Will Azarenka master Miami, too?
It's the Victoria Azarenka show, and we should all just be happy to be part of the streak. She's 23-0 on the season, and now the Belarusian and top-ranked player in the world takes her infallible game to the other coast, where she'll attempt to sweep the Indian Wells-Miami double.
Azarenka is the defending champion in Miami, and if this past week was any kind of harbinger, we'll be saying the same thing next season. Most of her top-10 competition flamed out early, including Petra Kvitova, Caroline Wozniacki and Li Na.
Will Azarenka shine in the Sony Ericsson sun again? Our experts answer this and more.
Can Victoria Azarenka string together a Novak Djokovic-like 2011 season?
Howard Bryant: No, for the simple reason that the gap between Azarenka and her contemporaries on the court is not as great as that of Djokovic, who virtually did everything right in 2011. Azarenka has left the door open. Her serve is not great. In the Indian Wells semis, Angelique Kerber broke her fairly easily and, unlike Djokovic, Azarenka hasn't yet stared down all of the top players. If she were playing only Maria Sharapova, yes, but this conversation must wait until she faces Petra Kvitova, Serena Williams and Caroline Wozniacki, all of whom match up better against her than Sharapova.
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Greg Garber: Based on the early returns -- and the lack of a viable challenger -- you have to believe Vika can put together a similar campaign. Did you see the way she torched Maria Sharapova in the Indian Wells final? Sharapova always has been a terrific competitor, but Azarenka outhustled and outhit her on virtually every point. She's 23-0 and has dropped only five sets so far. It is not terribly hard to imagine her getting close to the No. 2 all-time standard of 37 consecutive match wins to start a year, shared by Martina Navratilova (1978) and Martina Hingis (1997). Remember, her second-best Grand Slam effort last year came on the clay at Roland Garros.
Joanne Gerstner: Until somebody else steps up and gives Azarenka a serious challenge, or she gets hurt, this is looking like the Vika show. She's been thrashing opponents on a consistent basis, and I'm sure Maria Sharapova would love to not see Azarenka in a final any time soon. I'm curious to see Azarenka play Serena Williams, Carolina Wozniacki and Petra Kvitova, as they haven't been matched up in a while.
Kamakshi Tandon: There's still a long way to go. She's just over halfway to matching Djokovic's unbeaten streak and two more Slams to win. But the comparisons are warranted now: Two previously retirement-prone, brash players transforming themselves practically overnight into dominant forces. If Azarenka wasn't making her run in the shadow of Djokovic's unprecedented start last year, there might be more appreciation for what she's already achieved. She certainly looks set to hold No. 1 for a while, but the question, as with Djokovic last year: Is what happens when those first couple of losses start coming in?
Ravi Ubha: If "string together" means winning three of the four majors, that's a possibility. Azarenka is winning matches even when she's not playing well, which wasn't the case previously. And when she's on her game, not many can stop her. Confidence wise, she's soaring. But let's not get ahead of ourselves. Azarenka hasn't faced Serena Williams or Petra Kvitova this year, and she's bound to run into those two at majors. Further, even though Azarenka beat Kim Clijsters at the Australian Open, Clijsters wasn't 100 percent. There's a long way to go in 2012.
Matt Wilansky: Anyone can lose on any given day. Anyone can wake up feeling groggy and uninspired. But to answer the question, sure Azarenka can string together the type of season Djokovic had in 2011. As it stands, who can beat her right now? Who is playing with the kind of resolve Azarenka is? So the short answer is "yes." The long answer is "you betcha." Azarenka is the defending champion in Miami, and if she can thwart the field there, it's off to the clay courts, where her game is aptly suited. She was the runner-up in Madrid last season and reached the quarterfinals at Roland Garros. And this was before she decided to pull it all together.
Is Maria Sharapova always doomed to sink in the spotlight?
Bryant: If Azarenka is the player in front of her, then absolutely. Sharapova needs a better game plan. She can power through Wozniacki, who can't match her weapons, and Ivanovic who wilted under her power and injury. But players with her power and better mobility (Serena, Kvitova, Azarenka) aren't going to be intimidated by her. If she commits to a more consistent net/slice game she will be in better position, but she is simply not going to be able to just outhit the rest of the field.
