Serena barely avoids upset bug

MIAMI -- We have been conditioned in recent days to expect the unexpected.

In this year's NCAA basketball tournament, there's already been a lowly midlevel seed (Wichita State) knocking off a No. 1 (Gonzaga), and a bunch of double-digit seeds -- hello, Harvard -- taking down heavy favorites.

Here at the Sony Open, which is already hurtling toward the quarterfinals on both sides, there has been an odd feeling of dislocation following some notable no-shows, withdrawals and walkovers. It would have made some strange sense Monday afternoon if Dominika Cibulkova, a fiery 5-foot-3 Cinderella, had beaten the No. 1 player in the world.

It very nearly happened. Cibulkova was up a set and serving for a 5-4 lead in the second when Serena Williams, a five-time champion here, finally came to her senses.

This may not have been Florida Gulf Coast over New Mexico -- perhaps more like Temple's near miss against No. 1 seed Indiana on Sunday -- but it was close. Williams escaped 2-6, 6-4, 6-2 in a match that required 1 hour, 57 minutes.

Williams, who almost always comes out blasting against good players, was oddly lethargic at the outset.

"Mentally I was just fried," Serena explained in her postmatch news conference. "I was just thinking about everything but tennis. I was too stressed out and not really calm out there for really no reason. There is a time for everything, and it definitely wasn't the time for that."

She'll have to be much, much better in her Tuesday quarterfinal match against No. 5 seed Li Na, who seems to have recovered completely from her injuries sustained in the final of the Australian Open.

"I just felt slow and sluggish," Serena said. "Then I started hitting errors and I was getting frustrated. Then I tried not to be frustrated. I just thought to myself, 'Well, I've been down worse. It's nothing new. Just keep fighting.' I never give up."

Williams broke Cibulkova at 4-all, but immediately fell into a love-30 hole. At deuce, she stepped into a backhand winner and a jarring scream and fist pump ensued. An ace, outside at 112 mph, gave her the set and momentum toward victory.

Emotion, Serena said, can't be forced.

"It just kind of has to come," she said. "You can try to force it, but it's not the same. You have to give yourself some hope. [But] you can't be yelling 'Come on!' after 40 unforced errors and you miss another shot."

Historically, the Sony Open has behaved like a fifth major. The fields are impeccable, the crowds engaged, the competition brisk. This year, though, it has felt more like the National Invitation Tournament

World No. 2 Roger Federer did not play here for the first time in 15 years. He did not qualify back in 1998, his first year as a pro. At the age of 31, Federer did not include Miami in his 2013 schedule, electing to rest after Indian Wells to prepare for the clay-court season.

No. 4 Rafael Nadal, who won the Indian Wells title to cap a marvelous comeback following a scary seven-month hiatus, shut it down immediately. It was his first Miami miss in a decade. He's got four weeks of rest and relaxation before starting his clay campaign in Monte Carlo.

And then world No. 7 Juan Martin del Potro went down in his first match -- in straight sets -- to German Tobias Kamke.

For the most part, order has been restored on the men's side. Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray, finalists in the past two Grand Slam tournaments, are on course to meet here on Easter Sunday.

The women's draw took a big hit when two-time champion Victoria Azarenka pulled out before her first match in the aftermath of an ankle injury suffered at Indian Wells. Azarenka was the second seed and has proved a worthy foil for Serena Williams in recent years. Since then, No. 6 seed Angelique Kerber, No. 7 Petra Kvitova and No. 10 Caroline Wozniacki have all checked out early. Hometown favorite Venus Williams wasn't expected to go far, but she was forced to withdraw from her third-round match against Sloane Stephens with a bad back.

So, going forward, let's celebrate those mid-major surprises.

Here's to Garbine Muguruza, the 19-year-old Spanish wild card, who qualified at Indian Wells and won three main-draw matches. Here in Miami, she won three more (ousting Wozniacki) before falling to Li on Monday.

The early surprise guest in the quarterfinals is Kirsten Flipkens, a Belgian who has never been beyond the third round of a major. She is (fill in your own choice of an NCAA tournament Cinderella reference) and will play Agnieszka Radwanska, who beat Sloane Stephens. Flipkens won three matches at this year's Australian Open, but fell to Azarenka in the second round at Indian Wells. Here, she beat Kvitova in the third round.

Among the men, the surviving suspects have been more of the usual kind. In the top half of the draw, unseeded Jurgen Melzer and Albert Ramos meet in a Tuesday fourth-round match that will deliver the least likely quarterfinalist.

Still, just as things were starting to stabilize, Milos Raonic pulled out of his anticipated match with Sam Querrey. The reason? Strep throat. Even as he was explaining this, No. 4 seed Tomas Berdych had to go three sets to beat Alejandro Falla.

For Serena, who is 31, this tournament represents her comfort zone. She and her sister Venus have lived a few miles away for years and their first-ever WTA finals came here in 1999 -- against each other. Serena is now 58-7 in Sony Open matches.

"I was not feeling my game today," Serena said. "But for me it's getting through those matches when you don't feel great and then you're still able to come through them and survive and play for another round."

Survive and advance. That sounds familiar.