a four-time WTA titlist (though not since 2008), played and won the $100K challenger held in Prague, defeating Alexandra Cadantu in a three-set final after getting earlier wins over Aleksandra Krunic, Yvonne Meusburger, Monica Puig and Jana Cepelova. It's her first ITF singles crown since 2005.
JUNIOR STAR: Belinda Bencic/SUI
...the Swiss 16-year old claimed her second junior event of the season in the second event she's entered in '13, winning the G1 girls title in Santa Croce, Italy just a few weeks after taking the Grade A Mexico City crown. Bencic, coached by Melanie Molitor, recently reached the semifinals at the $50K ITF challenger in Indian Harbour Beach.
1. Rome Doubles Final - Hsieh/Peng d. Errani/Vinci
...4-6/6-3/10-8. Hmmm, so are the Italians still the odds-on favorites to win in Paris?
2. Rome SF - Azarenka d. Errani
...6-0/7-5. Vika shows some Melbourne-style toughness, battling (literally) through Errani in the 1st set, as well as three brief rain delays and after nearly squandering her 3-1 lead in the 2nd (Errani served for the set at 5-4) in front of a partisan Italian crowd ready to jump on her back for even thinking about questioning a line call.
3. Rome 1st Rd. - Jovanovski d. Wozniacki
...2-6/6-4/7-6. Hmmm, Caro was up 4-0 in the 3rd here. Has she become so addicted to watching golf tournaments that she decided to have a go at impersonating Sergio Garcia? Oh, if only there were lakes involved in tennis matches (we already have the petty, whining, Garcia-esque excuse-making on occasion).
4. Rome 1st Rd. - Oprandi d. Pavlyuchenkova
...6-2/6-0. And, again, two steps back.
5. Rome 3rd Rd. - Jankovic d. Li
...7-6/7-5. Go ahead and try to predict how these two will do at Roland Garros. I dare you.
6. Rome QF - Halep d. Jankovic
...4-6/6-0/7-5. Up 3-0 in the 3rd and with two match points, Queen Chaos decides to drop into the proceedings. I wonder if she used a parachute, or maybe one of those helicopters she mentioned at Wimbledon a few years back?
7. Rome 3rd Rd. - Sharapova d. Stephens
...6-2/6-1. I sure hope Sharapova didn't unfollow Sloane on Twitter after this, or that Stephens is now expecting a belated birthday card and a free box of Sugarpova from her good friend Maria.
8. Rome QF - Errani walkover Sharapova
...and Sara silently wonders, "Why couldn't she get sick before the final in Paris last spring?" (But she thought it in Italian, of course.)
9. $25K Balikpapen Final - Jovana Jaksic d. Yang Zi
...6-3/6-2. The 19-year old Serb wins her fourth challenger of the season, and a circuit-best tenth since the start of 2012.
10. $10K Sharm El Sheikh Final - Melis Sezer d. Basek Eraydin
...6-2/4-6/6-3. The 19-year old Turk defeats the 18-year old Turk. Cool. Or medieval?
HM- $10K Bastad Final - Rebecca Peterson d. Zuzana Luknarova
...6-3/6-2. The 17-year old Swede grabs her first career ITF crown, getting additional wins over Ysaline Bonaventure and countrywoman Ellen Allgurin along the way.
1. Rome Final - S.Williams d. Azarenka
...6-1/6-3. Vika was playing to become just the second woman ever -- along with Sharapova in '04 -- to defeat Serena in two finals, on two surfaces, in the same season. JUUUUUST missed it. Of course, considering Maria's plight since then, maybe it was for the best.
2. Rome 1st Rd. - Robson d. V.Williams 6-3/6-2
Rome 2nd Rd. - S.Williams d. Robson 6-2/6-2
...come on, even Laura knew she wasn't going to do it back-to-back.
3. Rome 1st Rd. - U.Radwanska d. Ivanovic
...6-2/2-6/6-2. AnaIvo has suffered three losses at the hands of the Radwanska sisters this season. I wonder if she gets a "good karma discount" for that?
HM- Rome 2nd Rd. - Morita d. U.Radwanska 6-3/6-1
Rome 3rd Rd. - Azarenka d. Morita 6-1/2-0 ret.
...Morita doubled down on Radwanskian bad luck, getting her second win over U-Rad in the last three weeks. Then, wouldn't you know it, it all finally came back to get her. You can run, Ayumi, but you can't hide.
**S.WILLIAMS vs. AZARENKA**
2008 Australian Open 3rd Rd. - S.Williams 6-3/6-4
2009 Australian Open 4th Rd. - S.Williams 3-6/4-2 ret. (Azarenka heat illness)
2009 Miami Final - Azarenka 6-3/6-1
2009 Wimbledon QF - S.Williams 6-2/6-3
2010 AO QF - S.Williams 4-6/7-6(4)/6-2 (Azarenka led 6-4/4-0, served for match twice)
2011 Toronto SF - S.Williams 6-3/6-3
2011 US Open 3rd Rd. - S.Williams 6-1/7-6(5)
2012 Madrid Final - S.Williams 6-1/6-3
2012 Wimbledon SF - S.Williams 6-3/7-6(6)
2012 Olympics SF - S.Williams 6-1/6-2
2012 US Open Final - S.Williams 6-2/2-6/7-5 (Azarenka served for title at 5-4)
2012 WTA Chsp rr - S.Williams 6-4/6-4
2013 Brisbane SF - S.Williams w/o
2013 Doha Final - Azarenka 7-6/2-6/6-3
2013 Rome Final - S.Williams 6-1/6-3
**LONG WIN STREAKS - LAST TEN SEASONS**
32...Justine Henin, 2007-08
26...Victoria Azarenka, 2012
24...SERENA WILLIAMS, 2013
24...Justine Henin-Hardenne, 2005
22...Kim Clijsters, 2005
22...Lindsay Davenport, 2004
NOTE: Venus Williams had 35-match streak in 2000
**2013 TITLES AS #1 SEED**
**BEST RESULTS BY QUALIFIERS IN 2013**
SF - Teliana Pereira, BRA (Bogota, #156)
SF - Alexandra Cadantu, ROU (Katowice, #117)
SF - SIMONA HALEP, ROU (Rome, #64)
**2013 ITF FINALS**
5...JOVANA JAKSIC, SRB (4-1)
5...Reka Luca-Jani, HUN (4-1)
4...Melanie Klaffner, AUT (4-0)
4...Maryna Zanevska, UKR (2-2)
4...Ellen Allgurin, SWE (1-3)
4...AN-SOPHIE MESTACH, BEL (1-3)
4...Ankita Raina, IND (1-3)
BRUSSELS, BELGIUM (Premier $681K/red clay outdoor)
12 Final: A.Radwanska d. Halep
12 Doubles Champions: Mattek-Sands/Mirza
13 Top Seeds: Wozniacki/Vinci
#6 Goerges d. #4 Stephens
Kanepi d. #2 Vinci
Kanepi d. #6 Goerges
...Wozniacki would be the one of the favorites here if, well, you know.
STRASBOURG, FRANCE (Int'l $235K/red clay outdoor)
12 Final: Schiavone d. Cornet
12 Doubles Champions: Govortsova/Jans-Ignatik
13 Top Seeds: Bartoli/Paszek
#5 Niculescu d. #3 Cornet
Beck d. Muguruza
#5 Niculescu d. Beck
...Bartoli would be one of the favorites here if, well... sort of the same reason with Caro in Brussels.
ALSO: Roland Garros Qualifying
All for now.