Monday, August 19, 2013

Reflections from the WTA Western & Southern Open in Cincinnati

Bartoli's retirement

After a surprise loss to Simona Halep, Wimbledon champion Marion Bartoli announced an even more surprising retirement from the game. Bartoli cited injuries and the fact that her body simply couldn't cope anymore with the rigours of the tour. The Frenchwoman has always had a physical intensity to her game, and if she doesn't believe her body can cope on the tour anymore, she has every right to take the decision.

From a fan's perspective though, I have to say the decision is really disappointing. In the immediate aftermath of her victory at Wimbledon, Bartoli claimed she saw no reason why she couldn't win more grand slams. For Bartoli to then say she doesn't have the competitive desire a month after winning at SW19 without dropping a set, seems extremely rash and frankly reflects poorly on her desire and motivation to succeed.

I can't help but wonder, if deep down Bartoli believes she will never have the luck of the draw at a grand slam again like she did at Wimbledon, when the top players stumbled out left, right and centre. When we look back at her career in a few years time, I think many in the tennis world will remember Bartoli for her eccentric personality rather than her prowess on the tennis court. At least she quit while still being a grand slam champion, unlike Iva Majoli and Anastasia Myskina who drifted into anonymity after winning the French Open.

Sharapova's split from Connors

Maria Sharapova competed with Bartoli to become the story of the tournament at the Western & Southern Open this year. The world no. 3 has gone into a rather alarming rut since her loss to Serena Williams in the finals of the French Open this year. In order to sort issues with her form, Sharapova hired tennis legend Jimmy Connors to coach her.

Sharapova hoped Connors would ensure that she was in the right frame of the mind going into the US Open. However, after a tough to loss to rising star Sloane Stephens, Sharapova dispensed with Connors' services. Sharapova is the only player currently on the WTA tour other than Serena to win all four grand slams, yet the prevailing feeling is that the Russian won't be remembered as a truly great player.

Tactics certainly aren't Sharapova's forte, and if she decided that Connors' know-how and expertise wasn't going to help her on court, then she needs to do some serious thinking about how to progress in her tennis career. It's all well and good engaging in verbal spats with Serena, but maybe she should take a cue from how the world number one has dedicated herself to further improving her game after the age of 30.

Azarenka likely to be Serena's biggest threat at the US Open

After pulverizing all her opponents on her way to victory at the Rogers Cup in Toronto, many expected Serena to simply repeat the feat in Cincinnati. However, Victoria Azarenka threw a spanner in the works, with a brilliant comeback victory in the final. In a three-set thriller, Williams and Azarenka traded the first two sets with an identical 6-2 score, before the Belorussian came through 8-6 in a third set tie break.

From the outset of the tournament, it was obvious that Serena wasn't playing her best tennis in Cincinnati. After a close shave against rising Canadian star Eugenie Bouchard, Serena herself admitted that she needed to step up or go home. She seemed somewhat closer to her best in the next two rounds, before Li Na really tested her in a high quality semifinal.

Serena certainly played like she meant business in the first set of the final, but Azarenka battled back to win the tournament with some superb tennis. Unlike the US Open final year, the world number two didn't rely on Serena's game faltering, in stead Azarenka played some of her best tennis since winning the Australian Open at the beginning of the year. The victory gives Azarenka a huge shot of confidence, and will keep her in good stead if a similar situation arises at Flushing Meadows, where she spectacularly choked in the final against Serena last year.

The best of the rest on the WTA

It's hard to see a US Open winner other than the top two, especially in light of Sharapova's current struggles. The closest we can come to in terms of a challenger is Agnieszka Radwanska. The world number four was the only player to challenge Serena in Toronto, and looked on course for another deep run until the unfortunate death of her grandfather resulted in her pulling out before a quarterfinal against Li Na. Radwanksa looked imperious while she was in Cincinnati, and will look to continue in the same vein of form in New York.

Jelena Jankovic has had a decent 2013 on tour, and played some high quality tennis at the Western & Southern Open. The second serve is still vulnerable, but once she got into long rallies Jankovic's amazing defence - a trademark during her brief period as world no. 1, ensured she won many long games in tight contests. Hopefully the Serbian can gain confidence from her run to the semis - where she gave Azarenka a fright, and make it far into the draw at the US Open.

One of the players that Jankovic beat was Wimbledon finalist Sabine Lisicki, and the manner in which the German lost the third set suggested it's going to be a while before the German recovers from her monumental meltdown at SW19. Lisicki is now playing at New Haven, but it seems like her chances of making it far at the US Open are pretty slim.

Like her boyfriend Rory McIlroy at the PGA Championship the week before, there were brief glimpses of Caroline Wozniacki returning to her best form. Wozniacki was especially impressive in a win against Petra Kvitova, always managing to get the ball back into the court from improbable positions, and hung tight in a tough second set before succumbing in a tie break to Azarenka's greater power in the quarterfinals. The US Open is the grand slam where the Dane has had the most success, and her performance in Cincinnati should hopefully inspire her to make a deep run in New York.
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