Azarenka deserves benefit of the doubt

OPINION

Is there a small chance that the hungry pack got it a touch wrong with Victoria Azarenka in the pre-Australian Open final character assassination?

Prima facie as the pack noted, Azarenka looked to be exploiting the system in her semi-final  win with the outrageous timing of her injury break against young American Sloane Stephens.

The reaction was vitriolic, sustained and pockmarked the final against Li Na to a point where one must ask ... has there been a more unpopular champion?

What if, in the hurly-burly of the semi-final win, Azarenka was genuinely injured, and innocence or ignorance hamstrung her post-match on-court interview to a point where she failed to mention it. Instead focusing on her battle with nerves.

Now there is some devil’s advocate here as watching the match, I felt exactly the same as most. This was a cruel injustice for the 19-year-old Stephens, fighting back gamely, saving five match points, then having to sit idle for ten minutes with momentum oozing from every pore. But the real fault lay with the system, not Azarenka.

Part of the attraction of sport is the attritional nature, somewhat nullified in some of the football codes with unlimited substitutions.

Tennis, though, can send an individual through the pain barrier and the edge of overall fatigue, particularly over five long sets in the men’s game.

Azarenka was nowhere near this point, and seemed to be capitulating to pressure. But she was at 6-1 and 5-4, and Stephens might well have found the moment too pressure-filled had she been called upon to serve immediately. We’ll never know.

The responsibility for getting it right so exploitation isn’t a factor is in the court of the world tennis authorities.

Maybe the Azarenka affair is a by-product of too much pandering and not enough of the iron fist. That could be extended to the drug testing of tennis players which from Novak Djokovic’s evidence, falls well short of the mark.

Tennis players are waited on, treated like royalty and earn far too much money. Is it any wonder some want to take that one step further as Azarenka appeared to do?

There must be a rule at the back end of a set, which prohibits a time-out. Play on injured until the set elapses, and if you lose it, bad luck. Or make sure the player stays on the court while receiving medical attention.

The existing system obviously doesn’t work if the whole focus of a grand slam semi-final is diverted in this fashion.

It’s also a dilemma women’s tennis doesn’t need. Currently, the game rolls along in the middle ground of interest, failing regularly to ignite the flame on the back of lop-sided matches and the lack of genuine champions to drive the standard at the top end.

For Maria Sharapova to bruise opponents so relentlessly in her march to the semi-finals, by only losing nine games, then to be thoroughly trounced by Li Na reflects poorly on Sharapova’s continuing ambitions. And Serena Williams needs more company. Azarenka, Petra Kvitova and co seem to be fleeting flame throwers at the top end of the game.

Hopefully there’s a new wave of talent ignited by one S Stephens, to give the women’s game a kick. Maybe the accruing of vast sums of wealth too easily, is taking the edge off desire. Only a thought.

But back to Azarenka. She did mightily well to win the final against Li Na after losing the first set. She carried into the match the weight of public opinion on her shoulders, the villain epitomised. Congratulations from the incident-starved media pack after her three-set victory were few, and the vitriolic behaviour continued from the press box unabated.

On Australia Day, this could have been viewed as un-Australian to so vilify a player for just exploring the full gamut of the rules. I’m a bit of a karma policeman. If Azarenka had truly pulled the awful stunt that everyone’s accusing her of, would the sporting gods have allowed her to hold the trophy.

As every golfer knows, any  tweaking of the rules in one’s favour, even if a meaningless little movement from a twig removal, un-penalised by conscience, then comes back to bite. If Azarenka had truly rorted the system, would her moral compass have stayed on course to allow her a conscience-free win?

It’s a thought certainly worth considering as we hold this year’s Australian Open women’s champion, unfortunately, in contempt.

xxx

Federer's defeat marks the end of an era

We've heralded the great Roger Federer for so long that the dismantling of his game by Andy Murray on Australia Day eve was poignant. Federer has had the wood on Murray, mentally, tactically and skilfully, despite the Scot’s Olympic Gold medal triumph.

After all, tennis at the Olympics is, like football, second tier. This was the passing of the baton, an almost retirement-inducing loss for the Swiss maestro upon the realisation that his best is not good enough any more.

Lleyton Hewitt and many other journeyman professionals can extend careers on competitive instinct and love of the game.

The big question for Federer is, after being the standard-setter for so long with a game verging on the artistic, characterised by flowing movement around the court and precise, thunderous shotmaking , whether he can play second fiddle to Murray and Djokovic, maybe wait for a moment to pounce when the aforementioned are slightly off their games. 

Because, on the evidence presented by Murray, he now has a superior game to Federer. It felt strangely sad watching the semi- final. Sad, with the realisation that Federer, despite taking it to five sets as much on touches of arrogance from Murray, as on blazing, back-to-the past winners from the former No1, was just not in the match, even if the scoreboard said he was at various times.

And the nemesis was Andy Murray, who couldn’t win a grand slam, was considered short in the mind department, and now (this penned before the final) potentially has two slams. Or, if Djokovic has prevailed, then the next won’t be far away. To his credit, Murray is now the talent realised, with a massive power game and some Federer-like artistry at times.

He’ll never be Federer, of course, the record-holding grand slam champion who has mesmerised everyone with his movement and captivated the world with his charm. 

It’s unlikely in my time that we’ll see a man more designed for the game of tennis than Federer.

So this year’s Australian Open will be remembered for that symbolic passing of the baton. Federer is now long odds to snag another major.

But what a ride it has been with one of the greatest sportsmen to ever grace the planet.

xxx

Import bolsters W-League's appeal

The W-League season ended with yesterday’s grand final in Melbourne which hopefully springboards the game into a brighter future.

There’s no doubt the women’s game has been enhanced by the quality of the visiting internationals this year, spread across all eight teams and making significant contributions to each. 

The bonus is, they’re all queuing up to come back and the word is spreading. 

Melbourne Victory particularly have been the beneficiaries of some fine imports: Jess McDonald, the young American mum, cool Swede Petra Larsson, fullback Danielle Johnson and the sensational Welsh player Jess Fishlock.

The competition is lifting in quality to a point where players can marry seasons together to get much more game time across Europe and the US.

However there are a couple of areas for improvement. Stifling heat has forced the change of game times and one key postponement. The women haven’t been advantaged by the hot summer and the game time needs to be put back to 5pm or 4pm at the outside, to everyone’s advantage.

It’s a tough ask to expect consistent high quality football at 2pm in the heart of summer. The competition also needs to be extended so that every team plays each other twice for maximum fairness. There needs to be more double-headers with the respective A-League clubs, who could certainly do more to promote the cause.

The game also needs a fair share of the promotional pie from the FFA and more media attention. There’s a bit of a chicken and egg here, but the game would take greater steps towards paying for itself should it receive deserved exposure.

Fifteen years from now, when the number of female footballers in the nation has swelled and the Matildas are playing in a World Cup final, there’ll be some reflection on why it took so long to get a foothold. The time is now.

xxx

Congratulations to Maxwell

And congratulations to ABC cricket commentator Jim Maxwell for his Australia Day gong. Jim was the first point of contact at ABC sport in 1980 when I first lobbed in.

We used to toss for the honour of interviewing Bob Fulton, a prickly character on those days, for the sporting highlight show on ABC radio. A thorough gentleman and an exceptional man of the airwaves.

Cheers Jim

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