In the hours and days following Marion Bartoli’s maiden Grand Slam win, pundits and commentators have been hard at work spinning the wheel of adjectives (if not euphemisms) to describe the Frenchwoman. “Quirky.” “Eccentric.” “Unique.” All of which are ways of dancing around the word one really wants to use when opining on the veteran top tenner: “weird.”
Compared to her WTA colleagues, it’s true: Marion Bartoli is weird. While her two-handed groundstrokes set her apart from the rest on a fundamental level, Bartoli has made a career of exaggerating the sport’s fundamentals. She takes dramatic practice cuts before kangaroo jumping her way into a widely open-stance return position. She winds up to serve in a hitch-filled motion that looks more like a manual flip book of what a serve is supposed to look like. She is very aware of her surroundings, acknowledging cheering fans with an emphatic fist pump of appreciation.
Even in the context of a tournament so full of surprises and early round upsets that Wimbledon itself was re-dubbed “Wimbleweird,” Bartoli managed to stand out. Though coming into what has been her best major tournament (reaching the finals in 2007), the Frenchwoman had suffered through a middling 2013 highlighted by her decision to extricate her father from his perennial position as her coach and confidante. While bigger names went out in her half of the draw, Bartoli continued to cruise, not only reaching the final without losing a set, but also doing so without facing a top 10 player.
Against prohibitive favorite Sabine Lisicki, Bartoli continued to “weird out” those in attendance. The German had taken out two of the top four seeds, and had won three of her four matches against the Frenchwoman (including a quarterfinal encounter at the All-England Club two years ago). Yet, Lisicki crumbled under the weight of expectation, and Bartoli steadied her own nerves to play with the enthusiastic poise that has seen her conquer multiple Slam champions and reigning World No. 1s throughout her career.
As she closed out victory with an ace and jubilantly skipped over to greet her supporters (including her father with her new hitting partner, Thomas Drouet), I began to wonder if the read on Bartoli was all wrong.
Maybe Marion is one of the normal ones.
As a player, what was weird about Bartoli, whose best results have come on grass, using her on-the-rise groundstrokes to overwhelm seven opponents en route to the title? As a person, shouldn’t the athlete who gracefully stalks about big stages seemingly immune to nerves and tension look more to viewers like the “weird” one?
In this way, Bartoli is the People’s Champion in more ways that one would think. Over the years, she has approached a game often played at immortal levels as methodically as she has uniquely, constantly trying new and better ways of competing with the game’s elite. What many deemed “rituals,” she has seen as formulas for success. Where she has shown fits of greatness, she has also shown human frailty as she struggled with various injuries that derailed potentially earlier title runs.
When she saw she could go no further with her father’s coaching earlier this year, she began opening up to other ideas, and even made amends with the French Federation after years of ostracism and alienation. Fed Cup Captain Amelie Mauresmo and teammate Kristina Mladenovic’s presence in Bartoli’s player box was proof that Bartoli had been warmly welcomed back into the fold.
With these changes came a dip in form; some may have thought her master plan had backfired, but Bartoli refused to buckle under the immediate consequences of major change. As she’s always done, she continued to work and fine-tune her team until they were as formulaic as her two-handed volleys.
In victory and in press, she was charming and unguarded, standing in stark contrast with the high-jumping cartoon character one sees between points. Her pure, unadulterated joy was very human, something we all could imagine feeling after reaching the precipice of our life’s purpose.
If there was anything “weird” about Marion Bartoli holding the Venus Rosewater Dish aloft, perhaps it had to do with the fact that, despite the changes in technology, the vast accumulation of natural (or superhuman) talent, even the steely nerves shown throughout the tennis world, a normal young woman can continue to grow, change and tinker with her game and rise to the pinnacle of her sport.
After all these years and compared to the surrounding names in the Wimbledon Compendium, Marion Bartoli may still be a “weirdo.” But her fortnight at the All-England Club proved that she was something more.
She’s one of us.
