Baseline Nirvana

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Photo by Anita Aguilar

NEW YORK—The stat sheet reads like a casualty report from a battlefield on which everyone was killed.

Flavia Pennetta blasted more winners and committed fewer unforced errors than Victoria Azarenka. Only 15 percent of Pennetta’s serves went unreturned, but Pennetta failed to return even fewer of Azarenka’s (10 percent). Azarenka’s serves was broken five times in this 18-game match, yet Pennetta held just twice.

The numbers were ugly in either column of the stat sheet, but this was no dismal comedy of errors; in fact portions of Victoria Azarenka’s 6-4, 6-2 U.S. Open semifinal win were interesting, albeit roughly in the same way that watching a salmon repeatedly attempt to scale a cataract can be entertaining. For this one-hour and 34-minute match was nothing less than an extended rallying contest. Imagine if Home Run Derby were the only baseball we had, or a soccer game consisted of just the shootout that resolves tied games. If you were to apply a soundtrack to this match, pick one of those relentless, hypnotic techo beats that Azarenka has repudiated now that she’s experienced Motown nirvana.

The theme today, at least for Azarenka, was more like baseline nirvana. Pennetta kept teeing the ball up for Vika to whack, and the No. 2 seed whacked away—with relish. She broke Pennetta’s serve with impunity, and took charge of points at the first opportunity.

“I felt like I had great groundstrokes, everything,” Azarenka said afterward. “You know, just one shot wasn’t working (the serve) and it threw my rhythm a little bit off-balance.” 

Pennetta’s version: “I didn’t serve really well today, but she neither. It was a lot of wind on the court and I didn’t serve in the way I was serving (earlier) because she makes me a lot of pressure. I know I had to try to find a good serve today for start of point, and I didn’t today.”

That “she neither” is telling, because given the unimpressive body of stats you might be moved to ask, “So why didn’t this become one of those at 7-5 in-the-third horror shows?”

The answer is simple: Because as poorly as Azarenka herself served, Pennetta was bafflingly reluctant to attack in the same way she was being molested. Challenging Azarenka to a rallying contest is like proposing a punch-off to Mike Tyson. Definitely a poor choice of weapons.

Pennetta’s great disadvantage starting out in most points was her court positioning, both to receive and to field the Azarenka return. Pennetta began each point giving up a significant amount of real estate at the baseline, and that’s a self-inflicted wound against a woman who’s keen to step inside the baseline and take control of the rallies. The tactical error became increasingly glaring after a first set in which Pennetta was better able to hold her own in the rallies.

Flipping through my notes, I found only two notations marking points in which Pennetta took the initiative to attack with her return—in other words, to move into the court instead of backing off from even further behind the baseline than where she initially set up. Bear in mind that Azarenka barely got half her first serves into play (56 percent), and that her fastest serve was a pokey 102 M.P.H., and her average serve speeds were 92 M.P.H. (first serve) and 77 M.P.H. (second serve).

Alright. Pennetta was one of the three 31-year-old semifinalists (Azarenka, at 24, is the baby). She was unseeded, ranked No. 83, and struggling with mixed results while trying to recover from a right wrist injury. She had a great tournament here, beating four seeds (including No. 4 Sara Errani) to make the first Grand Slam semi of her career. You can see why she might have decided to just go out there and play in her comfort zone, stretch the moment for all it’s worth instead of trying some novel strategy that might blow up in her face. And to some degree, she was just plain cowed by Madame Whoooooo!

“To beat these kinds of players you have to play more aggressive,” Pennetta conceded. “You have to try to find more winners, and in that case you’re gonna miss more also.”

Well. . . yeah. But today Pennetta demonstrated the perils of playing it safe on a day when a bolder approach might have enabled her to experience a career moment.

“Because I didn’t want to miss so much, today I didn’t hit so hard the ball,” she confessed. “We run a lot of rallies more than twenty balls. But she’s stronger than me, and in the end she was winning more points than me.”

Azarenka’s next opponent is unlikely to experience a similar reluctance to give the ball a ride. And as brave a face as Azarenka put on when interrogated about her serving woes, you get the feeling that Serena Williams will be licking her chops like some cartoon lioness when she steps up to the serving notch on Sunday afternoon.

True, Azarenka has shown signs this week of rounding out that once one-dimensional, one-speed—overdrive—game. Most striking, she’s been more amenable than ever to follow up some of her more aggressive shots with well-timed approaches followed by crisply executed volleys. “I feel like I’m a better player,” Azarenka said. “I’m a more complete player. You know, that’s what you aim for after one year of work. So in terms of that, I’m pretty pleased.”

Azarenka tried to dismiss questions about her serving woes, explaining it away as the product of being a little bit “emotional” (whatever that means), or just “so focused you don’t know what you’re doing wrong.” And she reminded us that when she needs to do something, the ability to do it comes back.

None of those were especially satisfying justifications, and it leaves Azarenka and her team with plenty to think about and fret over before the final.

If you enjoy reading Pete Bodo at, you might also be interested in his latest novel, The Reckoning. A revised version of this father-son story set in the Rocky Mountains has just been issued by e-publisher Diversion Books. Click here for more on this grand adventure tale, or to download the book.

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