Miami: Azarenka d. Cibulkova

Monday, March 26, 2012 /by
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VaIt’s amazing how quickly, when you watch a tennis match and your Twitter feed at the same time, the tweets can shift from “Upset Alert!” to “Epic Collapse Alert!” This afternoon the switchover came in a flash during the second set between Victoria Azarenka and Dominika Cibulkova in Miami.

Cibulkova, who has executed more than a few epic collapses in the past, was on fire for the better part of two sets. After taking the first set 6-1, the Slovak broke with two big forehand winners for 5-2 in the second; at that point, even the most skeptical of Twitter observers were finally willing to admit that—maybe, just maybe—she had a shot at the upset.

They spoke too soon. Serving for the match, Cibulkova double-faulted twice, badly, to go down 0-30. That’s when the Epic Collapse tweets started rolling in.

They were right, of course. Two hours and 45 minutes after it began, and a couple of hours after she had chucked her racquet and appeared to be out of it, Azarenka extended her season-opening winning streak to 26, with a scrappy, unlikely, entertaining 1-6, 7-6 (7), 7-5 escape victory.

It was a monumentally tough loss for Cibulkova; she gave Azarenka a drive-by handshake at the net and understandably bolted away from the cheering fans who had supported her all day. But Cibulkova didn’t totally collapse. Even after serving for it twice, after saving four set points in the second-set tiebreaker only to lose it 9-7, and after getting to within two points of winning in each of the last two sets, Cibulkova never hung her head or went away. She kept doing what she does, which is run fast and swing big from the first ball on.

It was all clicking for the first set and a half, and it was awesome to watch. Cibulkova, knocking off forehand return winners from both deuce and ad courts, essentially took the racquet out of the world No. 1’s hand, something that no one has done this year. By the end of the first set, Azarenka was winning an absurdly low 25 percent of points when she got her first serve in. In smacking those returns, Cibulkova became the first player this year to exploit Azarenka’s most glaring weakness, her middling serve.

And yet, despite doing that for 14 games, and despite winning more points than Azarenka, she still couldn’t beat her. When things looked bleak in the second set, Vika made a rare call to her coach, Sam Sumyk, who sounded as baffled as she looked. “You gotta give her some competition,” was the best he could come up with. He told her to hit big, come in, and if you lose, who cares, you’re losing anyway. The advice, as vague and pessimistic as it sounded, seemed to work. Azarenka swung more freely and began to put a little pressure on Cibulkova. What she did best, though, was simply compete. Cibulkova continued to outhit Azarenka, but the Belarusian kept finding a way to survive. She has, as they say, forgotten how to lose.

That’s a cliché, but one moment showed that it was true of Azarenka today. At 5-5 in the second set, having just broken Cibulkova twice to stay alive, Vika suddenly became tight. She got the wobbles on her service motion and made three straight unforced errors to go down break point. But she righted herself immediately. She fixed her serve, stayed steady on her ground strokes, and held for 6-5. That’s confidence.

One more time, the difficulty of tennis was pointed up: Cibulkova, as the tweets let us know, went from upset to collapse in the course of one game, when she couldn’t hold at 5-4. One more time, we were reminded that however many winners you hit, the only thing that matters is finishing. Right now, no one is finishing like Vika. The difference today came down to two points in the last two games.

Serving at 5-5, down break point, Cibulkova double faulted. In the next game, serving at 6-5, also down break point, Azarenka found one of her best deliveries of the afternoon for a service winner. Soon it was match point. Cibulkova hit a bad drop shot, Azarenka hit a net cord forehand that popped up for an easy pass, but Cibulkova sent a forehand over the baseline.

There was some heart, some skill, some confidence, and some luck to this one—that's what 26-0 takes. It was a fun match and an epic . . . win.

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