The morning after Wimbledon’s now-infamous “Black Wednesday” was a hazy time for most; fans and pundits were trying to come out from beneath the rubble left by the shocking number of upsets.
It is often said that exercise can help clear the mind and aid in decision-making. However, burning calories (as well as one’s own sense of dignity) with former World No. 2 and two-time Grand Slam finalist Vera Zvonareva did little to restore normalcy to an already-crazy week.
In a partnership with Fila, Zvonareva hosted a racquet sports oriented fitness class with Miami-based trainer Greg Corso in Manhattan, at the Upper East Side’s Sports Club LA. For the former Olympic Bronze medalist (and the group of reporters participating), the forty-five minute class was only a taste of the Russian’s off-court conditioning routine as she works towards a comeback from a shoulder injury.
“During the off-season, we train…probably four hours on the tennis court and at least two-three hours off the court,” Zvonareva remarked in a Q&A session following the class.
The course, held on the Sport Club’s roof, emphasized the importance of the full-body workout required by a professional athlete throughout the year. While most of the exercises were aerobic in nature, Corso and Zvonareva also made use of resistance bands and free-weights as heavy as ten pounds that morphed the burn into a small fire felt by the admittedly unprepared press core.
“To prevent [injuries], we do a full-body workout, but with lighter weights, with [exercise] bands just to keep ourselves conditioned.”
The workout was conceived with the help of videos taken during Zvonareva’s actual workouts with her coach, which adds a stamp of authenticity most fitness classes cannot boast.
“My job was to figure out how to adapt [those sessions] into a group exercise setting, with a big crowd and a limited space,” said Corso, who looked to the resistance bands (strapped to the ankles) as the key to making the class work for racquet-sport athletes who require practice with lateral movement.
Zvonareva agreed. “Using the bands helps a lot, because then you can do two steps, right/left, and you’re getting that movement that you want…you don’t need to run across the whole tennis court!”
The class required constant movement under the Manhattan sun, an essential feature for the athlete who will need to draw on that stamina over the course of a long tennis match.
“The thing about tennis is that you always have to give 100% every point, and it is very difficult because even if you’re tired, you still have to play the point at the professional level…you lose a couple of points, you lose your serve, you lose the game, it can cost you the whole match…[During this class], you have that hour but you have to keep pushing yourself.”
For the exhausted students, Zvonareva reminded us that it wasn’t always as effortless as she made the workout appear. On the exercise called the “Burpee,” she recalled, “I remember when I was 12 years old, my coach would do something like this and we were all dying…as soon as he turns away we’re like ‘stop it!’ It’s a very difficult one, but it helps a lot.”
The former Russian No. 1 has been off the court for nearly a year, last playing at the London Olympics. After getting surgery on her shoulder in February, she returned to school, and received a degree in International Economic Relations. She flew into New York the next day to conduct the class. Though looking in phenomenal shape, she admitted it was difficult to balance fitness with studying.
“I was studying so much that I had no energy to do fitness, it was so difficult for me…I was doing some, but not every day because once you start reading you keep going and going and it’s midnight already…when I’m playing tennis five hours a day, I still have energy to go and do fitness, but studying…it was so difficult!”
Keeping up with the Tour has been difficult for the college graduate, but she tries to keep in touch with friends like Elena Vesnina. For those wondering about that comeback, Zvonareva left the media in no suspense.
“I’m heading to Arizona, that’s where I will start my training. I’m meeting with my physiotherapist there and hopefully he will give me a green light to start training. I don’t know how long it will take but maybe three-four months before I can start playing at 100%.”
Zvonareva was a gracious host and encouraging teacher to her tired and, later, very sore students. The experience was a tremendous insight into the mind and work ethic of one of most disciplined and well-conditioned players on the WTA Tour, illustrating the key difference between “player” and “professional.”
Nearly a year removed from her championship run to the Wimbledon girl’s title, Canadian teenager Eugenie Bouchard has joined the WTA tour looking every bit the part of junior prodigy turned senior contender. Impeccably packaged, Bouchard is tall, blonde, and obviously styled to have a Sharapova-like serenity on the court.
