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Welcome to Inside the Baseline, your place for all things WTA tennis. Check in for the latest information on your WTA stars, including tournament previews, results and season outlooks. All website content will be subject to the author's views and opinions, but debate and discussion are more than welcome on each post's comment boards. Enjoy.

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Sunday, October 30, 2011

Live Blog: WTA Championships, Azarenka v. Kvitova

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Caroline Clinches and Crumbles

As news spread of Maria Sharapova's withdrawal from the WTA Championship, Caroline Wozniacki stood on court against her second round robin opponent, Vera Zvonareva. In that moment, the Dane unknowingly clinched the world no. 1 ranking for her second consecutive year, and, snapping back from a first set defecit, it looked like she would confirm the reasons why she is ranked so high.

Then she didn't.

Caroline Wozniacki is not the first WTA player to end the year at the top of the rankings (let's go back to Safina and Jankovic), but she is the first player to do so two years running. With the best defense in the game, but most certainly not the best offense, Caroline has embodied the meaning of consistency in professional sports (cough, er... except those losses to Vinci and McHale). The problem? She's not stepping up and winning the titles she should. Is she doomed to stick to New Haven?

Today Wozniacki fought back against Russia's Zvonareva, but her efforts were stifled by her opponent's gutsy play. No matter how many balls Wozniacki pushed back into the court, Zvonareva was ready to knock them away again, toppling Wozniacki for a 6–2, 4–6, 6–3 victory.

Zvonareva launches a backhand in her match against Wozniacki.
(AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)
The Dane's forehand still sits short, her backhand doesn't always sting like it's capable of and a lack of aggressive play is holding her back. Maybe it's against her nature to go on the attack? But then maybe it's against her nature to hoist a grand slam trophy.

Regardless of her performance in Istanbul, Wozniacki will celebrate the new year as the world's best tennis player. I didn't say the most powerful. I didn't say the most decorated. For now, just... "the best."

-Kedzie Teller, Senior Editor

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Starting the Finish: WTA Year-End Championship 2011 Preview

Predictions from Kedzie Teller and Joe Barkus
The WTA is always full of its ups and downs, but something about the 2011 season has been particularly stunning. Let's take a quick moment to review:

It all started with Kim Clijster's run in Australia, where the agile Belgian proved (once again) that there are few women who can match her athleticism and determination on hardcourt. Then we were awed by Li Na, the woman who carried an entire nation's expectations in her pursuit to be the first Chinese grand slam champion, and succeeded. Soon after we moved to grass, where the not-so-silent and deadly Maria Sharapova looked to reclaim her spot atop tennis' greatest stage, but instead we rose to congratulate the sleeper, Petra Kvitova, who steamrolled her way to her maiden slam title. And finally, at a time when world no. 1 Wozniacki seemed to be slipping, Serena Williams returned and looked ready to reestablish order, only to fall to the might of Slammin' Sam Stosur.

Ten months of action are coming to a close and the Elite Eight have been set for the year-end championships. Here's a break down of what you can expect to see.

Red Group: Wozniacki, Kvitova, Zvonareva, Radwanska

This section definitely appears to be the bigger toss-up of the two. Will Radwanska continuing her winning ways of the fall, or will she succumb to the pressure of facing top ranked opponents all week? Is Zvonereva’s shoulder okay, and can she muster up more than one good rally a game? Then there's Wozniacki who has had the most trouble playing against women ranked no. 15 to 30—will she step up her game against the big guns like she did at this time last year? And, for the love of tennis, which Petra Kvitova will show up to play?

It's all about the match-ups. Zvonareva has had Kvitova's number lately, but Radwanska has consistently beat Zvonareva all season. Wozniacki has close records against all of them, but generally comes out on top against Radwanska. Radwanska is likely to continue her winning ways against Zvonareva, especially with the Russian's hurt shoulder and inconsistency, but the Pole could fall to either of her other opponents should she fail to keep them on their heels. If Kvitova is sharp, she could win the match 6-2, 6-2, but odds are that this match will be going three sets. 

In all honesty, Kvitova is an easy pick to advance out of the round robin if she comes to Istanbul with her gears in full motion. She could repeat her Wimbledon 2010 performance against Wozniacki, pummel Radwanska's defense-game, and outlast a frustrated Zvonareva.

