With her back hurting and the fear of excruciating cramps playing on her mind, 23-year-old American Jamie Hampton battled on bravely against the world No. 1 Victoria Azarenka in the third round of the Australian Open on Saturday.
But in the end, Hampton, from Auburn, Ala., lost, 6-4, 4-6, 6-2.
Without the injury, there is every reason to believe Hampton could have pulled off a huge upset on Rod Laver Arena. She was playing Azarenka even before injury struck, forcing the Belarusian, who does not always react well to unexpected pressure, to look uncomfortable.
Having announced her intention of not buckling against her exalted opposition by fighting back from 1-5 to 4-5 in the first set, Hampton took charge of the match in the second. Time and again, she worked out her angles and left Azarenka standing as forehands flashed past her into an open court.
“She was hitting winners all over the place,” Azarenka said. “I was thinking maybe I should have a bad back.”
For Hampton, it was no laughing matter. The injury first flared up at the 2012 French Open when she was forced to default in the opening round.
“I probably shouldn’t be telling you this, but I have two herniated disks in my lower back,” said Hampton, who looked crushed in the post-match news conference. “I just try to manage it on court and slow down, take my time. I was more focused on the cramping part of it because I have gone into full body cramp before. It was very painful. I try my best but …”
The words trailed away, and it was obvious she was hurting from the realization that a great opportunity had been snatched from her grasp.
Hampton said that her serve was affected most, but her general movement as also hampered. She looked stiff throughout the third set after returning from a five-minute injury timeout in the locker room.
To the delight of an enthralled crowd, she began the third set by producing an amazing under-sliced drop shot from behind the baseline that had Azarenka lunging in vain for the return.
“I hit that shot a lot in practice,’ Hampson said, managing a smile. “And I hadn’t made a drop shot yet, so I was just trying to keep her on her toes.
“I went into the match with a lot of belief. I put in a lot of work in the off-season, so I was not surprised that I played well. I didn’t think I was going to lose.”
And she might not have had fate been kinder. But, providing the back problem does not become too debilitating, there is no question that Hampton can rise much higher than her current WTA ranking of 63.
Azarenka acknowledged being surprised at the standard of tennis Hampton produced.
“Yea, I think she surprised everybody a little bit today,” Azarenka said. “I didn’t really see her play before, but my coach watched and he said she didn’t play like that in the other matches he saw.
“She played really well. I felt like I started really well, then lost my concentration and lost my aggressivity and let her play.”
Afterward, there was a lot less drama as Serena Williams, sore ankle, fat lip and all, managed to get through a match without doing herself any further injury. Serena advanced to the fourth round by beating Japan’s Ayumi Morita, the 72nd-ranked player, 6-1, 6-3, in 1 hour, 6 minutes.
Former French and US Open champion Svetlana Kuznetsova needed almost twice that amount of time to defeat Spaniard Carla Suarez Navarro, 6-2, 4-6, 6-3.