March 26, 2012

Digging Deep

I don't know how much more of this I can take -- seriously.

We thought we saw the match of the tournament yesterday. Three-time Miami champion Venus Williams, playing in her first singles event since the U.S. Open, was down a set and a break to fellow wildcard Aleksandra Wozniak. She wasn't moving well, she was making a slew of errors and her once-dominating serve only found its mark only about sixty percent of the time. She managed to force a third set, but lost a couple of leads to the talented Canadian -- herself coming back from injury that caused a precipitous ranking drop -- and even faced match point late in the decider.

But that's where Williams' experience and champion spirit came through. Though she squandered a few leads in the tiebreak, she was eventually able to convert on her second match point, closing out the match in just under three hours. The win gave her re-entry to the round of sixteen -- she'll play fifteenth seeded Ana Ivanovic later this evening -- the tenth time she'll make that trip in her career. The American leads the pair's head-to-head my a hefty 7-1 margin, but after two long matches at the Sony Ericsson Open -- it took her another two-plus hours to get past Petra Kvitova Friday night -- it's hard to know just how drained she is physically. But if anyone can find it in her to get another win in, it would be the veteran.

But she's not the only one with fight in her, and tonight we were treated to a match that may have surpassed even that highly-set bar. Victoria Azarenka came to her four round match in Miami with a 25-0 record on the year, having made at least the final of her last six events. Dominika Cibulkova, having ended 2011 on quite the high note, had racked up a disappointing 4-8 record before this tournament, her only win since early February coming when her first round opponent retired in Indian Wells. But against all odds, the diminutive Slovak ran off to a 6-1, 5-1 lead over the world #1, firing off winners and staying aggressive on just about every shot.

Cibulkova had two opportunities to serve out the match, and came within two points of handing the Belarusian her first loss of the year. But the sixteenth seed lost five games in a row and was eventually down several set points in the second set tiebreaker. Vika needed five tries before she could force the decider, but her opponent remained strong. Every time the favorite took a lead in the third, Dominika pulled back even. She got within two points from the match again, at 5-4, but was again unable to close. And then, finally, after just under three hours of play it was Azarenka, playing from behind the entire night, who earned the first match point of the evening. When she sprinted to reach a drop shot and watched a forehand reply sail long, the defending champion was again standing victorious, one win more added to her so-far perfect record.

For their efforts, Williams lives to fight another day, Azarenka gets a day's rest before facing Marion Bartoli in the quarters, and poor Wozniak and Cibulkova will go home knowing victory just slipped from their grasp. All these ladies put up efforts that should be applauded heartily, but it was those who were able to find that little extra bit of will to battle who ultimately triumphed. Hopefully they'll all be able to find it again in the future -- for as dramatic and nerve-wracking as these matches are, they sure prove exactly why this sport is so amazing.

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