Wow. You have to have done something really bad to have someone in the stands of the Australian Open take the time to craft a sign for the Women’s Final where Victoria Azarenka played Li Na. But the one fan wasn’t alone in his disgust of the defending champion, on air, on Twitter and around the globe, people were chiming in on just how Victoria Azarenka, the young Belarusian, ranked one in the world, escaped her semi-final match against the young American, Sloane Stephens. After all, Stephens showed us a round earlier that she certainly can play ball, taking out Serena Williams in her quarter-final.
All right, Serena was injured which one, which we knew of, a self-induced sprained ankle in her third round match, and two we later found out about in her post-match press conference where she laid out her case for the real reason she lost to Sloane Stephens, a lingering back injury for the past two weeks. We saw Serena aggravate it, during the Stephens quarter-final running aggressively toward the net, stopping short, then lurching over to extend for a short, weak shot, which she hit for a winner with her two-handed backhand.
‘I mean you’ve seen me play better matches, haven’t you?’ asked Serena to the press corps, searching, I think for agreement, while playing an underhanded ‘well done’ to Sloane Stephens. As you know, Serena NEVER lauds praise on an opponent who has beaten her, EVER. It’s not in her DNA. Some of us think that she could be the largest marketing bonanza since Bo Jackson, but it’s Serena’s edge that keeps her from attaining Sharapova-like numbers for endorsements. Blame Richard Williams. Then start to ticking down the list of people MIA in helping her forge a long-term invincibility in the market. At the top of the list is Jill Smoller her agent, who is more an enabler, than an agent. Think 2009 US Open Toe-gate I where Serena was called for a foot-fault at a key moment in her semi-final match against Kim Clijsters, and then went on a swearing bender threatening the Chinese lines woman that could easily have come out of a Quentin Tarantino movie.
Serena was defaulted. In her press conference, she said, ‘well you know I’m a competitive person,’ but came no where near to an apology for what she said. Never apologized for any of her actions, two days later went on Good Morning America and was ready to ‘move on.’ Still no apology.
The US Open then fined her a record $96,000 for the incident to which she replied on her website, ‘if a man had done it, no way would he have received anything close to this harsh of a penalty.’
Still no apology. Then in the summer of 2010, during an odd series of events, as she claims that she stepped on some glass at a German nightclub, severely cutting a tendon to her big toe. She had an obligation to play against Kim Clijsters in an exhibition, did, and then for eleven months Serena went underground. She promised a full summer of commitments, and pulled, one-by-one, a week out of all events. I called it ‘Toe-gate’ II.
How in the world could your management ever let any of this slide, while the luster of your brand is day-by-day losing it’s lure?
For some reason, there hasn’t been any urgency to rehash the deets with the press corps. Serena deflects with ‘that’s so far in the past, I’ve moved on.’ Unfortunately, so have potential sponsors.
Bo Knows Bo and Bo wouldn’t approve.
Fast forward to complications of a prolonged recovery to toe surgery, foot in a cast, sedentary high heel training for ‘special events’ like the Oscar’s parties, and you’ve got a recipe for disaster which came in the late-winter of 2011 where Serena suffered a pulmonary embolism due to a blood clot and circulation problems in her lungs.
Who manages this girl? That’s the only thing that went through my head. How can you possibly chuck away a season because of carelessness? Unchecked. Unmonitored and left to her own devices, Serena is Serena’s worst enemy. Just read her Twitter feed: unlucky in love; can’t resist this (food), etc.
In the Summer of 2011, Serena makes a miraculous comeback. Talks about the long road to recovery. The shots she had to take to thin her blood out. The complications of self-doctoring. And the shear joy of realizing how great it is to be back in this game again.
Wow. If I was a shrink, I’d think she was bi-polar. Highs are way too high. And lows are painfully low.
But thankfully I’m not. I have the luxury of sitting on a fence and watching the spectacle. The ‘new’ Serena was in tears, happy, thankful, complimentary and well very un-Serena.
That lasted about a month.
Flash forward to the final of the 2011 US Open and Serena loses to Sam Stosur in straight sets and in typical Serena fashion, is called for ‘hindrance’ during an early celebration of a shot she hit for what she thought was a winner, but Stosur tracked it down, looked up at the umpire who agreed, Violation, Ms. Williams, point penalty. Serena wagging finger to the umpire, scolding her, was classic Serena. The old tarnished brand, feisty, competitive and unforgiving.
