Friday, 16 November 2012

WTA Best Matches of 2012: Part 2 15-11

Here is part two of the countdown of my favourite WTA matches of the year.  If you missed 20-16, then click here :-)

15. Victoria Azarenka d. Maria Sharapova, 3-6 6-2 6-4 (US Open, SF)
This year's US Open was a real classic and for the first time in years, there were some exciting and competitive matches gracing the latter stages of a Grand Slam.  My third favourite match from the tournament was between two of the fiercest rivals on tour right now, Victoria Azarenka and Maria Sharapova.  Azarenka had owned Sharapova on the hard courts in 2012 with three straight set winsSharapova was raring to change that though as she started the semi-final with a bang taking a double break to lead 5-1.  Azarenka was producing unforced errors, left, right and centre and despite some late resistance, Sharapova closed out the first set.  Sharapova broke early in the second set but Azarenka was slowly finding her feet in the match.  She fought back immediately as the rallies started to lengthen and the shrieking further intensified.

Neither player had lost a three set match in 2012 so something had to budge.  The final set had a raw intensity to it with some battering rallies and a real desire in the eyes of both to win.  Azarenka had switched her A-game on and was holding with ease, meanwhile Sharapova was forced to deuce in every one of her service games.  Last year, I think Azarenka would have got frustrated at missing out on the break that she would have crumbled,  but her mental game has improved so much this year.  She finally made her presence felt as she broke at 5-4 to win in 2 hours and 42 minutes.  Sharapova produced far more winners (44 to Azarenka's 19), but ultimately some poor returning in the final set and and an ever-strengthening Azarenka wore Sharapova down.  A competitive and intense semi-final that was best watched on mute too...

Highlights from the Azarenka/Sharapova match

14. Victoria Azarenka d. Angelique Kerber, 6-4 7-5 (Olympics, QF)
2012 was a particularly special year with the added excitement of the Olympics.  My favourite womens match of the tournament was the quarter-final between Victoria Azarenka and Angelique Kerber.  The crowd was extremely sparse to start with, perhaps because Andy Murray was on number one court, but the few who turned up saw a real treat.  Under the roof, the pair exchanged titanic baseline rallies, some of the best exchanges I have seen all year as both players dragged each other across every centimetre of grass.  Kerber gave her all and played to the maximum of her ability to keep Azarenka within touching distance.  Eventually something had to give and Azarenka, who was in fine form, closed out the first set, 6-4.  

Kerber remained competitive throughout the second set, but Azarenka always had her head in front and was that  bit stronger and more consistent.  The second serve is certainly an area that Kerber needs to work on in the off-season if she is to stay in the top 5 next year.  Azarenka served for the match at 6-4 5-3, but Kerber wasn't ready to go down without a fight.  She had luck on her side as two outrageous let cords helped her to save match pointsThe momentum looked to be swinging the way of Kerber, but write off Azarenka at your own peril.  She put the memory of match points behind her to seize control once more and propel herself towards an eventual bronze medal.  A great match demonstrated by both hitting more winners than unforced errors and not the last we will see from the Azarenka/Kerber match-up in my countdown...

If you are in the UK, you should be able to watch highlights from Azarenka/Kerber on the BBC Sport Website.

13. Serena Williams d. Zheng Jie, 6-7 (5) 6-2 9-7 (Wimbledon, R3)
Serena Williams met her match in her third round of Wimbledon against an inspired Zheng Jie.  The Chinese firecracker had already proved her credentials on the grass having reached the Wimbledon semi-finals in 2008 and made the same stage in Birmingham two weeks before Wimbledon.  Zheng's big weakness is her serve, but she did marvellously well to keep Serena at bay in the first set as she let her powerful, flat groundstrokes do the talking.  Serena was definitely a little rusty from the back of the court, but it was her serving that defined this match.  She produced a staggering 23 aces throughout the contest, which was a Wimbledon record until she broke it again in the semi-final against Victoria Azarenka.  Once Serena made that breakthrough on the Zheng serve in the second set, she raced through it, 6-2.

