We went from one night to remember to another this week in Key Biscayne, though that may be all that the Tuesday and Wednesday evening sessions had in common. Caroline Wozniacki’s win over Serena Williams was followed by more drama—namely, the end of Victoria Azarenka’s 26-match win streak—but arguably less quality. Last night’s late match, a whiplash-inducing fender-bender between Rafael Nadal and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, was an anti-epic, much like the one put on between Justine Henin and Kim Clijsters on this court two years ago. Call it an unfortunate Key Biscayne specialty. And call me too big a tennis fan for my own good, because I enjoyed watching both of them.
Some other notes and thoughts from Wednesday night in Miami:
What If You Put on a Streak and No One Comes…
It was an unfortunate evening for Azarenka. Not only did she lose her first match of 2012, but it was done with little fanfare, in front of a half-full stadium. It hardly measured up to the spectacle of Novak Djokovic's first loss of 2011, in a delirious French Open semi.
That’s mostly how it went for Azarenka’s 26 straight wins. The seats that weren’t empty held fans who generally rooted against her. But that’s no reason not to recognize her accomplishment. Hers is the longest win streak by a woman in 15 years—not too shabby. Even better, it included Grand Slam and Premier Mandatory titles. And if it didn’t include wins over Serena or Petra or Caroline, that’s their fault, not Vika’s.
Azarenka went out the way you might have expected: In tears, angrily pounding the legs that wouldn’t move for her. She said afterward that she wasn’t “superwoman,” and she just didn’t have the energy this time. It was bound to happen.
If there’s anything slightly disturbing to take away from her 3 and 3 defeat to Marion Bartoli, it’s the way that an opponent, for the second straight match, so quickly and easily got into the zone against here. First, Dominika Cibulkova, then Bartoli, were able to thoroughly dictate the action through the first set. Was that Vika’s fatique telling? Or was she giving them a clean ball to smack? Or have the women begun to study and recognize and prepare for her patterns? All three, I would guess. As Vika said afterward, she felt like everyone was after her. We’ll see how she reacts to that new pressure.
What matters for the moment: We’ve been begging for a woman to “step up.” Azarenka did.
"Doing Almost Everything"
I can read Jo-Wilfried Tsonga's body language easily. He’s one of the few players who seems to talk to himself in complete sentences on court, and, after an error, he even acts out what went wrong and exactly how his racquet betrayed him, in case anyone missed it. Maybe it's his French-ness and my American-ness, but I still can’t read him. As in, I’m never sure what his state of mind is going to be three minutes from now, or what his motivation level is from point to point. As charismatic as he is—few players have his physical presence or can pull off his clothing choices—and as much as I like watching him leap through a forehand or carve up a drop volley, there’s a distanced quality to Tsonga for me. That includes his comments last night about Nadal getting preferential treatment from chair umpires. I hadn’t heard that one before.
Anyway, Jo was highly Jo last night, right from the first game. He opened with three big serves to go up 40-0, then suddenly lost all feel for the ball and was broken. He was generally awful until he was down 6-2, 5-3, and then he was, briefly, awesome. This unpredictability took its toll on Nadal’s psyche, and game.
“When I arrive to that moment to serve for the match,” Nadal said afterward, “for moments I didn’t know if I have to play more aggressive, I have to play just defensive, because he was doing almost everything, having few winners but having lots of mistakes….So when I arrived to that last game, I really didn’t have the right line on how to win the points.”
I wondered, as I did when Nadal nearly lost to David Nalbandian in Indian Wells, whether he was still affected by his nervy loss in the Aussie Open final—it’s obviously the kind of moment that can stay with you. And Rafa showed those nerves again, double-faulting and playing, as he said, “a very bad game,” when he tried to close it out in the second set. Later, trying again to finish in the third set, he sent an uncharacteristically rushed forehand 10 feet over the baseline on match point. But he made that same forehand when he needed it, down break point.
Nadal chalked his sloppy game up to uncertainty over how best to play the puzzling Tsonga, and to his own serve. Just as in 2010, I think he needs a tournament win to get his old confidence back and shed some of the bad recent memories. Rafa doesn't seem perturbed by that at the moment, though—that's what Monte Carlo is for, right? But I believe him about Jo throwing him off. The guy is full of surprises.