But her “womanly bearing” can be deceiving, for despite all visual cues pointing to Bouchard’s readiness to play on the woman’s tour, the fact remains: she still plays a girl’s game.
Gone are the days when young talents like Tracy Austin and Martina Hingis can sweep onto the Tour and beguile older opponents with a mature cunning that belied their age. The grinding (but ultimately underpowered) game that works wonders on the contemporary junior circuit is too often in for a rude awakening when it tries to transition to the seniors.
Serving as a stark contrast, the WTA Tour has expanded from one-dimensional “Big Babe Tennis” into early ball striking with laser-like precision. Better technique paired with more forgiving technology has raised the collective margin of error, which allows big hitters to take more risk, and narrows openings for players like Bouchard, who prefer to rely on opponents’ errors.
As much as the women’s game has evolved in the last decade, expert defenders can still make their way through a field of lower-ranked players who beat themselves. At a Wimbledon warm-up in Birmingham, Bouchard drew one such “baseline basher” in Bojana Jovanovski. The Canadian must have liked her chances of causing a minor upset against the Serbian No. 3, who lacks a lengthy grass court resumé.
But Jovanovski had just come off of consecutive victories over former No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki. Despite the Dane’s fall from the top of the rankings (punctuated by a slump that saw her win only one match on red clay), she still plays the kind of game that could be kryptonite for the hyperagressive Serb. Wozniacki’s style of play, even at its worst, is Bouchard’s, only taken to the tenth power. Though similar at its core, Bouchard not only eschews most aggressive inclinations, but also lacks the kind of scrambling defense required to outlast players like Jovanovski.
That kind of perfect storm can have some unintentionally hilarious consequences.
After falling behind a set, Jovanovski began taking more and more advantage of the Canadian’s weak serve. By the end of the match, she was standing mere inches from the service line to crush returns and gain immediate ascendency. Bouchard was able to capitalize on enough Jovanovski errors to make games tight, but the match was always in the Serb’s hands. Though the Canadian had opportunities to level the third set, Jovanovski was able to suddenly end games at will, with winners that seemed to scream “Enough!” to both her young opponent and the crowd, who began to squirm out of sympathy for the overmatched Bouchard.
Jovanovski would end the titanic struggle anticlimactically with a 6-2 final set that was surprising in its efficiency. Far from a notorious closer, Jovanovski may have been allowed to flounder against a more game opponent, but Bouchard was in no position to make her opponent over-think things.
It may only be Bouchard’s first full year on the senior tour, but at 19, she is already older than other aforementioned “well-packaged prodigies.” As the Canadian inches into her twenties, it will only become more difficult for her to revamp her game, to “woman up” in order to compete with the game’s best. Not unlike Wozniacki, Bouchard looks built for aggression, but conversely looks less adept at retrieving compared to her Danish counterpart.
A loss like this may have come early enough to be a lesson, or perhaps an ultimatum: play a big girl’s game, or risk becoming a little girl lost.
One of my earliest tennis-related memories involves me truncating a fifth-grade journal entry to watch a night match during the 2002 US Open. At the bottom of the page, I wrote “CAPRIATI VS. MATTEK” in purple gel ink before apparently going off to watch then-top American Jennifer Capriati double-bagel a young Bethanie Mattek-Sands under the lights at Arthur Ashe Stadium.
I don’t recall anything from the match (least of all what the now-infamous fashion rebel was wearing), but looking back over the last decade, it was undoubtedly the last time the American veteran could be described as anything other than “memorable.”
In her early 20s, she turned the large shadow cast by compatriots like the Williams sisters and Davenport into a whacky sideshow act. Over the years, the WTA’s resident couture maven has played matches in leopard print, uneven sleeves, and knee socks (not to mention her signature eye black). Despite failing to rack up big wins in her early years on the Tour, she became a player who commanded attention in other ways, and her honest quirkiness ended up gaining her a cult following. Her showman-like style, however, belies a tidily efficient all-court game, honed by her frequent success in doubles. Where she may lack the wattage of her contemporaries, she nonetheless is more than capable of out-aggressing her peers by taking the ball on the rise and finishing off points at the net.
