Once in a while, a kingdom gets a lousy monarch. Now and then, you get a pistachio nut with a shell shut tighter than a clam. Every so often, your credit card just won’t swipe through. And occasionally you get a tennis match hardly worth the name.
Sort of like the fourth-rounder between Victoria Azarenka and Elena Vesnina, when by the middle of the second set I found myself profoundly fascinated by the technique the top seed used to make sure her French braid always curls around the left side of her neck and comes to rest in a similarly precise manner. She does so with a very quick flick, almost like the one you’d use to try to dislodge a fly that landed on the tip of your nose. It’s a strangely fascinating way to spend your time, because it’s such a subtle, rapid tic that it’s very easy for both cameraman and you to miss it.
This more or less saved the spectating experience for me, because Vesnina—yes, the world No. 47 who won recently won Hobart and seemed to be on a roll when she upset 14th-seeded Roberta Vinci in Melbourne—basically laid an egg.
It wouldn’t have been so bad had Vesnina gone down firing; better players than her had lost to Azarenka at any given time in under an hour (today’s match ended in 57 minutes), some without winning as many games (the final score here was 6-1, 6-1). But Vesnina looked petulant, she scowled and lodged peevish complaints with her racquet, and generally looked like she’d rather be anywhere else than in the round of 16 at the Australian Open.
“Hey Elena, “I shouted at the TV, “This is the Happy Slam! Get with the program.”
She responded with a double fault.
So much for my coaching expertise.
What else can I tell you? Azarenka broke early and often, claiming the first set in 29 minutes. She served first in the second set and powered her way to 40-love. Then she hit a double fault and made two unforced errors. She won the next point at deuce, but then threw in two more double faults, and followed on with an inside-out backhand error to provide Vesnina the break.
Was this about to get interesting?
Vesnina began her “break consolidation” game with a double fault, and held fast to 30-all. But Azarenka then clocked a forehand service return winner and drilled the subsequent service return to Vesnina’s feet, where her backhand proved inadequate. With the break advantage wiped away, Azarenka rolled through the next five games like thunder.
When it was all over, the ugliest stat left to ponder was Vesnina’s eight percent—1 of 12—conversion rate of second-serve points. And I’m not sure where Vesnina found the time to make 26 unforced errors, but some mysteries are best left unplumbed. The only thing I can think is that she just ran out of emotional steam after the best singles run of her career, or she’s somehow afraid that she’s going to make too much money this week. She and her doubles partner Ekaterina Makarova both unexpectedly slashed their way to the fourth round of the singles tournament, and are the No. 2 seeds in doubles (they’re through to the third round).
As for Azarenka, the scores and elapsed time in this one are insignificant. All you need to know is that her game was as automatic and purposeful as that snap of the head with which she flings her braid aside.