Hindrance. Rule number 26 in the ITF Rules of Tennis vaguely defines the causes and the penalties of ‘distracting’ or ‘hindering’ someone from fairly playing a point. And when we talk about it, the most egregious violators: Sharapova and Azarenka with their shrills and shrieks as they strike a ball, and verbally follow the ball into another player’s contact point is a clear violation. It’s a distraction to the player on the other side. Don’t get me wrong, a grunt is one thing: tightening the muscles and exhaling upon impact, but shrieking from the point of impact into your opponent’s shot, is not fair.
Yet, the WTA refuses to take a harsh stance. They did it once with Monica Seles. They can do it again with Azarenka and Sharapova. If they don’t the WTA will continue to lose interest from their fan base. Just listen to both men and women talk about the ‘loud noise’ coming from both players and how it’s a ‘turn off’ or ‘I’ve got to mute the TV if I’m going to watch this.’
And that’s either player. But when they play against one another, it’s a disaster. No commentary. Mute. No sound of the ball striking. Mute. Nada. Zippo. Zilch. Not exactly what a sport wants.
Which brings us back to that fateful semi-final match where Victoria Azarenka is playing Sloane Stephens in the semi-finals and just tearing her to shreds, up 6-1, 5-3, Azarenka has five — count them — FIVE match points and she can’t close out the match. Stephens eventually breaks and is about to serve to get back into the second set.
Azarenka, who has had her share of injuries, fainting spells on court, furiously pounds a ball in anger when she loses the game, then proceeds to walk over to the bench, sits down and signals for the trainers to come out to the court because, ‘I can’t breathe … I can’t breathe.’
The point of a medical timeout or MTO is to deal with ‘real’ medical emergencies. Some of the worst violators, though, use it to gain an advantage, slow someone’s momentum, by making a player cool off as a trainer comes out to assist in a player’s “emergency.”
Novak Djokovic, the Serbian, who is the World’s No. 1 player, was the most effective violator who had ‘multiple’ injuries, miraculously moving around his body from ankle to low back to shoulder to neck which came out at the tightest points in the match. That was before he discovered that he had a ‘gluten’ allergy which affected, well, everything.
The young Belarusian surely had seen the miracle of a well-timed MTO. And she took it.
She took it, and another one for a total of six minutes, but never returned to the court until 10 minutes later.
She elucidated later, that it was ‘my bad’ for not taking a MTO a couple games earlier, when she was completely dominating, for a ‘rib that had moved and made it difficult for me to breathe.’
But why six minutes? ‘Well I didn’t want to take my dress off on court …’ But according to the rules, you’re only allowed 3 minutes per injury.
Meanwhile court side, Sloane Stephens is sitting patiently, towel draped around her shoulders, for Azarenka to come back to the court. She’s 19. And it was a rookie mistake not to have the umpire do her job, call the player back from the locker room or take points. It was a rookie mistake for her to not move around, hit some serves, stay loose on the sidelines stretching or whatever instead of sitting and completely losing all her momentum in that last spectacular five match point save and break of serve.
When asked afterwards, Stephens said, ‘seems to be the thing going around this tournament, the round before and the round before that everyone had one (MTO) so it really didn’t affect me.’
Azarenka comes back to the court, walking fast-paced and ready to rock, proceeds to break serve back and close out the match, breaking Sloane’s serve on a 30-40 point.
Game, set and match, the World’s No. 1.
During her on court interview, Azarenka says, ‘wow that really would’ve been the choke of the year.’ Post-match ESPN interview with Tom Rinaldi, he asks, ‘so why did you leave the court?’ To which she replies, ‘I couldn’t breathe, you know.’
Later, during her press conference, the Belarusian says somewhat defiantly, ‘I didn’t understand his question, I was having trouble breathing. I should’ve taken a it (MTO) earlier but I didn’t, my bad.’ And then later, defiantly, ‘But if someone takes a MTO I never question for what reason.’
On being asked with some players having issues with her grunting, that it’s considered a hindrance, that players are complaining about it (yet no umpire is taking a stand on implementing it), Azarenka says boldly, ‘well, good luck with that (enforcement).’
As Azarenka played her final against the popular Chinese player, Li Na, she took advantage of two moments in the match, one, where Li Na slipped and twisted her ankle, and the second, where Li Na slipped again, and fell on her head creating a concussion where Li Na needed an MTO. During the wait, Azarenka was jumping around, moving aggressively, not wasting a moment to stay warm, to stay ready for the conclusion.
She did, and closed out Li Na in three sets.
Asked afterwards, what was she expecting from the crowd after her ‘controversial’ MTO, ‘to be quite honest with you, I thought it was going to be a lot worse. But you can’t change what you can’t change. You just have to focus on what you can do. And that’s what I did.’