Friday, February 15, 2013

Memo from Serena: Respect your elders

On Monday, when the rankings come out, Serena Williams will be the world number 1 for the sixth time in her extraordinary career. She will also be the oldest player to reach the top spot in the history of the WTA ranking system. (In 1985, Chris Evert was ranked number 1 when she was not quite 31.)

Williams had to win her Doha quarterfinal to get to the top ranking, and it wasn't that easy for her to do. She has the flu, and wasn't feeling that well today. And she had to face Petra Kvitova, who--since she's been in Doha--has looked like....well, like Petra Kvitova. The Czech star got her mojo back in Doha. She played a beautiful set against an in-form but too-dizzy-to-continue Ekaterina Makarova, and today, she took her first set ever off of "The Serena."

In the first set, Kvitova's serve and forehand were simply on fire, and though her opponent wasn't feeling well, it would be an injustice to slight Kvitova in any way. After she broke Williams to go up 4-2, she held at love. Williams saved two set points on her serve, but Kvitova won the set 6-3 on her own serve.

Both of these players are great servers and great retrievers (Kvitova's defensive game has improved over the years, and when she's using her head, she produces some fine defense). Also, Kvitova's volleys were spot-on. But who wants to deal with a sick and injured Serena Williams? That's even worse than dealing with a healthy Serena Williams. The one thing Williams does exceptionally well, no matter what (well, except when her back locks at the Australian Open), is serve. Kvitova has a great, and tricky, service game, but it isn't as reliable as Williams' service game. Williams practically willed herself to win the second set 6-3.

The third set was a true thriller. Kvitova went up 4-1, but anyone who watches a lot of tennis knows that 4-1 is a very deceptive scoreline. It often looks better than it really is. Williams fought her way to 4-all, then broke Kvitova at 5-all. And this was when Kvitova stopped looking really "2011"--she pulled back, she looked vulnerable. And before you could say "Who has the best service game in the history of women's tennis?" Williams took the set 7-5.

There are many times when one is led to say "This is the best I've ever seen Serena serve." Who knows what the "best" is (though it can undoubtedly be found at Wimbledon)? But today, when she wasn't feeling that well, and she really, really needed her serve, she brought it. All in all, it was a great match. Kvitova looked so switched on, and it was a pleasure to see that. Though she lost, Kvitova should take away some solid confidence from this match; she performed very well indeed.

Williams cried during her post-match interview. Today's match was exceptional by any standard, but considering Williams' history, it was a truly remarkable moment. Williams knocked Victoria Azarenka out of the top spot. However, Azarenka also advanced to the semifinals, after beating Sara Errani in straight sets.

I am outraged by the Tennis TV (later shown on The Tennis Channel) commentators. When a point was contested by Errani and the umpire (the same one who sat spinelessly while the Wozniacki clan acted out), revealed that she "couldn't remember" where a ball landed, she called on Azarenka to help her out. First, I find that really inappropriate; it isn't Azarenka's job to call the match. And if anyone else in the WTA or the ATP had been in her position, the commentators would have rushed to say "That's not her job!" But because it was Azarenka, there was "discussion" over whether the Australian Open champion did the "right" thing when she declared she couldn't answer the question.

Is there no end to the (sometimes veiled, but obvious to anyone who keeps up) hostility toward Azarenka? Will she ever stop being punished for having a personality that doesn't conform to the standards imposed on WTA players? Will the sports media ever stop and think, or just continue to perpetuate the myth of "bad Vika"? "Strong is beautiful"--right.

Probably to no one's surprise, Maria Sharapova beat Sam Stosur in straight sets. Agnieszka Radwanska beat Caroline Wozniacki in straight sets, too, which means that the top four seeds will play in the semifinals. But the results of the semifinal draw are predictable. Azarenka owns Radwanska, and if the Polish star were to win, it would be really big WTA news. And then there's the other semifinal: Sharapova hasn't beaten Williams since 2004.

