Sunday, 17 February 2013

All Tidied Up

Former US President Ronald Reagan memorably defined the Latin phrase Status Quo as 'the mess we're in'. The WTA, over the past three or so years (the various Williams sabbaticals) has been underpinned by a status quo that was something of a mess. Indeed between the Australian Open of 2011 and Wimbledon 2012, seven different players captured singles slam titles, from swansongs (Clijsters) and breakthroughs (Azarenka) to unanticipated (Stosur). There were also four maiden title winners each holding one of the majors at the same time during one rotation.

However recently the WTA rankings seem a much more stable place and last week's Doha Open in Qatar delivered bountiful evidence of this within the play level of its current top 10. Most significantly, Doha witnessed the return to the top spot on tour of Serena Williams, marking the culmination of an eight month campaign that began when she first walked onto the Wimbledon turf back in June. Her reclaiming of the #1 ranking has come mainly from her appearances in the first half of the year at tournaments she eschewed in 2012 in favour of injury limitation. She'll head into the latter half of the year with many more points to defend that could bite into her ranking once again. For now, though, Williams Jr. is back in pole position in the WTA.

More interestingly though, Doha saw a near-perfect series of performances from its top players. The quarterfinals comprised 8 of the top 9 players at the event, with only the injury-addled Angelique Kerber failing to join her fellow seeds in the last 8 to prevent a clean sweep in the cut. Such imperfection wasn't carried through to the semi-finals where seeds 1-4 made it through their respective quarters to square off against each other. Such symmetries are (or were with injuries playing havoc with schedules) the mainstay of the ATP. Think the Australian Open, 2012, with Roger Federer facing off against Novak Djokovic while Andy Murray comes up against Rafa Nadal. Then think of all the other majors where similar combinations of the same foursome have constituted the semi-finals. Finally, think of the parallel WTA tournament, and the multitude of names which made their way to that stage of the competition. It was a lottery built on shaky psychologies and it made the WTA inherently unpredictable.

However, the rise of Victoria Azarenka and Aga Radwanska and the return of Maria Sharapova and Serena have given the WTA an essence of stability, a quality more typically experienced in the ATP. Yet even within this quadrangle of players something of a division is still present. Lining up for the Saturday semi-finals, the likelihood of Azarenka defeating Radwanska as she did throughout 2012, and the similarly predictable outcome of Sharapova withering under a Williams onslaught tinged those matches with inevitability. And despite a Serena service display that was a world away from her usual match-winning smoothness amidst an unusually average performance, she still overcame the Russian's half-hearted challenge. Likewise Azarenka highlighted the chasms in class between her and the Polish fourth seed as she pushed Radwanska back behind the baseline, forcing her into enough mistakes to bag the Belorussisn her 13th win of the season and an opportunity to defend her Doha crown.

Denied the chance to meet twice already this season - Azarenka's bad "toe-job" forcing her to withdraw from Brisbane, while Serena's loss to Sloane Stephens preventing the pair from meeting at the AO - Azarenka went into the match trailing Williams 1-11 in the head to head and hadn't registered a win against the American since '09. But last season's US Open suggested that a meeting between the two wasn't such a foregone conclusion. On that September evening Williams cruised through the first set before Azarenka found her range and sustained a challenge to take her within a game of the win. But Serena rallied with the heart of a champion to draw back the third set difference and eke out the win. The Azarenka spirit, that nearly shattered American dreams, was an indication of the resolve and determination of the 23-year-old who may have been outplayed in Flushing Meadows, but wasn't going to allow that result to become another statistic any longer.

Sunday's final had a similar storyline, although it was Azarenka rather than the American who made it out of the starting blocks marginally quicker to take the first set on a tie-break. A somewhat absent Serena recaptured her vigour in the second set with some glorious forehands and serving, but failed to carry the momentum into the decider. Azarenka was to rush out to a 52 lead, sealing victory two games later 76(8) 26 63.

Defending her title in Doha takes the Belorussian to 16 tour titles to date and makes her the only unbeaten player in the WTA this season. She needs to add 12 more to her tally to reach last tear's target of 26. More importantly though, the WTA looks to have found itself a tangible rivalry to enhance its competition as former and current number one fight amongst themselves while trying to prevent their dominant being threatened by those outside the top two.


Lotus Cloud said...

Agreed on the Azarenka-Serena rivalry being one the WTA really needs. As predictable as the ATP's semifinal line-up might be, its rivalries are more even and unpredictable with even lopsided ones like Murray-Nadal being more tightly contested than the likes of Serena-Sharapova. Here's hoping we see another Azarenka-Serena blockbuster final at Dubai!

Mark @ Tennisopolis said...

Great post; I'm happy to have the top 3 (2?) back on top and some semblance of normalcy, not that I minded Stosur and others winning majors. Now, I would just like to see Radawanska figure out how to win some matches against the top 3 - then we'd have some great semis!

random cloud said...

Hi Lotus Cloud. Unfortunately round 2 of Vika/Serena has been postponed, but I wholly expect them to meet again at the majors. I do wonder whether Sharapova will get much of a look in if the other two are on form, she may need to fall on Azarenka's side of the draw to really stand a chance of making a final.

random cloud said...

Hey Mark. I get the impression it is a top 2 rather than a top 3, although I would like to see it change. Aga is the weak link in the top 4, though, and the Kvitova victory at Dubai has been a long time coming. Hopefully Petra can sustain it and shake up the rankings a little bit.

rdtennis said...

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random cloud said...

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