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.