Rushing, Missing, Winning, Staying
- Steve Tignor
PARIS—After one of her 60 unforced errors today, Victoria Azarenka stood with her hands on her hips and stared at the clay. She turned her palms up in despair after another. She let out a shriek when a backhand found the net, and bounced her racquet on the court when yet another forehand went haywire. Finally, she stopped, crouched on the court, and seemed to go into a trance. It didn’t do any good: When she got back up, she drilled her first backhand into the net. After 80 minutes, trailing little-known and underpowered Alberta Brianti of Italy 7-6 (6), 4-0, having committed 40 unforced errors to that point, the top seed at Roland Garros appeared to have found no piece of negative body language that could turn things around for her.
It was easy to see why Azarenka was upset. Despite being off from the start and facing an opponent with a tricky one-handed slice and drop shot, she had done what we like to say champions do and managed to hang in without her best stuff. Facing a set point on her serve at 4-5 in the first set, she had stayed patient and produced three straight winners to hold. Down two more set points in the subsequent tiebreaker, she had saved them as well. Then, at 6-6, the moment when Azarenka was supposed to close the deal and break her 32-year-old, 105th-ranked opponent’s spirit, she had flown two routine ground strokes over the baseline to lose the set. They hadn’t even looked like nervous shots; they just went out, which must have been all the more infuriating.
“Bad days happen,” Azarenka said afterward. The only explanation she could find was that after leaving Rome early, she had been here for a while without competing. “I was waiting quite a long time for a first match,” she said, “so I couldn’t wait to get out there. Maybe I was rushing to finish the point.”
Four games after the tiebreaker, Azarenka was still rushing. Her serve had no rhythm, her ground strokes went long, wide, and into the net—everywhere but the court itself. Now she faced another, seemingly final break point for 0-5. Veteran WTA observers who had been waiting for the inevitable stunning turnaround, in the grand tradition of No. 1s like Chris Evert, Serena Williams, and Maria Sharapova, had mostly stopped waiting. Was Azarenka going to be like those steely and resourceful champs, or would she be more in the mode of fragile former No. 1s like Ivanovic, Jankovic, and Safina? If it was going to be the former, the answer would have to come now.
Azarenka admitted that she wasn’t sure what that answer would be herself. “I was thinking there was a flight straight to Minsk that leaves at 3:00 tomorrow, so I could catch that,” she said when she was asked what was going through her mind in the second set. “But I didn’t want to leave too soon.”
At 0-4, Azarenka made another error to go down break point. Again she stopped and put her hands on her hips. This time she also looked across the court to her players’ box, where her coach, Sam Sumyk, sat with her associate Amelie Mauresmo. Since none of her own self-criticism had worked, Sumyk chose this moment to offer a little of his own silent advice. He nodded and twirled his hand in front of him—“Get moving,” appeared to be the general message, “stop moping and play at your normal pace. Get it together.” It was a typical tennis coach’s (legal) piece of encouragement, but this time it seemed to sink in.
Azarenka straightened up and took the balls from the ball girl. She missed a first serve. Her second delivery was shaky and looked like it would float long, but it caught the very back of the service line for an ace. You could see the mark stretch a good three inches behind the line—most of the ball had been out. Brianti couldn’t believe it. She also couldn’t believe it a minute or so later, when Azarenka saved another break point with a drop shot. Brianti would win just two more games on the day.
Asked about that match-turning second serve, Azarenka smiled and said, “I was just thinking, if I miss so much, then at least I can miss a good shot instead of missing so many bad ones.”
“The important thing,” she added, “in that really miserable moment, I stayed strong and just went for my shots. I went for what I had to do, and I didn’t do before. That shows a little bit of . . . not losing courage, I guess.”
By the next game, there was a different Vika out there. She began by looking back at Sumyk; this time, though, she wasn’t moping, but gritting her teeth and firing herself up. She started leaning into her backhand and connecting on her returns. She started reading Brianti’s drop shots and cleaning the lines rather than missing them. Azarenka never worked all of the kinks out, but she fought through a few close games at the start of the third, when the momentum appeared ready to shift back in her opponent’s favor.
Does this performance deserve the description, “That’s what the great ones do”? As Azarenka admitted, there was some flat-out luck involved, and Brianti offered little resistance in the end. But Vika also made a good point about what she had to do to pull it off. “I managed to go through those 60 mistakes and still win the match,” she said. “I think that’s pretty good statistics. If it would be 60 winners and I would lose that match, I think that would suck a little more.”
In other words, she won with what she had, and kept firing until she started making her shots. She’ll need to have more of them, a lot more, if she’s going to go deep in this tournament. But like those comeback queens Chris and Serena and Maria before her, would you be surprised to see Vika still on her feet, still in Paris, and still delaying that flight back to Minsk, two weekends from now? Sometimes this is how championship runs begin.