Another clay court match, another difficult loss for Sabine Lisicki. Her clay season has started just as her season started on hard courts, with a 0-3 record. Sabine lost in Brisbane, Sydney, and at the Australian Open before picking up a win in Dubai against Monica Niculescu to end her three match losing streak at the start of the year. She’s now matched that 0-3 record to start her clay season, after a first round loss to Coco Vandeweghe in Madrid.
The match against Vandeweghe wasn’t streamed, so it’s difficult to understand what completely happened, but having followed most of the match, I know what happened score-wise. It was a match dominated by the server. There were only two breaks in the first 29 service games. Sabine didn’t get broken until her 15th service game at 4-4 in the third set. Coco only got broken twice up until that point of the match, both coming in the second set that Sabine won 6-3. It was a different story the last four games though, with the server being broken three times. Sabine got broken at 4-4 and 5-5, while Coco got broken at 5-4, before serving the match out at 6-5.
Having held her first fourteen games, Sabine was in control of her service games. Sabine held serve in some spots she usually doesn’t too. After she got the break for 4-3 in the second set, she was able to consolidate, saving a break point in the process, the only one she faced in the set. Another spot Sabine held, which she usually struggles with, was when she served first to start the third set after having won the second set. It may have been Sabine’s best serving day ever. It didn’t matter on this day though.
It’s a difficult loss because it felt like Sabine had all the momentum a few different times in the match and wasn’t able to win. In the first set Sabine saved six break points, including three at 4-4, 0-40. Despite saving the break points, she was unable to keep it up in the tiebreak, losing the last four points after they changed ends at 3-3. Sabine seemed to have the momentum after winning the second set too. Coco had to take a medical timeout after the second set for a wrist injury, contributing to the momentum. It felt like everything was going Sabine’s way. She was holding serve fine and in most of Coco’s service games early in the third set. Not being able to convert on break points was her undoing. Sabine saved all seven of the break points she faced in the first two sets. She was unable to do that in the third set though, losing both of the break points she faced. Meanwhile, Coco saved 5 of 6 break points in the final set. Sabine had chances to get up a break, but was unable to convert them and it was costly.
It all adds up to Sabine’s fourth consecutive loss. There’s something significant about those four losses though. Something noteworthy happened in all four. There was of course the other loss was a double bagel to Diyas in Stuttgart. But the others were all close. In two of the matches, Sabine won more points than her opponent. She won five more points than Serena when she lost to her in Miami. The same was true today. Sabine won six more points than Coco. She was up a match point against Pavlyuchenkova in Fed Cup. Arguably, Sabine could’ve won all three of those matches. Losing close set tiebreaks was the difference in all three.
There seems to be one constant happening in many of Sabine’s losses. It’s becoming overly apparent and depressing. She finds a way to lose matches from winning positions. Let’s look at this season for examples of this. It started with a loss in Brisbane to Shvedova when Sabine bagelled her in the first set. Then in Sydney, she served for the match against CSN, before getting broken and losing a third set tiebreaker. At the Australian Open, Sabine was up a set and had double break points to serve for the match against Mladenovic. She didn’t get the break, got broken to lose the set, and lost easily in the third. Sabine lost another couple of close matches to BZS and Dulgheru by scorelines of 7-5, 6-4 and 6-4, 7-5, respectively. Against Jankovic in Indian Wells, Sabine was up a set and a break before losing 10 of the last 11 games to lose the match. Against Serena in Miami, Sabine had a set point in the first set and lost the set. She had a match point against Pavlyuchenkova in Fed Cup. Now yet another close loss this season. This time at the hands of Coco Vandeweghe.
In fairness to Sabine, she has won some very close matches as well. In Indian Wells, Sabine was able to squeeze out her opening match against Roberta Vinci by a score of 6-4 in the third set. A few rounds later, she was able to save three match points before beating Flavia Pennetta in a third set tiebreaker. In Miami, she won her opening match, just as she did in Indian Wells, by taking the third set, 6-4, this time against Julia Goerges. The following round, Sabine won two close sets against Ana Ivanovic. She’s been able to win these sets and matches, but just not as frequently as she seems to lose them.
Listing those out, there’s something that strikes me. Most of the matches Sabine’s losing to are mostly to players ranked much worse than her, while the ones she’s winning are mostly to proven players. Perhaps she gets more nervous playing the players that aren’t as proven. There’s something I noticed in making highlights of Sabine’s matches that I think may be more telling than who’s she playing, as to why she’s unable to win these type of matches and sets more frequently.
The highlights I most recently made were from Sabine’s match vs Serena in Miami. I noticed on the big points how Serena seemed to bear down and become focused on not allowing Sabine back into the match. Sabine got to 30-30 and deuce many times in the third set, but every time Serena came up with the goods, and wouldn’t even let Sabine a look at a break point. She’s the number one player in the world and maybe the best ever, so it’s hard to compare her to someone who’s never spent a week in the top 10, but it shows the difference between Serena and everyone else. She has the BELIEF that when the moments get tough, she will still be able to find the shots to win the points and matches. And she does.
Sabine on the other hand doesn’t have the belief. When moments get tough, she’s unable to produce her best tennis as consistently. She doesn’t believe she will win. The way one can tell that is the way she loses those crucial points. She’s not going for it in those positions. She’s not confident. Her misses more often are from obvious nerves, rather than going for her shots and missing. That’s not to take anything away from Sabine though. It’s tough to be brave in those moments. I’d probably be just as nervous, if not more so, in those positions. But I’m just trying to shed some light on why losses like the one she experienced to Coco seem to happen so often. After experiencing so many losses like this one in 2015 and throughout the years following her, it’s starting to get excruciating to take after each one. Perhaps after the next tough loss, we’ll think of how she played in the big moments and will realize she didn’t deserve to be the victor on that day.