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Wimbledon semis prove strength of WTA

Radwanska Wimbledon  Pete Edgeler, flickr

Wimbledon boasts two stellar semi-final matches in the women’s draw this summer despite the lack of apparent ‘big’ names Serena Williams, Maria Sharapova and Victoria Azarenka.

The big three all fell before the quarters even though they were tipped for major success this July and have been replaced by lesser-known yet by no means less deserving talent. Their absence should not take away the magnificent achievement of these four semi finalists, all of who are big players in the WTA but sadly lack the profile their Grand Slam competitors receive.

Agnieszka Radwanska is up against Sabine Lisicki on Thursday while Marion Bartoli makes the Wimbledon last four for a second time against Kirsten Flipkens, who has impressed the most this fortnight.

It has been voiced on forums and social networks that a lack of the big three has taken away some gloss in the women’s draw. Just like the men’s side, where Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer fell early, armchair fans voiced their displeasure of seeing the top seeds crash out so soon.

Unfortunately, this view is never going to leave tennis as fans forget it’s a sport you win on merit and instead expect the players they’ve actually heard of to progress to the finals stages. Often lower seeds are disregarded as underserving opponents and when they win it’s the ranking system to blame.

Not so. The rankings are rarely a true reflection of who is going to beat who as they are taken from results spread over such a long period of time. Different surfaces also produce different champions, which is maybe why Radwanska gets further at Wimbledon than any other slam.

Unknown profiles

Lisicki is a great example of a player who deserves more profile in the women’s game but barely receives it. Her victory over Serena Williams was a shock but we shouldn’t be surprised to see this 23rd-seed in the semis. Lisicki made the Wimbledon quarters last year before falling to Angelique Kerber and the semis in 2011. She is a grass expert and certain to reach a Wimbledon final one day – maybe even this year.

Don’t let Lisicki’s seed, or indeed Bartoli’s or Flipkens’ at that matter, fool you; she is far better than 23rd in the world on this surface. In 2012 she was 15th seed and on the up but slumped after the grass season and suffered disappointing first-round defeats at the US Open, Linz and Luxembourg.

Lisicki should get more recognition Photo:  Carine06, flickr

Lisicki should get more recognition
Photo: Carine06, flickr

The same can be said of Bartoli, who has struggled this season yet always poses a threat on her side of the draw, and Radwanska, who either performs or flops in tournaments.

The lesser talents on the WTA don’t get the credit they deserve and that’s mainly because the broad sporting media – via whom we fans get all our news – focus on the big three. Occasionally they’ll do a feature on Petra Kvitova or interview Caroline Wozniacki but bar Serena, Sharapova and Azarenka the representation of women’s tennis in our newspapers outside a Grand Slam is staggeringly bare.

Granted, the big three deserve as much attention as they can get. Tennis is a short career and you’ve got to make the most of it. Li Na rivals this trio as her 2011 French Open victory saw her become a household name in China overnight, but these sorts of successes are few and far between.

A lot of the big three’s success is down to their off-court presence as well as sporting prowess. Because the lower ranks go about as near unknowns, they’re not signed to huge sponsorship deals and the media don’t pry into their private lives.

The women suffer from bad media representation

On the first Monday of these Championships the British newspapers all led with a women’s tennis story about the relationship between Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova. One had said something about the other’s boyfriend; the other replied frostily and the media staged their verbal showdown. There were double-page spreads on this chitter chatter and only by the close of each article was tennis actually discussed – “oh, by the way, they’re playing some sport this week.”

The top players – Serena, Sharapova and increasingly Azarenka – court far too much attention that goes way beyond their talent. Is it really in the interests of the sport that we know Sharapova is dating (I hate that word) Grigor Dimitrov from the men’s tour? How disappointing is it that Azarenka is known as much for her Australian Open victories as her relationship with LMFAO’s Redfoo.

Li is huge in China but hardly a household name elsewhere Photo: Christopher Johnson, flickr

Li is huge in China but hardly a household name elsewhere
Photo: Christopher Johnson, flickr

Yes, these controversial players are great for the profile of the game as they raise the bar and prove just how sporting and commercially successful female athletes can be, yet that attention has come at the sacrifice of the rest.

