Stosur leaps another hurdle in defeating Azarenka to win Southern California Open

Stosur IW 13 TR MALT2469

By Matt Cronin

FROM THE SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA OPEN IN CARLSBAD- Before she toppled a slow and erratic Victoria Azarenka 6-3 6-2 to win her first title at the Southern California Open on Sunday, Samantha Stosur’s last title had been her most important one, the 2011 US Open title, which somewhat remarkably was her last.

She won her maiden title in Osaka in 2009, and about six months later grabbed 2010. Charleston. But it would be another year and half before she raised the US Open trophy with her shocking victory over Serena Williams in the final. That was 23 months ago, nearly two years gone.

So few expended her to win Carlsbad, not when she looked out of sorts in losing to Olga Govortsova in her opening match at Stanford. After that defeat she put in a call to Octagon tournament director Alastair Garland and requested a wild card. It was not an easy decision, because as she noted after her win over Azarenka, she didn’t want to jinx herself.

In 2011, after another lousy Wimbledon, she traveled to  Stanford and took an early loss to Sabine Lisicki at Stanford. But instead of playing Carlsbad, she decided to train for week. That paid off in Toronto where she reached the final, where she fell to Serena Williams. A few weeks later, she took down the might Serena in the final of the US Open.

So one could imagine her thought process after she went down to the free swinging Olga Govortsova at a week and a half ago at Stanford. She had not reached a semifinal in 2013, but players are creatures of routine and she thought for more than a few moments about 2011 and how that path to Grand Slam glory worked out for her.  But she also knew she needed matches so she went with her head rather than her gut.

Clearly that was the right call as the 29 year old won her first title in nearly two years. “I knew that that was the past,” Stosur said. “My coach David Taylor and I] spoke about all the pros and cons.  You can practice all you want, but at some point you got to put it into play in matches.  That’s why I came, and obviously now very, very pleased with that decision.”

Azarenka came into the final with an 8-0 record again her, but Stosur had noted after her semifinal win over Virginie Razzano that she believed she could finally get over the Belarussian. She had played her very close at the 2012 US Open and at 2013 Rome. If she could get in position to win, then it would be a matter of closing, which in her case, would be to find way to break and then serve massively.

That is exactly what Stosur did very well, although it should be said that Azarenka was way off her game as she only struck 11 winners, committed 32 unforced errors and only converted 1 of 12 break points opportunities.

“I think I was taking too many wrong kind of decisions or too risky decisions when there was no need to be risky,” Azarenka said. “I didn’t try to sometimes stay in the rally.  I just wanted to make what sometimes I can make with eyes closed.  Today I didn’t do it with open eyes. It’s just a little bit of stubbornness that worked a little bit against me today.”

Azarenka did give credit to Stosur and well she should have. Time and time again while facing break points she came up with massive serves, many of the into the Belarussian’s body. Only a couple of returns were put back into pay, which is incredible given how well Azarenka usually returns.

“I think that was a really big part of the match,” Stosur said. “That first set she did have lots of opportunities.  I think nearly all of them except one I hit a really good first serve in and she didn’t make the ball into play.

So that’s something I have to be very happy with, to be able to step up to the line under that pressure and hit the serve where I want to, how I want to time and time again.  I know what it feels like not to be able to break serve when you have opportunities, and it gets pretty frustrating.”

Stosur also did something else extremely well — she broke serve in every game she had the opportunity to do so. That’s the very definition of being advantageous

“That’s great. I guess it’s kind of the opposite of what she had,” she said. “Maybe the fact that I was able to hold that serve, that kind of gives that you little bit of extra lift when you get the opportunity. Having not beaten her before, I know how important every single opportunity is.  I think in Rome I was up a break a couple of times in a set and let that go.  I knew even though you’re up a break you can’t relax and just rely on always trying to hold serve. You got to break as soon as you get a chance.

