Here in the vicinity of Frank Sinatra Drive and Bob Hope Drive, it has been Jenny Byrne’s week. At least so far.
The only person standing between Byrne and victory in the $250,000 Virginia Slims of Indian Wells is Manuela Maleeva, whose chance of winning was wrapped in ice Saturday afternoon.
The final that no one could have expected will take place today on the sun-baked Stadium Court at Hyatt Grand Champions.
Byrne got to the final with yet another upset victory, this one over Hana Mandlikova.
“I just didn’t have the sparkle,” Mandlikova said.
The snap and the crackle was supplied by Byrne, the 22-year-old Australian who had pop in her racket. Byrne survived a set point when Mandlikova inexplicably fanned on a service return.
“She really missed an opportunity there,” said Byrne, who then moved on easily to post a 7-6, 6-3 victory.
Byrne wore a paisley headband in her match, but it was hardly the most impressive accessory of the day. That honor clearly belonged to Maleeva.
After twisting her left ankle in Friday’s match against Catarina Lindqvist, Maleeva spent a restless night, with her foot elevated and resting on a pillow and encased in an air cast.
She then had the ankle wrapped with tape for her semifinal match against Helena Sukova, a match she briefly considered defaulting.
Good thing she didn’t.
Maleeva fell behind, 0-2, in the first set, then won six straight games and went on to a remarkable 6-2, 6-4 victory over the tournament’s second-seeded player.
Afterward, her ankle in ice, Maleeva said she thinks Sukova might have spent too much time worrying about the ankle.
“I heard before the match that people were saying I might have to default, and I think she was not prepared for me to be running as well as I did,” Maleeva said.
After losing the first two games, Maleeva was worried and began talking to herself.
“I was hoping that she was not going to make a joke of me on the court,” Maleeva said. “I said I hope I’m not going to get killed.”
But it was Sukova who fell apart.
Sukova, who played listlessly, was not nearly as sharp as she had been in her other matches. She tried to exploit Maleeva’s ankle injury early in the match, but her strategy did not work.
For example, at 1-2 in the first set on game point, Maleeva chased down a drop shot and stroked a forehand winner crosscourt.
Later, on consecutive points, Sukova tried to use touch and hit backhand drop shots from the baseline. She sent both into the net.
Once Maleeva’s lead had grown to 5-2, something unexpected happened: She stopped limping.
All this made Sukova wonder if Maleeva’s ankle was really that badly injured.
“Maybe I was thinking too much about her ankle and whether she would be able to run,” Sukova said. “It obviously wasn’t that bad.
“But I was just too slow, a half a step behind all day. I couldn’t ask for any more chances than I had. I am just disappointed that I did not take them.”
Maleeva said that by the second set she was so into the match that she had forgotten about her ankle. Before that though, all Maleeva could do was think about it.
“It was taped so tight, I could not sprain it again, so I just had to stand the pain,” she said.
It’s been a long week for Byrne, who had to win three qualifying matches just to reach the main draw. But it’s also been a good week.
In fact, it’s been her best. Byrne said she has never played better.
“I think it just comes down to the fact that I believe I can win the matches,” she said. “I doesn’t come as a major surprise to me.”