Monday, March 26, 2012

Miami Special Edition: 26 the Hard Way

Occasionally, one of the most important matches of the season just flairs up out of nowhere. Well, spontaneous combustion occurred on the Grandstand Court in Miami today.

Since the start of the 2012 season, Victoria Azarenka has been virtually unassailable. Untouchable, really. Going into Monday, she'd reeled off twenty-five straight match wins, the longest season-opening WTA streak in fifteen years. Often times, she'd been essentially unmerciful in her destruction of her opponents. So good has her play been that she'd rarely been challenged, let alone found herself being outplayed, out hit and out-aggressioned by an opponent.

But that's exactly what was happening to her in her 4th Round match today in Miami against Dominika Cibulkova.

The 22-year old Slovak, a diminutive, scrambling, hard-hitting Top 20 player, came to Florida after having suffered through a horrendous start to her season. She'd ended '11 on such a good note, too. After notching two wins over then world-#1 Caroline Wozniacki, she finally won her first career tour singles title, and the one-time slam semifinalist seemed to have maybe belatedly developed an ability to close out big matches under pressure. I even picked her to finish '12 in the Top 11... so maybe I jinxed her a little.

Today, Cibulkova played out-of-her-mind good, shoving Azarenka's back against the wall like no one else has been able to all season.

From the start, Azarenka's timing was slightly off, but Cibulkova was more than "on." With Azarenka serving under 50%, Cibulkova attacked and pulverized the Belarusian's second serve. With forehand winners flying off her racket, she went about disposing of Azarenka in a way, well, reminiscent of how Azarenka has dispensed with many of her opponents this season. Cibulkova raced to a 5-0 1st set lead before Azarenka managed to hold serve to salvage one game. The Slovak didn't let up, either. Early in the 2nd set, she led 18-2 in total winners, and soon she was up 6-1/4-0 on the world #1. During a changeover session, coach Sam Sumyk told Azarenka to take more chances. She proceeded to do so, but it seemed like it'd be a case of too little, too late. She got a break of Cibulkova's serve to get to 4-2, but gave the break back and saw the Slovak serve for the match at 5-2. If was here that Cibulkova showed a hint of the nerves of a player prone to crumble under pressure in the past. She opened the game with two double-faults, and was broken at love. Still, she got to within two points of the match on Azarenka's serve one game later, only to see her hold for 5-4.

Interestingly, just before the hold, after Azarenka had lost a point to go to deuce, she's sailed a forehand beyond the baseline after the point. The move elicited a few boos from the stands. In the past, the angry pitbull that sometimes resides within Azarenka might have acted out, then seen the match slip away. This time, though, she didn't. Instead, facing her first real challenge (well, I guess Mona Barthel's near upset in Indian Wells was one... but that was a case where Azarenka nearly lost a huge lead, so it was a bit different situation) since becoming #1, she acted like a confident world #1 should. She remained calm, and simply bore down just a little bit more. After the hold, she got a break to get to 5-5, upping her aggression just as Cibulkova's forehands began to miss their mark more often. Still, Cibulkova held to get to a tie-break... and the Slovak wasn't about to let the set slip away without a fight.

Even after Azarenka got to 6-3 in the TB, Cibulkova didn't give up. She saved three set points to get to 6-6, then saved a fourth. At 7-7, she just missed on a passing attempt that would have given her a match point. On set point #5, Azarenka finally held, taking the tie-break at 9-7 to knot the match, having won five of the final six games of the set.

In the 3rd, most opponents would have simply faded away. And after Azarenka broke her in the first game of the set, it looked as if Cibulkova might, too. But she didn't. Three times in a row, Azarenka broke the Slovak to take a lead in the 3rd, and all three times she immediately broke back to get things back on serve. Cibulkova finally held for a 5-4 lead, and once again Azarenka had to battle against letting her growing frustration over not being able to put her opponent away once and for all get the best of her. A Cibulkova DF gave Azarenka another break lead at 6-5, and the whole process very nearly started over again. Azarenka faced another break point, staring at letting a break lead slip away for a FOURTH straight time in the set. She saved it, though, and finally became the first player to get to match point in the contest. During the proceeding rally, Azarenka retrieved a drop shot by Cibulkova, then saw the Slovak blast yet another winner attempt past her at the net. For a moment it looked as if... then the call of "out" came.

