Wednesday, 13 March 2013

The Psychologies of No Longer #1s

Somewhere in the deserts of California, 96 of the top WTA players battled their way through the first week of the tournament, and now only 8 remain.  A 128-place draw sheet was in operation, granting all 32 seeded women a bye into the second round.  Of the quarter-finalists tying their shoelaces and straightening their visors today and tomorrow, all 8 were seeded at the event.

Victoria Azarenka (1) vs Caroline Wozniacki (8)

Defending champion, Victoria Azarenka, has started 2013 in much of the same vein as she began 2012.  Last year, she zipped through the first three months of the season going 26 without loss before being derailed by Marion Bartoli at the Miami Sony Ericsson Open.  2013 sees her January-March tally at 17 without loss, a feat she achieved by retaining her Australian Open crown and chalking up a victory against Serena Williams in Doha.  That she has ceded the top spot in the official rankings to the American veteran has had little to do with any dips in Azarenka's season, primarily attributable to Williams' increased play activity at the beginning of the year.  With Williams absent from Indian Wells as she was last year, Azarenka cannot take back the coveted #1 spot, even if she ends up defending her title.

She faces off against another former #1 in the quarter-final, the now World #10 and 8th seed at the Indian Wells event Caroline Wozniacki.  The Dane was ousted from the top spot in the rankings by the lady she faces this round.  The affair which both have with the top spot is inherent in their quarter-final match-up.  Wozniacki's plight has been much reported on, her plummet down the rankings eventually stopping around just outside the top 10, where she has flitted up an down for most of the latter half of last year and this.  The young Dane looks unlikely to climb back to the top of the rankings tree, even considering the ageing years of some of the top 10 that she would need to leapfrog - Williams, Li Na and Stosur are all over or nearing 30, and will eventually find that time catches up on them and they cannot sustain their current playing levels or ranking.

It is, instead, players of Azarenka's ilk, such as Petra Kvitova, Aga Radwanska and even Maria Sharapova, that  Wozniacki needs to be compared with - these players will plot their careers alongside the Dane.  And in comparison to them she appears to be the one trying to make up the gap that they opened up between them and her last season.  Far from suggesting that her stint at number one was a fluke or that she was unworthy of it, it is more indicative of the dearth of new talent that has forced its way through the rankings and now sits at the top of the game.  Wozniacki, try as she might, frequently finds herself lacking in tactics when she comes up against the current top 10 - the controlled power of Azarenka, the doubles sharpness of Sara Errani or the wily tactics of Radwanska, for example, prove too much of a game for a player who values safety over aggression.

This is a microcosm of Wozniacki's relationship to the number one spot.  Whilst she was number one she frequently appeared laid back and content with her ranking.  As she drifted out of the top ten the frustrations with her status manifested themselves infrequently enough to suggest that she was resigned to the inevitability of her drop out of WTA title contention, again content with her standing.  Regardless of whether this was a true state of her inner emotions, her outward demeanour suggested it was so.

Similarly, now, even though there appears to be a will to try something new to re-ascend the rankings, it appears as an uncomfortable position for her to be in, and an unlikely way for her to compete, so inevitably she reverts back to plan A - the safe and steady mono-rhythm.  It is almost an acceptance with her current position in the WTA rankings, a complacency to do what she does to maintain her standing rather than improve it.  And it contrasts greatly with Azarenka's demeanour throughout her climb to the number one spot and could hint at her mindset now that she has lost the position to Serena Williams.  Azarenka embodies a determination and the confident swagger of a champion, contrastingly to Wozniacki, there is a demeanour of rightfulness about her that screams that she believes that she should be the player at the top of the rankings.

Losing the top spot to Serena may have the opposite effect to Azarenka than her usurpation had on Wozniacki, and it may spur the 23-year-old on to an even greater resolution to succeed in an effort to reclaim what she thinks is rightfully hers.  And it could, in many ways, be a good indicator of how the quarter-final between the two former number ones could pan out.  It should come down to the greater determination, the bigger drive and the better tendency to clinically execute an aggressive game plan.  On all of these Azarenka trumps Wozniacki, and tomorrow's match could prove to be unnecessarily one-sided in the Belorussian's favour.

In the other quarters it was a clean sweep of seeds, and nearly a full set of the top 8.  The struggling Stosur, whose abysmal opening months of the season have typically cocooned into more solid results the further away from Australia she gets, takes on #4 seed Angelique Kerber.  The German has a wealth to prove after her first season in the top 10, and may be a little short of full fitness.  The Australian may just sneak a victory through to the semi-final this time.

In the bottom half of the draw, Sharapova takes on Italy's Sara Errani.  An on-form Sharapova should prove too strong for the gutsy Errani, but if Sharapova has a nightmare day full of erratic line-missing power-plays, Errani could push her to three sets.

Finally Petra Kvitova takes on the surprise quarter-finalist, Maria Kirilenko.  The other Russian Maria, currently seeded 13th, put out the #3 seed Radwanska, who has seen some of the sheen that she gleamed throughout 2012 fade as she fails to string together results in the bigger events of the year.  Kvitova, by contrast, looks to have addressed some of the failings of her 2012 and should progress against her lower-ranked opponent.

Semi-final predictions: Azarenka vs Stosur; Sharapova vs Kvitova

Image copyright saimad via Wikimedia Commons


Moo_1989 said...

Such a shame that the womens quarters were no shows today as both had the potential to be very good matches.

random cloud said...

Yeah - it was a shame. Dampened an otherwise good line-up.


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