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Queen Victoria's Throne: Miami WTA Final Preview (plus Rafa-Roddick Recap)

The 2009 Miami final represented a dramatic breakthrough for Victoria Azarenka, who defeated five-time champion Serena Williams to claim what thus far has been the most significant title of her budding career. Arrayed on opposite sides of this net this year, in contrast, are two players who have combined to claim no fewer than 79 WTA singles titles (ranked first and third among active players on this list). Who will add to their sprawling trophy collection on Saturday? A full preview with head-to-head, recent form, three pieces of advice, and shot-by-shot breakdown lies straight ahead.

Head-to-head:

Venus leads 6-5 overall, but Clijsters has won their last three meetings, while the hard-court head-to-head is level at three victories each. As a result of the Belgian’s temporary retirement, they have played just once since 2005: a bizarre US Open fourth-round match in which Clijsters prevailed after they traded bagels in the first two sets. Readers might also remember that Venus won their exhibition match at Madison Square Garden a month ago. For different reasons, little weight should be placed on either of these two encounters. At the US Open, Venus struggled with severe knee tendinitis and barely escaped the first round, while the New York exhibition was played according to no-ad scoring, which creates an entirely different atmosphere from the conventional system. However, the head-to-head suggests that, if both players perform at their highest level, we’ll witness a scintillating, fiercely contested climax to the tournament.

Recent form:

Were the WTA distributing player awards for the year so far, Venus unquestionably would win the MRP (Most Reliable Player). Having won 15 consecutive matches since the Australian Open, she enters her third consecutive final with the confidence that springs from a variety of tense and commanding victories. Her title runs in Dubai and Acapulco demonstrated that she can not only smoothly outclass the competition (Dubai) but forge a path through unexpected adversity (Acapulco). At this tournament, her matches have comprised a microcosm of this trend; pedestrian against Hantuchova, she soared against Radwanska and delivered when it mattered against Bartoli. Substantial evidence indicates that she’ll need to summon a soaring effort indeed when she confronts this adversary, her most dangerous foe of the tournament.

Compiling staggering statistics through her first four matches, Clijsters banished Azarenka from her throne while solving the Stosur serve, never an easy conundrum. She showed understandable tension when navigating past her compatriot / archrival, Henin, and allowed a one-sided match to escalate into the most gripping entertainment of the women’s tournament, although certainly not the cleanest tennis; Clijsters struck 10 double faults while delivering ghastly errors as often as stunning winners. Nevertheless, one must credit her for finding her tenacity when it mattered most, deep in a third-set tiebreak, and countering Henin’s shot-making brilliance with bold aggression of her own. (The WTA often justifies the maxim that “the best defense is a great offense.”) Throughout the year, however, her results have been much less than imposing, with the momentum of her title run in Brisbane erased by dispiriting early exits in Melbourne and Indian Wells.

Three pieces of advice for Venus:

1) Keep moving forward: The most effective tactic to neutralize Clijsters’ ball-retrieving talents is to take time away from her by moving towards the net, taking balls out of the air, and cutting off the angles. Less consistent than her opponent, Venus needs to play first-strike tennis and not only seize the initiative at the earliest opportunity but ensure that she doesn’t relinquish the upper hand once she gains it. Even if she doesn’t have an easy putaway when she reaches the net, her outstanding volleying skills should prove more than equal to most passing shots.

2) Prioritize precision over pace: Tracking down swarms of apparent winners in her semifinal with Henin, Clijsters doesn’t struggle with pure pace on groundstrokes and often manipulates to her opponent’s discomfiture. Venus would be better served (haha) by varying the location on her serve to keep the Belgian guessing and varying the direction of her groundstrokes rather than always hitting to the open court. Athletic, technically sturdy counterpunchers like Clijsters produce some of their best tennis when hitting groundstrokes on the run; if one can throw them off balance, however, they often will produce an attackable mid-court response rather than a deep ball that returns the point to a neutral position.

3) Stay focused: Mental lapses cost Venus points and sometimes games against Hantuchova and Bartoli, but these less formidable players proved unable to punish her for them. She can’t afford to zone in and out when she plays Clijsters, who will be ready to capitalize on any donations and will be far less likely to return the favor than her previous opponents.

Three pieces of advice for Clijsters:

1) Attack Venus’ second serve: Far less formidable than her atomic first serve, Venus’ second delivery will offer Clijsters an opportunity to assert herself in the point with a penetrating return. If the Belgian can start the rally on neutral or slight better-than-neutral terms, she can move the American around the court until Venus finds the net or a doubles alley with a rash attempt to quickly end the point. Normally an advantage over opponents, her movement here has been much less impressive than during her Wimbledon championship runs. Perhaps most importantly, pressure on Venus’ second serve could translate to her first serve, causing her to think about what she needs to do with the shot in order to ensure a weak reply. When a player thinks too hard about their serve, double faults often ensue, as Clijsters herself has demonstrated in the past.

