Sony Open Tennis

Andy Murray Edges David Ferrer, Wins Second Sony Open Title

By Jane Voigt

MIAMI, FL (March 31, 2013) — A pit bull is the wrong image for David Ferrer. He is tenacious, but not mean. His speaks softly, at least in English. And when he talks about his tennis friends, he speaks kindly of them.

Under his pleasant demeanor, though, David Ferrer is the biggest fighter on tour with a deep roar discharged after each ball is struck.

But as much fighting as he did throughout this dramatic final, he came up short against Andy Murray, 2-6 6-4 7-6(1). This is his second Sony Open title, having won it in 2009.

“I showed good mental strength,” Murray said.

However, he is one lucky Scot to have squeaked off the win.

“I wasn’t thinking too much at the end,” Murray said, rubbing his forehead as if it hurt. “I was so tired and not too many nerves at the end.”

The final was the second-longest in tournament history — two hours and forty-five minutes — since changing to a best-of-three set format. Murray’s victory marks the sixth time he has come back from a set down to win an ATP title. Additionally, this was the third final here where a third-set tiebreak decided the winner.

“It was a brutal, brutal match,” Murray said, frankly. “It was one of the toughest matches I have had to play in a Masters Series, for sure.”

After a slow and sloppy start from the No. 2 seed, followed by game after game of breaks from both men, poor line calls, and rowdy fans — one of which was thrown out — Murray raised his hands.

“I don’t think he gets the respect that he deserves within the game,” Murray said, after being asked if he felt a touch of sympathy toward Ferrer. “He’s improved every single year. Providing his body holds up he’ll be around the top of the game for as long as he wants, or can be. He’s a very, very, very good tennis player and has a great attitude.”

Ferrer’s attitude and tenacious tennis grabbed Murray by the neck like a Scottish Terrier, and shook every ounce of tennis from him on a hot humid day, only to end with a loss that had him apologizing to fans during the award presentation.

“I’m sorry,” he began, speaking in Spanish, with red swollen eyes as if he’d cried beforehand. “I’m so sorry. When I play here it’s like I’m playing in Spain.”

In between his apologies, he touched on one point he will remember forever.

It happened in the third set, which had every element of tour-level tennis, but not necessarily good tennis where each played consistently at their best.

Six games went by with six breaks of serve. After each held, they gave up their advantage. Neither gained ground.

Ferrer’s best chance then was nothing less than perfect, as Murray served to stay in the match at 5-6. Ferrer had reached match point.

This match point against a top five player, when Ferrer’s record in ATP Masters 1000 event finals had stood at 0-12 against this elite group, had deep meaning.

Had he converted, he would have become the first Spaniard to win here since the tournament began in 1985. In a city nicknamed the “Capital of Latin American,’ the victory would have given him a well-deserved helping of pride and confidence. Three other Spaniards had attempted to win Miami — Rafael Nadal, Carlos Moya, and Sergei Bruguerra.

“It was a very close match,” Ferrer said. “I had my chance in the match point.”

An authentic tragedy for Ferrer, and for the fans who had cheered him on as fan spirit came alive while seconds ticked.

“DAA-VEEEED,” they cried in unison.

“Please, stay quiet during the rally,” yelled the chair umpire.

No matter the love and praise Murray heaped on his friend during and after the award presentation, Ferrer knew he had sinned. He stopped play on the ultimate break point, his one match point, being clearly uncertain a second later about his decision. The consequences were deadly.

“The ball, it was really close,” Ferrer said solemnly. “I saw out, and, you know, really close.”

This, Ferrer’s 13th try for tennis history, against a man who began slowly and wigged out quickly, smacking his feet and his head along with occasional outbursts toward his box, a sine quo nom for the Scot, seemed cruel.

“He wasn’t even playing his best tennis and could have beaten me,” Murray admitted.

The tiebreak was a blowout for Murray. Exhausted and cramping badly, Ferrer had checked out. He committed over five unforced errors, as Murray sprinted to the finish.

Throughout the match, players thrilled fans with lengthy rallies and acrobatic tennis.

“I felt fairly fresh this week,” Murray said. “I didn’t play so well last week in Indian Wells. Here I felt better. Today, being fresh helped. I just managed to get over the line in the end.”

CBS did not take millions of viewers over the line, though. At the start of the tiebreak it cut away to show NCAA basketball. The match switched to Tennis Chanel, but only after two points had been played. Mardy Fish reminded Twitter followers that CBS pays $25 million for rights to broadcast Sony Open Tennis and $770 million for NCAA broadcast rights.

“It’s obviously a shame that people didn’t get to see the end of what I think was a pretty exciting match,” Murray said. “But that’s the way it goes sometimes.”

Victorious Serena Williams Wins Record 6th Sony Open

By Jane Voigt

MIAMI, FL (March 30, 2013) — When the ultimate tennis history book opens, Serena Williams‘ name will pop out like bright shinny diamonds in the sky.

And it’s not because Maria Sharapova or any other great player has not made an impact. It’s because of Serena Williams’ game. Her tennis game. Her mind game. Just her.

Today she elevated her worth by winning her sixth Sony Open title 4-6 6-3 6-0 over Sharapova. Serena also upped her tournament wins here to 61-7. Both are records. Her victory was also the first one recorded by a number one player since 2004; and she hoisted the trophy then, too. Finally, at 31, she has become the oldest player to win in Miami.

