As I watched Serena Williams take on Johanna Larsson during last weekend’s USA/Sweden Fed Cup tie, I will admit I was surprised by the level of her intensity. Given where she was, playing a relegation rubber in front of a rain-affected crowd, it seemed – how does one put this? – out of character.
Surely, I jest. Anyone who has watched even a smattering of tennis in the last decade can attest to the intensity this living legend possesses. Such intensity almost single-handedly took her to the pinnacle of the sport and helped her through the darker days, both on and off the court. It never mattered her shape, scoreline, or state of mind. It mattered even less who was across the net, be she rival or sister, Venus. In a game where many have been lambasted for their lack of mental toughness, Serena was the WTA’s rock, who relied on her relentless intensity and competitive fire to finish off many a tough match.
How has she been able to do these incredible things for so long? It could be said that what has kept her at the top of the sport for nearly 15 years has been what could be deemed an “economy of intensity.” Williams has made a career out of bringing her best when it matters the most. Arguably our sport’s biggest star (at least in North America), she shapes her seasons around the Slams, peaking at the right time during those all-important two week stretches.
This extreme prioritizing has all but cemented her place in history, but often created a few problems for her in the present. Those who tuned in solely during the Grand Slams (or even those with a more comprehensive view of the sport) would see the most dominant player in the game ranked outside the top 3 and wonder “why?” A cursory glance at her results outside of the Slams would reveal a fair share of no-shows (she essentially took herself out of the race for year-end No. 1 when she withdrew from the Fall Asian swing) and shocking losses (Austrian journeywoman Sybille Bammer retired in 2011 undefeated against her).
A desire to explain this vast incongruity shifted the blame from her comparative lack of focus on a smaller stage to a lack of commitment to be a full-time tennis player. This truism dates back to 2006, when Chris Evert took to Tennis Magazine to write an open letter to Williams questioning her desire. At that point, she had won seven major singles titles, yet at the time, the tennis world felt gypped, and that Serena still had something to prove.
For all she has accomplished since then, it has been difficult for Serena to shake that stick.
Yet, for any of us to fall back on this notion is to ignore this latest incarnation of Serena Williams. The veteran of 30 who fought off a toe injury that led to a pulmonary embolism only to find herself back at No. 1 two years later. The woman who shed tears after her first Wimbledon match after that lay-off, and again when she was told of her return to the top of the rankings in Doha.
What more does she need to do to prove how much she wants to be here?
Against Larsson, she celebrated her good play, admonished herself for her errors, and was jubilant in a victory that tied the US with Sweden at one match apiece. We have been so conditioned to expect a flat, even blasé Serena show up on a smaller stage that this “new” Serena continues to shock us. But should we really be so surprised? When we remember who she is, what she’s been through, her love for the game is suddenly apparent. And after 15 years, the sport should be grateful that that love is stronger than ever.
The WTA season is long and often grueling, as much for the spectators as the players. Where a player need only worry about winning or losing, those viewing and analyzing the sport are left the unenviable task of pondering what it all means. How is the Tour’s greater narrative being propelled vis-à-vis this match, this rivalry, this first serve percentage?
So one could imagine the relief one feels as the Tour rolls into stops like Katowice, International events where the fields are smaller, the stakes are lower, and one can sit back and actually enjoy the tennis. Thanks to the WTA’s Roadmap format, which allows only a smattering of its marquee names at each of these tournaments, the Tour has struck an interesting balance between big names and quality entertainment. For those moved to tune in, the motto seems to be, “Come for the best, stay for the rest.”
The promise of seeing top 10-ers like Petra Kvitova play events they seem all but assured of winning is enough for casual fans to fire up a stream and watch a familiar player in her comfort zone. For the diehards, it is a rare opportunity to see the spotlight shown on how the other half of the WTA Tour lives. Names we see perennially peppered into draws of 128 are finally matched with faces because –surprise!– they’re your Katowice quarterfinalists! Players who are sullen as they take quiet beatings from big names have the chance to be effusive in victory. The stakes may be lower for the viewer, but for those unseeded and looming, it might be the peak of their year.
Yet, much like viewing a Jacob Riis photo, your standard International match might be met with some shock. The player whose screen time is reduced to homemade YouTube clips is suddenly on Center Court, and sometimes fans don’t like what they see (or hear). Those who tuned into Katowice became intimately acquainted with Alexandra Cadantu, one of the lesser-known members of the burgeoning Romanian contingent. Perhaps best known for her double-bagel loss to eventual champion Maria Sharapova at Roland Garros, Cadantu arrived in Poland with admirable International-level credentials, that most recently included a run to the quarterfinals of Bogota. As a qualifier, she took out the struggling Sabine Lisicki and two countrywomen to book a quarterfinal meeting with the resurgent Shahar Peer. The Israeli star, once a handful of matches from the top 10 in 2011, has tumbled from her position of promise to the point where her and Cadantu, both outside the top 100, were essentially equals.
