One women’s finalist is set, and she looks impressive. Li Na just absolutely destroyed Maria Sharapova to make her third Grand Slam final in two years, and she awaits the winner of this match-up between surprise semifinalist Sloane Stephens and No. 1 Victoria Azarenka.
These two women have never played each other before, but they do know each other. Last year I talked to Sloane about Vika, and because I liked what she said so much I am going to have to quote my article from last March:
Stephens, on the other hand, only had positive things to say about the current torchbearer of the WTA, number one Victoria Azarenka. “I love Vika. You could tell me she sucks toes – I wouldn’t care,” she laughed. “She’s been nice to me since I met her for the first time. She and my mom are always chatting it up. People are always telling me they hate her – I don’t know why.”
But there’s going to be no love on the court today. Sloane isn’t the type to just be “happy to be there,” and Azarenka is going to be smelling blood with her two main rivals out of the tournament before she even has to face them.
Here are the things to look out for:
1. How will Sloane start? It’s been a whirlwind 24 hours for Sloane Stephens, and I’m curious how she’s going to respond emotionally and physically once she gets back on the court. I have no doubt that she’ll be prepared, but knowing what you should do and executing under the intense circumstances of a Grand Slam semifinal are two very different different things. In fact, this is only Sloane’s fourth career semifinal in a WTA or Grand Slam event. She’s 0-4. It’s crucial for her to get off to a fast start.
2. Will Azarenka’s serve hold up? It’s improved a lot on her way to the top, but her serve can still be a liability. If Sloane can take advantage of Vika’s weaker serves and begin to dictate from the return the way she did in some of the rallies with Serena, she might have a look at the upset.
3. Will the heat be a factor? I hate to bring up an ugly past, but Azarenka has not been known to handle the heat well. She’s fitter mentally and physically than she’s ever been, but it is hot out there today and according to twitter, she’s already inquired about the heat rule.
First Set – Sloane Stephens Serves First
0-0: Sloane goes up 40-15 in the game, and shows positive signs mentally when she correctly challenges a point. But her forehand breaks down after a double fault, and three unforced errors hand Azarenka the game. Not the start Sloane is looking for. Azarenka will come up and attack any of her balls that she hits without pace. Azarenka breaks.
0-1: Azarenka only gets two first serves in but wins all four points to hold at love. Zero winners and six unforced errors for Sloane.
0-2: Sloane once again gets a 40-15 lead in the game, but quickly finds her way to deuce. She is letting Azarenka dictate play and draw her into baseline rallies, which is not a good strategy. But the impressive thing about Sloane in this game is that she is not going away. There are four deuces (I think, my dog came in mid-game and tripped the plug to the computer), but Sloane finally manages to hold with a gorgeous backhand pass. The key for her going forward is to learn when to pull the trigger against the aggressive Azarenka.
1-2: Azarenka’s balance continues to astound me. Is any player better off the run? At 15-15 she hits a running backhand that just leaves Sloane Stephens completely flat-footed. She holds easily at 15. Stephens is already up to double digits in unforced errors, and as I said above, needs to be patient and pick her shots.
1-3: Vika hits a few beautiful winners to get to break point, but then misses two aggressive forehands that should have been winners in a row to give the advantage back to Sloane. Sloane is starting to get more comfortable mixing up the depth of her shots, but when she gets on the defensive Azarenka typically pins her and catches her flat-footed. On the second deuce of the game Sloane hits an ace, but then she hits a lame backhand error when she has her second game point. Every game on Sloane’s serve is going the distance, and I wish I had her game point conversion statistics because I bet they are abysmal.
Pam Shriver is now talking about Vika’s “good friend” RedFoo. I could have gone my whole life without hearing Pam say “LMFAO.”
Also, because the world is a predictable place, people in the stands are mimicking Azarenka’s grunt.
After a long rally on Azarenka’s second break point of the game, Sloane beautifully constructs a point with her forehand but sends the final shot of the rally long. Vika goes up a double break, and Chrissie seems to think that this is the time when Sloane Stephens is shining.
Cue the footage of Vika and RedFoo dancing. Again.
1-4: Vika holds at 30, and the only eventful point happens when Sloane traps Vika at the net and blasts a volley winner past her. People will say the narrative is that this occasion is too big for Stephens and that she is drained, but that’s not what I’m seeing. Her game just does not match up well against Azarenka at all.
totes. RT @mariyaktennis: Yes, Pam. LMFAO album sales are the lead cause of Azarenka’s success.