It is way to early to begin picking top drawer US Open contenders as there are two huge events still to be played at the Rogers Cup in Toronto and Cincinnati. Before her loss to Stosur, Azarenka had a 28 match winning streak going on outdoor hard courts, so if the sore back that caused her to pull out of Toronto heals (and the knee and hip injuries that suffered at Wimbledon also stop effecting her) she will be one of the main contenders, regardless if she plays a match before the doors open in New York.

But at the very least, the Australian showed that if she is kicking up big serves and controlling the court with her high hopping, nuclear forehand, that she cannot be ignored this week in Toronto, or in a few weeks in New York. She may not be consistent enough to rack up one title after the next, but she does have the capacity to put together a fantastic six weeks of play. She’s done it before and has the possibility of doing it again.

“Obviously this is the lead‑up to the US Open and that’s where everyone want to peak,” she said. “I think this is a huge boost for me.  I haven’t had great results for really all year, so to be able to bounce back especially from last week’s first‑round loss and play better and better each day and come away with this is, really exciting and a good boost going into the last Slam of the year.”


Azarenka gradually finding dominant hard court form


Vika became only the 11th year end No. 1 since the rankings began in 1975.

Azarenka has been remarkably consistent on cement


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.




Hingis’ fabulous return, big changes for Ivanovic


Will Martina commit to the long-term?


By Matt Cronin

FROM THE SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA OPEN AT CARLSBAD – There weren’t two more happy people in San Diego County than Martina Hingis and Daniela Hantuchova on Wednesday night after their 6-1 6-1 victory over Julia Goerges and Darija Jurak. After a somewhat nervous start to Hingis’ second comeback, they devastated their foes, who reached the Stanford final last week  but looked totally overwhelmed by an in- synch pair who played smarter and much more inventive yellow ball.

At 32, Hingis remains a remarkable volleyer, perhaps the game’s best, and she returns very accurately and with a fair amount of force from her favored backhand side from the ad court, too. She owns topspin and underspin lobs to die for, and always seems to be the right position, because she has a unique (and learned ability) to read the plays. Hantuchova herself brings a lot to the table with the right partner: a big first serve, hard returns off both wings, competent volleys and laser like passing shots when she’s in position.

So now the question is: can they become the world’s top ranked doubles pair? Much of that is on the Swiss, because she has to maintain her commitment to playing a full schedule. She is set to contest four events — Carlsbad, Toronto, Cincinnati and the US Open as according to her New Haven is out — and says that if they are successful she will continue on.

“If it’s a complete disaster, I would not want to continue, but I hope that’s not the case,” she said. “I don’t have any expectations, but I wouldn’t put myself in this position if I didn’t feel that I couldn’t compete at this level. In [World] Team Tennis I was good enough, but is it good enough to be able compete at this level? We’ll see.”

Anyone who knows Hingis even a little bit realizes what a dogged competitor she is and how much pride she has. I reminded her yesterday that during her second comeback in 2007, when she was fading away in singles, that she said she wouldn’t never just be a double specialist because she saw herself as a singles competitor.

But that was then and this is now. She’s 32 year old and is in terrific shape, but she’s in doubles shape, or World TeamTennis shape if you like, which means no two-and-a-half hour singles grind fests. She does not want to have train for 6-8 hours per day to get herself back into singles shape and figures she can do half of that and be just fine in doubles. So at least now, a singles comeback is out and although she says it’s not in the back if her mind right now (like a doubles return actually was for the past six years), like her friend and doubles partner at the senior Slams, Lindsay Davenport, I think there still remains a possibility (albeit slight) that she puts herself out there in singles again. If she sees there is a possibility that she can make a breakthrough at the big tournament again (say at Wimbledon which is the least physical  of all the majors) she will be very tempted to throw her visor in the ring.

But she won’t this month.

