- Greg Garber, Writer, Reporter
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KEY BISCAYNE, Fla. -- For 25 consecutive matches, Victoria had always spelled victory.
And then on Monday, a feisty 5-foot-3 Slovakian grenade named Dominika Cibulkova threatened to blow up the best start to a women's season in 15 years. She sprinted out to a 6-1, 4-1 lead on No. 1-ranked Victoria Azarenka and seemed poised to spring the upset of the year.
When Azarenka came back to win the second set, you got the idea it might be over quickly. But Cibulkova, playing with great gusto, stayed in the match, slashing those low, fiery groundstrokes to the end, some 2 hours, 49 minutes after it began.
Azarenka prevailed 1-6, 7-6 (7), 7-5 in a dramatic fourth-round match at the Sony Ericsson Open that featured a zany 15 breaks of serve in 32 games. The numbers were cartoonish all around; Cibulkova was credited with 45 winners -- and 71 unforced errors. Azarenka had a slightly better ratio, with 15 winners and 47 unforced errors.
And so, the streak stands at 26.
The 22-year-old Belarusian is still working on the best women's leap out of the box since Martina Hingis went 37-0, all the way to the French Open final in 1997. Comparisons to Novak Djokovic's searing 41-0 start last year can now officially resume.
"Definitely wasn't thinking about the streak, that's for sure," Azarenka said. "I have to give all the credit to her, you know, because she played some splendid tennis, just amazing. She was hitting every possible line there was.
"So it kind of felt like she closed her eyes and just went for everything. And me, I couldn't just really open my eyes. I was like blinded a little bit."
She added that a pep talk from her coach, Sam Sumyk, shook her out of the funk.
Cibulkova, the No. 16 seed here, is not exactly an anonymous dangerous floater. She previously reached the quarterfinals of two majors -- most recently, Wimbledon a year ago -- and her past four matches with Azarenka all went the three-set distance. And yet, she was an unimpressive 4-8 coming into the tournament and has won only one title in her six years as a professional.
Azarenka came into Miami looking nearly unstoppable. She throttled the No. 2-ranked Maria Sharapova in the recent Indian Wells final, just as she did in Melbourne. She was 9-0 against players ranked in the top 10.
It's ironic that the streak (is it time to start using upper case?) nearly ended here, since this is the tournament where she always has seemed most comfortable. Her 2009 win (beating Serena Williams in the final) was the biggest of her career. She won the Sony Ericsson title again last year, to start building the foundation for a fantastic 2012.
Last year, after Roger Federer ended Djokovic's brilliant run in the semifinals at Roland Garros, Djokovic quickly regrouped. He won Wimbledon and the U.S. Open to take three of the four majors. Azarenka's game and the confidence it carries -- you could see the belief in the final set -- will make her one of the favorites in the three remaining Grand Slams, if not the favorite.
Azarenka thinks calling it confidence is too easy.
"I feel like it's just invisible thing that everybody keeps calling [it] something magical. You know, that 'Oh, my God, he or she plays with confidence and it brings her wins.'
"It's absolutely not true, because behind that there is a lot of hard work. There's daily working on your nerves, and I'm sure everybody when they go out there, doesn't matter how confident you are or not confident, everybody experiences those nerves, those adrenaline coming."
Here are four other things we learned Monday at the Sony Ericsson Open:
1. Novak Djokovic means the world to Serbia: Clearly, the reverse is also true for Djokovic, as seen in a lovely "60 Minutes" segment.
Monday, after beating countryman and good friend Viktor Troicki 6-3, 6-4 in a third-round match, he talked about it.
"I feel a need to represent my country and to allow people to see in public my story," Djokovic said. "The tennis players, how we grew up, especially the generation that had to go through wars and difficult times where you didn't have much support, didn't have a professional facilities that could accommodate you and allow you to develop yourself into a professional tennis player.
"Because not many countries in the world have been through what we did, what we have been through. We know how it feels to, you know, lose the close ones, lose your own people in the war, touch the bottomness as a country in every aspect of the life, and then stand up and be stronger, you know, be reborn out of it."
As CBS correspondent Bob Simon poignantly summed it up, the war helped make Djokvoic a Grand Slam champion.
When Djokovic lost to American John Isner in the semifinals of the recent Indian Wells event, some wondered if he was off his game. Based on the early returns here, he appears on course for a semifinal berth opposite Andy Roddick, who upset Roger Federer on Monday.
2. Mardy Fish is a heat-of-the-day kind of guy: Fish, who grew up playing in the scorching heat of Florida, enjoys breaking a sweat. Unlike Serena Williams, he is a morning person and -- at the age of 30 -- usually finds himself in bed by 9 p.m.
His match against Kevin Anderson of South Africa was first on the grandstand court and Fish looked sharp, winning 6-4, 6-3.
"Everybody likes to know exactly when they play," he said afterward. "I wake up early, always, so I like when the matches start at 11."
The start time was welcome but, for the second match in a row, the venue was not. Fish complained after his second-round match that his top-10 ranking merited a match on the stadium court because "I worked very hard to put myself where I am."
Instead, it was fellow Americans John Isner and Andy Roddick who got the VIP invite. With Isner already out of the tournament and Roddick defeating No. 3-ranked Roger Federer on Monday night, tournament organizers may have no choice to put Fish's fourth-round match against Nicolas Almagro on the big stage.
3. Sometimes it feels like Argentina down here: There were times Monday, when Juan Martin del Potro must have felt like he was playing Davis Cup at home.
The Sony Ericsson crowd, which features significant numbers from South America, was raucous during his 6-3, 7-6 (3) third-round victory over Marin Cilic. Del Potro, who understands the local dynamic, played to the crowd, especially in the second-set tiebreaker.
4. The Williams sisters are flying under the local radar: Maria Sharapova, a 6-4, 7-6 (3) winner over Ekaterina Makarova, was asked afterward about the presence of Venus and Serena Williams.
"They've obviously achieved so much in tennis around the world and contribute so much to the sport," Sharapova said. "To have these two great athletes playing in your sport, it's really good to see."
If Sharapova can get by Li Na in the quarterfinals, she could meet Serena in the semifinals. Has she been watching the Williams sisters matches?
"I haven't actually," Sharapova said. "I don't get the Tennis Channel in my hotel. Sometimes that's a good thing."
1dAnna Katherine Clemmons