The Verisimilitude of Vika
Vika, you may now join everyone at the big table. Yeah, that's right. Don't just wait for someone to offer you their seat... just take one for yourself.
The women's singles final at the 100th Australian Open promised a hard-hitting, hard-shrieking and hard-driving battle for a grand slam title and the #1 ranking. The public images of the finalists presented a respected 24-year old former champion with a persona that has come to be embracable, yet also sometimes (by her choice) unknowable, as well as another of a coltish and driven, but oft-misrepresented, 22-year old recent newcomer to the latter stages of grand slam competition. Both came to Melbourne looking to overcome their respective career's past troubles. Russian Maria Sharapova, the outwardly-refined former #1 and '08 AO champion, was getting her second chance in the past seven months to win her first slam crown since undergoing career-threatening shoulder surgery nearly four years ago. Meanwhile, demonstrative Belarusian Victoria Azarenka, known for too long for her physical fragility and the overly-emotional, anger-fueled spin-outs of her recent past, was attempting to show that all her hard work to improve her body, game and spirit over the last two years had finally reached the point where she could take her place at the "big WTA table" by claiming her first career slam.
Both had found themselves and their trademark shot-punctuating shrieks the focal point of criticism over the previous two weeks in Melbourne, from mocking catcalls in the stands to commentating booth rants and even post-match press conferences from a few oh-so-suddenly-annoyed players. The pair's reactions to the overhyped hubbub had ranged from disdain to disregard, but both had more than managed to come off as far more level-headed, sincere and well-mannered than their detractors, noting that they weren't doing anything that they hadn't always done, no matter the recent "epiphany" from within the tennis community that their "noisy" play was somehow the biggest public relations issue faced by women's tennis since some turn of the century player first decided to buck tradition and roll up her bloomers so high that spectators could almost see her ankles.
Sharapova and Azarenka, though, had done more than enough on the court -- with their rackets -- to override whatever other storylines some might have wanted to highlight. The Russian had more than passed the "eye-test" necessary for everyone to believe that she'd finally managed to corral her occasional post-surgery serving mistakes and not allow them to infect the rest of her game. In her semifinal (Roland Garros) and final (Wimbledon) slam runs at slams over the past year, such was not the case, as her wish to become the first player to overcome such a physical ailment and lift a slam championship trophy came up just short. Though she always outwardly appeared confident during those slams, her's was actually a tenuous hold. At this AO, though, she'd seemed to finally believe that the fates were aligned for her return to the winner's circle. The ankle injury she'd carried into Australia never became an issue during the tournament, and her outdueling of SW19 champ, and Sharapova conqueror, Petra Kvitova in the semifnals proved the Russian's mettle, just as the Belarusian's ability to better handle herself in the clutch during her three-set SF win over defending champion Kim Clijsters had done the same for her. 11-0 on the season and competing in her fourth straight singles final going back to the '11 season, Azarenka had shown an ability to dominate opponents (in the first two rounds, she lost the opening game of her matches, then reeled off twelve straight games to take the match) and quickly put poorly-played stretches (such as her near-bagel 2nd set against KC) behind her like the single-minded, goal-oriented player she's become ever since her achy, so-teen-like attitude had led her beloved grandmother to sit her down a few years back and remind her "how great a life" she was actually living on tour.
Sharapova's big slam match experience seemed to give her the edge, but Azarenka's own experience turned out to be even more important. Armed with the memory of two recent, straight-sets hard court victories (in 2010 & '11) over Sharapova, the Belarusian knew what she had to do to seize the spotlight on Rod Laver Arena court. In many ways, it was the same gameplan that Kvitova had had against Sharapova at Wimbledon, as well the one that Sharapova herself had had at the All-England Club when she took down Serena Williams to claim her first own major title in '04. What goes around usually comes around if a player sticks around long enough, and the Russian is learning that the same show-no-fear, pressure-your-opponent, take-control-and-dare-her-to-take-it-back gameplan cuts both ways. Sharapova's experience didn't matter last summer in London, and it didn't on this particular summer night in Melbourne, either.
