(Picture credit: @StephInTheUS, Mutua Madrid Open 2015)
It’s a multiple time Grand Slam final match-up, a battle between two women who have – for many months of the not-so-distant past – held world numbers one and two side by side.
Yet Serena Williams and Victoria Azarenka will tomorrow meet in just a third round encounter, at Premier Mandatory tournament the Mutua Madrid Open. Both are still part of a packed early section of their draw, with Vika taking out Serena’s sister Venus in her opener, and Serena herself gliding past what was a potentially tricky opponent in Sloane Stephens last round.
With these big names taking the stage so early on, people have naturally pinpointed it an intriguing clash to observe. But is it really as tantillising a prospect as the first glance suggests? And if so, what are the factors that really make it stand out?
Let us explore the details…
Victoria Azarenka sill hasn’t found her way back to elite status after a 2014 season that ripped her apart – internally as well as externally. Plagued with injury – and poor form when she was able to make a showing – Vika fell into depression along with everything else as she struggled to register mere wins, let alone claim a title. It was no surprise to the tennis world when she ended her stressful season prematurely, to focus on preparing for 2015.
Things still looked bleak for Vika when January dawned. After losing her first match of the season – an intense duel with Karolina Pliskova, in which the Czech emerged victorious over three hours – a second round Australian Open win over Wozniacki looked ready to up her fortunes. However it was closely followed by a straightforward loss to Dominika Cibulkova, and shortly afterwards, the unexpected departure of long-time coach and friend Sam Sumyk from her team.
In a season where she has so far gone 10 wins to 5 losses, that first month perfectly portrays how up and down 2015 has been for Azarenka thus far. Her highs (example, recording her first win over a resurgent Venus Williams) have been punctuated by lows (example, falling to Lucie Safarova in the highly winnable final of the next round.) She still only sits at world number 31.
Serena, meanwhile, has been experiencing her usual successes – but to make it a tad more interesting, she’s been trying out a different route. While being a perfect 22-0 on the current season, Serena is actually riding the crest of a straight 25-0 winning streak.
If you are confused to learn that Serena is still lossless this season, despite only having won two titles, inspection of her chosen pathway will provide some insight. The number one American actually had a less-than-encouraging start to the year, with messy matches and a couple of singles losses stinging her hard in Australia. But at the expense of her sole teammate, John Isner (to whom she apologised profusely in several tweets) this was all at the Hopman Cup exhibition event. Consequently, the scores were not registered to Serena’s overall record.
Perhaps several competitive-yet-uncounted matches were exactly what she needed to ease herself back into competition. To highlight what she needed to work on, and to aid her must-win-every-match nature. It was a big decision to play Hopman Cup – skipping the premier tournament in Brisbane that she practically owns – but her clean slate since tells us that it was a decision that has paid off. Even the illnesses and injuries that have sidelined her may have been blessings in disguise, as Serena has had more energy for bigger tournaments. After winning Australian Open number six back in January, something she clearly expressed was a desire to play less, and go for more.
If that’s even possible for one of the most dominant players, male or female, ever to grace a tennis court.
Reaching the end of the brief season review, the odds seem stacked against an iffy Azarenka – who, despite playing two great matches to open her Madrid campaign, has yet to prove she can stay with the best. Her five losses this year have come against top twenty players – including a lopsided and overly hyped duel versus Maria Sharapova. And although she already has two wins each over both Venus and Caroline Wozniacki, this pales to insignificance when she’s on the wrong side of a 14-3 head to head against the best player in the world.
Throw in the fact that Serena and Vika have only ever met twice on clay (here in 2012 and at Rome in 2013), and that Serena ruled both clashes by the identical scoreline of 6-1 6-3… and you may be wondering why you ever saw potential in this match.
However, there is once factor that could change everything. And it has a name:
Everyone familiar with tennis knows of this guy. Sascha was Serena’s ‘hitting partner’ for more than eight years – although admittedly he was far more than just a hitting partner. The German-born Serbian was more like her brother, devoting time, energy, skill and relentless support to his ‘boss.’ This article from the New York Times last year gives you the brief overview of how things were. Hardworking and sympathetic, he was as much a key part of Serena’s player box as Patrick Mouratoglou… although speculation now is that Sascha didn’t feel that.
Even at the end of last year, during the WTA Finals in Singapore, Sascha was the avid ringleader of Team Serena – struggling to hold together during her matches, rallying support on twitter away from them, and mixing up his hitting styles in practise the way he always had done.
But for some reason we may never know, that all fell away. To cut a long story short, frankly disturbing tweets from Sascha’s twitter feed – plus a distance between the pair that lasted over a month – proceeded what Serena fans had now been dreading: A parting of ways between the pair.
It got even messier when, just days later, another announcement rocked the tennis world: In the midst of a swathe of coaching changes, Sascha Bajin was already in the employment of Serena’s friend, opponent and rival, Victoria Azarenka.
Despite an exchange of tweets in which Serena congratulated Sascha on the new job and told him and Vika ‘not to have too much fun without her’, and in turn Vika ‘thanked her for being cool ‘ (kind words all round, you get the picture), the mingled apprehension and anticipation for the pair’s next clash had been immediately awakened.
When tomorrow dawns, Vika will take to the court in full supply of all the insights Sascha has of the woman he was once so utterly dedicated to. Sascha Bajin not only knows the weaker elements (if there be any) of Serena’s game, but, after the long years he has spent at her side, he also knows what could attack her mentality. The elements that could force her into little frustrations, that push her to unravel.
And there’s even more. Serena Williams may be fierce and focussed on the court, but she is also – more obviously in recent times – an emotional human being. This could come back to bite her on Wednesday, when she sees her former confidant helping not just a rival player, but one with whom she, to some extent, has connections with.
The situation is not too dissimilar that of Andy Murray and Daniel Vallverdu’s – a drama the reached its height back at this year’s Aussie Open. With his long time friend on the opposite side of the net, it wasn’t particularly the tactics that Vallverdu fed Berdych that were hurting Murray. It was seeing his old friend standing against him, after all they had endured together. And it was also the knowledge of the hype that was surrounding the match for that very reason.
Can Serena be tougher than Andy – who actually managed to squeak out the win anyway?
If we’re completely honest, the result tomorrow plainly and simply comes down to Serena Williams. The dominating American has slaughtered Sascha during practise sessions like she’s slaughtered the WTA, and even he must know that all the insight he can offer Vika will be nothing if Serena comes out playing at one hundred percent.
But tomorrow Serena can do one of two things.
Firstly, she can see Sascha Bajin on the opposing team and let hurt and nerves and muddling emotions mess her around.
Or she can use the situation as motivation, and power to victory.
It’s up to Serena.
Only tomorrow will tell us what she will do.
We’ve covered the biggest aspects of tomorrow’s blockbuster showdown, and predictions are hard things to make in sports. The beauty of tennis is that absolutely anything could happen.
But when you’re faced with someone as dominant as Serena – who has shown her prowess, her ability and her mental toughness time and again when called upon – it would be foolish to bet against her.
Vika has never quite established a love affair with clay. But Serena – after years of hard work, and two Madrid master classes already this year – is determined to be crowned Queen of it.
SERENA WILLIAMS D. VICTORIA AZARENKA 6-4, 6-3