What is it with defending champions this year?
First it was Novak Djokovic who took the swan dive on Tuesday night and today it was Victoria Azarenka who departed in tears and a taxi, beaten 6-1, 5-7, 6-0 by Agnieszka Radwanska. Or, to be more precise, it was Azarenka who was absolutely marmalised by the quiet, shrewd and impassive Radwanska.
Who knows what emotions were churning inside the No.5 seed, but for the two hours it took her to advance to the semi-finals, but she never let dab. There was not a flicker of joy when she won the first set not a hint of panic when she lost the second – with a 12-3 losing record to Azarenka, she knew she had to keep everything under control from the first point to the last if she was to notch up her best result here.
This is her eighth trip Down Under and this was her fifth quarterfinal; surely, she thought, this time she could break the hoodoo and go one step further. Couldn’t she ever.
“I lost against her so many times, I knew I had to play my best and even better. For sure this is the best quarterfinal I ever played here. I said to myself, one day I have to take one more step forward and I’m so happy I did it today.”
As befits a two-time champion, Azarenka arrived with her entourage, one led by her boyfriend RedFoo. He, as befits a dance music star, brought with him a wee entourage of his own. They were smaller, skinnier and younger than the original Foo but other than that, they were dead ringers for Vika’s fella. A pair of Foo-lets. Or Footles.
Anyway, from starting the match as a cheery troop of lads, they went awfully quiet as Radwanska ran away with the first set.
There is something Hingis-esque about Radwanska. Compared to her rivals at the top of the game, she is not particularly powerful (and on a duff day, she can be blasted off the court) and she is not ridiculously fast. But no one reads the game like Aggie and no matter where Azarenka tried to punch the ball, Aggie was there first; she had seen the shot coming and was waiting to pounce. Add into that mix an alarming number of errors from Azarenka – 47 in all – and the champion found herself running up-hill in cement boots.
Every time she came in, she was passed or lobbed (and Radwanska’s lobs are belters). If she tried anything tricky or clever, she was toast. The only weapon that worked against the crafty Pole was sheer power – but when her forehand stubbornly refused to stay within the confines of the court, that was not doing her much good, either.
After five games of this punishment, Azarenka was ready to explode. Screaming something pithy and pertinent in her native tongue, something along the lines of “oh botheration”, she drew a chorus of ‘oohs’ from the crowd. That did little to help her mood. Meanwhile, up in the posh seats, RedFoo was looking a little pale, more PeakyFoo than usual (although that does sound like something you play with three-year-olds. Then again, Azarenka would probably have lost a game of that, too, so error-strewn was her play in that opening set).
The champion tidied herself up a bit in the second set and even if she could not cut back on the errors, she did, at least, start hitting a few more winners. She actually held serve. Twice. That was worth a round of applause in itself. But it was not to last and just moments later, Radwanska was a break up again at 3-2. That was when Azarenka flexed her muscles.
At last her ground strokes started to find their target and even if it did look like she was taking a sledgehammer to crack a nut, it gave her a little bit of momentum. The carefully constructed points and neatly orchestrated rallies of Radwanska suddenly looked a bit feeble against this all-out assault and sure, enough, the world No.2 edged her way towards parity. It took 55 minutes of sweat and toil, but finally Azarenka won the set, levelled the score and breathed again. Sitting in between his Footles, PhewFoo was looking happier.
But Radwanska was not to be bullied. If Azarenka wanted to play that sort of game then Aggie had the answer and, anticipating every shot before Azarenka had even thought of it herself, she unpicked the champion’s every service game and, in so doing, unpicked her psyche, too. The usual two-tone wail that accompanies every Azarenka stroke was soon replaced by shrieks and yelps and half chances were missed or put-aways went astray. She was taking a pasting and she had no idea how to stop it.
In between, Radwanska was playing like a dream. There were winning volleys played off her shoelaces, backhand winners that landed on a postage stamp and the overwhelming belief that if she got Azarenka involved in a rally of any description, Radwanska would emerge victorious. Azarenka could do nothing to stop it while RedFoo, now reduced to little more than Fffff, was checking his phone intently. No doubt he was looking for the Qantas departure times from Tullamarine.
So, from never managing to make it beyond the last eight, Radwanska is within touching distance of the trophy. In her way on Thursday stands Dominika Cibulkova, a woman she has beaten five times out of six and if that does not make her excited, nothing will. Just don’t expect her to show it, though, not until her last point is played – and that just might be in the final.