2) Prioritize depth over daring: Unlike Venus, Clijsters doesn’t need to paint lines and corners with ferocious groundstrokes; her consistency allows her to win points in many more ways. Although she can create as many imaginative angles as anyone, her chances in this matchup are stronger if it is decided by errors rather than winners. Consequently, she should strive to keep the ball deep down the center of the court, pushing Venus behind the baseline rather than allowing her to come forward (see above) and not allowing her to open up angles that would showcase her shot-making skills.

3) Stop when you’re ahead: The Belgian played her most dismal tennis when she held leads against Henin in the semifinals, rushing both before points and during points in her anxiety over closing out her vaunted rival. As a result, the match became far more suspenseful than was necessary, which was good for the audience but not for Clijsters, who came within two points of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. Should she find herself in a winning position against Venus, she needs to remind herself to take her time and calmly continue doing what brought her into that position in the first place. If she chokes away a lead this time, she probably won’t have the opportunity to choke away another one.

Shot-by-shot breakdown:

Serve: Venus

Return: Venus

Forehand: Venus

Backhand: Clijsters

Volleys: Venus

Movement: Clijsters

Mental: Both, in different ways: Clijsters should be more focused, Venus more confident

Recap:

In general, there are two main keys to this match, one involving each player. First, Venus’ serve can win her many more easy points than Clijsters’ delivery, a difference that could prove crucial in a tight match; on the other hand, it can also produce strings of double faults when she loses the rhythm on it. Whichever direction it goes, the rest of her game goes with it. The second key concerns Clijsters’ epic triumph over Henin. Either that match will inject her with momentum and self-belief, essential against an opponent like Venus, or she will experience a physical and emotional hangover from it that will dull the edge of her game.

PICK: When both players are at their best, this matchup is very even. But we’ll take Venus because of her three previous titles at this event, her 15-match winning streak, and her superior reputation for rising to the occasion when the situation demands it.

Let’s hope that the real winner is the audience and that these two players showcase their remarkable talents to the fullest extent! :)

***

Although this post belongs to our two leading ladies, we wanted to include a brief comment on the Nadal-Roddick semifinal, which unsurprisingly overshadowed the evening match. (Soderling effectively sank his own ship with an oddly disinterested performance in the nightcap.) The match followed largely the same pattern as Rafa’s loss to Ljubicic at Indian Wells; the Spaniard dominated from the outset and seemed bound towards an inevitable straight-sets win, until suddenly he wasn’t. Once again, one passive service game late in the second set reversed the momentum, infused his opponent with doubt, and triggered Nadal’s ever-lurking insecurities. But two points in the crucial eighth game of the third set illustrated both how far Rafa’s revival has progressed and how far he still must travel.

With Roddick serving at 4-3, ad-in, the American delivered yet another of his mammoth serves, struck a forceful approach shot, and confidently charged into the net for what he hoped would be an easy volley into the open court. Awakening memories of the 2008 Wimbledon final, Nadal sprinted to his left, bent into a compact crouch, and rattled a screaming down-the-line forehand past the frozen Roddick. Celebratory writhing and grimacing predictably ensued, while the audience (and probably Roddick) sensed that the famously resilient Spaniard might be on the verge of igniting a last-minute comeback. The beginning of the next point seemed to confirm our inkling; Nadal connected cleanly on the first-serve return and pushed the American behind the baseline, from where they started the rally on neutral terms. Since Rafa had won the vast majority of the extended rallies, one imagined that a vital break-point opportunity loomed just moments away. Deep into the exchange, however, Nadal abruptly dumped a backhand slice into the bottom of the net, not only attempting a needlessly tentative shot but drastically mistiming it. One could understand why he angrily slashed the air with his racket. While the first point hinted at the renewal of his confidence after the injury-instigated slump, the second point illustrated how fragile and sporadic that confidence remains. The clay season should prove especially intriguing.this year...

In the meantime, perhaps another game of golf would help restore Nadal’s missing “calm.” ;)

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Comment by Sharapovanovic on April 3, 2010 at 4:24pm
Venus flunked most notably on #1, I thought, and #3 definitely cost her. Clijsters did extremely well on her #1 piece of advice and never had to worry about #3, which I expected to be significant.
Comment by Mark / The Mayor on April 3, 2010 at 3:00pm
Great post. So what happened to our lady Venus? Did she fail to follow your 3 bits of advice in your opinion? Definitely missed on #3, no?

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