Charleston’s illustrious Family Circle Cup began yesterday, and just off the main stadium, fans were treated to a first round match that had all the drama and suspense of a Saturday morning cartoon. Such an analogy may sound insulting, but in a match between Bethanie Mattek-Sands and Anastasia Rodionova, spectators’ notions of “good” and “evil” were as binary as black and white.
In one corner was Mattek-Sands. With her penchant for knee socks, eye black, and odd fashion choices, the veteran American certainly has the look of a modern-day superhero. Her struggles with injuries and debilitating food allergies have also played a role in endearing herself to the tennis public as she attempts to regain the form that took her as high as No. 30 in 2011.
If Mattek-Sands is the hero, then the Russian-born Australian Rodionova is our unabashed villain. Standing at 5’5”, she has become notorious for her on-court antics and bratty demeanor. A journeywoman who frequents the outer courts of most major tournaments, Rodionova berates umpires and lines people alike for their perceived incompetence and inability to properly officiate her matches. It has been questioned whether those antics have stalled an otherwise promising career; a successful doubles player, Rodionova possesses an all-court game that is often as aggressive as she is.
But to question that is to misunderstand the Aussie entirely. Indeed, she has the propensity to lose her patience, but rarely does that lead to a full-on implosion. In a world where players are concerned with likeability, Rodionova not only embraces, but truly enjoys the villainous role she adopts during matches, and like a WWE wrestler, uses the crowd’s venom against her as fuel for her own fire.
Against Mattek-Sands, she simply refused to be put away in a match that, at three hours, forty-two minutes, was the longest of the year. With the crowd firmly behind the American, Rodionova recovered from a set down to steal the second in a tiebreaker, but quickly fell behind a break in the third. Playing Mattek-Sands tough on break points (she would save 13 of 20 by match’s end), she bounded back to win three games in a row. As our villain was in her glory, our hero was in despair, and called out her husband during the changeover to try and develop a new strategy.
All of this before Rodionova injured her thigh, and here is where the show really began.
For Rodionova, the type who can become enraged by an inconsiderate gust of wind, an injury (and the ineptitude of those attempting to treat her) was simply unacceptable. Dissatisfied with the trainer’s method of alleviating her pain, Rodionova hopped and hobbled away as best she could, throwing a water bottle and gesticulating wildly at the supervisor.
It was as if, after all these years, Rodionova finally had a legitimate excuse for her curmudgeonly behavior, and she planned on making the most of it. When a line call was overturned in her favor, she exclaimed, “Call the freaking ball!” (a veteran move for a player well aware of what counts as an audible obscenity). Holding a match point on the Mattek-Sands serve at 4-5, it would have appeared totally logical for our villain to let out a cackle had she converted.
But she would not convert. The match would go to a deciding tiebreaker (as if it could have ended any other way), and the injury and Mattek-Sands became too much for Rodionova, who faded quickly from 2-2.
From the cartoonish impression many have of Rodionova, one would have expected her to react to this undoubtedly painful loss with a racquet toss or a shriek of disdain: anything in a last-ditch attempt to steal the spotlight. Instead, she reminded us all of her humanity when she met Mattek-Sands at the net in tears. Our hero was gracious in victory, comforting Rodionova as the two approached the umpire.
A lot of this analysis is tongue-in-cheek, but it has been said that parody can be a mirror to the human soul. There is a tendency to turn these athletes, these people, into stereotypes or one-dimensional cutouts based on how they act over the course of a three-hour tennis match. “Mattek-Sands comforted Rodionova because she is always good, and Rodionova yelled at the trainer because she is always evil.”
But just as Mattek-Sands’ jubilation showed us how much the win meant, Rodionova’s tears showed us how much the win would have meant, and before we criticize and name-call, it is essential that we recognize that her desire to win is no less pure (or more offending) than that of a perhaps more subdued rival.
Barring a toe injury that kept her from finishing a warm-up event in Brisbane, Victoria Azarenka has not lost a match all year. There have been a few tense moments during her matches in Australia, most notably when she fell behind a break to American Jamie Hampton in the third, and most recently when she squandered five match points against Hampton’s compatriot Sloane Stephens. But the World’s No. 1 has been solid when it matters most and finds herself in her second consecutive Australian Open final.
If only she could be as clutch when she trades the racquet for a microphone.
In another serious gaffe, the Belorussian spoke to Sam Smith after her win over Stephens:
The crux of Smith’s question spoke to Azarenka’s “difficulties” in finishing off the feisty American, who was in her first Slam semifinal. However, the former player and commentator was referring to the medical timeout Azarenka took before the start of the final game, one that lasted nearly ten minutes and required the top seed to leave the court.
Evidently under the impression that Smith was asking about her inability to serve out the match at 5-3, Azarenka laughed off the scary prospect of having avoided “the choke of the year” and admitted to feeling “overwhelmed…one step away from the final.”
Smith’s first question made a brief reference to the timeout, but when she got no answer, she moved on. The decision not to press Azarenka about her apparent injury, both by Smith and later Tom Rinaldi, only fueled the speculation further and gave the defending champion more rope with which to hang herself.
To Smith she admitted, “I just couldn’t lose, that’s why I was so upset!” When Rinaldi asked her why she left the court, she said she could not breathe and had “chest pain.”
By the time she made it the formal press conference, Azarenka faced a lengthy interrogation about her injuries and their legitimacy. Azarenka defended herself and called her prior diction “my bad.” Critical of the MTO process, Patrick McEnroe called for an overhaul of the rule itself so players like Azarenka are not “able to manipulate the rules.” Stephens’ coach David Nainkin called what happened to his charge “cheating within the rules.”
All of this came days after her battle with Hampton, who was visibly hampered despite bringing her higher-ranked opponent to the brink of defeat. During another one of her now-infamous on-court interviews, Azarenka accidentally implied Hampton’s injury was not as bad as it seemed, quipping, “Can I have a back problem?”
Hampton was later revealed to have two herniated discs.
How can the woman who can seemingly do no wrong on the court be so inept the moment she steps off of it? She combines perfectly timed, almost balletic groundstrokes with a boxer image, usually taking the court with earbuds in and hoodie up. Prickly between points, her signature celebratory moves include finger spinning and tongue wagging. Often (to quote rival Maria Sharapova) “extremely injured,” she has become notorious for withdrawing from smaller events only to show up on the biggest stages playing flawless tennis.
A woman that cannot afford even one bad quote, Azarenka is quickly compiling a chapbook full of verbal “oops,” one big enough for the tennis community to want to ride their No. 1 out of town on a rail.
But before we burn a 23-year-old woman at the stake, let us remember with whom we are dealing. Victoria Azarenka is, above all things, an athlete. The “swagger” for which many deride her is proof of that. What goes on with an athlete’s mind and body is sacred to them and ultimately irrelevant to the task at hand.
As Azarenka was asked about her “difficulties,” there was no doubt that she believed Smith (and others) were referring to her near “Choke of the Year.” How often do we criticize players for blaming injuries on missed opportunities? Yet here is a woman who made no excuses, blamed mind before body, and the media calls for a crucifixion.
There are many things about Victoria Azarenka that grate. Her honesty should not be one of them.