The biggest names in tennis play their first Sony Open matches in the coming days, starting with Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova on Thursday, but two of the sport’s greatest entertainers — Andrea Petkovic and Marcos Baghdatis — delighted the Stadium Court crowds Wednesday.
The women’s game is criticized for a lack of personalities, but those critics clearly have not done a YouTube search for Petkovic, a free-spirited German who plays the drums, loves politics, hates Valentine’s Day, reads Goethe and Oscar Wilde and has become somewhat of a YouTube sensation with her video blog that centers on her alter ego, “Petkorazzi.’’
South Florida is known for its tennis savvy, so plenty of fans knew to show up for 37th-ranked Petkovic. They may remember her from 2011, when she made a run to the Sony Open semifinal, beating then-No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki and Jelena Jankovic along the way.
She became known for her post-match “Petko Dance,’’ and she wiggled her hips again Wednesday after beating Spaniard Maria-Teresa Torro-Flor 6-3, 6-4. As Pharrell’s song Happy blared over the loudspeaker, she urged the crowd to stand up and dance with her. And they did.
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“It is kind of a special tournament,’’ she said. “ I don’t know why, when I come here I just feel very comfortable. I like the courts and I seem to play well here. Coming out on center court was really nice. I had such great memories here, two or three great matches on center court 2011, so it was kind of emotional.’’
“Indian Wells, I love being there, but never play well there. And Miami is the opposite. I feel so comfortable, and I feel very welcome here. It seems that when I come here, much more people know me, go to my practices and my matches. I like that they’re loud and into tennis and very emotional.’’
The crowd got even louder for the night session, when Colombian Santiago Giraldo played wild card Baghdatis on Stadium Court. South American players always draw passionate World Cup soccer-like crowds, and Wednesday was no different. The Colombians in the audience went nuts when Giraldo, who is ranked No. 65, took a 5-2 lead in the third set.
But then, Baghdatis, the fun-loving 143rd-ranked Cypriot, started working his magic. He showed flashes of that style and talent that got him as high as No. 8 in the world in 2006. And with every winning point, the ponytailed, head-banded Baghdatis raised his arms wildly, demanding the crowd make more noise.
The energy in the building was palpable, and Baghdatis rallied to get the win, 1-6, 6-2, 7-5.
Asked on the court after how he was able to stage such a comeback, he smiled and said: “The Miami crowd helped me.’’
Another player who enjoys playing in Miami is 21-year-old New Jersey native Christina McHale, who advanced to the second round with a 6-4, 6-2 win over Jie Zheng of China.
McHale’s mother, Margarita, is Cuban, and her aunt and uncle, Idania and Lawrence Shoot, live near Coral Gables. McHale loves Cuban food, savors every dish her grandmother makes her, and has a lot of memories of summer visits to Miami to visit relatives. Her aunt and uncle were in the stands Wednesday.
She trains in Boca Raton at the USTA training center, so she feels very much at home at the Sony Open.
“I spent the last week practicing [in Boca Raton], and it was so nice just drive down here,’’ she said. “Conditions are similar, so it feels good. I spent a lot of time growing up here in Miami so it feels like a second home for me.’’
McHale is ranked No. 57, and got as high as No. 24 on Aug. 20, 2012. But she got mononucleosis later that year and dropped out of the top 100 on Aug. 12, 2013, to No. 115. She has been clawing her way back up ever since. Earlier this month, she reached her first WTA singles final at Acapulco, where she lost in three sets.
“I’m just trying to build off that week,’’ McHale said.
In other matches Wednesday, Czech veteran Radek Stepanek beat German Daniel Brands 6-3, 6-0; and a trio of Frenchmen moved on. Julien Benneteau defeated British wild card Kyle Edmund 6-7 (2-7), 6-3, 6-2; Adrian Mannarino beat 2008 Sony champion Nikolay Davydenko 6-4, 7-5; and Jeremy Chardy outlasted Argentine Juan Monaco 7-5, 3-6, 7-6 (7-5). Chardy will face world No. 2 Novak Djokovic in the next round.