MIAMI, Fla.—The Sony Open may be one of the premier combined events in tennis, with the nightlife of South Beach just a Roger Federer shanked forehand away, and the ticking and rattling of palm fronds providing the background music, but from a purely sporting angle it’s been nothing less than a bloodbath.
Players have been keeling over, flaming out, and collapsing into the roadside ditch of the pro tour in sobering numbers, and not just on the courts. Some didn’t even make it that far. Four prominent players withdrew before the tournament even began: Rafael Nadal, Sam Stosur, Stanislas Wawrinka, and Victoria Azarenka. (And Federer passed on Key Biscayne long before that.)
Three players have called it quits before things went from bad to worse: Milos Raonic, Dmitry Tursunov, and Venus Williams all issued walkovers. And at last count today, eight players had retired from the tournament (but it’s still early as I write this).
As the skies above Miami slowly turned pink and mauve today, fifth-seeded Li Na was relieved but still recovering from the mess she made of her match with teenager Garbine Muguruza; 21-year old stud muffin Grigor Dimitrov gave Andy Murray fits in a tough first set that the Scot almost lost, and fourth-seeded Tomas Berdych had to fight off two match points in his second set with Alejandro Falla before recovering to win.
Elsewhere, Sloane Stephens took the first set off No. 4 Agnieszka Radwanska, while countrywoman Serena Williams scared the living daylights out of the promoters when she spotted Dominka Cibulkova a 6-2, 4-1 lead before she woke up and went on to win in three tough sets.
She’s sure got some sense of humor, that Serena!
To cap off the day session, Raonic pulled out of his match with Sam Querrey shortly before they were due to play, thereby putting the kibosh on the clash for the bragging rights to North America. Raonic is ranked just four rungs above No. 20 Querrey, who is now the top-ranked American.They had the service-speed gun all greased up and ready to go for this one. Too bad it didn’t happen.
“I have strep throat,” Raonic told us, while predicting a quick recovery that would leave him healthy for Canada’s Davis Cup tie in about 11 days. “It’s bad luck. Twisted ankle (last year) and now getting sick. Hopefully, that’s it for bad luck in Miami.”
Things don’t get much wilder here than they did today, unless you’re afoot on Ocean Drive at 4:30 am on a Sunday morning. The emerging question seems to be, who’s going to still be around Sunday to bask in the blizzard of purple and green sparkles shot from the confetti cannon? Where is Nikolay Davydenko and that magic racquet, now that we really need him? (He won the title here in 2008 using the same frame for every match.)
The most disappointing result today for U.S. fans probably was Stephens’ loss to Radwanska. The American won the opening set and had a chance to keep the heat on Radwanska in the second, hitting an ace to go up 40-15—one point from keeping pace with the higher seed at 3-all. But she let that game get away, and the break turned the tide.
“I definitely felt I should have held serve at 3-2,” she said through tight lips afterward. “It didn’t happen, and it is what it is.”
What it is, is maybe Stephens feeling a little bit of heat. She just turned 20, and catapulted to fame overnight when she upset mentor and friend Serena in the quarterfinals of the Australian Open. But Stephens won just one match after that until this week, when she survived a tight three-setter with Olga Govortsova, then benefited from the Venus walkover.
Understandably, questions about how Stephens has been affected by her Australian Open performance have trailed her—the subtext being that she’s been knocked for a loop—so you had to feel for her when she dolefully admitted, “Just a rough time, there’s no specific thing that has happened or is not happening, but I don’t think it really matters.”
She added, “I’m sixteen in the world, I can lose in the first round the next two months and I probably would still be Top 30. I’m not really too concerned with winning or losing or any of that. My life has changed, yeah, but I wouldn’t say I’m in a panic or anything.”
Serena had trouble dealing with a different type of heat this afternoon, as she tried unsuccessfully to rouse her explosive game for a set-plus against the energetic Cibulkova. “Mentally I was just fried and I was just thinking about everything but tennis,” she said, after mounting yet another of her signature fightbacks (she ultimately mastered Cibulkova, 2-6, 6-4, 6-2).
The top seed was unusually subdued on a day that could otherwise be described as manic. She showed very little emotion up until her position grew truly precarious. To which she said: “You can’t be yelling. ‘Come on!’ after 40 unforced errors and you miss another shot. That’s not going to necessarily work.”
It got so bad that about midway through the second set, someone in the upper deck couldn’t take slumbering Serena anymore and hollered, “Boring!” To his credit, the lout seemed to wake Serena. Her resurgence began to gain traction soon thereafter.
“I think every time is different,” Serena mused, when asked about her ability to climb out of the holes she digs herself into. “This particular time, I just thought to myself: ‘Well, you’ve been down worse. It’s nothing new. Just keep fighting.’ I never give up. Doesn’t matter whether it’s in life or on the tennis court, I keep fighting. That’s what I kept doing today.”
Not to put too fine a point on it, but we know Serena can keep fighting. Her challenge more recently has been more in the area of finding the motivation to start fighting. For once she starts, there’s no stopping her—not even in a tournament that has already lost many players who never even got to face match point.