Of course, it didn't appear that that was the case in the match's early going. Azarenka committed two double-faults in the opening game, then missed a backhand to give Sharapova an immediate break. Sharapova then held to take a 2-0 lead and, in retrospect, one has to wonder if she might have lost a bit of her edge, thinking that Azarenka might not be ready for her slam moment.
If so, she was sorely mistaken.
In Game #3, Azarenka hit her third double-fault and fell down love/30, but Sharapova's misses brought the game back into play. An Azarenka winner gave her her first hold of serve, and the Belarusian was off to the races. Days after Martina Hingis had talked of the need for world #1 Caroline Wozniacki to move forward into the court if she's to ever win a slam, Azarenka had no such worries about leaving any slam stones unturned. SHE was inside or riding the baseline from the start. Starting in Game #4, the practive began to pay dividends, and Sharapova's answers to the tactic began to prove fruitless. Up 40/love on Sharapova's serve, Azarenka elicited a long shot from the Russian and broke her at love for 2-2. After falling down 15/30, Sharapova hit an ace to hold for 3-3. But it was to be her last "winning" moment of the evening, as Azarenka was primed to take over the night.
In Game #7, Sharapova was pulled to the net by an Azarenka drop shot, and her reply was easily put away by the Belarusian with a lob for a 4-3 lead. One game later, a Sharapova double-fault opened the door wide for her opponent. A second DF sent the service game to deuce. Azarenka saved a game point with her doubles-inspired net play, then used another volley to get a break point. A drop shot, then another easy volley, got the break for 5-3 and gave Azarenka a chance to serve for the set. She quickly grabbed a 40/15 lead, then held to claim the set 6-3, winning her sixth of seven games since her slow start. Maybe more frightening for Sharapova, through, was that Azarenka was by no means flinching from the Russian's power. In fact, she was relishing it. Just as Kvitova had at Wimbledon last July.
In the 2nd set, things got even worse for the Russian. A long backhand put her down 15/40 on serve in Game #1, and Azarenka smacked a routine setter at the net for a winner to break and take a 1-0 lead. Erasing a love/30 hole, Azarenka held for 2-0. With an on-her-heels Sharapova seeing the match quickly slipping away, she tried to hit even harder groundstrokes. It didn't work. And as the Russian's errors began to pile up, Azarenka's naturally athletic strut (so similar to Martina Navratilova's, by the way) began to underwrite the whole endeavor. Up 40/15 on Sharapova's serve, another error led to a break for 3-0. Azarenka could see the finish line by now, and hopped over her final hurdles without a blink.
She held for 4-0, as Sharapova's desperation became her own worst enemy. A long forehand made it 5-0. The Russian had no answers for Azarenka's game, and there were no longer any questions, either. With her big lead relieving her of much of the pressure of serving for the title, it was just a matter of time.
Finally, the inevitable moment arrived. The last of Sharapova's errors failed to cross the net, and a dazed-looking Azarenka dropped her racket, sank to her knees and buried her face in her hands. She gazed up at her coach and friends in the players box with a "What happened?" look on her face, even mouthing the words that expressed her disbelief. For a player with an outward on-court air about her that practically screams "MORE!," this was the first time over the past two weeks in Melbourne that she didn't seem to believe that an Australian Open singles title was within her grasp. But it was. The 6-3/6-0 scoreline proved it, and her emphatic claiming of twelve of the final thirteen games of the match after having fallen behind 2-0 was more than enough to shut down any detractors she might have left. Hailing from Minsk, by way of Scottsdale, Arizona, the WTA's twenty-first #1-ranked player has been discovered, and she's a true 21st CENTURY champion, too.
For grand slams aren't dispensed by birthright or current ranking. They are taken.
"In the days of Moses and the prophets such a (wo)man would have been counted among the wise (wo)men of the land; in the Middle Ages (s)he would have been burned at the stake." - Hans Christian Andersen
Azarenka's "sometimes too much" style hasn't always been accepted by some fans, and surely that notion nearly came to a head a few times Down Under. But the single word she uttered after she stepped up to the microphone in the post-match trophy ceremony was brilliant in it's simplicity.