I thought Zheng might falter in the final set, but she started with aggressive intent.  I really admire her tenacity on court and she hit some fabulous winners to maintain that one step ahead of Serena.  Serena was four points from losing the match on three occasions as she served to stay in the tournament.  She was never overrawed though as she raced through her serving games, one of those taking just 50 seconds.  At 7-7, Serena finally got her act together on the return and let out a huge roar as she broke through.  Zheng kept fighting as she saved two match points, one with an beautifully instinctive return, but Serena was not to be denied.  The difference between the two in the end was the Serena serve.  She was not broken once during the match and lost just 18 out of 98 points on serve.  A fantastic grass-court contest...

Highlights from the Serena/Zheng match 

12. Victoria Azarenka d. Dominika Cibulkova, 1-6 7-6 (7) 7-5 (Miami, R4)
The Spring double of Indian Wells and Miami features very little in my countdown, but one match that did catch my attention was that between Victoria Azarenka and Dominika Cibulkova in Miami.  Azarenka had compiled an astonishing 25 wins in a row having bludgeoned her way through the field to convincingly win Indian Wells the week before.  However in the 4th round, she faced Cibulkova who came out playing lights out tennis.  For the first time in 2012, we saw someone take on the Azarenka second serve.  This match had that giant killing feel of it as the diminutive Slovakian cruised to the opening set.  It continued in the second set as a visibly frustrated Azarenka could not get her game going in front of a partisan crowd, meanwhile Cibulkova continued to smack winners past the Belarusian.  Cibulkova played a truly sensational game at 2-0 (see 5:05 in the video) to secure the double break over Azarenka.  She briefly lost it but would find herself with two chances to serve for the match at 6-1 5-2

The Slovakian started to feel the pressure as a host of double faults and unforced errors saw her choke all the good work away.  Azarenka would go onto win the second set, but despite her collapse, Cibulkova did not let up.  Three times she would find herself a break down in the decider, but three times she broke straight back.  The rallies were long and intense, and Cibulkova was still finding more power on her groundies.  She hit three times more winners than Azarenka (46 to 15) but the unforced error count was mounting too.  Azarenka served for the match at 6-5 where Cibulkova fathomed another break point, but the world number one would stand tall for a remarkable victory in 2 hours and 45 minutes.  Azarenka's streak would end in the next round to Marion Bartoli, but more surprising was that Cibulkova managed to bury her demons and defeat Azarenka when they next met in another intense battle at Roland Garros.

Highlights from the Azarenka/Cibulkova match

11. Serena Williams d. Victoria Azarenka 6-2 2-6 7-5 (US Open, Final)
Grand Slam finals at the US Open have famously been one sided; the women had not produced a three set final since 1995 when Steffi Graf beat Monica SelesMany predicted another one-sided finale for this year's final between Serena Williams and Victoria Azarenka, but it would prove to be a nailbiter that would go right to the death.  The first set saw a scintillating Serena hitting cleaner and crisper than we had seen from her all tournament.  Azarenka's serves were whistling past her before she even had a moment to move her feet.  It looked like it might be a quick final, but out of nowhere, Azarenka started the second set with an early break.  She managed to consolidate it with a hold as Serena lost a little concentration and started to make some unforced errors.  Azarenka earnt just her 4th set against Serena in 11 encounters.  

The final set saw the highest standard of tennis so far with both playing well at the same time.  Azarenka saved an early break point with some really gutsy tennis and then fashioned a break in the next game.   It was a real topsy turvy affair as all the games were close and intensely fought.  Serena got the score back to 3-2 in her favour, but Azarenka would come back fighting again and earnt the chance to serve out for her first ever US Open title.  Unfortunately she threw in an error-strewn game as the nerves of steel that had served her so well, deserted her at the crucial stageAzarenka gave Serena that opportunity to get back into the final and despite some awesome rallies, Serena forced Azarenka long on match point to win the final in 2 hours and 18 minutes.  The final recorded the highest TV audience in the US for a womens final since 2002 and topped the viewing figures for the mens final on the following night.  Serena and Azarenka laid down a marker that womens tennis has turned a corner and is well and truly on the way up...

Highlights from the Serena/Azarenka final

Coming Soon - Part 3 of my favourite WTA matches of 2012 as we move into the top 10!

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