Definitely A Winner, Azarenka Christens New Era In Miami Tennis With Thrilling Victory

MIAMI, March 21, 2019 (by Michael Dickens)

A new tennis era began in South Florida on Wednesday as the Miami Open presented by Itaú welcomed sunny skies and 73º Fahrenheit temperatures by mid-afternoon at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens.

Rain washed out all play on Tuesday. So, a sunny day was just what tournament director James Blake, the players and, most of all, tennis fans hoped for – and everyone got their wishes during the day session as 43 of 54 scheduled men’s and women’s main draw and qualifying draw singles matches were completed.

Unfortunately, rain returned Wednesday evening about 7 p.m. local time and after a three-hour delay, play was called for the night just after 10 p.m. Seven women’s and four men’s matches were either suspended or never started, including both night session matches scheduled for the Stadium.

The day began with a late-morning ribbon cutting ceremony that featured current and former World No. 1 players Novak Djokovic, Naomi Osaka, Roger Federer and Serena Williams. Then, the first match on the 14,000-seat Stadium court, constructed inside of Hard Rock Stadium, featured three-time Miami Open champion Victoria Azarenka, ranked 46th, and No. 35 Dominika Cibulkova, in a battle of unseeded 29-year-olds. It was one of 54 scheduled matches on Wednesday’s order of play spread among 12 competition courts.

Inside the Stadium, the first point was served up by Cibulkova at 12:14 p.m. and following a back-and-forth 15-shot rally, the Slovakian won it with a nifty cross-court backhand winner.  Both players showed flashes of brilliance at times that were offset by a few mental letdowns. However, after three roller coaster-like sets that included a combined 76 winners (41 by Azarenka and 35 by Cibulkova) and 10 breaks of serve (Azarenka converted 6 of 10 while Cibulkova won just 4 of 13) over the course of two hours and 31 minutes of intense play, the match was won by Azarenka on her first match-point opportunity, 6-2, 3-6, 6-4. The native of Minsk, Belarus, who now calls Monte Carlo home, celebrated by cocking her head back and raising both her arms in victory.

“It’s fitting I won the first match in the new stadium,” said Azarenka during a post-match interview on the Stadium court. She acknowledged that tournament organizers reached out to her last week to gauge her interest in playing the opening match inside Hard Rock Stadium. She immediately accepted the invitation. “It is such an honor to play here. It’s very exciting for the future of the tournament.”

Azarenka, who has lifted three Miami Open trophies – in 2009, 2011 and 2016 – when the tournament was played at its former home at Crandon Park on Key Biscayne, hopes to equal if not exceed her semifinal run of last year, which was her best post-maternity result to date. Now, as the mother of a young son, every victory is important for Azarenka’s confidence as she tries to get back to her 2016 form when she went 26-3, won three of her career 20 titles, and finished the year ranked No. 13.

“I always have great results (here) and, hopefully, I can continue the run,” said Azarenka, who has now beaten Cibulkova three times at Miami going back to 2011 and improved her career record in Miami to 36-7. “Dominika is such a dangerous opponent. We know each other’s games well.”

Later, during a sit-down with interview with Tennis Channel, Azarenka said moving the tournament to Hard Rock Stadium was “incredible” for tennis players and fans, alike. “It’s going to continue to grow and that’s what it should be. Every tournament should be growing.”

While Azarenka said that the court “felt great,” she suggested it would be beneficial to start matches inside the Stadium an hour earlier or later than noon to avoid the shifting angles of the sun and shade hitting the court. “It’s the first year and hopefully it can be adjusted. Otherwise, it was beautiful and the crowd was great.”

While the two-time Australian Open champion Azarenka’s former No. 1 ranking, achieved in 2012, may be a distant memory, Miami always seems to inspire her to play well. She said that despite losing to No. 10 seed Serena Williams recently at Indian Wells, it boosted her confidence level. “Sometimes, you learn better from losses than from wins,” said Azarenka. “It was a good match for me.”

Next, Azarenka faces No. 19 seed Caroline Garcia in the second round on Thursday afternoon. If she wins, she could face No. 15 seed Julia Goerges in the third round. Her path to a fourth Miami title is not an easy one, however. She could face No. 3 seed Petra Kvitova in the fourth round, followed by No. 7 seed Kiki Bertens in the quarterfinals and No. 1 seed Osaka, who lives in South Florida, in the semifinals.

“For the first match, it was entertaining,” said Azarenka, who has gone the distance against Cibulkova in seven of their last eight meetings. “I’m delighted to get a win.”

