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WTA Today: Azarenka, Sharapova, Radwanska Into Week 2

Jan 18th 2014

The first week of women’s action at the Australian Open ended in much cooler weather than it began.  We break down what happened around the grounds.

Match of the day:  This was also the upset of the day and the comeback of the day, all rolled into one memorable encounter on Rod Laver Arena.  Former No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki reversed a first-set deficit against Garbine Muguruza and seemed to grasp the match by the throat midway through the second set.  Saving five break points in that set to stay alive, Muguruza reversed the momentum with startling speed when she secured a single late break to level the match.  A flustered Wozniacki held serve just once in the final set to suffer her seventh first-week loss in the last eight majors.  By contrast, Muguruza reached the second week of a major for the first time despite 56 unforced errors.  Her winning streak has extended to 11 following her Hobart title, departing from the usual trend of early exits for players who win tournaments in the week before majors. 

Victoria Azarenka

Gold star:  After a very shaky first-round win, and a decent but unremarkable second-round win, Victoria Azarenka finally showed the form that won her two Australian Open titles from start to finish.  Yielding just one game to Yvonne Meusburger, Azarenka made the statement that she needed before the competition stiffens in the second week.  The demolition was bad for the atmosphere of the night session on Rod Laver Arena, but it was good for the storylines of the tournament as it accelerates toward climax.

Formidable early, fallible late:  After surviving the longest match of the tournament, world No. 3 Maria Sharapova advanced more efficiently today.  Sharapova did almost nothing wrong in a dominant first set against Alize Cornet, but her backhand began to falter early in the second set.  For the second straight match, she failed to convert chances to seal victory and was broken when serving for the match.  Ultimately, Cornet stood on the threshold of a third set with a set point on her serve in the second-set tiebreak.  Blasting away that obstacle with the last of her 35 savage winners, Sharapova predictably withstood the tension of the tiebreak better than the flaky Frenchwoman.

Steady as it goes:  The quality of Agnieszka Radwanska’s comeback against Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova was indifferent at best, when considered as a whole.  Both women rarely played their best tennis at the same time, while unforced errors rather than winners decided most of the key points.  Still, the contrast in styles between the ball-bruising Pavlyuchenkova and the deft Radwanska beguiled for the first set and a half.  The second half of the match, and the Pole’s comeback itself, owed much to physical woes that derailed Pavlyuchenkova once again.  Radwanska survived because her game stayed at a steady, albeit unspectacular, level as her opponent’s game fluctuated so radically.

Drama averted:  Fond of creating drama at times, Jelena Jankovic looked set to follow a familiar course for much of her third-round encounter.  The unheralded Kurumi Nara nipped at Jankovic’s heels throughout the first set and charged ahead in the second.  For once, the Serb showed the discipline to avert the looming rollercoaster, reeling off the last five games of the match.  But an uneven performance in a match when dominance was expected does not bode well for a deep run.

Still scorching:  The courts in Melbourne may have cooled off dramatically today, but Dominika Cibulkova didn’t cool off at all.  No woman lost as few games as Cibulkova did in the first week, just nine overall and a stunning two in her last two matches.  Her first two opponents fell far short of her talent level, granted, but 20th seed Carla Suarez Navarro seemed like a worthy test.  After eating a double bagel at the US Open last fall, the Spaniard sampled a bagel-breadstick combination in Melbourne. Full credit goes to Cibulkova for conserving energy en route to the second week. 

Simona Halep

Romanian rhapsody:  Never had Simona Halep survived the first week of a major until the US Open.  Now, the fast-rising talent has repeated her feat in New York.  Like many other seeds, Halep looked crisper in the cooler temperatures.  She had suffered a slow start in a three-set comeback a round before, but she did not make the same mistake this time.  Establishing her command from the outset against Zarina Diyas, Halep survived a second-set lull to set up an intriguing battle with Jankovic.

Foretaste of a future rivalry?  Fans are starting to catch glimpses of which young stars on both Tours might become the successors to the current elite.  American No. 2 Sloane Stephens clearly falls in that category, as she revealed last year by reaching the Australian Open semifinals.  Another woman who might join her there, Elina Svitolina, hung within range of Stephens throughout two tight sets.  This latest talent to emerge from Eastern Europe lies well behind Stephens on the arc of her career trajectory.  But the signs were there to suggest that we might see these two young women squaring off with more at stake in years to come.

Stat of the day:  Stephens has won at least three matches at every non-major since the start of 2013, a span during which only Serena Williams and Radwanska have done the same.  She has not won three matches at any of the 16 non-majors that she has played during that period.

Trend of the day:  Four of the eight matches began with breadsticks, and all of those women ultimately won.  While the first set takes a player only halfway to her destination, it is difficult to recover from emphatic opening statements like those.