As equals, Cadantu and Peer played one of those backyard brawler matches that is rarely afforded a TV court. The biting, scratching and clawing done with racquet and ball was a stark reminder to viewers that we had left the serene gardens of Indian Wells and were far from the peaceful lawns of Wimbledon. In one of those matches destined to go the distance, it was clear that the two were not in the position to take losing lightly. This was a match that would not be decided by stunning winners or shot-making; it would be one fully determinant on grit and nerves.
Those nerves became more apparent when Cadantu got out to an early lead in the third. Her “Haide!” (Romanian for “Come on!”) celebrations became more vocal when a point would end in her favor. Commentators called it hindrance while fans called it classless. Whatever you call it, it was obviously irritating Peer, who attempted verbal retaliation of her own and even clawed back to level terms. But Cadantu would not be stopped. The Romanian who, against Sharapova, appeared weaponless and ineffective, was able to show off her scrappy resilience against a less powerful Peer, who appeared to fade as the match reached its conclusion.
Those offended by Cadantu’s perceived antics were likely glad to see the comeuppance the Romanian received from Petra Kvitova in the next round. But do we have the right to such moral indignation? With her run to the semifinals, Cadantu rose up to No. 95, hardly threatening the top 80, let alone top 50. Far from a more illustrious court where players like Kvitova herself engage in shockingly loud celebrations, Alexandra Cadantu was in Katowice where, for a brief moment, she gets to be the story, the star. It may have not been Parisian dirt, but for the Romanian (and those like her), these International events are, and can be, paradise.
In the immediate aftermath of any match, circumstances (both external and internal) are analyzed to the point where nearly all results would appear to warrant an asterisk.
This player was injured. That player was tired. His ranking was too high. Her ranking was too low.
Valid as they may be, we eventually forget those excuses and move on to the next match with a simple truth: “a win is a win.” Except, of course, when history repeats itself, the analysis becomes the same, and excuses become battle cries.
Such has been the case for Jelena Jankovic. Once a World No. 1 and Grand Slam finalist, “JJ” had been in a prolonged slump for the better part of 18 months, one that seemed to stem from a complacency that grew into a crisis of confidence. A true offensive counterpuncher, Jankovic relied on a blend of relentless retrieving and smart shot selection to rise to the top of the rankings in 2008.
But after attempts to alter her game to become a Slam contender, her results dipped, and aside from a dramatic (and I do mean dramatic) run to the Cincinnati final in 2011, the Serb’s results have been subpar. The gameplan that seemed so clear during her mainstay among the game’s elite had become a mess of poor execution and shaky nerves. Unable to take advantage of even the kindest of draws, Jankovic was getting soundly beaten by big names and journey women alike.
Still, JJ made herself hard to forget. With her ready smile, unfiltered humor, and “glittery” fashion sense, Jankovic remained pseudo-relevant, even if (much to fans’ amusement) she skipped a tournament near her residence in Dubai to play a small clay event in Bogota.
Surely, this is where dreams of Slam trophies go to die.
JJ’s week in Colombia was hardly straightforward. But then, even at her peak, there was rarely a business-like air to her matches. Her strength was in her ability to get the job done week in, week out. If the process took longer, so what? A win is still a win, and at least it was a good story.
Unfortunately for Jankovic, one story has been haunting her during her apparent spring renaissance. She may be playing better, and her confidence may be growing, but the quality of opponents has rarely become more difficult than those she faced to win Bogota. En route to the semifinals of Miami, a Premier Mandatory event, she played two top 16 players before getting drubbed by old Bollettieri Academy rival Maria Sharapova. This week in Charleston, she only drew two players in the top 100 before fading to current No. 1 Serena Williams in the final after winning a competitive opening set.
Enter the aforementioned analysts who assess JJ’s form, and the fans who take umbrage with the notions that Jankovic has returned to her best. The question remains: do we call her wins what they are, or do we place those pesky asterisks on results deemed too dependent on a collapsing field and the Serb’s good fortune?
In Jankovic’s case, there is merit to be found in both arguments. When a former No. 1 enters a tournament like Bogota, she is making no pretense about her desire for match play. Considering where she was (literally and figuratively), quantity was more than point-grabbing.
Quantity was confidence building.
By the time she reached the final in Charleston, her list of recent wins read like a list of players who were beating her only six months ago. A player ranked 114 might sound like someone Jelena Jankovic should beat, but for so long, she simply wasn’t. In that sense, these last few weeks have been a critical process of reacquainting Jankovic with top-flight tennis in that now she’s playing more than one match per tournament.