Garber: Call me crazy, but the unstable landscape in the women's game suggests she has a chance to win a fourth major, at Wimbledon or the U.S. Open. Sharapova has rallied nicely since that career-threatening shoulder surgery three and a half years ago. While Victoria Azarenka won last year in Miami, the No. 2-ranked Sharapova reached the final -- just as she did at this year's Australian Open and Indian Wells. Right now, after these two, there is a steep drop-off. Her chances to win a Grand Slam this year could also be tied to the performance of Serena Williams and Kim Clijsters.
Gerstner: Sharapova has enough to get to the finals of big tournaments, but is lacking that next gear to beat the best in the game. Her movement was exposed, again, by Azarenka, as she couldn't keep up with the side-to-side groundstroke grinding. Sharapova needs to find another weapon, or she's not going to get past the game's best right now.
Tandon: Not yet time to write her off, especially because she's still young enough to have a few years of top-flight tennis ahead of her. But she is a veteran now and has to start showing veteran attributes like guile, court sense and variety to counter the power and explosiveness of the new generation -- not something that comes naturally to her. More simply, though, she's simply not showing up in these finals, and it's hard to know why. The good news for Sharapova is that at least she's getting to those stages again, and isn't collapsing in a mountain of double faults any more. Slow progress, but still progress.
Ubha: If "spotlight" refers to finals and semifinals, recent history suggests she'll find it difficult. Sharapova used to be able to manufacture free points on serve prior to her shoulder injury. Her serve was a weapon. But it's not a weapon anymore. This is going to sound like a broken record, but against the elite -- the likes of Azarenka, Kvitova, Clijsters and Williams -- she'll fall short. They can take advantage of her serve, withstand Sharapova's groundstrokes and move her around. The hard worker and fighter she is, I hope Sharapova gets one more major, but it's looking bleak.
Wilansky: I don't think it's a matter of succumbing to the pressure of the spotlight. It's the fact that her game can't bail her out of trouble the way it once did. Her serve, even when it's on, isn't as much of a factor. Her movement is average at best. Players like Kvitova simply have a more potent arsenal. Azarenka is much more versatile. And this doesn't take into consideration the absence of the Williams sisters and Clijsters. Of course, Sharapova's No. 2 ranking might belie all her so-called weaknesses, and although she might not sink in the spotlight, it's doubtful she will shine.
Pretty poor showing by most of the other top-10 players at Indian Wells. Whose performance was most troubling?
Bryant: Petra Kvitova. Christina McHale is tough and gritty, but this is a Wimbledon champion whose next step isn't tools but consistency. Premier events and Grand Slams are where the big players make their mark -- national TV, complete field, everyone watching. The question of what Azarenka will do depends on if the women's field will develop a hierarchy at the top of the rankings. Right now, Kvitova should be watching Azarenka and be motivated heavily to end that streak. Honorable mention of disappointment must go to Sabine Lisicki, for whom everyone is waiting for, but got beat in her first match by Lourdes Dominguez Lino.
Garber: I'll go with the obvious choice of Petra Kvitova. In a year when the four majors were won by four different players, the young Czech was the 2011 WTA Player of the Year. True, there were extenuating circumstances in her third-round loss to U.S. teenager Christina McHale, but you expect more from the No. 3 player in the world. Kvitova is still fighting a virus that forced her to pull out of Dubai. Even though you would expect her game to flourish on the hard courts of North American, her record over the past two years is a dreadful 4-6.
Gerstner: I didn't like the way Caroline Wozniacki or Sharapova looked. Just really passive, bland tennis, which was just off form. Granted, a bit of a pass is given to Sharapova for the final, as Azarenka is just that dialed in right now. But the question remains: What is Wozniacki doing to get better? She lost in the fourth round at Indian Wells, in ho-hum fashion.
Tandon: Some of those losses can be accounted for by illness, which hit a lot of players at Indian Wells, and there were others who were under the weather coming in. Petra Kvitova is in that group, so Caroline Wozniacki's loss to Ana Ivanovic was probably the most noteworthy. She was the defending champion, and as the latest in a series of lackluster performances, it sent her tumbling down the rankings. More than anything, it was the scoreline -- Ivanovic played well, but the defeat shouldn't have been that one-sided. Agnieszka Radwanska's loss to Azarenka was also striking for the same reason. The defeat was OK but winning just two games was not.