Most armchair fans would struggle to name 10 players on the WTA circuit without asking “is Kim Clijsters still around?” I’d be one of them two years ago – not because I didn’t choose to follow the women’s game but, when I did and do read something about female players, the media focus on off-court stories instead of what’s happening on it.

This Wimbledon has given those players who advance in tournaments but rarely earn the major victories a chance to prove themselves to an otherwise ignorant public and media. It’s not even our fault; few of us would be able to name the England women’s football XI and that’s partially down to a lack of representation.

When the Wimbledon circus leaves us for another year two of this quartet will be forgotten almost instantly. Can anyone remember who played who in the semis last season? It’s all good and well the media focussing on tennis for this two-week period but if the women’s game is ever to earn the profile it deserves we need column inches dedicated to the sport every week.

If you hear anyone moan about the standard of Wimbledon this year just show them a replay of Radwanska v Li from Monday afternoon. Their chess-like quarterfinal was exactly the sort of on-court quality you can expect on the WTA but rarely do we hear of it when the Serena, Azarenka or Sharapova parades march into town.

Photo:  Pete Edgeler, flickr

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Azarenka defends Australian Open crown

Azarenka Australian Open

Victoria Azarenka came back from a set down to overcome Li Na 4-6 6-4 6-3 and successfully defend her Australian Open singles title in front of a packed Rod Laver Arena.

The 23-year-old, who won her first ever Grand Slam in Melbourne last year, endured a hostile crowd, weak serve and spirited opponent to retain not only the title but also that coveted status as world number one.

The game will be remembered for 16 breaks of serve in one of the most unpredictable Australian Open finals of all time. Li went into the match knowing she had a 2-0 record over the Belarusian in majors and took a competitive first set in just over 40 minutes.

Li persisted with a strong forehand

Li utilised with a strong forehand

However, the Chinese was unable to gather momentum during a match as she endured two injury timeouts and a break for the Australia Day fireworks. She will rise up the WTA rankings but that will be no consolation for the 2011 Roland Garros champion.

As for Azarenka, this victory cements her status at the top of the women’s game and will give her real confidence heading into the rest of the season. Her preparations for the tournament were hampered and she made no friends over her semi-final ‘gamesmanship’, but in the end proved a worthy winner in front of 15,000 supporters.

She becomes only the eighth woman to successfully defend the Australian open crown.

 

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Set One

Nerves certainly had the better of both players early on, with back-to-back breaks to open up and a total 11 errors from the first three games. Li had the first chance to stretch out of two-game lead on Azarenka’s serve and duly took it with a fierce backhand return under her opponents’ feet to take a 3-1 lead in the first set.

Although Azarenka came back with a break herself, Li stretched her lead to 4-2 (five games witnessing breaks of serve) with a superb backhand down the line after controlling her opponent throughout the point.

Li was hitting the heavier shots and coped well at the back of the court over the brief spells that Azarenka pushed forward, taking the seventh game by love but then lost her own serve to see her lead cut to 5-4.

 

Li serving

Li serving

The Chinese had set point on Azarenka’s serve, punching away a cross-court forehand, but two points later the Belarusian made an impossible passing shot to stay in the game. Four set points came and went and it was still not over, until an uncharacteristic double fault saw Li take the first set 6-4.

Although Azarenka had come back into the set, the fact Li won 12 winners to her opponents’ four over 10 games was the clear difference in the pair. Too often Azarenka hit rallies long on the baseline, no doubt trying to match Li’s heavy groundstrokes.

 

Set Two

As often with Grand Slam champions, write them off at your peril, for Azarenka immediately hit back with two breaks and hold of serve in the second. The match was getting tense as Li broke again for 1-3, and just as a crucial fifth game got into its stride Li turned her ankle at the back of the court.

The Chinese limped off for a medial timeout, much to the concern of the Melbourne crowd, and after three minutes heavy strapping was not only fit enough to return to court but won her next two points to defend her serve. 0-40 up in the next game, Li lost the next five points as Azarenka showed her ruthless nature to move 4-2 in front.

