March 18, 2012

On a Roll

Neither of the results at today's finals in Indian Wells were particularly surprises, really, but what they might have lacked in drama they certainly made up for in decisiveness.

Victoria Azarenka came to the desert as the #1 ranked player in the world with an impressive 17-0 record and that breakthrough Grand Slam crown to her credit already this year. She struggled in her opener, battling a stomach bug that was nagging the entire field and squandering a huge lead against Mona Barthel before finally closing it out. But she got better with time, handily beating her next four opponents by dropping an average of just four games a match. Her victory over Angelique Kerber in the semis pushed her past Serena Williams to number four on the list of best all-time starts to a year.

In the final she met Maria Sharapova in a rematch of the surprisingly one-sided Melbourne final. The former #1 had been having her own string of success recently, making two Major finals in the past year and climbing back to the second spot in the rankings. In Indian Wells she battled from a set down against Maria Kirilenko in the quarters, and caught a bit of a break when Ana Ivanovic retired in the semis, but overall looked stronger than she had in quite some time.

That is, until she faced Vika in today's final. As had happened in so many of their recent meetings, Azarenka got off to a strong start, breaking her opponent off the bat and building a two-break lead in the second. Twice Maria was able to cut her deficit down, but each time the Belarusian had an answer, and despite a strong serve and some good gets she proved no match for the woman who hasn't dropped a set in this rivalry since 2009. Azarenka, now 23-0 on the year with four trophies on her mantle, has successfully escaped the curse that plagued so many of the first-time Slam champions in recent years, and though she may be loathe to make any comparisons, looks to be in a good place to set some big records in 2012.

The men's final featured another rematch of a big battle already waged this year. Roger Federer and John Isner last met a month ago when the big American shocked King Fed on his Davis Cup home court in just four sets. Since then Roger went on his own tear, winning ten straight matches and two titles coming to Indian Wells, and wracking up a dominating 33-2 record since last year's U.S. Open. He was challenged a bit in his early rounds this week, dropping sets to both Milos Raonic and Thomaz Bellucci before sailing past Juan Martin Del Potro and even long-time rival Rafael Nadal in the semis.

Isner was a little less obvious in his post-Davis Cup success. He failed to capitalize on his top seeding in Memphis or Delray Beach, but had nevertheless reached a career high ranking of #11 in the world. He wasn't challenged much early in the bracket, and perhaps without the pressure of being a favorite or by virtue of many of his biggest threats being eliminated for him, he was able to advance without much drama. He staged a solid victory against Gilles Simon in the quarters, and of course notched one of the two best career victories by beating reigning champ and top-ranked Novak Djokovic in the semis.

To his credit, Isner kept things close in his first ever Masters final. Forcing a tiebreak in the first set, he earned a few minibreaks and even had a set point to take the early lead, but an unfortunate decision to let a mishit lob go at seven-all might have cost him the set. Roger raised his game in the second set, too, going nearly four games before conceding the only point on his serve and breaking the big man's game twice. Now with a record nineteenth Maters crown to his name and a solid lead in the race to London, he seems to be well on his way to return to #1 in the overall rankings as well.

Given what we've seen already in 2012, it shouldn't shock us to find either of this weekend's champions back atop the winner's circle today -- and it shouldn't surprise us if we see them back there again and again this year. Of course their current winning streaks will end eventually -- maybe even in their very next matches. But the way they're playing, they've both shown their power goes far deeper than anyone might have thought before.

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