When Serena Williams played Barbora Zahlavova Strycova in the second round of the Australian Open, she lost her way for a while in the second set. It isn't unusual for a top player to stumble a bit in an early round, and Williams is known for "playing her way into" majors. But there was something about the look on her face that made me take note. She looked lost, and I wondered whether she was tired or in pain.
Yesterday, in the round of 16, that lost look was what we saw throughout most of her match against Ekaterina Makarova. Makarova, one of those mystery players whose talent has long exceeded her ranking, did not look lost at all. The Russian player has been on something of a tear since she arrived in Melbourne, and she had already disposed of Brisbane champion Kaia Kanepi and 7th seed Vera Zvonareva. When she needed six set points to close the first set against Williams, it also became clear that she was probably not going to fold in light of the occasion.
Williams has had problems with various opponents over the years, but, in the end, her serve has usually gotten her out of every type of trouble. But not yesterday--and that was the most surprising aspect of a match full of surprises. She double-faulted seven times, she had trouble getting her first serve in, and Makarova attacked and destroyed her second serve. In contrast, Makarova's second serve was one of her strengths, and her shots were fluid and precise; Makarova played from a vantage point of confidence.
Williams sprained her ankle in Brisbane, and this physical liability was obvious during the match; Williams' feet just weren't doing what they usually do, and she couldn't launch herself the way she generally does. She also made 37 unforced errors. Even with Williams playing with an injured foot, however, many players would have eventually faded away, and they certainly wouldn't have gone the distance to get that sixth set point. But Makarova wouldn't go away, and she ended the match with a 6-2, 6-3 victory.
Obviously, there was more than one factor in play in bringing about the upset; there are probably factors about which we know nothing. But I think that one of those factors was Sam Stosur's sound defeat of Williams in the 2011 U.S. Open final. Once something like that happens, other players get the idea that they, too, might be able to face the icon and not blink. And yes, there's a certain amount of irony in that theory, since Stosur was sent packing from Melbourne in the first round.
Not surprisingly (at least to me), Maria Sharapova defeated Sabine Lisicki, though she needed three sets to do it. Sharapova double-faulted eight times, so, again, her serve is something on which we want to keep an eye.
2nd seed Petra Kvitova defeated Ana Ivanovic in straight sets, but--once again--Kvitova had a bad patch. She was all power and dominance in the first set, which she won 6-2. But serving at 5-3 in the second set, and with a break point against Ivanovic, the Czech player whiffed an overhead. She couldn't shake off the mistake, and proceeded to lose the next two games at love. At 5-6, it looked as though Kvitova would be broken, but she did whatever it is she does in those moments, and--just like that--she was back. She held for 6-all, and the tiebreak went about like the first set had gone; Kvitova was dominant and aggressive.
In yesterday's other singles match, Sara Errani defeated Zheng Jie 6-2, 6-1 in a beatiful display of tennis. The talented Zheng likes to absorb pace and race around the court in a hitting contest, but she couldn't get the rhythm she wanted from Errani, who kept hitting high balls to her and forcing her out of her running zone.
The comeback players of yesterday were Sania Mirza and Elena Vesnina, who defeated Jarmila Gajdosova and Bethanie Mattek-Sands 7-5, 6-3. Mirza and Vesnina were down 1-5 in the first set.
2011 French Open champions Andrea Hlavackova and Lucie Hradecka defeated Rika Fujiwara and Ayumi Morita (in an entertaining match), and Sara Errani and Roberta Vinci defeated Daniela Hantuchova and Agnieszka Radwanska. Irina-Camelia Begu and Monica Niculescu won when their opponents--5th seeds Maria Kirilenko and Nadia Petrova--retired during the first set. Kirilenko has a thigh injury, which caused her to retire against Petra Kvitova in singles.