Looking to join the long roster of her generation’s late bloomers, Mattek-Sands hit her stride in 2011, reaching only her second Slam third-round, but arrived at Wimbledon two weeks later ranked in the top 32 at a major tournament for the first time in her career. Arriving to court in a tennis ball-embellished leather jacket designed by Alex Noble, Mattek-Sands let a three-set heartbreaker to Misaki Doi slip away; from there, the American went on a downward spiral of injuries and early losses. As recently as this January, the American was ranked outside the top 150.
Unbeknownst to many in the tennis world, what seemed like rock bottom for Mattek-Sands was the start of a truly inspiring comeback. Much like current ATP No. 1 Novak Djokovic, she discovered a host of food allergies were contributing to the fatigue she had been feeling last fall. Now carrying a trusty “Do Not Eat” list wherever she goes, Mattek-Sands has revolutionized her diet and fitness. The results were not too far behind. After making the finals of an International event in Kuala Lumpur, she turned things up a notch during the clay court season, the site of her triumphs from two years ago. Sporting a blue tint to her blonde hair, she recorded an emphatic victory over Sloane Stephens in Charleston and a dramatic three-set win over Sara Errani (last year’s French Open finalist) en route to the semifinals of Stuttgart, where she lost to Li Na.
Here in Paris, Mattek-Sands has already completed her career renaissance with revenge over 2011 French Open Champion Li and solid wins over competent clay courters in Lourdes Dominguez-Lino and Paula Ormaechea. Twice coming from a set down, the American has shown tremendous resilience and has translated her willingness to overcome adversity off the court to her matches. She will need all of that fight against the relentless Maria Kirilenko if she hopes to keep the run going and make her first major quarterfinal.
I think about my old journal when I think of Bethanie Mattek-Sands. Every entry was written in a different color of (glittery) ink and, lacking any air of pretension in its prose, its voice never took itself too seriously. But that journal was left unfinished. The best part about Mattek-Sands’s story is that, having already made up so much ground, she has the opportunity to go even farther, to rewrite pages that nobody ever thought would be written in the first place. No matter how or when this French Open chapter ends, Mattek-Sands has made it clear that her story is far from over.
Caroline Wozniacki won’t beat you with power.
She doesn’t have a booming serve to guarantee her easy points. She won’t intimidate you with her reckless aggression, nor will she take time away with forays to the net. Through her struggles during this year’s clay court season, it has become readily apparent that the source of the former No.1’s prior successes laid almost exclusively on one concept: belief.
Far from a simple “I think, therefore I am” scenario, the Dane’s belief was two-fold. For one, she believed in herself, in her fitness and consistency. An underrated athlete, Wozniacki could run all day, tracking down what would be a winner against any other player, and force her opponent to hit one extra ball. At her best, she did everything well which, against her more combustible rivals, was good enough to take her through most of the matches she played over the course of 18 months.
This leads to the second, more changeable part of Wozniacki’s sense of belief. She not only believed in her own ability, but she also believed in the inability of others. Though her opponents could hit more winners and endear crowds with their flashier styles, Caroline was consistent, maddeningly so. Even with her back against the wall, she was content to keep grinding until she had worn her opponents down into a pile of frustration over what appeared to be wasted opportunities.
When trying to fend off the criticism she faced as a Slamless No. 1, Wozniacki once quipped, “if I don’t have a weapon, then what do the others have? Since I’m No. 1, I must do something right. I think they’re not actually criticizing me. I think the other players should be offended.”
To a large degree, that was true. More often than not, Wozniacki figuratively (and literally) put the ball in her opponent’s court, seemingly begging them to put away the high ball she would plant in the middle of the court. Time and again, however, the big hitters missed that ball at a match’s most crucial junctures. They would get overexcited, they would get nervous, they would get tentative. Either way, they would hit the ball out and Wozniacki would go on to win the match.
