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Beyond the Baseline

The Toss: Buying into career of Victoria Azarenka, or Petra Kvitova?

Australian Open champ Victoria Azarenka and Wimbledon champ Petra Kvitova are regarded as the likely players to fill the current WTA power void. (US Presswire/EPA)

Last week on The Toss, Bryan Armen Graham joined to debate whether to buy the hype on John Isner. John McEnroe had talked up Isner after his Davis Cup win over Roger Federer, but in the end, the good and loyal BTB readers voted that the 26-year-old American lacked the versatility in his game to be a serious threat.

This week, SI.com tennis producer C.W. Sesno joins to look at another debate about player potential. Victoria Azarenka and Petra Kvitoa are Nos. 1 and 3 in the world, respectively. They both have one Grand Slam title. Azarenka is 22 year old, Kvitova 21. They're both pegged as the likely candidates to provide a little consistency to what has been a wide-open WTA.

Today's Toss: Whose career are you buying from this point forward, Victoria Azarenka's or Petra Kvitova's?

Courtney Nguyen: First things first, are these two even going to play another match all year? Kvitova, who seemed destined for the No. 1 spot when this year began, hasn't played a tournament since Fed Cup, withdrawing from Doha (Achilles injury) and Dubai (illness). Meanwhile, Azarenka withdrew from Dubai on Wednesday, citing the left-ankle injury she suffered in the Doha semifinals. That's her second withdrawal of the year after she chose to sit out of Fed Cup because of a back injury.

I suspect that Azarenka needed the mental break more than anything else (she's flying home to Belarus for the first time since winning the Australian Open). But these two keep dodging each other, which is probably why we're debating this question. If they would just play each other this year, we could start compiling some data and get a more definitive answer. Then again, that wouldn't be as fun.

If I had to buy stock in one of these two for the long haul, I'm all-in on Kvitova. Put simply, she's a world-beater. When she's on her game, no one, except maybe Serena Williams (and, yes, I said "maybe" for a reason), can match her power off the ground or her ability to hit winners from any position. Kvitova can hit those winners off both wings, too, and her serve will always keep her in matches.

On top of all that, I give her the edge in the mental department. That sounds like an odd thing to say when she has a well-documented history of losing focus mid-match, and when one of her two losses this year came after she had a brain cramp and chose to hit a slice forehand that sailed long on match point against Maria Sharapova in the Australian Open semifinals. But generally speaking, the big stage doesn't bother her and she doesn't seem intimidated by anyone. When careers are defined more by Grand Slam victories than rankings and Tour titles, that's the factor that matters. Kvitova knows that if she's playing well she can beat anyone in the world. I don't think Azarenka can say that quite yet.

Victoria Azarenka blasted Maria Sharapova 6-3, 6-0 to win her first Grand Slam title and seize the No. 1 ranking. (Paul Crock/Getty Images)

C.W. Sesno: Basically this comes down to short term vs. big picture. Azarenka is obviously hot right now. She’s 17-0 on the year and already has three titles. Kvitova closed 2011 strong and, though she lost in the semis of Sydney and Melbourne, she beat quality opponents in the Fed Cup, Sabine Lisicki and Julia Goerges. Pundits were bullish on Kvitova at year’s end, saying she was the real deal. Now just two months later, it suddenly seems that Azarenka is the savior to fill the power void atop the WTA. The lack of a dominant figure in the WTA makes these debates fun, so let’s dive in.

I think you’re on point about Kvitova’s game. I see her as a regular in the top three. Like you say, when she’s sharp, she can beat anyone. Thanks to Women’s Tennis Blog, we know that Kvitova had easily the highest winning percentage of top 10 players against top 10 players last year (.700, a 14-6 record). A world-beater indeed. But I’m not willing to go all-in on her for a few reasons.

First, I disagree with you on her mental strength. Because we’re talking long haul, I don’t think that Kvitova would handle the top ranking very well. She’s said that she just wants to play tennis and would rather not do the photo shoots, the appearances and promotional work that would be expected of her. You could look at that either way, but I think the spotlight crushes you if you don’t own it. Ask Ana Ivanovic or Jelena Jankovic. I’m sure that Kvitova earns the top ranking at some point. But I see her continuing those spats of inconsistency we’ve gotten used to. Azarenka seems to fit the bill more: She’s a little cocky at times and doesn’t handle losing well.

Whether or not it’s mental, I’m not ready to say the big stage doesn’t bother Kvitova. They both won 14 Grand Slam matches last year, and other than 2011, we don’t have much more data to go on for the Czech. Kvitova made a good run to the semis at Wimbledon ’10, but Azarenka has been around longer and we know a bit more about what to expect. If she didn’t get the short end of the stick at the U.S. Open, drawing Serena Williams in the third round, Azarenka would have likely made the quarters in three of the four majors last season. She slumped in 2010 to the point of nearly quitting -- but reached at least the third round (including two QFs) in each Slam in ’08 and ’09.

For Kvitova, I just can’t get past her tendency to shut down at bad times. The average ranking of opponents who beat her in 2011: 36.5. For Azarenka: 23. And that average is worsened by Azarenka’s two losses to Serena, ranked No. 80 when they met in the Toronto semis and No. 27 at the U.S. Open. Azarenka wins matches when she’s supposed to. Kvitova just isn’t quite there yet for me to buy big.

Nguyen: You and your numbers.

