Serena Williams Back on Top; Sweet Success for Rafael Nadal — The Friday Five

By Maud Watson

Back on Top

Similar to Roger Federer last season, Serena Williams defied the odds by reclaiming the No. 1 ranking by virtue of her run in Doha last week. In doing so, she became the oldest woman to hold the coveted spot. With the way the ranking system works, Serena likely would have clinched No. 1 before Wimbledon anyway, but that doesn’t make the achievement any less remarkable. She put herself in that position with her fantastic second half of 2012, playing a more complete schedule and generally winning whatever she entered, and now she’s rightfully benefited from the fruits of her labors. With Azarenka’s withdrawal from Dubai earlier this week, the American is guaranteed to hold on to No. 1 through Miami. She’ll have her work cut out for her if she’s to hold on to that ranking and ultimately finish the season there, but for now, she can bask in the feeling that comes with accomplishing what seemed an impossible goal.

Bigger Picture

Victoria Azarenka may have lost her No. 1 ranking in Doha, but she arguably left with two things more important – the title, and a win over Serena Williams. By successfully defending her title, she also defended all of her points from that event. And with less to defend than Williams in the second half of the season, she’ll likely have plenty of opportunities to leapfrog the American in the rankings. But the bigger takeaway was the win she garnered over Serena. She came into that final with a clear game plan that more often than not, she executed to perfection. And while Serena didn’t play her absolute best, she was certainly better than the “two out of ten” she claimed, and it’s also safe to say that what Azarenka was doing on her end of the court had something to do with taking Serena out of her comfort zone. At the end of the day, Azarenka handled the majority of the big moments better, and that’s why she earned the victory. She’s got plenty of work ahead of her to even up the score with Williams, but Azarenka is steadily building a case that this may evolve into the rivalry the WTA so desperately needs today.

How Sweet It Is

It isn’t the biggest title he’s ever won, nor was it worth many points. It didn’t come against a stellar field, and there was very little fanfare. But despite all of that, Rafael Nadal’s tournament win last week in Brazil will likely rank among one of his most cherished memories. Playing in his second tournament in as many weeks since after returning from a seventh-month layoff, Nadal once again reached the final, and this time, he came up with the goods. It wasn’t an easy path to the title match, but it was one-way traffic in the final against Nalbandian. Even down a double break in the second, the Spaniard reeled off six straight games against the Argentine to earn his 51st title. The victory should give him a boost of confidence heading into Acapulco, where he should be more tested. But for now, Nadal can savor the moment. He’s not where he wants to be, but he’s squarely moving in the right direction.

Crisis Averted

With things threatening to turn ugly in a hurry, the ATP Board of Directors finally came around and approved the BNP Paribas Open’s proposed prize money distribution. The proposed distribution passed when one of the three tournament directors who had previously opposed it, changed his vote. The ATP’s decision should make both the players and officials at Indian Wells happy, and it’s a decision that also looks destined to initiate changes down the road. The matter has forced the ATP to review the rules regarding potential deviations from the conventional prize money breakdowns and create parameters to deal with similar scenarios in the future. It was the lack of a clear rule on the subject that led to the near-fiasco with Indian Wells this year. Hopefully the ATP won’t drag its feet in establishing parameters to deal with this type of scenario, as such a scenario only results in bad publicity and unnecessary headaches.

Hitting Her Stride?

Could it be that Petra Kvitova is finally ready to once again begin producing the kind of tennis that wins championships? The Czech had a good showing last week in Doha, nearly upending Serena in the quarterfinals. She’s continued to build on that momentum this week in Dubai, reaching the semifinals at the expense of World No. 4 Radwanska in the process. She hasn’t exactly played pretty tennis to reach that stage. In fact, much like Serena, she tends to litter the stat sheet. But if two good back-to-back showings are any indication, Kvitova may at last be starting to find her range. If that’s the case, and she proves able to balance those errors with winners, the rest of the field should be on alert. Kvitova possesses easy power and deceptive touch, making her a dangerous opponent capable of blowing most anybody off the court. The women’s game would greatly benefit from such a talented player back in the mix vying for the biggest titles, so with any luck, these last two weeks are a sign that we’ll continue to see Kvitova’s star rise as the season progresses.