Have you seen those mood rings that claim to change colour based on the mood of the person wearing them? On Friday, the entire air around Victoria Azarenka seemed like a mood ring.
When she started her third round match against Simona Halep, she looked purposeful and quietly determined " or as quietly determined as she could look anyway, amid her loud grunts on every shot. She was pushing Halep around with her superior offence, and was by far the more proactive player of the two. The weather conditions at that time mirrored her effervescent play; Centre Court was bathed in bright sunshine at the start of the match.
But in what could be construed as a sign of things to come, the crowd, after greeting the two players with appropriately exuberant roars on their arrival to the court, didn't seem particularly impressed by the tennis on show. The stadium was anyway merely half full, and the few people who were there weren't interested in making too much noise. Did they sense that this matchup wasn't going to deliver as per the expectations?
They were certainly on to something. After Azarenka got an early break to go up 3-1 in the first set, the quality of her play inexplicably plummeted. She gave the break back immediately, and then went on an error spree so disturbing that it made us fear for her well-being.
Azarenka made just about every kind of error that can be made in tennis. She double-faulted, missed routine groundstrokes, flubbed easy volleys, netted sitter putaways, and in general looked as removed from her usual consistent self as Bollywood star Salman Khan is from the intelligent cinema.
At the other end of the court, Halep was business-like and measured, like she always is. She knew she didn't have to do anything special while Azarenka was imploding, so she didn't try to. The Romanian just hit with depth and control, ensuring that she got everything back in play, waiting for the errors from Azarenka. And those errors came like clockwork.
By the end of the first set, Azarenka was still displaying her trademark intensity, but with an entirely negative tinge to it. She looked cranky and irritable, almost as though she couldn't believe how unjust the world was being to her. Right on cue, the weather in Wimbledon turned cloudy and grey; the bright sunshine from the start of the match had disappeared along with Azarenka's positive frame of mind.
The Belarusian showed a slight improvement in the second set, even if the score doesn't suggest so. She regained a bit of control over her groundstrokes, and even had a break point in the early going. But that's when Halep chose to remind us that she's a champion in her own right, and can dominate even when her opponent isn't donating errors by the dozen.
In that crucial game at 1-1, the Romanian wasn't just a fortunate bystander anymore. With the very real threat of an Azarenka comeback upon her, Halep started taking charge of the rallies and asserting her own offensive firepower. Midway through the game, she gave Azarenka the full runaround, tugging her from side to side and back to front before finishing with a stunning backhand down the line winner.
That shot " the down-the-line backhand " was essentially what separated the two women on Friday. Both Halep and Azarenka are famed for the strength of their backhands, but on this day only Halep hit it with anything resembling precision. Azarenka on the other hand simply couldn't find the court with it; she hit it long, hit it into the net, and hit it without conviction. It was no wonder she could never quite regain a foothold in the match after giving up that break advantage early on.
The second set finished in the same despondent fashion for Azarenka as the first. Her grunts became quieter, and even the crowd didn't seem interested in giving her any encouragement. When match point was done with, Halep soaked in the polite applause while Azarenka retreated as though she was going into exile.
"I think (it) was my best match this year," Halep said later. "I played really well." You have to be playing 'really well' to defeat a two-time Grand Slam champion for the loss of just four games. No matter how error-prone Azarenka was, Halep's steadiness deserves full credit. She never gave the Belarusian a chance to get back into the match, and ensured that there were no hiccups while closing it out.
As for Azarenka, she carried her gloomy outlook into the press conference too; her first couple of answers were spoken in such a soft voice that they were barely audible. She muttered something about not deserving to win after missing shots while being a metre away from the net, and when asked why exactly she missed so many, she refused to commit. "No excuses," she whispered.
That wasn't the worst way to deal with the question though, and Azarenka grew noticeably more assured after that. Steve Tignor had once said that press conferences can be like therapy sessions for defeated players; that seemed very much the case for Azarenka.
When asked what she thought about the bizarre unfairness of her draws since making a comeback, she said that that wasn't anything new for her; she believes she has always had tough draws right from the start of her career. "But what can I do about it? I'm not making the draw, so¦"
She then bristled at the question about the differences in scheduling for men and women, and made an impassioned cry for giving women's matches the same exposure as the men's. "The scheduling, there is a big inequality in that, the time slots. It has to be fixed.
"Give (women's tennis) 10 years of the same exposure and the same time slots as the men's gets, and then we will look at those (revenue) numbers and you tell me the difference, okay?"
That was more like the Azarenka we've known all these years. The woman who takes no prisoners, and who fights until there can be no further comebacks. As the last question of the day, I asked her whether she had any specific goals for the remainder of the year, in terms of ranking or particular tournaments.
"Yeah, try to win every single match I'm going to be playing is always the goal," she finished emphatically.
The mood had changed unmistakably from despondent to determined. If only that had happened during the match against Halep, and not an hour after it, the outcome could've been different.