The More Things Change...

Monday, April 01, 2013 /by

They get you every time, these tennis tournaments. For the better part of two weeks, the Sony Open in Miami had suffered through no-shows, withdrawals, upsets, and empty seats. Yet when the dust settled after the final weekend, it had still managed to leave us with memories of Andy Murray and Serena Williams as triumphant winners; Maria Sharapova and David Ferrer as valiant, heartbroken losers; and Tommy Haas and the women’s doubles runners-up, Lisa Raymond and Laura Robson, as unlikely feel-good stories. Even the fans made a comeback. Partly absent through the early days, the Florida faithful were in their seats and ready to go for the first serves of the weekend's championship matches, which started at the distinctly un-final-like hours of noon and 11:30 (A.M.).

Now it’s over, and all is well again on the island paradise of Key Biscayne; at least until Larry Ellison hires a personal chef for every player at Indian Wells next season. Here’s a look at two ways we might come to understand the last two matches of the 2013 Sony Open. In each, the expected winner—Serena Williams on the women's side, Andy Murray of the men's Big 4—took a punch before coming back to restore order.

*****

As another sign that, in this era, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

After the women’s final, Maria Sharapova talked, not unrealistically, about the progress she had made in her 11th straight loss to Serena Williams. Sharapova is right to look on the bright side; wouldn’t you focus on a 6-4 first set win rather than a 6-0 third set defeat? But part of her must have been crushed. Through a set and a half it looked, at least to me, as if she were on her way to her first win over Serena since 2004. Sharapova was finally in control of the rallies, and, surprise of all surprises, her forehand was better than Serena’s. When she broke Williams for 3-2 in the second set with a series of good forehands and really intense fist-pumps, it seemed that Maria even believed it herself.

Then she lost 10 straight games. If there’s a tennis equivalent to a slap in the face, Sharapova just learned what it felt like.

The handshake between the two stars—Serena and Maria reached for the umpire’s hand at same time and ended up in an unwanted group shake—was fast and awkward. But once she rubbed some of the pain out of her cheek, Sharapova said that she felt good about the match, and that she could actually foresee a day when she would, yes, beat Serena. In theory, it's possible. It’s hard to imagine a No. 1 being so dominant over a No. 2 indefinitely, and we know Sharapova won't give up her quest.

You might look at her history on clay for evidence. Sharapova went from not knowing how to move on the surface to eventually winning the French Open. She might only beat Serena once, the way she has won one time at each of the Grand Slams, but after Saturday there’s finally some reason to believe it will happen. As Maria said, that alone, that tiny bit of belief, is progress.

As for Serena, the “the more things change...” applied to her in Miami as well. She has always been the queen of the comeback, and she pulled off three impressive ones in the span of five days, against Dominika Cibulkova, Li Na, and Sharapova. All were managed in trademark fashion. Sluggish, unfocused, and moving poorly to start, she left all of those problems behind right at the moment when it sunk in that she could lose. For some players, that realization can lead to frustration or anxiety; for Serena it usually leads to an all-around sharpening, of her serve, her forehand, her aggression, and her will. You could see all of those things come to life at just the right moments for Williams in Miami.

Still, in the final, when she was down a set and a break at 2-3 in the second, I didn’t expect her to suddenly up her level and break at love, let alone win 10 straight games for the title. I guess, after 15 years, I haven’t learned to watch Serena Williams yet.

*****

As proof that you don’t need great tennis to have a great (or at least entertaining) tennis match.

By most of the ways in which we measure quality in this sport, the men’s final, between Andy Murray and David Ferrer, didn’t offer a whole lot of it. Each made more errors than winners, and neither could hold onto serve—Murray was broken six times, Ferrer eight. That shouldn’t be too surprising, since each made less than 60 percent of his first serves. Murray also hurt his cause by throwing in seven double faults against just two aces. Even their vaunted stamina broke down. Ferrer cramped, while Murray spent much of the war-of-attrition third set wobbling like a punch-drunk fighter, unable to bring his body to a stop when a rally ended.

A thing of beauty it was not. All of that said, I enjoyed this strained mishmash of vulnerability and cussedness from start to finish. Ferrer, seemingly a morning man all the way, bounded through the first set and hit his forehand with more depth, spin and purpose than usual. But Murray, while he never found his best stuff for long, did find a way to wear the Indefatigable One down and slow his early momentum just enough. By the end of the second set, Little Beast Ferrer was, of all things, weary. By the end of the third, his legs were in full rebellion. 

(Aside: I thought Murray was right to complain about Ferrer getting his legs rubbed on changeovers; if cramping is a loss of conditioning, which it is, treatment for it should be banned as well. Or was there another issue, other than cramps, at play with Ferrer there?)

(Second Aside: It was ironic that Mary Carillo was calling this match for CBS, because by the end I was wondering if it lent more credence to her contention that the replay system is misguided, and that it puts too much of the onus on the players to also be linesmen. Murray ran out of challenges in the first set, and Ferrer lost a match point because he succumbed to the temptation to challenge an in call on the baseline.)

On one level, Murray was lucky to win this one; the wind went out of Ferrer’s sails after his blown challenge. I also don’t think you can credit Muzz’s vaunted, and sometimes invisible, new post-Lendl aggressiveness for the victory, either. But I do think there was a New Murray quality to it, nonetheless.

He was angry, he was tired, he was erratic, he served poorly, he almost threw in the towel. But he won anyway. Ivan Lendl was the game’s greatest overachiever. Andy Murray, on this day, followed in his mentor’s footsteps not by cranking his forehand or intimidating his opponent. He did it by making the most of what he had, and, in the final tiebreaker, the most of what he had left.

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