My good friend and sometimes tennis sparring partner (at least on the internet) Savannah of Savannah’s World has written extensively about Victoria Azarenka and the tempest in a teapot that is Azarenkagate.
One of my favourite sports writers, Jon Wertheim, whose Mailbag almost every tennis fan with an internet connection looks forward to on a weekly basis has this week answered questions in relation to Azarenkagate.
Most of Tennis Forum, a site dedicated to women’s tennis has many posts that surround Azarenkagate. Even Deadspin and Grantland have articles about it.
I have waited with baited breath for someone, anyone to defend Victoria Azarenka, yet only noted sports writer and tennis fan, Steve Tignor, attempted to do so as he wrote about the subtleties of medical time out and the issues that arose when Azarenka responded after she had won her match against Sloane Stephens.
I am not going to evaluate whether Azarenka was really injured or not; that is something for the medical professionals who examined her to decide. Do I think her medical timeout had an effect on the outcome of the match? The short answer is an emphatic no. How do I know this? Firstly, from first ball to last, Sloane Stephens held serve once. Secondly, Sloane had game point to even the match at 5 games all and failed to do so. Whether it was playing one of the best returners on the WTA or being mentally fried after her defeat of Serena Williams, winning the match was always going to be a big challenge for Sloane Stephens. Sadly, fans and media pundits have missed an opportunity to talk about the realities of the match and provide keen insights in the pros and cons of the young American’s game, instead, they have been spinning Azarenkagate.
My friend Savannah has intimated that the sign held up by so-called tennis fans calling Azarenka a cheater was not shown on her feed. I have watched this match numerous times on both Tennis Channel and when it first aired on ESPN. That sign was there for all to see. Why is there such vitriol being thrown at the WTA’s World’s No. 1?
Let’s take a look at the women who have held the number one position in the WTA in recent history. First there was Dinara Safina, the sister of Marat Safin, former ATP pro, world No. 1 and a Grand Slam champion. Safina was known more for her on-court meltdowns and being a slam less #1 than for her achievements in the rankings. The same can be said for Jelena Jankovic and Caroline Wozniacki, little Ms. Sunshine herself. All 3 women charmed and gave great interviews and they shared a common bond: none of them won a Grand Slam during the time they held the No. 1 ranking. After every loss at a Major, I cringed as I listened to repeated questions about their failures to win a Slam. Even worse, there were players like Li Na, Sam Stosur, Francesca Schiavone, and Ms. Grand Slam, Serena Williams, winning Majors without reaching No. 1. Everyone decried the lack of depth in the WTA and its failure to replicate the dominance seen on the ATP tour. Who would save the WTA? By the end of 2011, it looked like the WTA was about to enter its glory days with a rivalry between Victoria Azarenka and Petra Kvitova and an all out battle for a #1 with a Slam.
In 2012, everything changed. In an emphatic victory, Azarenka would demolish Sharapova in the finals of the Australian Open, moving from No. 3 to No.1. She would go on to a record year, winning 26 matches in a row and 3 titles in the first quarter of the season. Yet, when Victoria entered interview rooms, she had traded the Slamless #1 question for questions about her grunting. Reporters belittled her game and her attitude. Reporters seem to revel in embarrassing Victoria. Gleefully tweeting that the “The No. 1 player has no interview requests.” While they may have thought it a poor reflection on Azarenka, suggesting that she had nothing worthwhile to say; I thought their absence demonstrated a lack of objectivity and professional decorum.
Here was a young woman who had been known for her mental and physical frailties succeeding and journalists didn’t wonder why? How could that be? Didn’t we see a similar transformation of a previously fragile ATP player into dominant world #1? Wasn’t he lauded for his winning streak? Didn’t pundits and journalists alike claim that his streak was good for tennis? That it captured the public’s imagination? Why then was Victoria’s glorious run met with such silence and disregard? Why did journalists have little questions beyond grunting for a WTA #1 with her first Slam? After all, didn’t she do what Caroline, Dinara, and Jelena couldn’t? Maybe they thought it was a fluke and Victoria would simply go away if they ignored her. Yet, Victoria did not go away; she stayed and she kept on winning.
Fast forward to 2013 and we have the tempest in a teapot that is Azarenkagate.
The WTA has a No. 1 than can win and knows how to win. She competes well. She draws people to the sport, even if they are her detractors. Like Sharapova and others, she continues to grunt and shriek. Sure she could use a bit of PR polish, but I can think of many whose PR foibles illicit sympathy and ardent support. For example, shy and mumbling Kvitova and imitation poor Caroline. Why no quarters for the new WTA#1? What has folks convinced that Azarenka is a bad person who needs to be tarred and feathered? Why are her offenses, which are not unusual, so egregious that they may disqualify her from ever becoming a future Hall of Famer?
I suspect that the ill will generated against Azarenka has more to do with people’s perceptions of what women should be doing on a tennis court, than Azarenka alone. If winning matches doesn’t matter, then what gains favor for women on the tennis court? If journalists are to be believed, the most popular female players on tour continue to be Ana Ivanovic, Maria Sharapova, and Aga Radwanska. Aside from Sharapova, who had a storied win at RG to regain the #1 for a brief spell, these women were mostly known for their pleasing airs, fashion sense, and looks than for winning matches. Maybe Azarenka has fallen afoul of the female mandate: it is okay to win but only if you do so looking as feminine and as soft as possible; female jocks need not apply.
For me, Victoria Azarenka is exactly what the WTA needs right now. After years of Slamless No.1s, we have a champion who competes well, cares passionately about winning, and stabilizes the tour. What’s so objectionable about that?