“In the beginning of the week I definitely didn’t feel like I would be here, not with the way I was playing,” Williams said, remembering her comeback win over Dominika Cibulkova. “But, you know, it definitely feels good to go through everything.”

Maria Sharapova’s chances of beating Williams looked rough on paper. A victory would have put a few bookies out of business. She had not defeated Serena since 2004, and Maria had lost her four finals here. Today was not exception, as she went home 0-5.

“It’s tough to lose in the final stage because you’ve worked so hard to get there,” Sharapova admitted. “But, it is a really nice stage to be at. It’s a nice opportunity that you’re giving yourself.”

Crowds overwhelmingly favored the underdog. They recognized the tilted odds and tried to keep Maria’s spirits high. They did, too.

Serena punctuated her first game, striking a 119 mph ace. Maria, not to be outdone, struck three unreturnable serves in her first. Game on. Twenty long minutes later only three games lit up the scoreboard. They were on serve.

At 3-4 Williams glimpsed at her first break chance. An unfortunate spot for Sharapova. Give the 15-time major title holder the game and she’ll sweep the set.

However, Sharapova smacked a gutsy second serve ace to hold at 4-games all. She broke Serena next and won the last game of the set at love.

As Serena sat down at the sideline she smacked her racquet on the bench, but not hard enough to break it.

Sharapova went up a break twice in set two. The momentum was hers. She was three games away from the big trophy and achieving the Indian Wells/Miami double.

The tall Russian had out-played Serena Williams. Sharapova served better, returned serve better, and most visibly moved better. Her own ‘cow on ice’ self characterization evaporated.

“I was up 40-15 and Love-30 in the next games,” Sharapova explained. “I thought I still had opportunities to get back in the set. Those are the games you really need to win, especially against her. She’s the number one player in the world.”

She sat at the bench, her head down, recalling the missed chances. Gone was her 22-game winning streak at this Sony Open.

Missed chances against Serena Williams are no nos. Even though she admitted her tennis was off, she can shift from third to fourth gear and leave opponents in the dust. And that’s what she did.

Williams ran off 10 games in a row, clinching the third set at love.

How does Williams do this with consistency? How could Maria botch such an opportunity?

“She’s really capable of doing that,” Sharapova said, as if she had no choice. “She obviously had to do a few things differently. I was controlling a lot of the points in the first set and the beginning of the second..”

Sharapova gave no insight into her 10-game slide and eventual loss, except, “Then, toward the end, I just wasn’t there.”

She did blame her serve, the wind, and Williams’ ability to take charge.

But to have gone from storm-buster to busted out made no sense. She said it was not about food, “I’d love to use that as an excuse, but I’m not one for those.”

Williams was at a loss when asked how she turns matches around. In fact throughout the press conference she contradicted herself. First she could not remember anything. Said she would have to look at the video and figure out what she needed to do better.

“I just have, for me, I don’t know,” she said. “I feel like I’m mentally really tough, and ever since I was a kid, I have always been tough mentally. I knew what I wanted to do. I don’t stop. So whatever it takes to get there, usually I know I can always lift my level. At the Open I knew I could play better. I knew it. And today I knew I could play better. It’s just a fact of being able to do it.”

A couple minutes later she attributed her burst of energy to Gatorade. “I just started drinking Gatorade. I was just like, you know, it gives you a little energy. No joke, seriously. It’s not product placement.”
Right at that moment she knocked over her bottle imprinted with the sport’s drink logo.

Maria Sharapova definitely played Williams well. But with sets split each woman had equal opportunities. Williams may not have been able to recall her upward swing, but she had faith in her game, in her mental toughness.

“I want to thank my god, Jehovah, my dad, and my whole team,” she told the crowds during the awards presentation.

Sharapova, on the other hand, remained resolute, as if blinded by the experience and incapable or unwilling to see clearly.

“The more that I give myself this opportunity, the better chance I have of winning,” she said, rather proud of herself. “That’s what I have to think about.”

Williams’ break point percentage sheds light on her mysterious capability at renewal. She converted seven out of seven break points. This is Serena Williams. Waste not, want not.

Photo Renderings: Sony Open Plans for a $50 Million Three-Year Renovation

March 30, 2013 — Sony Open organizers unveiled plans Wednesday for a $50 million project to improve the tournament site at Crandon Park, with work expected to take three phases and be completed by the start of the 2017 tournament. The tournament’s vision includes an improved stadium court, three additional permanent show courts, increased landscaped green space, and the addition of new park facilities that will be open to the public when the Sony Open is not in session.

The Sony Open’s owner, IMG, is prepared to begin construction on April 1, 2014, immediately following next year’s tournament and the project is to be completed in three phases taking ten months each.

Miami-Dade county voters agreed last November to allow the $50 million makeover which will be financed solely by IMG and private Sony Open funds that include tournament revenues, such as ticket surcharges and parking fees. However, tournament organizers still need full approval from the county in order to begin renovations on the county-owned park.

Adam Barrett, senior vice president of IMG and the Sony Open tournament director, stated that the initial phase will focus on renovating Grandstand Stadium which is located in the northwest corner of the site. Barrett also confirmed that the Sony Open will very much stay a hard court tournament despite recent opinions that the tournament should consider becoming a clay court tournament to better compete with the BNP Paribas Open which directly precedes it.

The announcement comes as the Sony Open grows in stature, drawing visitors from across the globe, and generating an economic impact totaling $386 million each year for the city, or the equivalent of a “Super Bowl in your backyard every year,” stated Barrett.

