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Steve Flink: A weekend for tennis devotees

2/18/2013 7:00:00 PM

This past weekend was a time to savor for those who follow tennis with insatiable curiosity. There were four compelling tournaments being contested, with three of those events ruled by players who have captured Grand Slam championships, and the fourth secured by a young man who seems destined to move out among the elite in the next couple of years. The game had much to showcase, and a great deal to celebrate.

Over in Doha at the Qatar Open, Victoria Azarenka struck down Serena Williams in a hard fought, three set final to end a nine match losing streak against her formidable rival. At Rotterdam, the imposing 2009 U.S. Open champion Juan Martin Del Potro—so disappointing and inexplicably listless when he bowed out in five sets against Jeremy Chardy at the Australian Open—recovered some of his best form and took the ABN AMRO World Tennis Tournament in Rotterdam by upending the sentimental favorite Julien Benneteau for the crown. In San Jose, the overwhelming and surging Milos Raonic was victorious for the third year in a row, eclipsing the ageless Tommy Haas to claim that indoor title. Last, but not least, Rafael Nadal bounced back from a final round loss the week before in Vina del Mar to record his 51st career tournament victory at the Brasil Open in Sao Paulo, toppling David Nalbandian in the final.

Azarenka’s triumph was a testament to her inner strength. She approached her contest with Williams having lost eleven of their twelve career head to head appointments. Five of those defeats had occurred in 2012. That was a considerable amount of emotional baggage to carry on court. Meanwhile, Williams had ensured two days earlier that she would take away Azarenka’s No. 1 world ranking this week by virtue of stopping Petra Kvitova in the quarterfinals. The WTA Rankings, of course, reflect a player’s record over the past twelve months, and in that span the American had won Wimbledon, the Olympic Games, the U.S. Open and the 2012 season-ending WTA Championships. It was only a matter of time before Serena would reclaim her status as the official No. 1 player in the world. By doing so, the 31-year-old Serena eclipsed Chrissie Evert (in 1985) as the oldest since the inception of the computer rankings in 1975 to reside at No. 1.

Azarenka made the loss of her top ranking become an asset rather than a liability. The pressure was off. She played as if she had nothing to lose, performed largely free of restraints. In turn, Azarenka is competing with renewed vigor and confidence after securing her second Australian Open title in a row three weeks ago. Moreover, Williams was clearly vulnerable despite crushing Maria Sharapova 6-3, 6-2 in the semifinals. In her quarterfinal triumph over the free-wheeling, left-handed shotmaker Kvitova, Williams trailed 1-4 in the final set and served to stay in the match at 4-5 before rescuing herself 3-6, 6-3, 7-5.

In any event, Azarenka got out of the blocks in her duel with Williams much faster and with more self-assurance. The die was cast in the opening game of the match, when Serena needed to fight off two break points before holding. The game’s best woman server was confronting the finest returner of them all, and Azarenka was striking the ball more cleanly and efficiently. At 1-1, Serena was broken at love, double faulting on the first and last points of that game. Azarenka surged to 4-2 before Williams rallied to 4-4. They went to a tie-break, and Williams was serving at 2-5. She collected four points in a row to reach set point on her serve at 6-5, but her customary big point mastery evaporated. She missed her first serve and Azarenka took control of the point, approaching down the line off the backhand to force a passing shot error from Serena. Azarenka took the next two points to win the tie-break 8-6, and that was a crucial development.

Williams found her range off the forehand in the second set, served with considerably more authority, taking command across the board to prevail, 6-2. The opening game of the third and final set was critical. Azarenka tamely double faulted into the net before Serena connected impeccably with a forehand return winner to make it 0-30. But the 23-year-old from Belarus answered with a pair of forehand winners and swept four points in a row for 1-0. Serena missed four out of five first serves in the following game, and Azarenka broke her at 15 with a crosscourt forehand winner as she went behind Williams. At break point down in the third game, Azarenka moved convincingly from defense to offense—one of her chief virtues the whole match—and released a timely forehand winner. She held on for 3-0 and never looked back. Although Serena saved a match point at 2-5, there was no way for her to escape. Azarenka served it out unhesitatingly, carving out a well-deserved 7-6 (6), 2-6, 6-3 triumph.