Ubha: I didn't expect much from Kvitova because of her recent inactivity as a result of injury and illness. Li Na is looking like her old self; not exactly mentally tough. But Caroline Wozniacki is a worry. Wozniacki beat Ana Ivanovic in Dubai last month, so she had the edge when they squared off in Indian Wells. Wozniacki, however, put in a ragged performance, missing routine balls, and was comprehensively beaten. Even if Ivanovic played well, Wozniacki didn't offer much. If the draw is right, she can gain points in Miami given she lost in the fourth round last year.
Wilansky: Granted, Kvitova wasn't feeling up to snuff, but you have to be worried about the amount of time that has passed since winning the 2011 year-enders. She was supposed to be having the season Azarenka is producing, but instead, she has played only four matches since reaching the semifinal of the Australian Open. Even when Kvitova starts feeling 100 percent, there will be concerns over a dearth of match play and a loss of confidence. And with the clay-court season approaching, it's safe to assume she won't cobble together any long runs there. In other words, there's a lot of pressure on Kvitova to play well in Miami.
What are we going to get from Venus and Serena Williams this week in Miami?
Bryant: Difficult to say, specifically with Venus, based on her health issues. Serena should be expected to compete and intimidate, and having played Fed Cup will have helped, but it is simply unsustainable to show up to only big tournaments and expect to win. Why is Roger Federer so hot at 30? One reason by his own admission is that he is playing more tournaments. Serena Williams must do likewise.
Garber: This is the question I'm most curious about heading into the tournament. Venus is ranked No. 134 among WTA players and hasn't played an official match since losing in the second round of last year's U.S. Open -- six months ago. She turns 32 in June and her Sjogren's syndrome will make it difficult to compete at the top level. I think she's probably most focused on playing doubles with her sister at the London Olympics. Serena? When she plays, she's always a factor. She's the last woman to defend her Miami title (2008-09) and is capable of beating most of the top seeds.
Gerstner: That is a very deep question. I watched Serena practice in Miami, and she looked good. Dad Richard was keeping a close eye on her, as she was working on groundstrokes. She moved freely, showing no signs of that bad hip injury she suffered at the Australian Open. If Serena is on, she will definitely make things interesting. Venus is another story, given her layoff because of Sjogren's syndrome. Her match-feel may be off, with Miami serving as just a starting point for her season.
Tandon: Not much is expected from Venus. Since she announced her energy-sapping illness at the U.S. Open, her appearances have been limited to one doubles cameo, and it seems unlikely she's at full strength yet. Serena should be fit and raring to go, and after an unexpected Australian Open exit, she has something to prove. But these long absences make it hard to know what she'll be capable of. The field is deep these days, and match toughness counts when an opponent is having a good day. Still, the mystery makes the opening rounds interesting to watch. Other comebacks to look out for are Kim Clijsters and Alisa Kleybanova, and whether Ivanovic can continue her little surge.
Ubha: First off, I'm glad they're back -- if indeed Venus plays. Women's tennis needs more star power, players who transcend the sport, and Venus and Serena fit the bill. But Venus is a question mark. She hasn't competed officially in singles since last year's U.S. Open, so her form is bound to be patchy. Getting through a match and feeling OK physically will be encouraging. Serena is healthy (unlike in Melbourne) and always motivated playing in her own backyard, which is ominous for her rivals. But she'll have even more motivation since she missed the previous two editions.
Wilansky: The vaunted return of the Williams sisters adds intrigue, no? For Venus, we can't expect much considering she hasn't played a singles match since last year's U.S. Open. But I'd be intrigued to see a second-round match between Venus and Petra Kvitova -- if Venus can escape Kimiko Date-Krumm in the opener. Serena, however, is a different story. She's a five-time champion in Key Biscayne, though she hasn't played there since 2009. Serena still has a lot to prove and firmly believes she is the top player in the game, even with all her ancillary interests. A title this year would not surprise me in the least.