“Not at this point,” she said. “That’s a different world. Even TeamTennis [where she has played singles in shortened format] is brutal. You have to put so much effort into it. Playing tournaments is the easy part, but it’s all the behind the scenes training that people don’t see, the 6-8 hours of training and really the older you get, the harder its gets. I wouldn’t want to come out and play one or two matches and lose in third round. That’s not my type of personality.”

However, when I pressed her on a  ‘never again’ her reply was a laughing: “C’mon, leave me alone.”

What Hingis clearly sees is a wide-open doubles field. The Williams sisters only play the Slams and with Venus’ poor health, they might not be doing that much longer. She doesn’t feel like Sara Errani and Roberta Vinci can overpower her and doesn’t fear well-coordinated yet sometimes inconsistent pair of Lucie Hradecka and Andrea Hlavackova. Katerina Srebotnik and Nadia Petrova are as old as she and the 30-year-old Hantuchova are, and even though Russians Elena Vesnina and Ekaterina Makarova have improved a great deal as team,  they cannot match she and Hantuchova’s talent level.

Simply put, Hingis doesn’t fear any regular doubles player.

“It’s different as when we used to play there were so many more singles girls who played doubles: the [Williams] sisters, me Anna [Kournikova] and Lindsay [Davenport],” she said. “There were like six to eight of the  top 10 who played doubles. Now it’s just a few girls in the top 10 who play doubles. There is much more of an opening now.”

Why is Hingis returning? Yes she misses the  competition and yes she loves to play. But perhaps there is another reason that is crystal clear but has not been emphasized as much: she felt a little lost during those weeks and months when she wasn’t around the sport. Perhaps one of the reasons is because her personal life has fallen into a bit of chaos, but she and most of the world experience that on an annual basis so that can’t be all of it. It is largely because tennis – not horseback riding, not commentary, not pushing a clothing line –  really is her life.

“This is where I feel the most comfortable, feel the most natural and this is what I know the best,” she said.

‘Radical’ changes for Ivanovic

Ana Ivanovic is going through another coaching change and at this point in her career it would be foolish to think that it will make a massive difference. because she been through enough coaches already and whether she will re-enter the top 5 again is now almost entirely on her.

She didn’t not buy that opinion when I tossed her way on Wednesday, and I can see her reasoning why: if you don’t think that your team is going to make a big difference, than why have one at all?  To me, the answer to that is so you can form a group around you that supports your needs and follows your lead. In a sense, that is what her situation is anyway.

She split with her coach of two years Nigel Sears after Wimbledon, and won’t have a full time coach for the rest of this summer. She is currently traveling with her hitting partner,  Nemanja Konitc (whom apparently does have some input)  a fitness coach, Zlatko Novovic, and a physio, Branko Penic.  She will also work with adidas Player Development coaches Sven Groeneveld (who coached her to the 2008 Roland Garros crown) and Darren Cahill when they are available, which in the Aussie case isn’t going to be that much through the US Open due to his TV obligations.

“That was big change, but I really felt like I needed it because it was good, but I was stuck in the same place and I really needed to make a transition and I needed to hear a fresh voice,” Ivanovic told me. “It was a big change and tough decision but it came both ways.”

Ivanovic is an intelligent woman who spends a lot of times thinking, but she is also very emotional and at times seems to make decisions based on her gut more than her head. Sears is very competent coach and did so some good work with her but in reality, from July 2011 to July 2013, she only improved one ranking place from No. 18 and to No. 17. There were periods during the past two years when she performed much better than she did from mid 2009 to mid 2011, but she has not been a huge factor at the Slam or Premiers on a consistent basis and that’s where she wants to be. She’ll take half the blame for that or perhaps more, but she is right in indicating that it can’t all be laid at her feet if she was trusting his advice.

“It’s always two ways,” she said. “You have your opinions and the other person his own and he wanted to get the best out of me and I’m sure it was frustrating for him that he couldn’t get me to do the things that he wanted. But sometimes you need  a fresh voice and you need someone to influence you better. It was a mutual agreement.”