Azarenka had survived, winning 1-6/7-6/7-5, overcoming a 6-1/5-2 deficit to keep her winning streak alive at 26-and-counting. But maybe more impressive was how she managed this comeback. She's staged a great rally against Carla Suarez-Navarro at Roland Garros a few years ago, but it came while expending much anger and energy. This time, she was calm, cool and collected as she went about her business. The histrionics of the former "crazy girl" were absent, and the maturity of "new Vika" served her well on this day. While you could almost see all the old wild energy trying to burst through her skin on a few occasions, she managed to keep it in check, remain patient, move forward with her game plan and eventually take advantage of the opportunities she was presented.

No one ever said things were going to be easy ALL the time.

As it is, this match should provide Azarenka with yet another boost of confidence somewhere down the road this season. One thing she hadn't yet faced in '12 was an opponent playing like Cibulkova did today, and an edge-of-her-seat, death-defying escape like the one she pulled off will now be set aside in her memory bank, able to be pulled out and called upon when needed. Maybe even in Paris, London or New York.

All real champions learn -- even after they've already become champions -- and live on because of it. You never know when they're going to come, but today was one of those learning experiences for Azarenka.


All for now.

13 Comments:

Blogger Hoergren said...

Wonder what your comment is to Carolines win over Serena, would be nice with some positives for a change.

Wed Mar 28, 09:17:00 AM EDT  
Blogger Todd.Spiker said...

Oh, there are certainly positives there. Sure, as with most every Serena loss, there's that "she made all the errors" thing to deal with (and her forehand did never get right), but Wozniacki made her hit a lot of shots and exploited the part of Williams' game that wasn't working.

She'd never beaten one of the Sisters (or KC) before, so one could make a case (as on Tennis Channel) that this might actually be the biggest win of her career. If she goes out and defeats Sharapova next, it could be her most important, too. Her serve seems to have improved, and maybe the lack of #1 pressure has helped her. She surely could have lost control of things late in the 2nd set, but held firm.

But, really, no corner can be "officially" turned unless she gets a win like this at a slam. Still, as of right now, she's a bit more relevant than she was two weeks ago. ;)

Wed Mar 28, 12:27:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Eric said...

you know it's a big match when Todd makes a special edition! :)

Wed Mar 28, 06:41:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Eric said...

what the heck is going on?! everyone who won on Monday lost in the next round.

like on Monday i couldn't believe my luck...i watched Serena win and then Li Na...and then Vika...and then Venus...and the Knicks even won...

and now they're all out.

at least the knicks won...

Wed Mar 28, 10:35:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Todd.Spiker said...

Yeah, I guess Azarenka was about due (past due, if you're named Cibulkova).

It's shaping up to be a very interesting clay season. Azarenka has to try to get "back on the horse," Kvitova has to dust herself off, while someone else now has the chance to become THE story.

Of note, as I mentioned last week, every past Miami winner has either been a previous slam champ, or went on to win one. But three of the four remaining players (C-Woz, A-Rad & La Trufflette) are slam-less, and Sharapova is 0-3 in Miami singles finals.

Thu Mar 29, 11:24:00 AM EDT  
Blogger Todd.Spiker said...

Oh, yeah. And that "26 the Hard Way" post WAS a first, I think. I don't believe I've ever done a single post on a individual match that didn't take place during a slam. But it was such a fun match (one that would have been a MAJOR thing if it'd taken place in a major), and one that seems like it might be necessary to recall in some detail down the road, that I thought it was appropriate. :)

Of course, then I "jinxed" Vika. So there's that.

