Young, Blonde and Slamless

Tuesday, August 30, 2011 /by

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by Pete Bodo

NEW YORK—If the USTA had a better sense of humor—or a more ruthless sense of marketing—it might have taken full advantage of the referee's decision to put No. 4 Victoria Azarenka and No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki on Arthur Ashe Stadium in back-to-back matches to launch today's program.

You know, frame it as a game show, with slick three-minute teasers about each player's career. Instruct Alex Anthony, the Arthur Ashe PA announcer (who moonlights as the voice of baseball's New York Mets) to channel the voice of famed game-show host and cult figure Don Pardo (if you've been to Ashe lately, you know this would be a piece of cake for Anthony), to fire up the spectators.

I can hear him now: And by the time these two, short weeks are over, tennis fans, one of these very attractive and talented young ladies just might be lucky enough to walk out of Arthur Ashe Stadium with a grand prize of one million, eight-hundred thousand dollars—that's right, nearly two million dollars. . .Plus a brand new Mercedes-Benz. . .Plus a lifetime supply of Slim Jim beef jerky. . .Plus a lifetime, paid membership in that most elite of clubs, the Grand Slam winners club!

Alright, so I'm kidding about the Slim Jims.This isn't a Bassmasters tournament.

But still . . . you have to wonder when one of those long-suffering ladies—if the adjective "long" can be applied to anything having to do with Azarenka, who's 22, or 21-year-old Wozniacki—will finally punch through to bag a Grand Slam title. These two may be young, but as Boris Becker once said, you measure a tennis player's life in "dog years," and each of these women has been very close to leaping the Grand Slam hurdle. Wozniacki even more so than Azarenka; she was close enough to the trophy here in 2009 when she lost to Kim Clijsters in the final to floss her teeth or fix her stray hairs in the reflection off it.

Azarenka the Voluble was first on Ashe, and she'd didn't allow the endless rows of empty, bright blue seats to dampen her enthusiasm. She was all over Sweden's poor Johanna Larsson right from get-go, like some great bird of prey with a dazzling golden crest, pecking and tearing at her opponent, punctuating each attack with that piercing, familiar shriek, Ah-heeee! The sound echoed and bounced around the nearly empty stadium; perhaps it even kept some fans from venturing inside.

"You wanna go into Ashe?"

"Dude, that thing in there might kill and eat us."

It was over quickly, 6-1,6-3.

Azarenka was her usual chipper self in the press interview room afterwards. Clearly, that decision early this year to embrace the "Don't Worry, Be Happy" ethos has paid off. She's had a great year, losing to the champion at two of the three previous majors (Li Na at Roland Garros and Petra Kvitova at Wimbledon), and to eventual finalist Li at the start of the Grand Slam year in Australia. Very few women in tennis history have played as well as Azarenka through three majors and come away without even a final berth for it. You could call her snake-bit, although she's determined not to drink of the bitter brew: "I mean, why complain," she said, "I lost to the champion (at those events). I played good. I played a little bit bad sometimes, but what can you do? I lost to the best player in the tournament. It's fine. I have to be better."

And while I took no great pleasure in it, I had to point out that to continue her run of hard-luck Grand Slam draws, she's been elected to meet the No. 28 seed in the fourth round. That's as it should be. Only the No. 28 seed happens to be Serena Williams. "I'm not interested about that before I go out there," she said, rather snippily. " We'll talk about it later .. . maybe."

She forced a smile.

Well, there truly is a long way to go before that conversation can take place. And while it's not much consolation, the young lady who keeps Azarenka firmly anchored near—but not at—the top of the "Best Active Player Not to Have Won a Major" list potentially has a tricky if not nearly as formidable hurdle to clear in the fourth round—Daniela Hantuchova, who beat Wozniacki in the third round of this year's French Open.

We didn't know it then, but Wozniacki was on the brink of the first significant swoon she's experienced since she assumed the No. 1 ranking 46 weeks ago. Pooh-pooh the Slamless One all you like, but the naked truth is that Wozniacki is projected to remain No. 1 through the end of the U.S. Open, which means she's a lock to have been No. 1 for more total weeks than Venus Williams, Maria Sharapova, and Kim Clijsters—combined.