But in the last year, something changed. The big hitters stopped missing. They began to grow in their own belief, chipping away at Caroline’s confidence in the process and causing her game to regress as a result. Now lacking her once unshakable on-court calm, she still goes for as much (or as little) as ever, but the errors have begun to pile up, allowing players like Bojana Jovanovski leverage to borrow against her own blistering groundstrokes.
Against this compromised version of Wozniacki, more risk pays off. Locked in a first set tiebreaker, the young Serb played emphatic tennis, with five of her seven points ending on a winner. Jovanovski parlayed this momentum into a 3-0 lead in the second set, and even had two chances for a double break.
For a moment, though, it still looked like Wozniacki maintained a degree of mental ascendency over her competition. She steadied her game and made Jovanovski think about that which she was on the verge of doing: beating a top 10 player at a major tournament. Even as Jovanovski took the lead again, there were questions about whether the more mentally fragile Serb could close the deal as she served for the match. More surprising than the upset itself, Jovanovski played a calm, drama-free game to serve out the match to 15, ending Wozniacki’s clay court season with an abysmal 3-5 record (including her two wins on Charleston’s green clay).
There will be those who will look to Wozniacki’s shaken confidence as the sole contributor to a loss like this, but attention must be equally paid to the young woman who followed up a nail-biter of a win over Wozniacki in Rome with a decisive victory in Paris. The Dane is not playing with the same ruthless efficiency of two years ago, but the ball was as much in Jovanovski’s court as ever. Perhaps sick and tired of missing when it mattered most, the unseeded Serb got out of her head and bundled the struggling Wozniacki out of the tournament. For Wozniacki, there is an air of tragic irony to lose in this way. After all, it wasn’t about Jovanovski’s ability to hit her opponent off the court.
It was that Jovanovski believed she could.
At the start of every major tournament, a draw of 128 randomly placed names can be daunting to even the most experienced of tennis fans. It helps to know how to separate the melting pot of names into three categories, thereby organizing them by expectation.
The favorites and the also-rans make up the extreme ends of this three-tiered cake gauging Slam success. The favorites, small in number, backload the pressure they might feel if they enter the event with sufficient confidence in the belief that they will have to eventually defeat a co-favorite for the title.
The also-rans make up the majority of the draw, though most will be gone within the first few days of any given event. Free from expectation of any kind, winning seven matches in two weeks is rarely on the menu for this kind of player, but that freedom can catalyze a good story and an even better run if things go right early on.
As in tennis draws as in families, the middle tier is where a tournament experiences most of its angst. Occupying a space just above the also-rans (but significantly below the favorites) the darkhorses arguably have the most pressure from the get-go, as by definition these are the players tagged to do that which often contradicts their ranking or prior results. However, if they can get on a roll, that seemingly insurmountable weight of expectation lifts with each match won, and finds itself more and more on the favorites’ shoulders, whose mettle will finally be tested after a week-long warm-up.
The best part about the early rounds of a Slam, then, is getting to see all three kinds of player compete not only at once, but against one another, and how each deal with the presence (or lack) of expectation.
One potential darkhorse who appeared not ready for primetime in Paris was German sensation Julia Goerges. The former Stuttgart champion, tapped by many as a legitimate contender for the title in 2011, has been struggling with bouts of dizziness and a GI illness, both of which hampered her progress throughout the clay court season. Faced with the opportunity to play an unranked veteran in the first round, Goerges must have liked her chances despite the cloud of misfortune that had followed her into the event.
But Zuzana Kucova had other ideas. Playing Roland Garros as a way of saying goodbye to tennis (the 30-year-old Slovak plans to retire by tournament’s end), Kucova played inspired tennis, first to out-gut Goerges in an extended first set tiebreak, then to bagel the German, who failed to find much of a rhythm on her extreme-gripped forehand. In her last tournament, Kucova finds herself in the second round of a Slam main draw for the first time, and while the win hardly elevates her to “darkhorse,” it makes for a great story, and what makes the Grand Slams so special.
