The Significant Seven: Memorable Women’s Matches From the First Half of 2013
Readers who enjoyed the article counting down the seven most memorable men’s matches of the first half may enjoy this sequel on the women. As with the men, these matches do not necessarily feature the best tennis from an aesthetic perspective. (In fact, some of them produced quite atrocious tennis for long stretches.) What they did produce was meaningful results linked to broader trends that stretched across the first half.
7) Laura Robson d. Petra Kvitova, Australian Open 2R, 2-6 6-3 11-9
The most accomplished lefty in women’s tennis met the most promising lefty in women’s tennis earlier in a draw than either would have wished. Whereas Kvitova needed to turn a new leaf after a disastrous 2012, Robson sought to build upon a second-week appearance at the US Open. Nerves defined much of their contest, not on this list for the quality of its tennis. By the middle of the third set, however, it became clear that Robson could master her nerves better than the former Wimbledon champion could. Unable to serve out the match the first time, she slammed the door at love on her second opportunity. The encouraging resilience from Robson signaled her progress this season, which has included a victory over Agnieszka Radwanska and a second-week appearance at Wimbledon. For Kvitova, the painful loss hinted that 2013 would look more than 2012 than 2011, as it has so far.
6) Sabine Lisicki d. Serena Williams, Wimbledon 4R, 6-2 1-6 6-4
On the surface friendliest to the serve stood the two most formidable servers currently in the women’s game. But grass specialist Lisicki trailed Serena 16-0 in major titles and 142-0 in weeks at No. 1. By the logic of this Wimbledon, one should have guessed from the start that the underdog would prevail. When Serena rallied from losing seven of the first nine games to win nine of the next ten, though, the writing seemed etched on the wall. Nobody finds a way back against her from 0-3 in a final set at Wimbledon, or from 2-4, or from triple break point at 3-4. Lisicki did all of those things and even survived the nerve-jangling finish as she served for the match, saving a break point with an ace and converting match point with a clean winner. The victory ended Serena’s career-best winning streak, which had begun in March, and propelled Lisicki toward her first major final. It marked her sixth victory over a major champion and third over a world No. 1 in just five Wimbledon appearances. Even when the top three dominate, others still can spring surprises.
Honorable mention: Lisicki’s semifinal epic against world No. 4 Radwanska bore several striking similarities to her victory over Serena.
5) Serena Williams d. Anabel Medina Garrigues, Madrid QF, 6-3 0-6 7-5
Raise your hand if you would have expected Medina Garrigues to appear on this type of list when the 2013 campaign began. No, I thought not. And yet she posed Serena’s most formidable challenge of a clay season during which the world No. 1 went undefeated from wire to wire. To be fair, Medina Garrigues received considerable assistance from across the net in becoming the first woman to bagel Serena since 2008. The American spent much of the match showing us why she had not won a title on red clay in a decade, struggling to stay focused, patient, and disciplined against a grinder fond of the surface. Then the last few games showed us why this year would be different. Serena bent but did not break, rallying from within two points of defeat rather than letting her frustrations overcome her. She would lose just one more set in the rest of the clay season, strewing 14 bagels and breadsticks across Madrid, Rome, and Paris. Medina Garrigues, who lost 6-1 6-1 to Dinah Pfizenmaier this week, gave Serena the wake-up call that she needed to reconquer her least favorite surface.
4) Victoria Azarenka d. Serena Williams, Doha F, 7-6(6) 2-6 6-3
When 2012 ended, only one woman looked like a realistic threat to Serena’s stranglehold over the WTA. But that woman, Victoria Azarenka, had just absorbed her ninth consecutive loss in their rivalry. As competitive as some of those losses were, such as last year’s US Open final, Azarenka needed to stop the skid to bolster her confidence. The Australian Open champion had started slowly in most of her matches against Serena, finding her rhythm only in the second set. Always at her best early in the season, Azarenka started with more determination in Doha and won that crucial first set in a tight tiebreak. She weathered the inevitable response from Serena in the second set and did what she could not do in New York, serving out the match comfortably in the third. Azarenka still has not defeated the world No. 1 at a major, or when fully healthy, so much remains for her to prove. (And Serena won a Premier Five final rematch convincingly in Rome.) All the same, the victory in Doha confirmed suspicions that something like a rivalry might develop here, sometime.
3) Serena Williams d. Maria Sharapova, Miami F, 4-6 6-3 6-0
Six weeks after the previous match on this list, Serena’s dominance over her other key rivalry threatened to falter as well. Not since 2004 had she lost to Maria Sharapova, thoroughly stifling the Russian in most of their recent meetings. Disappointment at the Australian Open and the Doha loss to Azarenka blunted Serena’s momentum heading to Miami, her home tournament, but most still ranked her a heavy favorite against Sharapova based on history. For the first half of their final, history took it on the chin as the underdog methodically built a set-and-break lead. But Serena vindicated history in the end, using a handful of long games late in the second set to reverse the momentum. Once she regrouped, neither Sharapova nor anyone else could have done much to stem the torrent of blistering serves and forehands that flowed from her racket. Miami marked the first of Serena’s five consecutive titles this spring and laid a cornerstone of confidence without which her winning streak might not have taken flight. She extended her reacquired dominance over Sharapova in two straight-sets finals on clay.
2) Maria Sharapova d. Victoria Azarenka, Roland Garros SF, 6-1 2-6 6-4
With Serena firmly entrenched on the WTA throne, the rivalry between Azarenka and Sharapova loomed ever larger. Azarenka had won their two most significant meetings in 2012, an Australian Open final and a US Open semifinal. Holding a surface advantage over the younger blonde on clay, Sharapova struck back at Roland Garros to recapture the edge in their rivalry. A barrage of pinpoint returns and forehands swept the first set into her ledger, but Azarenka exploited an erratic passage of play to level the match. At that stage, parallels linked this match with their US Open semifinal, which Sharapova had started in torrid form before steadily fading. There would be no déjà vu on this day when the two rivals contested their second 6-4 final set in three majors. Sharapova built a commanding lead in the third set, only to throw Azarenka a lifeline as she squandered a handful of match points. The ear-shattering shrieks and ball-shattering blows from both competitors escalated with the mounting drama. When a bullet ace streaked down the center stripe, Sharapova reasserted herself as the best of the rest—for now.
1) Victoria Azarenka d. Li Na, Australian Open F, 4-6 6-4 6-3
Never a fan favorite, Azarenka has endured a discordant relationship with media and many fans throughout her tenure at the top. The simmering turbulence there boiled into the open after she took a dubious medical timeout near the end of her semifinal against Sloane Stephens. When Azarenka took the court against Li with her title defense at stake, the air in Rod Laver Arena felt heavier with hostility than humidity. The Chinese star emerged the less battered of the two from a rollercoaster first set, high on tension and low on holds of serve. Steady returning and unsteady emotions extended into the second set, when Li added a plot twist of her own by sustaining successive injuries. Made of tenacious stuff, she gallantly returned to the fray after striking her head on the court. But Azarenka’s head had grown clearer while Li’s head had grown cloudier, allowing the former to claw her way to an impressive title defense. With almost nobody in her corner for one of the biggest matches of her career, Azarenka showed how she needs nobody but herself. She echoed fellow world No. 1 Novak Djokovic in her ability to thrive on animosity and turn it defiantly to her advantage.