2013’s tennis best bits: Radwanska, Kirilenko, Li, Azarenka supply drama

2013’s tennis best bits: Part one in our review of the year’s most compelling matches looks at numbers four to six

Agnieszka Radwanska beat Na Li in the Wimbledon quarter-finals Photo: Marianne Bevis

The latest in our review of the 2013 tennis season looks at the most compelling matches. The selection attempts to balance entertainment, drama and special rivalries and is, as usual, entirely personal! We start with numbers four to six.

6. Australian Open Round 2: Laura Robson beat Petra Kvitova, 2-6 6-3 11-9

As soon as the draw for the Australian Open was made, fans of Laura Robson began licking their lips. For it evoked memories of Robson’s last Major, the US Open, where she overcame first one Grand Slam champion, Kim Clijsters, and then another, Na Li, to advance to the fourth round.

This time, Robson was lined up to meet the 2011 Wimbledon winner Petra Kvitova in the second round in Melbourne, a match all the more intriguing for their similar qualities—both big-hitting left-handed games.

By the time they took to court, it was 8.30 in the evening and a still debilitating 34oC, and both took a while to find their rhythm. Robson made the worst possible start to their first ever meeting, losing four straight points on her own serve to concede an immediate break—but the Czech lost her opening game, too.

Many rallies were determined by outright winners or unforced errors, and Kvitova had the slight advantage on both counts: 14 winners to 12 errors. But she broke Robson again in the seventh game and, despite some loose serving—including four double faults—and facing six break points, she served out the set after more than 10 minutes of trying, 6-2.

Still there was little rhythm and flow to the tennis. Robson held her opening game, but could not take advantage of two break points in the next. Still they hit many more errors than winners, as game after game went to deuce, but Robson made the first break, and struck a couple of screaming forehand returns of serve to break again. She served out the set, 6-3.

It would come down to the third, and what a third it was—the entire match encapsulated in one long set.

Kvitova served first, which would become a lifeline for the Czech an hour later. She held the opening game, through deuce, and then attacked the Robson serve with a change of tactics, rushing the net and forcing the break. Kvitova held to love to lead 3-0, but Robson halted the flow as the Kvitova range evaporated again, and she broke back. And so it continued, see-sawing to 4-4. From now on, any slip could cost the match.

Kvitova looked close to tears as she served in the 11th game, and Robson broke. Only an immediate break back would save the match—that lifeline of serving first—and Kvitova did.

It was midnight, it was 6-6, and it would take eight more games in a 94-minute set for the match to resolve. Eventually the chance would come from the Robson forehand, a sizzling return of serve down the line to break for a 10-9 lead. This time, Robson would not falter, she found four first serves, and the coolest woman in the arena had downed yet another Grand Slam champion, 11-9.

Robson would not win another match until Miami, not reach another third-round until Madrid—where she knocked out her next top-10 player, Agnieszka Radwanska—but she broke the top 30 after Wimbledon and was seeded for the first time in a Grand Slam at the US Open.

By the end of the year, though, with several changes of coach in her wake, she was back to No44. Like the woman she beat back in January, consistency has been an elusive quality—but Kvitova found the key, just as Robson will hope to do in 2014.

5. Wimbledon quarter-final: Agnieszka Radwanska beat Na Li, 7-6, 4-6, 6-2

There were countless upsets along the way to the women’s quarter-finals of the 2013 Championships. In the bottom half, No3 seed Maria Sharapova and seven more seeds were beaten by Round 2, and No2 seed Victoria Azarenka had withdrawn.

In the top half, eight seeds had lost by the same stage and the favourite for the title, Serena Williams, was sent packing in the fourth round. But two big names did survive to set up what proved to be the quarter-final of the tournament between the highest remaining seeds.

