She Said What? Nice Girls Finish Last – The Ladies of the WTA Break Out the Claws

“Imagine all the people, living life in peace….” When Caroline Wozniacki was World #1, the WTA was a world straight out of a Beatles song. The Dane, dubbed “Sunshine” by the press, brought that image out to the media and the rest of the Tour seemed to follow. The prevailing theme was peace and love, and everyone got along.

“She’s a nice girl, a really good friend of mine…”

She’s tough to play because she’s “a great champion” even if she barely won something relevant six years ago.

Everyone’s a really good player and forces you to play your best even though she’s ranked 324.

In January, the utopia was threatened. Queen Karolina’s reign over the WTA was slipping. And then it began. The claws, retracted for a grueling 67 weeks, began to come out.

It all began with Poland’s Agnieszka Radwanska who, after her quarterfinal loss to Victoria Azarenka, was asked about the “grunting issue” in women’s tennis:

Q. There’s been a lot made of the noise of some of the female players. What are your thoughts on that?

AGNIESZKA RADWANSKA:  To be honest, I’m kind of used to it, you know, especially with Vika.  We know each other for many years. About Maria, I mean, what can I say?  For sure that is pretty annoying and it’s just too loud.  Yeah.  

Sharapova, who has always had a tendency to be blunt in press, had this to say in response:

Q.  A bunch of players this week have made comments talking about how they think the noise that you and Azarenka in particular make is excessive.

MARIA SHARAPOVA:  Who?

Q.  Radwanska was one player that said she thinks the noise you and Azarenka make is excessive and she’d like to see the WTA change the rules to prohibit that.

MARIA SHARAPOVA:  Isn’t she back in Poland already?

There is little love lost between Sharapova and Radwanska, as their head to head history would suggest. Radwanska, as a teenager, stunned defending champion Sharapova in the third round of the 2007 US Open. Since then, Sharapova had not lost to Radwanska until the final of the Sony Ericsson Open in March.

Radwanska wasn’t done yet. In the semifinals in Doha, Azarenka was treated for an ankle injury while leading comfortably in the match. Azarenka continued the match, and handily defeated Radwanska in straight sets. After the match, Radwanska hit out at her former close friend:

“Well, to be honest, I don’t think this is worth a comment. But I think after this match….just lost a lot of respect. That’s it…I was angry because I don’t think this is the great image for the women’s tennis, what was going on there.” 

Radwanska has suffered six defeats to Azarenka this year, and prior to a defeat at the hands of Petra Cetkovska in Rome, had not lost to another player this year. Following a 60 62 drubbing of Radwanska in Indian Wells, a match where Azarenka clearly intended to send a message, the Belarusian had this to say:

“I just had very good motivation because I knew she’s a very good player. I have to play a very good match and show excellent tennis to beat her, so that’s what I was mainly focused on. I hope I was a good example of women’s tennis.

top to bottom: Azarenka and Radwanska share the love after Azarenka’s victory in the Australian Open quarterfinals; by Doha, Radwanska and Azarenka’s friendship was no more.

As the WTA shifts to the European red clay, the drama hasn’t shown signs of slowing down like the surface.

Following four consecutive losses to Azarenka in WTA finals, Maria Sharapova finally had her revenge in Stuttgart, defeating Azarenka 61 64 for the title. The tone was set early, as the women bumped shoulders on a changeover early in the match; the dreaded bump has long been considered the cardinal sin of tennis.

Azarenka, who was erratic for a large portion of the match, was also treated for a right wrist injury and appeared to play better after receiving treatment. Sharapova made no secret of her skepticism during her on-court post match interview:

“…It’s so unfortunate Vika was extremely injured today, and just couldn’t really perform her game…”

Sharapova has also had notable conflicts with Jelena Jankovic, when she was relevant, in the past regarding the Serb’s alleged “tactical” medical timeouts. When Azarenka took her second medical timeout of a second round match in Beijing in 2009, Sharapova famously uttered to the chair umpire:

“Is her last name Jankovic?”