"Wow," said Azarenka, throwing in a tentative giggle for punctuation this time rather than a powerful shriek, proving that even a player with as much desire to win as her's can be flattened, at least a little, by the heady reality of actually managing to pull off the accomplishment that she's spent most of her 22 years chasing.
With the whole "Whack-a-Vika" campaign in Melbourne having proven to have the opposite effect on the player in question, Azarenka thus joins the likes of other slam winners who've discovered that some people associated with the sport choose to take issue with precisely some of the things that have helped them become a champion in the first place. Next to the "too cheeky" Hingis, the "too disrespectful" Serena, the "too hungry" Justine Henin and the "too imperial" Sharapova, we can add the "too EVERYTHING" Azarenka. Now, the Belarusian's mission will be to be embraced by the masses. Or not. It doesn't really matter.
Of course, in her address to the assembed crowd, Azarenka DID almost dare those not in her corner to find something about her misunderstood personality to embrace. Take, for example, her seemingly promising future in food services. She thanked all the tournament drivers, noting how she always enjoys bringing them doughnuts (even apologizing for making them gain weight) to make them smile, but not even thinking to bother to mention her just-as-expert delivering of a bagel to her Russian opponent tonight. A good sport, she even proved playful with the crowd, once again showing the ability to not take herself as seriously as some members of the tennis establishment have come to take themselves, especially during WTA head Stacey Allaster's still-in-it's-early-stages reign. In calling for and getting one of those meant-to-ridicule shrieks from the stands, and enjoying every second of it, she might have turned the spiteful, mocking act into a fun, future "battle cry"... in her favor. Well, maybe not, but one can dream, right?
Vika once did. And today that dream came true.
=DAY 13 NOTES=
...did you hear that? I think it's Carl. He's still jumping up and down for having correctly picked Azarenka to win this title two weeks ago. Geez, now I'll never hear the end of it.
...so, the tour hierachy continues its shaking-out process. The new rankings will show Azarenka at #1, Kvitova at #2, Sharapova at #3 and former #1 Caroline Wozniacki at #4. It's quite a shot to the Dane, for sure, who has now seen a second player from her generation reach the slam winner's circle ahead of her. If she can't learn from yet another example about how slams are taken, not given, then she never will. Still, as far as the rankings go, everyone is still close enough for multiple exchanges of the #1 spot to occur over the course of this season. So, let's just set the bar now: the most swaps of #1 in a single season is eight, and the most different players to hold the position in a season is five. After a month of '12 action, we're at two on each count.
We'll soon see -- possibly as early as next weekend -- how well Azarenka takes to her new role as the #1-ranked player and a slam champion. We'll eventually see whether her offseason training regimen will prevent a recurrence of the niggling injuries that have plagued her in the past, but she has to be encouraged that she was able to outlast opponents -- both physically AND mentally -- throughout this AO.
As for Sharapova, she has to recognize that her career might just end up playing out between a rock and hard place. Not old enough to be considered in the veterans' generation, she's surely not a NextGen player, either, even though she IS just two years older than Azarenka. Sharapova came onto tour in the era that would be dominated by the Sisters and Belgians, saw her shoulder injury prevent her from dominating in the "softer" middle years, and now has already suffered at the hands of two young twentysomethings in slam finals over the past year (her game total in this AO final was the same meager three she got against Serena in the "Destruction Heard 'Round the World" Melbourne final in '07). She's not going anywhere anytime soon, but she knows the reality of just how hard it is to win a slam. Time means nothing... opportunity, and the seizing of it, are far more important.
A certain Dane should take note of that inarguable fact, too.
A FEW MORE NOTES: Azarenka's jump from #3 to #1 in one fell swoop is a WTA first, and her title means we've had five different winners at the last five slams -- and four of them have been first-time slam champs. Of course, the flip side to that is that the last four slam winners, starting with Clijsters at last year's AO, have failed to advance beyond the second round at their next slam. After this AO, it's still a fact that no slam final with a Russian woman involved has ever gone three sets (that's 0-for-17). Azarenka's slam singles title gets her within striking distance of joining just Serena, Venus and Sam Stosur as active players with slam wins in all three disciplines -- singles, doubles and mixed. She'd already be able to be included in the group if she and Maria Kirilenko hadn't lost that set a 4-1 lead in the '11 AO final against Dulko/Pennetta. Azarenka, it should be noted, has a REALLY diverse slam trophy case. She also won junior singles and doubles slam titles, including both the AO Girls Singles and Doubles back in '05.
