Memories of Melbourne: Grading the Australian Open (WTA)

Over the course of the fortnight, from darkness came light. And came Vika.

After the close of a fortnight at once surprising and unsurprising, we review the notable figures in the WTA field at the Australian Open.  Grading influenced by expectations, quality of competition, and other factors in addition to raw results.

Azarenka:  The first woman in over three decades to win her second major by defending her first, she consolidated her position as world #1 in the rankings and public enemy #1 in the eyes of many.  What the media and general public may refuse to acknowledge is that Azarenka showed fortitude in regrouping from the controversy swirling around her semifinal—and from a miserable start to the final—to halt an extremely talented opponent on a torrid streak with virtually everyone in the arena cheering lustily against her.  Her competitive desire rivals anyone on the Tour, and that attribute forms a key component of her success at elite tournaments notwithstanding her tendency to carry it too far at times.  Like her or not, Azarenka is here to stay with a game perfectly suited to the moderately paced hard court’s that have become the dominant surface and a determination to win at any price.  She probably will spend most of her career as a polarizing figure, but she appears to thrive on the hostility around her and relish the challenge of overcoming it.  When the dust settled, moreover, her tears at the end suggested that she may have matured during the emotionally fraught fortnight after all.  A

Li:  Endearing herself to audiences around the world, Li smiled even when she twisted her ankle for the second time in the final and slammed the back of her head into the court.  She smiled even as an Australian Open final slipped away from her for the second time after she had come within two games of her second major title.  The best player here for most of the tournament, Li trumpeted her return to relevance by defeating consecutive top-four opponents Radwanska and Sharapova in straight sets.  Not until after her first ankle injury, in fact, did she even lose a set here.  When all of the components of her game click together, any opponent other than Serena will struggle to overcome someone with no apparent weakness.  Much of the credit probably goes to coach Carlos Rodriguez for providing the discipline that she had lacked, but her ability to battle through injury after injury illustrated her inner steel.  And, unlike the equally fierce competitor across the net in the final, she mingled that steel with the grace and warmth that emerged from that smile.  A+

Sharapova:  Continuing a trend that has defined many of her performances at the Australian Open, she mowed down several overmatched opponents to march deep into the draw, only to get mowed down herself late in the second week.  We learned nothing new about Sharapova this tournament, instead receiving reminders that she can demolish or be demolished on any given day without warning.  That said, her lack of match preparation did not appear to cost her, and her loss to Li hinged much more upon the Chinese star’s excellence than her own fallibility.  Some threw excessive-celebration flags on Sharapova for her victory over an aging Venus, which unjustly obscured that transcendent performance in a nearly flawless stretch that set multiple Australian Open records for dominance.  Her post-tournament ranking of #3 feels exactly right.  B+

Serena:  As with Sharapova, we learned nothing new about Serena.  She continues to carve up the WTA like a cantaloupe when she is healthy and hungry, but she cannot overcome injuries as impressively as she once could.  One cannot doubt that she would have finished off Stephens if not for her second injury of the tournament, and it is difficult to imagine the struggling serve of Azarenka or even the streaking Li stopping her after then.  Depending on how her ankle recovers, though, Serena should regain the #1 ranking soon.  Incomplete

Stephens:  Putting aside the fact that she benefited from Serena’s injury, this tournament marked a decisive breakthrough for Stephens.  Many players have lost to an injured Serena before, and it appeared that she would when she choked away a second-set lead and later trailed by a break in the third.  Despite her competitive rawness, she managed to regroup in both instances and settle herself to record a career-defining win.  Also satisfying was her convincing victory over fellow phenom Robson, and she should take Azarenka’s dubious medical timeouts as a compliment, illustrating how worried her resilience in the second set had made the world #1.  A

Radwanska:  Now just 1-6 in major quarterfinals (0-4 here), with her only victory a three-setter over Kirilenko, she did little to refute her reputation as a player who struggles to translate her success to the places that matter most.  Radwanska entered the tournament having won consecutive titles in Auckland and Sydney, so she had not even dropped a set this year until she ran into the Li Na buzzsaw.  She had chances to win that first set and turn around the momentum in the second, but once again she could find no answer to an opponent capable of outhitting her consistently without imploding at key moments.  It’s still difficult to see Radwanska winning a major unless the draw falls just right.  B