But then what about world no. 1, Wozniacki? For everything she has accomplished in the past year, the Golden Retriever is still lacking the predatory nature she needs to win it big. At times we see her throw out spectacular shots, incredible speed and gutsy defense, but she's lacking the big guns needed to fight in a war of baselining behemoths. Her head-to-head with Zvonareva is even, and she has the edge on the other ladies in the section, but she'll need to up the level of play we saw this fall if she wants to come out on top.

White Group: Sharapova, Azarenka, Li, Stosur

A double whammy of baselining banshees, expect to see some heavy hitting from Sharapova and Azarenka, the likely winners from this group. Li stands little chance to advance if she plays at the level she has been showing the past few months, but a sudden spark like we saw at the start of the season could hush naysayers in a hurry. Where's that biting forehand that launched her to a championship in Paris? Unfortunately for Stosur, she too faces an uphill battle. Have you seen her head-to-head against Sharapova and Azarenka? It's a combined 0-13, and needless to say, that doesn't give the US Open champion much hope...

That's right, Stosur has never managed to beat either of these big hitters in her entire career. Eve worse, she's only managed to snag one set from the Russian in nine attempts. The main reason for Sharapova's dominance over Slammin Sam is her height; at six feet, two inches tall, Sharapova likes to take shots up high, flattening them out with brutal force. A kick serve or lots of top spin (aka, Stosur's game) then allows the Russian to play comfortably. The main reason Azarenka has had so much success against Stosur is because she likes to take the ball early, so Stosur’s mix of top spin and slice does not affect her inside the baseline style.

And then there's Li Na. In Australia and France, the Chinese no.1 showed great courage and skill, but since then has been rater shaky. Odds are she won't fully show up to this tournament and will be carved up by hungry Maria and Victoria. Who knows, though... maybe she can have a consolation victory over Stosur? Then again, she's never beaten her...

* * * 

Barkus’s SemifinalistsRed Group: Kvitova and Radwanska (with Wozniacki 2-1 but being knocked out due to sets lost)
White Group: Sharapova and Azarenka

Teller's SemifinalistsRed Group: Kvitova and Wozniacki
White Group: Sharapova and Azarenka

Barkus's Championship PredictionAzarenka gets revenge against Kvitova and wins in two tight sets.

Teller's Championship PredictionAzarenka takes advantage of Kvitova's inconsistent play in three sets.

AP Photo
Fact: Three recent players who won the WTA Championships went on to win their Maiden Slam soon after. (Novotna, '97; Clijsters '02-'03; Mauresmo '05). So, Vika and Caroline. Do you have what it takes?

Full more information, check the WTA Championship website.

-Kedzie Teller, Senior Editor & Joe Barkus, Contributing Writer

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Potential Greatness: An Analysis of Victoria Azarenka

The Tennis Channel recently released a “tennisography” on Victoria Azarenka, showing us how the current world no. 3 rose to fame from the small country of Belarus. What it didn’t cover, however, is the question that is on many WTA fans’ minds: Does she have the talent to become world no.1 and win her maiden slam? To me, the answer to that question is an obvious yes. But then that raises questions that are even tougher to answer: Why hasn’t she been able to win on one of tennis’ greatest stages yet? Will she use her natural talent to one day hoist a slam trophy?

Women’s tennis is such an interesting sport in its perception of age. In some cases, a 21-years-old can seem so young, whereas other times rather old. Why are we already wondering why Azarenka has yet to win a slam when she just recently left her teenage years? The answer is mainly due to the fact that players such as Serena, Hingis, and Sharapova won at such young ages, and because Sharapova and Hingis haven’t won a slam past the age of 21. Secondly, Azarenka showed a lot of potential so early in her career that fans started to push her and set expectations so high from the beginning.  

Azarenka first burst onto the scene after this performance against Serena Williams at the 2009 Australian Open.

Azarenka had Serena on the ropes, getting up a set before eventually having to withdraw from the match due to injury. Unfortunately, that has been one of the major reasons Azarenka struggles to stay at the very top of the rankings. Since 2010, she has pulled out of over 10 singles tournaments and several doubles matches due to a variety of ailments. Although she is a tough-as-nails fighter on the court, she can never seem to stay healthy long enough to reach her potential. 

