For what seems like years, fans of women’s tennis have been looking for a legitimate rivalry at the top of the game. They may finally get their wish with the compelling rivalry emerging between the top two players in the world, Victoria Azarenka and Maria Sharapova.
It was difficult to label head-to-head a rivalry given Azarenka’s dominance of Sharapova this season. However, the Russian finally turned the tables this weekend , for one match at least, in the final at Stuttgart to capture her 25th career title to match the birthday she celebrated a few weeks ago. The two had met twice already in championship matches this year and at least one of them has played for the title at all of the major tournament thus far in 2012.
Sharapova’s run to the Stuttgart crown was rather impressive, particularly on clay. She defeated Samantha Stosur, Petra Kvitova and Azarenka in consecutive matches, including a dominant 6-1, 6-4 victory over the World No. 1.
“I had lost the last few previous encounters with Victoria, so I was extremely motivated today,” Sharapova said. “When I got the chance to go out and play her again I knew I had to change a few things. Before I was maybe a little bit impatient and went for a bit too much sometimes, but this time I was really patient. I was aggressive but consistent when I had to be against her. “
If Sharapova can continue to keep up her end of the bargain, women’s tennis could have its version of the ATP’s Djokovic-Nadal rivalry. The potential is certainly there for many reasons. One of which is their match ups have risen in intensity. They brushed shoulders while crossing the net during a changeover in the Stuttgart final, drawing a small reaction from both, but exchanged a civil handshake at the match’s conclusion. Both are fierce competitors and currently at the top of their game which are important ingredients in any rivalry. They also have players like Kvitova, Agnieszka Radwanska and Serena Williams pushing them to be better.
Azarenka is the emerging star while Sharapova is a legend of her sport, both on and off the court. Azarenka wins matches with her natural athletic ability while Sharapova uses exquisite ball striking and a burning competitive desire to will herself to victory. The contrasts and similarities are there, so is the motivation and after Sunday’s somewhat unexpected result, anticipation is building already for their next encounter and the numerous one that are sure to follow.
The 2012 edition of the SAP Open has come to an end, and the man holding the trophy is the same one who lifted it last year. Milos Raonic served his way to a second consecutive SAP Open title and second ATP title of 2012, becoming the first player to step into the winner’s circle twice this year. The final was closely contested until the first set tiebreak, and after that point the outcome was never in doubt. Raonic dominated on his own serve and returned well against Denis Istomin, winning the title in straight sets, with a scoreline of 7-6(3), 6-2.
It would be difficult to overstate just how superbly Raonic served against Istomin. The Canadian placed 48 serves in the court during the match and lost a measly 4 of those points. Istomin tried everything he could to find a way into the Raonic serve. He moved forward, he moved back, he guessed which way the serve was going, but the 6-foot, 5-inch Raonic was simply too good on the day. Istomin actually managed to get his racket on the ball more often than not, holding Raonic to just 7 aces, but it was struggle to keep the ball in the court, and even more so to do anything productive with it, instead of allowing Raonic to finish the point with his second shot, a penetrating and powerful forehand.
To say that the match was all about Raonic’s serve would be unfair, however. Istomin, who could easily have been overwhelmed by the occasion and the barrage of balls coming at him from Raonic’s racket, acquitted himself admirably in only his second career ATP final. He was constantly under pressure on his own serve during the first set, but played enough strong points to keep Raonic from breaking until the tiebreak. He was striking clean winners off both wings, down the line and cross-court, with a consistency that made his poor results from 2011 seem baffling.
In the tiebreak, the tension was ramped up significantly and the impressive mental strength from Raonic was on full display. Istomin dropped the first point in a very similar fashion to how Ryan Harrison started his tiebreak against Raonic in the semifinals, pushing a forehand just long of the baseline. Knowing that the Canadian could easily call on his unflappable serve in these pressure situations must make the court seem to shrink for his opponents, the margins for error disappear entirely, since one loose point could be enough to decide the set.
Istomin was never quite able to recover from that missed forehand to start the tiebreak. Even though a mis-hit return prompted an error from Raonic on his second service point, the Canadian ignored the minor setback and hit his next service return directly to Istomin’s feet, getting the mini-break back. He then struck a forehand winner and put a backhand volley in the corner, where Istomin was unable to get it back into court. In no time, the Canadian was up 6-1, with a bevy of set points at his disposal. Istomin managed to hold his next two service points, but the comeback was short lived, as Raonic took the set with a 145 mile per hour serve.
Just as it had happened in his semifinal, once Raonic had the first set under his belt, he was able to swing more freely. His serve speed reached the rarefied air of the 150’s, and his first service game in the second set was a love hold which featured a pair of aces. Istomin, on the other hand, must have felt frustrated that he had been able to play so well for the entire set and come out with nothing to show for it on the other end. His level dropped enough for Raonic to take advantage of the first break point opportunity in the entire match, going up 3-1, before ultimately breaking again to take the set 6-2.
In his post-match press conference, Istomin was jovial despite the loss. He was justly satisfied with his level of play over the course of the week and recognized that with how well Raonic was serving, it would have been difficult for anyone to make a breakthrough. He was extremely complimentary of his opponent, as well as excited about his start to the year. His ranking jumped twelve spots to just inside the top 50, and with hardly any points to defend in the coming months, he’s well within touching distance of his career high ranking of 39.
Raonic seemed even more pleased with himself, despite the fact that the level-headed Canadian actually manages to express his emotions even less than his opponent in the final, who does so in endearingly halting English. Milos was happy with his play on serve and particularly with his return game in the second set. He mentioned that he felt like he was playing above his level last year, when he won the tournament, but this year, he believes that he played within himself – it’s just that his new ‘normal’ is much better than it was a year before.
If Raonic manages to win 92% of his service points on a day where he felt like he was playing well but not doing anything spectacular, it will be fascinating to see what he manages to do when the Masters Series events roll around in Indian Wells and Miami, when he may be able to earn a chance to go up against one of the top four players in the world, all of whom are spectacular returners. If he believes that he can serve even better than he did today, then I think there’s a very real chance that the top players in the world will need to watch out.