This post first appeared at Tennis Grandstand.
For those in the United States, “March Madness” is a household event. The umbrella term for the NCAA Division I Men’s and Women’s Basketball National Championship is the harbinger of spring and has risen to cult status across the country. The men’s tournament, which features 68 teams, has become one of the most popular annual sporting events in the United States. Fans began associating the term March Madness with the NCAA tournament in the early 1980s. During that time, perhaps the second most famous phrase associated with the NCAA National Championship was born.
The 1983 Wolfpack of North Carolina State University, led by head coach Jim Valvano, finished the regular season 17-10; the result was incredibly short of impressive. Throughout the postseason, Valvano knew his team would have a difficult task in front of them. “Survive and advance,” Valvano always said; he wanted his team to stay close in every game and put itself in a position to win at the end. The Wolfpack, the fourth seed, took their coach’s words to heart, perhaps too literally. They recorded a last-minute win against Wake Forest in the opening round of the ACC Tournament; the squad followed that up with an overtime win over No. 1 North Carolina in the semifinals and a three point win over No. 2 Virginia in the conference championship.
The team eventually won the national championship which is celebrated to this day as a victory for underdogs everywhere. As a result, Valano’s words have become the rallying cry for many teams during March Madness. Although the NCAA has trademarked the phrase, tennis also has its own version of March Madness every year. Outside of the Grand Slams, the back-to-back two week events in Indian Wells and Miami are the first big, combined ATP and WTA events of the year.
After stellar tennis from the California desert, the event in South Beach has been a bit of a dud. Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal didn’t make the trip to Miami. Some players, like Victoria Azarenka, Samantha Stosur and Stanislas Wawrinka, fell victim to injury. Others, like Juan Martin del Potro and Caroline Wozniacki, failed to build on final runs in Indian Wells and fell victim to early upsets. Novak Djokovic had some strong words for his fourth round upset loss to Tommy Haas, calling it “definitely the worst match I’ve played in a long time.”
And the rest? Well, let’s just say I wouldn’t be surprised if Jimmy V’s famous words are plastered on the walls of the locker room.
Serena Williams rallied from 6-2, 4-1 down in her fourth round match against Dominika Cibulkova to eventually prevail 2-6, 6-4, 6-2. The World No. 1 found herself in trouble for the second consecutive match in the quarterfinals; after winning the opening set against Li Na, Williams was down 5-2 in the second set before rallying to win in a tiebreak.
Agnieszka Radwanska, the defending champion, was dealt the most difficult hand when her draw came out. Radwanska rallied past Magdalena Rybarikova in nearly three hours in the third round, and was forced to rally from a set down against Sloane Stephens and Kirsten Flipkens in the fourth round and the quarterfinals. Against Flipkens, Radwanska singlehandedly paired tennis highlights with NCAA ones on the evening SportsCenter with the shot of the year so far.
Maria Sharapova, in the bottom half of the draw, probably benefitted the most from Azarenka’s injury withdrawal. Despite playing some vintage tennis to take home the trophy in Indian Wells, the Russian has been less than impressive this fortnight. She peaked in the quarterfinals and survived 14 double faults and over 50 unforced errors in a two-and-a-half hour, 7-5 7-5 win against Sara Errani. Nonetheless, she has not dropped a set in 2013.
Let’s not forget about Jelena Jankovic, long considered past her peak. In Miami, the Serb is NC State; she’s the underdog who’s dug deep to get this far. Jankovic trailed by a break in each of the three sets she played against Roberta Vinci in the quarterfinals, but rallied for the 6-4, 6-7(6), 6-3 victory. Her wins against Vinci and Nadia Petrova marked her first top 15 scalps in an age and a half.
While the tennis might not be pretty, wins are wins. The difference between those who remain and those who’ve gone home is huge; the former found ways to win. The goal for each and every player in tennis, like it is for each and every team in March Madness, is to get to the “business end” of the tournament and to have the opportunity to play for a title.
Their goal is to survive and advance.