Of course, there's always the possibility that Williams' flu will get worse, and that even she won't be able to rise above illness. That scenario would most likely put Sharapova against Azarenka in the final, and--in the words of Azarenka--good luck with that. The Belarusian player has been dominant over Sharapova for a while.

In doubles, all of the remaining seeded teams won today. Top seeds Sara Errani and Roberta Vinci won the hard way, however: They defeated Daniela Hantuchova and Anabel Medina Garrigues 6-3, 4-6, 13-11.


Eric said...

Thanks Diane!! :)

You're a lifesaver. Nice recap!! Hope you're doing well!

Eric said...

I saw a clip on youtube...and Serena wasn't even in the frame for a lot of Petra's winners. Amazing. If Petra can get it together...

Also...the women's game is certainly improving. When I watched Serena/Sloane and Serena/ didn't feel like Serena was blowing them out of the water. In fact, I kind of felt like Serena didn't have as much shot penetration as Sloane's forehand and Petra's groundies. But obviously her serve is more effective so...

But what a great thing for the game.


I am really enjoying how the women are all pretty respectful of each other. I know they're never going to be BFFs, but I hope the professionalism carries over.

And Serena is totally correct -- it's not lonely at the top anymore. I think this stint means more to her not only bc of her health problems, but bc she knows the quality of her peers is very high. She's gotta stay on her game. (But I also thinks she needs a break to recover from niggling injuries.)

Thanks again, Diane!!

Diane said...

You're welcome, Eric :)

I should mention here that it was also fun to watch Errani play Azarenka. The word "feisty" is way overused in tennis, but it fits perfectly when used about Errani.

Also, Aga was great fun to watch.

Anonymous said...

Watching Serena off balance, barely getting the racquet on ball after ball, and winning many of those points is mind-boggling. Her opponents, Petra included, do not attack the net when those openings are for the taking. That is why Serena won yesterday. Frankly, Serena's groundies are erratic at best. I have the impression that few of the women realize that there is not a wall at the baseline and that they should venture into the court much more often than they do. Petra has to grow up. There's something naive there. She is the more talented player and it was evident both at Wimbledon and yesterday in Doha. She just doesn't know how to finish things.

Doug Messenger said...

Yep, time and again, Kvitova has had a 3-0 or 4-1 lead in a deciding set and has lost the match. Time and again, she has held set points, and failed to win the set. She has also held many break points but has not converted any (v Sharapova in Australia, 15 break points wasted in one set).
Maybe she'll mature and figure it out. She should not lose as often as she does. In fact, she should not lose to Serena if Serena serves fewer than 20 aces.

Karen said...

I am sorry but I have to disagree with you guys in relation to Serena's game vs Petra and Sloane. These ladies do hit harder than Serena & have more power but what they don't have is the ability to rein in their games when it matters most. It is all well and good coming out and trying to stand toe to toe with Serena, you will get her in the opening sequence but you have to keep it up and as we saw in the Petra match and to a lesser extent in Australia (even though she lost), when the going gets tough, Serena will do what she does best, she will calm herself down and she will start hitting through the ball.

Serena is so talented that she has many levels that she can raise her game. In her match against Petra, at 4-1 down you visibly saw her calm herself down and gathered herself together. The ball started finding its mark. Her serve came back into the equation and even more importantly her groundstrokes started finding their mark. As soon as that started to happen, Petra's game went away.

One of the most frightening sounds for me in tennis is the silence when Serena is hitting the ball well. You don't hear any grunts, no moans, no shrieks. All you hear is the sound of the ball on the racquet and possibly her breath as she exhales. You know right then and there that she has raised her game. Until other players are able to get to another level, I really don't see the next generation consistently beating Serena.

Anonymous said...

When Petra matures and calms down, she will beat Serena unless Serena serves the lights out for a whole match, which she will now and then. Petra has finer strokes, more variety, BUT she is young an immature. She's a girl from a tiny farm town. The corporate and media demands do not suit her temperament and she is learning slowly how to deal with that. Give her a year or two more, and she will be number one. I've never seen anyone with so complete a game on the women's tour.

svente said...