You can look it up.

The atmosphere was slightly improved in Ashe after Azarenka's recital, but the crowd was still just drifting in as Wozniacki jumped to an early lead over Nuria Llagostera Vives—a 31-year old whose professed career ambitions included playing in the U.S. Open women's singles draw at least once before she throws in the towel. She got her wish this year, and after the drubbing she took she may re-phrase the wish to "only once."

Pic Wozniacki knew that her height advantage of nine inches (Vives is 5-foot-1) was a formidable one, and she determined to make the most of it. "Well, I usually play the way I need to to win a match," she said, almost like it was a bad thing, or at least an ignoble attitude. "You know, she's not a very tall player, so I tried to open up the court a little bit more and then tried to take advantage of the short balls that I got."

That Caro, she didn't just fall off the turnip truck. But it's surprising how many of of her WTA peers play as if they did, which helps account for Wozniacki's success. At her best, like she was today, Wozniacki looks impregnable—like some great white fortress towering over the landscape. She's tall, strong, and surprisingly nimble for a smoothly-muscled and thickly-built girl. She has no conspicuous weakness, and her serve is greatly improved. Everyone talks about her defense, but it isn't defensive skill that gives her an edge—it's her ability to keep the ball in play and gradually work herself into position to put her opponent on a string. And that's a very different and considerably higher skill than merely chasing down and returning balls, which are good for winning points and maybe even a few games, but not matches.

When she was apprised that one of the television commentators suggested that that the only think that's kept Wozniacki from winning a major is the lack of a "weapon," she bristled and fired back: "They can say what they want. I'm the type of player I am. I've won a lot of tournaments. I'm No. 1 in the world. . .You know, I'm on the right track. I just go out there and I play the way I do, and hopefully that's good enough."

Granted, Vives' skill set and overall profile played right into Wozniacki's hands, but it was still a pleasure to watch Wozniacki move the ball around, hitting clean, elegant shots, opening the court shot-by-shot with a shining and satisfying indication of actual purpose. If that's "defensive," you could bottle it and make a lot of money selling it out of the trunk of your car out in the player transport area. And Wozniacki's willingness to attack and end points at the net made me wonder if she was now making an effort to create volleying opportunities, or merely taking advantage of them when they came her way. About that she said, "I went in today. It was important for me to serve well, and I thought I started quite a few good points with my serve."

Consider that evasive. Nobody likes to show his or her hand until the bets are in and someone calls.

One thing is certain. Wozniacki seems to have gotten over the hiccup she experienced this summer, when she lost back-to-back opening-round matches in Toronto and Cincinnati. She got her groove back at the tournament where her ascent began four years ago, and where she's 18-0 with four titles: New Haven. If you think there's no down-side to that, think again: "I'm 21 years old and I already feel like I'm a senior on tour," Wozniacki said, trying mightily to complain.

Wozniacki and Azarenka are said to be great friends, and they're certainly an intriguing brace of players still searching for a Slam. In case you're wondering, Wozniacki leads their career rivalry 4-2 (and has won their last three meeting, the most recent after Azarenka retired just three games at Indian Wells). Among other things, the record suggests that Wozniacki's consistency and mature, strategic game is enough to trump Azarenka's all-offense-all-the-time mindset.

If they both continue to win, and they appear to be playing well enough to do so, they would meet in the semifinals. But that's alright, because only one of them has a chance to leave here with her first Grand Slam title, anyway. But this is still one of my favorite races within the race. I really wanted to ask about this parallel quest for a Grand Slam, but couldn't think of a diplomatic way to phrase it in order to get some kind of publishable response. So I took a bullet and asked Azarenka whom she thought would be the first to win a major.

"That's a little bit silly question to ask me," she replied, quite understandably. "Of course I want me to be there first. . . (but) you cannot look too far ahead and jump ahead, because there is no final before the second round or third round."

Azarenka's game is as dismissive and curt in the press room as it is on the court, and I should have known better than to go fishing with that one.

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