consecutive victories

Kirilenko’s Career Week

“So I’m just enjoying, you know, to play out there.”

Perhaps Maria Kirilenko has enjoyed playing tennis under the scenic desert skies of the Indian Wells Tennis Garden just a bit too much.

Kirilenko won her fourth consecutive three-set match at Indian Wells against Petra Kvitova on Wednesday, advancing to the semifinals of a WTA Premier Mandatory event for the first time. In those four consecutive victories against Christina McHale, Mallory Burdette, Agnieszka Radwanska and Kvitova, Kirilenko has logged a whopping nine hours and 31 minutes on court.

Having turned professional in 2001, Kirilenko was long considered just another “glamor girl” of women’s tennis. She was “the other Maria from Russia,” the original face of the Adidas by Stella McCartney line, and also appeared in the 2009 Sports Illustrated Swimsuit issue. On the court, the Russian has always been dangerous, but rarely had a chance to make the next step. However, she’s made a firm statement with her racket over the past 18 months. She took home a bronze medal with Nadia Petrova at the London Olympics, won her first singles title since 2008 in Pattaya City in February, and is knocking on the door of the top 10.

While Kirilenko’s game might not feature a single defining weapon, she does everything well. She combines athleticism and court craft, injects paces when she needs to and possesses a steely resolve and will to win. She rallied from a set down against McHale, a set and a break down against Kvitova and came through with flying colors in an extended third set against Radwanska. That is what has made her run in Palm Springs all the more impressive; when down and out, Kirilenko has dug in her heels and found a way to win.

The win against No. 4 Radwanska was Kirilenko’s best in terms of ranking. The win against Kvitova was her second consecutive against a top 10 opponent. Despite the contrasting styles of play of those two opponents, each match had a similar theme. She was the underdog.

Kirilenko has always been capable of pulling off a long, grinding upset in her WTA career. Who could forget her three-hour, 22-minute marathon win against Maria Sharapova in the first round of the Australian Open in 2010? Or how she and Samantha Stosur played the longest tiebreak set, 17-15, in Grand Slam history at the US Open in 2011? However, it has been Kirilenko’s body, perhaps her greatest strength, that has let her down in the past. A full slate of singles and doubles matches always caught up to her in the end. Earlier this season, Kirilenko made the decision to forego doubles to work on improving her singles game.

It’s clearly helped. Many of Kirilenko’s victories are punctuated with a smile, a fist pump and a shriek of delight. She radiates pure, unadulterated joy, as if she wants to let the fans know just how much all the hard work means to her and how much it’s finally paying off.

On a day in Stadium 1 where Stanislas Wawrinka and Ernests Gulbis came tantalizing close to pulling off upsets over Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal for what seemed like the umpteenth time, only to fail in the clutch, Kirilenko showed once again that she hasn’t backed away from the pressure moments this week.

Instead, she’s embraced them.

“I feel I can be on this level. Nothing is scary out there now. I can compete with them and win.”

RAFA’S RECORD OF CLAY

Rafael Nadal is unquestionably the king of clay.

The “rey” of clay, so to speak.

Back on May 29, 2006, as documented in the book ON THIS DAY IN TENNIS HISTORY ($19.95, New Chapter Press, www.TennisHistoryBook.com), Rafa put himself in the “clay” record books with a win over Robin Soderling, as document below. Soderling, ironically, would play another historic match with Nadal three years later at Roland Garros, handing the Spanish lefty his first career French Open loss in the fourth round.

2006 – Rafael Nadal wins his 54th consecutive match on a clay court, breaking the Open era record set by Guillermo Vilas, defeating Robin Soderling of Sweden 6-2, 7-5, 6-1 in the first round of the French Open in Paris. Nadal is honored for his achievement with an on-court ceremony featuring Christian Bimes, the President of the French Tennis Federation, and Vilas himself, who won 53 straight matches on clay in 1977. Says Nadal of the record, “Obviously, the record is something just extra. It’s something you want. You want to go for it, but the first round in a Grand Slam tournament is always difficult. The first round in any tournament is difficult, but in a Grand Slam, there’s a little more pressure.“ Vilas was not even aware that he held the record for most consecutive clay court victories until weeks before the record was broken. He was, however, well aware of his Open-era records for consecutive victories, regardless of surface (50) and for tournaments won in a year (16) – all accomplished in 1977. Says Vilas, “I’m not sad to lose the minor record, but I’ll be mad if he breaks the others.” Nadal’s streak begins in April of 2005 at the Monte Carlo Open. The streak ends at 81 on May 20, 2007, when Roger Federer beats Nadal in the final of Hamburg, Germany.

Vamos Rafa!

