We’ve been waiting for someone to challenge Serena for a while now. We thought it may be Simona Halep after she beat Serena in Singapore then started the 2015 season in stellar fashion, before struggles ensued. Then we thought it may be Garbine. Perhaps even Petra Kvitova, Aga Radwanska, or Angelique Kerber. It turns out the player to be able to challenge Serena was the player we thought it’d be all along: Victoria (Vika) Azarenka.
Vika won the Miami Open, without dropping a set, to back up her title in Indian Wells. She’s the first to win the Indian Wells-Miami double since Kim Clijsters in 2005. Vika now improves to 22-1 in 2016 with 3 titles. She had not won a title since 2013 in Cincinnati, prior to her title in Brisbane earlier this year. Injuries had plagued Vika’s 2014 and 2015 seasons and she slipped to as low as 48th in the world in early 2015. Now she’s back on top. Vika will be in the top 5 on Monday for the first time since the week following Roland Garros in 2014. She’s also now number one in the race to Singapore.
Vika’s footwork has gotten back to where it was before injuries and may even be better than then. She’s looking to take the ball as early as possible, on each shot, to take away time from opponents and coming to net more. Her serve has improved too. She’s becoming increasingly confident with it and going for more. Double faults can still creep in, but she’s also winning more free points from it. The biggest thing for me though is mentality and ability to play well in critical moments. She’s become similar to Novak Djokovic in that regard. I think her win against Serena in the final of Indian Wells has given her a similar confidence to what Djokovic gained when he won Wimbledon in 2014. To come through a difficult situation, after having trouble in those situations in the past, gives a player so much confidence in the future in pressure moments. In Miami, Vika ended up saving two set points against Garbine Muguruza. She played the kind of style Djokovic plays in that situation. Grind and make your opponent earn it. Fitting since she’s been quoted as saying Djokovic’s footwork is what her goal is. Striving to be the best and looking at greatness to implement in her own game is how she’s gotten to this point.
While Vika seems to be on her way to the top, it seems Serena may be declining. She’ll be turning 35 in September and has had some surprising results of late. She has more good days behind her than in front of her. Serena hasn’t won a title since Cincinnati last year. Since then she had a stunning loss in the US Open semifinals to Roberta Vinci, which perhaps may have hurt her confidence. Then in the Australian Open final she lost to Angelique Kerber in a deciding third set. Serena had been 8-0 in deciding third sets in major finals. In Indian Wells, Serena wasn’t able to make the comeback we’ve seen her make countless times. Miami was a huge surprise in that Serena only won three games after taking the opening set in a tiebreak. Having won the title eight times, one would think if there was anywhere she’d find her top form, it’d be there.
With these un-Serena-like results and skipping the end of the 2015 season, the number one ranking seems to be in jeopardy. Serena is only 23 weeks away from Graf’s record of most consecutive weeks at number one. She’d need to hold it until the US Open to break the record. With so many points to defend, if she can’t summon a big result on her least favorite surface, clay, then she may lose it. Players are getting close and closer. Many people think Vika will surpass Serena, including ESPN analyst Brad Gilbert, who said it during today’s final. I believe she will as well and here’s how.
Serena has a 2,600 point lead over number two Angelique Kerber and 4,095 point lead over Vika. Vika still has a lot of ground to make up, but the following points breakdown for the rest of 2016 shows why she can get to number one.
I broke the points down by seasons. Clay, Grass, US Summer hard courts, and post US Open. Clay section includes Katowice, although it’s a hard court tournament, but it is during clay the season.
During the clay season, Serena has the most points to defend (2,495). Vika only has 440 to defend through the clay season. Kerber has two titles to defend, so by the time Madrid comes around, she’ll probably drop from the number two position. Through the clay season it would seem Aga Radwanska has the best chance to take over number one. She only has 241 points to defend and lost in the opening round of Roland Garros last year. Number one could be on the line during Roland Garros. Madrid and Rome will be crucial for both Aga and Serena to set themselves up, either take over number one or lessen the chances of losing it, respectively. Katowice was to be the start of Aga’s chance to take number one, before she withdrew from the event citing right shoulder inflammation. The shoulder had been taped in Indian Wells and Miami. It may not have meant much with Katowice only being a 280 event, but any ground she could’ve made up there would’ve increased her chances of becoming number one. Let’s hope this injury doesn’t further prevent her from a chance at taking over the number one ranking.