...speaking of junior slam title sweeps. In the Girls Singles final, Taylor Townsend completed HER own sweep of the junior titles by defeating Yulia Putintseva 6-1/3-6/6-3. Townsend, after Grace Min last fall at Flushing Meadows, is the second consecutive Bannerette to claim a junior Girls slam crown.
Luke Saville, who was the AO Boys runner-up in '11, defeated Filip Peliwo to take the title this year. The Aussie also won the Wimbledon Boys last year.
...Leander Paes and Radek Stepanek prevented the Bryan twins from continuing their AO dominance and getting a record 12th slam crown. The pair won the Men's Doubles in straight sets. It's Stepanek -- know in these parts as Mr. Nicole Vaidisova -- first slam title, and Paes' overall fourteenth Doubles or Mixed slam championship. He's won those titles with eight different players -- Mahesh Bhupathi (3), Cara Black (3), Lukas Dlouhy (2), Martina Navratilova (2), Martin Damm (1), Lisa Raymond (1), David Rikl (1) and Stepanek (1).
...and, of course Esther Vergeer (NED) won her 20th career slam Wheelchair Singles title, and she did it by showing her usual dominance, taking out her Dutch countrywoman, #2 seed Aniek van Koot by a 6-0/6-0 score.
...DAY 13 LIKES: that ESPN2's coverge wasn't as scream-heavy as I'd feared it might be. Of course, that the likes of Cliff Drysdale and Brad Gilbert -- who tend to squawk as much as all those birds flying over Rod Laver looking for a tasty insect meal -- weren't involved in the telecast, so maybe that had something to do with it. Pam Shriver, on three different occasions (including once when she tried to place undue importance on a single spectator who'd yelled out "turn down the volume," obviously -- accoring to the all-knowing PS -- showing how much of a protesting mood the Aussies were when it came to the issue, overlooking the fact that many thousands of others DIDN'T put their full "jerkery" on display), DID try to pipe in from courtside and broach the subject in an attempt to throw the broadcast off on an action-ignoring tangent (a practice of her's that goes back ten years, when she'd spend half a Jelena Dokic match talking about Damir rather than what was going on on the court), but Chris Fowler and Chris Evert consistently failed to take the bait and derail the telecast. Good for them. The network, led by Patrick McEnroe (shocker!) did spend time during pre-match coverage on the topic, but I chose to just turn the sound down to avoid being offended (hmmm, now there's an idea), only turning it up to hear the press conference comments from the two players, including Azarenka linking her sound to how she breathes on the court, and Sharapova noting that she hasn't heard anything "from anybody important enough" to change anything on her side of the net.
I will continue to believe it's all much ado about nothing, or at least nothing that hasn't been the case for about twenty years, when Monica Seles came upon the scene. Ultimately, nothing was done then (other than Seles trying to consciously make no sound in one match, and putting forth an awful performance in the process), and players on tour now who have grown up exhaling loudly during points shouldn't suddenly be penalized now because a few people suddenly have a wild hare up their butt about the subject. But, if the various organizations want to begin to institute something on the junior levels, much like Major League Baseball's lower-level phasing out of tobacco use, that will insure that the coming generation won't grow up with the same noisy habits, then I'd have no problem with it. But that'd be a measured, intelligent way to deal with the situation, unlike the crazy-ass (thank you for that phrase, Oprah Winfrey) practice of trying to use on-court decibal meters and making certain players -- including the newest #1 -- the object of derision in the media. Of course, the more attention-getting way would prove to be more self-serving for the likes of Stacey Allaster and the talking heads at ESPN2, so I'm not particularly confident that cooler heads will prevail.
...and, finally, the WTA spotlight will surely be on the Fed Cup next weekend, but not necessarily on the 1st Round. Belarus will be hosted by the United States in World Group II action, with Azarenka AND the Williams Sisters scheduled to participate. Sometimes, things just work out perfectly, you know?