Another player exhibiting few signs of pressure was defending champion and second-favorite to repeat (behind nemesis Serena Williams) was Maria Sharapova. Playing a similar warm-up schedule to last year, the Russian has felt at home on the terre battue in the last few years in a way that feels both shocking and refreshing. Once a “cow on ice,” Sharapova has conquered a surface that once gave her fits. If the draw suddenly lacked Williams, she would be the overwhelming favorite to defend the title that earned her the career Slam a year ago.
The American’s presence in the draw serves two purposes for Sharapova. While it decreases her eventual odds of winning, the accompanying decrease in expectation frees her up to play (dare I say it?) Kucova-like tennis. Against a familiar opponent in Hsieh Su-Wei, Sharapova played a perfect match, holding serve throughout, cracking more winners than errors, and led the star from Chinese Taipei in all stats except double faults; in what was the biggest upset of the day, Sharapova served none.
For all of the “feel good” stories a Slam brings, however, there must always be some element of tragedy. Such was the case for two darkhorses, Carla Suarez Navarro and Simona Halep. Both had fantastic results coming into Paris, the former with a run to the finals of Oeiras and the quarterfinals in Rome. By contrast, Halep had saved all of her magic for the Foro Italico where, as a qualifier, she stunned three current and former top 2 players (Kuznetsova, Radwanska, Jankovic) to reach the semifinals. Both were expected to do big things at the second Slam of the year provided, of course, one defeated the other in their first round match.
In what was ultimately the bad luck of the draw, the two darkhorses came out on a non-televised court, played three sets of high quality tennis (both hit more than 20 and less than 30 errors over three sets), only for Halep to find herself on the losing end of the tussle. Suarez Navarro evidently played stunningly perfect clay court tennis, but sympathy must lie with the Romanian who, on Day 2 of Roland Garros, is out of a tournament where she was expected to do well with nothing tangible to show for it.
This dynamic of favorites, darkhorses and also-rans may seem complicated, but how all three forces come together over a two week span is what gives a Grand Slam tournament much of its “epic” qualities. While the field may decrease with each passing day, the three tiers of triumph help serve both dramatic tennis and compelling stories.
Tennis is a cruel sport.
A seemingly endless grind, a single season spans nearly ten months across six continents. Where athletes on team sports sign contracts guaranteeing a paycheck, the math is much simpler for a tennis player. Win, and collect ranking points and prize money. Lose, and be content with the minimum of each.
With no solid foundation, a player cannot afford to risk bouts of injury or apathy, lest she forfeit the chance to put her hand in that elusive pot restricted to the game’s elite. One-namers like Serena, Venus and Maria have paid their dues as multiple Slam champions and ambassadors to the sport. If ever they suffer a prolonged absence from the game, the Tour is only too obliged to make their return as seamless as their reign atop the rankings had been.
Where, then, does that leave the game’s more temporal stars, the ones who are “good for tennis,” but not necessary to the sport’s survival? The ones who maintain the backbone of the Tour for a decade or better, and even indulge in a little glory hunting of their own, only to find the twilight of their careers colder than expected?
Such seems to be the case as the WTA event in Rome wraps up its first day of main draw play. Two former French Open champions, Francesca Schiavone and Svetlana Kuznetsova, both suffered brutal losses of the emphatic variety. The hometown favorite Schiavone got out to an early lead against Dutchwoman Kiki Bertens only to fade after losing the opening set in a tiebreaker. To say Kuznetsova lost today would imply that she showed up in the first place; facing a junior French Open champ in Simona Halep, the Russian paled against her undersized Romanian opponent, winning only two games in a little over an hour.
Was it really two years ago that these two women played what is easily regarded as one of the best Slam encounters of the decade (if not the Open Era)? Late into the night on Hisense Arena, the veterans played nearly five hours of physical and gutsy tennis for a spot in the Australian Open quarterfinals. The see-sawing nature of the match had little to do with mental lapses or painful chokes; instead, match points were saved with stunning winners that often punctuated arduous rallies. When Schiavone, once deemed a fluke Slam champion for her run at the French Open, put away the overhead to seal a 16-14 final set, she had clinched the No. 4 ranking.
