Commentary

It's the nice-girl tour no more

Originally Published: May 15, 2012
By Kamakshi Tandon | Special to ESPN.com

You can tell Caroline Wozniacki isn't No. 1 anymore. While the smiling Dane nicknamed "Sunshine" reigned, the tour seemed like one big, happy sorority.

She went shopping with Victoria Azarenka. She went on vacation with Urszula and Agnieszka Radwanska. She got hugs and relationship advice out of Serena Williams. "Never look through his phone," she said. And Wozniacki received tips from Ana Ivanovic on what kind of shoes to wear when walking a golf course. Just about every player was a "nice girl," and a "good friend." Anyone who had ever won anything was a "great champion." Everyone was a really tough player and you had to play really well if you were going to beat her.

[+] EnlargeVictoria Azarenka
Dominique Faget/Getty ImagesUnlike her predecessor atop the rankings, Victoria Azarenka isn't making many friends.

It also helped that Wozniacki didn't dominate the tour, avoiding any antagonism that hogging the big prizes might attract. With different players winning each week, it almost seemed like there was no pecking order.

Coincidence or not, there has been a lot more consistency in the upper ranks since Wozniacki's fall from the top, and a lot more hissing, spitting and grunting. No. 1 Azarenka, No. 2 Maria Sharapova and new No. 3 Agnieszka Radwanska have been in the later rounds of tournaments regularly this year, and at each other's throats nearly as often.

For Azarenka and Sharapova, it was more like at each other's shoulders a few weeks ago in the final at Stuttgart, when the two had a bump on the changeover after the first set of their meeting. It may not have looked that dramatic on the surface -- the two just brushed each other -- and it certainly didn't match the infamous collision between Venus Williams and Irina Spirlea at the 1997 U.S. Open. But symbolically, players making contact on the way to the chair without apology or acknowledgement is a significant display of antagonism in tennis, signaling that neither is prepared to concede an inch to the other.

Just for good measure, there was another edgy moment at the end of the match, when Sharapova facetiously told the crowd that it was "unfortunate that Vika was extremely injured today and just couldn't really perform her best game."

It was clearly a sarcastic exaggeration -- though Azarenka was reportedly carrying a wrist injury and did seem error-prone. It's likely Sharapova was irked by Azarenka's medical timeout during the match, just as she had been in Beijing in 2009 when Azarenka asked for treatment. That time, Sharapova said to the umpire, "Is her last name Jankovic?" That was two digs for the price of one, referring to Jelena Jankovic's frequent midmatch agonies.

It's not surprising that sparks fly when two of tennis' steeliest competitors meet. With her finger wagging and boxing-style entrances, Azarenka gives off a combative vibe on the court, while Sharapova makes keen note of such details and does not let them go easily. "This is my home," she once said at the end of a match at Indian Wells against Daniela Hantuchova, a two-time champion at the event who had earlier remarked, "I definitely feel like it's my home out there."

There was another minor scuffle between the pair in Rome last year, when Azarenka picked up -- yet another -- injury and threw out profanity that could have been aimed at Sharapova. But the Belarusian insisted that she was talking to herself. "It was just being mad at myself...will never refer anything to my opponent," she wrote on Twitter after controversy broke. "I play with respect to every single player. I apologize if there was a misunderstanding of that situation."

Respect is a word Azarenka often uses and with a lot of emphasis. There is a point of common ground between Azarenka and Sharapova. They are the two most prominent grunters on tour, and when Radwanska criticized Sharapova's shrieking at the Australian Open, Azarenka defended Sharapova thusly: "As I said, I respect every opponent. Whatever they do, they try to do their best job. I think that's fair enough."

So it must have stung when Radwanska happened to use the same phrase to criticize Azarenka after their Doha quarterfinal in February, saying she had "lost a lot of respect" for the new world No. 1. Radwanska felt Azarenka made too big a show of her injury -- yes, yet another -- after rolling her ankle during the match. "I was angry because I don't think this is the great image for the women's tennis, what was going on there," Radwanska said.

The two had previously been friendly, both close in age and close with Wozniacki, but Azarenka reported that they had made no contact with each other in the weeks following the incident. Instead, Azarenka let her racket do the talking in their next encounter, delivering a 6-0, 6-2 thumping in the Indian Wells quarterfinals. But she also got in a sly dig when summing up the match afterward, saying, "I hope I was a good example of women's tennis."

Both say the conflict is in the past, but their postmatch handshakes have had a little more ice since. Of course, some of that has to do with the six straight losses Radwanska has suffered to the hands of Azarenka so far this season.

In fact, all of Radwanska's losses in 2012 have been to Azarenka. The only tournament both were playing and did not meet was Miami, when an exhausted Azarenka suffered her first loss of the season to Marion Bartoli. Radwanska beat Bartoli in the next round and went on to win the tournament, defeating Sharapova in the final.

With Radwanska's grunting criticism from the Australian Open lingering, that final also had a bit of an edge to it. At the time, Radwanska had been careful to exclude her friend. "To be honest, I'm kind of used to it, you know, especially with Vika. We know each other for many years," she said after her loss Down Under to Azarenka. She added: "About Maria, I mean, what can I say? For sure that is pretty annoying and it's just too loud."

"Isn't she back in Poland already?" Sharapova responded.

Azarenka did not respond to Radwanska at the time but made the following remark a couple of days after their relationship soured in Doha. Players who blamed a loss on "grunting or whatever," she said, "it's up to them. I think they're just weak people." Grunting or whatever. Whoever could she have been thinking of?

It's been almost like the good old days (or bad old days) of bitter rivalries such as Serena-Justine Henin, Henin-Kim Clijsters, Serena-Sharapova and Ivanovic-Jankovic. The tension-filled triangle could meet again this week in Rome, with Azarenka and Radwanska drawn for yet another potential semifinal meeting and Sharapova possibly waiting in the final for whoever wins. There are plenty of other contenders in the draw -- including last week's Madrid champ, Serena -- but no one has traded groundstrokes, or words, like the top trio so far this season.