by Pete Bodo
Okay, so here's my theory: There's a secret lab hidden somewhere deep amid the pine trees in a rugged valley in the Urals, and it turns out female Russian tennis players. And not too long ago the technicians there got the confidential bulletin from the the WTA Tour.
Sharapova module (no. 3243STD) no longer functioning properly. Stop. Suspect engineering and material failure. Stop. Need replacement ASAP, with following modifications:
1 - Eliminate habit of pulling up and off forehand.
2 - Build in increased mobility and add flexibility to core.
3 - Modify serve (new circuit must ,module advance into court after striking ball)
4 - Improve backhand to improve open-stance, inside-out function.
5 - Decrease height by four inches, but retain narrow profile of frame.
Note: Retain shriek and tendency toward affluenza.
Priority: Top. Status: Secret. Formal model name: The Azarenka.
Well, they rolled out the (Victoria) Azarenka here at the Sony-Ericsson Open today, and it functioned beautifully, making everyone forget the obsolete Sharapova module. Victoria Azarenka destroyed Serena Williams 6-3, 6-1 in the women's final, and while Serena wore a tan wrap on her left quadricep (but, oddly enough, talked about her ankle in the "aches and pains" portion of her presser), the tennis Azarenka played was more than persuasive - it was convincing. The statuesque, 5-10 native of Minsk, Belarus, who now resides in Scottsdale, Az., is poised to become a force in the womens game.
Azarenka, 19, was a four-time singles runner-up (but never a titlist) until this year; today she claimed her third and by far biggest title of the year, winning over an undiluted field and rolling through the woman who was on the brink of surpassing Steffi Graf's record five Miami titles. Serena will get more chances to move ahead of Graf, but the mission suddenly looks more daunting.
The contrast when the women walked onto court on this stifling, sun-baked day was striking. Azarenka looked very inch the ingenue in her mostly white outfit with exposed shoulders and a matching yellow visor (the better to show off that golden French braid spilling out and over her back). Serena's candy-corn orange dress was festive enough, but her shuffling steps and heavily strapped thigh lent her the air of a wounded veteran. But the plain white duckbill cap pulled low over her eyes suggested she was all about the substance, not the form.
Alas, the substance was missing today. She would have had to appear in a gold-sequined bikini with giant turquoise ostrich plumes cascading from her tiara to steal the show today, because nothing she brought to the court was going to do that job. Serena served 48 per cent (compared to 67 per cent by Azarenka) and distributed 12 break points that yielded five breaks. Azarenka saved three of the only four break points she faced. Oh, there were flickerings of the Serena we've come to know and love; does anyone do a better job of stepping up to the line, break-point down, and busting an ace?
The trouble is, Serena was called upon to do something like that about 8 too many times today. And it was clear that Serena, who at the best of times appears to consider the mere act of walking a burdensome demand (while gleefully knocking over furniture in order to get to the ball, once it's in play - go figure), wasn't going to keep up the pace. Still, the key to beating Serena is to make her run, then run some more (even then it's by no means a sure thing). The other key to beating Serena is to run. It takes a player with suicidal tendencies (and I don't just mean Svetlana Kuznetsova) to go square up with Serena, feet planted and chin thrust forward. Somewhere along the line, Azarenka picked up both keys and absorbed the wisdom of that old saw, You can't hit what you can't catch. I'll leave the rest to the medical experts here, of which we have an abundance (dominant specialty: lumbar region).
There isn't anything wrong with Azarenka's attitude, either. Asked if she was intimidated by the presence of Serena across the net during the warm-up, Azarenka admitted to feeling a twinge of trepidation when, upon hearing Serena's name, the packed stadium "pretty much exploded." But, she philosophically added, "I was just so happy to play against her. I like the way she plays and I just want(ed) to get a rematch (they met in the Australian Open a few months ago, but Azarenka had to quit while in command because of stomach troubles) and try to do my best."
Although it's a convenient conversation starter, the idea that Azarenka is the improved model built on the Sharapova platform isn't entirely accurate. In some ways, she's the anti-thesis of her fellow Russian. Where Sharapova liked to plant her feet (hence some of the beatings inflicted on her by Serena), Azarenka likes to roll. And while Sharapova always played like she was engaged in some sort of five-move chess game, Azarenka is more inventive and flexible - simply because she's more mobile, and has shrewd court sense.
All right, let's not get carried away dumping on Sharapova. Goodness knows we have yet to see if Azarenka will be as hard-working and, well, tough as 'Pova has proved to be through lean and fat times, under pressure, through alternating visitations of triumph, disaster, injury, and endless photo shoots and commercial appearances. But the prognosis is pretty good.
