I’m off until Monday, so I’ll wrap up my week by taking some reader comments and questions. If you have something you’d like addressed in this column in the future, please email me at email@example.com.
I haven’t made a strong claim myself, mainly because I don’t have a strong opinion one way or another. Rafa and Serena had very similar years, and they fit into their careers in similar ways. They each won two Grand Slams in 2013, which is one less than their best (Nadal won three in 2010, Serena did the same in 2002). On the other hand, away from the Slams, they were better than ever. Serena went 78-4 and won 11 titles this year; in 2002, she won eight events. Nadal, who has two more tournaments to finish, is 69-5 and has won 10 titles so far. That’s three more than he won in 2010 (though one less than he won as a teenager back in 2005). In 2013, Nadal and Williams also had more success on their least-favorite surfaces—clay in her case, hard courts in his—than they ever have. For two veteran champs, that’s an impressive improvement.
The problem for both of them is Wimbledon. Rafa and Serena each won it in their three-Slam seasons; this year they went out early there (Nadal very early, in the first round). \When you're debating greatness, it’s hard to side against the majors, no matter what else has happened over the course of a season. Consider it this way: Do you think Rafa and Serena would trade the three extra tour titles they won in 2013 for a Wimbledon title? I’m guessing both of them would say yes.
I don’t know whether this was Serena’s best year; it’s neck and neck with her 2002 and her 2012, when she won an Olympic gold medal in singles, an achievement that seemed to mean more to her than any of her 17 major titles. As for Rafa, we’ll have to wait until it’s over to decide. A title at the World Tour Final in London next week might put his 2013 over the top. It’s something he’s never done before. On the other hand, he still has to clinch the No. 1 spot; he finished at the top in 2010.
Which is “better,” consistent dominance over the course of a year, or the ability to win on more of the game’s biggest stages? There’s no definitive answer in either of these cases, but by doing the former, Nadal and Serena have elevated the non-Slam part of the tour. Over the last three decades, the priority has mostly gone the other way. To many of us, it has become all about the Slams. But when you compare Rafa’s and Serena’s current seasons to their best seasons from the past, it’s at least possible to believe that their overall records mean more than how they did at the majors. (In his prime, Roger Federer had the best of both of these worlds.)
That’s a surprise, because Nadal and Serena share a history of shutting it down after the U.S. Open (this is Nadal’s first appearance at Bercy in four years). This obviously hasn’t been the case with them in 2013. As far as Rafa goes, part of that is due to the fact that he got a late start to the season, so he’s had more left for the fall. But I also think it speaks well of the tweaks that the tours have made to their respective schedules in recent years. The players still go at it for nearly 11 months, but shaving a few weeks off at the end has helped. This will never be Rafa’s or Serena’s favorite time of year: She was at the end of her physical rope in Istanbul, while he's 0 for 2 in the events he’s played since the Open. But neither of their end-of-year roads are quite as long as they once were. Hopefully, that’s something that will help all of the top players finish stronger in the future.
What did you make of Azarenka’s latest issues in Istanbul? Can she ever just a play a tournament straight up?—Micah
From Azarenka’s bad back to Serena’s “wall” of exhaustion, there was plenty of angst and drama in Istanbul. In Vika’s case, you’re right, her physical struggles are well known; she has retired or withdrawn 27 times in her career. She’s so well known for it, in fact, that she cited her reputation as the reason she didn’t retire a 28th time, despite hobbling and waving at the ball for the better part of two sets against Li Na. In this case, though, it would have been hard to fault Azarenka for quitting. We could all see the injury was real, and she was playing her last match of her season. In the past, fans have been puzzled when she’s walked off the court; this time we were puzzled when she stayed on.
It made me wonder whether Vika’s biggest problem is a lack of awareness about how she’s being perceived. In that infamous incident in the Aussie Open semis, when she called a trainer and eventually was given a medical time-out just before Sloane Stephens served to stay in the match, Azarenka seemed to be genuinely surprised that anyone would take exception to that, or see it as “cheating within the rules,” as Sloane’s coach called it. Ten months later in Istanbul, concerned about her reputation for fragility and scarred by the fallout from the Aussie incident, she overcompensated and risked injuring herself further. She said it was for the sake of the fans, but it’s doubtful that any of those fans in Istanbul were in any way entertained by the match that Vika was playing against Li.
I didn’t think Azarenka was faking anything in Melbourne or Istanbul. But from a PR perspective, she couldn’t win in 2013. Maybe in 2014 she’ll learn to do what she needs to do for her health without inviting charges of gamesmanship. Playing it, as you say, “straight up” is always the way to go.
Enjoy the rest of Bercy. I'll be back for the World Tour Finals next week.