Nervousness on Stadium Court was the theme of the day at the Miami Open on Sunday afternoon.
In one case, it made perfect sense. Fifteen-year-old American Cici Bellis, a 215th-ranked amateur, was playing her idol, No. 1 Serena Williams. The precocious teen summed up her 41-minute, 6-1, 6-1 loss as “pretty scary” and “an eye-opener, for sure.”
The other nervous tennis player on center court was someone you would not suspect: world No. 3 Rafael Nadal, the swashbuckling Spaniard known for his go-for-broke style and 14 Grand Slam titles.
Nadal, always humble and honest, was brutally forthcoming after his 6-4, 2-6, 6-3 shocking defeat to 43rd-ranked fellow Spaniard Fernando Verdasco. Nadal had beaten Verdasco 13 of the 14 times they played before Sunday.
He admitted that for the first time in his career, he is experiencing self-doubt on the court.
“He deserved to win more than me, without any doubt,” Nadal said. “I am playing with too much nerves for a lot of moments, in important moments, playing anxious … something that didn’t happen a lot during my career. I have been able to control my emotions during 90 percent, 95 percent of my matches, something that today is tougher, to be under self-control.”
He went on to confess that in years past, he got nervous for a point or two, but was able to recover his confidence quickly. “It happened and then (snapping fingers), I was able to say, ‘OK, I am here.’”
But now, the self-doubt is lingering for longer stretches. He said he missed a routine forehand at 3-all break point against Verdasco, and then the next game, “I played with more nerves, and again I missed a forehand. That created doubts again.’
“I am feeling that I don’t have this self-confidence that when I hit the ball I am going to hit the ball where I want to hit the ball, to go for the ball running knowing that my position will be the right one, he said.
Nadal said the problem began when he returned this year from a series of injuries last season. But he vows to fix it.
“I don’t know if in one week, in six months, or in one year, but I’m going to fix it,” he said.
In the meantime, for the 11th time, Nadal will fly out of Miami International Airport without a trophy. He has been finalist here four times, loves the tournament’s Latin flavor but has never won the title. It is the longest string of appearances at a tournament without a trophy in Nadal’s career.
Verdasco, meanwhile, called the victory “huge,” one of the biggest of his career.
“Beating a player like Rafa is the same like if you beat [Andy] Murray or [Roger] Federer,’’ he said. “It is one of the biggest victories you can have in tennis. And really nice in a packed stadium in a very important tournament. You try to enjoy the moment, but you need to be very careful and stay focused because it’s not like you won the tournament already and you can go home.
“I still have more matches to come.”
The women’s marquee match of the day featured 19-time Grand Slam champion Williams against Bellis, the overnight sensation of the 2014 U.S. Open, the Cinderella tale, the cute girl with the cute name who became the youngest player to win a U.S. Open match since Anna Kournikova in 1996 and youngest American since Mary Joe Fernandez in 1986.
The San Francisco teen stunned the 13th-ranked player in the world, Australian Open finalist Dominika Cibulkova in the first round of the U.S. Open.
But Sunday at the Miami Open, there would be no fairy tale for Bellis. She got a harsh dose of reality from Williams, who won 51 of 65 points.
“I was pretty nervous,” Bellis said. “I didn’t know how my game would hold up against her because, you know, I’ve never played her before, never really seen her in person. Just on TV. I mean, she’s my idol. She’s from America. She’s No. 1 in the world. She’s the best of all time. It’s pretty scary playing her.”
Williams, to her credit, was not as demonstrative as usual when she won points. She empathized with the jittery, skinny teen across the net.
“I wasn’t like, `Oh, I’m so happy to win this match,’” Williams said. “It was tough. She’s young, and her being an American, you want to see people like her do well. So when you’re up against them, you have to kind of put that aside, even though I’m always cheering for her.”
Williams said she “wanted to clap” when Bellis hit a 96-mph ace, but she restrained herself.
Despite the score, Bellis said she will learn from the loss and try not to be as nervous next time. “I think it was just a really good experience for me for the future and I’m glad I got to do it, but she’s a lot better than me for right now.’’
In other matches, two-time champion Andy Murray advanced to the fourth round with a 6-3, 6-4 victory over Santiago Giraldo of Colombia. Gael Monfils beat Jo-Wilfried Tsonga 6-4, 7-6 (7-4) in the battle of Frenchmen. Third seed Simona Halep of Romania defeated Camila Giorgi of Italy 6-4, 7-5. Sabine Lisicki beat Ana Ivanovic 7-6 (7-4), 7-5 in the night match. And American Sloane Stephens eliminated Johanna Larsson of Sweden 6-4, 6-4.