After watching Caroline Wozniacki patiently maneuver her way past Marion Bartoli in last week's less-than-stellar Indian Wells final, I found myself in an inconsolable state. What is happening to women's tennis? A sport that, 10 years ago, featured a slew of the most recognizable women's athletes in the world?
I've come to accept the Williams Sisters' injury woes, Clijsters' part-time gig and Henin's second retirement, but where are the players stepping up to fill the gaps? I thought of the possibilities. Na Li hasn't won a match since her sublime run Down Under, Svetlana Kuznetsova has struggled mightily for week-to-week consistency and young guns like Yanina Wickmayer and Dominika Cibulkova haven't yet experienced big breakthroughs.
Slowly, my mind drifted to Viktoria Azarenka—the young woman who announced herself to the tennis world two years ago by triumphing in Miami, pouncing on an injured Serena to claim "The Fifth Slam."
In my mind, Azarenka has everything to become the Next Big Thing. Some of the flattest, cleanest, hardest groundstrokes the sport has ever seen, a great fighting spirit and philosophical outlook about her career and a serve that, while it could use improving, is more solid than most. She's struggled with a fierce temper and niggling injuries, but at the moment looks healthy in both body and mind.
Azarenka's the type of mercurial player who could have a career similar to Mary Pierce—another braided ballbasher whose mental game could notoriously betray her, yet in brief flashes demonstrated why she was one of the game's greats. Yet, with women's tennis as wide open as it currently is, there's so much potential for the Belarussian to seize the reigns and make her way to the top. With today's 6-1, 6-4 throttling of Maria Sharapova in the final of the Sony Ericsson Open, her stock in the sport soared.
Despite a few blips, Azarenka put on a tactically-flawless display en route to her second title in Key Biscayne. It was unusually conservative: keeping up a high first serve percentage and sending many deep balls down the middle, laden with topspin. But whenever Sharapova stepped up the pace on her groundies, Azarenka answered with ease—and a little extra sauce. And like previous matches versus Clijsters and Zvonareva, she also kept the emotions in check. A crucial part of the win today.
What most impressed me about the Belarussian's approach to the match, however, was how intelligently she played the score. Knowing how important it is to start well against Sharapova, she endured an erratic 10-minute barrage of power to secure her first break of many. After losing her opening service game, Azarenka promptly broke the Sharapova serve again. By the end of the first set, any last shred of confidence Maria had on serve wilted under Vika's calm, patient play.
When Azarenka needed an error off of her opponent's racket (they were very free-flowing), she got the ball back in play. When she needed to finish off a point, she lasered a backhand into the corner or batted a swinging volley to the open court.
Azarenka rode the wave of confidence to a 4-0 lead in the second set, but Sharapova, as she so often does, fought her way back into the set and chipped away at the deficit. I always love a good beatdown (the thought of a bagel second set was tantalizing), but in the end, I'm happy Maria found a way to make the match more entertaining. When her game is on, it's on—there wasn't much Azarenka could do about it when, midway through the second, Sharapova started striking the ball with power and poise; particularly her returns, when Azarenka's kicky serve sat up a bit slower and higher than usual.
But all credit to the Belarussian for keeping her wits about her. Despite getting broken three times in the second set—including serving for the match at 5-3—she continued to beat up on Sharapova's delivery.
And when you can't hold serve, you can't win a tennis match—let alone a high-level final like this one. For Sharapova, today was not too different than any other post-shoulder surgery bout: a battle between good and evil. The good: her fighting spirit and her... dropshot? The bad: just about everything else.
It goes without saying that the Russian, in nearly all aspects of her game, is a shadow of the champion who ruled the tennis roost along with the Williamses and Belgians a few years ago. Thanks to the weakened current state of women's tennis, she's been able to post recent good results (outside of the Slams) even with some horrendous play. The desire to get back to even a sliver of top '08 form—and the frustration that she hasn't yet—is clearly visible.
This match against Azarenka illustrated what Sharapova needs to beef up. First and foremost: the serve, struggles on which have been well-documented. Today, she had six double faults and zero aces (for the week, over 45 doubles to just eight aces), managed a first serve percentage of just 57 percent and was was broken eight times while holding once. Those numbers speak for themselves. What statistics can't show you, however, are how many times Sharapova sprayed inside-out forehands well long and whipped cross-court blows wide with reckless abandon.
Today, she needed a court built for Goliath to fit her groundstrokes in. Even her movement, which has never been a strongpoint, looked pretty pitiful. Peak Sharapova, when pushed out wide, could generate absurdly powerful down-the-line screamers for clean winners. Today, those same shots landed before the service line, allowing Azarenka to direct her next shot cross-court and well out of the way of the sluggish Russian.
But one quality that hasn't abandoned Sharapova—and we hope never will—is her steely resolve to fight. In her loss to the Russian on Thursday, affable Andrea Petkovic said there's nobody better in the game at sensing an opponent's weakness and pouncing on it than Sharapova. In recent years, only fellow standouts like Justine Henin, Martina Hingis and Serena Williams have shared this intuitive ability. It's great for Sharapova's game that she hasn't lost such a lethal quality.
It's a quality she demonstrated this afternoon. And while I credit Sharapova for the fierce battle she showed during the second set, the final was all Azarenka. As much as one can discount the Belarussian's fine play due to her opponent's egregious serving and unforced error tally, the truth is that Azarenka made those stats come to life.
On court today, she was calm and efficient, intelligent and composed. With women's tennis in desperate search for someone to step up in Serena's absence, it was a performance we should all be thankful for.
- With the win, Azarenka's back to a career-high No. 6. Sharapova, meanwhile, returns to the Top 10 for the first time in nearly three years.
- Sharapova still hasn't won a set in all three of her final appearances here, falling both to Kim Clijsters in 2005 and Svetlana Kuznetsova in 2006 in straights.
- Sharapova smacked over 40 unforced errors in the loss.
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