Two of the most popular and glamorous players on the tour have been dating for over two years, and it seems to have done their tennis no harm at all.
It was two years back that Sharapova won Indian Wells for a second time and she went on to reach the final in Miami, Madrid and Roland Garros. Last year was even better: She won the French Open along with three other Premier titles, and this year has already won in Brisbane and reached the final at the Australian Open.
Over the same period, 23-year-old Dimitrov continued his steady climb into the top 10 with his first final in January 2013, his first title at the end of that year, and then three titles from four finals last year plus a first Grand Slam quarter-final in Australia and the semis at Wimbledon.
So when both took to court as afternoon turned to evening at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden, Sharapova centre stage, Dimitrov on the vast new Court 2, both against lower seeded opponents, it looked as though their sojourn in the desert should last a little longer. But by the time both had completed their matches, both three sets later, it would be an older and wiser duo that had survived.
On paper, though, the 33-year-old Pennetta had every reason to be confident: Of her four previous matches against Sharapova, she had won the last two—though that was back in 2011. What’s more, she had proven she was maturing like fine wine, winning the biggest title of her career in Indian Wells last year. Clearly the US hard courts suited her, too, for she made the semis at the US Open in 2013 and the quarters last year.
But the style in which Sharapova beat one of her toughest rivals, Victoria Azarenka, suggested she had her eyes on the title this year, and she grabbed the first set from Pennetta, 6-3.
The Italian looked emotional—indeed in tears—and revealed afterwards that she left the court to cry and scream at herself to release those emotions. It worked.
In the second set, Pennetta broke for a 4-2 lead and served out the set, 6-3. The third set was even more dramatic, with Pennetta winning five games on the bounce to finally seal a famous victory, 6-2, after over two hours of tennis.
The Italian with an elegant all-court game honed by plenty of doubles in her long career, was at a loss to explain her emotional start.
“Just a lot of emotion in one night. Sometimes women have these moments, so I was trying to handle it. I just breathed and just let it pass, and in the end it was much better.”
She also admitted that retirement was not too far away, but she will make no decision until after her much-loved US Open. In the immediate future, though, the defending champion must take on the power game of Sabine Lisicki. It will be tough, but then so is Pennetta.
Meanwhile, Dimitrov was having his own problems against Robredo in a battle of the single-handed backhands—one a 23-year-old, the other 32. And Robredo, like Pennetta, had reason to be optimistic. He and Dimitrov had shared the wins in their two previous matches, and the former world No5—eight years ago—had bounced back from surgery to reach three finals last year and test the very best. Few will forget his iron-man efforts against Andy Murray first in Shenzhen and then in Valencia.
Robredo had multiple break points in the first set but he needed only to convert one to take the set 6-4. Dimitrov steadied the ship in the second, breaking twice to level the match, 6-1.
But in the third, the young Bulgarian’s serve let him down, while the shorter Robredo upped his to 80 percent and dropped only four out of 24 first-serve points. Again, he did not face a break point and converted the first one offered to him, courtesy of a Dimitrov double-fault, to take the set and match, 7-5.
Robredo was, not surprisingly, particularly pleased with this win, as he had carried a leg injury at the start of the year that forced him to retire in his first hard-court match at the Australian Open.
“I’m happy to beat one of these guys who is always difficult, and after the beginning of the season when I was not healthy and not playing that good, I think it’s a great victory today.”
His task is about to get even tougher: He takes on No6 seed Milos Raonic, who has beaten the Spaniard in both their previous matches. Beyond Raonic lies Rafael Nadal, with Roger Federer still alive in the bottom quarter.
But Robredo won’t worry about that. He is the man still playing for points and prizes in Indian Wells while his young opponent heads east for the next big test in Miami.
Footnote: Robredo is one of four men in the fourth round who are playing close their best in their 30s: Along with Federer, there are Gilles Simon and Feliciano Lopez. Add in three more who turn 30 this year, and that’s almost half the remaining 16. Three of the women’s quarter-finalists are also in their 30s, all of them former champions: Serena Williams, Jelena Jankovic and Pennetta.
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