Sunday, January 27, 2013

My Australian Open top 10

Here are my top 10 Australian Open occurrences, in ascending order:

10. Russian return: Svetlana Kuznetsova was forced to take some time off because of an injury, and she described it as more or less a blessing in disguise. The winner of the 2004 U.S. Open and the 2009 French Open had a very nice run in Melbourne, getting as far as the quarterfinals. She lost to eventual champion Victoria Azarenka, but her performance probably gave her some new confidence.

9. Once is good, twice is better: Speaking of Russian returns, Ekaterina Makarova made it to the quarterfinals for the second straight year. Last year's run was perhaps more dramatic, in that Makarova upset Serena Williams. This year, however, she took out both Marion Bartoli and 5th seed Angelique Kerber, which wasn't too shabby, either. Makarova, whose ranking "should be" higher than it is, is at her best in Melbourne.

8. Sometimes, repeating isn't pretty: Most serious tennis fans probably weren't surprised that Samantha Stosur went out in the second round. The Australian star, who was seeded 9th, lost to Zheng Jie. Now, the super-fast Zheng Jie, a former Australian Open semifinalist, is a formidable opponent, and it's hardly shameful to lose to her. But with Stosur, this is a pattern. Last year, she lost to Sorana Cirstea in the first round, and the year before that, when she was seeded 5th, she lost to Petra Kvitova in the third round. Again, no shame, especially considering that 2011 was a huge year for Kvitova. If you watch her play, however, you realize that Stosur just can't handle the pressure of playing in her country. Prior to coming to Melbourne, she went out in the first round in Sydney.

7. Complimentary cream cheese included: 2nd seed Maria Sharapova won her first two rounds 6-0, 6-0.  The only other woman in Australian Open history to win her first two rounds 6-0, 6-0 was Wendy Turnbull, who did so in 1985.

6. Tempest, meet teapot: There was bound to be a lot of discussion about Victoria Azarenka's decision to take a medical timeout in the final stage of her second set against Sloane Stephens in the semifinals. Discussion was merited. But the press--and particularly the Australian press--seized on the event as an opportunity to bash the world number 1 mercilessly. Australian fans don't like Azarenka, so many were quick to join the Smear Vika campaign. Who's screaming now?

5. Unsafe at any speed: Serena Williams has had her share of injuries, to be sure, but at the 2013 Australian Open, she had the worst luck ever. She certainly didn't need more foot problems, but in her first round, she rolled her ankle and experienced some pain. She returned from her medical timeout to beat her opponent 6-0, 6-0, and the good news was that--as always--Williams had taped her ankles before the match. If she hadn't done so, she might have sustained a serious injury. A few days later, Williams accidentally hit herself in the head with her racket. In a press conference, she joked that "I'm done....Just wanted to do two things. Now I got it out of the way." She was wrong. In the second set of her semifinal against Sloane Stephens, Williams went to retrieve a drop shot and her back locked. She was able to go on playing, but her service speed was hampered. She lost that match, and said afterward that "I'm almost relieved that it's over...."

4. The streak is broken in two: 4th seed Agnieszka Radwanska came to the quarterfinals with a 13-match winning streak, two 2013 titles, and the distinction of not having dropped a set this season. For her to lose to Li Na was not a shock, but for the match to go the way it went was indeed a surprise. Everything was in place for an exciting match to be played between two opponents who had a shot at the title, but that isn't what happened. Radwanska appeared to be drained of energy, and Li beat her 7-5, 6-3. The Chinese player would go on to beat 2nd seed Maria Sharapova, but then lose in the final.

3. The student takes on the master: Sloane Stephens grew up with posters of Serena Williams on her bedroom wall. The young American player, who has matured quite a bit in the last several months, considers Williams her tennis idol. But then suddenly, in the semifinals of the Australian Open, Stephens found herself s standing on the opposite side of the net from the player she looks up to the most. She could have caved, as she so often did in the past, but instead, she gave Williams some work to do in the opening set. Williams won that set 6-3, but during the second set, she had back spasms and received treatment. From that time on, the five-time Australian Open champion was forced to slow down her serve. Stephens won the second set 7-5, and she won the match when she took the third set 6-4. Would an uninjured Williams have won? Almost certainly, yes. But that doesn't  take away from the reality that Stephens handled the occasion with determination and maturity. After all, many a player has faded away against an injured Williams, but this player didn't.

2. Forza Italia!: Sara Errani and Roberta Vinci, the number 1 doubles team in the world, had to face the unseeded Australian team of Ashleigh Barty and Casey Dellacqua in the final. That meant that the crowd was cheering like crazy for the unseeded underdogs, who--after losing the first set--took it to the Italians. But champions know how to win, and the Fighting Italians are now one Wimbledon victory away from achieving a Career Slam.

1. Oh yes I did!: That's what was prominently displayed on the T-shirt of world number 1 Victoria Azarenka when she showed up to practice on the day of the final. It was the first sign that Azarenka was somehow making peace with the bashing she'd taken from the press following the semifinals. She got even more bashing, from the press and from the crowd, when she competed against Li Na in the final. Li was on fire, and was also the clear crowd favorite. The Chinese star had some misfortune, however, falling down twice, rolling her ankle the first time, and hitting her head the second. Could she have beaten Azarenka if she hadn't hurt her ankle? There's a pretty good chance she could have, if she held her nerve. But in the third set--for whatever reasons--the top seed was able to take control of the match and to defend her 2012 title, and she did it in style. She did it in spite of having a very tough opponent, in spite of enduring a very stressful 48 hours, and in spite of the terrible treatment she received from the crowd. Azarenka also retains her number 1 ranking because of her victory. Talk about playing "within yourself"--Azarenka put on a master class in that.


Sunny nine said...

As much as I like Li, I have to say she didn't seem hampered by the ankle injury. She was running all over the place. She also didn't seem hampered by hitting her head. Now she might have rattled by the incidents not the injury but she could have held it together and not get frazzled after having one set in her hand.

Diane said...

There's usually some guarding after an injury, but I think, is she was just rattled, she certainly could have held it together. But you know Li :)

Unknown said...

Being hampered by injury and being rattled are different. I definitely noticed her being careful especially after her second fall, but I loved that she did not give up and fought till the end rather than retiring. I hope she comes back stronger next year and claims the crown.

Unknown said...

and nice write up Diane. I hope Kuznetsova gets back. It was really good to see her do well, and she did show that she has the game to compete at the top. Hope she keeps it up.

Diane said...

It's almost impossible not to guard once you've had an injury. Sometimes athletes guard unconsciously.

Looking forward to Li and the French Open!

Diane said...

Thanks, Omair--we cross-posted :)

I was really glad for Kuznetsova, too. She's such a talent.