— unseeded & looming (@unseededlooming) January 24, 2013
1-5: Azarenka breaks for the set at 15 with a lob winner. Oh, and Pam must be reading this sub-par live analysis (I’ll get better, I swear, stick with me) because she provides the stat I wanted: Sloane was 1/10 on game points in that set. Ouch.
Azarenka takes the first set 6-1
Second Set: Victoria Azarenka Serves First
0-0: Azarenka holds easily, but I didn’t see any of it because ESPN was too busy showing that terrible picture of Serena’s ankle.
WELL NOW I SEE THE PICTURE IN HD
— Maria (@thedoublebagel) January 24, 2013
GET IT OFF MA SCREEN, ESPN
— Maria (@thedoublebagel) January 24, 2013
0-1: Sloane goes down two break points but saves the first one with a fabulously constructed point at net and saves the second one with a killer first serve. She gets the advantage but can’t convert her game point — again — because she is being trapped in backhand rallies. Her backhand is such a liability right now. It loops onto court, lands right in Vika’s strike zone, and often draws the error when she tries to hit a winner.
Chrissie keeps saying that Sloane plays better from behind so that this is when she can come alive, but i don’t think Azarenka is going to give her the chance. If she is going to have a chance it’s going to be at the net though. She is fabulous at the net.
0-2: Stephens gets to 0-30 on Vika’s serve thanks to her attacking net play, but then Azarenka pulls up limping on her ankle. She takes a few minutes to compose herself at the back of the court, and then wins the next couple of points to level it at 30-30. She doesn’t seem to be having any trouble moving but it will be interesting to see what happens on the changeover. There’s a tension in the air because everyone is thinking the same thing — Azarenka came up limping on her ankle at the same part of the match that Serena did yesterday.
Azarenka wins three straight points, but Sloane gets the advantage back when she comes to the net. And then she comes forward and traps Vika behind the baseline and gets the volley winner for the break! “That’s the Sloane Stephens we’ve come to know and love.”
Will Stephens repeat Momo’s 2006 incredible injury run to the AO title? This week, on the WTA.
— Fierce Tennis (@fiercetennis) January 24, 2013
1-2: So this is rather eerie, but Azarenka definitely has tweaked something in her foot, though she doesn’t call the trainer during the changeover. But it was clear in that game that Azarenka’s movement was hampered. Sloane is moving well, striking the ball cleanly, and picking the right times to come to net. She has settled own nicely. She holds at 30 on her first game point.
2-2: There was a bit of a controversy after a challenge at 15-15 when Azarenka correctly gets a call overturned but wants the point. Instead the umpire said they have to replay the point but Azarenka argues with her for a minute. She loses that point, but wins the next three to hold with relative ease. She seems to be moving fine during points, but is grimacing often between them.
She is not calling the trainer though, which isn’t keeping ESPN from replaying all of her past injuries and retirements. Because let’s relive all the damsel in distress moments whenever possible.
Nobody executes the “wait until your opponent injures herself in the second set” strategy better than Sloane Stephens.
— Mike Cranston (@mikecranston1) January 24, 2013
2-3: Oh geez. Sloane forgets who she was in that game, or at least how to play a winning game. She stays behind the baseline, loops her shots into the middle of the court, and gets broken at love. Azarenka is hitting winners at will.
“The difference is that Vika’s the fresher player.” -Chrissie. Uh, also, the WAY better player.
— Amy Fetherolf (@AmyFetherolf) January 24, 2013
2-4: This is such a weird match. Absolutely zero atmosphere out there. Right when Sloane seems to be gaining momentum in the match she completely disappears and Vika wins nine straight points. Then out of nowhere, Vika disappears. She hits a double fault and some lazy errors to bring Sloane to break point. She is able to save it with dictating baseline play, and gets to game point when Sloane hits her 1,000th ball into the net. (Some stats in this blog are approximate.)
Vika hits her fifth AND sixth double faults and completely loses her cool because suddenly Sloane has another break point. She hits a lazy forehand wide to bring Stephens right back into the match. That was about the clearest example of someone breaking themselves that I have ever seen. Sloane basically had to stand there and hold her racket out.
