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Azarenka recovers from shaky start to advance at French, more mail

PARIS -- This time it was the crowd making the noise as Victoria Azarenka played. The top seed, No. 1-ranked player and winner of the previous Grand Slam tournament opened play on Court Philippe Chatrier on Monday. The conventional wisdom was that she would beat little-known Alberta Brianti in time for lunch. But after an hour, Azarenka had not only lost the first set but was also down 4-0 in the second. The crowd grunted and groaned and made many of the same kinds of noises that Azarenka famously emits when she strikes the ball.

This was in keeping with the WTA narrative of late. The rankings have only vaguely reflected merit. The previous No. 1 player, Caroline Wozniacki, didn't so much as reach a major final during her reign. Two No. 1 players over the past few years -- Ana Ivanovic and Jelena Jankovic -- are no longer in the top 10. Another, Dinara Safina, may or may not have played her last match. The French Open favorite last year, Kim Clijsters, was bounced in the second round and isn't in the draw this year. Li Na would win the title ... and then struggle to win matches. All this is thrown into particularly sharp relief given the consistent excellence at the top of the men's game.

After a blazing start to the year that included an Australian Open title, Azarenka came to Europe in April seeking to consolidate her position. But in the clay-court tuneups she lost to Maria Sharapova and Serena Williams before pulling out of Rome with an injury. On Monday, with her new "consultant" Amelie Mauresmo looking on, Azarenka was five points from losing her match, hitting destinationless shots, headed to a different arrondissement.

Then she began to comport herself like a champion. She hit a second-serve ace that tagged the line. On another break point she gave her power a rest and unfurled a drop shot that delicately cleared the net before dying a quiet death in the clay. Around then, the crowd stopped groaning and grunting.

Then, as if she'd simply toggled a switch, she found her game, found her timing, found the range on her shots, and found her confidence. Brianti had her moment. Now it was gone. Azarenka pulled out the second 6-4. Then she raced home, winning 6-7, 6-4, 6-2. Leaving the court, she shriveled her nose. "Bad days happen and I made way more mistakes than usual," she said. "I still got through and to commit so many errors and still win, that's a good statistic."

Got that right. The cynics will point to this match as evidence that Azarenka is the latest paper tigress, the latest player to bloom and then wilt under the additional exposure. But on a day when both her game and her nerves were uncooperative, she still found a way to remain in the draw. That's how champions roll. Even when they're not rolling.

Mail call

Why are you so keen on Serena winning the French? She is the female version of Pete Sampras. She always comes in as the top or second favorite but loses, albeit often times to the eventual winner. The surface seems to lessen the impact of her serve and tests her patience a little too much. Have I convinced you? -- Joe Johnson, Easton, Pa.

? Nope. Unlike Sampras, she won this event before. Unlike Sampras, she comes in brimming with confidence after a tremendous clay-court season that saw her beat most of her threats. Unlike Sampras, there's a highly finite number of other players who can match her self-belief and competitive instincts. Regardless of what surface is underfoot.

"When Serena is able and willing she is the best in the business" is a cloying and simplistic bite you will, surely, hear often this week. But essentially, it's true.

I hate asterisks as much as the next guy, but one thing I've never understood is how so many asterisk-loving pundits can point out that Roger Federer won his lone French Open crown when he didn't face the multiple-time champion Rafael Nadal. Yet, Nadal won his lone U.S. Open crown when he didn't face the multiple champ Federer. Would Federer have his RG crown had he faced Nadal on Nadal's best surface (slow clay)? Odds are probably not. Would Nadal have his USO crown had he faced Federer on Federer's best surface (fast hard court)? Odds are probably not. Whenever someone says that about Fed's RG win, I always retort with that detail about Nadal's USO win. Usually shuts them up pretty fast. -- Frank, California

? I love asterisks when David Foster Wallace uses them. Hate them in this context. You can only beat the seven guys placed before you. It's not Federer's fault that Nadal lost to Robin Soderling in Paris. It's not Nadal's fault that Federer lost to Novak Djokovic in New York, 2010. The winners won. What more can you ask?

I don't deny there are asterisks in tennis. Some consider most of 2001 through 2003 -- after the prime years of Agassi/Sampras, before the prime years of Federer-Nadal -- an asterisk. In this particular example, I could see an asterisk if a player won a fluke Slam. But Federer's track record in Paris and Nadal's in New York are so strong overall, I don't think it detracts from their title that they may have had a fortuitous path to victory.

How come you seem to always put a fanatical Federer or Nadal fan in the mailbag? And for the record, who do you really like better? I will keep it a secret, I promise. -- Jeff, Lacey, Wash.

? A few of you asked that recently. To some measure I like for the questions/answers to reflect the mail. So if there are dozens of "Roger is Zeus and don't you forget it!!" or "Rafa 4 Ever and I wish incurable herpes on anyone thinking otherwise!!" letters, I'm inclined to include one.

Also, if given sodium pentathol, I would admit to A) a fascination with the level of devotion/passion both the players inspire; B) the level of polarization that crept into the Federer-Nadal rivalry and C) the creepy level of bile some people are capable of generating. It's like American politics. The difference -- apart from the stakes -- is that the principal figures have kept their dignity.

I love that you mentioned Donna Summer! Yes, Graf likes it too! :) Thanks for your time. -- Rosa, San Francisco

? Thanks. Just to be clear. That was Steffi Graf getting her disco on.

Shots, miscellany

? We're trying to figure out why Brian Baker doesn't apply for a Wimbledon wild card. Lleyton Hewitt (who looked dismal as he lost Monday) probably gets one as a former champion. After that, a few Brits might stake a claim. But I'd think Baker would have a real shot.

? As I write, a dozen Americans have taken the court. Each has won, save one. Andy Roddick.

? In the best win of her career, Alexa Glatch beat Flavia Pennetta 6-1, 6-1 at the 2009 French Open. They play each other in the second round.

? When you see that a player retired after a few games, note that first-round losers get 18,000 euros, roughly $23,000.

? Remember Sesil Karatantcheva? (If not, spark up Google and settle in.) Now 22, she won 6-1, 6-0 on Monday. Wow.

? My upset of the tournament so far: Lauren Davis beating Mona Barthel -- a semifinal pick, according to some idiot; OK, this idiot -- 6-1, 6-1.

? This has caption contest written all over it.

? Because we can't get enough blue courts. Daniel Teo of Amsterdam passes on this link.

("This article is in Dutch, but I thought I'd send it to you anyway. Seems like the blue courts in Madrid might spark a trend. Telstar, a football club in the Dutch 1st Division (2nd level league), has requested the football association for permission to change their pitch from green to blue! Reason cited for the change? Better visibility for both the athlete and the viewer!")

? "World Tennis with Harry Cicma" will return for a fourth season nationally on New England Sports Network (NESN) with 12 high definition shows starting June 6.

? Rohan Goetzke is the new director of the IMG Bollettieri Tennis Academy. Goetzke, a native of Australia, joins IMG from the Dutch Tennis Federation.