No4 Radwanska—the woman in 2012 who had pushed Williams to three sets in the final—took on No6 seed Li, 2011 Roland Garros champion and finalist at the Australian Open. Both hugely popular, Radwanska has the kind of nimble, crafty, all-court game to open up weaknesses in the strongest of opponents, while Li boasts tennis for the purist—strong, clean and crisp ground strokes, played with elegance and precision.

They had both played multiple three-setters to get this far, but at first, it seemed to be the wind that controlled the tennis. Both were broken to love in their opening games but even in these challenging conditions, each threw in winning lobs, introduced low sliced shots and made the occasional ghost to the net.

Li fought off two break points in the eighth game, attacking the net to take control, and used her momentum to break and serve for the set. But the Radwanska magic kicked in, she twice passed Li at the net, defended four set points and, on her first break point, slotted a forehand winner down the line.

With one hour on the clock, they headed into a tie-break, where two gruelling baseline exchanges gave the vital two points to Radwanska.

After a 10-minute pause for rain, Li had lost her rhythm and was broken while Radwanska, little troubled by the blustery conditions, had still made only 11 errors in the match.

But Li continued to look for openings at the net, and a smash winner and drive volley winner earned a break back. She broke again with three consecutive return-of-serve winners to take the set, 6-4.

Radwanska took a lengthy medical time for heavy strapping to her right thigh, and the battle entered its final stage and its third hour. She broke straight away, and Li faced more trouble as rain stopped play with her standing at deuce on serve. She returned half an hour later to hold but her best tennis of the set came as she faced match points, bravely taking to the net again. She held, 2-5 and fought to break through seven deuces, but Radwanska closed out a fine match that boasted 103 points played at the net, 6-2.

Radwanska allayed any concerns about her legs: “Just too much tennis in the last few days, but I think that is a good problem to have!”

She went on to play another of the matches featured in this review, losing to Sabine Lisicki 7-9 in the third set. Li would lose to Serena Williams in the US Open semis and the WTA Championships final to end the year at a career-high No3. But from both women, fans have much to look forward to in 2014.

4. Indian Wells Premier semi-final: Maria Kirilenko beat Petra Kvitova 4-6, 6-4, 6-3

Russian, blond, 26 years old and called Maria: It could only mean one woman—but this time, it didn’t.

maria kirilenko

At Indian Wells in 2012, Maria Kirilenko had, not for the first time, taken Maria Sharapova to three tough sets, and as they lined up to meet there again this year, the No13 seed was showing some of her best ever form.

She arrived in California having just won her sixth title at Pattaya City, beat Christina McHale in her first match, coming back from a set down, beat Mallory Burdette in the next, also in three sets, and then took out No3 seed Agnieszka Radwanska in the quarters in one more long-fought tussle, 7-5 in the third set.

But she had another obstacle before Sharapova, No5 seed Petra Kvitova, and yet again, Kirilenko would have to do it the hard way after dropping the first set, 4-6, in a sweltering Indian Wells. Not surprisingly, after three straight three-setters and facing the power of a Kvitova, the Russian needed medical attention to tape up her leg but still found herself 2-4 down in the second set.

However, Kvitova has never handled the heat well and the errors started to creep in—to such an extent that Kirilenko broke to win the next three games, 5-4. Nerves gripped Kvitova and, as has happened often before, it was her serve that suffered. She double-faulted four times—in a tally that would rise to 13 for the match—to lose the set, 6-4. She double-faulted again to be broken at 3-4 in the third and Kirilenko kept applying the pressure, racing to the net to finish and thus take the match, 6-3.

Much credit was due to Kirilenko, battling through almost two-and-a-half hours to record six out of six wins in three setters, four of them from a set down and four of them in this tournament alone. And it took her to her first Indian Wells semi and her shot at the other Maria.

Despite being a formidably fit woman, however, the wear and tear was beginning to take its toll. Meanwhile, Sharapova arrived at the semis without dropping a set, and would take a relatively straightforward win, 6-4, 6-3. However, Kirilenko would later advance to her first French Open quarter-final and a career-high ranking of No10.

