Miami Open 2016: Former champions Kuznetsova and Azarenka set final challenge
Svetlana Kuznetsova, the 2006 champion, will take on Victoria Azarenka in the Miami Open final on Saturday
After 10 days of heat, humidity and hard slog, the Miami Open, one of women’s tennis’s most prestigious titles, comes down to two former champions.
Svetlana Kuznetsova was just 20 years old when she won the Florida title—though she had announced her arrival on the biggest of stages two years earlier by winning the US Open.
She would go on to win another Major, the French Open, in 2009, and reach the finals of the same two Majors again. However, from being a dominant presence between 2004 and 2009 when she won 10 of her 16 titles, reached 18 of 21 further finals, and reached a career-high No2, her results began to fall away until an injury-disrupted 2012 saw her end the year outside the top 50 for the first time in 11 years.
Now this tough, athletic Russian, aged 30, has been producing that same fight and energy to steadily regain her ranking and garner titles. She ended last year at 25, despite more injury problems, broke back into the top 20 with the Sydney title in January—beating then No2 Simona Halep—and has now returned to the Miami final for the first time since 2006.
Kuznetsova came close to the final again in 2008, falling in the semis to Serena Williams after beating both No25 seed Victoria Azarenka and No7 seed Venus Williams. She came close again the next year, this time losing to Azarenka in the semis, as the fast-improving 19-year-old from Belarus headed to her first Miami title.
Now Kuznetsova will meet that Belarusian for a third time in Miami in their first meeting in over three years, and this time they will contest the title.
For Azarenka too, twice a champion in Miami, this year’s run has represented a to form from an injury-disrupted couple of seasons. From a high of world No1 in 2012, her ranking was down to 48 little more than a year ago, but Azarenka began to show something of her old self last year with quarter-final runs at Wimbledon and the US Open. She jumped into 2016 with a win in Brisbane and a quarter-final finish at the Australian Open, and went from good to great to win the tough Indian Wells Premier tournament a fortnight ago, beating Serena Williams for just the fourth time in 21 attempts.
Now she is aiming for her own piece of history. So tough is the Indian Wells-Miami double that only two women have managed to win both in the same year. Steffi Graf did it in 1994 and 1996—though at a time when Indian Wells was still a 64-woman draw—and Kim Clijsters did the near-impossible in 2005 by playing and winning both events unseeded.
Azarenka is hot favourite to become the third winner of what has become known as “The Sunshine Double”. She has yet to drop a set, though she came through one of the matches of the tournament against No4 seed Garbine Muguruza in the fourth round in two tie-breakers. With her 6-2, 7-5 win over Australian Open titlist and No2 seed Angelique Kerber in the semis, she extended her 2016 run to 21-1 and her Miami record to 29-6—and is already guaranteed to break back into the top five for the first time in two years.
In contrast, Kuznetsova has battled through four three-setters: In three of them she had to come back from a set down; in another three she played a tie-break;
In the conditions in Miami this year, that has been an achievement in itself. That she beat the eight-time champion and winner of the last three Miami titles, Serena Williams, in the fourth round, made it a singular run.
Kuznetsova’s semi-final win over Timea Bacsinszky has, then, been her only two-setter, and even that 7-5, 6-3 victory lasted just four minutes short of two hours. Little wonder she afterwards admitted: “I was praying to finish it in two sets so I would have a little more time to rest.”
So as she and Azarenka head to the final on Saturday, Kuznetsova will have spent four more hours on court than her opponent, but if she should go on to claim her first Premier Mandatory event since 2009, she will return to the top 10 for the first time since May 2010.
So as a prelude to what is, for many, a rather different Miami final line-up than predicted, here are few facts and figures to whet the appetite.
Azarenka vs Kuznetsova: the stats
· Azarenka will be ranked No5 come Monday whatever the result in Miami, her first time in the top five since May 2014.
· Kuznetsova will reach No13 in the rankings, her highest since August 2011, but will reach No9 if she wins the title, her highest since May 2010—becoming the highest ranked Russian ahead of Maria Sharapova.
· Azarenka has yet to play a three-setter in Miami, Kuznetsova has played four.
· The two finalists are four apiece in their eight previous matches, but this is their first meeting in a final and their first meeting in over three years.
· Azarenka is bidding to become just the third ever woman to win the Premier Mandatory double of Indian Wells and Miami back-to-back.
· At No19, Kuznetsova is the lowest ranked Miami finalist since Kim Clijsters won the title in 2005.
· Azarenka has never won a title more than twice: Miami would be her first.
· Kuznetsova is now fifth on the list of finals reached by active players—38—with Azarenka at sixth, with 36.
· Azarenka has already won more matches this year, 21, than she had won by Wimbledon last year.
· Kuznetsova is appearing in her 14th Miami Open, and is bidding to win more than one title in a season for the first time since 2009.
· Azarenka reached just one final in each of 2014 and 2015, and ended last year ranked No22, but she could top of the Race To Singapore leaderboard next week with her third title this year.
· By reaching the final Kuznetsova will pass the $20 million mark in prize money: only 13 other women have ever done so. Azarenka is set to move to within around $2 million of $30 million.