It had been more than an hour since top-ranked Rafael Nadal had breezed past Denis Istomin 6-1, 6-0 to reach the fourth round of the Sony Open, and when he emerged to his waiting car, a clot of fans pressed up against the parking lot fence chanted: “Rafa! Rafa!”
The Spaniard put his racket bag in the trunk and walked over to sign autographs and pose for photos. He chatted with the fans in Spanish, a luxury he said he treasures at this tournament.
The Latin flair of this event was evident the moment he entered Stadium Court to the sound of the Argentine rock anthem El Matador blaring through the speakers. Fans shouted “Vamos Rafa!” throughout the 59-minute match, and afterward, a special video was shown in which tournament fans of all ages and nationalities shouted “Vamos Rafa!” into the camera.
“This tournament is very special to me because I feel the love and energy of the Latin American people, fans from so many different Latin countries,” he said. “I have never won the trophy here, but this feels like home to me. I have maximum gratitude for the love I feel here.”
The Sony is one of only three tournaments Nadal has yet to win — along with Shanghai and Paris. He has made the final three times, losing to Roger Federer in 2005, Nikolay Davydenko in 2008 and Novak Djokovic in 2011. His quest for the 2014 title continues Tuesday night against Fabio Fognini of Italy, who beat Spaniard Roberto Bautista 4-6, 6-3, 6-3.
“Fognini has an amazing talent, especially the forehand,” Nadal said. “He’s an opponent that can be unpredictable and make you uncomfortable. If he is playing from comfortable positions, it will be very difficult for me.”
American John Isner stayed alive with a 7-5, 6-3 win over Nicolas Almagro that took just over an hour. He next faces Tomas Berdych, who beat Joao Sousa in straight sets.
On the women’s side, Maria Sharapova and Serena Williams advanced to the quarterfinals. In the late night match, Williams’ sister, Venus, wasn’t as fortunate and lost 6-1, 5-7, 6-3 to Dominika Cibulkova.
Fans at the Sony Open were asked by a tournament video crew earlier this week whether they consider Sharapova pretty or tough, and the video was played on the Stadium Court jumbo screen after her second-round victory. Fans were divided in their responses.
Asked which she considered herself, Sharapova smiled and replied: “Pretty tough.”
Sharapova showed her mettle again Monday morning, as she got off to a shaky start but rallied and was the first to reach the quarterfinals with a 3-6, 6-4, 6-1 win over Kristen Flipkens. It was the second three-set match in a row for Sharapova, the No. 4 seed.
“I usually like playing first match on, but I didn’t start off the way I wanted to,” Sharapova said. “Nothing was working. She’s a different type of opponent. Not too many girls hit a slice backhand 90 percent of the time in the rallies. I played her already this year, so I knew what to expect from her game, it should not have been that much of a surprise.”
Sharapova is a five-time finalist at Key Biscayne, including the past three years, but she has never won. She lost last year’s final 4-6, 6-3, 6-0 to six-time champion Williams, who also advanced to the quarterfinals Monday with a 6-3, 6-1 rain-interrupted win over U.S. qualifier CoCo Vandeweghe.
Top-seeded Williams proved to be pretty tough, as well.
She won the match in 79 minutes and next faces No. 5 seed Angelique Kerber, who beat Ekaterina Makarova 6-4, 1-6, 6-2. Sharapova plays Petra Kvitova, a 3-6, 6-0, 6-0 winner over Ana Ivanovic. Second-ranked Li Na advanced with a straight-sets win over Carla Suarez-Navarro and faces Caroline Wozniacki, who rolled past Varvara Lepchenko 6-0, 6-1.
“Of course, it would be meaningful for me to win this tournament after being so close,” Sharapova said. “You want to be able to hold the winner’s trophy. I had my opportunities. I just didn’t take them. That’s why you come back and hope for another chance.”
Sharapova, one of the sport’s most glamorous players, has plenty of endorsements and could probably ditch tennis and make a living working full-time as a fashion model. But she says that is not her ambition.
“I don’t think I would be fulfilled because your career is determined by other people’s choices,” she said. “When you’re a model or an actress you can be great at what you do, but if someone doesn’t put you on a cover of a magazine or doesn’t go watch your movies, no matter how good you are you’re going to have a tough time raising your career and making money out of it and getting jobs.
“So, that’s why I love this sport, because my wins and losses are in my hands, and I get to control my destiny a bit.”
In men’s third-round play, Australian Open winner Stanislas Wawrinka beat Edouard Roger-Vasselin 7-5, 6-4 and will face Alexandr Dolgopolov of the Ukraine, who eliminated Dusan Lajovic of Serbia 3-6, 6-0, 7-6 (7-5). Milos Raonic beat Guillermo Garcia-Lopez 6-1, 6-2 and will play lucky loser Benjamin Becker.