Today in Madrid, Aravane Rezai became the second consecutive unseeded woman to win a premier tournament. Rezai upset 4th seed Venus Williams, 6-2, 7-5, in the final, adding a surprise (to some) ending to the dramatic story she has unfolded all week in Spain.
Rezai began her Madrid effort by defeating Justine Henin in the first round, and adding a 6-0 final set as a flourish. That was just the beginning.
All I could do was shake my head when Tennis Channel commentator Brian Webber said that Rezai "cruised" through the rest of the tournament. What tournament was he watching? Rezai defeated Klara Zakopalova in the second round, then--in the third round--the Frenchwoman had to contend with a very tough Andrea Petkovic in what was probably the thriller of the tournament. She had to work hard again in the quarterfinals, especially in the grueling first set, to defeat Jelena Jankovic. Rezai got a break in the semifinals when opponent Lucie Safarova retired after the first set, but there were a lot of tense moments in other matches.
Being unseeded and upsetting Henin, Jankovic and Williams is big. As big as Rezai's hitting. Her personality is big, too. In the past, she has made public statements about her distaste for Jankovic, and she didn't hesitate to expand that rhetoric in Madrid. (Those who wondered why Jankovic was distant during the handshake might take this history into consideration; I'm not judging or justifying anyone--just pointing out that, right or wrong, it may not be that easy to behave warmly toward someone who publicly denounces you.) She also had some less than flattering things to say to the media about Henin. For better or worse, Rezai clearly has no inner editor.
Rezai's on-court presence became increasingly fiery throughout the week, too. The harder and deeper she hit the ball, the larger her persona seemed to be. And then there was the black and gold lame outfit. A friend designs Rezai's tennis outfits, and I will now refrain from making obvious observations about that.
In her first set against Williams, Rezai was dominant on serve, and also she broke Williams twice, quickly attacking Williams' second serves. Rezai held at love in her last service game, and appeared fully in charge of the match. In fact, she was so dominant that her first serve win percentage for the set was 100.
That type of momentum can be hard to maintain, especially against a top player, and--sure enough--Rezai was broken right away in the second set. Her serve went to pieces, and Williams took full advantage, breaking Rezai again, and taking a 5-2 lead. But just when a third set seemed inevitable, Rezai started to scratch her way back. She held for 3-5, then broke Williams. Rezai then held again, and--once again in a psychological comfort zone--she broke Williams to go up 6-5. By this time, she had saved six set points, and just like that--she found herself with three match points. She needed only one to take the biggest win of her career.
Rezai is not that good of a mover and doesn't appear to be comfortable at all at the net, but her in-the-zone, laser-like ball-striking can be overpowering. It certainly was this week. And it should be noted that being down 2-5 in a final and refusing to let a third set occur reflects the mindset of a winner.
For me, the Madrid tournament leaves much to be desired. I've long complained about having female models be "ballgirls," and this year's concession to the women--having male models be "ballboys"--I find only a tiny improvement. The heterosexist tone of the arrangement aside--there are children and adolescents who are being robbed of the opportunity of to be real ballgirls and ballboys.
Then there is the Madrid website, which is almost useless.
And finally, poor Rezai will have to tell her friends and family, "I won the Madrid Open, and all I got was this tacky plate."
For many reasons, I'm already nostalgic for the good old days in Rome.
But I digress. Rezai's win confirms why she's been on my "watch" list for a while. She's been working for four months with a new coach, and has been steadily improving. One hopes that, in the future, she'll add more dimensions to her game. In the meantime, she moves into the top 20, and Venus Williams--who is having a fine clay season--moves into the number 2 spot in the rankings.