Planned upgrades to improve the patron and player experience include three new permanent show courts with fixed seating, locker rooms and training facilities for players, and improved broadcast facilities for global media partners.

New green spaces will be landscaped with plants and trees native to Key Biscayne, including a central water feature. An outdoor viewing mound featuring a video screen will enable tournament attendees to view matches in a park-like setting.

“What began as a regional event has grown to become one of the premier stops on the professional tour, and we believe the Sony Open deserves first-rate facilities,” Barrett stated. “Our investments in the Crandon Park Tennis Center will ensure international tennis remains in Miami for the long-term.”

(Parts taken from official press release; BEA Architects renderings provided by Schwartz Media Strategies)

Tommy Haas Reflects on Career, Goals, and Leaves Miami a Winner

March 29, 2013 – In a battle of the 30-and-older ATP veterans, world No. 5 David Ferrer braved out a bold Tommy Haas at the Sony Open in a two-hour topsy-turvy match. The Spaniard solidified his place in his fifth Masters final and looks to win his second Masters title after being victorious in Paris last year.

Though he lost today, Haas didn’t leave empty-handed, but rather notched a few points into the history books during his run this week.

In a match that saw ten breaks of serve, it was the clear the fresher player would inevitably win the grinding match. Early in the third set, Haas went up 3-1 before his forehand and serves started to break down, and the unforced errors crept in. Unable to adjust, Ferrer capitalized on the opening and kept pushing Haas into long rallies, tiring the German into more errors. Ferrer went on to win the next five games and seal the win, 4-6, 6-2, 6-3.

After losing the second set, Haas admitted: “I just tried to forget about it and really regroup in the third and told myself, ‘Come on! All you have to do is play one great final set’ to maybe achieve another big goal of mine” of reaching the finals.

At 3-all, Haas tried to stay positive, but the match began to slip away: “I started missing a little bit and came up (to the net) a little too often. He didn’t miss at all anymore. That’s the difference. That’s why he is where he is and that’s why he deserved to win.”

With his wife Sara and daughter Valentina in tow, Haas decided to forego the hotel experience and instead stay at a friend’s house while in Miami this year. This gave him some time to reflect on his success this week.

“I’m going to have to let it sink in a little bit,” stated Haas. “Anytime you lose it’s tough … but beating Novak Djokovic, coming back, beating Simon, getting to the semis — it’s been an unbelievable tournament, something that I will definitely cherish for the rest of my life.”

At five days shy of his thirty-fifth birthday, Haas is one of the eldest of players on Tour. So how long exactly is he planning on playing? Well, for now, it seems as long as he’s having fun.

“I will try to continue as long as I can, because this is a lot of fun. In the end of the day, the most joyful time I have is when I’m on the court playing great tennis, entertaining the crowd, playing in front of the big, on the big stadiums. Those moments (are) what you dream about when you’re a young kid, you know. You have these imaginations playing at the big tournaments and going out there and competing hard.”

Comparing his own career to Andy Roddick’s consistent play for more than ten years, Haas admitted that he was “shocked” when the American retired after last year’s US Open. Haas’ career was interspersed with injuries and setbacks that pulled him off Tour for more than a year at a time, while Roddick consistently played Masters titles, Davis Cup ties, and stayed in the top 10.

“Maybe it was just too much for him, and he just said, ‘I’m done,’” Haas stated. “My career is totally different … I guess that’s sometimes a little bit of a frightening situation for any athlete to really just say, ‘Okay, I’m done.’”

During his more recent setbacks, Haas was quick to acknowledge that he thought about what his other options were outside of playing on the Tour. And while he didn’t volunteer any specifics, he does hope to stay involved with tennis even after his fruitful career.

“I don’t know yet exactly what I’m going to do,” said Haas. “Obviously I have played with in my mind, you know, the thought of what would I do, and there are things that really interest me. And obviously it’s probably going to be tennis involved and some things that I’m really eager to do maybe even still after my career, and hopefully some of those dreams will come true, as well.

“Clicking” Partnership: Laura Robson and Lisa Raymond Roll into Miami Doubles Final

By Jane Voigt

MIAMI, FL (March 29, 2013) — Lisa Raymond nodded at her doubles partner, Laura Robson. Way to put the ball away.

The gesture seemed parental. Given their age difference, Robson is 19 years old and Raymond a few months away from 40, the attention given to the teen fit perfectly.

Raymond is probably the most recognized face in women’s doubles. Her resume is plump with titles: 79 WTA career doubles titles; 11 women’s major titles in doubles; and a career Grand Slam in doubles to boot.

Robson, naturally, can’t compete with Raymond when it comes to doubles titles. However, over the course of the Briton’s time on tour she has wowed tennis. Last summer she and Andy Murray came up with a Silver Medal in mixed doubles at the London Olympics.

“Yeah, what about that?” Raymond said, like an older sister or college pal, while Robson blushed in front of a handful of journalists inside the crowded interview after their match.

Their unlikely pairing was by happenstance. Samantha Stosur, Raymond’s expected partner at Sony Open, pulled out with an injury before registration closed. Raymond jumped on the chance to bring in Robson.

“I always thought we’d suit well,” Raymond began. “With Laura’s huge groundies that allow me to move a little bit at the net, plus a little practice. You never know … but it’s clicking.”