*WOMEN'S SINGLES FINAL*
#3 Victoria Azarenka/BLR def. #4 Maria Sharapova/RUS 6-3/6-0
*MEN'S SINGLES FINAL*
#1 Novak Djokovic/SRB vs. #2 Rafael Nadal/ESP
*WOMEN'S DOUBLES FINAL*
Kuznetsova/Zvonareva (RUS/RUS) def. #11 Errani/Vinci (ITA/ITA) 5-7/6-4/6-4
*MEN'S DOUBLES FINAL*
Paes/Stepanek (IND/CZE) def. #1 Bryan/Bryan (USA/USA) 7-6/6-2
*MIXED DOUBLES FINAL*
#5 Vesnina/Paes (RUS/IND) vs. #8 Mattek-Sands/Tecau (USA/ROU)
*GIRLS SINGLES FINAL*
#14 Taylor Townsend/USA def. #4 Yulia Putintseva/RUS 6-1/3-6/6-3
*BOYS SINGLES FINAL*
#1 Luke Saville/AUS def. Filip Peliwo/CAN 6-3/5-7/6-4
*GIRLS DOUBLES FINAL*
Andrews/Townsend (USA/USA) def. #1 Khromacheva/Kovinic (RUS/MNE) 5-7/7-5 (10-6)
*BOYS DOUBLES FINAL*
#6 Broady/Ward-Hibbert (GBR/GBR) def. Pavlasek/Veger (CZE/CRO) 6-3/6-2
*WHEELCHAIR SINGLES FINAL*
#1 Esther Vergeer/NED vs. #2 Aniek van Koot/NED 6-0/6-0
*WHEELCHAIR DOUBLES FINAL*
#1 Vergeer/Walraven (NED/NED) def. #2 Buis/van Koot (NED/NED) 4-6/6-2/6-4
**WEEKS AT WTA SINGLES #1**
[w/ titles & slam titles]
377...Steffi Graf (107/22)
331...Martina Navratilova (167/18)
260...Chris Evert (154/18)
209...Martina Hingis (43/5)
178...Monica Seles (53/9)
122...Serena Williams (39/13)
117...Justine Henin (43/7)
98...Lindsay Davenport (55/3)
67...Caroline Wozniacki (18/0)
39...Amelie Mauresmo (25/2)
26...Dinara Safina (12/0)
22...Tracy Austin (30/2)
20...Kim Clijsters (41/4)
18...Jelena Jankovic (12/0)
17...Jennifer Capriati (14/3)
17...Maria Sharapova (24/3)
12...Ana Ivanovic (9/1)
12...Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario (29/4)
11...Venus Williams (43/7)
2...Evonne Goolagong (68/7)
1...VICTORIA AZARENKA (10/1)
[pre-computer rankings year-end #1's]
Margaret Smith-Court (92/24)
Billie Jean King (67/12)
**MOST SLAMS TO FIRST TITLE**
45 - Jana Novotna (1998 Wimbledon)
39 - Francesca Schiavone (2010 Roland Garros)
34 - Samantha Stosur (2011 US Open)
31 - Amelie Mauresmo (2006 Australian Open)
29 - Jennifer Capriati (2001 Australian Open)
28 - Kerry Melville-Reid (1978 Australian Open)
26 - Lindsay Davenport (1998 U.S. Open)
25 - VICTORIA AZARENKA (2012 Australian Open)
**FIRST-TIME SLAM CHAMPS AT AUSTRALIAN OPEN**
1977 Kerry Melville-Reid, AUS
1978 Chris O'Neil, AUS
1979 Barbara Jordan, USA
1980 Hana Mandlikova, CZE
1995 Mary Pierce, FRA
1997 Martina Hingis, SUI
2001 Jennifer Capriati, USA
2006 Amelie Mauresmo, FRA
2012 Victoria Azarenka, BLR
**WTA SINGLES TITLES - 2010-12**
12...Caroline Wozniacki, DEN
7...VICTORIA AZARENKA, BLR
6...Kim Clijsters, BEL
6...Petra Kvitova, CZE
4...Maria Sharapova, RUS