Where few can doubt that the Serb has recouped her small-match experience, her performances against Sharapova and Williams left something to be desired. Oddly enough, both could be called asterisk-worthy matches, given the poor scheduling that saw Jankovic playing two matches in less than 24 hours in Miami and the verbal dispute with Williams that shook her concentration in Charleston. Her wealth of quantity wins were necessary to reaffirming her self-belief; without that, it would have been impossible for JJ to have played Serena as tough as she did otherwise. The final step is translating the belief she earned from the quantity into the quality victories that would eliminate all asterisks from her resurgence. The good news for JJ is that these quantity wins will only create more opportunities for that quality scalp.
With a little extra “day glitter,” anything is possible.
Charleston’s illustrious Family Circle Cup began yesterday, and just off the main stadium, fans were treated to a first round match that had all the drama and suspense of a Saturday morning cartoon. Such an analogy may sound insulting, but in a match between Bethanie Mattek-Sands and Anastasia Rodionova, spectators’ notions of “good” and “evil” were as binary as black and white.
In one corner was Mattek-Sands. With her penchant for knee socks, eye black, and odd fashion choices, the veteran American certainly has the look of a modern-day superhero. Her struggles with injuries and debilitating food allergies have also played a role in endearing herself to the tennis public as she attempts to regain the form that took her as high as No. 30 in 2011.
If Mattek-Sands is the hero, then the Russian-born Australian Rodionova is our unabashed villain. Standing at 5’5”, she has become notorious for her on-court antics and bratty demeanor. A journeywoman who frequents the outer courts of most major tournaments, Rodionova berates umpires and lines people alike for their perceived incompetence and inability to properly officiate her matches. It has been questioned whether those antics have stalled an otherwise promising career; a successful doubles player, Rodionova possesses an all-court game that is often as aggressive as she is.
But to question that is to misunderstand the Aussie entirely. Indeed, she has the propensity to lose her patience, but rarely does that lead to a full-on implosion. In a world where players are concerned with likeability, Rodionova not only embraces, but truly enjoys the villainous role she adopts during matches, and like a WWE wrestler, uses the crowd’s venom against her as fuel for her own fire.
Against Mattek-Sands, she simply refused to be put away in a match that, at three hours, forty-two minutes, was the longest of the year. With the crowd firmly behind the American, Rodionova recovered from a set down to steal the second in a tiebreaker, but quickly fell behind a break in the third. Playing Mattek-Sands tough on break points (she would save 13 of 20 by match’s end), she bounded back to win three games in a row. As our villain was in her glory, our hero was in despair, and called out her husband during the changeover to try and develop a new strategy.
All of this before Rodionova injured her thigh, and here is where the show really began.
For Rodionova, the type who can become enraged by an inconsiderate gust of wind, an injury (and the ineptitude of those attempting to treat her) was simply unacceptable. Dissatisfied with the trainer’s method of alleviating her pain, Rodionova hopped and hobbled away as best she could, throwing a water bottle and gesticulating wildly at the supervisor.
It was as if, after all these years, Rodionova finally had a legitimate excuse for her curmudgeonly behavior, and she planned on making the most of it. When a line call was overturned in her favor, she exclaimed, “Call the freaking ball!” (a veteran move for a player well aware of what counts as an audible obscenity). Holding a match point on the Mattek-Sands serve at 4-5, it would have appeared totally logical for our villain to let out a cackle had she converted.
But she would not convert. The match would go to a deciding tiebreaker (as if it could have ended any other way), and the injury and Mattek-Sands became too much for Rodionova, who faded quickly from 2-2.
From the cartoonish impression many have of Rodionova, one would have expected her to react to this undoubtedly painful loss with a racquet toss or a shriek of disdain: anything in a last-ditch attempt to steal the spotlight. Instead, she reminded us all of her humanity when she met Mattek-Sands at the net in tears. Our hero was gracious in victory, comforting Rodionova as the two approached the umpire.
A lot of this analysis is tongue-in-cheek, but it has been said that parody can be a mirror to the human soul. There is a tendency to turn these athletes, these people, into stereotypes or one-dimensional cutouts based on how they act over the course of a three-hour tennis match. “Mattek-Sands comforted Rodionova because she is always good, and Rodionova yelled at the trainer because she is always evil.”
But just as Mattek-Sands’ jubilation showed us how much the win meant, Rodionova’s tears showed us how much the win would have meant, and before we criticize and name-call, it is essential that we recognize that her desire to win is no less pure (or more offending) than that of a perhaps more subdued rival.
Long after the last point of a match is won (or lost), it is unlikely to be remembered by its combatants’ first serve percentages or backhand errors. No, in the immediate aftermath of a match, especially at a big tournament like the Sony Open in Miami, how a match is remembered largely depends on how it is framed by fans and media. Was it a tension-filled epic, or was it an inconsequential blowout?