Over the week the team has beaten the No. 6 seeds Rachel Kops-Jones and Abigail Spears plus Ekaterina Makarova and Elena Vesnina, the No. 4 seeds.

Today’s victory, though, had to have been the sweetest. They thumped the world’s No. 1 team of Sara Errani and Roberta Vinci, 61 62, in less than an hour, the same team that has won three of the last four Grand Slam doubles.

“Straight from the start of the match we were firing,” Robson said. “I was trying to be aggressive from the baseline and Lisa definitely took advantage at the net. So, yeah, we had a very good day.”

“It’s funny,” Raymond began, when asked about their partnership. “Some of my most successful partnerships did not fit well at the beginning. Whether it was Stosur or [Liezel] Huber, we floundered for the first couple months. So this is nice to play our first event and click like this.”

With women’s doubles transformed from a serve-and-volley game to one more akin to singles, these two epitomize a balance made for the new-age game. Robson could hit deep from the baseline and Raymond could sense the volleys.

During one exchange Robson pinned Errani deep. Raymond’s sneak volley winner brought fans to their feet in admiration of her touch and their teamwork, an intrinsic sense between the two that is normally only seen in a grooved partnership like Errani’s and Vinci’s.

“Laura’s got so much game, which lets me do so much,” Lisa said. “She’s so powerful with her serve and she’s volleying unbelievable.”

Stadium Court was not stuffed full of fans, but those on hand were definitely behind the wildcards, which made Errani’s and Vinci’s job even tougher. After losing the first set, Errani took a medical time out. She returned with her right thigh wrapped, another sign of their struggle.

Whether it was swirly wind, the bright sun, or an injury, Raymond and Robson took complete advantage of the Italians.

During the last point, which broke the Italians to win the match, Raymond whacked a down-the-line forehand that whizzed past Vinci. Her head dropped. Seconds later, Robson smacked the same shot down her side of the court. The two smiled at each.

“I mean that team … I haven’t come close to winning a set off them in a year,” Raymond added. “So for us to go out there and play that well against them was great.”

Robson credited her elder partner with bringing some focus to her game. When Errani took the medical time out, Laura tried to figure out a Lady Gaga dance. Raymond, though, redirected Robson.

“Let’s focus on the next game,” Raymond told Robson.

Robson’s singles tournament didn’t go well this week. Out in the second round, she felt nervous against Alize Cornet and lost the third set 61.

“Serving out the match today I didn’t have any nerves,” Laura said. “I was having a lot of fun on court just going for everything. In doubles, if they use the “I” formation I can just go for my shot. Whereas in singles you have to think a bit more.”

Both women are thrilled to be in the finals, which will be played Sunday along with the men’s final. But neither woman thought they would make it this far.

“I’ve been here for a couple weeks already,” Laura said, smiling. “I’m loving Miami and looking forward to spending a couple more days here.”

The obvious question for the two is will they continue their partnership.

“That’s something Laura and I could definitely talk about,” Raymond began, when Laura piped up to remind Lisa about her low ranking. “That’s okay, I have unlimited number of wildcards.”

Robson’s youthful spirit has rubbed off on a normally task-driven Raymond. The levity at changeovers and between points has added a new dimension to Raymond’s mindset while Laura has benefited from the experience of a 20-year expert; Robson had no need for a coach during this match.

This exchange of friendship, tennis strategies and tactics, and serve placements is a normal fallout from any doubles partnership. What seems to set these two apart is, number one, they have advanced to the final of a WTA Premier Mandatory event on their inaugural attempt, and, number two, they giggle like kids.

Apparently Raymond has a lucky shower in the site’s locker room, as Laura described it, adding that many players use the same one throughout a tournament.

“I was in the shower after warmup, and I heard Lisa say something like she wondered why I wasn’t in one of the other showers,” Robson began, on the brink of laughter. “But she’s waiting outside mine because it’s her lucky shower as well.”

If their luck continues they could become the 2013 Sony Open’s women’s doubles champions.

Tommy Haas: The Golden Boy of the Sony Open

By Jane Voigt

MIAMI, FL (March 28, 2013) — People say Roger Federer dances on court, his smooth tennis a testament to a sport that brutalizes fuzzy yellow balls.

Some people say Tommy Haas is cut from the same cloth as Federer when it comes to movement. Both are graceful athletes in their early 30s. They hit one-handed backhands and do not squeak a sound while relentlessly chasing the object of their keen attention.

The comparisons could stop there though.

Roger is known for his fashion panache. Just think back to his 3-piece off-white Nike suit he trotted out on Centre Court at Wimbledon. Conversely, Tommy Haas dresses as if he donned his duds in the dark.

“Yeah, I’m pretty pathetic when it comes to color matching,” Haas said after his surprise upset over world No. 1, Novak Djokovic, at Sony Open Tennis Tuesday night. “Sometimes I look at myself in the mirror before I go out and I’m like, Jesus, what was I thinking there?

Haas would do better if he had a clothing contract, he announced. Hopefully someone out there in the wide-wide world of sports marketing heard his cry for help because Tommy Haas, who will turn 35 next week, is a hot commodity once again.

If beating Djokovic wasn’t enough of an eye popper, the comparisons of Haas then and now took off in the media. The best one: Haas last defeated a number-one player in 1995. His name was Andre Agassi.

Tennis has traveled light years since then. Racquets proclaim space-age materials, like Head’s newly introduced Graphene. Strings, too, have made a bed of strength for aggressive baseliners. Add rigorous fitness routines, when many are in the gym more than on practice courts, and you have a transformed tennis.

