Sunday, August 25, 2013

Is another Williams-Azarenka final on the New York horizon?

Two buildings tower at the edge of Central Park
The chances of Serena Williams and Victoria Azarenka meeting again in the U.S. Open final are very, very good. In last year's excellent final, Williams came back from being a break down in the third set to beat Azarenka, who served for the match, but could not close it. Since then, Azarenka has prevailed over Williams in three sets in both Doha and Cincinnati. Also, the world number 2's ordeal in Melbourne pretty much showed the tennis world what a truly tough character she can be when everything is falling apart around her.

An argument can be made, in fact, that Azarenka's tribulations at the Australian Open were somewhat of a blessing in disguise. In the words of another fiery woman with a big voice:

Made me learn a little bit faster
Made my skin a little bit thicker
Makes me that much smarter
So thanks for making me a fighter

Azarenka's challenge in such a New York final, of course, would be that the very personification of "fighter," Serena Williams, would be on the other side of the net. For tennis fans, however, seeing Williams and Azarenka in another big final would be quite an exciting event.

Of course, it's entirely possible, in the world of WTA upsets, that both players (or neither of them, for that matter) will reach the final. Having seeds 1 and 2 face off in the end is the way it "should" come out, but we all know that anything can happen. The known impediments to a "perfect" ending are 1. Williams' tendency to get caught up in unfortunate drama at the U.S. Open, 2. Azarenka's tendency to fall down and have to exit a tournament, and 3. a straight-up defeat by an opponent earlier in the draw.

Williams couldn't have asked for a better draw. Her sister is in her quarter, but Venus's health has, sadly, made her a tired singles competitor who will have enough to do to contend with in her first round match against Kirsten Flipkens. There are a couple of big hitters--Yaroslava Shvedova and Lucie Hradecka--in that quarter, but they certainly don't appear to pose a real threat to the top seed. Angelique Kerber is in Williams' quarter, too, but these days, Kerber struggles in almost every match.

Of note, however, are two of Williams' countrywomen, who are also in her part of the draw. Both 23rd seed Jamie Hampton and 15th seed Sloane Stephens can cause trouble. Stephens is so erratic--and given their history--I don't see her getting past Serena, should the occasion arise. Hampton, however, who could meet Stephens in the third round, is a new WTA danger, provided her chronic back injury doesn't give her problems.

In the first round, Williams will face 2010 French Open champion Francesca Schiavone.

Azarenka's quarter is spicier, and includes Petra Kvitova, Nadia Petrova, 2011 U.S. Open champion (and Carlsbad champion) Sam Stosur, 2008 French Open champion Ana Ivanovic, Varvara Lepchenko, and Stanford champion Dominika Cibulkova. Daniela Hantuchova is in that quarter, too, and--while her singles career seems to be winding down--there's always that "good day" scare when it comes to the smooth-striking Slovak. The same can be said for Nadia Petrova--she is never to be taken for granted.

As for Kvitova--last year's U.S. Open Series winner failed to defend either of her Series titles this year, though she had moments of "real Petra" glory. She was going for her asthma inhaler during the final in New Haven, and her respiratory system and North American humidity clearly do not get along. Beyond that issue, however, is the issue of Kvitova's apparent crumbling as a top player, and it pains me to write about it. But--out of respect for Petra, and also bearing in mind that a breakthrough could always occur--I have to include her on the list of dangerous players in Azarenka's quarter.

Stosur has split with her long-time coach, David Taylor, but I'm not sure that's going to be a problem for her. The Australian star is respectful and thoughtful, but her comments about the split made it clear that the break needed to occur, even at a "bad" time. Stosur's biggest problem is always herself (not unlike Kvitova), but she has won the U.S. Open before--and not that long ago--and that's a rather large factor in her favor.

Azarenka's first round opponent is Dinah Pfizenmaier.

Detail--Jekyll and Hyde Club, New York City

Then there's the Radwanska quarter, which is pretty much the Quarter from Hell. Radwanska hasn't had such a great time of it in this hard court season, and to make matters worse, she has to contend with the likes of Jelena Jankovic, Laura Robson and Li Na. Jankovic is kind of looking like herself lately, and my gut feeling is that she can go pretty deep into this tournament. Li, of course, is Li. She could be upset early in the event (Robson took her out last year, and they could meet in the third round this year), or she could win the U.S. Open. I don't think that the latter alternative is that likely to happen, but if the Chinese star can get her head on straight, she can win just about anything short of Wimbledon.

There are some other pesky opponents in this quarter, too. Ekaterina Makarova, Bethanie Mattek-Sands, Sabine Lisicki, Monica Puig, Madison Keys, and Sorana Cirstea are all there. 

Radwanska's first opponent will be Silvia Soler-Espinosa.

Finally, there's the Errani quarter. 4th seed Sara Errani comes into the U.S. Open in the midst of a disappointing season. She was on fire for a long time, but the flames have been repeatedly put out by opponents. Still, the Italian likes a hard court, and she's a big fighter.

Errani's quarter includes Caroline Wozniacki, Klara Zakopalova, Elena Vesnina, Roberta Vinci, Maria Kirilenko, New Haven champion Simona Halep, 2004 U.S. Open champion Svetlana Kuznetsova, and Flavia Pennetta. Pennetta has been so up and down recently because of injury, but if she's healthy, she's a fine hard court competitor. It's Halep, however, who can cause a lot of damage--if her long New Haven run doesn't tweak her recent back injury, and let's hope it doesn't. These days, a healthy Halep who is serving well is a Simona to be feared.

In the meantime, Wozniacki--who once reached the final of the U. S. Open--is showing a bit more flare than she has in a while, and both Vinci and Kirilenko can be deadly on hard courts.

In Errani's first match, she will play Ayumi Morita.

The U.S. Open begins tomorrow. Three women from the USA--Grace Min, Victoria Duval and Coco Vandeweghe--made it through qualifying.

First round matches of interest:

Karolina Pliskova vs. Eugenie Bouchard: Two rising stars face each other right away.

Virginie Razzano vs. Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova: On paper, this is the Russian's match, but it seems that the Russian doesn't always look at the paper.

Vera Dushevina vs. Sabine Lisicki: Lisicki will have to be at her sharpest.

Jelena Jankovic vs. Madison Keys: The young star in the making will try to serve JJ off of the court.

Elena Vesnina vs. Anika Beck: This isn't the easiest way for Vesnina to start her U.S. Open campaign.

Heather Watson vs. Simona Halep: What did Watson ever do to the tennis gods to give her the first round from hell at almost every major tournament?

Svetlana Kuznetsova vs. Mallory Burdette: Burdette could cause problems for the former champion.

Julia Goerges vs. Christina McHale: Either will be lucky to get to the second round. Fortunately, one of them has to do so.

Elina Svitolina vs. Dominika Cibulkova: Cibulkova will have to bring her Stanford self to her first-round match.


Todd.Spiker said...

Virginie Razzano vs. Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova: On paper, this is the Russian's match, but it seems that the Russian doesn't always look at the paper.

Haha -- I liked that one! :D

Diane said...

You know Nastya--a prediction can never be made :)