On the fourth deuce point, Dominika Cibulkova’s return of Li Na’s return of serve went long and once again she faced a break, but she saved it. Then on the fifth deuce she returned a return of serve into the net and then there was a long rally and it appeared at last it was going to be Miss Li’s break, but no. It went to a sixth deuce and this time at long last Miss Cibulkova got the ad. This time, for sure, she would hold — but no again, she shanked an easy forehand and it was deuce once more and the tough and spirited lady from Wuhan, winner of the Australia Open six weeks ago, hit a perfect backhand down the line that Miss Cibulkova could only look at. So was this it? No, still not. Miss C. saved still another break point and on deuce again an exasperated Miss Li sent a return of serve wild and on the net point the mighty mite (five-three) from Bratislava played it shrewdly, played her like a sucker, actually, caught her running the wrong way. Third set, 2-2, Li Na to serve.
Awfully good tennis. You may prefer the men’s game, you may prefer doubles, you may prefer mixed doubles for all I know, this was good tennis, a pleasure to watch, even on TV, even with a shirtless fellow with sunglasses sitting in the front spectator rows. What is this, the beach? Miss Li settles down — proves she deserves her very high rank, settling down after such a nerve-jarring game, and wipes the court with Miss Cibulkova, and the score is 3-2. But the little Slovak onion (as per her name’s meaning, not disparaging a wonderfully dynamic player) is not done yet. She bounces up and down before serving, somewhat like the retired French champ Marion Bartoli. She quickly goes up 30-0, puts her shots into the corners, forces Li Na to hit long angles that fly out of bounds. 40-15 in short order, and then it’s hold, three-all. They are both short, a little squat even, strong hips, slightly thick thighs. Tall girls, like Maria Sharapova — who went out in an early round — can afford slimmer thighs, they move faster with the calves. Smaller women need power where they can get it, and these two are both quick, agile, acrobatic even. And Miss Cibulkova is really humming now, threatening to break Miss Li in the seventh, a very dangerous break. Miss Li helps her, doubles at 15-30, faces two break points. Power serve, the Bratislava champ hits long. Another power serve, and the little Slovak appears to not even see the ball, hits it on her frame; deuce. Miss Li hits another one of her classic backhands down the line, catches her opponent wrong footed again, and finishes it off with an ace down the middle, she is safe for now.
Wonderful match. Propagandists for making Indian Wells the “fifth grand slam” can take heart. This proves their case. Indian Wells brings out the best.
Now Miss Cibulkova is down 15-30 as Miss Li, pressing her advantage, hits deep, hits into corners, keeps the pressure on. A net exchange gives her double break point. Miss Cibulkova saves one with a great serve that pulls Miss Li away and opens the court on the other side, but she goofs up the next one by netting an easy forehand. 5-3, and now Miss Li is serving for the match. She has a great serve, graceful like the rest of her game, classical. Miss Cibulkova fights back, 15-all. Now the pressure is on the young Slovak, and she nets a backhand on return of serve, 30-15, a dangerous score. But winners never quit, and it is 30 all after a tense baseline rally. Fantastic serve, completely out of reach, total ace, match point for Miss Li, oh boy! She misses her first serve, surprises Miss C with a brilliant, risky second one, long and into her backhand corner, which Miss Cibulkova whacks out of bounds, and out of the tournament, baby, Li Na’s our girl!
Excitement, heart, heartbreak, drama! There has been, I must admit, some entertaining tennis thus far at Indian Wells, such as the previous day’s seesaw between the world No. 3 Agnes Radwanska and her friend Jelena Jankovic, not to mention the stunning upset of Andy Murray by Milos Raonic, who may well be blossoming into one of the game’s great big men, with groundstrokes to match his power serve.
But young Milos is in trouble now, trying to rally against the surging Ukrainian, Alexandr Dolgopolov, slayer of such giants as Nadal and such shrewd and crafty players as Fabio Fognini. Raonic is down a set, confounded by the pony-tailed Kievan’s wild athleticism. If there is any percentage in what they call percentage tennis, Alex never heard of it: he prefers the risky shot every time. And another thing: When he wins the first set, he wins the match. As of all his matches this year, that is. But that is something to go on. However, he gets two break chances against young Milos in the third game and blows them both. Milos gets an ad and then fails to convert as Dolgo hits an incredible return of serve right to his feet at the baseline. But unfazed, the young Canadian gets another ad and this time converts on one of his power serves. Dolgo can only smack it feebly back into the net. Three-zero.
No, I admit, I allow, I grant: it is a great, grand, wonderful tournament and Larry Ellison, who makes it possible, is a great man, and California is beautiful and some day Mr. Tyrrell will say, come on, Kap, let’s head out to Palm Desert to watch some tennis and dine with some rich Californians and persuade them to support conservative journalism. Many others additional to me have dreamed nice dreams. And anyway, prior to this, I am still dreaming that Mr. Tyrrell will get us an in with London’s mayor, Boris Johnson, a great tennis man whom both he (Mr. Tyrrell) and I wanted to draft as the Republican candidate for president in 2012 on account he is the most attractive conservative nowadays among the political leaders of the English-speaking peoples and, New York born, he might pass as a U.S. citizen. As mayor of London and the London Telegraph’s tennis correspondent, we figure, or at least I figure, I cannot speak for Mr. Tyrrell, he could get us good seats at Wimbledon. In dreams, wrote Delmore Schwartz, begin responsibilities, and you got to have priorities.
Beautiful net volley followed by fantastic ace, and Raoni staves off double match point, gets another ace (which Dolgo unsuccessfully challenges) for the ad, doubles — errors happen — nets an easy forehand to face another break point, saves it with another great play at the net: amazing, after Misses Li and Cibulkova, the young men are putting on a superb show. Raonic fights his way back to ad —and doubles again! He is doing just what the Slovak girl did just a few minutes ago, getting it and giving it up, over and over! What is the matter with kids nowadays? Or is it human? Down an ad now, after taking a risky shot, he faces break again and this time the acrobatic Dolgopolov catches his third brilliant net volley of the game and hits a perfect passing shot on the run, and sure enough, it’s a ball game again, 2-3 on Dolgo’s serve.
Which he easily holds, and then he breaks Raonic with superb clutch play and still another acrobatic passing shot. At 4-3, it suddenly looks like the set is Dolgopolov’s to lose. And if he holds on, he wins the match.
And while we are at it, the tournament is one nail biter after another. Dream big, it’s a desert, made for mirages. Dolgopolov is stepping on the gas and Raonic is visibly tiring. The Ukrainian holds with a great inside out backhand that goes down the line so fast Raonic can only look at it. Raonic must hold now, 3-5, but the mental momentum is completely against him.
It is high drama, but I still say it is not an argument for a “fifth grand slam.” A grand slam must, according to tradition, be held in a world capital, such as Melbourne or New York. But we can dream. And it will be a great weekend, as Alexandr Dolgopolov goes for it all. For although a brave Milos held serve and held on, he could not hold off the energy on Alex’s side as he served for the set and the match, mighty serves pulling Milos from one side to another and offering open courts for the third shot. Will he meet Novak Djokovic in the final? Or Roger Federer? Federer is playing beautifully and Djokovic is as good as ever at coming back from behind, as he did against Marin Cilic. This is California, a place of dreams, and this weekend, anything may happen.