March 26, 2013

Serena Williams digs out of hole to reach Sony Open quarterfinals

Serena Williams started slowly but picked up her game to withstand an upset bid from Dominika Cibulkova.

On Saturday, traffic was so bad on Key Biscayne where she’s staying that No. 1 Serena Williams rode a bicycle to her Sony Open match.

On Monday, traffic was flowing normally so Williams drove to work as usual in her shiny white Rolls Royce. As an afterthought, Williams might have benefited from doing some advanced pedaling before playing 13th-seeded Dominika Cibulkova of Slovakia.

For the first set-and-a-half, Williams appeared lethargic, flat-footed and out of synch while falling behind to Cibulkova 6-2, 3-0. That’s when she woke up to pull off another notable escape, a 2-6, 6-4, 6-2 win to earn a spot in the Sony Open quarterfinals.

“Mentally I was just fried, and I was just thinking about everything but tennis,” Williams said. “Then I just had to pull myself back together. I was too stressed out and not really calm out there for really no reason.”

As for her fancy four-wheeled transportation, the 31-year-old said the Rolls was a birthday present to herself.

“Last year, or the year before, I was turning 30, and I panicked and I thought I needed to get a really old car,” Williams said. “So it was my midlife crisis. It was really hard for me to turn 30. I really struggled.”

Williams has learned to deal with being older than 30, but she’s always seemed to have the knack of turning losing situations into victories.

Leading 6-2, 3-0, Cibulkova looked close to pulling off the big upset. It didn’t hurt that she had beaten No. 1 ranked players before: Victoria Azarenka at the 2012 French Open and Caroline Wozniacki at 2011 Sydney and Wimbledon.

But when playing Williams, who is now enjoying her 129th nonconsecutive week at No. 1, a match advantage tends to be fleeting.

“I think every time is different,” Williams said. “This particular time I just thought to myself, ‘Well, I’ve been down worse. It’s nothing new. Just keep fighting.’ I never give up. Doesn’t matter whether it’s in life or on the tennis court, I keep fighting.”

It was at 30-0 for Cibulkova in the third game of the second set when a voice from the crowd said it all: BOR-ING screeched the fan. Williams said she didn’t hear the guy, but almost immediately she started her charge. She held serve in the fourth game of the second set — the first game she won after losing the previous seven games — and went on to win 11 of the next 14 games to take the match.

If Williams didn’t get her act together it would have been the first time she had lost before the quarterfinals in 13 visits to the Sony Open. She has a 58-8 lifetime record at Crandon Park and currently shares a women’s tournament record of five titles with former champion Steffi Graf.

Williams moves on to face fifth-seeded Li Na of China in the quarterfinals, who is playing in her first tournament since injuring her left ankle against Azarenka in the Australian Open final in January. Li defeated Spanish wildcard Garbine Muguruza 7-6 (8-6), 6-2 in the fourth round.

Defending champion and fourth-seeded Agnieszka Radwanska was sluggish in the first set, but then dominated 16th-seeded Sloane Stephens to win their fourth-round encounter 4-6, 6-2, 6-0. Radwanska will take on 30th-seeded Kirsten Flipkens of Belgium, who posted a 6-7 (6-8), 6-4, 6-3 win over Ajla Tomljanovich.

Third-seeded Maria Sharapova defeated No. 21 Klara Zakopalova 6-2, 6-2.

Elsewhere, second-seeded Andy Murray continued his march in the Sony draw, turning back a feisty Grigor Dimitrov of Bulgaria 7-6 (7-3), 6-3 to reach the fourth round.

“Once I started to improve my depth a bit I made it tough for him and he started to make mistakes,” Murray said. “Today, he probably got a little bit nervous and that helped me.

Murray will face Andreas Seppi of Italy, who beat Thomaz Bellucci 7-5, 4-6, 6-2, in the quarterfinals.

Top-ranked American Sam Querrey advanced to the fourth round without hitting a ball when his opponent, Canadian Milos Raonic, pulled out with strep throat.

John Isner fell to Marin Cilic for the third time in as many matches played against the Croatian. Cilic’s 6-3, 7-6 (7-3) win marks his 18th consecutive win against American opponents.

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