My suspicion was that after she played such a shockingly bad match in loss to Eugenie Bouchard at Wimbledon that she hit a tipping point. I also thought that after she pushed Maria Sharapova hard twice in RG warm-ups that she should  have been sorely disappointed with her performance in her  loss to  Agnieszka Radwanska at Roland Garros.  But she says that wasn’t the case.

“Its not a match in particular,” she said.  “I was disappointed in the loss at Wimbledon, but it wasn’t that, it was over period of time and there were a lot of the same things and repetitions and it was good week, bad week and not getting me to where I  wanted to go  I felt like I needed to do something radical.”

The 25 year old’s goal is to be a super elite player again and while she has shown flashes of that since her great 2008, she has not been that competitor consistently. That really frustrated her and combine that with some undisclosed personal problems, after Wimbledon, she took 10 days off of fitness and tennis and went to Spain to be with her family where she hung out with her brother, cooked with her mother and laid by the pool and on the beach.

Now she’s in Carlsbad, back to the drawing board trying to find a way down the road to greatness, which of late has been full of potholes.

“It’s keeping the hard work and working on the confidence and I feel my game has been there, but the confidence hasn’t and physical and mental level hasn’t been there the whole match,” said Ivanovic, who did look impressive in upsetting defending champion Dominica Cibulkova 4-6 6-3 6-2 in the first round. “Getting all that in balance and to keep the comfort level is going to make a big difference.”

But here’s her dilemma and it’s one that most players face: how to keep improving and working the right way with long term goals in mind, while at the same time not getting frustrated with negative results.

“It’s tough, she said. “It’s about finding what works for you.”



Carlsbad: In search of the tennis there there

Azarenka IW 13 TR MALT6285


By Matt Cronin

FROM THE BANK OF THE WEST CLASSIC AND THE SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA OPEN (Day 1) – It’s been about 27 hours since Dominica Cibulkova took out Aga Radwanska in a terrific three setter to win the Stanford and I am still amazed how she managed to mentally turn things around post her double bagel devastation at the hands of the Pole in Sydney. Some players have short memories when it comes to losses, and others have very long ones.

The best thing that Cibulkova did was watch a replay of that first set in Australia, and in her mind she was convinced that it was close and some games could have gone either way. I wasn’t that convinced, but I was sitting on the sidelines that evening and didn’t have a racket in my hands so there is no way I can really known how close she felt to winning certain points had she swung her racket a bit differently, moved her feet into another position, or changed her game plan.

Once she won the first game of the Stanford final, she let out a sigh of relief and looked at her coach and said ‘Here we go, I am here and it’s going to be good today.’

But she still had to win the match and after dropping the first set due to some sloppy play, it sure didn’t look like she was going to establish the proper rhythm to pull off the upset. But she did and not only did she smack her groundies and returns with force, but she mixed up her attack very well, especially employing a deft drop shot and charge maneuver time and time again. She varied her angles off the ground and went to a 3/4 first serve so that Radwanska wouldn’t easily get in front of points.

All that mattered a great deal, but somehow Radwanska got off to a 4-2 lead in the third set. She was not playing all that well – in fact later on she said she had virtually no rhythm the entire week and had plenty of problems in her game – but she did push Cibulkova very hard to close it out and actually could have won the match if the Slovakian failed to convert one of the five matches points. But Cibulkova did after a long rally and a bullet backhand crosscourt winner.

A hearty 3-6 6-4 6-4 victory was hers and now, once again, the 24 year old has shown that on a great day she can play with likes of Radwanska, Victoria Azarenka, Petra Kvitova and Caroline Wozniacki. Can she stay with Serena or Maria Sharapova at a Slam? Sure she can if she maintains focus and plays the right way, which hasn’t been able to do often enough because she loses her temper, as well as her nerve and begins spraying he ball. But she feels older and wiser and will have a stern test in the first round of the Southern California Open in Carlsbad when she faces seventh seed Ana Ivanovic. She feels up to the challenge, but going deep and back to back tournaments is a challenge for any player.