Unfortunately, tennis matches are not remembered through such a clean-cut binary. There is a third, shame-based category known as “the choke.” Once reserved for a tear-stained Jana Novotna, the choke has come to more broadly encompass any and all matches during which a player loses from a winning position. While a true choke knows no gender bias (according to Tennis Channel, three of the top five “greatest” chokes happened during men’s matches), the supposedly more “hormonal” sex has been assigned the greater concentration of “chokeworthy” matches over the last several years.
Can one then classify yesterday’s fourth round encounter between top seeded Serena Williams and Slovakian dynamo Dominika Cibulkova as a choke? That Cibulkova, far from a notorious closer, lost the match from a set and 4-1 up would imply at least a numerical case of neck constriction.
But in order to properly “frame” this match, it needs to be made clear what a choke is and is not, and we need look no further than Cibulkova herself for a relevant historical precedent.
Exactly one year ago, at the exact same tournament in the exact same round, Cibulkova also had the top seed, Victoria Azarenka (then undefeated in 2012) on the ropes. Taking advantage of a flat, uninspired opponent, the Slovak was punching well above her weight class to outstanding effect, redlining her already aggressive game to take the World No. 1 within moments of defeat.
Yet, when twice given the opportunity to serve out the match, she froze. Throwing in consecutive double faults, Cibulkova did not leave the door slightly ajar. She hammered at its hinges until she had broken it down herself. She would recover to play an exciting third set after losing the second in a tiebreaker, but the result was a foregone conclusion. Azarenka had been allowed to believe she could win and Cibulkova had choked away the chance to snap the Belarusian’s winning streak.
Fast forward to yesterday, and it was a very different story. Yes, Serena was flat for a set and a half, but flat in the “two winners, eighteen unforced errors” sense of the term. Where Cibulkova was gunning for outright winners against Azarenka a year ago, she was playing Williams tough enough for the American to make the mistake. This was not a case of one opponent outplaying the other only to become tentative, the purest definition of a choke. For Cibulkova, this was the athletic equivalent to a participation grade. She had shown up, and was being rewarded for doing so.
But down an early break in the second set, Serena Williams went from bad to better. She started moving her feet and stopped spraying the ball to dramatic effect. While she showed marked improvement, the top seed did not begin playing at a superhuman level, the kind we’ve seen from Williams over the years when her back is to the wall. She raised her level just enough to make what had been an embarrassing steamroll into a competitive match.
A competitive match, evidently, was not what the Slovak had signed up for. Not having been asked to play anywhere near her best until two games from the finish line, she was unable to ramp up her game in the same way Williams had done almost involuntarily. Stuck in third gear, she had no answers for the sleeping giant she had accidentally awoken and lost 6-2 in the final set.
So, did she choke? Not in the traditional sense. The form that took her within points of upsetting Serena pales in comparison to the brilliant ball bashing that nearly took out Azarenka a year ago. Cibulkova’s fire did not burn out at the last minute, because it was hardly there in the first place. However, a giant-killer type like Cibulkova knows the intensity needed in order to defeat a Williams or an Azarenka. Even if she had not been at her best the entire match, the time to raise her level came when she was serving for 5-2 in the second.
Instead, she remained static, and in a way, that can be equally disappointing.
In place of a regularly scheduled column, I present “Backboard Banter,” a friendly debate with tennis writer Benjamin Snyder. Follow Ben on Twitter @WriterSnyder and leave your feedback; this might become a more regular occurrence.
Maria Sharapova won her second Indian Wells title on Sunday without the loss of a set, capping off the terrific fortnight with an emphatic victory over resurgent rival Caroline Wozniacki. A buzz began to develop around the Russian; more for the cryptic messages she would write on the camera lens post-victory (in lieu of the tradition signature) than even her impressive play. Coy requests to “Tweet me?” turned into warm wishes for “Sweet Dreams.” This week, Benjamin Snyder (a contributor to the New York Times’ Straight Sets blog and a past writer for Wimbledon and the US Open) joins me for a debate on Sharapova’s week, revamped image, and what those messages could possibly mean.
David Kane: For all her inconsistencies, this has to go down as one of the most business-like efforts from Maria Sharapova since her shoulder surgery. While it’s true that she had to play neither Serena Williams nor Victoria Azarenka, she did have to deal with crafty opponents and players who have beaten her in the past en route to the title. As impressive as her ball striking has been in the desert, I have to wonder what has caused this change. Her notoriously streaky play has been well documented, most recently at the Australian Open when she barreled into the semifinals only to suffer a letdown in the penultimate round.
But no letdown occurred this week, least of all in the final when she saved the only two break points she faced. Sharapova herself didn’t feel like she redlined her game to win the final, attributing her success to thoughtful aggression, “doing the right things and being patient enough and looking for the right shot of…when I wanted to move in a little bit.” I know you have a couple of interesting theories, Ben, so I’ll let you draw blood first.