Azarenka sulks and pouts her way back to her chair for the changeover. Is this the heat effect? The crowd is beginning to cheer for Stephens.
3-4: Sloane misses an overhead on the first point of the game, and joins the laundry list of WTA and ATP players who need to go to overhead bootcamp, where they’re not allowed to eat dinner until they hit 100 in a row.
Two points later, Sloane misses a fastball forehand. She knows she needs to take control of this match, but isn’t always showing enough patience to do so. Those misses are costly though, because suddenly Azarenka has two break points for a chance to serve for a place in the final.
After a long rally that I told Sloane she wasn’t allowed to get trapped in, she hits a backhand long and Azarenka breaks. We are one game away from an Azarenka-Li Na final. RedFoo fist-pump!
3-5: Azarenka begins her super-important service game by hitting a bullet forehand winner, and then Sloane answers with one of her own. But a couple of points later and Mrs. RedFoo is looking at two match points.
Sloane saves the first one after Azarenka hits her typically-trusted backhand into the net after a long rally. Second match point, second second serve. And once again Sloane stays back on the baseline and draws an error from Azarenka! Hey, what do I know? Apparently not much.
OH. They got into another long rally and this time Sloane decides to come forward, but she mistimes the running forehand volley and gives the No. 1 a third match point … which she promptly shanks and hits on the forehand 20 feet out! Vika’s nerves are clearly getting the best of her, and Stephens should let Azarenka self-destruct. ANOTHER forehand error from Vika sets up a break-point for Sloane.
It’s crazy how Vika’s nerves coming into play change everything about the final game. But do you know what champions do? They find a way to get through their bad spots. Azarenka saves break point with a phenomenal serve, and gets back to match point by attacking one of Sloane’s in-the-middle balls. But then, on her fourth match point, there’s yet another forehand error.
A Sloane error brings us to match point number five. Which brings us to ANOTHER FOREHAND ERROR. Unbelievable. On deuce No. 5, Azarenka comes forward and Stephens passes her at the net to get another break point! And then, her back against the wall again, Azarenka comes to net and draws the error from Stephens.
But suddenly Stephens gets another break point, thanks to another Vika forehand error, and this time she gets the balls she needs to on the court and STEPHENS BREAKS BACK.
Five match points gone. And guess what? Vika has called the trainer. She seems to be feeling dizzy. She gets a medical timeout off-court. Anything can happen from here. Sloane Stephens is sitting calmly and applying chapstick.
On Twitter a lot of people are suggesting gamesmanship since Stephens is about to serve for the match, but I give her the benefit of the doubt. She didn’t call the trainer earlier in the match when she was clearly having a bit of ankle pains, so there’s no reason to throw stones now. That last game was brutal. Maybe, selfishly, I’m just happy for a bit of a breather myself.
Can trainers fix forehands? Asking for a friend…. #ausopen
— Beyond The Baseline (@SI_BTBaseline) January 24, 2013
Not the coolest move in the heat. Azarenka leaving court for treatment with Stephens about to serve to stay in match at 4-5#ausopen
— Christopher Clarey (@christophclarey) January 24, 2013
4-5: After a ten minute break, we’re back. Sloane Stephens does not move the entire break, which probably was not a smart idea. ESPN, after suggesting that Vika left the court because she wanted to rattle Stephens, finally tells us that Vika left the court because of a right knee and rib injury. Ouch.
On the court as Sloane tries to extend the match, Vika continues to spray forehands — perhaps because of the rib injury — and Sloane, despite a double fault gets to game point. But Sloane’s nerves show again and Vika, using her aggression and frustration that this match is still going on bullies herself to a SIXTH match point.
Sloane hits a second serve, and then gets drawn into another long rally from the baseline from a very defensive position. And this time she hits a backhand error long and it is Game. Set. Match. Azarenka.
Azarenka d. Stephens 6-1, 6-4
Talk of the town right now is Vika’s post-match on-court interview. We were all curious to hear about the extent of her injuries, but instead she doesn’t mention anything at all physical. “I almost did the choke of the year,” she says. “Nerves got into me for sure.”
I had given Vika the benefit of the doubt about the injury timeout, and didn’t like that people were suggesting it was gamesmanship, but the fact that she didn’t cop up to any injuries and still took a 10 minute MTO is still very suspect.