Azarenka is fluid and explosive. She's not (yet) as physically disciplined as a Jelena Jankovic, and her game lacks that useful, compact quality.But she has the same talent for getting good rotation as she swings. She leaves the ground so often after finishing that someone ought to rent ad space on the soles of her shoes (There's a Zappos.com contract in this for you, Vika!). She also moves well for a girl so leggy and lean. You know how sometimes, when you're trying to stuff springy-spongy things into small container and all of a sudden the whole works blows up in your hands? She comes apart like that sometimes, but it doesn't necessarily translate to a bad shot.
"When she was younger, she was a little bit like a spaghetti" her coach, Antonio van Grichen told me. "How do you say it, un-coordinated? But she's maturing, and with the fitness and training work we've done she's much more stable. The core and leg stability work has really helped."
I sat down with Antonio about an hour after the match (off-topic: Why is everyone from Portugal such a great guy? There's got to be a grouch or misanthrope somewhere in Iberia). Anyway, Van Grichen has been Azarenka's coach for three-and-a-half years. And they're bonded enough for Azarenka to have said, in her post-match presser: "Antonio is for me the best coach. We been so long together, and he's been helping me with everything I ever need. We had our tough moments on court and off court, but we were always together. I mean, without him, I wouldn't have done it."
"She's a strong personality, so I always needed to manage that," Antonio said, grinning at the comment . "But she's also a good personality. She won't blow up with something like becoming famous. She knows what she wants."
Van Grichen, a former tour-level player, got into the mix by happenstance. He was teaching at the Saddlebrook academy, where he worked with the daughter of Nikolay Khabibulin, the NHL hockey star who happened to be a friend of Azarenka's mom. Khabibulin noticed Vika Azarenka's talent, and invited her to live with his own family (for a more detailed report, read ESPN's Greg Garber story). He selected Van Grichen as her coach, and the relationship jelled.
Azarenka's strongest period, developmentally, was about 18 months ago, when her game more or less settled. She became less gangly, and she began to understand that there's more to the game than ball-striking. "It's very gratifying," Van Grichen said, "To see someone grow up in front of your eyes."
As she became stronger, Van Grichen decided it was time to work on her overall fitness and strength. He called Mark Wellington, an old buddy from the Challenger trenches, who had become a fitness trainer (he worked with Sharapova for over a year starting in 2004, and with Tatiana Golovin as well) and is now affiliated with the International Tennis Academy in Delray Beach, Fla. I also met with Wellington - that's him in the photo on Azarenka's left, with Van Grichen to her right. Don't they look just like two marlin fishermen, posing for the hero shot with the catch-of-the-day?.
Anyway, Wellington told me: "We worked very hard in the 2008 off-season. We felt she was sufficiently mature to take a little more pushing. We had almost eight weeks of off-season at the end of last year, and we cleaned a lot of things up. She's a better natural athlete than Sharapova, but we still had to work hard to make her a better and more efficient mover, to cut down on her tendency to waste energy."
One of the more appealing aspects of Azarenka's game is her best shot, the backhand. She's particularly good at going inside-out, even with an open stance - a shot that requires strength and good timing. Elena Dementieva (module no. 3241OTD, since shunted aside due to service malfunction) blazed that trail, and Serena raised it to an art form. Azarenka may end up making even better use of it because of her mobility, as well as her ability to go the other way - with a short, rolling, heavily-angled crosscourt backhand. That can make the court look awfully big to a woman wondering where Azalrenka might go with a given backhand.
Van Grichen seems to have done a good job weaning Azarenka off the standard-issue "women's game," which doesn't make the grade nearly as well as it did in the heyday of Chris Evert, or even Monica Seles and Martina Hingis. "A versatile backhand is a very efficient tool in the women's game," Van Grichen said. "Whoever has one will enjoy a lot of success. Vika understands things like angles and changes of pace much better now. She's not just flat-flat-flat. She knows the patterns of the slice game, and has improved her general stroking discipline and focus. I saw a big difference in her last year, when her best results were on clay. She's like, 'If I have to go three sets, that's what I'll do. If I have to hit three more balls than I'd like to hit, I'll do that too.' "
Azarenka has a natural service motion, and as she gets more mature and stronger the serve will be more probing. She isn't afraid to volley, either. All that's well and good, but this win puts her on another level. So the serious field-tests on this model are just beginning, even if the tarps are off and the pallets have been removed. I have a feeling the WTA will not be disappointed.