Commentary

Weight of the streak too much

Updated: March 29, 2012, 1:43 AM ET
By Greg Garber | ESPN.com

KEY BISCAYNE, Fla. -- Like a boxer between rounds, she sat on her changeover chair staring straight ahead, chewing an energy bar and toweling off her forehead.

Heated words of wisdom about fighting spirit passed a few inches from coach Sam Sumyk's rapidly moving mouth to Victoria Azarenka's right ear, which may have been singed in the process.

Two days ago, when Azarenka lost 10 of the first 11 games to Dominika Cibulkova, Sumyk had managed to stop the bleeding. And somehow the 22-year-old from Belarus managed to rally to win a three-set match in 2 hours and 49 minutes. It was for her 26th consecutive win in 2012.

On Wednesday night the constant strain, the enormous weight of keeping The Streak alive and breathing, proved too much.

Marion Bartoli took down the world's No. 1-ranked and only undefeated player 6-3, 6-3 in the Sony Ericsson Open quarterfinals.

And so, the greatest start to a women's season in 15 years is over. Azarenka is now 26-1.

Martina Hingis went 37-0, all the way to the French Open final in 1997. Novak Djokovic started 41-0 last year. When it was over, Azarenka looked drained, even a little dazed as she packed up her bag.

"I'm not injured; I'm just tired," she said. "It was supposed to happen one day. Today was hard because I couldn't really be there physically."

Was she surprised at the ferocity of the attacks by Cibulkova and Bartoli?

"Both of those players came out and probably played the best match of their lives. Everyone wanted to be the first player to beat me. Two days ago, I could turn it around. Today I couldn't."

Bartoli, a 27-year-old from Le Puy en Velay, France, is not your typical cookie-cutter tennis pro. She has an awkward (but effective) service motion and her two-handed groundstrokes (from both sides) are not textbook, either. To be charitable, she is not much of a mover, but she hits some extreme-angled shots and takes it early when the ball is in her strike zone. Although most of today's athletes are ripped and trim, Bartoli seems to have a softer center.

Despite her unorthodox game, she is the WTA's No. 7-ranked player -- a career high -- ahead of numerous Grand Slam champions and icons of the game. And, even before this, she has made a habit of scoring surprising victories. In those moments, she seems utterly unafraid.

This was her 12th victory over a top-five opponent and her third over a reigning No. 1. In 2007, on her way to the Wimbledon final, she defeated Justine Henin. She took down Jelena Jankovic in the 2009 Australian Open. And now Azarenka.

[+] EnlargeVictoria Azarenka
Peter Andrew Bosch/Miami Herald/MCT/Getty ImagesThe streak couldn't last forever, but Victoria Azarenka can now head into the clay-court season without the extra pressure.

Just as she had against Cibulkova, Azarenka came out flat, devoid of energy. Bartoli took advantage, breaking her serve in the opening game. Bartoli won the first four games before Azarenka began to stir, but by then it was too late.

Azarenka, making one final push, broke Bartoli early in the second set and took a 3-1 lead. But when Bartoli broke back, with a terrific backhand winner, she served up a rocking double fist pump -- then leaned back and thrust her knee high in the air.

Along the way, there was also a swinging bolo fist that got the crowd going and, in the end, just a single fist and a satisfied scream when one last Azarenka backhand was sprayed wide.

Now, about those celebrations …

"It's part of me," Bartoli said. "I really have this positive body language. I was still focused and didn't get down on myself when she came back. I was able to step into the court and play some great points. Sometimes I took the ball so early, it was almost table tennis."

Bartoli will now play No. 5 seed Agnieszka Radwanska, a winner over Venus Williams, in a Thursday semifinal.

For Azarenka, it will be a few days of rest before she begins her clay-court preparation. She will likely take a month off and resurface in Madrid in early May.

"Marion played very well," Azarenka said. "She deserved to win. I have to look forward."

Greg Garber

Writer, Reporter
Greg Garber joined ESPN in 1991 and provides reports for NFL Countdown and SportsCenter. He is also a regular contributor to Outside the Lines and a senior writer for ESPN.com.