The BTB Awards are our look back at the best — and worst — of the tennis season. Today we revisit the feuds that kept us entertained throughout the year. As the old tennis adage goes, love means nothing.
• Victoria Azarenka vs. Agnieszka Radwanska: If this feud had a soundtrack, it would be the Dandy Warhols’ We Used to be Friends. Azarenka spent the first two months of the season wreaking havoc on Radwanska on the court, beating her with relative ease at their first four tournaments of the year, in Sydney, the Australian Open, Doha and Indian Wells. By March, Radwanska, arguably the second hottest player behind Azarenka to start the year, admitted she was in no mood for a rematch. “I hope maybe not next week,” Radwanska said after losing to Azarenka in Indian Wells.
But we’re here to talk about their off-court spat. In Doha, Azarenka appeared to roll her ankle badly and spent a good portion of the match hobbling through points and grimacing. Despite the injury, Azarenka went on to win 6-2, 6-4, leading to a very cold handshake that stemmed from Radwanska’s feeling that Azarenka had overexaggerated the injury to gain a mental edge.
“I think after this match [I] just lost a lot of respect,” Radwanska said. “If you do this in the match, if anyone didn’t see the match, I think it’s just a quick look on YouTube and you’ll know what was going on.
“I was angry because I don’t think this is the great image for the women’s tennis, what was going on there.”
Those quotes clearly got back to Azarenka, who tweeted what essentially amounted to an eye roll.
The incident lent drama to their next match, at Indian Wells, where Azarenka let her racket do the talking. She rolled 6-0, 6-2 and let Radwanska know through her celebration that this was more than a match. It was a message.
WINNER: Azarenka. Radwanska’s whining came off as the stuff of sore losers.
• Janko Tipsarevic vs. Radek Stepanek: Davis Cup can get heated. The two battled for five hours before Serbia’s Tipsarevic edged the Czech Republic’s Stepanek 5-7, 6-4, 6-4, 4-6, 9-7 on Day 1 of the quarterfinal tie. That’s when the drama started.
Tipsarevic had to be restrained by his own captain after he grew livid with Stepanek, whom he claimed gave him a lewd handshake before insulting him at the net. Afterward, Tipsarevic calmly, but thoroughly, eviscerated Stepanek to the media.
“I would just like all of you to know what kind of person is Radek Stepanek,” Tipsarevic said. “I have this thing that I always believe in the best in people, and even though players are telling that he can be not so nice on the court, I never believed it, even though I played him three times.
“As you can see my behavior on the court was, I think, fair enough. When he fell, I crossed the net to see if he needs help. I was always letting him go past the net first. I even two times admitted a ball [was in] that was questionable. After five hours and 10 minutes, instead of shaking my hand, he gave me he the middle finger and told me I am ‘stinking’ … something bad, it’s a swear word. Let’s just say ‘vagina.’ I just say it like that. I just want you to know what kind of person is your Czech player, Radek Stepanek.
“I can understand that somebody like him can be angry after losing a match,” Tipsarevic said, “especially after having so many chances. But doing this? Not that … I would never invent something like this. Our photographer has proof.
“Unbelievable. I never, ever, ever thought that I would experience this, especially because of my behavior on court. I’m not saying I’m a golden boy, and I’m the Stefan Edberg of men’s tennis. But at least I know what is right and what is not right. There is just only one word for this: It is pathetic. Nothing else.”
No question Stepanek has a dodgy reputation in the locker room, and this incident was just another one of many that ATP players have complained about. Stepanek obviously downplayed the whole incident. “We normally shook hands,” he said.
WINNER: Stepanek. The Czech Republic ended up winning the tie and went on to win the Davis Cup. I really don’t think Steps is losing sleep over the incident.
• Maria Sharapova vs. Victoria Azarenka: When it came to a feud that endured, Sharapova’s thinly veiled annoyance with the world No. 1 took the cake. Much like Radwanska, the start of Sharapova’s 2012 season was defined by Azarenka’s surge, as the Russian lost to her in the final of both the Australian Open and Indian Wells. These weren’t just losses. In two meetings — finals, mind you — Sharapova won a mere eight games, and even that stat would imply these matches were closer than they actually were. But unlike Radwanska, Sharapova knew she couldn’t take any shots at Azarenka as long as she was losing the scoreboard battle.
When Sharapova finally got the better of Azarenka, 6-1, 6-4 in the Stuttgart final, she made her move. The backdrop: Azarenka had called for the trainer in the second set for a wrist injury (do we sense a theme here?). The match even featured a shoulder bump from Azarenka that left Sharapova shaking her head. So when it came time for the postmatch speeches, Sharapova couldn’t help but take a shot at Azarenka’s medical timeout. “It was so unfortunate that Vika was extremely injured today and just couldn’t really perform her game,” she said sarcastically. Game on.
For the most part, Azarenka stayed out of the fray. It was Sharapova who kept distancing herself from Azarenka, taking any opportunity to call out the Belarusian for her complaints about fatigue, injuries and scheduling. After Azarenka withdrew from Rome and groused about the WTA Roadmap’s forcing top players to play, Sharapova again went on the offensive.
“She’s probably been injured more than any other player and yet is able to be No. 1 in the world,” Sharapova said. “Last year she, I think, had more retirements than anyone but was still able to play a full schedule. A few days after retiring from an event, she was practicing at the next tournament. It’s pretty tough to know what her state is and how she’s feeling.”