Once again I drove from Stanford to Carlsbad on Sunday night and Monday morning, arriving at 4:30 AM after a weaving through a sneaky Caltrans detour off the 405 in Seal Beach. This is more than likely the last time that I will have to do that drive, as it by all accounts it appears that the tournament will move out of La Costa Resort, even though Omni Resorts bought La Costa last month and is said to be pro professional tennis. The word off court is that Octagon wants to get rid of the tournament, that a group in Japan really wants it and unless some group in the US can match that bid it will leave US shores.

Like Ana Ivanovic, who spent sometime at the beach on Monday, I am very much of a beach person and La Costa is just a few miles east from some gorgeous coastline. For myself and others who have made the trek over the years, there is nothing quite like body surfing (or some other water activity) in the morning, having a meal while inhaling the Pacific breezes and then heading out to the tennis. That’s how the event always should have been marketed: ‘Surf and Serve,’ but it was not and is currently being treated like a mere commodity. There isn’t enough tennis community involvement and in some senses when it returned from exile in 2010, it would have been better off played at the Barnes Center, a beehive of activity that will host the Girls 16s and 18s Nationals next week. Now, when I walk around La Costa Resort & Spa, it feels like to me that a ticket to see some of the finest women’s players in the world bang it out is treated just the same as any other product on the grounds: would you like a massage and a pedicure, or a massage and ticket to a late afternoon WTA doubles match? As Gertrude Stain might say, ‘There is no tennis there there.”

Nonetheless, the Carlsbad draw is stronger than Stanford’s and has a lot of flavor to it: Azarenka returns from her knee and hip injuries and seems to be itching to get back on hard courts and strut her stuff once again. Here’s an interview I did with her today where she talks about raising the bar for herself, among other things.

Radwanska is the second seed and will play the winner of Daniela Hantuchova and Tamira Paszek, and Kvitova is the third seed and when I spoke with her today, she still seems unsure about how she will faire on North America hard courts given her allergy troubles in humid climates, but she did have a  strong US Open Series last year until Marion Bartoli stopped her at the US Open, so it’s not out of the realm of possibility that she makes another solid run. But despite her immense talent, it’s so hard to predict where she will end up. She defines puzzling.  Here are a few of her thoughts on her loss to Kirsten Flipkens at Wimbledon.

Some other names we didn’t see last week outside of Ivanovic are Jelena Jankovic, who out-lasted Mallory Burdette in three sets; Virginie Razzano, who took down Svetlana Kuznetsova in straight sets; Carla Suarez Navarro, Roberta Vinci and Laura Robson, whom if she bests Ayumi Morita could play Kvitova in an Aussie Open rematch.

I heard Robson saying today that when she introduces herself in the US so few people hear the name Laura and call her all sorts of different names. While it could be the lack of exposure by many Americans to a British accent, it could also be that the cultured English can be hard to understand at times: when asked by the WTA LIVE host what her second favorite sport was, Robson answered darts, and Cibulkova, who was co-hosting asked, ‘Dancing? You dance well?’ They all had a good laugh and then Cibulkova said that she finds it harder to understand the Brits more than she does the Americans, which is no insult to the UK as many people there have a richer way of speaking and some Americans speak with a flat accent, or almost none at all.

It should be noted that CoCo Vandeweghe qualified for a tournament for the second straight week, besting Olga Savchuk.  Francesca Schiavone overcame her Fed Cup teammate Flavia Pennetta  7-6(4),6-7(8),6-4 in three hours. Pennetta lost 11 of the last 13 points. In that stretch, Schiavone only had to paste one winner. It’s going to be a long road back for Flavia from injury and it’s possible that she will never see the top 10 again in singles. She’s playing doubles this week with Sania Mirza as Bethanie Mattek-Sands won’t play doubles the rest of the summer in order to save wear and tear on her body.