Benjamin Snyder: Well, David, where to start? I think we’re seeing a second coming of sorts for Sharapova, personality-wise. We may never quite get the 14-year old Maria (the carefree, stamp-collecting, camera twirling one), but, I believe, we’re getting a quirky candy tycoon (maybe more of a silly sour than a plain old, purely saccharine silly) who’s trying to portray some semblance of her past.
Why? Because, quite simply, she’s afraid of being boring. Plus, she’s become bored. To combat the on-court intensity and the off-court poise that can come across as over-polished, and probably to also have fun, she’s penning cryptic on-camera messages to illustrate an enigmatic edge of attitude. As David so thoughtfully collected, the messages, beginning from round one to her win over Wozniacki, are as follows: “tweet me, who knows?, feeling silly?, just kidding, sweet dreams,” and “champion.”
Instead of an aimless attempt at interpreting each message, which would end up being more conjecture than substantive, let’s see what the Russian told reporters. “I got bored with the signatures, and actually I don’t even know why we ever do signatures,” she said. “I was just bored of signing my name and started doing something different.”
As you may have guessed, the key word here: bored.
But, before I go any further, David, take it away with the following in mind: Is this a new Maria, a revision of a former model, or neither?
Kane: The Sharapova we’ve seen this week is hardly one invented from scratch. After all, she who once expressed a passion for aromatherapy as a teenager still enjoys a good personalized candle from LeLabo. No, to explain this peak in personality, I’m going to draw a parallel to the men’s game (hope everyone’s buckled their seatbelts, this could get ugly). Once upon a time, Rafael Nadal was undefeated at the French Open. Beyond that, he owned Roger Federer, thought to be the only man who could end the Spaniard’s romp on the Parisian dirt. After losing three straight finals, and with all the attention on the King of Clay, Federer came into the 2009 French Open under the radar. Playing relaxed tennis, Federer played a first week’s full of entertaining matches before Nadal was shockingly bundled out of the tournament. Suddenly the favorite, Federer slipped into the role with relative ease and fulfilled his tennis destiny by completing the Career Slam.
To be sure, Sharapova’s win at Indian Wells lacks some (many) of my parallel’s epic qualities, but the mood was the same. With the focus on the undefeated Victoria Azarenka, Sharapova stopped worrying about her “boring” final finishes and relaxed. After all, we have the cheeky scribbles to prove it. That relaxation failed to loosen her permanently clenched fist, but it freed up her sometimes-shaky serve and streaky ground game beyond the point where she simply inherited the No. 2 ranking from injured Azarenka by reaching the final. Instead, she broke down the door by winning the title.
At the same time, both Federer and Sharapova illustrate the important difference between “relaxed” and “resigned,” for when the moment called, they answered with equal gusto.
The question for Sharapova, then, is whether there are enough scented candles in the world to maintain this level of giddy zen in fields complete with Serena Williams and a healthy Azarenka. What say you, Snyder?
Snyder: Point well taken with the comparison of Sharapova to Federer’s dominating performance.
Now, when we’re talking Sharapova in the same sentence as Serena and Azarenka, there are a plethora of questions with which to contend: Can she snap the losing streak to the American? And can she continue to out-grunt the scream queen and Redfoo-loving Belarusian in the heat of battle? Look no further than her head-to-heads with both and the answer appears to be a resounding no versus Serena (2-11) and pretty even against Azarenka (5-7).
To talk branding though, I’d argue Sharapova’s competition is essentially non-existent (although Li Na’s endorsement deals in Asia may soundly reject that notion). But in terms of popularity in the United States and Europe, she’s sugarcoated royalty on a WTA Tour of Sour Patch Kids (to keep the cornucopia of candy references coming). The Russian has the compelling rags-to-riches storyline, the comeback from injury to eventually take the Roland Garros title – think: transformation from “cow on ice” to antelope on clay – and the press conference presence a PR maven could only dream of for his or her clients.
While Serena has a love-hate relationship with fans and Azarenka, well, tends to hold a mostly hate-hate relationship at the moment, there’s something to be said about Maria’s charm, poise and mostly unwavering appeal (at least once she’s off-court and keeping the decibel levels down). If the Siberia native finds herself feeling a little bored these days and wants to spice things up, there’s no reason that these cryptic camera messages can’t also strike a positive chord – on-court screeching aside — with her fans.
So, David, maybe Sharapova is truly just “feeling silly” and maybe she’s “just kidding” about being bored. Regardless, there’s nothing more concrete right now that she’s the 2013 Indian Wells “champion.”
For any more analysis on the matter, Sharapova wrote it best: “Who knows?”