It’s clear that Sharapova thinks Azarenka’s injury complaints, whether on court or off, are all an act. and Sharapova took one more opportunity to hammer home that point. After beating Azarenka in the semifinals of the year-ending WTA Championships, Sharapova was asked about Azarenka’s apparent movement issues and fatigue. “Everybody is hurting at this time,” Sharapova said. “Some show it more than others.”
WINNER: Azarenka. There comes a point where you just have to let it go. Sharapova’s constant digs made it clear to everyone that Azarenka is in her head and gets under her skin. That’s not a competitive advantage you want to give up.
• Michael Llodra vs. Indian Wells fan: During a heated match against Ernests Gulbis on an outer court at Indian Wells, Llodra singled out an Asian-American fan and reportedly called her a “f—–g Chinese” (mind you, the woman was Korean-American). The fan, Alex Lee Barlow, didn’t let the incident drop. She contacted the ATP and press outlets to make sure the story got told. Tournament director Steve Simon personally reached out to her.
“It was casual racism,” she said. “It happens, unfortunately. I don’t feel this should go unaddressed. I just want an apology from him and an acknowledgment that he was out of line.”
The comment ignited a firestorm that the ATP simply poured gas on by tagging Llodra with a measly $2,500 fine. To make matters worse, Llodra offered this tone-deaf apology, saying he’s not a racist because “I love Chinese — I can totally make love with a Chinese girl,” before an ATP rep cut him off. Are you kidding me?
Llodra eventually did apologize. By sending Barlow a signed Lacoste shirt.
WINNER: No one. This was the ugliest incident of the year.
Roger Federer vs. Rafael Nadal: This was the year the Federer-Nadal bromance turned cool. It started with Nadal’s telling the Spanish press that Federer had the luxury of staying above the fray with respect to ATP issues in order to maintain his gentlemanly aura.
“It’s very easy for him. ‘I say nothing, everything’s positive, I stay a gentleman and the others can burn themselves,’” Nadal said.
Nadal apologized, and the two insisted their relationship was as good as ever. But neither had any problem speaking out against the other — gentlemanly, of course — after that. Federer complained about Nadal’s time violations at Indian Wells, leading Nadal to actually get hit with a series of time violations right off the bat. When Federer took issue with the slow court, Nadal said he liked it and quipped, “I don’t know, maybe next year will be much faster if Roger says, no? I have already this week a lot of time violation.”
None of this sounds like feuding in any real sense of the word. But based on the nothing-but-nice-guy tenor these two have struck over the last seven years, these public comments were a sign that things had turned a bit more prickly. Behind the scenes the two have disagreed on a slew of topics, including the choice for the new ATP CEO, Brad Drewitt (Federer backed him, Nadal did not), the blue clay in Madrid (shocker: Nadal didn’t like it) and the use of two-year rankings (Nadal, yes, Federer, no).
“We can’t always agree on everything,” Federer said in January. “So far, it’s always been no problem really. Back in the day, he [Nadal] used to say, ‘Whatever Roger decides, I’m fine with.’
“Today he’s much more grown up. He has a strong opinion himself, which I think is great.”
WINNER: Federer. He’s like the Teflon Don. It was Nadal who took a beating in the press for his comments.
• Tomas Berdych vs. Nicolas Almagro: It all started with a shot. In their hotly contested fourth-round match at the Australian Open, Almagro fired a laser forehand right at Berdych, knocking him to the ground. Darren Cahill, working the match for ESPN, said it was a fair shot under the circumstances, as Almagro had nowhere else to go given his court position. Almagro immediately held up his hand to apologize, but Berdych wasn’t having it. “You think is this enough to apologize?” Berdych asked when told Almagro held up his hand. He responded by refusing to shake Almagro’s hand after the match and holding a grudge through the season.
Fast-forward 10 months to the Davis Cup final. Berdych went out of his way to call Almagro the weak link of the Spanish team and say Almagro is missing that thing that makes players great. Almagro, who has a reputation for being a hot head, stayed out of it. Berdych outlasted Almagro in five sets on Day 1, and Almagro also lost to Stepanek in the decisive match on Day 3 as the Czechs unseated defending champion Spain.
WINNER: Almagro. Berdych may have scored the victories, but Almagro won points for being the bigger person through it all. Berdych came across as a petulant bully.
• Tommy Haas vs. Andy Murray: If there’s a theme to this year’s feuds, it’s that players really don’t like it when someone fakes (or is perceived to be faking) an injury. Haas took Murray to task in an interview with German radio, just weeks after Virginia Wade had labeled Murray a “drama queen” for hobbling to victory against Jarkko Nieminen at the French Open.
“It’s difficult when you play against someone on the court like he is not well or injured,” Haas told Germany’s Sport1 television. “I find no one does this better than Murray. Sometimes he looks like he can barely move, then comes the trainer and he moves like a cat. I believe everyone knows this. People talk about it in the locker room. Maybe he would like to take some pressure off himself. He tells himself, ‘Maybe I have a niggle or a problem, I’m not feeling too well but I’m going to try it anyway.’ But he is such a talented player that he does not need to.”
“Nothing to say on it. That’s good. Good for him,” Murray said. “The time I have been on tour I’ve been called many, many things. My personality not being exciting enough. I have been called boring. It was said I was unfit, lazy, fake injuries. I mean, all sorts. It’s something that kind of goes hand in hand with playing sport. People criticize you regularly. You need to just deal with it. But I don’t care for his opinion.”
WINNER: Murray. Haas wasn’t raising an issue that wasn’t already discussed. Murray and Novak Djokovic both have this reputation. But Murray’s response gave some insight into just how much he hears and how he deals with the criticism.