Haas has had his share of injuries, even before the revolution in gear and the required fitness that goes along with the gear. He broke his right ankle in December, 1995, and his left ankle twelve months later. Both required surgery. Then his hip gave out, as did his tennis due to rehabilitation.

“When I came back from my hip surgery it was grueling, I don’t know, 9 or 12 months before I actually felt like I could sort of train again and get in better shape, and give myself a chance to al leas try to go for some victories,” Haas said.

In the middle of last year, Haas’ body adjusted enough that he could train.

“If you can’t train and put in the hard yards in this sport anymore, you’re not going to get far,” he began. “Not at least to the point where maybe you have a chance against a top player.”

Pressing against the limits of strength and stamina isn’t something he had to learn.

“From experience I know that,” he said. “Luckily, I’m a guy that likes to work out and gets in the best shape that I can possibly can, my body allowing. Right now I feel pretty good, as good as I have in a long time. I just never give up.”

Haas was ranked No. 2 in 2002 and currently resides at No. 18. By making the semifinal he will crack the top 15 on Monday. Last year, at Sony Open Tennis, he was ranked 145.

A win over Ferrer, seeded No. 3, would be another blast for the news, for Haas, and for the Sony Open.

With Federer, Rafael Nadal, and Novak Djokovic long gone, this tournament has suffered from lack of star power, although Andy Murray remains having defeated Marin Cilic 64 63. The situation has provoked fan murmurs and sports’ commentators. Lower attendance figures confirm the predominant perception: it’s just not worth going if those top guys aren’t playing.

Watching Tommy Haas and Xavier Malisse play doubles later this afternoon was definitely worth the trip, though. Grigor Dimitrov and Frederick Nielsen, one half of the 2012 Wimbledon men doubles champions, shot out in front. They won the first set, which didn’t please Haas. He had lost the first game on his service.

Fans were reminded that Haas had not lost his defiant bite, even as he embraced fatherhood. He smacked his racquet, the bottom of his shoes, and peppered the stadium with what sounded like offensive German throughout the match. His outbursts, though, were a far cry from years past when he screamed at Red Ames, his coach from The Nick Bollettieri Academy.

Haas and Malisse won the second set. In a flash, though, Dimitrov and Nielsen won 64 26 10-7. Haas now had time to focus on his semifinal opponent, David Ferrer.

Even with the Djokovic, Federer, and Nadal trio out, the Sony Open could not have anticipated the little things Valentina Haas, Haas’ 2-year-old daughter, added. Earlier in the week she surprised everyone, running on court to congratulate him after a win.

Today, she walked up to a court-side reporter, pointed to the court and said, ‘That’s my daddy.’ Later she returned, toting a pillow. The reporter’s legs were stretched out on a chair. Valentina dipped underneath and then back again. She headed back to her mother, Sarah. Tommy’s parents were there, too. They celebrated their 44th wedding anniversary today.

Upset Avoided: Maria Sharapova Through to Semifinals in Miami

By Jane Voigt

MIAMI, FL (March 27, 2013) — Last night’s chilly drubbing of defending champion Novak Djokovic sent shock waves through the tournament. No one expected a 34-year-old Tommy Haas to dance the light fantastic, not against the hottest player on tour.

And no one expected Sara Errani to take a woman twice her size, which she had never defeated, to the brink. But she did.

For two and a half hours the see-saw encounter between Errani and Maria Sharapova kept fans on the edge of their seats in Stadium Court. Finally the No. 3 seed Sharapova clinched her spot in the semifinals, 7-5 7-5.

“I feel very lucky that I’m through,” Sharapova began. “She had her chances to win that second set. Who knows what would have happened. I’m lucky to get to the next one and have a chance to be in the semis again.”

Sharapova was, as always, on the war path from the moment Chair-umpire Kader Nouni said, ‘play.’

Sharapova has never won in Miami and tried desperately to quickly rid her route of the Italian, but was thwarted at almost every step. Her serve failed — she double faulted 13 times. And her unforced errors piled up to a massively huge heap of 44. What an embarrassment to her professional pride.

“She makes you work,” Maria admitted. “She doesn’t have the height, doesn’t have the power but she gets so many balls back, and does it over and over again. To have the court coverage that she doesn’t and the variety, obviously she’s able to do those things very well when she has time.”

Errani, a master of manipulation, went about her strategy to move Maria. Tall players are always vulnerable in that department. Maria is no exception although she has improved. But Errani did not have enough time. Sharapova’s balls were back in her court too quickly.

“I like to move the ball with her, when I have more time,” Errani said. “She plays long and flat. So it’s tough to move the ball.”

Sharapova is not a player that elicits much sympathy. Her killer instinct is palpable. There’s never a smile or a nod to an opponent after a brilliant shot. She doesn’t care if they are injured, unbalanced by weather conditions, or that a close relative could have died hours before a match. She is out there for Maria. Win or go home!
Today’s fans, though, seemed to sympathize with Maria’s struggles to keep any scrap of momentum alive when in the next point it fell out from under her the way sink holes in Florida swallow the innocent.

“It’s nice to get through a match when you don’t feel like you’re playing your best,” she began. “On some days you can’t go out on the court and everything goes in.”