Growing up as a tennis fan in the mid 2000s, I remember staying up past 3AM watching matches played in Australia. I remember matches I’ve seen in person around, from New York to New Haven. But if there has been one constant through my tenure in tennis fandom, it has been the omnipresent Live Scoreboard.
Like most who have followed a tournament in the last decade, I cannot tell you how many hours I have wasted staring at a pair of names, willing numbers to flash for one combatant or the other. I would skim the pittance of stats the scoreboard offered in the effort to create a mental picture of the match. How was the momentum swinging? Who was converting the most break points? Did refreshing the webpage make the scores update any faster?
Analyzing a match this way can be more difficult than guessing a meal based on five or six uncooked ingredients. Oh, and you’re blindfolded.
But the more you “watched” a player via the Scoreboard, the simpler it became to a trace certain seemingly minute patterns. Suddenly, why a player wins or loses becomes as black and white as, well, the Scoreboard itself.
Over the years, the technology that aids tennis fans has evolved, and marquee matches are indiscriminately broadcast on streams (legal or otherwise). But every so often, usually during big tournaments like Indian Wells, matches of interest get moved out of the spotlight, and spectators are once again subjected to that maddeningly numerical game of Pong.
Today, the flashing names in question were Nadia Petrova and Julia Goerges. While a match between these two naturally talented athletes would have been a joy to watch by court or by stream, this match-up was fascinating to dissect via the (almost) all-knowing Scoreboard. From years of following the tall Russian’s matches, I can attest that her serve, particularly the first delivery, makes all the difference.
Far from the Tour’s best mover, Petrova’s powerful serve literally makes or breaks her. Serving at a high first serve percentage, she can take advantage of short returns and finish points quickly with thundering groundstrokes or aggressive forays to the net. Forced to hit too many second serves, her biggest weapon is neutralized and big-hitters like Goerges can take control of rallies by getting the Russian on the run.
The first set was over in a flash, but the Scoreboard made it easy to see how Petrova was able to tame her German opponent. Serving at nearly 70% against an intimidating returner, the Russian veteran kept her service games short and efficient, without facing a single break point. With an apparent rhythm on serve, she was allowed to take risks on the return, breaking the Goerges serve three times in the process.
But anyone who has watched Nadia Petrova play (on any medium) in the last decade can tell you that her biggest hurdle is anything but technical. Blessed with immense physical gifts, the Russian has struggled to maintain composure at a match’s critical stages to the point where her career will likely be defined by its losses rather than its wins. A successful campaign to cap off the 2012 season came to an abrupt end when she split with coach Ricardo Sanchez in January, and her results have been middling all year.
Against Goerges, Petrova was clutch in the important moments. Facing six break points in the second set, she saved five. Faced with the opportunity to break Goerges’ serve six times, Petrova achieved a rare perfect conversion rate. Put those numbers together and the Russian easily dispatched the No. 21 seed 6-1 6-2 to set up a fourth round encounter with Caroline Wozniacki.
Theoretically, one has not seen Nadia Petrova hit a tennis ball, save for those who have been courtside. How can we, the tennis cognoscenti, know if she is playing as well as she was last November, when she last played (and beat) Wozniacki? The arcane system of live scoring can be frustrating at first, but taking a few cues from what it tells can help a fan uncover a match’s nuances, and be amazed by what the numbers truly show.
The year was 1994. The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) had just been established. Groups like Weezer and Green Day dominated the airwaves. The Lion King was released and quickly became the highest grossing animated film of all time.
Oh, and a pair of 14 year olds, Martina Hingis and Venus Williams began their careers as professional tennis players.
Snuck onto the WTA Tour before the now infamous Jennifer Capriati Age Eligibility Rule was adopted, Hingis and Williams were the sport’s last prepubescent prodigies. In a class all their own, the two young women could not have been more different. Martina, named for compatriot and living legend Navratilova, was the Swiss Miss of the international junior circuit. At 12 years old, she won the French Open girls’ title, defending it a year later and picking up a Wimbledon title along the way. Thrashing opponents years her senior, Hingis played a grown up game within a child’s frame, one that barely scratched 5’7″. Far from a baseline aggressor, Martina preferred to light up the court with cunning variety and flawless shot selection.
Across the Atlantic was Williams, whose father Richard taught her and her sister, Serena (perhaps you’ve heard of her) the sport with thanks to instructional VHS tapes and gang-infested Compton courts. Making school a priority, Richard kept his daughters stateside and entered them solely in USTA events. Venus went undefeated in 63 matches, setting a precedent on a soil she would come to dominate as a senior. Where Martina represented a keen tennis brain and sharp instincts, Venus was raw talent and natural athleticism. Statuesque and 6’1″, she was known for possessing a powerful, well, everything. The young American was breaking records for serve speeds as a teenager, and helped usher in the era of Big Babe Tennis that persists to this day.