In San Jose, Raonic was magnificent all week, but especially in the semifinals and final. He took apart Sam Querrey 6-4, 6-2 in the penultimate round, making amends for a 0-2 record previously against the American. Against Haas in the final, the 6’5” Canadian put on a stellar display. He produced 19 aces in a 6-4, 6-3 victory. Haas never really had a chance. Raonic is clearly trying to iron out every wrinkle in his game, and is largely succeeding. In sharp contrast to the way he performed in a straight sets loss to Roger Federer at the Australian Open, Raonic looked far crisper and much surer on the volley. His backhand down the line return was terrific. He was firing on all cylinders. His serve was absolutely unstoppable.

In five opening set service games, Raonic dropped only six points, and released 11 aces. This was devastatingly potent stuff. He sustained that pace in the second set, winning 16 of 20 points on his delivery, cracking eight more aces. He broke Haas twice in the second set. The most encouraging thing about Raonic is the improvement he seems to be displaying on his returns, particularly off the backhand side. He made big strides in 2012, moving from No. 31 in the world up to No. 13. Now he seems certain to reach the top ten. This explosively talented player has never made it past the fourth round of a major, but he will be in the semifinals of at least one Grand Slam event this year.

Del Potro had too much ammunition in his game for Benneteau, who had produced the surprise of the week by upending Roger Federer 6-3, 7-5 in the quarterfinals. The 31-year-old Frenchman has long been a problem for the Swiss Maestro. Although he had beaten Federer only one in five previous skirmishes, the fact remains that Benneteau was ahead two sets to love against the eventual champion at Wimbledon last year, and was two points away from winning no fewer than six times. This is one of those rare matchups that does not play to Federer’s advantage. Benneteau unsettles Federer with a slightly unorthodox approach from the baseline, tees off liberally on his backhand returns, and gets up to the net intelligently to rob Federer of time and comfort. He broke the Swiss five times in two sets, and Federer won only 33% of his second serve points. Federer, too, was his own worst enemy on the day, off key on the forehand, mishitting backhands, serving predictably.

In the final, however, Benneteau was always under duress against the big hitting backcourt excellence of Del Potro. The big Argentine was behind 0-2 but won four games in a row. He had 15-40 on Benneteau’s serve in the seventh game but made a costly unforced error off the backhand at that juncture. The Frenchman held but soon trailed 3-5, 15-40. Acing his adversary on three of the next four points, Benneteau held for 4-5, and broke Del Potro for 5-5. In the ensuing tie-break, though, Del Potro was too good. After Benneteau aced him on the first point, Del Potro conceded only one more point. The second set was seldom in doubt. A masterful Del Potro glided to 5-2 and had four match points on Benneteau’s serve in the eighth game. The Frenchman bravely worked his way out of that corner, but Del Potro held at love with an ace to close out a 7-6 (2), 6-3 win.

As for Nadal, he withstood a rigorous couple of weeks back on the ATP World Tour after being gone for seventh months with a knee injury. Fresh from losing the final of Vina del Mar to Horacio Zeballos, the Spaniard struggled in Brazil, but understandably so. He had played four matches in Chile, had three days off, but then had to compete four days in a row to finish the job in Sao Paulo. After a routine win in his first match, he was down 1-3 in the final set against Carlos Berlocq before recouping for a 3-6, 6-4, 6-4 triumph. The next day, the Spaniard did not lose his serve and won 90% of his first serve points but he dropped another set before ousting Martin Alund 6-3, 6-7 (2), 6-1.