In short, no. Azarenka will never stop being punished. She'll have to have a Serena-like career for that running commentary to stop and I don't think we'll see that from Vika. Though I do think we'll see great tennis for quite some time from her.

Serena (and to a lesser extent Venus) were "bad" and "wrong" and "bullies" and "inappropriate" for so long. It didn't really end until it became clear Serena wasn't going anywhere and she simply didn't seem to care that she was still seen as "bad" and when Venus did what she was supposed to do - age and lose a step.

Vika doesn't seem to give two shites which is good bc she shouldn't. It seems to me that makes it easier to deal with it all anyway!

Anonymous said...

I dissent about Vika. Her medical time-out a few weeks ago was deplorable. Being nervous does not qualify for a twenty minute break. She does not care at all what you or I or anyone thinks. In my view she is either a narcissist or worse, a sociopath, who will do anything to win, short of lobbing a hand grenade at her opponent.

Karen said...

Anonymous, if Petra failed to beat a Serena who was suffering from the flu, served at below 50% during the match and who was outplayed for most of the match, when will she beat Serena?

Petra does not have the consistency that the top 4 in women's tennis has right now. Whether that is due to her ongoing asthmatic condition, or her fitness related issues remains to be seen. Not for nothing no one outside of hard core tennis fans who knew anything about her. She is 22 years old. At 22 years old recall what Serena was doing then. The women in her age group have reached milestones and all Petra keeps doing is regressing. She will never be consistent because she does not have the mentality that it takes to reign in your game when it is not working. In this way Petra reminds me of Venus. However, Venus was able to reign in parts of her game and enhance other parts which allowed her to get some amount of consistency on her shots. I doubt if Petra will ever realise she needs to do it.

Finally, you are out playing your opponent. You are hitting winners from every part of the court. You are serving lights out. Acing your opponent at every opportunity. You win the 1st set comfortably. What does Petra do? She calls her coach down, not because she was facing any difficulty. No, she called him down because she needed someone whispering in her ear that she was doing well. As far as I could see that coaching change did her in. You just showed your opponent that you are not mentally ready to beat her. Same thing with Sharapova today. She lost the first set, she goes and calls her coach down for coaching and ends up being hammered in the second set. When will these women learn. Get a game plan before the match. Stick to it. Don't show your hand. Have they never played poker?

Diane said...

I'm going to agree with everybody :)

I do think that Kvitova's talent is stunning. I thought so even before she became a "player to watch."

However, she makes me think of one of my favorite players of all time--her countrywoman, Hana Mandlikova. Mandlikova's game was both beautiful and scary-good, but her head got in her way. She won four majors, but--despite being sandwiched between two all-time greats (Evert and Navratilova)-- she nevertheless "should" have won more.

The mental part of tennis is very important, and Serena has mastered it. Kvitova has a lot of mental skills, in that she knows how to select shots and when to select them. But she doesn't close well. And while it's true that she has some physical challenges, I think that her main challenge is psychological. I really, really hope she overcomes it.

Serena Williams is one of the two most mentally consistent and tough players I've ever seen on the WTA tour. The other is Evert.

For the record--and I'm speaking as a very experienced psychotherapist--Azarenka exhibits no signs whatever of narcissism (that would be a certain retired Belgian), nor does she exhibit any signs of what we used to call sociopathy (that would be Roscoe Tanner).

However--I do understand and respect those who are disappointed in her for what happened at the Australian Open. I tend not to see things as either-or. One can be disappointed in Azarenka's actions at the AO, and still be disgusted with the field day the media had because they already didn't like her.

Doug Messenger said...

I agree with everyone too. It's all quite obvious, isn't it. Love this blog!!

Diane said...

Thanks, Doug :)

I have such informed, intelligent, articulate readers. That's a pleasure.