Friday, January 25, 2013

2013 AUS OPEN: Women's Final Preview

Victoria Azarenka (BLR) [1] vs. Li Na (CHN) [6]. 

Here is my prediction for the 2013 Australian Open women's final. I previously correctly predicted 3 of 4 women's quarterfinals and 1 of 2 women's semifinals this year. On the men's side of the draw, I correctly predicted 4 of 4 men's quarterfinals and 2 of 2 men's semifinals this year. Last year I incorrectly predicted the winner of the women's final.

How Did They Get Here? 
 Na Li (CHN) [6] d. M. Sharapova (RUS) [2] 6-2 6-2.
Sharapova had run through the first 5 rounds of competition by making a mockery of the word by losing a mere 9 games in the 10 sets played. Li Na had "upset" higher ranked (and hitherto unbeaten in 2013) Agnieska Radwanska in two relatively nervy sets the round before. Most people (yours truly included) expected a scoreline that ended this semifinal, but we expected the Russian to be on top, not the Chinese player! However, despite having a 4-8 career head-to-head deficit and having lost to Sharapova in 3 consecutive meetings in 2012, Li was able to put all that aside and come out firing from the very first ball and outhit and outserved the 4-time major champion. The book on Li Na is was that she has a world-class backhand and a very powerful forehand which eventually would breakdown if you picked on it. But Li's forehand remained rock-solid and it was Sharapova's groundstrokes which started to breakdown as the score deficit increased and she was forced to go for ill-advised winners that became unforced errors.  By the end of the match Li had hit 3 more winners than errors (21 winners, 18 errors) compared to her opponent who had (17 winners but 32 errors). This was not the same Li Na who Sharapova had beaten repeatedly in 2012 and she never found a way to solve the 2013 edition of Li Na.

V. Azarenka (BLR) [1] d. S. Stephens, 6-1 6-4.
Despite the score, this was actually quite a tight match, with the result in doubt until the last two games or so. In fact, there is now a significant controversy about the end of the match because after failing to convert 5 match points in the second set, Azarenka inexplicably took a medical time out and left the court for 10 minutes. This was one game after Azarenka had failed to convert 5 match points during Sloane's service game at 3-5. When she returned to the court she was able to break Stephens' serve and win the match. However, when asked about what happened while on court immediately after her win Azarenka said "I just felt a little bit overwhelmed realizing that I’m one step from the final and nerves got into me for sure." The problem with this response is that it doesn't appear to include a legitimate reason for an injury time out. And an injury time-out is supposed to last 5 minutes, not 10 so the official word is that she took two consecutive injury time-outs, 1 for her back and 1 for her rib. Many commentators note that Azarenka has often had difficulty dealing with the head and this was a day match played in temperatures approaching 100 degrees. The injury time-out(s) allowed Vika to sit in an air conditioned room for 10 minutes while she was "evaluated" and "treated" off the court. Regardless of the burgeoning controversy and Azarenka's shifting (and shifty) explanations, the match itself (especially the second set!) was very exciting. Stephens was down an early break and looked out of it but was able to use her preternatural defensive skills to frustrate Azarenka and get the set back on serve. In fact, in the game before the injury time out Stephens had numerous chances to break which she was not able to capitalize on. Many observers (including yours truly) felt that if Sloane had been able to break Vika and hold serve to win the 2nd set the match would have become very complicated for Vika. But, thanks to Azarenka's shenanigans after holding serve, we can only wonder what could have been.

Who Will Win?
As with most grand slam finals, the result will settle a number of important issues. Azarenka's #1 WTA tour ranking is not at stake; by reaching the final (like she did last year) she retains has the opportunity to retain the top spot. Unless she repeats as champion she will cede #1 to Serena Williams. However, since she started last year by remaining undefeated until the Miami tournament she has a lot of points to defend and it is very likely that Serena may still be able to unseat her at the top spot sometime this spring. Azarenka has a slight 5-4 lead in their career head-to-head and has won the last four matches the two have contested, including three they played in 2012. But, as her surprising win over Sharapova proved, Li Na is a new player with her new coach Carlos Rodrigues, so it is doubtful that their past matches will be any predictor of their future matches. For both players, this is their third major final, with Azarenka winning the first one she played here last year (over Sharapova) and losing her 2nd in the most recently concluded major tournament in New York (despite being up 5-3 in the 3rd set!) Li Na reached her first final here two years ago, losing to the now-retired Kim Clijsters in 3 sets and then surprisingly reached the final of the very next major on her worst surface and won that one in straight sets over Francesca Schiavone.

So really the deciding factor should be who is playing better right now, in this tournament, and who will handle the pressure of the moment better. On mental toughness, one has to give the edge to Azarenka, but on the question of who is playing better right now, Li Na's results show that she wins that comparison. Li Na has not lost a set in 6 rounds of play, and despite the fact that they have both hit 128 winners in the tournament I still give the edge to the Chinese player. Li is also serving significantly better, with the same number of aces and double faults while Azarenka only has 12 aces in the tournament compared to twenty-eight double faults. The one significant edge Azarenka has on Li is that she is more than seven years younger, so that Li may be overwhelmed by the occasion if she really does get close to winning her second major tournament. However, I trust that her coach will have prepared her for this moment and the local crowd support should help her over the finish line ahead.

Mad Professah's pick: Li Na.

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