Australian Open Champion Victoria Azarenka and the WTA “Pandora’s Box”

by on December 16th, 2010
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Congratulations to Victoria Azarenka for administering yet another beat-down on Maria Sharapova in a grand slam final, with a 6-3 6-0 victory to take the crown. Lest anyone think I’m a complete Vika hater, I readily acknowledge that she has raised her game sufficiently to validate her place among the game’s current “elite”.

I didn’t watch the match , but there are plenty of articles available today as to how she administered an epic beatdown on one of the steeliest competitors in the game. 12 of the last 13 games? Did Maria go out to get something to eat and forget to return for the finish of the match? No. She was simply out-Sharapova’d.

Isn’t it ironic? Sharapova, who appeared in her first slam final as a fearless youngster who outslugged Serena, has been on the receiving end of consecutive performances by young ladies who have done to her which she did to Serena, slam final experience be damned. First Petra last year at Wimbledon and now Azarenka. Today, Vika shook off initial nerves in her first grand slam final to completely dominate her older and wiser opponent. Job well done Vika!

What does her victory today mean for the rest of the 2012 season? Much has been written, myself included, about not just her “grunt” but about her overall brashness and bad attitude. Now that she is a grand slam event champion AND the top ranked woman, should we expect better from her? I say “Yes”, or the WTA has another major player headache if we can’t.

I say “another” because we already have one in our midst: Serena Williams. And for as much as Serena has done to become a champion and popularize women’s tennis the world over, we are still often left with a bad taste in our mouth because of her many “colorful” bad girl moments at the US Open.

The foot fault episode presented the most egregious and problematic for the WTA. How do you properly censure someone for behavior that was so beyond the pale as hers, yet still not burn the only bridge to your (clearly) best and most marketable tour commodity? And if you allow her to continue with only a slap on the wrist, what kind of precedent are you setting for the rest of the tour’s players? The answer is simple: you are setting the precedent that almost any behavior is tolerated (to a greater or lesser extent) as long as you win.

There were already problems on tour with the growing grunt problem because of today’s vanquished scream queen Maria Sharapova. When grunting first became a major post-Seles issue, it was disingenuous for the tour to attempt denunciations of “the grunting problem” on one hand while holding up Maria, the grunt Queen, as the new star of the tour with the other. You can’t have it both ways.

I think we’re at another crossroads for the WTA, with a new Slam champion and number one who unapologetically doesn’t care what anyone thinks of her behavior on or off the court, yet is poised to be a slam challenger for the remainder of 2012. IMPORTANT: it must be clearly noted that her treatment of ballkids and other personnel doesn’t come anywhere close to Serena’s threat of shoving a ball down someone’s throat. There is no absolutely no comparison, and none of her actions would qualify on that level.

But correct me if I’m wrong on this point: I don’t recall Steffi, Lindsay, Monica, Venus, or Kim ever having this kind of press associated with their rise to the top. Or Roger and Rafa for the men. And isn’t that how we want our champions to comport themselves.

Maybe we already passed that point of no return a long time ago with the antics of Jennifer Capriati and Justine Henin (along with the aforementioned younger Williams). Jennifer was one of the prickliest women on tour, and don’t forget Justine. I’ll just mention the “French Open hand-up” episode as the best example of how low she could go in terms of her tennis etiquette, or lack thereof. They were both multi-slam champions and great players, but not the best examples of on or off-court decorum.

There is much to like about Azarenka’s game. Prior to hearing her first outrageous “hoot” during the Sony Ericsson final when she beat Serena for the title, I was immensely impressed by this young lady who hit toe to toe with her male coach, in preparation for the match, as he played well inside of the court. Great hitting and great moxie!

It’s nice to see a bright and empowered young female athlete. She’s young with lots of growth still to come, and the year has only just begun. So here’s hoping that she will end up on the “good” list of past WTA champions.

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