NEW YORK—It was just the third point of what would be a two-hour and 10-minute match, but when Ana Ivanovic won it with a forehand winner, she celebrated with a familiar fist pump and gazed at her clenched hand, saying a few indecipherable words.
She might have been Hamlet, holding the skill of Yorick and delivering a version of that famous soliloquy: “Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him Horatio, and I wish he were still around to coach and advise me, help me get over that hump and back into the mix at the top of the game, where I once was, but haven’t been for over five years despite all the work and diligence I can muster. . .”
The monologue would go something like that, but in our version Victoria Azarenka would jump out from behind a headstone before she finished and club poor Ivanovic over the head with a shovel, which is more or less what happened in their U.S. Open quarterfinal today. It was an entertaining but oddly predictable outcome, with Azarenka coming through in the end, 4-6, 6-3, 6-4.
Once again, Ivanovic’s admirable dedication to every dimension of athletic discipline went unrewarded; her hunger to do all the right things frustrated by a woman who just seems that much more relaxed, that much more able to struggle and find a way to win, or to make just the right shot at the right time.
A snapshot of the two women in a candid moment tells much: There stands Ivanovic, looking rather like a figure you might find painted on the nose of a World War II B-52. Her body appears sculpted to perfection as if by the wind, or water. She’s a poised young lady in crimson—the color of passion, the skin-tone of aggression—but ultimately still looking nothing less than demure. Her reputation as the quintessential “nice girl” is well-earned, and something of a millstone given the company she’s forced to keep.
By contrast, Azarenka is in a gym-class gray and dusty salmon outfit, broad at the beam, her legs like inverted bowling pins, perspiration gleaming on her shoulders. Somehow, you sense that Ivanovic is the good girl, the sincere girl who does her homework on time and makes her bed, while Azarenka is the unpredictable one, the one with the scratched knees who’s up to something and it may not be good. She’s the fighter, and once her flinty eyes are fixed on a prize, she’s willing to do anything to get it.
It took quite an effort to get what she wanted, for Ivanovic played well from the get-go, winning the first set with a blizzard of winners (17 to Azarenka’s four) despite converting just 59 percent of her first serves. And she returned well enough to make Azarenka’s 86 percent conversion rate on first serves irrelevant. If you had side-by-side photo images representing their respective games, Ivanovic’s would be saturated with color, bright and in focus, while Azarenka’s would be blurry and bleached out.
“I felt out of it,” Azarenka said immediately afterward. “I was sleepy, and she was ripping winners. Then I was more determined in the second set.”
“It’s definitely a lot of positives to take from this week and this match,” Ivanovic said, as polite and self-controlled as ever in her presser. “But it still doesn’t change that it’s disappointing and. . . it hurts.”
Well, they don’t give you points in a tennis match for being a sensitive or genuinely good-natured person (nor for being a jerk, thank God). It always comes down to forehands, backhands, and nerves in some shifting configuration. In this match it boiled down to the serve, and the struggle to hold. There were seven consecutive breaks starting in the ninth game of the first set, a three-game respite that allowed Azarenka to build a lead of 5-3 in the second set, then another break to seal it for the No. 2 seed.
“I felt like I wasn’t really executing and putting enough in the first set,” Azarenka would say. “But she definitely really was going for everything. It didn’t leave me much of room to go for my shots. But I started to create more opportunities. In the end of the first set it was already turning around, but I slipped away a few opportunities.”
That’s accurate enough. But what of all those breaks that would follow after a first set featuring just three? There were 16 breaks (and just 13 holds), and a grand total of 32 break points. But while we’ve witnessed countless matches filled with cringe-worthy serving and handfuls of breaks, this wasn’t one of those.
The striking thing about all those breaks—including seven of 10 games in the third set—was that both women were playing well; it was a prime example of how even good serving sometimes guarantees nothing against a quality opponent. When someone asked Azarenka to account for all those breaks, she replied, “I don’t know, I think we’re great returners.” Unable to keep a straight face, Azarenka began laughing and added, “It’s just as simple as that. We’re just so much better on the return.”
The dark side of that half-truth is that Ivanovic’s serve became ineffective in the third set, which was largely a tribute to Azarenka’s return. Ivanovic had won 75 percent of her first serve points in the first set. By the end of the second, she was down to 42 percent. “I felt I put her under a lot of pressure (in the first set),” Ivanovic lamented. “But she started to play a lot more aggressive in the second set.”
By the third set the clash was intense and mesmerizing, with Azarenka’s familiar, counter-punching consistency still well-matched by Ivanovic’s flair for smacking winners off her forehand side. Down a break in the third, Ivanovic did a good job breaking and then holding for 3-all, but it would be her last hold of the match.
In the end, it seemed that no matter how hard she tried, Ivanovic was unable to assert authority after the first set. Some of the credit for that goes to Azarenka’s pugnacious spirit, and some to her more well-rounded game. She used the drop shot effectively in this match, and she won numerous duels near or at the net. Ivanovic’s only reliable weapon on a day when Azareanka handled her serve was her baseline forehand.
This match also exposed one of the great weaknesses in Ivanovic’s game, the trouble she has with her transition game. While her solid forehand enables her to switch from defense to offense at the baseline, she really struggles with the art of pressing the attack and coming to the net to finish. Significantly, Azarenka won 67 percent of the points she played at the net (16 of 24), while Ivanovic managed just 40 percent (eight of 20).
It will be tempting to put this bitter defeat down to Ivanovic’s nature and reputation as that “nice girl” who just isn’t tough and aggressive enough to punch back into the upper echelon, or to win a Grand Slam. It’s perhaps a broadly accurate assessment, as well as a challenge for her. But cozy as that narrative is, is there’s no question that Hamlet in a red dress might become the devil in a red dress with a few tweaks and additions to her game.
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