This was their fourth meeting, the last in the quarterfinals of Indian Wells, which Sharapova went on to win. Yet the match that stands out to most fans is Maria’s win over Errani at Roland Garros last year. It gave Maria her career Grand Slam.

“It was such an incredible moment,” Maria began, with her eyes cast downward. “To be able to step out on the court where you were able to experience that moment of winning will be special.”

Sharapova will try to become just the third player to win Indian Wells and Miami in the same year. Only Steffi Graf and Kim Clijsters have done it.

“I think it’s one of the toughest back-to-backs of the year,” she said. “It’s the amount of matches, plus the late matches you’re playing. You know, the recovery and the coming from different coasts. I mean it’s not just a hop; it’s a five hour flight.”

Sharapova has lost to two women in 2013: Li Na in the semifinals of the Australian Open and Serena Williams in the semifinals at Doha. In Maria’s eight appearances here, she has played semifinal matches four times. Most recently, she lost to Victoria Azarenka (2011) and to Agnieszka Radwanska (2012).

“With all the tournaments I’ve played, this one I have been so successful at but yet I haven’t won it. It would certainly mean a lot to me to go all the way.”

In the semifinals, Sharapova will play Jelena Jankovic or Roberta Vinci.

Thirty-year-old Vinci will have her hands full with Sharapova, who has a 2-0 edge in their head-to-head record. Vinci, though, is having her best year in singles and should reach a career-high of 13 on Monday when the rankings are released.

Jelena Jankovic, a former number one, would present Sharapova with more challenges. However, their head-to-head is a lopsided 6-1 for Sharapova. These two have seen each other across the net since 2004. Four of their matches have gone three sets, too, and two ended when Jankovic retired.

Maria’s real problem, one she hopes she might finally solve, would come in the final if Serena Williams pushed through her semifinal against Radwanska. In that head-to-head, Williams is the one holding the lopsided record: 11-2. The last time Maria beat Serena was in 2004 at the WTA Tour Championships.

All On The Surface: What’s Happened To Miami?

From my current vantage in Melbourne – which is either an ocean and a continent away or fifteen hours in the future, depending on the direction – the Sony Open Tennis in Miami has lost some of its erstwhile burnish. There was a time when it was, if not necessarily the most polished of the non-Slam events, certainly the biggest. It was a shining highlight on both the men’s and women’s tours. Now though, its lustre has dulled. Attendance figures are down, which is borne out visually by the dollops of empty seats dotting the strangely canted Stadium.

Even the players don’t seem that into it. It isn’t merely that Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal skipped the men’s tournament, or that Victoria Azarenka pulled out of the women’s. There have been retirements galore at all levels – something like 13,050 at last count – of a volume that one associates with warm-up events staged the week before a Major. We expect players to pull out peremptorily for niggles when they have a more important event coming up, but that’s not the case in Miami. It’s supposed to be an end in itself, but people are pulling out with sore throats. Sergiy Stakhovsky quipped on Twitter that if Crandon Park began its renovations now the players would have an excuse to skip it next year. Jonas Bjorkman responded that the venue hasn’t seen an upgrade in 19 years, and that the revenues aren’t being reinvested into the event, or words to that effect.

As has been widely reported, Paul McNamee last week suggested that Miami should consider switching to clay, which sparked some debate. McNamee’s suggestion spoke directly to the specific issue of the tournament’s hardcourt surface, which has grown painfully slow in recent years, but also more generally to the tournament’s ongoing relevance to both respective tours. It’s well worth a read.

I’m not convinced that ‘relevance’ is a quality to which any tennis tournament should necessarily aspire, or be judged by. But it is a quality that Miami itself aims for: what are the tedious proclamations of its status as the unofficial ‘Fifth Slam’, iterated endlessly, if not a grasping towards relevance? If nothing else, we’re invited to judge. There was a time when it might have felt like a Fifth Slam, but they’ve now passed. Stakhovsky said that, too.

A move to clay would reposition Miami at the beginning of the mostly European clay swing. The current drive on both tours is to consolidate the many disparate events into coherent ‘swings’ (though this is a term I dislike). Thus the lead up to the US Open rebranded as the ‘US Open Summer Series’. The lead up to the French Open is called the ‘Road to Roland Garros’. The ATP has been more determined in this than the WTA: even September’s three week Asian swing has a clear shape, as it escalates from a pair of 250 level events (Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur), though a pair of 500s (Tokyo and Beijing), culminating in the Shanghai Masters. In a similar spirit, the two combined US Spring events are intended to complete the February hardcourt events staged throughout North America  and elsewhere.

As much as we (rightly) ridicule the idiotic bickering between Indian Wells and Miami as to which constitutes the ‘Fifth Slam’, there are reasons why the debate persists, and real ramifications for the winner and loser. As I say, back in the 1980s and 1990s Miami was the official unofficial fifth Slam; in the glory days of the Lipton International, players would themselves use the term. Indian Wells in those days still felt very much like an entrée to the main course. In fact it had a 64-strong draw in those years, and had yet to match Miami’s extravagant generosity towards the Bye family (the move to a ridiculous 96-draw came in 2004).

