Echoing the events of 1945, a Russian invading army of one very tall, very brave, and very stubborn field marshal planted its flag on German soil. Entered at Stuttgart simply to gain preparation for the weeks ahead, Sharapova got everything that she wanted and much more from her first appearance there, culminating with the keys to a white Porsche. The world #2 throttled three consecutive top-five players en route to her first 2012 title, part of a seven-match span in which she toppled five different top-eight opponents. Thrust to the brink of defeat by an inspired Stosur in the quarterfinals, Sharapova dug into the trenches until the first crack in her opponent’s armor finally surfaced. Having averted match point in the second set of that 181-minute battle, she then marched all the way back from Stalingrad to Berlin. Remarkably able to recover within less than 24 hours, Sharapova dismissed Kvitova and routed repeated nemesis Azarenka in a nearly flawless final during which she faced only a single break point.
Reminiscent of Nadal’s victory in Monte Carlo last week, Sharapova’s surge in Stuttgart marked a double breakthrough against a specific opponent (the world #1 in both cases) and disappointing performances in finals (tied to the first trend in both cases). Like the men’s #2, the women’s #2 halted those skids in overwhelming fashion as she hammered 31 winners and ended seven of nine service games with aces, just a handful of her countless unreturnable deliveries this week. On the surface least hospitable to serves, Sharapova delivered her best serving performance of the season not only in terms of aces and service winners but in the less tangible area of clutch serving on important points. Also like Nadal, she struck only a minor blow in her rivalry with the world #1, which remains an odd sequence of dominant performances by one or the other with few moments when each plays her best at the same time. But we suspect that both the righty-turned-lefty and the lefty-turned-righty gained an infusion of confidence this month that will propel them towards further exploits as spring turns to summer.
Azarenka: On the eve of the final, one expected that the world #1 would duplicate Djokovic’s 2011 feat of winning her first clay tournament after dominating the hard-court season. Competent more than crushing in her first two matches, Azarenka soared to the latter state against Radwanska, who invariably brings out the best from her game. So has Sharapova in their recent history, but this time Vika found no answers for a player from whom she had won all four of their previous finals while losing five or fewer games. Faced with an unwelcome role reversal, she responded to the disappointment much less graciously than had her rival in Melbourne and Indian Wells. On the other hand, Azarenka impressed when she hastened to Petkovic’s assistance after the German injured her ankle, offering her ice and later supporting her as she hobbled off the court. Whereas her game has crystallized into a smoothly functioning whole, her personality remains a work in progress and an unpredictable study in contrasts.
Nadal: On the heels of an eighth straight Monte Carlo title, Rafa lifted the trophy at his home tournament of Barcelona for the seventh time. Beyond the burden of raising that gaudy monstrosity, the defending champion faced few serious challenges throughout a week in which he did not drop a set. Not even needing to showcase his fiercest form, Nadal looked more relaxed and composed than he had on a tennis court since his glorious season in 2010. That development should alarm opponents more than his usual clay display of hooking forehands and dogged scrambles.
Ferrer: Subdued again and again by Nadal on this court, Ferrer still found the optimism to mount his most compelling effort in their four Barcelona finals since 2008. The second-ranked Spaniard had emphasized how much satisfaction he would gain from winning this title, though, so one perhaps should have expected the whirlwind of energy with which he greeted his compatriot. Two points from winning each set, Ferrer could not quite deliver the coup de grace, an area in which he has struggled throughout his career. (He lacks an overpowering weapon in either serve or groundstrokes, and the top four rarely drill the last nail in their own coffins.) But his valiant attempt to throw all of his meager weapons and all of his tenacity into the pursuit deserve almost as much respect as if he had earned the mammoth upset.
Lefties beginning with K: Still without a final this year, Kvitova nevertheless took strides towards regaining her relevance with two commanding victories and a resolute semifinal performance against Sharapova. Despite having lost the momentum in that mini-rivalry, she unleashed plenty of explosive serves and baseline-clipping forehands to reassure her supporters on the eve of her Madrid title defense. Less expected was the effort from Kerber, who took a key step towards proving herself an all-court threat. The home hope handled the quirkiness of Vinci and the counterpunching of Wozniacki with ease before bowing to her fellow left-handed K.
Radwanska: You can find all that you need to know about her season in one statistic: 0-5 vs. Azarenka, 28-0 with two titles against all others. Before limping back to Poland after another beating by the Belarussian, Aga summed up the situation. We’ll let her speak for herself: “Clay is not my favorite surface, but playing against same player all the time isn't really fun." Indeed.
Stosur: Vanquished in Stuttgart’s most scintillating match, the US Open champion looked as formidable as she had in any match since that autumn afternoon in New York. Known mostly for serves and forehands, she complemented those weapons by swinging through her backhand for down-the-line winners of surprising accuracy. That shot offers the clearest barometer of her belief, which should have soared after three victories over top-25 opponents and then this epic in which she competed valiantly from start to finish. If both her two-hander and her mental resilience remain strengths rather than liabilities, Stosur will find herself on the short list of Roland Garros contenders.
Raonic: In the most improbable setting of Barcelona’s slow clay, the inevitable happened when the Canadian giant recorded his first victory over one of the ATP top four. Having won a set from Federer at Indian Wells, he probably applied the lessons learned there to the less intimidating prospect of Murray on his weakest surface. Like Isner, who has shone on clay this year, Raonic countered the assumption that tall, ungainly servers are doomed to defeat there.
German women: Amidst the depressing news of Petkovic’s latest injury, which will cost her three crucial months, brighter narratives surfaced in Stuttgart for the nation with more women in the top 35 than any other. Although Goerges could not defend her trophy, she battled Stosur vigorously through three sets, while Mona Barthel offered the most unexpected plot twist of the tournament (at least before the final). Cracking 31 aces in her three matches, the deceptively brittle youngster struck fear into Azarenka for the second time in three tournaments. Barthel also impressed with her poise under pressure by winning tiebreaks from both Vika and Ivanovic as she propelled herself within range of a seeded position at Roland Garros.
Stuttgart surface: Far from the conditions at Roland Garros, the indoor clay here may not offer the best preparation for later tournaments in the sense of reproducing what players should expect there. And Petkovic’s ankle injury, together with several strange bounces, suggested that those who laid it could improve their efforts next year. From another viewpoint, however, Stuttgart may offer the ideal transition between surfaces two weeks after Miami and two weeks before Madrid. Almost a hybrid of a clay court and a hard court, this former hard-court event revealed its origins by rewarding aggressors more often than not.
Wozniacki: While the former #1 enjoys the luxury of low expectations on clay, she did reach the Stuttgart final last year with victories over a healthy Petkovic and Radwanska. In her next appearance, she lost 10 of the first 11 games to Kerber en route to her most resounding loss in nearly two years. Perhaps the disappointment of losing the Copenhagen final (also to Kerber) depleted Wozniacki’s spirits, just when she appeared to have regained momentum from a Miami semifinal appearance.
WTA parity/anarchy: Whatever you prefer to call it, the unpredictable results that have characterized the WTA over the last several years have faded sharply in 2012, at least at significant tournaments. From 2006 through 2011, the top two women in the world met exactly twice, an astonishing statistic when compared to the ATP. By contrast, the current top two already have met three times in 2012 and have just two pre-finals losses between them in eleven tournaments played. At Stuttgart, not only did the top two contest the final, but the top four contested the semifinals, and six of the top eight reached the quarterfinals. But don’t write the epitaph for the age of parity just yet. Across the Mediterranean, a qualifier won the Fes title in the first tournament of her career.