This week, both the ATP and the WTA are in Rome for the final big tournament on the road to Roland Garros, with first ball scheduled to be hit in nine days. Azarenka, after routing Shahar Peer in her opening round, withdrew from the tournament citing a shoulder injury. The shoulder had allegedly bothered her the previous week in Madrid, where she reached the final (l. to Serena Williams). Azarenka refused to discuss any shoulder issue in Madrid, and attempted to clarify her withdrawal via Twitter on Thursday.

Azarenka is not the first player to criticize the Roadmap, the WTA scheduling system implemented in 2008 to try and prevent injuries and get the players to commit to more WTA events. One of the main selling points of the Roadmap is the mandatory system; WTA events are categorized into Premier Mandatory, Premier 5, Premier and International events. The Roadmap requires top 10 players to fulfill certain commitments during the year: the four Grand Slams, four Premier Mandatory tournaments (Indian Wells, Miami, Madrid and Beijing), four Premier 5 tournaments (Doha, Rome, Montreal, Cincinnati or Tokyo), two Premier tournaments of their choice, and the WTA Championships if they qualify. If a player withdraws from one of the events she is committed to, she will receive a “0” on her ranking which remains there for 52 weeks. The biggest events are scheduled back-to-back, with the two-week events in Indian Wells and Miami held in March; Madrid and Rome held in May, and Tokyo and Beijing held in September.

Sharapova again took this opportunity to pounce, and when asked about Azarenka after her quarterfinal win over Venus Williams, she had this to say:

“She’s been injured more than anyone and still stayed number one…Last year I think she had more injuries than anyone else. Sometimes she’ll withdraw and then you’ll see her practicing two days later…For me, if I’m injured, then it doesn’t matter how much the fine is, I am not going to play…My body and my health are the most important things and if you lose points or have a fine, I don’t care about that.”

The WTA issued a statement in support of the Roadmap, stating that player injuries and withdrawals are down 33% and top player participation at the biggest events is up 28%. However, the Montreal Gazette, which tracks WTA main-draw injury retirements, walkovers and withdrawals in both singles and doubles, says the total number in 2012 stands at 97, 40 more than last year’s total at the same time.

The open disdain between the top players on the WTA takes us back to a simpler time. Let’s enjoy the nostalgia, shall we? The WTA’s snarky 90’s-00’s heyday provided us with classic quotes that have been remembered over the decades. Martina Hingis could write a book on her own. Let’s take a look back at some of their best gems.

“What rivalry? I win all the matches?” - Hingis in regards to her singles rivalry domination of doubles partner Anna Kournikova

“Steffi has had some results in the past, but it’s a faster, more athletic game now than when she played. She is old now. Her time has passed.”  - Hingis in regards to Steffi Graf in 1998.

“Very funny. Perhaps in the next year Michael Jackson [can get] a gold exempt and Donald Duck a special silver exempt.” – Patty Schnyder, in regards to Arantxa Sanchez Vicario and Amanda Coetzer receiving gold and silver exemptions in 2003.

 ”Being black only helps them. Many times they get sponsors because they are black. And they have had a lot of advantages because they can always say, ‘It’s racism.’ They can always come back and say, ‘Because we are this color, things happen.’” - Hingis regarding the outspoken Venus and Serena Williams.

”She’s always been the type of person that … says things, just speaks her mind. I guess it has a little bit to do with not having a formal education. But you just have to somehow think more; you have to use your brain a little more in the tennis world.” - Serena Williams in response to the above.

“She can say whatever she wants, point is I’m in the semis and she’s at the hotel packing.” - Lindsay Davenport after defeating Anna Kournikova.

“She choked in the 1993 final against Graf, lets see if she chokes again.” – Arantxa Sanchez Vicario on Jana Novotna’s chances in the final after being defeated in the 1997 Wimbledon semifinals.

We thought the current crop of WTA players had a long way to go to match the previous generation. It turns out, however, they may be similar in more ways than we imagined.

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