Two factors have significantly diminished Miami’s cachet. Firstly, there is the severe reduction of the number of American February events, which has been gone over exhaustively, and shows no sign of being reversed. Indeed, the WTA this year only staged one modest event in North America before Indian Wells (Memphis). Any culmination feels lessened when no one cares about the build-up. Secondly, Indian Wells has now overtaken Miami in terms of sheer interest and excitement. Beyond the issue of prize money and an expanding facility in Southern California, it feels – I realise I’m being subjective here – as though the players can’t wait to get to Indian Wells, yet are keen to skip Miami given half a chance. (Serena Williams is of course the exception here, and I don’t mean to downplay the value she represents for  the US market in particular.) Indian Wells is now such a spectacle that replicating the excitement would be difficult for Miami, even if it was possible, or desirable. I don’t think this part of the season can sustain back-to-back week-and-a-half mini-Majors. Consequently, Key Biscayne has started to feel like a hangover. There are even fewer celebrities in attendance. Kevin Spacey is nowhere to be seen.

Nor has Miami helped its own cause with the surface. The Miami hardcourt is among the slowest on the tours (perhaps only Valencia is its equal on the ATP tour).  This is a quality that is only enhanced by the dense swampy atmosphere. Indian Wells has a fairly slow court as well, but this is offset by thin desert air. Miami’s courts are notoriously difficult to penetrate, and grant a fairly decisive edge to defensive players (which of course is not to say that attacking players cannot do well). Indeed the joke that Miami doesn’t need to move to clay since it already has, is one worth making. I can’t recall that I’ve ever heard a single player praise the Miami surface.

Converting Miami to clay might even help US tennis. Dirt has for some time been the weakest surface for American players. Indeed, José Higueras has pointed out for some time that the lack of clay courts in the States has contributed significantly to the nation falling away on all surfaces, believing that early development on clay provides a much better foundation, in terms of stroke production and footwork, but also through patience and the capacity to structure a rally. Having an important clay court event right near many of the United States top training facilities would certainly help. As McNamee says in his article, Florida already has the highest concentration of clay (Har-Tru) courts in the States. Given that the Orange Bowl is also staged there –the official Fifth Junior Slam – this would directly incentivice clay for the youngsters.

But switching to clay wouldn’t solve the issue of identity, or relevance, or answer the increasingly vexed question of why there are two big joint events in March at all. Running back-to-back events only makes sense when there’s a Major to follow; the sheer size of the Major seems to subsume the discrepancies among putatively similar lead-up events. I disagree with McNamee that it would function as ‘the grand opening of the major clay court season’. It would be far too far out from the French Open to constitute a meaningful warm-up. Indeed, even Monte Carlo’s value is questionable in this respect. It seems to be a structural requirement that these ‘swings’ start small, and gather steam as they go. I also don’t think the ATP tour needs a fourth Masters on clay, although it desperately needs one on grass.

If I was a dictator – as we all pray I one day will be – or at least granted executive powers in the matter of tennis scheduling, I wouldn’t convert Miami to clay. Until I could figure out a way to move it to Europe and play it on grass, I think the easiest solution would be to switch Miami and Indian Wells, since the current disparity between them is only going to grow as long as Larry Ellison has his way, or more accurately his wealth and energy. You might as well play the biggest one second. I’d also ban any more talk of ‘Fifth Slams’. Perhaps these measures would free Miami up to be whatever it wants to be. If players still skip it, or indulge in perfunctory retirements, it won’t seem so crippling.

I’d also speed up the courts. It’s getting painful to watch.

Serena Williams to America’s Rescue as Sam Querrey Falters

By Jane Voigt

MIAMI, FL (March 26, 2013) — As the Miami Heat reached for NBA history, notching their 27th consecutive win yesterday, Serena Williams did them many times better. By defeating Li Na in today’s quarterfinal, Williams tied Steffi Graf‘s record of 59 Sony Open Tennis match wins, although her reaction was less than enthusiastic.

“Cool,” she said.

Serena generally does not like conversations that surround records, but we all know they matter to her and her place along the timeline of history. Was she thinking about the record on court today?

“She is such a great champion, past, and when you go out there you don’t think, ‘I’m going to break this person’s record,'” Williams began, a bit flustered to still be on the topic. “You say, ‘Can I break serve?'”

On the men’s side, records were the last thing on Sam Querrey‘s mind as the top-ranked American lost to a sharp Tomas Berdych, 6-1 6-1, in 52 minutes.

“Just one of those awful days,” Querrey started. “I missed routine forehand after routine forehand. My first serve percentage was at 40, I’m guessing. Like the more you miss the harder it gets to, you know, get the ball in. It just kept getting worse.”

In fact, his first serve percentage was 39%. Dismal indeed.

The only thing Querrey wanted to do was put this disaster of a match behind him and get prepared for Davis Cup next month in Boise, Idaho where they take on tennis powerhouse Novak Djokovic and team Serbia.

But his loss had bigger implications for tennis, especially men’s American tennis. This will be the first time in history that an American male will not be in the quarterfinals of Sony Open Tennis.

“We get ripped a lot for not having a lot of guys in the top 20 and the top 10,” Querrey began. “But, you know, we won our first round Davis Cup and hopefully we’ll win in Boise.”

Davis Cup aside, Querrey had some weight on his shoulders being the number-one American coming in today’s match. But he implied that position didn’t seem to influence just how badly he hit against Berdych. The fact that he had a day off yesterday because Milos Raonic pulled out with strep throat giving Querrey the walkover also didn’t affect him.

“I have played a ton of matches this year,” he said, emphatically. “I was bummed for Milos, but it was nice to kind of get an extra day of rest because I played a lot and we have a long week ahead in Davis Cup. I still felt good. I mean, I was hitting the ball clean.”