I agree with you on one thing: Azarenka drew the short stick at the U.S. Open and, really, the U.S. Open Series. Aside from her surprising second-round loss to Marina Erakovic at Stanford, she had the unfortunate luck of facing Williams in Toronto and New York, losing both times and failing to even take a set. That said, the scoreline of her 6-1, 7-6 (5) loss at the U.S. Open is deceiving. She gave Serena a fight, particularly in that second set. That was the first time she ever made me think that she had the goods to beat the player considered the best in the game. A little bit of luck in the draw and it's entirely possible that Azarenka could have ended 2011 at No. 1, or at least gone into 2012 as the presumptive favorite to take over the top spot from Caroline Wozniacki sooner rather than later.

But as you said, these two will probably sit in the top three (or, at minimum, the top five) for years to come. What will separate them are the intangibles. Your note that Azarenka almost quit in 2010 is precisely the reason I give Kvitova the edge. While I think the idea of Azarenka's being on the verge of leaving the game was exaggerated, the fact that the thought even crossed her mind is proof of her mental fragility. You're telling me that she was a top 10 player at the age of 20 and she thought about quitting because she wasn't having fun and she hated losing? If we step back and think about it, that's pretty ludicrous. I agree with you that Azarenka probably hates losing more than Kvitova, and while that may translate to more competitive fire on the court, it also results in more frustration and dejection when things aren't going her way. It's easy for Azarenka to talk a big game and be cocky when she's on a 17-0 run and just captured her first Slam, but what happens when she starts losing?

While Kvitova may go on losing streaks (she's practically allergic to the North American hardcourts because of her asthma), let's not forget that Azarenka's body has gone on walkabouts as well. She retired or withdrew from seven tournaments last year. It's only February and she's already withdrawn from two events in 2012. Her body consistently lets her down in the most inopportune moments and she has yet to prove that she can withstand the grind of a full year.

You're right, though. Azarenka wins the matches she's supposed to win, while Kvitova is always prone to an early-round upset by random players (less than a year ago, she lost in the first round of a Challenger event in the Bahamas). But again, if a player's career is defined by her performance at Slams, I still back Kvitova. Azarenka may finish with more Tour titles and more weeks at No. 1. She has the consistency to win week in and week out. But when it comes to majors, Kvitova is the one who has the firepower and the mentality to win seven straight matches regardless of the opposition.

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And here's the kicker: I don't think we've come close to seeing the best from Petra Kvitova. She's a Grand Slam champion and No. 3 in the world and yet she has so many areas in which she can improve. Her movement, fitness, decision-making and consistency all can get better, whereas my sense is that Azarenka is, for the most part, topped out. I'm not saying that the Belarusian can't improve, but her upside at this point in her career is far less than Kvitova's.

My view boils down to this: At their best, Kvitova is better than Azarenka. If Kvitova can learn to be at her best more consistently, this isn't even a contest.

Sesno: So we’ve established the pros and cons for each player: Kvitova can beat anyone with pure baseline power but tends to check out mentally in early and inexplicable losses. Azarenka, meanwhile, wins when she’s supposed to but hasn’t proved that she can withstand a full season on the Tour.

But one key to your argument just isn’t sitting well with me: Is performance at Grand Slams really what defines a player’s career? It's almost certainly the biggest factor the history books will look at, but definitely not the only one. I mean, is two-time French Open champion Sergi Bruguera looked at as a better player than, say, Michael Chang, Carlos Moya or Juan Carlos Ferrero, who each has just one major title? No, we look at the overall résumé.

So let’s say, hypothetically, that Miss Cleo’s crystal ball shows six Grand Slam titles for Kvitova and four for Azarenka (perhaps even conservative estimates, given their age and the seemingly rapidly approaching post-Williams/Clijsters era). Azarenka has 11 WTA titles to Kvitova’s seven, so let’s say 20 more for each (fewer than three a season if they each play into their late 20s). I’ve stated my belief that Azarenka will log more time atop the rankings, so say she finishes her career with 55 weeks at No. 1, and Kvitova has 25 weeks. Who’s had the better career? Does Fed Cup come into play? Head-to-head record? I think one or two more Slam titles don’t outweigh weeks at No. 1, total WTA titles and how they handle the spotlight. Love her or hate her, Azarenka commands attention both on and off the court. The bottom line is that there is subjectivity in these debates, which is precisely why G.O.A.T. talks and the like are so divisive.

But we're not exactly predicting who will finish with more accomplishments. I agree that Kvitova has more upside at the moment and probably hasn’t hit her ceiling yet because she's still a relatively new face. I'm simply not yet sold that Kvitova will be able to play at her best consistently throughout her career. Kvitova still seems like an unknown commodity, which is why I'm more hesitant to go all-in. Sure, she can beat anyone on any given day. But she can also lose to anyone on any given day.

And let's be clear, I don’t think Azarenka has hit her ceiling either. But I do think she's turned a corner in her career and we have a better sense of what she can regularly offer because we have a larger sample size. After steamrolling Sharapova in the Aussie final, she looked to her box with a shoulder shrug and a "What just happened?" look. She knows she can hang with anyone.  Though she can struggle against the game’s big hitters (she’s defeated Serena just once in seven matches), her return game has improved drastically and she’s gained ground on the likes of Kim Clijsters (won the previous two meeting and trails H2H 3-4) and Sharapova (won three of the last four and leads H2H 4-3).

Clijsters intends to retire after the 2012 season to focus on her family. We’ll save Serena's retirement talks for another time, but she’s now 30 and playing a reduced schedule (I chuckled at her official site’s schedule) and her days as an absentee threat seem numbered as well.

Someone will step up and fill the void. Perhaps I have a short-term memory, but my money’s on Azarenka.

You decide: Vote in the poll and sound off in the comments to let us know where you stand.
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