 

Li turns her ankle in the second

Li turns her ankle in the second

Although Li would bring the set back Azarenka was too good in the final two games, defending her serve to love to take the match into a third set 6-4.

 

Set Three

Shared breaks opened the second set before a long stoppage for the Australia Day fireworks – a mainstay in Melbourne. Just one point into the next game and Li was down again, twisting her ankle off a backhand and hitting her head on the way down to the ground.

Another medical timeout came and went, and it was clear Li was struggling with her game as Azarenka went forward with real purpose. The defending champion shared breaks again before taking out a 5-3 lead and although Li took her to deuce on her serve, Azarenka saw herself just a point away from the title after almost two hours on court.

Azarenka maintained a powerful game to the end

Azarenka maintained a powerful game to the end

 

Li faulted her first before hitting a second serve into the body, which Azarenka hit back to the baseline. The Chinese went for a backhand across the court only to see her shot – and title dreams – fall the wrong side of the line.

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Li produces surprise victory over Kerber

Li Na produced a scintillating display of tennis to overcome a tired-looking Angelique Kerber 6-4 6-3 in their second match of the WTA Championships this Thursday.

The Chinese number one was impervious on the Istanbul court; displaying a consistency of brilliance she only offered glimmers of against Serena Williams the day before. Whether or not the Williams performance had taught Li a thing or two only she knows, but it was clear her impatience that cost her the match on Wednesday had been replaced by pure composure.

Indeed, Kerber also looked as though she had been affected by her first game of the Championships; although it was evident her loss to Victoria Azarenka had drained her energy.

While Li was sprightly and moving well – trying to banish the inconsistencies of yesterday – Kerber struggled to simply stay in the match after her gruelling three-hour encounter with the world number one.

Kerber started well but lost her way when broken at 4-3: Li producing a swerving pass to take the break before seeing out the set in style. Li charged into the second set and after six games in a row Kerber finally broke back, but the damage had already been done at 5-1 and although her opponent clawed another two games back Li served an ace to win this crucial Red Group match.

On reflection maybe it wasn’t a surprise that Kerber simply couldn’t muster up the energy to match Li, yet the German will still be disappointed that she has two losses to her name when things could have been so much different if she had taken the two match points on offer against Azarenka.

Photo: 

Mike McCune

 

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Williams beats Li in erratic encounter

Serena Williams survived a serving nightmare to overcome eighth seed Li Na 7-6 (7-2) 6-3 in the second match of their round-robin stage at the 2012 WTA Championships.

Williams looked far from composed in the opening throes but quickly regained her confidence to take the first set on a tie-break. Li was just as erratic – at one point holing a 4-1 lead in the first set before crumbling to the pressures of consistency.

The crushing moment came in the second at 3-1 Williams when the American served for nine minutes before finally putting away her spirited opponent.

There were eight breaks of serve in the first set before Serena found her rhythm to take the tie-break 7-2. The American had served for the set at 5-4 yet her inability to keep Li on the back foot gave her Chinese opponent the freedom to come back at her with real vigour.

Williams looked bewildered by her serving at times, hitting just 51% of her first serves and double faulting on five occasions. This led her to a 4-1 deficit before bringing the set back into contention; for Li started hard and capitalised on a slow Williams serve to break her opponent before she had time to compose herself in Istanbul.

First set statistics:

 

Yet as soon as Williams found her stride there was no stopping the Wimbledon, US and Olympic champion. Her clinical play in the tie-break proved her experience in crucial situations and despite hitting 22 unforced errors to 16 Williams took the first.

The 15-time Grand Slam champion looked far more determined in the second set: breaking Li to build a 3-1 lead and reaching her standard 195 km/h first-serve speeds. The next game, with the scores at deuce, Williams hit a great ace before screaming with relief; although Li would not die, saving five game points before finally losing out after nine minutes of Williams serves.

Li, as good as she was bad in Istanbul, double faulted at 30-30 when 5-2 down in the second set before playing some wonderful cross-court tennis to gain the advantage. Both points isolated would give completely different accounts of Li’s performance and another double fault ensued before she took the game with the help of the net.

Yet William’s eventual experience was too much for Li and the American won a gruelling and bewildering match with a love service game.

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