Some assorted thoughts on an eventful day at the French Open ...
Finishing what she started: Dominika Cibulkova is not a closer. Her reputation in this department, unfortunately, is well-documented, and you don't need to look further than her history with Victoria Azarenka for proof. Heading into their Round of 16 match at the French, Azarenka held a 7-1 lead in their head-to-head, though their last five meetings dating back to 2008 had all gone the full three sets. In their last three matches, Cibulkova has actually taken the first set before getting tight, letting Azarenka back into the matches. Of course, no one can forget how vividly this went down in Miami earlier this year, where Cibulkova lost after building a 6-1, 5-2 lead. Cibulkova split with her coach of two years, Zeljko Krajan, immediately after that tournament and continued to plug away on clay with marginal success.
So when it came time for her rematch with Azarenka on Sunday, it was easy to wonder where her head was at. Pound-for-pound, Cibulkova is the hardest hitter on the women's tour. She throws every bit of her five-foot-three frame into every ball, hitting so hard and flat -- and taking it so early -- that she's just begging for errors. It's an astonishing game to watch. When she's on, she can hit winners at will. But when she's off -- even by just a hair -- it's error upon error as the match spirals out of control.
But not on this day. This time Cibulkova wasn't overwhelmed by the occasion. She wasn't intimidated by the woman standing across from the net. She wasn't encumbered by pressure of being a "streak breaker" or "first woman to (fill in the blank"). After taking the first set 6-2, Cibulkova found herself 4-2 up in the second set when the Ghost of Matches Past came for a little visit.
"You can't be human if you weren't thinking about that," she told reporters later. "But today it was a great thing that I managed to go through these emotions. She was 6-5 up, and I said, 'Hey, come on, you have to play your game again and just make it.'" Azarenka climbed back into the second set to force a tiebreak, but Cibulkova stepped up and played a strong tiebreak to seal the match. Players will tell you that there's no drill or exercise that can train you to deal with your nerves in matches. Sometimes you just keep choking and choking, and choking until, well, you don't.
Vika vulnerable: The Belorussian hasn't been the same since Marion Bartoli knocked her off her pedestal, handing Azarenka her first loss of 2012 in Miami. The strut and swagger she had built over her three-month unbeaten streak is gone; the eerie calm she unveiled to start the year has given way to racket smashes and negative body language. In other words, the "New Victoria" has given way to the "Old Victoria", and the Old Victoria wasn't the one that was winning Slams and beating everyone in sight. Even her team is starting to feel the pressure. I can't recall the last time I've seen her coach Sam Sumyk shake his head or look exasperated during her matches, but as the cameras panned to him throughout the first week, he was seen shaking his head in frustration. That was quite a shocking sight. That's just never been Sumyk's way.
After losing in Miami, Azarenka took nearly a month off, a healthy break for a woman who had been playing nonstop since the start of the season. Soon she announced she had hired Amelie Mauresmo as a consultant, a surprising move because, really, why mess with a formula that was working? She finally returned to the tour in Stuttgart, where she made the finals before getting blitzed by Maria Sharapova, who made it a point to take some subtle digs at her penchant for using injuries as an excuse when she's not playing well. In her next tournament, she made the finals of Madrid, only to get blown off the court by Serena Williams. Whispers of "Paper No. 1" began and questions regarding her bona fides began cropping up more frequently. The skepticism wasn't entirely fair. Clay isn't Azarenka's best surface, but with Serena Williams and Sharapova grabbing the headlines (and the titles) through the clay season, Azarenka fell off the radar. She went from being the story in women's tennis to "Is she playing Roland Garros? I almost forgot."
I actually thought the lack of attention would be good for Azarenka. She had the easier draw to the finals, everyone was obsessed with Serena and Maria, and this was a perfect opportunity (much like in Australia) for Azarenka to make a pressure-free run to another title. But Vika was off from the get-go and she never looked comfortable with herself or her game. She's been adamant over the months that she thinks confidence is overrated. She might want to use her break (she won't play again until Wimbledon) to revisit that.
Nervy Novak: For the first time in Paris, Novak Djokovic looked vulnerable. Human, if you could believe it. The Serb came out flat against Andreas Seppi, who played outstanding tennis to build a two-set lead. While Seppi was handling the windy and cold conditions, Novak was stuck in second gear. He never looked settled in his movement and he was misfiring on all sides, particularly on the return. Given the problems many of the top players had today, I'm inclined to chalk it up to the cold and damp conditions that made the courts slow and slippery. But if Djokovic puts out another performance like this he'll be out of the tournament in a flash.
Idol worship: All credit to David Goffin for standing toe-to-toe with Roger Federer and making his idol actually break a sweat. It was great to see the 21-year-old take the court and treat this like the fourth round of a Grand Slam, as opposed to a really super cool hitting session with the tennis player who was posted all over his bedroom walls growing up. Goffin has a fun game to watch, combining tremendous foot speed and taking the ball impossibly early. It's Agassi-esque and the Belgian took it to Federer, taking the first set 7-5 and hanging with Roger through the second set until dropping it 5-7. From there, the Master had figured out his apprentice and the remainder of the match went without incident. But it's not everyday you see a kid take the court under those circumstances and actually convince you he belongs. David Goffin. Remember the name.
Miscellaneous: Ironic that Venus Williams' Olympic qualifying bid hinged on her needing either Sam Stosur or Petra Kvitova to win given that Williams' two Top 10 wins this year came against Stosur and Kvitova. ... Stosur did end up ending Sloane Stephens' fantastic run in Paris, though Sloane's game definitely made people sit up and notice. Stosur described her forehand as "excellent," and Stosur knows a thing or two about quality forehands. ... For fear of sounding like a broken record, I won't state the obvious again, but I will simply point out that two more matches were suspended due to darkness today. Juan Martin del Potro leads Tomas Berdych 7-6, 1-6, 6-3, and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga is trying to close out Stanislas Wawrinka, 6-4, 7-6, 6-3, 6-3, 4-2. ... Sara Errani keeps cruising on clay. She knocked out Svetlana Kuznetsova 6-0, 7-5 to make her second straight Slam quarterfinal. ... Angelique Kerber has truly become one of the most reliable women on the WTA Tour. She's into her eighth quarterfinal of the year.
Quote of the Day:
"I'm gonna kill myself."-- Victoria Azarenka's sarcastic response to a reporter's question on what she'll do to recover from her loss.