Now, with both women likely to be unseeded heading into the season’s second Slam, such a monumental night must feel like a funny memory. The Italian star had a second romp to the French Open final later in 2011. Since then, it has been a slow, painful decline in both form and motivation. Kuznetsova’s struggles have been perhaps longer, as she has attempted to make 2013 the year she comes back from a long injury layoff that saw her miss the entire second half of 2012.
But where Sharapova and the Williamses were given wildcards to tournaments in which their injury-affected rankings could no longer allow them, Kuznetsova hasn’t benefited from the same patrons. The two-time Slam champion (and former World No. 2) was forced to play qualifying into the Premier event in Dubai earlier this year, and was afforded no special seeding in Australia, where she made an improbable run to the quarterfinals.
It cannot be said that either Kuznetsova or even Schiavone fail to provide the same level of entertainment as their more illustrious peers. With flashy games and flashier personalities, both were much loved when they were stalwarts of the sport’s upper echelon, and continued to be looked on affectionately by journalists and die-hard fans alike, even as their careers appear to be entering their final chapters. Yet the odds are fair that Kuznetsova/Schiavone, once a blockbuster second week match-up, could be a first round match far from Court Philippe Chatrier.
We often don’t know what we’ve got until they’re gone, but while neither woman’s results have warranted real shake-ups in the seedings, the question of respect to worthy champions and war-weary veterans remains.
In a heated debate between parent and child, many a tiger mother has resorted to an ominous prediction in her rhetoric: “Wait until you have children; then you will understand.” It is a common adage heard in American households, but it feels strangely applicable as former champion Martina Hingis begins the European clay court swing, not as a player, but as Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova’s new coach.
Ostensibly an odd pairing, there has been little in the young Russian’s career to make one draw comparisons to the “Swiss Miss.” Where Hingis arguably peaked before age 20, Pavlyuchenkova’s career has been defined by fits and starts; her 2013 resumé alone boasts two titles, one final and a whopping seven opening round losses. From the age of two, the five-time Slam champion was coached almost exclusively by her mother, Melanie Molitor, a former player from the Czech Republic who had named her daughter after national hero, Martina Navratilova.
By contrast, Pavlyuchenkova has gone through a bevy of coaching situations in the constant effort to tweak her game to be more reliable. In the last year, she finally returned to the Mouratoglou Academy (home to Serena Williams, Jeremy Chardy, and Yulia Putintseva), and cemented her partnership with Academy coach Hingis last week during the International event in Oeiras.
Even on a fundamental level, Pavlyuchenkova represents much of what drove Hingis from the top of the sport in the early 2000s. The Swiss superstar relied on guile and cunning to beat bigger, stronger opponents on a weekly basis, but even that was often not enough to compensate for her underpowered game. Pavlyuchenkova? She has enough stored-up power to keep the lights on at any stadium she plays. She may as well consider “tactics” a four letter word, as all of her biggest victories were moments when she bashed down the door with relentless efficiency. Ten years ago, that might have been enough to take the Russian to several Slam titles already.
But today, the most successful players combine brains and brawn, and those who rely too heavily on one or the other find themselves flattened by more complete players.
On some level, Hingis must feel relieved that, to a certain degree, that which Pavlyuchenkova lacks can be taught. As she herself learned the hard way, height and strength is not something one can glean from a couple of days on the practice court. But the two do appear to share a certain stubbornness that might make this arrangement more trouble than it’s worth.
From a pundit’s perspective, it looked like there was plenty Hingis could have done to compete with the changing Tour, from developing a faster serve, to ending her mother/coach relationship and improving her perceived lack of superhuman fitness. But as Hingis infamously said, she was a “player, not a worker.” She was content to make the best of her natural gifts and use them to hide her weaknesses for as long as she could.