In the mid-90s, while Venus broke records with her serve, Martina wrote her name in the record books simply by winning. At 15, she became the youngest-ever Slam champion, taking the 1996 Wimbledon doubles crown with veteran Helena Sukova. A year later, she became the undisputed queen of the tour, falling one match shy of the Grand Slam and began a reign atop the rankings that was largely uninterrupted for the next four years.
Venus reached her first Slam final that same year, falling to Martina in Flushing. At the time, she was no match for her rival’s fully-developed game. But while the American made steady improvements, fine-tuning her power game to match the consistency of those ranked above her, injuries tended to derail her cause, most notably when she succumbed to cramps against Hingis at the same event two years later.
As she was getting her legs massaged by the trainer, Hingis put a towel on the ground so she could lie on the court with her feet up.
It is a scene that is just so Martina. Once quoted as saying she was a “player, not a worker,” the Swiss superstar was a young woman to whom much (perhaps too much) came easily. Her consistent style meant she could compensate for a powderpuff serve, the biggest weakness in her game, relatively speaking. While those around her got fitter and tougher, Martina laid back with her feet up, never losing that signature wry grin. And why shouldn’t she have? She was assured of a Hall of Fame career by the age of 18.
Sure enough, Hingis was elected to the illustrious Interantional Tennis Hall of Fame on Monday, a class of 2013 for which, once again, she seems too young. While her powerful, injury-prone contemporary once looked more likely to be the proverbial flash in the pan, it was Hingis herself who burned out at 22, made a comeback at 25 only to retire for good at 27. Even in her much anticipated mid-2000s comeback, it was apparent that she had failed to make the necessary changes to compete with what had become the game’s best. The comparative lack of success meant, for Hingis, an exponential decrease in desire.
By comparison, Venus has become the posterwoman for overcoming adversity. Over almost two decades on tour, she not only became a great champion (though her head-to-head with Hingis ended at 11-10 in the Swiss’ favor), but also an ambassador for her sport and an inspiration to all who have seen her battle and conquer Sjogren’s Syndrome, a debilitating autoimmune disease, to win a fourth Olympic gold medal last summer in London. Who could have predicted the way this story would end? Certainly no one in the 90s.
Though firmly entrenched among the game’s legends, what would Hingis give to go back?
There is something fitting about two of the WTA’s most dramatic personae triumphing on Oscar weekend. From Dubai to Bogota, spectators were treated to two comeback stories. One may have had a bigger budget, but both protagonists, Petra Kvitova and Jelena Jankovic, provided compelling drama throughout their title runs.
Amidst a star-studded cast of characters in Dubai (even without top seeds Serena Williams and Victoria Azarenka) the plot focused on tragic heroine Kvitova. An active, if static competitor, the Czech starlet was faced with questions as to whether she could build upon or at least maintain the form she rediscovered in Doha en route to a three-set defeat to Williams in the semifinals.
Jankovic by contrast is a more passive participant in the sport. A gifted counterpuncher who once topped the world rankings, the Serb was playing in a small South American clay tournament rather than an event closer to home to avoid the ignominious prospect of playing qualifying at the latter. This week, the ostensibly washed-up glamour girl was simply looking to string matches together, something she could do in her sleep during her hey day, now a task with which she has struggled since winning the prestigious Indian Wells event in 2010.
It is a truth universally acknowledged in the tennis world that, when Kvitova is playing her “A” game (even perhaps her “B+” game), she is among the fiercest competitors in the sport. Her hyper-aggressive style took her to great heights in 2011, including a Wimbledon crown and a Year-End Championships title in Istanbul. But Kvitova has been criticized in the last 18 months for her propensity to go off the rails. But as the Middle Eastern fortnight came to a close, the Czech’s game was in full effect, which helped her take out three top 10 opponents, including a net-rushing Sara Errani in the final. As flawless, positively cinematic as she seemed for most of the week, Kvitova still treated fans to some of her trademark drama with a sudden dip in form just shy of the finish line. The tireless Errani sensed her opportunity and switched tactics as she took the match to a decisive set. Somehow, Kvitova turned the match around right when she needed to as the final set got underway. As her “Pojd!”s grew louder, it became apparent how much the win meant to Kvitova, who closed in style and nabbed her first title of 2013.