Twitter is abuzz with reactions as Vika leaves the court to complete and utter silence. Her post-match interview with ESPN doesn’t make things any better — she says that she was having trouble breathing and that she wanted to make sure everything was okay, but the way she described it sounded like a panic attack. Here are various reactions:
BREAKING: Victoria Azarenka is officially the most hated person in America.
— Foot Fault (@FootFault_) January 24, 2013
GSM Azarenka 61 64, into 2nd #ausopen final, but she did not advance in the sportsmanship dept.
— Douglas Robson (@dougrobson) January 24, 2013
RT @newballsplease‘I almost did the choke of the year right now.’ Vika. Who does not explain why she took the MTO.
— Foot Fault (@FootFault_) January 24, 2013
The crowd is quit as a mouse. Not giving Vika anything. Tough.
— Brad Hunter (@bradhunter) January 24, 2013
Vika, do yourself a favor and mention these injuries the doctor said you had
— Mariya Konovalova (@MariyaKTennis) January 24, 2013
I’m not saying a word but when you’re asked why you left the court and how you’re feeling and you tell us you were nervous … yeah.
— Ataraxis (@Ataraxis00) January 24, 2013
Azarenka on ESPN. Q: Why did you leave the court: “I couldn’t breathe.” #ausopen
— Douglas Robson (@dougrobson) January 24, 2013
Got to say, Victoria Azarenka does a great job in making people dislike her
— Simon Cambers (@scambers73) January 24, 2013
Okay, so first of all, let’s talk about the tennis part of the evening before we get into the elephant in the room. Victoria Azarenka is a better tennis player than Sloane Stephens is right now, and that is why she won the match. Her footwork is better. Her serve placement is better. Her backhand is better. Her shot selection is better. She’s also much more experienced player and has gotten through tough spots before. That being said, this was not the best match Azarenka has ever played. It’s clear that both the heat and the enormity of the moment got to her in the second set, and she handled it very, very poorly. She has to be concerned about her forehand, which completely abandoned her when the match was on the line. Rarely have I seen a top player — let alone a No. 1 — struggle so much with one shot under pressure.
Sloane Stephens can learn a lot from today. When she played the rally on her own terms and came into the net, she was the better player. Her problem lies in picking which moments to come in, and in doing so effectively. Improved footwork, better court sense, and just more experience will all help with this. She also needs to work on the placement of her serves — she should study a player like Radwanska for tips on that — and needs to make her backhand less of a liability. That’s hard to do against a player of Azarenka’s caliber, but flattening it out and putting more pace on it will help her out immensely.
The most encouraging thing I saw about Sloane today was that she continued to stay in the match even when her back was against the wall. Azarenka might have been the better player, but the moment wasn’t too big for Stephens. She played better as the match went on, didn’t get overly discouraged by her lack of holding serve, and sensed when her opponent was beginning to freak out. This relates to what we learned about her in the match against Serena — she is mentally present, even if all the tools aren’t in place yet.
I’m not going to go on and on about the injury controversy, because everyone else in the world is going to do that. Here’s my quick take: Azarenka felt she needed medical attention after struggling to breathe and failing to serve out the match despite five match points. She felt it was within her right as a player to do so, and she did. Clearly either she misunderstands the rules or the doctors do or we don’t know the whole situation. If it was clearly gamesmanship — which I’m not ruling out — then it seems like there is a way to figure that out.
But that’s not why Sloane Stephens got broken serving to elongate the match. Sloane Stephens only held serve one time all day. She even got herself to game point once again on her final service game and once again failed to convert. If she was a little bit better about knowing when to pull the trigger then this wouldn’t be an issue. She’s not a damsel in distress, she’s not a victim, she’s a tennis player who’s still developing her game.
Azarenka was already one of the most hated women in tennis, and doing this against America’s sweetheart won’t help her cause. I’ve defended Vika before, and while I’m not obsessed with the fact that the medical timeout was allowed to happen or that she took advantage of it, I’m also not going to vilify her. Plenty of other players have done it, including Nadal and Djokovic, and people forget about it quickly. Azarenka doesn’t do herself any favors, but she also isn’t the devil. She’s a competitor first, and yes, she’s a bit shameless about that. I think that’s okay, as long as she’s within the rules.
I say let’s all take a deep breath, step back from the situation for a minute, and get excited for the final. Li Na vs. Victoria Azarenka will be a blast.