March 14, 2012

Grudge Matches

Remember this?

Victoria Azarenka vs. Agnieszka Radwanska
Doha semis - February 2012

Or this?

Tomas Berdych vs. Nicolas Almagro
Australian Open, 4th round - January 2012

Well it's a good thing these guys will never see each other again, right? Right?

Eh, not so much, it turns out. The elite players on the tennis Tour have no choice but to meet again and again, friends or not -- and both these pairs had rematches today in Indian Wells just weeks after their previous face-offs. Azarenka, previously criticized for her over-dramatization of an injury, showed no signs of lingering pain when she won eleven straight game off Radwanska on her way to a 6-0, 6-2 win over the world #5. And Almagro, ignored in his attempt to apologize for accidentally beaning Berdych in Melbourne, took just over an hour to dismiss the Czech this afternoon.

Grudge matches -- with or without the animosity -- are unavoidable in this and any sport. Later today Maria Sharapova will meet countrywoman Maria Kirilenko for the first time since the lower-ranked Russian shocked her in Australia two years ago. The world #2 has greatly improved her game since then, reaching the finals both at Wimbledon and Down Under, and become a more consistent force than we've seen in ages. But Kirilenko has been battle-tested in the desert, and has twice avenged that heart-breaking U.S. Open loss to Sam Stosur. She won't go away as quickly as her namesake might hope.

A little further down the road is the likely quarterfinal between Roger Federer and Juan Martin Del Potro -- what would be their fourth meeting already this year. Federer is clearly on a roll and hasn't lost a set to the Argentine since the World Tour Finals in 2009. But DelPo has made each match closer and closer, and with solid, straight-set wins in his first two matches in Indian Wells, he might have the confidence to finally exact revenge over his opponent. Sure they both still have to get one more win in before that presumed match-up becomes a reality, but with Roger facing world #50 Thomaz Bellucci in the fourth round and Del Potro being handed Denis Istomin, one spot lower still, at this point it just seems inevitable.

It doesn't always work, of course -- poor Aggie! -- but the motivation to erase the memory of a disappointing loss can provide the extra oomph a player needs to eke out a win. Hopefully they're any to harness that good energy and let go of their frustrations -- whatever our differences, after all, this is the gentleman's sport. Let's keep it that way.

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