As for Jankovic, the win in Bogota had more of an “indie” feel rather than a mainstream success. In a field far more reminiscent of an ITF Challenger than a WTA International, JJ only faced one player ranked in the top 100 en route to the final, dropping two sets along the way. In the title match, she faced clay court specialist Paula Ormaaechea, who had been ranked in the top 100 as recently as a month ago and took a set from Venus Williams at last year’s French Open. The Serb had lost her last five finals, which gave this match a “now or never” feel, one last chance for the aging veteran to turn around a spiraling career. By the scoreboard, Jankovic’s victory over Ormaechea was more straightforward than Kvitova’s in Dubai, but it lacked the Czech’s authoritative punch. Playing better defense than she had in the last year, Jankovic relied more on errors from her Argentine opponent than her own stellar play. The week wasn’t pretty from Jankovic, nor were the wins particularly impressive. Yet for the first time in what feels like forever, Jelena Jankovic won five complete, consecutive matches. She was far from her best, but wasn’t this kind of “against all odds” consistency the very thing that made her so maddening only few years ago?
The “match play versus confidence” debate is tennis’ equivalent to the chicken and the egg, but after playing week in, week out in search of wins (and the confidence that comes with them), the Academy finally recognized two of the hardest working women in tennis, and both Jankovic and Kvitova are starting to get a little of both.
Patient. Poised. Polite.
Few who have watched the “delightfully offensive” Yulia Putintseva Show would use any of those words to describe the demonstrative Kazakh’s on-court demeanor. But as the 18-year-old calmly broke Laura Robson to serve for the match in the final set, many were wondering where the drama had gone.
One day earlier, a shuddering tennis world braced itself for the notoriously over-the-top teenager’s debut. Known for her multilingual affirmatives and incendiary celebrations, Putintseva has set herself apart as her generation’s cartoon villain. To be fair, something like this is, to a slightly lesser degree, what audiences are used to seeing at any given moment from the Putintseva Show. Her wildcard into Dubai’s main draw (at the expense of former finalist Svetlana Kuznetsova) seemed as much a nod to her perceived entertainment value as her talent; assigning her Center Court against Robson, a peer with whom Putintseva had had history in juniors, put the Kazakh in primetime.
Anticipation had reached a fevered pitch as the match got underway. Diehard tennis fans, hip to the often circus-like atmosphere of Yulia Putintseva matches, expected a verbal bloodbath between the youngsters. As the match wore on, it became clear that the Show had undergone drastic retooling. Perhaps knowing the world was watching, the young Kazakh was shockingly quiet in showing off deft feel and exposing her rival’s weaker movement en route to winning the opening set. Drawing errors from the hyper-aggressive Robson, Yulia forced viewers to watch her for her tennis, without any antics to serve as diversions. Some were put off by this unplugged, otherwise weaponless Putintseva; others had signed on too long ago to jump ship now.
Despite making vast improvements after an off-season at the Mourataglou Academy, the diminutive Putintseva still struggles with consistency. To play her brand of brash defense, she must stand close to the baseline so she might successfully absorb pace from players like Robson. As the British phenom edged the match towards a deciding set, Putintseva was falling farther and farther behind the baseline, allowing her taller, more powerful opponent to dictate. Fans who were looking for jubilation when she was winning were equally disappointed to find no histrionics when she was losing. No racquets were smashed. No heavens were screamed up to. When the match reached equilibrium, it had caught up with Yulia Putintseva.
Instigators looking for a boiling point were hopeful in the third set. Putintseva, ostensibly unable to accuse officials of conspiring against her with incorrect calls, challenged a shot that had been called wide. When Hawkeye overturned the call, umpire Kader Nouni called for a replay rather than awarding her the point. Robson had no play on the ball; even British commentators David Mercer and Annabel Croft felt the hitherto reserved Putintseva had been wronged. But rather than theatrically arguing the decision, Yulia politely asked for confirmation, won the replayed point, and proceeded to break Robson a few points later.
A fellow spectator and blogger tweeted me about Putintseva, how her faultlessly calm disposition was, well, boring:
To which I responded:
It is evident that Yulia Putintseva talks a big game. She is on record as having aspirations of winning a major title and being No. 1 (in 2013). But she has yet to assert herself as a clutch match-closer. In her two matches in Australia, she served for the both in the second set, only to lose both sets in tiebreakers. As if on cue, Putintseva sensed the moment and froze. The young woman who is “never scared to lose” did little to silence a talented opponent, and found the set leveled at 5-5, winning only 2 points in 3 games.
Serving to avoid a heartbreaking loss, Putintseva played an inspired game to hold at love. The ensuing tiebreaker that I had promised forty minutes earlier was ugly, one of those tired affairs played on guts alone. Putintseva began the season losing one such sudden death game. But she somehow parlayed the momentum from that revitalizing hold into an 8-6 squeaker.
As Robson’s final forehand sailed long, it became apparent to both the crowd in Dubai and fans around the world that the fiery Kazakh had saved her best reaction for last. Celebrating a win that will propel her into the game’s top 90, Yulia Putintseva unleashed those expertly contained emotions and showed us how much this victory truly meant.
(GIF courtesy of @TheGrandSlams)