Navratilova on Andreescu: Destined to be Top 10

Hall of Famer Martina Navratilova believes that Bianca Andreescu’s breakthrough title run at Indian Wells last week was no fluke. In her latest column for WTATennis.com, she writes that the 18-year-old Canadian is destined to be a future Top 10 player. “The manner of Andreescu’s victory made her run all the more extraordinary. Everyone knows how to bang the ball; it’s when you bring something extra to the table that makes all the difference. And Andreescu brings a lot of extra to the table. Think the variety (almost) of Martina Hingis, but with more power.”

(Andreescu’s Miami Open debut against No. 70 Irina-Camelia Begu of Romania, which was scheduled to be the featured Stadium match during the night session was rained out.)

Notes

According to New York Times tennis correspondent Ben Rothenberg, Simona Halep confirmed she has hired a new full-time head coach: Daniel Dobre, a Romanian with whom she has previously worked with.

Around the women’s draw

• No. 73 Amanda Anisimova, on the rebound from an injury-plagued 2018 campaign and playing in just her 12 tour-level event, won the first women’s match on the Grandstand. The American 17-year-old defeated former World No. 9 now No. 67 Andrea Petkovic of Germany, 6-3, 6-3. “I feel super confident and strong and I can play against anyone,” Anisimova told Tennis Channel after her win. “That’s how I feel.”

• No. 190 Wang Xiyu, 17, the reigning U.S. Open girls’ champion, defeated 2016 Olympic gold medalist Monica Puig, ranked No. 61, 6-3, 6-1, to earn her third Top 100 win and first main draw win outside of China.

Other first round results

Maria Sakkari d. (wc) Olga Danilovic, 1-6, 6-3, 6-4.
Sara Sorribes Tormo d. Aleksandra Krunic, 6-3, 4-6, 6-0.
Magdalena Rybarikova d. Natalia Vikhlyantseva, 1-6, 7-5, 7-6 (4).
Dayana Yastremska d. Ekaterina Alexandrova, 6-3, 6-2.
Sam Stosur d. Evgeniya Rodina, 6-4, 6-2.
Yulia Putintseva d. Kirsten Flipkens, 4-6, 6-4, 7-5.
Katerina Siniakova d. Saisai Zheng, 6-3, 6-1.
Marketa Vondrousova d. Barbora Strycova, 6-3, 6-2.
Pauline Parmentier d. Margarita Gasparyan, 4-6, 6-1, 7-6 (4).

What they’re saying

• Former World No. 1 Serena Williams was among the dignataries who took part in the ribbon-cutting ceremonies Wednesday morning on Stadium court at Hard Rock Stadium. Asked if she had ever played tennis in a football stadium, Williams said, “I haven’t, but I will and it will be cool.

“Honestly, I think only Miami could pull this off. You can’t really do this in any other city. The fan base has the belief and the support.”

• Who could have envisioned that a year ago, where there are now 30 tennis courts and beautiful, luxurious surroundings – including a 14,000-seat stadium within a stadium – the Hard Rock Stadium footprint would turn into a modern tennis paradise?

“There was some skepticism, understandable, because people couldn’t envision tennis in a football stadium and they saw a parking lot out there last year,” said James Blake, Miami Open tournament director and former Top 10 pro, as quoted by The Miami Herald. “To know that now there are five different. Neighborhoods out there, cool spaces like the East Terrace, West Lawn, Casa Tua, champagne gardens, Kim Crawford wine, Kiki on the River, so many spots, they made it into a place where you can go without even thinking about tennis.

“I honestly think there will be people who go out there and never go into the stadium. They’ll hang out, have some drinks, grab a great meal, listen to live music, check out the art, and go home.”

What they’re writing

More than just 30 tennis courts: Michelle Kaufman of The Miami Herald, in writing about the landscaping around Hard Rock Stadium, wrote: “Fans who worried there would be no greenery will be pleased to see purple bougainvillea popping everywhere and ‘The Passeo’ landscaped paths lined with 50 Canary Island Date Palms, 40 fig trees, 25 Bonsai trees, 50-year-old ficus trees, 20 olive trees shipped from California, and 100 other varieties of palm trees.”

What they’re tweeting

World No. 1 Naomi Osaka, whose likeness is featured in a colorful mural on the Miami Open grounds: “Okay but from being a kid going to watch @MiamiOpen to getting a mural painted here … I’m forever grateful for moments like this, thank you.”