4...Roberta Vinci, ITA
4...Serena Williams, USA
**ACTIVE PLAYERS w/ SLAM SINGLES/DOUBLES/MIXED TITLES**
Serena Williams [13-12-2]
Venus Williams [7-12-2]
Samantha Stosur [1-2-2]
[singles players closest to matching]
Victoria Azarenka [1-0-2]
Kim Clijsters [4-2-0]
Svetlana Kuznetsova [2-2-0]
Vera Zvonareva [0-2-2]
**RECENT GIRLS SLAM CHAMPIONS**
AO: Ksenia Pervak, RUS
RG: Kristina Mladenovic, FRA
WI: Noppawan Lertcheewakarn, THA
US: Heather Watson, GBR
AO: Karolina Pliskova, CZE
RG: Elina Svitolina, UKR
WI: Kristyna Pliskova, CZE
US: Daria Gavrilova, RUS
AO: An-Sophie Mestach, BEL
RG: Ons Jabeur, TUN
WI: Ashleigh Barty, AUS
AO: Grace Min, USA
AO: Taylor Townsend, USA
=ACTIVE OVERALL SLAM TITLES - MEN=
=AO MEN'S DOUBLES CHAMPIONS - since 2002=
2002 Mark Knowles / Daniel Nestor
2003 Michael Llodra / Fabrice Santoro
2004 Michael Llodra / Fabrice Santoro
2005 Wayne Black / Kevin Ullyett
2006 Bob Bryan / Mike Bryan
2007 Bob Bryan / Mike Bryan
2008 Jonathan Erlich / Andy Ram
2009 Bob Bryan / Mike Bryan
2010 Bob Bryan / Mike Bryan
2011 Bob Bryan / Mike Bryan
2012 Leander Paes / Radek Stepanek
TOP QUALIFIER: Paula Ormaechea/ARG
TOP EARLY ROUND (1r-2r): #3 Victoria Azarenka/BLR
TOP MIDDLE-ROUND (3r-QF): #4 Maria Sharapova/RUS
TOP LATE ROUND (SF-F): xx
TOP QUALIFYING MATCH: Q1: Bibiane Schoofs/NED d. Yaroslava Shvedova/KAZ 6-4/3-6/11-9
TOP EARLY RD. MATCH (1r-2r): 2nd Rd. - Greta Arn/HUN d. #17 Dominika Cibulkova/SVK 6-2/3-6/10-8
TOP MIDDLE-RD. MATCH (3r-QF): 4th Rd. - #11 Kim Clijsters/BEL d. #5 Li Na/CHN 4-6/7-6/6-4 (saved 4 MP)
TOP LATE RD. MATCH (SF-F/Jr.): xx
TOP LAVER NIGHT MATCH: none
FIRST WINNER: #3 Victoria Azarenka/BLR (def. Heather Watson/GBR)
FIRST SEED OUT: #19 Flavia Pennetta/ITA (1st Rd.- lost to Nina Bratchikova/RUS)
UPSET QUEENS: Russians
REVELATION LADIES: Germans
NATION OF POOR SOULS: Great Britain (0-4 in 1st Round, all on Day 1)
LAST QUALIFIER STANDING: Nina Bratchikova/RUS (3rd Rd.)
LAST WILD CARDS STANDING: Casey Dellacqua/AUS & Olivia Rogowska/AUS (2nd Rd.)
LAST AUSSIES STANDING: Casey Dellacqua, Jelena Dokic & Olivia Rogowska (2nd Rd.)
IT: Ekaterina Makarova/RUS
MS. OPPORTUNITY: Sara Errani/ITA
COMEBACK PLAYER: #4 Maria Sharapova/RUS
CRASH & BURN: #5 Samantha Stosur/AUS (lost 1st Rd. to Sorana Cirstea/ROU)
ZOMBIE QUEEN: #11 Kim Clijsters/BEL (down 6-4/3-1, 5-1 in 2nd set tie-break and 4 MP vs. Li, 4th Rd.)
LADY OF THE EVENING: #3 Victoria Azarenka/BLR
DOUBLES STAR Nominees: Bethanie Mattek-Sands, Elena Vesnina
JUNIOR BREAKOUT: Taylor Townsend/USA
All for Day 13. More tomorrow.