We deserved a celebration on the first day of spring. And we got one, although it wasn’t what many expected and was marred by controversial comments from CEO and Tournament Director Raymond Moore.
Instead of the normal beatdown Serena Williams hands any number of hopeful opponents, Victoria Azarenka took control to win her second BNP Paribas Open title, 6-4 6-4. She also won in 2012.
“Where do I start. I’m a little bit nervous,” Azarenka began, during the awards’ ceremony on Stadium One. “First, a personal thank you to Serena. You truly inspire so many people out here. You are an amazing competitor. And you changed our game. I wouldn’t be as motivated to come back if it wasn’t for your game. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.”
Williams was playing in this WTA Premier Mandatory final for the first time in 15 years. In 2001 she defeated Kim Clijsters on the same court, but under much different circumstances. That day was marked with nasty calls that were outright racist in nature. The vulgar atmosphere was precipitated by a decision made the day before when Venus Williams, Serena’s older sister, pulled out of their semifinal as the match was about to begin. Ticket holders didn’t forget; and, Serena refused to return to the Coachella Valley until last year.
And although Serena didn’t play well today — she was 1/12 on break points — no one knew the emotional strain she was under until she spoke during the awards.
“Thanks guys,” Serena began, as tears started to form. “It wasn’t the greatest moment. Thanks for the cheers. I can’t tell you how much it means to me. I’m just so happy to stand here again.”
For Azarenka the title was a long time coming after a year of injuries, most notably to her foot.
Her rise in the rankings came slowly after her return as her ranking had slipped out of seeding range. She faced heavy hitters early in tournaments, which eliminated her and slowed expectations. But the Belarusian is a competitor supreme. Her beliefs run deep and her skills are certainly some of the best in the game.
After losing in the second round last year to Maria Sharapova in Indian Wells, Azarenka lost to Flavia Pennetta (U. S. Open Champion, 2015) in Miami, Serena in Madrid (a knock-down three setter), Sharapova during the quarterfinals of Rome, Serena in Paris, and then Serena again in the quarterfinals of Wimbledon. By the time the U. S. Open came along, Azarenka was ranked 20. She pushed through to the quarterfinals, again, but lost to Simona Halep.
As 2016 began, though, Azarenka’s attitude began to match her feisty nature and fight. She won Brisbane, defeating the soon-to-be Australian Open Champion, Angelique Kerber, 6-3 6-1. It was ‘Vika’s’ first title since 2015 Cincinnati where she defeated Serena, 2-6 6-2 7-6(6).
Even after today’s victory, Serena leads their head-to-head record: 4-17. However, the day demonstrated just how good Azarenka had gotten, especially from the mental toughness side of things.
Up a set and two breaks and serving for the match at 5-3, she wobbled as Williams’ game took an about face from one of an error-strewn fiasco. Azarenka double faulted twice and handed a break to Williams. The door was open for the 21-time Grand Slam Champion to forge yet another wild comeback. But Azarenka stood firm. And at that stage of the competition, her mind was the master of her destiny.
Azarenka will be awarded a spot in the top 10, come tomorrow morning. It’s a place she probably holds dear, given her propensity to win. With Sharapova on the sidelines due to a suspension from a failed drug test, Azarenka presence will meld nicely with the other nine women as the tour moves on to the Miami Open next week and then Europe for the red clay season.
With excitement high, the day’s final was also and unfortunately marred by statements from CEO and Tournament Director Raymond Moore. The inflammatory comments lit-up social media as the match was under way. When he appeared on court to present trophies and checks, some wondered if he should have worn protection. In part Moore said to the media earlier today in its annual press conference, “If I was a lady player, I would go down every night on my knees and thank God that Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal were born. They have carried the sport.”
Serena was asked about the comments in her post-match press conference.
“Obviously I don’t think any woman should be down on their knees thanking anybody like that. I think Venus, myself, and a number of players have been — if I could tell you every day how many people say they don’t watch tennis unless they’re watching myself or my sister, I couldn’t even bring up that number. I think there are a lot of women out there who are more — are very exciting to watch. I think there are a lot men out there who are exciting to watch. I think it definitely goes both ways. I think those remarks are very much mistaken and very, very inaccurate.”
Although the controversial comments should continue to inflame women on tour and from all sports, Moore did issue a quick apology as reported by The New York Times on Twitter.
“At my morning breakfast with the media, I made comments about the WTA that were in extremely poor taste and erroneous. I am truly sorry for those remarks, and apologize to all the players and WTA as a whole. We had a women’s final today that reflects the strength of the players, especially Serena and Victoria, and the entire WTA. Again, I am truly sorry for my remarks.”
The apology may keep the wolves at bay, but Moore will have more backpedaling to do especially considering further comments from the same press conference. He went on to talk about who is the best female player of all time, citing Serena as the probable pick. He then added, “I think the WTA has a handful of very attractive prospects that can assume the mantle. You know, Muguruza, Genie Bouchard. They have a lot of very attractive players. And the standard in ladies tennis has improved unbelievably.”
Questioned about his use of ‘attractive,’ Moore said, “I mean both. They are physically attractive and competitively attractive. They can assume the mantle of leaderships once Serena decides to stop. I think they’ve got — they really have quite a few very, very attractive players.”
Attractive or unattractive, Moore may not come to see just how well the women progress at Indian Wells. His controversial words could put an end to his tour of duty at the BNP Paribas Open.
With all that wrangling slanting the day’s results, it’s good to come back to what really mattered today to the two finalists. They made it to the end. They displayed quality sportsmanship throughout and supported each other in the end, even though only one can win at this game.