Pavlyuchenkova, too, has sometimes bristled at the idea of improving. Despite lacking much of Hingis’s immediate Tour success, the Russian seemed in no rush to build on her emphatic run to the 2009 Indian Wells semifinals, and while she has made two Slam quarterfinals since then, her ranking has stalled outside the top 10, and both her fitness and consistency have left much to be desired.
Though she may blanch at the notion, Martina has become her mother. Once a player, she is now forced as coach to watch from the stands and hope that her charge is employing the techniques they discussed in practice. But after playing nearly two decades one way, how quickly will Pavlyuchenkova be able to find the balance between “brainless ballbasher” and “technical tactician?” How many matches is she willing to lose playing the right way instead of winning playing the wrong way? At least neither have to deal with the all-too-complex parent/child dynamic.
After all, Pavlyuchenkova’s coach isn’t “mom,” she’s “Martina Hingis.”
If a match is played on a side court and no one is around to watch it, does the result matter?
British sensation Laura Robson would prefer they didn’t, but a sub-par American hard court season following the Australian Open has shown few signs of letting up as the Tour transitions to European red clay. Robson had been amassing a coterie of big match wins, most recently a gutsy (if aesthetically displeasing) win over Petra Kvitova in Melbourne. But the losses for the young Brit have begun to pile up in quickly, as she has failed to win two consecutive matches since January. Off the court, times have been equally trying for the teenager, who suffered the theft of her jewelry and, after an incident of cyber-bullying following a loss to Yulia Putintseva in Dubai, a brief deactivation of her twitter account.
The former Wimbledon girls’ champion may be one of the last true tennis prodigies; she won her home Slam at the age of 14, famously inviting Marat Safin to accompany her to the Champion’s Ball. Reaching two more junior finals after that, Robson was under a microscope for most of her junior development. Making the transition to the senior tour, Robson showed promise when she reached the Hopman Cup finals with compatriot Andy Murray in 2011 and won the silver medal in at the Olympic mixed doubles event last summer.
But it was her summer hard court swing last year that truly turned heads; not long after hiring the controversial Zeljko Krajan (former coach of Dinara Safina and Dominika Cibulkova), Robson made a splash at the US Open, ending Kim Clijsters’ singles career in emphatic fashion and following that up with a decisive win over an in-form Li Na. In the fall, she continued to impress with a run to the finals of Guangzhou and it seemed she was coming into her own as 2013 got underway with the aforementioned Kvitova victory.
From that steady progress, it would appear Robson has done a complete about-face, but what has caused this slump? Unlike rival Sloane Stephens, who endured an uncomfortable homecoming after her Australian Open heroics, Robson has been decidedly under the radar, starting (and swiftly ending) most tournaments away from the glare of a TV camera.
Though a tennis match has few literary properties, that stops a precious few of us from analyzing them as if they were texts (the day a win or a loss means nothing more than a strict binary is the day journalism dies). A cursory look at Robson’s results reveal a string of five three-set losses, four 6-1 final sets, and three losses from a set up. Robson’s apparent inability to close ostensibly winnable matches against players outside the top 30 is startling given both her talent and the matches that made her relevant.
An even closer look, this time at the stats of Robson’s losses, most recently a two-set defeat to Japan’s Ayumi Morita, shows an ever-increasing amount of double faults (she served 10 against Morita). Coach Krajan’s former students had their own histories of serving woes before hiring the Croatian former pro, but his habit of tweaking his charges’ serve motions to be more side-arm have often done more harm than good, Robson appearing the latest victim of “the yips.”
Now playing in Europe for the first time since asserting her presence among the Tour’s upper echelon, the roles between Stephens and Robson will reverse; playing away from home, the young American will have a chance to work out her shaken confidence on both a surface she prefers and those outer courts Robson has called home for much of the season. By contrast, Robson, who probably anticipated making more inroads on a faster surface, will be asked to play under increasing scrutiny leading up to Wimbledon, literally a stone’s throw from her actual home.
How either player copes with the change of scenery cannot yet be predicted, but at least for Robson, the troubling start to the clay season may mean it gets worse before it gets better.