Wizards of Oz (XIII): Previewing the Australian Open Women’s Final and Men’s Doubles Final

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Azarenka ponders the last step in her Australian Open title defense.

On the penultimate day of the tournament, the 2013 Australian Open will crown its women’s singles and men’s doubles champions.  Read about what to expect from those matches.

Azarenka vs. Li:  Meeting in a final on Australian soil for the fourth time, these two women of similar styles have battled to a very even record.  Both can hammer magnificent backhands for winners to anywhere on the court, while the forehands of each can falter under pressure despite providing plenty of firepower at times.  Neither wins many free points on serve, although each has improved in that department lately, and both relish pouncing on an opponent’s second serve.  For these reasons, their previous meetings usually hinge on execution rather than tactics, as well as on the ability of Azarenka and Li to shoulder pressure deep in the tight sets and matches that they have played.  After the Roland Garros champion dominated the early stages of their rivalry, winning four of the first five, the defending champion here has reeled off four straight victories.  But two of those have reached final sets, including the Sydney title tilt last year.

The more impressive of the two in fortnight form, Li has echoed her 2011 surge in Paris by defeating two of the top four women simply to reach the final.  Convincing victories over Radwanska and Sharapova, the latter of whom had troubled her lately, left her record immaculate without a single set lost.  In fact, Li has won 14 of her 15 matches this year in yet another display of the brisk start with which she often opens a season.  Also accustomed to starting seasons on hot streaks before her body breaks down, Azarenka has mounted a creditable albeit not overpowering effort in her title defense.  She has not faced anyone ranked higher than 29th seed Sloane Stephens en route to the final, but she defeated the dangerous Kuznetsova with ease in the quarterfinals and has yielded only one set.  What most may remember from her pre-final effort here, unfortunately, happened in the closing sequence of her semifinal victory.  A dubious medical timeout just before Stephens served (unsuccessfully) to stay in the match incited disdain from throughout the tournament and Twitterverse, which may ripple through the response to her on Saturday.

In an ironic twist, any hostility towards Azarenka might well inspire her to produce her most motivated, relentless effort of the tournament.  The world #1, who will remain there with a title, usually thrives on the negativity of others and can excel when barricading herself inside a fortress of “me against the world” attitude.  For her part, Li Na will hope to show greater poise than she did in this final two years ago, letting a mid-match lead slip away to Clijsters.  The coronation that followed at Roland Garros just a few months later and the steadying presence of coach Carlos Rodriguez should help the Chinese superstar channel her energies more effectively this time.  Thus, one can expect a high-quality match with plenty of passion on both sides, a fitting conclusion to the many intriguing WTA narrative threads that unwound at the year’s first major.

Bryan/Bryan vs. Haase/Sijsling:  Finalists here for a fifth straight year, the Bryans hope to emulate women’s doubles champions Errani and Vinci in atoning for their disappointing runner-up finish to an unheralded team in 2012.  Equally unheralded is the duo of Dutchmen across the net, who have not lost a set since tottering on the brink of defeat in their first match.  Robin Haase and Igor Sijsling needed a third-set tiebreak to elude that initial obstacle, but they have compiled an ominously impressive record in tiebreaks here, which bodes well for their chances in a match likely to feature few break points.  Their relative lack of experience would seem a clear disadvantage against the Bryans, superior in chemistry to virtually every imaginable team.

All the same, the surprising Australian duo of Barty and Dellacqua posed a severe threat to women’s top seeds Errani and Vinci in the corresponding final, so the Bryans cannot take this team too lightly in their quest for a record-extending 13th major title.  They have earned their most consistent success in Melbourne, where they have reached nine total finals, but the twins looked slightly more vulnerable this year in losing sets to the teams of Chardy/Kubot and Bolelli/Fognini.  Neither of those duos can claim anything remotely comparable to the storied accomplishments of the Americans yet still challenged them.  As with those matches, this final will test the conventional belief that two capable singles player can overcome the most elite doubles squads.  Both inside the top 70, Haase and Sijsling have gained their modest success almost entirely in singles, whereas the specialists across the net know the geometry of doubles as well as any team ever has.  That comfort level should prove the difference in a triumph that extends the stranglehold of the Bryans on history.

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