March Recap: First chapter written in Novak Djokovic-Rafael Nadal rivalry
We continue recapping the most memorable moments, good and bad, from each month in 2011. January and February were still about figuring out what the year was going to bring, but in March, a streak was officially born, a head was officially rattled and doubles took the spotlight. Got something we missed from March? Sound off in the comments and we'll compile a readers' edition at the end of the month.
BTB's 10 Memorable Moments From March
10. The Petko invasion: When you have a big personality that demands attention, it's usually pretty helpful if you have the game to back it up. The "look at me, look at me!" routine, while charming, can cause a significant backlash if a player can't deliver on the court. After a strong quarterfinal showing at the Australian Open, Andrea Petkovic, aka "The Dancing German," hit American soil ready for prime time.
After a bit of a bobble in Indian Wells (losing in the third round to eventual finalist Marion Bartoli), Petkovic put together her best tournament run of the year, beating Caroline Wozniacki and Jelena Jankovic to reach the semifinals of Miami. Her win over Wozniacki was particularly significant. Petkovic didn't attempt to blast the No. 1 off the court, as so many have tried. Instead, her three-set victory was a clinic in patient aggression.
"Most of the players think they can overpower Caroline," Petkovic said at the time. "I think that's the wrong approach because that's where she's most comfortable, when she can run and bring the most balls back. What I try to do is mix it up and to make her play, and then when I had the short ball to go for it. Because if you try to hit every single shot with full power, she just gets more comfortable, more comfortable, and eventually you're going to miss. She's not going to miss the last one."
And so there you have it. Leave it to the college-educated, political science major to write and publish the book on how to beat Caroline Wozniacki.
9. The Ponytail Express: You know you're a good doubles team when you've earned a nickname, and while it wasn't a pairing that drew many eyes to the draw sheet, Alexander Dolgopolov and Xavier Malisse, "The Ponytail Express," turned out to be the most entertaining combo at Indian Wells.
The two relative strangers -- who had never played together before and were a last-minute entry -- pulled off a giant-slaying run on their way to the title. The unconventional duo relied more on athleticism and shotmaking than tactics to beat the Bryan brothers, Murray brothers, the Indo-Pak Express and Tomas Berdych/Janko Tipsarevic (seriously guys, no nickname? Tipsych? BerdTip?) to get to the final. There, the squad faced the Olympic gold medal team of Roger Federer and Stanislas Wawrinka. The Ponytail Express edged Team Goldmember 6-4, 6-7 (5) 10-7.
“We just said 'Hi' before this tournament," Dolgopolov explained, "and we weren't like really close. He just asked me, ‘Do you want to play?’ like 15 minutes to the deadline of the doubles -- because I wasn't planning [to play] doubles here -- and here we are, winning the tournament. So it's pretty amazing.”
Amazing, indeed. Check out the athleticism on display here:
8. Introducing the Death Smash: Andy Murray pokes fun at himself for charity, or rather, he stands there as people make fun of him for charity. He needed that sense of humor to get through what would be a horrific month on the courts. It's still unclear to me if this is a comedy sketch or real footage from a strategically placed camera in the lobby of the LTA's National Tennis Center. I guess we'll never know.
7. Dinara wins: No one knew what to expect from former No. 1 Dinara Safina in 2011. Coming back to the Tour after a serious back injury, Safina was double-bageled by Kim Clijsters in the first round of the Australian Open and continued to struggle with her fitness and form.
So consider the surprise when she came into Indian Wells with only one victory and beat Daniela Hantuchova and Sam Stosur on her way to the quarterfinals. Though she was dismantled by Maria Sharapova, 6-2, 6-0, her two wins against top-30 opponents were a tournament highlight.
6. Blockbuster doubles: NolAndy? Ivanorazzi? Fedrinka? The North American hardcourt swing was blessed with some tantalizing doubles pairings, as the singles players got in on the action for the enjoyment of the fans (and appearance fees, I'm sure). Indian Wells saw the Murray brothers reunited, French Open finalists Stosur and Francesca Schiavone teaming up, and Federer and Wawrinka re-forming to oust Rafael Nadal and Marc Lopez in the semifinals.