Should American fans expect the drought to continue?

“It’s not like we had guys in the quarters week in and week out in Masters Series,” Querrey said. “I think we’re going to turn it around. I feel like I’m just going to get better. John [Isner], you know, he’s probably in a little bit of a rough patch. He can pull himself out of it. If Mardy [Fish] gets back in there I think we can get guys back in the quarters consistently.”

Yet the fact is for this moment, in Miami at the 2013 Sony Open Tennis tournament, the quarterfinals will be comprised of all European players.

So, it’s Serena Williams to America’s rescue. And for the second day in a row, she had to come back from 5-2 down in the second set to pull off the victory.

“This week it seems to be so far something that I have done, at least my past two matches,” she said. “But it’s good to be able to at least come back.”

Her 6-3 7-6(5) win over Li Na was not a good demonstration of what we expect to witness from the woman who can whack upwards to 20-plus aces a match. Today she hit six double faults.

“Look, I just can’t hit any more double faults,” she said, as if talking to herself. “It’s embarrassing and unprofessional. I hit about 50 in one game, and it was just outrageous. It was like at this point I shouldn’t be a professional tennis player. That was my goal, I’m not hitting any more double faults.”

On top of her wiggy serves, Serena looked to have injured her right hip or thigh in set one. As soon as it ended, she called the trainer but took no medical time out.

“Yeah I just had a little bit of a problem, a little with the hip, and it was just really weird.”

Williams, it seems, does not consider herself the singular hope for American women’s tennis, although she does hold 15 major singles titles and 13 major doubles titles. At 31, she should probably rethink her leadership role because all women tennis players look up to her for strength.

“I think for the most part Americans did pretty good here, at least on the ladies side,” she explained. “I just think there are so many great American female players right now. I think we’re doing really good, to be honest.”

Barely Breathing: Dominika Cibulkova and the Choke Which is Not One

Long after the last point of a match is won (or lost), it is unlikely to be remembered by its combatants’ first serve percentages or backhand errors. No, in the immediate aftermath of a match, especially at a big tournament like the Sony Open in Miami, how a match is remembered largely depends on how it is framed by fans and media. Was it a tension-filled epic, or was it an inconsequential blowout?

Unfortunately, tennis matches are not remembered through such a clean-cut binary. There is a third, shame-based category known as “the choke.”  Once reserved for a tear-stained Jana Novotna, the choke has come to more broadly encompass any and all matches during which a player loses from a winning position. While a true choke knows no gender bias (according to Tennis Channel, three of the top five “greatest” chokes happened during men’s matches), the supposedly more “hormonal” sex has been assigned the greater concentration of “chokeworthy” matches over the last several years.

Can one then classify yesterday’s fourth round encounter between top seeded Serena Williams and Slovakian dynamo Dominika Cibulkova as a choke? That Cibulkova, far from a notorious closer, lost the match from a set and 4-1 up would imply at least a numerical case of neck constriction.

But in order to properly “frame” this match, it needs to be made clear what a choke is and is not, and we need look no further than Cibulkova herself for a relevant historical precedent.

Exactly one year ago, at the exact same tournament in the exact same round, Cibulkova also had the top seed, Victoria Azarenka (then undefeated in 2012) on the ropes. Taking advantage of a flat, uninspired opponent, the Slovak was punching well above her weight class to outstanding effect, redlining her already aggressive game to take the World No. 1 within moments of defeat.

Yet, when twice given the opportunity to serve out the match, she froze. Throwing in consecutive double faults, Cibulkova did not leave the door slightly ajar. She hammered at its hinges until she had broken it down herself. She would recover to play an exciting third set after losing the second in a tiebreaker, but the result was a foregone conclusion. Azarenka had been allowed to believe she could win and Cibulkova had choked away the chance to snap the Belarusian’s winning streak.

Fast forward to yesterday, and it was a very different story. Yes, Serena was flat for a set and a half, but flat in the “two winners, eighteen unforced errors” sense of the term. Where Cibulkova was gunning for outright winners against Azarenka a year ago, she was playing Williams tough enough for the American to make the mistake. This was not a case of one opponent outplaying the other only to become tentative, the purest definition of a choke. For Cibulkova, this was the athletic equivalent to a participation grade. She had shown up, and was being rewarded for doing so.

But down an early break in the second set, Serena Williams went from bad to better. She started moving her feet and stopped spraying the ball to dramatic effect. While she showed marked improvement, the top seed did not begin playing at a superhuman level, the kind we’ve seen from Williams over the years when her back is to the wall. She raised her level just enough to make what had been an embarrassing steamroll into a competitive match.

A competitive match, evidently, was not what the Slovak had signed up for. Not having been asked to play anywhere near her best until two games from the finish line, she was unable to ramp up her game in the same way Williams had done almost involuntarily. Stuck in third gear, she had no answers for the sleeping giant she had accidentally awoken and lost 6-2 in the final set.

So, did she choke? Not in the traditional sense. The form that took her within points of upsetting Serena pales in comparison to the brilliant ball bashing that nearly took out Azarenka a year ago. Cibulkova’s fire did not burn out at the last minute, because it was hardly there in the first place. However, a giant-killer type like Cibulkova knows the intensity needed in order to defeat a Williams or an Azarenka. Even if she had not been at her best the entire match, the time to raise her level came when she was serving for 5-2 in the second.

Instead, she remained static, and in a way, that can be equally disappointing.