After her '09 performance, Azarenka immediately became a "player to watch". She impressed fans as she had no problem imposing her game on Serena on center court at a slam, and she later went on to beat her easily in the final of the Miami Sony Ericson Open (winning her first Premier Mandatory Event). Azarenka, poised to make another run at a slam, met up with then world no.1 Dinara Safina in the quarterfinals of the French Open.  She scorched her way to an easy first set, taking it 6-1, but lost the last two sets 4-6, 1-6. 

Here lies Azarenka’s second issue of why she has yet to win a slam: her mental game. Azarenka has come very close in several quarterfinal appearances at slams, twice she was up a set against Serena at the Australian Open before losing tight second sets and then falling apart in the third. Most of this could be due to the fact that she was young and inexperienced—however, if Azarenka is going to finally take a slam, this is one of the areas she needs to improve the most.

Now, one of the real issues at hand is Azarenka’s style of play. Azarenka is currently one of the most balanced players on tour. Unfortunately, that seems to be what can hurt her the most at times, as she often seems to be lost in a world in between defense and offense. That wasn’t always the case, though, as can be witnessed by her matches against Serena in '09, or in this final against Maria Sharapova. Again, however, Azarenka tightened up at the end of a match, not going for her shots as much as she is capable of, and ultimately Sharapova was able to storm back.  

Now, Azarenka plays a much more balanced game, which has led to more consistency in the rankings but hasn’t gotten her much farther at a slam. She did manage to make her first major semifinal in Wimbledon 2011, but again she lost due to being the more passive player. Of course, no one may have been able to stop Petra Kvitova her Wimbledon run, but if Azarenka had gone for the lines a little more, it is interesting to think about what could have happened.

Ultimately, if Azarenka wants a shot at a slam, she needs to start imposing her game more. She has gotten extremely fit, and her game can certainly wear players down and she can win plenty of matches that way. And of course, she could continue to use this strategy that has no doubt allowed her to rise in the rankings and get some of her best results this year. However, as she could learn from first time slam champions Li Na and Petra Kvitova (both of whom she lost to while they made their slam runs), in order to win a slam you have to be going for your shots when the points matter. That is what allowed Safina to get back into the match at the French Open in 2009, Serena to battle back at the Aussie Open in 2010, and Kvitova to fight off break points at the end of the 3rd set of their Wimbledon semifinal. She has the ability to do it, but the question is whether or not she has the mentality and willpower to do so when most players usually get tight.  

Azarenka is definitely great for the game. She plays with such passion and energy, pumps herself up as she cleans the lines with winners or forces an error after some impeccable defense, and clearly loves winning. She has the game to be a mainstay in the WTA top 5 and lift at least a few slam trophies, and I’m sure plenty of fans would love to see her do so. Now, I’ll leave you with a clip of her most recent big title, where her passion for the game, her ability, and her will to win are all more than evident.

 -Joe Barkus, Contributing Writer

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Beijing: Ana Finding Form

Ana Ivanovic has made it to the quarter-finals of the China Open in Beijing; a statement every fan of hers was waiting to hear for some time. Not only is she finally winning matches, but she is playing some of the best tennis we've seen from her all season.

AP Photo
Ivanovic defeated world no.3, Vera Zvonareva, 6-2 6-1 in only 68 minutes. The score reflects the rhythm of the match: all Ana. The two competitors are now tied in their head-to-head series 5 a piece.
This was not the only big win the Serbian had this week, however, as her aggressive play lifted her past two-time Grand Slam champion Svetlana Kuznetsova. Ivanovic overwhelmed the Russian with an impressive 6-2 6-3 triumph.
The match-up between no.11 seed Agnieszka Radwanska (this year's Tokyo champion) and Sofia Arvidsson will determine Ana’s opponent on Friday. Either way, if she plays the game we've seen in her previous matches, we are all in for another great battle and possibly another flawless performance.
Earlier today, Ana posted the following on Facebook: “That felt really good! I’ve said for a while that I feel that I’m moving in the right direction and this was an important step.”  It has been a while since we've seen Ana perform so dominantly on court (it was her first top 5 win since June 2008) but it might just be the confidence boost the Serbian needed. Could this be the start of something great? It sure gives us hope for the end of the season.
There is only one thing left to say: Welcome back Ana.

AP Photo

-Romina Castagnino, Contributing Writer