Thu Mar 29, 11:29:00 AM EDT  
Blogger jo shum said...

todd, i am afraid you 'jinxed' vika, there seems to be a pattern. haha.

but anyway vika had to lose sometimes and it seems like palying cibu the match before had taken a lot out of her as well. truthfully bartoli is whacking the hell out of vika this time.

mmm... pova will be eyeing her first trophy of the year. i would love to see radwanska fighting for it too.

Thu Mar 29, 12:51:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Eric said...

grudge match in the final!

Thu Mar 29, 11:52:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Todd.Spiker said...

Jo-

My cross to bear. :D

Eric-

Yeah, if Sharapova gets this next win, she'll have single-handedly "silenced" her two biggest critics in a matter of days. ;)

That said, if Sharapova doesn't win this title, she'll have put together one of the best/worst "she was THIS close" 1st Quarters in recent memory, having reached the final of all three of the season's biggest tournaments so far, but having zero titles to show for it.

Fri Mar 30, 03:25:00 PM EDT  
Blogger jo shum said...

A-Rad performed an amazing dance on the court! she is just so calm on the court, and hang in whenever she faced breakpoints. real tough cookie she became, and not that only, little magician she became with her improvisation. that was why vika was so stern when she faced off her in IW.

bravo, looking forward to her future development, little bit by little bit adding more power to her game, what a wonderful player to watch. what potential she can be if she can improve her second serve and add more power to her strokes!

felt a bit sad for pova. she served as well as she could, played almost as well as she could. funny enough she seemed always to play stronger when in the earlier games, and wobble in the wrong times when they mattered. has to do with her mental mind playing in her head not wanting to lose yet another final of this early season.

Sat Mar 31, 02:39:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Todd.Spiker said...

I've had a few issues with Radwanska in the past, but I must admit that I DO enjoy watching her play now.

Sat Mar 31, 06:51:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Eric said...

Todd,

What do you think of Radwanska's chances for a major? I remember I asked you that when she first came on the scene and beat Venus...and you were uncertain of her future success...but now with winning Miami and the Miami winners to Slam winners stats...what do you think?

Also, don't you feel like Sharapova is becoming like Evert a bit? Both are professional (aka cold) and have strong mentalities...maybe not the most talented ala kuznetsova...but always consistent...

I thought I posted something earlier this afternoon, but it must not have replicated...

Happy Saturday!

Sat Mar 31, 08:10:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Todd.Spiker said...

Well, A-Rad keeps setting new marks for her "biggest career title." The only way she can top herself now is to win the Tour Championships or a slam (or maybe Olympic Gold). :)

Well, at the start of the year I thought that if she could continue to show the improvement she did in the closing months of '11 that she could have a chance at a slam. So far, so good. Of course, her second serve still might come back to haunt her in the second week of a slam, when she'd have to knock off big-hitting top stars in consecutive rounds. She can still be handily hit off the court if someone like Kvitova or Azarenka (4-0 against her in '12) or Serena is "on." So far, she hasn't shown an ability to get it done in a slam. But she is SO smart on the court, and that little extra pop she's added to her serve and, maybe most importantly, her recent willingness to occasionally go for a winner when the opportunity is there in a rally throughout the match (not just when her back is against the wall, as is often the case with Wozniacki) has really transformed her -- and her chances -- as a player.

Of course, Sharapova is far more of a power player than Evert was, but I suppose there is a natural comparison when it comes to their usual "ice queen" demeanors on court.

I don't know, this getting close and losing has to be getting under Sharapova's skin by now. Her shoulder injury really robbed her of a chance to build her career resume. When she was injured back in '08, she was coming off a truly dominating start to the season (an AO title and 18 straight wins to start the year). Now that she's got her game back up to a high level, the next generation is finally learning to flex their collective muscles. As long as she can stay healthy, though, I think she's probably got another slam title in her. But it'd better happen soon.

Sat Mar 31, 10:50:00 PM EDT  

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