The Shrieks Amidst The Lull
You may not have realized it, but the tennis season actually picked up some steam this past week, waking up from its slumber with a few full-blooded shrieks and a couple of well-timed jumps. It’s funny, but the post-Wimbledon lull that envelops the tennis world every year is something that nearly every fan craves by the end of the long European clay/grass swing, and yet in the matter of a few weeks the extended period of non-action starts feeling dull and just a little unnecessary. The top players, of course, welcome any kind of break from tennis with an enthusiasm that gives the impression that they’d break into pieces if they were asked to play a single more match. In the roughly one-month period since the end of Wimbledon, Roger Federer was seen frolicking around on a beach with his family, Rafael Nadal was found cavorting on another beach with a bunch of breathless fangirls for company after having partied with his football World Cup-winning countrymen, while Serena Williams was busy throwing parties for the rich and famous, and wearing fashionably high heels while doing so, despite having suffered a serious injury just days before the event (gotta love the commitment of that girl). In short, the who’s who of tennis were doing their best to stay as far away from the game as possible in this quirky little mid-season sabbatical that is as much a part of tennis’s traditions as is serve-and-volleying. And what of the players NOT at the top of the rankings? The fact that Messrs Juan Carlos Ferrero, Nicolas Almagro and Richard Gasquet were actually immersed in claycourt tournaments at a time when the buzzword around tennis circles is ‘hardcourts’, speaks volumes about how tough a longer off-season (that so many people have been clamoring for lately) could turn out to be for the players not named Federer or Nadal. Lull or no lull, if there are titles and prize money up for grabs anywhere in the world, there will be players fighting tooth and nail for them.
The women got a headstart on the much-publicized ‘Olympus US Open Series’, with the tournament in Stanford last week featuring a number of money players and ending with a final matchup that would have tickled the organizers pink with glee. Victoria Azarenka played some superb tennis to march her way to her first final since Dubai, downing some quality players in the process, including defending champion Marion Bartoli and the up-and-down Sam Stosur. Her opponent in the final, the Glam Queen-turned-enigmatic-toiler caught in an identity crisis (is she a model, a tennis player, a humanitarian or a star girlfriend?), on the other hand, could not have asked for a tougher road to the finals. Maria Sharapova made wild errors, served double faults all over the place and in general seemed incapable of finishing off any match in less than 2 hours of titanic struggle, but she still managed to overcome formidable opponents in Elena Dementieva (who is returning from injury) and Agnieszka Radwanska in the quarters and semis respectively. That gave us a final that promised scintillating fireworks, but foreshadowed a fatigue-laden beatdown at the same time.
The games of Sharapova and Azarenka are so alike in almost every aspect, right down to the grunting/shrieking/screaming, that if it hadn’t been for the distinctive, shocking-pink outfit that Azarenka wore to the match it would have been hard to tell the two apart. The twin-like solid, forceful backhands, the similarly robust yet error-prone forehands and the almost identical clumsiness at the net. Here’s the catch though – Azarenka moves much better than Sharapova, and Sharapova is a stronger competitor than Azarenka. On this day, the double fault-weary Sharapova discovered that poor movement is sometimes a harder obstacle to overcome than a shaky temperament. After dropping the first set 6-4, Sharapova melted away into obscurity, making a pile of unforced errors, and Azarenka was only too happy to seal the deal by handing the Russian a breadstick. After proclaiming in one of her press conferences that her serve was back to its once-potent version that helped her win 3 Grand Slams, Sharapova regressed further and further into the dark with her serve as the tournament went on, making as many as 15 doubles against Dementieva. The PR skills are functioning smoothly alright for the blonde Glam girl (and she is helped in no small amount in this regard by the TV commentators, who seem to have forgotten the meaning of the word ‘objectivity’), but the game-rebuilding efforts don’t seem to be going anywhere at the moment.
Azarenka, meanwhile, seemed charmingly happy at having rediscovered her Miami 2009 form (incidentally, this was her first title win since that famous Miami victory over Serena Williams in the final), and she gave herself the perfect birthday present by emerging as the tournament champion. Azarenka turned 21 on Saturday, and while that seems like the perfect age to take the leap to the next stage and stamp her credentials as a sureshot Major contender, the Belarussian has flattered to deceive in the past, so it might not be the best idea to anoint her the Reinstated Next Big Thing just yet. Can Azarenka add consistency to her already-impressive arsenal of weapons? The WTA tour moves to San Diego this week, and Azarenka will be looking to make another strong run there. Now I know that some may see this period of play on the women’s tour as ‘cleanup period’, because there’s only so much seriousness you can attach to the competition in a field that is missing its Alpha Queen (read: Serena Williams). But for Azarenka, this may be her best chance yet to prove to the world, and more importantly, to herself, that she can produce formidable results day in and day out, rather than in occasional, spaced-out spurts. And you know what she’ll have for company as she embarks on this arduous task? That fierce, guttural, long-drawn shriek that seemed to have frightened even the statuesque Sharapova (who’s no silent assassin herself) into submission. Get out your earmuffs people – it promises to be a carnage.