Chasing Vika

Tuesday, March 20, 2012 /by

SwLet’s do it all again, shall we? The streamers have barely been swept from the stadium court at Indian Wells and we’re already getting results in from across the country in Key Biscayne. Good results: Alisa Kleybanova, diagnosed last year with Hodgkin's Lymphoma, has just won the first match of her comeback.

Once again, we have heat, sun, slow hard courts, and all of the top players in attendance. More top players, in fact, on the women’s side, than we had out west: Serena Williams and Kim Clijsters will join the circus, and Venus Williams will make her first appearance since last year’s U.S. Open. From an American standpoint, the women’s event has already gotten off to a good start. Not only will we see the return of the Williams sisters, but a couple of their younger countrywomen will join them, the hard way. Madison Keys, Sloane Stephens, and Jamie Hampton have all qualified.

The question is: Can any of those new faces do what no one has done so far in 2012 and knock off world No. 1 Victoria Azarenka? It has to happen eventually, but it won’t be easy here, where Vika won in 2011. Let’s see what she’ll be facing as she makes her title defense.


*****

First Quarter
Azarenka is 23-0 this season, but she yet to face three dangerous opponents during that run: Serena, Kvitova, and former No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki. And she won’t have to again, until at the least the semifinals, where she could play Kvitova. This looks like a good draw for Vika.

Names near her: Safarova, a hard-hitter and a lefty, who is capable of upsets; Kerber, another lefty who hits a heavy ball, and who Azarenka subdued in the semis at Indian Wells; Cibulkova, a road-runner who took Vika to three sets in their last two meetings; Kirilenko, who had a nice run to the quarters last week; and Bartoli.

Azarenka showed off her fanatical focus and consistency again last week, but she also showed, in her three-setter with Mona Barthel, that she can still go off. On paper she’s easily the favorite in this quarter, but I expect something unexpected to happen at some point (how's that for going out on a limb?).

Player already out: Sorana Cirstea, 7-6 in the third to British wild card Heather Watson

Player to root for: Kleybanova

Semifinalist: Azarenka

*****

Second Quarter
The U.S. hasn’t been kind to Petra Kvitova lately. She lost in the first round at the Open last fall, and went down early to American Christina McHale last week. Now she’s been given a rough early draw in Key Biscayne: the winner of Venus Williams and Kimiko Date-Krumm, who will reprise their classic from last year’s Wimbledon.

If Kvitova survives that, waiting for her could be a resurgent Ana Ivanovic, and eventually Aga Radwanska, just the sort of steady player who could drive Kvitova around the bend. You never know what’s coming next from the Czech, which makes it hard to bet on her to make it all the way to the semis unscathed. Aga Radwanska is the safer pick; we’ll see how she reacts to the drubbing she took at Azarenka’s hands last week. I’d like to see her play Kvitova in the quarters.

Already disappointing: Bojana Jovanovski, who went out in the first round.

First-round match to watch: Venus Williams vs. Date-Krumm

Player to root for: Venus Williams

Semifinalist: Radwanska

*****

Third Quarter
Here’s where things get volatile. Stosur and Wozniacki are the top two seeds in this quarter, but Serena and Kim are the marquee names and former champs. Clijsters plays Jarmila Gajdosova Wednesday, and would face Julia Goerges after that. Serena is on the other side. She’ll play Shuai Zhang first, and might get an Open-final rematch with Stosur in the fourth round.

On their games, Kim and Serena are two of the favorites. But Serena has been injured, and it’s tough to tell what Clijsters’ motivation is toward any non-major event at the moment. Is she there out of obligation, or desire? Her results, starting with the Goerges match, should provide the answer. Serena’s case is more interesting: Where is she, after her surprisingly tepid Aussie Open defeat? For the first time, I feel like she could use a win. In the past, this has been the place for her get it. And you know she’s going to want a piece of Stosur.

Not to be totally forgotten, of course, is Wozniacki, though I think she has to hope for early losses by both Kim and Serena to have a chance to survive.

Spoiler: Christina McHale, who could get Wozniacki in the third round

Semifinalist: S. Williams

*****

Fourth Quarter
The bottom section belongs to Maria Sharapova. How much will her second straight stinging final-round defeat to Azarenka hurt her motivation? What’s the point, if she’s just going to get smacked at the end again?

Maria’s draw should help her early. Sara Errani is the closest seed, though now that I think about it, the Italian wallboard could prove troublesome on a hot afternoon.

Other names: Jankovic, who was very bad in Indian Wells and who opens with pesky Mona Barthel; Pavlyuchenkova, who has been very bad all year; Lisicki, also a disappointment so far in 2012; Svetlana Kuznetsova and Na Li.

There’s a collectively self-destructive streak here that might leave Sharapova, whatever her confidence level after Sunday, still standing for the semis.

Possibly, and possibly not, a sleeper: Ekaterina Makarova, who beat Dokic and now gets Pavs.

Semifinalist: Sharapova

*****

Semifinals: Azarenka d. Radwanska; S. Williams d. Sharapova

Final: S. Williams d. Azarenka

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