October 30, 2009 -- Tennis turns on a dime. You could be up one minute, then down the next. If you back off, you're finished... especially if you're about to close out a match.
Case in point, the match between Victoria Azarenka and Agnieszka Radwanska today in Doha. Radwanska, ranked #10, was the second alternate to be called in after Vera Zvonareva, the first alternate, withdrew with her bum right ankle acting up again after losing her match yesterday -- the only match she played. Lucky for her the purse is big. She took home $100,000.
When Radwanska took to the court today, she was the fresher player. She had to be in attendance at the Khalifa International Tennis and Squash Complex, but she wasn't ramped up like the other women who had been competing for days.
Azarenka had played two matches. The one against Caroline Wozniacki was a three-hour thriller where Azarenka had match points, but failed to convert in the final hour. This theme repeated itself today.
Midway through the first set Azarenka called for Antonio Van Grichen, her coach. She listened quietly as he filled her head with non-stop strategic suggestions. Radwanska had just won back-to-back games, making up for one break. Whatever Van Grichen said to Azarenka, she went out and moved the ball from one corner to another, enough to stretch Radwanska wide then sneak to the net and put short shots away. First set was hers 6/4.
Confident with the first set under her belt, Azarenka looked as if she'd run away with the second set and the match. Radwanska moped around the court, looking despondent and frustrated. She was down 0/4. She mustered the strength of will to break, but Azarenka was relentless. She showed the determination she'd displayed in Miami - the crown jewel tournament she'd won this year.
At 5/2 the woman from Belarus was poised. She needed one game. Close it out and she'd secure a spot in the semifinal of the prestigious year-ending championships. Lose and she would jet off to just about any vacation spot she could dream of, Kleenex in hand.
But nerves are a terrible thing. As she stood on the baseline something went wrong. Azarenka could have flashed back on her demise with Wozniacki. She could have insisted to herself that she had to win this, as if setting herself up for failure. Whatever it was, she tightened up. She blew her opportunity, double faulting the last two points of the game. Radwanska was back in contention. Score 5/3.
Radwanska applied the pressure, keeping the ball in play. One long rally lapsed into another long rally point after point. She was in charge. The two ran for lobs and back to the net for drop shots. Both glistened with sweat, the temperature in the 80s at 11 PM. Azarenka's groundstrokes landed short and shorter, inviting Radwanska to the net for put away shots.
Radwanska ran off five games to win the set 7/5. In order to knock Azarenka out of the semifinals and let Wozniacki into the semifinals, Radwanska had to win the match.
And she did. The third set was difficult to watch. Azarenka called the trainer twice. They wrapped her right hamstring and then worked on her shoulders. She hobbled from one side of the court to the other. She cried, going for shots quickly in order to end the points. With Radwanska in the lead 4/1, Azarenka called it a season. She limped to the net, shook her opponent's hand and collapsed on the bench.
Her retirement re-shaped the semifinals set for tomorrow. Had Azarenka held on somehow and pulled off the win, she wouldn't have been in any shape to compete on Saturday. She was completely depleted of energy, both physically and mentally.
Earlier today, Jelena Jankovic made her way to the semifinals, defeating a tired Caroline Wozniacki 62 62. The Dane's dramatic effort yesterday, which ended in tears of joy, left her more than a couple steps off the pace against Jankovic.
Wozniacki, like Azarenka today, had been up 6/0 5/2 against Vera Zvonareva and didn't close it out. Zvonareva won the second in a tiebreak. She went down two breaks in the third, but clawed her way to lead 4/3. Wozniacki then cramped badly, writhing on the court as if being shocked by electricity. She stood up and gave it everything she had - she was out of medical time outs. Amazingly she withstood her pain and won the match, after taking the last three games of the set.
Tomorrow, Caroline Wozniacki will play Serena Williams in one semifinal and Jelena Jankovic will battle Venus Williams in the other semifinal. Venus secured her berth today when Svetlana Kuznetsova defeated Elena Dementieva 6/3 6/2 in a stunning display of athleticism and finesse.
Serena and Caroline have only met on one occasion: in Sydney early this year. Serena won the match, but the score tells the tale 67(5) 63 76(3). Both players have had an entire season to hone their skills. Wozniacki has risen to a career-high of #4 in the world. She was the U. S. Open runner-up. Her confidence is primed for a battle. However, her health could certainly impede her performance.
Venus Williams and Jelena Jankovic have played nine times. Jankovic leads 5-4. Eight of their matches have gone three sets and the court surface doesn't seem to favor either player. Jankovic beat the elder Williams on her favorite grass surface at Wimbledon in 2006; and, Williams beat Jankovic on her favorite clay surface in Rome of the same year. They played three times in 2008, Jankovic winning two. The third win went to Venus Williams. It was the final of the Sony Ericsson Championships in Doha.