There are precious few constants on the WTA Tour, but one bizarre set of coincidences seems to point towards an inverse proportion in the careers of Serena Williams and her nemesis, Virginie Razzano. For much of the last decade, the Frenchwoman has made her biggest strides while Serena was struggling beneath some of her career’s stickiest situations.
At the 2006 US Open, Razzano upset Martina Hingis to reach the second week of a Slam for the first time. On the same half of the draw, Serena was laboring through thanks to a wildcard that compensated for an injury-deflated ranking. Days before Razzano reached her career high of 16 in 2009, Serena lost her cool and the US Open semifinal to Kim Clijsters on a point penalty.
Most of us remember when these two very different players clashed at last year’s French Open, the shockingly momentous occasion that it was. For Razzano, it was her first French Open main draw win since she lost her fiancé and coach, Stephane Vidal, to a brain tumor. For Serena, it was her first-ever first round loss at a major tournament, one that catalyzed a crisis of confidence that saw her pair with Patrick Mourataglou and tear through the second half of 2012.
As Serena soared, Razzano faltered, winning only two more WTA matches for the rest of the year. Already in the midst of an injury-induced tailspin at the time of their infamous encounter, the Frenchwoman’s slump reached its nadir when she failed to qualify for this year’s Australian Open. It was the first time she had even been forced to play Slam qualies since 2004.
But as everything seemed to go wrong for Williams over a traumatic fortnight that featured no less than three separate injuries, one could not help but think of what had happened to the last architect of the American powerhouse’s discontent. As it turns out, she was simply biding her time for another Serena meltdown to make her move. Playing in qualifying on home turf, Razzano bulldozed the field at the Open GDF Suez event in Paris, most notably taking out Dutch star Kiki Bertens in three sets.
Should she beat a fellow qualifier in the first round, the Frenchwoman would get a crack at struggling No. 1 seed Sara Errani, who also lost her opening singles match in Melbourne (albeit in the main draw).
For all her Serena-related notoriety, Virginie Razzano is quite a tennis player in her own right; with an all-court game, the Frenchwoman has excelled on every surface and, in addition to Serena, has wins over multiple Slam finalists, including Dinara Safina, Vera Zvonareva and Elena Dementieva. An engaging and endearing personality, she earned numerous fans for the courage she displayed in fulfilling her dying fiancé’s last wish for her to continue playing in his memory.
Serena too has dealt with her share of tragedy; no moment in her career has been more poignant than when she dedicated her improbable 2007 Australian Open win to murdered half-sister Yetunde Price. On the wrong end of incidents like “The Hand” and “The Shot Seen Round the World”, it’s hard to argue that the American household name with the Hall-of-Fame career has truly had it all her own way.
Does Serena really have to be at her worst for Virginie to play her best? Obviously not. But it is strange to think that two women, already inexorably linked thanks to one of the strangest matches in French Open history, might be a little more connected than we thought.
With a three-set loss to the resurgent Svetlana Kuznetsova today in Melbourne, Caroline Wozniacki has come full circle in the worst possible way. This isn’t simply the kind of match the former No. 1 used to win. This was literally a match the she was winning as of a little more than a year ago. In fact, the Russian powerhouse has been an interesting foil to Wozniacki during her rise to, mainstay at, and now fall from, the top of the WTA Rankings.
Flash back to the 2009 US Open. Kuznetsova was the higher ranked player, the reigning French Open champion. Wozniacki was the underdog; an underpowered youngster who’d had some good results, but had yet to reach a Grand Slam quarterfinal. Under the bright New York lights, Wozniacki pulled out the first of her infamous Houdini-esque escapes from the grips of her more aggressive rivals. Despite lacking any notable weapon, the Dane stayed with her more celebrated opponent and outlasted Kuznetsova in a final set tiebreaker.
Wozniacki parlayed the upset into a run to her first Slam final, not only leapfrogging her own progress, but also dusting her peers in the process. A year later, she was No. 1 in the world.
By 2011, the Dane was no longer the up and comer for whom everyone rooted. Resigned to her role as a “Slamless No. 1,” Wozniacki continued to plug away, but there were chinks in the proverbial armor, ones of which Kuznetsova hoped to take advantage. Two years since their last major meeting, the Russian had fallen out of the top 10, but looked fitter and looked primed for revenge. Playing expert aggression for a set and a half, Sveta dominated the top seed, and reinforced all the criticisms that had already grown from whispers to a roar.
Wozniacki was too defensive. She could not hit winners. How was she the best in the world?
Wozniacki’s A game might not have been enthralling, but it was still effective, especially against a tiring Kuznetsova, who faded short of the finish line and allowed the beleaguered best take control of the match.
Another year on, and Wozniacki must be wondering where all the good times have gone.
It’s hard to argue that the Dane’s game is any different than it was when she was dominating the rankings. She has not made the kinds of improvements one would expect of a 22-year-old, but one can hardly assert that she has regressed.
Instead, the big hitters who had been erratic during her time at the top retooled and refurbished their games, but doing so outfoxed more than just her crafty defense. They obliterated her unshakable assurance, her almost haughty self-belief.
There was once an understanding that if Wozniacki played her game, the big hitters would eventually implode. Even today when Kuznetsova failed to break the Dane at 4-4 in the third, the consensus was that the Russian had blown her chance, and Caroline would pounce on Sveta’s inevitable mistakes.
But unfortunately for Wozniacki, it’s not 2009 anymore. It’s not even 2011 anymore. Kuznetsova was far from perfect over another three-set battle, but she got it right just enough to send her wily opponent home before the second week for the fourth straight Slam.
How can the former rankings queen regain her lost crown? Her game looks as static as ever, and her insistence on retaining her father Piotr as her coach continues to raise eyebrows. But what always made the difference for Wozniacki wasn’t her explosive groundstrokes, but her unflappable confidence. If she can regain that, she will undoubtedly be a factor once again, but until then, Caroline Wozniacki continues to wade through the rubble of a fallen empire.