It could still be possible during the grass season for Aga to overtake Serena if she significantly closes the gap during the clay season with Serena having to defend Wimbledon, but it seems her best chance is during the clay season, specifically Roland Garros. Aga has the best chance of anyone to overtake Serena in the short term. She’s 1,245 points clear of Vika on Monday.
Vika’s preferred surface is hard courts, so it’s a bit troubling for her to not be playing on the surface for another four months or so. She’s 1-6 in clay finals, the only win coming in a 280 event. Vika has made one final on grass courts, which she lost. She only has 900 points to defend during the clay and grass seasons though, so she can gain points and will need to. Meanwhile Serena has to defend both Roland Garros and Wimbledon. Failing to defend one of those will lose her a lot of points. During this stretch I’d expect Serena to lose at least 1,000 points and Vika could easily gain 1,500 points and probably will gain more. After Wimbledon, Vika could be very close to Serena. Serena would still have to defend 2,030 points, including the title in Cincinnati, compared to only 640 for Vika. Number one could be on the line during Rogers Cup and Cincinnati, just before Serena’s chance to break Graf’s record for consecutive weeks at number one would take place. Funny how it always seems to play out that way.
Vika only has 1,600 points to defend for the rest of 2016. To put that in perspective, she just picked up 2,000 points with her Indian Wells-Miami double. Serena has 6,525 points to defend for the rest of the year. About a 5,000 point difference in points to defend for the rest of 2016. That’s why Vika has the best chance to surpass Vika’s chances to take over number one aren’t like Aga’s, centered on a short period of time. Vika, with so few points to defend, will only be getting closer to Serena every week. Rome and Wuhan are the only tournaments Vika has more points to defend than Serena and neither is by more than 100 points. Meanwhile, Serena has six tournaments she’ll be defending more points at than Vika. All by well over 100 points. At Roland Garros and Wimbledon alone, Serena is defending 3,440 more points than Vika. After the US Open, Serena has nothing to defend and Vika barely has any points to defend, so it could be a thrilling battle down the stretch.
I’d give Garbine Muguruza somewhat of a chance. She plays well on clay and isn’t defending a lot. She found form in Miami, pushing Vika to the limit. Garbine doesn’t have much to defend during the US Open series either. The problem for her is her Wimbledon final points. That’s why it’s so hard to think she can surpass Serena. She dominated the post US Open stretch too. There’s a couple stretches for her to possibly have a chance, but they come between that Wimbledon final. Keep in mind she’s only about 300 points clear of Vika on Monday, so her chance is basically nonexistent. Vika will fly past her shortly.
Kerber’s four 470 titles to defend are her down fall. She’s number two and the closest to Serena, but all those titles will be tough to defend. On top of that, she was hampered by a leg injury in Miami. A deep run at Roland Garros or Wimbledon could give her a chance though.
Roland Garros and Wimbledon will be the key for everyone. Have a big result and anything is possible. Winning titles is important for all of them. No one will get to number one without winning a big title, speaking mostly to Kerber, Radwanska, and Muguruza. For Serena to retain number one, she’ll need to win more than one title probably. Vika has already won a couple big titles and has little to defend. She doesn’t even need to win anything. Just making semifinals and finals would be like winning titles for her points-wise.
Hopefully the points race will turn into what I’ve shown it could become. We don’t want to see any injuries come into play to impact anyone’s chances of being number one. Scheduling will be another factor. Serena only enters the biggest tournaments, which could come back to haunt her with her not posting enough big results. Smaller tournaments add up with a race that could become close. Serena’s biggest regret could be taking the fall off last year over these next few months. If she’d played, we wouldn’t even be having the discussion about her losing the number one ranking. That loss to Vinci may end up costing her more than the grand slam. It may cost her a record she’ll never have a chance to break again.