The action continued in Miami, where Djokovic and Murray teamed up to lose to Sergiy Stakhovsky and Mikhail Youzhny in one of the most entertaining doubles matches of the year. And good friends Ana Ivanovic and Petkovic entertained the crowd and themselves, making on-court bets to spur each other on.
5. Injury woes begin: March saw the derailment of a couple of impact players due to injury, altering the year's landscape. After an impeccable start to 2011, Clijsters sustained the first of a number of injuries that would keep her sidelined for most of the year. She was forced to retire with a shoulder injury in the fourth round of Indian Wells. She rebounded in Miami, losing to eventual champion Victoria Azarenka, but Clijsters never regained her early-2011 form.
Similarly, Robin Soderling came into Indian Wells on a 10-match winning streak, having already bagged three titles on the year. But his decision to play through a foot injury may have been ill-advised. He fell to Philip Kohlschreiber in the third round, followed by a third-round loss to Juan Martin del Potro in Miami. In fact, Soderling wouldn't win back-to-back matches until Madrid, as he struggled with his movement and confidence.
4. Caroline makes a statement: Wozniacki beat Bartoli in the Indian Wells final to win arguably the biggest title of her career. But it was her 6-1, 6-2 semifinal victory over Sharapova on a cold and blustery desert night that had people talking. While Sharapova was flat and served horribly (though "horrible" is slowly becoming par for the course when describing her serve), Wozniacki was what she always is: steady. As the Russian punched herself out of the match in an hour and 20 minutes, hitting unforced error after unforced error, Wozniacki used her athleticism to bait Sharapova into making those mistakes.
Sure, Wozniacki won't ever blast anyone off the court, but she doesn't have to. She simply makes her shots.
"I don't think it really matters if you don't miss," Sharapova said after the match. "I mean, then why do you need to hit winners?"
3. Serena hospitalized: On the heels of having doctors discover a pulmonary embolism, Serena Williams was hospitalized for emergency surgery to remove a hematoma. The hematoma was an unexpected complication from her treatment for a blood clot in a lung artery, which was itself related to the treatment of her foot injury. The pulmonary embolism forced her to go on blood thinners that restricted her ability to fly.
It was a serious health scare for Serena and a development that left everyone wondering if Williams would be able to play tennis again. Fast-forward to the summer and we got our answer: Yup, and then some.
2. It's official: We have a streak: Everyone had their Novak moment this year. You know what I'm talking about. That moment when you finally believed that what you were witnessing wasn't a fluke; it was a streak. That happened for me in Indian Wells. Djokovic hadn't lost a match all season, he had destroyed Murray in the Australian Open final and he hadn't dropped a set to Roger Federer in two matches. But he hadn't faced Nadal yet, and I needed to see how he reacted in that matchup before fulling buying into the Novak 2.0 story.
He sure showed me. Djokovic cruised through the first four rounds before dispatching both Federer and Nadal in three sets for his third title of the year. The fact that Djokovic had to come back from a set down against Nadal was particularly impressive. He extended his winning streak to 20 matches and began to build what would be, at least in my opinion, the most impressive stat on his 2011 résumé: a 6-0 record in finals against Nadal.
1. It's official: We have a slump: It wasn't until the fall that we would learn how damaging Murray's loss to Djokovic in Melbourne was to his psyche. But it was definitely clear in March that something was wrong with Murray's head. He looked miserable on the court, vacillating from audible frustration to bouts of uninspired detachment, and when the Scot lacks focus, his game completely falls apart.
Murray suffered two shocking losses that left him limping back to Europe as the laughingstock of the elite. He failed to take a set off either Donald Young or Alex Bogomolov Jr. in Indian Wells and Miami, respectively, and unsurprisingly split with coach Alex Corretja soon afterward. In one of the biggest non-Slam months of the year, Murray walked away from his favorite surface in a very public tailspin, having failed to win a single match (let alone a set) since Australia.
Andy Murray lost to Donald Young 7-6 (4), 6-3 in his opening match at Indian Wells. (Danny Moloshok/Reuters)