The Anatomy of an Upset: Vania King vs. Sara Errani on New Year’s Day From Shenzhen Open in China
by Terence Leong
Shenzhen, China - What happens when two top doubles players meet up against each other in singles? It happened in the second round of Shenzhen Open in China when Vania King, ranked No. 85 in singles and the 2010 Wimbledon and US Open doubles champion, faced Sara Errani, ranked No. 7 in singles and No. 1 in doubles, in a New Year’s Day confrontation.
King prevailed in a grueling 2 hour 41 minute match 2-6, 7-6(7), 6-3 which started in the afternoon sun of southern China and ended in a chilly evening under the lights. King provided the first upset of a Top 10 player in 2014 on the first day of the New Year.
I caught up with her the morning after the match and got her insights into the flow of the match, some of its key moments and the various momentum swings she weathered to put the match away with a nice margin in the third set.
King disclosed that even seasoned Grand Slam champions can be anxious when it is time to step on the court. “I felt like I went into the match quite nervous, partly because I was playing on center court for the first time in a while,” she said. “I hadn’t played a tournament in a couple of months so it was getting back and getting used to the mental aspect of being on a big court and playing a top player.”
In spite of the nervousness, King came out swinging in the first game and immediately pressured Errani’s serve having a breakpoint which wasn’t converted. Unfortunately, King was broken in her first two service games while Errani, though pressured, held. The fact that she wasn’t holding serve and Errani was, got the first set to 4-0 for Errani, but one felt King was still in it bringing Errani to deuce in games one and three on Errani’s serve.
The action was more competitive than the score indicated, but with the set slipping away in a best of three-set match, and yet to get on the board, what would King do to respond? “She (Errani) also started quite well, like solid. She didn’t miss much. My tactic that I was trying, wasn’t really working, possibly because I was nervous. I wasn’t executing as well as I wanted to in the beginning. So around the end of the first/beginning of the second set, I started to think. I tried to be more aggressive because I was trying to do some more tactics in the beginning, like play a little bit high to her backhand, try and open the court, but for various reasons it wasn’t working as well as I hoped. So I simplified it for myself, and focused each point on being aggressive and not worrying if I was going to miss or not and slowly I started to be more consistent.”
We’ve all heard this numerous times from pros commentating on televised matches over the years and here was a tour champion reiterating that simple wisdom. When things aren’t going right, return to the fundamentals. Focus on each point not the score. Stay aggressive and play each shot one at a time fearlessly. Simple but not easy. With the adjustment, King started to change the results on the court. The first game King won in the match was a break of Errani’s serve for 4-1, and she held the next game as well for 4-2. She pressured Errani’s next service game with more unconverted breakpoints but the diminutive “Sarretta” from Italy held for 5-2. King double faulted to be broken and give the set to Errani 6-2.
The second set, started out with Errani holding. Also while Errani’s drop shots seemed to have worked against King early in the first set, King was now ready to track those down and was drop shotting Errani as well. King staying aggressive and more loose, broke Errani twice and raced out to a 4-1 lead, but Errani clawed back and took the lead 4-5 and King called for her coach again. Both players called for their coaches several times throughout the match. King met with her coach, Alejandro Dulko, during each set, she admitted with a sparkling self-deprecating laugh that the conference with him during the first set “didn’t really help” and “it doesn’t always help” her make meaningful adjustments to what’s happening on court. This time Dulko advised her to attack Errani’s forehand more since Errani’s backhand was proving solid thus far. After that King says, “I shifted my tactic a little bit and for the rest of the match I tried to attack her forehand a little more because she was giving me time there.”
At one point Errani, who is part of the loud grunting school, seemed minorly irritated by the crowd’s reaction to her expressive gasps when she saw a drop shot off of King’s racquet. The Chinese audience, perhaps the first live tour level tennis tournament for many in attendance, responded with some bemused laughter at the emotive surprise audible from Errani, but in a pure reaction to the sound, not meant to be disrespectful of Errani. In fact, when the appreciative crowd did venture a cheer, there was a lone voice in timid English urging “Come on Miss King” politely a few times endearingly between points.
The second set went to a tie break and King fell behind and held off two match points. I asked her what she was thinking after getting a nice lead, losing that momentum, and then being down match point not once but twice. Again, a return to solid proven basics was her response, “I wasn’t thinking about the score,” she said. “You shouldn’t play differently for the score. You should play the way that you want to play.”
So the classic playing one point at a time?
“It works,” Vania confirmed.
Especially with the match at risk, allowing King to rally to win the tiebreak 9-7. The crowd roared (that is sooo cliché, but how else do you describe it?) it’s approval for a third set of action.
The third set unfolded quickly and had some unique twists. Vania broke first and got to 3-1, but it isn’t a break until you hold and Errani broke back the next game for 3-2. Each held to get to 4-3 King up. At this point, the trainer was called and King had to take a medical timeout.
“In the beginning of the third, I felt a little bit of pain in my leg and was hoping it would go away,” she said. “I waited a few games to see if it would but it didn’t and I had to take the time out.”
The right upper thigh injury forced King to “try to finish off the points quicker. Try to be even more aggressive so she couldn’t move me wide.”
In spite of the injury, King came out and executed well in the colder night air, now over two and a half hours into the match. She broke Errani and would serve for the match. Errani was growing visibly and audibly more frustrated, and after losing a point to bring the game to 30-all, she screamed in anger and slammed her racquet into the court, probably cracking the frame.
Then from the deuce court which was furthest from her chair, Errani slowly worked her way over to her chair to get a replacement racquet and noticeably slowly walked back to get on court to receive. The chair umpire called a time violation against her as she sauntered back into position.
King stayed calm and coolly turned her back towards the suddenly slow motion Errani and seemed unfazed by the entire episode. Bouncing the ball and getting ready for her next serve. I admired how calm and focused King stayed and I think the crowd appreciated it as well, perhaps with some added empathy since we all knew she was now injured and playing a long match in the chillier and chiller evening.
Play resumed. On the second match point for King, Errani’s shot was called long, but Errani challenged the call. So the players lingered near the net, stuck in a different kind of no-man’s land for tennis, instead of the usual immediate clasp of hands cross net as is tennis’s hallmark of sportsmanship. The call was confirmed and Vania King had defeated Sara Errani with her mastery of simple tennis wisdom. Calm your nerves by going back to basics. Play one point at a time. Ignore the score and go for your shots. Stay aggressive. Don’t be afraid of making errors.
This may have only been a second round match at the Shenzhen Open, but was certainly the most exciting tennis of the tournament and an example of how a focused mind, constantly recalibrating and relying on her training prevails in the mental and physical battle against another champion.