What do you say after that? No really. I've been staring at this blank screen for the past hour and all I can think is "What am I supposed to say?" My favorite player came into this tournament with a lot of hope and just played a gutty match against a game opponent, saved match point after match point, showed the world that she's a fighter, and still lost, ousted out of her favorite Slam in the first round. What really can I possibly say?
I'm sure all the folks who actually cover this sport objectively will have plenty to say tomorrow. They'll say Ana choked. They'll say that she's not back. They'll say Makarova played a good match. They'll say Ana will be absolutely devastated with this loss. They'll say things, and chances are, I won't disagree with any of it.
But that's not what I want to say. Being analytical of the match? Sorry, but as a fan, I just can't even get myself into that headspace. Ten minutes after Ana walked off the court I was in the Heineken beer garden drowning my sorrows, talking about anything and everything other than that match. Hours later, it still stings and I'm at a bit of a loss.
So this is what I'll say.
Sometimes I wish I could be one of those fans who could just focus on the tennis that's played on the court. On some level, I think that would make things easier. You could make objective determinations about players and matches, you can cite stats, you can talk about forehands and backhands and debate all that technical stuff. Seriously, when I listen in on those conversations, I'm totally fascinated and envious. It all flies completely over my head. It's like listening in on a conversation where you know everyone is speaking English but they're using phrases and reference points that are completely foreign to you.
As much as I try (self-preservation and whatnot) I'm not one of those fans. The actual tennis, if I were to be completely and blatantly honest, is not even secondary. It's sixthiary. What draws me to tennis and to players is their character, their heart, how they conduct themselves with the press and fans, their personalities, etc. You know, all the stuff that, really, has nothing to do with winning a tennis match.
Which puts me in quite a predicament. I end up becoming a huge fan of players who, many times, can and will suck at tennis. Dinara Safina is one of those people. Let's face it, she has a lot of absolutely legitimate excuses, but the fact is that she's simply not all that great at tennis right now. Everyone joked when the draw came out that she'd get absolutely destroyed by Kim. But did we honestly think she'd get double-bageled in less than 50 minutes? Maybe I'm naive and a bit of an idiot (you can strike the "Maybe" from that sentence if you choose) but I didn't. So when it happened, you just absolutely had to feel for Dinara, who works and tries so hard. Some people may not care about work ethic but I do. It just bums me out to see her work so hard on the practice court only to find that she's not even close to being a force to be reckoned with.
And then there's Ana. My absolute favorite current tennis player. It's never really had anything to do with her tennis. Sure, that forehand (at least the one she used to hit in 2007) drew me in and forced me to take notice, but that's not why I'm a fan. I'm a fan because she seems like a genuinely good person. She works hard, she's honest, she just seems like a pretty normal human being.
Which is why last night's 36 63 10-8 loss to Makarova was so heartwrenching. On one hand, of course, I was completely devastated for her. She's never kept it a secret that she absolutely loved this Slam. It's her favorite one. And coming off her wins in Linz and Bali, she was raring to go in 2011. She played well at Hopman Cup, had a good time, and then, as luck would have it, she busted her gut. No Sydney for her but that was ok. She would heal up and be ready for her first rounder here in Melbourne.
For a set and a half it seemed as though all that turmoil could be put behind her. She played a fairly clean first set of tennis. Nothing spectacular, but then again, a "clean set" from Ana at this point was in and of itself "spectacular" given her slump. In Makarova's first two service games of the second set, Ana would have multiple break points that she couldn't convert. So of course, as it is in tennis, Makarova would get the break first and take the set. So on to the third.
I really don't know how to sum up the third set. Was it scintillating tennis? Nope. Was it crap tennis? Nope. As the set went on it became clear that the match was going to be decided on heart and guts. Who would be courageous at the right moments and who would be able to execute?
Ana saved five match points in that third set. And we're not talking about a MP here or there. At one point she was 0-40 and Makarova had triple MP. She fought. She battled back. She stepped up and hit some great shots to save those points. The two battled back and forth for over 90 minutes in that last set. Sitting in the stands I kept waiting for either Ana to crumble (she was serving from behind for most of the set) or Makarova to break (Ana kept fighting and saving MPs and BPs, you just had to think Makarova would blink). But neither did. They fought, they hit great shots, they hit shit shots, and after the dust cleared it was Makarova who who won the match on a winner.
And that was the scene at the net. Defeated, gutted, and on the verge of tears, Ana took the time to congratulate Makarova, and have some words at the net. Hell, to even manage a smile after that one was a Herculean effort in my eyes.
Seeing that display made it all seem, and I know it's a weird thing to say, worth it. It was just such a display of class and character and I was left standing there feeling pleased as punch that Ana was my kid. The loss was, no doubt, crushing. You can tell as much in her teary presser. But the fact is that Ana got beat, it was a well-played match, and Makarova absolutely hung in there and won it.
I'm an Ana Ivanovic fan. Super proud of it. And if that's what I take away from this match then that's a-ok with me.