There is no denying that Rafael Nadal is “El Rey de Clay” as the Spanish lefty and world No. 1 eyes his unprecedented fifth straight French men’s singles title. It was on May 29 back in 2006 that Rafa won his record breaking 54th straight-match on clay, beating Robin Soderling in the first round of the French Open. The following documents this event – and others – from the May 29 chapter of the book ON THIS DAY IN TENNIS HISTORY by Randy Walker ($19.95, New Chapter Press, www.tennishistorybook.com)

2006 – Rafael Nadal wins his 54th consecutive match on a clay court, breaking the Open era record set by Guillermo Vilas, defeating Robin Soderling of Sweden 6-2, 7-5, 6-1 in the first round of the French Open in Paris. Nadal is honored for his achievement with an on-court ceremony featuring Christian Bimes, the President of the French Tennis Federation, and Vilas himself, who won 53 straight matches on clay in 1977. Says Nadal of the record, “Obviously, the record is something just extra. It’s something you want. You want to go for it, but the first round in a Grand Slam tournament is always difficult. The first round in any tournament is difficult, but in a Grand Slam, there’s a little more pressure.” Vilas was not even aware that he held the record for most consecutive clay court victories until weeks before the record was broken. He was, however, well aware of his Open-era records for consecutive victories, regardless of surface (50) and for tournaments won in a year (16) – all accomplished in 1977. Says Vilas, “I’m not sad to lose the minor record, but I’ll be mad if he breaks the others.” Nadal’s streak begins in April of 2005 at the Monte Carlo Open. The streak ends at 81 on May 20, 2007, when Roger Federer beats Nadal in the final of Hamburg, Germany.

1990 – For the first time ever in a major tournament, the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds are both eliminated in the first round. Stefan Edberg, the No. 1 seed and reigning Wimbledon champion, is defeated by little-known 19-year-old Spaniard Sergi Bruguera 6-4, 6-2, 6-1, becoming the first No. 1 seed in the 99-year-history of the tournament to lose in the first round. About four hours later, Boris Becker, the No. 2 seed and reigning U.S. Open champion, joins Edberg on the sidelines, losing to little-known Yugoslav Goran Ivanisevic 5-7, 6-4, 7-5, 6-2. “I say, ‘Bruguera beat Edberg, why cannot I beat Becker,’ you know,” Ivanisevic says. “I say, ‘Come on, (it) is your chance. He is not playing well, he is not confident.'”

1996 – Andre Agassi is defeated in the second round of the French Open by unheralded fellow American Chris Woodruff 4-6, 6-4, 6-7 (7), 6-3, 6-2. Agassi, so dejected by the loss, skips the mandatory post-match press conference and is fined $2,000. Says Woodruff of Agassi to the media following the match, “I’d never met him before, and before we went out on the court he said, ‘How ya doing; my name is Andre.’ As if I didn’t know.”Also during the day, Pete Sampras posts one of his most impressive clay court wins, defeating 1993-1994 French Open champion Sergi Bruguera 6-3, 6-4, 6-7 (2-7), 2-6, 6-3 also in the second round. ”This match had a lot of everything,” Sampras says. ”It gives me some confidence that I can play with the Brugueras and whomever, and that’s one thing I haven’t had before coming into this tournament.”

2006 – For the first time in the history of tennis, a major tournament starts on a Sunday as the French Open starts play a day earlier than the traditional Monday start. Former Wimbledon champion Maria Sharapova saves three match points and comes back from 2-5 down the final set to defeat No. 97-ranked Mashona Washington 6-2, 5-7, 7-5 in the first round in the most exciting match played during the day.

1998 – For the first time in the Open era history of major championship play, a qualifier defeats the defending champion at a major event as 18-year-old qualifier Marat Safin from Russia defeats defeating champion Gustavo Kuerten 3-6, 7-6 (5), 3-6, 6-1, 6-4 in the second round of the French Open. Safin, ranked No. 114 and playing in his first ever major tournament, defeated Andre Agassi in five sets in the first round. Says Kuerten, ”This year I think I had a chance to go far and try to repeat, but there are many dangerous guys in the way, and today he played hard and he played strong and I couldn’t finish my work. If the other guy has a great day and you don’t have such luck, you can lose to anyone here.” Says Safin, who goes on to win the U.S. Open and become the No. 1 player in the world in 2000, ”I feel bad for Guga because he’s defending champion, but this is tennis life. What can we do? Everybody wants to beat him: a lot of points, money, everything.”

2001 – Pete Sampras avoids an embarrassing first-round loss at the French Open but hangs on to save three match points and defeat No. 250 ranked qualifier Cedric Kauffmann 6-3, 4-6, 6-2, 3-6, 8-6.

2006 – Juan Antonio Marin of Costa Rica loses to Carlos Moya of Spain in the first round of the French Open to drop to a 0-17 career record in Grand Slam tournament play. No man has ever lost as many Grand Slam matches with a victory. Says Marin, “Given my stats, I don’t know if I am going to win. … I’ll keep on trying.:Marin, the only player from Costa Rica to play in a major tournament, never plays another major tournament match.

2000 – Pete Sampras is sent packing in the first round of the French Open, losing 4-6, 7-5, 7-6 (4), 4-6, 8-6 to Australia’s Mark Philippoussis.