By Matt Cronin
FROM THE SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA OPEN IN CARLSBAD, CA – How often does consistency trump shot making? In the case of the WTA during the past two years, quite a bit. The prime example of that is Victoria Azarenka, who rarely hits an awful shot. Yes, she will miss some long and occasionally frame her forehand, but for the most part she brings pretty much the same attack to the court every match: machine- like strokes off the ground, deep balls, fairly precise serving & vicious returns.
She did not play her best in her 6-0 4-6 6-3 victory over Ana Ivanovic in the semifinals of the Southern California Open, but she played well enough. She cannot be expected to play spectacularly well yet as it’s her first tournament back from two decent-sized injuries to her knee and hip at Wimbledon. She’s moving pretty well, but says that her fitness could improve. She is striking the ball fairly hard, but not at her Aussie Open winning level yet. She is focused, but not every second. She won’t say so herself, but she is the player to beat on outdoor hard courts right now, until Serena or someone else shows her otherwise.
“I have to keep going the same way I was playing in first set, taking my opportunities, going for my shots and making her move,” Azarenka said. “But when you play a tournament it’s never going to be easy, so you have to go through tough battles and this was one of those days. I’m happy with the end result, that you can overcome things and find a way.”
If a player is going tor reach No. 1 or become a Slam she has to find a way to be resourceful, and that is what Azarenka has been since the start of 2012. She wouldn’t come right out and say it, but it sure looked she knew deep down that she could survive Ivanovic’s flurries and eventually come away with the victory.
The first set was closer than the score indicated, but Azarenka won all the big points and dove deep into the Serbian’s service games, as Ivanovic couldn’t find her first serve or forehand.
But in the second set, Ivanovic did rediscover her money shot and ripped one forehand winner after another. She also upped her first serve percentage and didn’t allow Azarenka to get into neutral positions after returning. In the final game of the set, riding a wave of emotion, she nailed three straight forehand winners.
Ivanovic is very much a shot maker and once she gets on a roll she’s tough to trip up for most players, but she would have had to do so many things right for such a long period of time to upset the Belarussian and she couldn’t pull it off. She chips the pain off a line with blowtorch forehand, and then quickly grows frustrated trying to negotiate her way out of the backhand corner and overplays her hand.
“It’s something that you expect from Ana, she’s a very big shot maker and loves to bang the ball,” Azarenka said. “For me the key was to not let her make those shots and be the one who was putting the pressure. I did feel more consistent.”
While Azarenka doesn’t have a huge serve, it’s pretty effective when she placing it well. She could use more power on her first serve, but her second serve has improved and she almost always popping it in at 90- MPH plus, with her first serve hovering around 100 MPH. It is the part of her game that needs the most improvement, but it’s not a huge weakness, although against players such as Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova, her serve can be exploited.
Nonetheless, with Ivanovic either celebrated or chiding herself loudly after every point, Azarenka didn’t show a tremendous amount of emotion and waited for the Serbian to give her a slight opening.
She did grow a little bit angry at one point, but few heard her. She gave her coach Sam Sumyk the business. “I didn’t do a great shot, and I said it a little bit way emotional with some consequences,” she said.
Sumyk said nothing back and just let her blow off steam. “He always has the same face,” she said with a laugh. “That’s what’s pissing me off.
Azarenka found her opening in the fifth game when Ivanovic chucked in a few errors and was broken at love. Ivanovic was unable to earn a break point during the set, and threw in a few more unforced errors to lose the dramatic, but somewhat predictable contest.
“She’s No. 3 player for reason, Ivanovic said. “I felt like I gave her too many easy points, especially at the important moments, like 40‑All or deuces. And in that first set also I had so many chances and I just wasn’t as aggressive as I should have been. That’s, again, that belief against these kind of players. If you give her chances, she’s going to use them. I created actually a lot of chances, and if I just managed to convert couple of those could have been a different match.”
Azarenka has won 28 straight matches on outdoor hard courts dating back to the 2012 US Open final, where she served for the match against Serena Williams. She could have won that contest, but Serena was more the more clutch player and perhaps still is. However, Azarenka did get a critical win over Williams in the final of Doha (which surely was mental boost), and also managed to hold her nerve to win the Australian Open title, surviving two very tense matches against Sloane Stephens and Li Na.
Now, it must noted that during Azarenka’s outdoor hard court streak, she withdrew with injuries from three events before the were complete: 2012 Tokyo, 2013 Brisbane and 2013 Indian Wells. Whether she would have won them all and continued the streak has to be called into question, but even if she hadn’t she’s been darn good on the surface when the wind is blowing and the sun is shining, or when it’s dead calm and cloudy.
“Well, first of all, it’s the most common surface throughout the year,” she said. “ On grass I only play one tournament, so I cannot be a grass court specialist in the ratio of the other tournaments.
I feel like my game is developing on clay court… But we just have to be realistic and take in general that we play mostly on hard court, so my results will be better because I play more. I do enjoy that, but… I really love playing on different surfaces. But that’s great statistics.”
Yes it is.
Azarenka was asked whether or not she should be called the US Open favorite and its very early to label her or anyone else that. She still has to contest the Southern California Open final, Toronto and Cincinnati. But it’s hard to see her totally imploding at any of those tournaments as the now 24 year old (she celebrated her birthday on Wednesday) is showing once more that remains a big time factor everywhere she goes.
“I don’t think you’ll ever make me favorite in US Open when you have Serena,” she said. “Right now it’s not going to happen unless I win one. For me it’s not that important. What’s important is how ready I am and what I’m going to do there. So being the favorite doesn’t guarantee you anything.”
Azarenka will face t Samantha Stosur, who beat Virginie Razzano 7-6(2), 6-3. Azarenka owns an 8-0 record against her, but their last two matches have been tight, including a classic quarterfinal at the 2012 US Open and hard fought three-setter at 2013 Rome.