Makarova:  As a clever wit noted on Twitter, she excels in places that end in –bourne.  Winning Eastbourne as a qualifier once, Makarova reached her second straight quarterfinal in Melbourne by upsetting world #5 Kerber.  Her defense and lefty angles created a scintillating combination to watch, perhaps honed by her doubles expertise.  Once she fell behind early against Sharapova, she let too much negativity seep into her body language, but that match seemed unwinnable anyway.  B+

Kuznetsova:  One of three Russian women to reach the quarterfinals, this two-time major champion has revived her career in impressive fashion.  Kuznetsova finally strung together a series of confidence-boosting victories at a prestigious tournament, displaying poise late in a tight third-setter against Wozniacki just when she might have crumbled in years past.  Her sparkling athleticism set her apart from many of the more programmatic women at the top of the WTA.  B+

Kerber:  Similar to her performances at the preparatory tournaments, her Melbourne result was unremarkable in either a positive or negative sense.  She fell before the quarterfinals for the third straight hard-court major since reaching the 2011 US Open semifinals, still looking tired from her busy season in 2012.  That post-tournament ranking of #6 seems inflated—until you look at the women directly behind her.  B-

WTA #7-9:  This trio won two total matches at the Australian Open, finding a variety of ways to collapse.  Last year’s quarterfinalist Errani could not hold serve against fellow clay specialist Suarez Navarro in an ominous sign for a year in which she must defend large quantities of points.  Last year’s semifinalist Kvitova could not finish off Laura Robson amid a horrific cascade of double faults and groundstrokes dispatched to places unknown.  Her confidence even more tattered than her game, the former Wimbledon champion nears a pivotal crossroads.  At least one expected home hope Stosur to shatter Aussie dreams as painfully as possible, which she accomplished by twice failing to serve out a match against Zheng before dumping a second serve into the middle of the net down match point.  F

Wozniacki:  Many, including me, thought that she would fall to Lisicki in the first round.  Let off the hook when the German self-destructed yet again, Wozniacki capitalized on her second life to win two more matches.  Then the poise that she displayed at her best late in close matches deserted her as she fell two points short of closing out Kuznetsova.  (As colleague David Kane has noted, that match posed a striking counterpoint to her earlier matches against the Russian.)  Out of the top 10 after the tournament, Wozniacki continues to stagnate without much sign of recovery.  C+

Pavlyuchenkova:  Like fellow Brisbane runner-up Dimitrov, she crashed out of the tournament in the first round.  What happens in Brisbane stays in Brisbane, or does it?  Pavlyuchenkova has much to prove after a disastrous 2012 but plenty of talent with which to prove it.  C

WTA young guns:  From Stephens and Keys to Robson and Watson to Gavrilova and Putintseva, rising stars from around the world asserted themselves in Melbourne.  The future looks bright with a variety of personalities and playing styles maturing in our midst.  A

Kvitova vs. Robson:  Hideous for the first two sets, it grew into the greatest WTA drama of the tournament not stoked by Azarenka.  The question of whether the budding teenager could oust the major champion hovered through game after game that mixed the sublime with the absurd.  It was hard to applaud, and equally hard to look away even as it careened deep into the Melbourne night.  B

Errani/Vinci vs. Williams/Williams:  Two of the greatest legends in the history of the sport faced the top doubles team, en route to their third title in the last four majors.  After three sets and over two and a half hours, the Italians survived two American attempts to serve for the match and struck a blow for the value of doubles as more than a format for singles stars to hone their skills.  This match also marked a rare occasion when David felled Goliath in a WTA dominated by the latter.  A-

Women’s final:  Seemingly everything imaginable happened in this profoundly gripping, profoundly weird climax to the tournament:  fireworks, a concussion test, 16 service breaks, and a starker good vs. evil narrative than most Hollywood movies.  As the service breaks suggested, the quality of tennis fluctuated dramatically from one point to the next with both women struggling to find their best form at the same time.  Meanwhile, the dramatic tension soared to Shakespearean levels as the WTA produced its third straight three-set major final.  A

Enjoy this tournament review?  Come back tomorrow for the ATP edition.