He had worked hard to make it to the final, and found himself facing a revitalized David Nalbandian, the former world No. 3 who stood at No. 93 last week. Rather than taking on one of those unfamiliar adversaries you find at the ATP World Tour 250 level, the Spaniard was instead playing a 31-year-old whom he holds in the highest regard. Nadal was apprehensive at the outset, double faulting to fall behind 0-30 in the opening game before collecting four points in arrow. They were level at 2-2, but then Nadal took his game up a notch. After holding for 3-2, he broke Nalbandian in the sixth game. At 15-40, the Argentine tried to catch Nadal off guard by serving-and-volleying, but the Spaniard kept his return low and Nalbandian could not handle a forehand first volley.

Nadal wasted a 40-15 lead in the seventh game but held on his fourth game point with a gutsy second serve ace up the T in the Ad Court. Nadal relaxed, broke Nalbandian again, and sealed the set, 6-2. But the 26-year-old Spaniard remained passive and uncertain, even after pulling away in that first set. He swiftly drifted to 0-2 in the second set, and then Nalbandian broke him again as Nadal made consecutive unforced errors off the forehand. Two breaks down, Nadal remained true to character, refusing to concede the set to an experienced opponent. He raised his level of aggression to break at 30 for 1-3 and then held from 15-30, closing out that game with an ace down the T. Nadal was plainly back in the set. With Nalbandian serving at 3-2, Nadal broke again as Nalbandian went for a low percentage backhand down the line and missed it. Despite a double fault on the first point of the seventh game, Nadal gamely held at 15 for 4-3.

Sensing he could finish his task soon, Nadal did just that, sweeping eight of the last eleven points to close out the account on a run of six consecutive games. Victory had come to Nadal 6-2, 6-3, but his performance was uneven. His return of serve was not nearly up to par, his serve was unreliable, and he was missing off the ground too frequently. And yet, frankly, that hardly matters. He won his first tournament since the French Open last June, and that fundamental fact will propel the Spaniard into his next series of tournaments.

His knee is clearly not pain free, and Nadal has not really found his range yet in the rallies. Nevertheless, he now has a week off before competing at an ATP World Tour 500 level event in Acapulco. I remain entirely optimistic about where he is headed. He won Sao Paulo without even approaching the zenith of his game, and that is a terrific sign this early in his comeback. Meanwhile, Azarenka has livened things up considerably in the women’s game with her triumph over Williams in Doha. To be sure, Azarenka won’t make a habit out of beating Serena Williams, but this victory will help her enormously to start holding her own with the current world No. 1. After all, she was two points away from defeating Serena in the U.S. Open final last September, when she built a 5-3 final set lead. She can seriously bother Williams when the American is not at the very top of her game, while that is not the case with Maria Sharapova.

Sharapova has the same career record against Williams as Azarenka does (2-11), but make no mistake: there is a world of difference in the two rivalries. Sharapova has not beaten the American since the end of 2004 at the WTA Championships in Los Angeles. Since then, she has lost ten times in a row to Serena, and in their last five clashes Sharapova has won a grand total of 21 games in ten lopsided sets. Azarenka’s court coverage is far superior to Sharapova’s, and she returns better than Maria against Serena. Azarenka can recover dramatically in rallies and blunt Serena’s power with pinpoint accuracy and excellent ball control, while Sharapova is in deep trouble once she gets behind in a point.

This last weekend belonged to Azarenka, who is playing again like the woman who won 26 straight matches at the start of her 2012 season. The weekend belonged to Juan Martin Del Potro, who jumpstarted his 2013 campaign with his first tournament win of the year. The weekend also was a showcase for Milos Raonic, who is going to make life very difficult for all of the top players this year. Above all, it was an uplifting time for Rafael Nadal as he plays through his pain, pursues his highest aspirations, and reminds us all that we badly need him in the forefront of an incomparable game called tennis.
Steve Flink has been reporting on tennis since 1974. He has been a columnist for since 2007. You can purchase Steve's latest book "The Greatest Tennis Matches of All Time" here.