She afterwards commented: “I think everybody has their own time. Somebody can be [at their highest ranking] at a young age; somebody needs more time. I feel I always played not bad, but now I’m playing better. The right moment for me is right now.”

Unfortunately that same left knee forced her to retire from her opening match and then the entire event at the end-of-season Tournament of Champions.

Other contenders

Cincinnati final: Victoria Azarenka beat Serena Williams 2-6, 6-2, 7-6(6)

Williams had dominated Azarenka for more than three years, winning every match from the 2009 Wimbledon to the 2012 WTA Championships, dropping only two sets to the Belarusian in all that time. But 2013 was different. Azarenka was top dog, champion at the year’s first Grand Slam in Australian and beat Williams in a two-and-a-half hour final in Doha.

Williams avenged the defeat in Rome but come the hard courts again, this time Cincinnati, Azarenka showed why she has become the only woman to really challenge Williams on the tour.

The American started impressively, breaking immediately, and again in the fifth game, to take the set 6-2, winning 28 out of 39 points. Azarenka took advantage of some early American errors in the second to break serve, and although Williams held off seven break points at 1-4, she could not prevent another break, and Azarenka levelled, 6-2.

The No2 seed also took the lead in the third, 4-2, but a gritty Williams broke not once but twice to serve for the title. Still it was not done, though, as a sizzling return of serve gave Azarenka another break and they headed to the tie-break. Even now, the title was on Williams’ racket, needing just to hold her own serve, but she double faulted and gave Azarenka one more bite of the cherry, and she came out victor from another two-and-a-half hour contest.

Their last meeting in 2013 was even longer, a 7-5, 6-7, 6-1 victory to Williams for the US Open title—but one can only await their first encounter of 2014 with bated breath.

Australian Open final: Victoria Azarenka beat Na Li, 4-6, 6-4, 6-3

The Grand Slam year began with fireworks, both on and off court, as Azarenka aimed to defend her first Grand Slam title in Australia. Her opponent, Li, was a finalist here in 2011, but she would face more than the feisty Azarenka during this dramatic final.

There was fan involvement: Azarenka had to win over a crowd already predisposed to support the Asian-Pacific favourite Li before the controversy surrounding an Azarenka medical time-out during her semi-final.

The 30-year-old Li had survived the tougher run through the draw, too, beating four seeds—all in straight sets—that included Radwanska and Sharapova, while Azarenka had faced just one, No29 Sloane Stephens, in that controversial semi.

And the No1 ranking was at stake: Azarenka had to defend her title or Williams would take her top spot.

Not until the end of the first set did both women hit their best at the same time. Despite a slew of 18 errors, Li had fired 12 winners to Azarenka’s two, and it earned her the first set, 6-4.

The tennis was better in the second, with a near flawless Azarenka taking a 3-0 lead. But fit and strong from her intense training with new coach Carlos Rodriguez, Li held her own, and was in full flight, 30-30 on her own serve, when a wrong-footing fall brought her to a painful standstill.

Back with her ankle strapped up, she held serve but Azarenka served out the set, 6-4. With the match evenly poised, 81 points each and two hours on the clock, it was firework time—this being Australia Day—but in their first point back, Li’s ankle gave way again and she crashed like a felled tree, whipping her head onto the court. The doctor gave a dazed Li a lengthy assessment before she carried on but Azarenka took a quick break to dominate the final set, 6-3.

She would eventually concede the No1 ranking at Indian Wells, but put together a strong season of three titles and 43 wins to 9 losses. Li, though, would win their next match, in their last tournament of the year in Istanbul, 6-2, 6-1.

Also in this series:

2013’s best bits: New and late bloomers
2013’s best bits: Young women make strides
Federer, Nadal, Djokovic wear it well
The year’s best men’s matches – Part one
The year’s best men’s matches – Part two

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