Marion Bartoli has always loved the big occasion. The opportunity to play the role of the spoiler. The underdog. The party crasher. She’s played the role well over the years, beating No. 1-ranked Justine Henin in the 2007 Wimbledon semifinals, No. 1-ranked Jelena Jankovic at the 2009 Australian Open and a resurgent Serena Williams at Wimbledon in 2011. Give the engaging and quirky Frenchwoman a challenge and she’ll bring the drama, which is exactly what she did Wednesday night in Miami. With a combination of relentless pressure, consistent hitting, and pure fight, Bartoli put an end to Victoria Azarenka’s 26-match win streak with a decisive 6-3, 6-3 win in the Sony Ericsson Open quarterfinals.
Azarenka was able to narrowly escape her fourth-round match against Dominika Cibulkova on Monday, coming back from 1-6, 1-5, down to win in a third set tiebreak. As much as some might want to tag that match as a “She’s forgotten how to lose” special, it wasn’t. Azarenka caught a break when Cibulkova got tight trying to serve out the match in the second set, and was able to raise her level enough to let the aggressive Slovak punch herself out. It was a narrow escape and Vika knew it. There was no finger pointing or tongue wagging celebration on match point. There was a blank stare at her box as if to say, “How’d I get out of that one?”
Cibulkova may have lost in heartbreaking fashion — she indeed choked away the second set but fought valiantly in the third when it looked like she would fold — but she set forth the blueprint on how to beat The Unbeaten One: hit it big, hit it hard, and don’t let up. Easier said than done, obviously.
Azarenka’s 2012 success has been built on her above-average power and world-class precision — which she uses to open up space against defensive players — and her own above-average defensive abilities, which has consistently derailed the big hitters. What Bartoli does better than anyone is take the ball early and get the ball back quickly. It may not look like she’s hitting with stinging pace every single time, but as Ana Ivanovic observed in Indian Wells, her ball gets on you quickly.
“She does strike the ball a lot harder than maybe it looks,” Ivanovic said after beating Bartoli in Indian Wells. “Her serve comes through a lot more than it seems. And she stays really low and she takes the ball very early. So she hits quite flat.”
What made you sit up and notice tonight though is how hard Bartoli actually was hitting the ball. In addition to taking the ball early, she was hitting cross court angles and going up the line hard and deep. Through much of the first set she looked unstoppable, and Azarenka quietly grew frustrated. She had her poker face on, but it was a strained one. If Bartoli was going to play like this, Azarenka didn’t have any answers.
But Bartoli was due for a letdown, and it happened early in the second set. After breaking Azarenka in the first game, Bartoli jogged to switch sides only to receive a soft warning from the umpire for coaching. Bartoli had no idea what the umpire was referring to but she shot an annoyed look at her father/coach Walter as she walked by. The Frenchwoman would go on to lose the next three games. It seemed the distraction had completely deflated her, which was ironic because Azarenka’s coach, Sam Sumyk, was also causing a behind-the-scenes kerfuffle. Once again he removed his microphone during a coaching timeout, a violation of WTA rules. As the cameras panned to a supervisor admonishing Sumyk, Bartoli was unraveling. Azarenka built a 3-1 lead and as Bartoli’s shots lost their bite and depth, Azarenka righted the ship.
But Azarenka didn’t have the same air of ruthlessness tonight. Second serve returns she was smacking for winners with regularity all year were finding the net. Her shots down the line weren’t penetrating, though they landed deep. And you could see her let up in long rallies, conceding the gimme winners. The 26 matches over the last three months had finally caught up to Azarenka. As Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Caroline Wozniacki will tell you, winning is exhausting. You play more matches, you have fewer days off, and you walk around with the extra weight of expectation.
Azarenka’s agent has a nickname for her — “Da Legs” — and the two have batted it back and forth on Twitter as an inside joke. On Wednesday night, “Da Legs” finally gave out. On the changeover at 4-3, Azarenka put a towel over her head and started hitting her legs with her fist, either trying to will them on or stop them from cramping. It didn’t work. Bartoli would win the next two games without threat and the defending champion and world No. 1 was out. The unslayable WTA dragon went down to the woman with the 175 IQ and the two-handed forehand. The kicker? Bartoli says her best friend on tour is Cibulkova. Quite a tag-team effort from the two of them this week.
I sent out a message on Twitter right before the match asking people why they thought this edition of “The Streak” wasn’t capturing the hearts and minds of tennis fans the way Djokovic’s did last year. To paraphrase the responses, Azarenka never proved during her unbeaten streak that she could beat the best, whereas Djokovic turned the world upside down by beating Roger Federer, Nadal and Andy Murray repeatedly. So the fact that her winning streak is over shouldn’t change much for Vika. Now she has the time to rest her body and mind and begin her clay campaign refreshed and ready. Because let’s face it: Beating the likes of Serena, Petra Kvitova, or Wozniacki consistently will be more of a game-changer than any win streak.