athleticism

Kirilenko’s Career Week

“So I’m just enjoying, you know, to play out there.”

Perhaps Maria Kirilenko has enjoyed playing tennis under the scenic desert skies of the Indian Wells Tennis Garden just a bit too much.

Kirilenko won her fourth consecutive three-set match at Indian Wells against Petra Kvitova on Wednesday, advancing to the semifinals of a WTA Premier Mandatory event for the first time. In those four consecutive victories against Christina McHale, Mallory Burdette, Agnieszka Radwanska and Kvitova, Kirilenko has logged a whopping nine hours and 31 minutes on court.

Having turned professional in 2001, Kirilenko was long considered just another “glamor girl” of women’s tennis. She was “the other Maria from Russia,” the original face of the Adidas by Stella McCartney line, and also appeared in the 2009 Sports Illustrated Swimsuit issue. On the court, the Russian has always been dangerous, but rarely had a chance to make the next step. However, she’s made a firm statement with her racket over the past 18 months. She took home a bronze medal with Nadia Petrova at the London Olympics, won her first singles title since 2008 in Pattaya City in February, and is knocking on the door of the top 10.

While Kirilenko’s game might not feature a single defining weapon, she does everything well. She combines athleticism and court craft, injects paces when she needs to and possesses a steely resolve and will to win. She rallied from a set down against McHale, a set and a break down against Kvitova and came through with flying colors in an extended third set against Radwanska. That is what has made her run in Palm Springs all the more impressive; when down and out, Kirilenko has dug in her heels and found a way to win.

The win against No. 4 Radwanska was Kirilenko’s best in terms of ranking. The win against Kvitova was her second consecutive against a top 10 opponent. Despite the contrasting styles of play of those two opponents, each match had a similar theme. She was the underdog.

Kirilenko has always been capable of pulling off a long, grinding upset in her WTA career. Who could forget her three-hour, 22-minute marathon win against Maria Sharapova in the first round of the Australian Open in 2010? Or how she and Samantha Stosur played the longest tiebreak set, 17-15, in Grand Slam history at the US Open in 2011? However, it has been Kirilenko’s body, perhaps her greatest strength, that has let her down in the past. A full slate of singles and doubles matches always caught up to her in the end. Earlier this season, Kirilenko made the decision to forego doubles to work on improving her singles game.

It’s clearly helped. Many of Kirilenko’s victories are punctuated with a smile, a fist pump and a shriek of delight. She radiates pure, unadulterated joy, as if she wants to let the fans know just how much all the hard work means to her and how much it’s finally paying off.

On a day in Stadium 1 where Stanislas Wawrinka and Ernests Gulbis came tantalizing close to pulling off upsets over Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal for what seemed like the umpteenth time, only to fail in the clutch, Kirilenko showed once again that she hasn’t backed away from the pressure moments this week.

Instead, she’s embraced them.

“I feel I can be on this level. Nothing is scary out there now. I can compete with them and win.”

SERENA’S “MINI-RETIREMENTS” HELP HER LONGEVITY

By Blair Henley

It’s been almost three months since Serena Williams last played a tennis match.

Since her victory at the Australian Open, she has visited Kenya to open a secondary school in her name, appeared on the Home Shopping Network to sell her Signature Line and even enrolled in courses to become a nail technician. Her interests outside of tennis have raised eyebrows regarding her dedication to the game, but perhaps her frequent layoffs, injury related or not, are actually what have enabled her reign atop the women’s tour for so long.

It’s easy to root for the grinder who eats, sleeps and breathes tennis. Society says that hard work pays off, and we love seeing proof. When Ana Ivanovic won the French Open in 2008, fans cheered her gritty style of play and analysts seemed to think there were big things in store for the marketable Serb. Her ranking now sits at No. 57 and she has not come close to replicating her Grand Slam success. The same could be said for Nicole Vaidisova, who went from the world top 10 in 2007 to the top 200 in 2010. She recently announced her retirement at the ripe old age of 20. Jelena Dokic is another young and promising baseliner who reached the top 5 in 2002 before slowly sliding out of the spotlight.

These are just a few examples of players who have clawed their way to the top only to have trouble staying there. On the other hand, Serena has proved herself against the best in the world for over ten years and doesn’t seem fazed by the pressure of heightened expectations that has knocked many would-be stars off their short-lived pedestals.

Despite her incredibly successful career, critics are quick to say that she has failed to make the most of her talent and athleticism. They wonder what she could achieve if she completely immersed herself in the game, but I’ve yet to hear anyone laud Serena’s unusual approach as a contributing factor in her unparalleled longevity in tennis’ modern era.

There’s no denying that tennis is a training intensive sport, and any top tour competitor has paid her dues. For some, however, tennis becomes all-consuming – and not in a good way. There is pressure to train constantly and play as many tour events as possible at the expense of a well-rounded existence.

Serena seems to shrug off what people think she should be doing and as a result comes into events with a rested body and a fresh outlook. If all her spare time were spent on the court and at the gym, perhaps her career would have fizzled a long time ago like so many of her peers.

Tennis fans were amazed at Justine Henin and Kim Clijsters’ recent comeback success, but their dominance was simply a result of a renewed perspective. The intermittent breaks from competition that we are used to seeing from Serena are, in a sense, mini retirements. Like Henin and Clijsters, she returns refreshed and hungry after having pursued other passions.

While it may not be in every player’s best interest to step away from the game to develop a new line of merchandise, I do think there is value in Serena’s approach. Taking time to remember that there is more to life than wins and losses on a tennis court could be a good thing.