Rivals in Rome?

by: Steve Tignor | May 18, 2013

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Let’s try this again. 

Last week in Madrid, Serena Williams played Maria Sharapova in the final. This is the matchup that many in tennis would love to be able to call a rivalry, but Serena stubbornly refuses to let it happen. And she refused yet again at the Caja Magica, sending Sharapova back to the sugar shack, and the drawing board, with a convincing 6-1, 6-4 win.

But there's always a new week in tennis, and tomorrow in Rome we get another chance, with a different contender, to find out if a women's rivalry may be ready to develop. The question now is: Will Serena give the third member of the WTA’s Top 3, Victoria Azarenka, a chance?

The last time we saw Vika at full strength, back in Doha in February, it looked like she was on her way to starting something serious with Serena. There, in a three-set final, she ended a 10-match losing streak to the American. But she never had a chance to follow that win up, as an ankle injury forced her to withdraw in the quarters of Indian Wells, kept her sidelined until last week in Madrid, and kept her from playing at anywhere near her best until this week in Rome. Meanwhile, in her absence, Serena has gone 23-0 (two Fed Cup wins included) and taken full possession of the No. 1 ranking that had previously belonged to Azarenka.

Even more ominous—for Vika, for her fellow players, and for fans hoping for a compelling final on Sunday—is the fact that Serena has played some of her best tennis of that streak in Rome. She’s lost at total of 10 games in four matches, and has hung a 6-0 set on her opponent in three of them. In her last two matches, against Carla Suarez Navarro and Simona Halep, Serena even added a few twists and touches to her usual power-based arsenal. She used the extra time she has on clay to experiment with different speeds, spins, and angles. In the quarters and semis, she looked to be on top of her game and in complete control, without a hint of the sluggishness that she showed in her semifinal against Anabel Medina Garrigues in Madrid. Apparently, though, Serena wasn’t altogether satisfied with her 6-3, 6-0 win over Halep on Saturday. Afterward, she went back out for another hitting session. Now that’s ominous. Hopefully, Azarenka didn't catch any of it.

Can Vika give Serena a match? For the most part, Azarenka has appeared to be her normal self at the Foro Italico—in other words, she has played dynamic, athletic tennis while looking like she could boil over with rage at any moment. She’s only lost one set so far, to Sam Stosur in the quarterfinals, but she did a good job of stopping the Aussie’s momentum in the third set; Sam was playing with an unusually determined head of steam in the middle of the match. Azarenka showed the same cussedness in holding off Italy’s Sara Errani in front of a full Roman house on Saturday afternoon. Like Stosur, Errani fought hard enough to come back and get her nose in front in the second set, but Azarenka, after bending for a few games, refused to break. She brought a rare silence to the Foro's center court by winning the last three games. If there’s one concern for Vika, it could be her fitness over a a long match on dirt, after so much time away from competition.

Clay has never been the favorite surface of either of these women, but on paper, at the moment, it favors Serena. She has won her last two events on it, in Charleston and Madrid, and she seems to be learning new ways to use her game on it even at age 31. The expectations and motivations of the two players are different as well: Serena hasn’t lost since February, she’s building toward a title run in Paris, and she’s not going to want to surrender her second straight match to Azarenka right before she heads there. As for Vika, her goals are likely more modest: She’s trying to find her feet, her fitness, and something approaching her best form as the heart of the Grand Slam season begins.

But it’s also possible that her lack of match play could work in Azarenka's favor. Intense to a fault, she typically gets out to a fast start to each season, as she did again this year, and then runs into a period of burnout later. In 2012, the burnout was happening right about now; this spring, after her time away, she should be mentally fresh. More important, for the first time since 2009 she'll come in having won her last encounter with Serena.

So will our second stab at a women’s rivalry go any better than it did in Madrid? I think Azarenka will make this final more competitive than Sharapova did last week. Still, while Serena hasn’t faced any Top 10 competition so far in Rome, she has looked very comfortable on its clay. Right now it's hard to see her slipping up, even against a player of Vika’s quality. Whatever the result, this is the match we’ve been waiting to see, one that could have a real effect on the WTA’s immediate future, one that we can at least hope is the start of a rivalry that will put a little more spice into 2013.

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