Throughout the first week of the 2012 French Open, I will revisit some of the themes I referenced following the end of an exciting Australian Open in January. Tennis is an odd sport in that hardcore followers have something to read and watch every week, but even just intermediate fans build their schedules around four events per year. Tennis never stops, but what has gone on, and what has changed, since January?
First up on the list of themes from the Aussie: the suddenly shaky women's No. 1.
Victoria Azarenka Is Quirky, And Pretty Awesome
I wrote in January:
Now she just has to show she can keep it up. As I documented recently, the women's game has suffered greatly from breakthrough-then-collapse routines recently. Everybody from Ana Ivanovic to Sam Stosur has shown enough potential to take over the women's game, and they have all proceeded to take a few steps backwards following their success. Now it's Azarenka's turn. The temperamental 18-year old has turned into a mature, fascinating 22-year old; now it's on her to prove that she's not like all the rest.
By the second set of Azarenka's match Monday against Alberta Brianti, the announcers were beginning to reference the "Curse of No. 1." It is as good a title as anything for the "breakthrough-then-collapse routines" I mentioned above, and it appeared ready to strike down the 22-year-old Belarusian in the first round of the French.
To date, Azarenka had staved off those demons relatively well. She continued a lengthy unbeaten streak by winning at Qatar at February (she dropped just a combined nine games in wins over Agnieszka Radwanska and Sam Stosur) and at Indian Wells in March (she lost a combined 14 games in wins over Radwanska, Angelique Kerber and Maria Sharapova). But when she finally did lose, to Marion Bartoli in the quarterfinals at Miami, the kinks began to reappear. She hasn't won a tournament since. She got whipped by Sharapova in the finals in Stuttgart, got whipped in the finals by Serena Williams in Madrid, then surprised many (but not Sharapova) by withdrawing from Rome with what appeared to be a minor shoulder injury.
Monday, it looked like Azarenka's stay in Paris would be rather short. She double faulted four times, won just one of nine points on her second serve and committed 28 unforced errors to just 13 winners in her first set loss to Brianti, and she all but fell apart, dropping the first four games of the second set. But on the brink of falling three breaks down, she flipped the switch, putting pressure on Brianti's own second serve; Brianti's game predictably regressed a bit, and Azarenka swept to a 6-7, 6-4, 6-2 victory.
Two recent trends are going against Azarenka as she attempts to recover from a near-disaster. First, none of last year's women's grand slam tournament winners advanced beyond the second round of the next slam. And beyond that, seeds don't tend to hold at the French Open: No top-four seeds made the women's semifinals last year, and only one each made it in 2009 and 2010. She is not the betting favorite -- welcome back, Serena -- but she did not inspire confidence Monday. Sometimes near-disasters can give you a nice boost in future rounds, but the burden of proof is obviously on Azarenka to gather herself and prove the "Curse of No. 1" doesn't apply to just anybody.
Other Monday matches to watch (TV schedule here):
- Men's 1st Round: No. 1 Novak Djokovic vs. Potito Starace. Simply because of the ridiculously high standard Djokovic set last season, he has almost had a bit of a disappointing year. He has fallen twice to Rafael Nadal on clay in the last six weeks, and while there is no shame in that, it is further proof that the edge he had over Nadal and everybody else in 2011 has shrunk. His relatively easy draw begins today.
- Men's 1st Round: No. 11 Gilles Simon vs. Ryan Harrison. A well-coiffed, well-rounded young American, Harrison faces a tough draw at Roland Garros. It begins on Court Philippe Chatrier (center court) with a battle against Frenchman Gilles Simon. The two have met twice; Simon needed three sets to take out the 56th-ranked American on hard courts at Indian Wells this year, then swept him, 6-2, 6-3, on clay.
- Men's 1st Round: No. 10 John Isner vs. Rogerio Dutra Silva. The enormous American has surged into the Top 10 but faces a tough road on the red clay. Though there is a place for power on increasingly faster clay courts, let's just say that if Isner is going to break through with a run at a slam, it likely won't be in Paris. Still, he has a chance to prove me wrong, starting today.
- Women's 1st Round: No. 3 Agnieszka Radwanska vs. Bojana Jovanovski. Perhaps the hottest player on the women's tour, Radwanska has surged to third in the world on the heels of three tournament titles: Dubai in February (she took out Julia Goerges in the finals), Miami in March (she didn't drop a set, beating Venus Williams in the quarters, Marion Bartoli in the semis, and Maria Sharapova in the finals) and Brussels last week (she romped through a meager field, taking out Simona Halep in the finals). Success is typically an anathema for those on the women's tour, and the 23-year old Radwanska has never advanced beyond the fourth round in five trips to the French Open, but she's got confidence that others lack. Her run starts today versus the 101st-ranked Jovanovski.