drama

The Three Tiers of Triumph at Roland Garros

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.

Owning It: Vandeweghe Versus Putintseva

During many a Real Housewives reunion special, a middle-aged, mildly affluent woman sits in a tight, off-the-shoulder cocktail dress (I’ve watched a couple in my day), and tells another similarly dressed woman to take responsibility for her actions. In other words, “own it.”

With this sort of cartoonishly glamorous set up unfortunately missing from the tennis world, it can be difficult to keep track of the daily drama, on both a macro (the game’s elite) and micro level (everyone else). Like those sage Bravo producers, we can often bow to clips conclusively showing Juan Martin del Potro dissing Andy Murray’s mother, or Jelena Jankovic imitating compatriot Ana Ivanovic’s signature fist pump.

But just like those bastions of reality television, it is almost always what happens “off-camera” that stirs up the most controversy. As a New Jersey housewife would probably say, “the fewer witnesses, the better.”

In tennis, nothing breeds isolation quite like a rain delay. With troubling forecasts predicting rain through early next week in Europe, qualifying matches in last minute warm-up tournaments like Brussels were driven indoors to ensure the event reaches completion. One such match was ripe for drama, rain or shine.

In one corner was 21-year-old CoCo Vandeweghe. A former US Open girls’ champion, the young American made a dream run to the Stanford finals last summer. Since then, however, she has struggled to reign in her high-octane game, and coming into Brussels had yet to win back-to-back matches this year. Granddaughter to a former Miss America, Vandeweghe’s senior career has been largely played under the radar, but she has had a “princess” moment or two, as evidenced by her twitter account.

Her opponent likely needs no introduction: the “delightfully offensive” Yulia Putintseva. After pushing Serena Williams to a tiebreak in Madrid, the teenaged Kazakh suffered a potentially soul-crushing loss in Rome, failing to convert a 5-1 final set lead to Madrid quarterfinalist Anabel Medina Garrigues. But whether you’re throwing drinks on someone at a party or playing a tennis match, it helps to be a little bit delusional. Shrugging off her fourth three-set loss (three of them from a set up) of the year, Putintseva crushed her first two opponents, including an equally offensive (though arguably less delightful) Michelle Larcher de Brito.

Playing on a surface that mitigates her weapons and exposes her suspicious movement, Vandeweghe had been surprisingly comfortable in Brussels, and took a tight first set from Putintseva with only one break separating the two. From there, Putintseva went on a tear, winning 12 of the next 14 games, and broke the big-serving American five times for a 4-6, 6-1, 6-1 victory.

But it was after the match where the drama (allegedly) reignited.

With no one reporting more than the score of “Brussels QR3 Vandeweghe/Putintseva,” Vandeweghe took to Twitter to enlighten the public to that which many already consider to be obvious:

https://twitter.com/CoCoVandey/status/336491458251091968

From there, CoCo outlined an exchange following the match’s conclusion where the victorious Putintseva allegedly told her, “You are a terrible player only serve. I win all the rallies.” The American went on to accuse Putintseva’s father/coach, Anton, of not only condoning, but also “clapping” as his daughter made these biting observations.

Hours later, Putintseva popped up on Twitter herself, at first to nonchalantly express her satisfaction at qualifying for the main draw, then to give us a “No comment,” re: CoCo. Elaborating for a fan, she said,

https://twitter.com/Yulka1995P/status/336576876623577088

which appears to imply whatever occurred was a two-way street. But why many flocked to Putintseva’s support in the immediate aftermath of this bizarre incident was the same reason why reality TV fans love Nene Leakes and Caroline Manzo: Putintseva appeared to take ownership of what many would consider a gauche act of gamesmanship. In its own way, that was breath of fresh air in a sporting world that can often feel stilted and devoid of cadence. It keeps us from our own delusion that everyone on the Tours is there to make friends. Because they’re not, they’re here to win.

And thus would have ended this episode of The Real Tennis Players of Brussels, until Putintseva took to Twitter again early this morning. After tacitly accepting Vandeweghe’s version of events, she made a complete about face when asked about the incident directly:

https://twitter.com/Yulka1995P/status/336721573585223682

In barely 140 characters, the teenager took her ownership, and sold it back to the American, who has already rallied support from the American media.

Is Putintseva a cult hero for telling it like it is, or a spoiled brat deflecting blame? Is Vandeweghe a victim of needless trash talk, or a bully for inciting an angry mob on an 18-year-old? For a Tour that peaked in the late 90s because of exchanges like these, it might behoove us all not to ask too many questions, sit back, and “watch what happens.”

“Unmasking Anastasia:” Rodionova, Tennis’ Cartoon Villain

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.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0nrXHY3LdyU&t=1m54s

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.

My Friend, My Foe, My Countrywoman

Flavia and Francesca.

While the two might be in the wrong business to be known by a single stage name, there is no doubt that Flavia Pennetta and Francesca Schiavone have been the faces of Italian women’s tennis for the better part of a decade.

Despite having contrasting styles, each brings something unique to women’s tennis. Schiavone, no doubt the flashier of the two, is the master of an all-court game and a classic clay court style; she uses an extreme Eastern grip on her one-handed backhand, a dying art in women’s tennis. Pennetta, to her credit, possesses some of the most aesthetically pleasing groundstrokes on the WTA; she’s renowned for her great timing, clean strokes, tenacity and net skills. They are similar in one respect; each time they’ve taken the court, they’ve played with immense passion and heart.

They’ve triumphed individually; Pennetta was the first Italian woman to ever be ranked in the top ten in singles, win a major title in doubles when she triumphed with Gisela Dulko in women’s doubles at the Australian Open in 2011 and be ranked No. 1 in either discipline when she and Dulko topped the women’s doubles list; Schiavone became the first Italian woman to ever be ranked in the top five in singles and win a singles major title at Roland Garros in 2010. They’ve triumphed together; with a combined a 48-24 total record in Fed Cup, the duo led Italy to three titles in 2006, 2009 and 2010.

Each has had so many standout moments over their long careers that it’s difficult to pick just one. Aside from her major triumph, Schiavone will probably best be remembered for one of the highest quality matches in the history of the WTA, when she and Svetlana Kuznetsova contested the longest women’s match in Grand Slam history at the Australian Open in 2011.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bBbLO06fBCU&feature=youtu.be

Pennetta, a three-time US Open quarterfinalist, made the most improbable of her three runs in 2011. Following her third round defeat of Maria Sharapova, Pennetta rallied past Peng Shuai, dry heaves and the mid-day New York heat to advance to her third career US Open quarterfinal. Having witnessed the match live, I can scarcely think of many other times when a New York crowd so firmly and whole-heartedly supported a non-American player.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MP7CnDWIhyQ&feature=youtu.be

In recent years, however, age and injuries have played their part. Barely hanging on to her spot in the top 100, Pennetta returned from a six month absence after wrist surgery in Acapulco, where Schiavone won back-to-back matches for the first time since Wimbledon. In that time, Italian women’s tennis had been overtaken by another dynamic duo.

Sara Errani and Roberta Vinci spent a lot of time during those three Fed Cup title runs cheering on the sidelines. However, they’ve taken the mantle vacated by Schiavone and Pennetta and firmly seized control of it. Errani became the second Italian woman to reach a major final, something some expected Pennetta to do. Vinci, despite being just a year younger than Pennetta, has had the best 18 months of her singles career. They show no signs of slowing down in doubles either, as they currently hold three of the four majors and are the undisputed No. 1 team in the world.

In the first round of Fed Cup, it was Errani and Vinci who singlehandedly led Italy over the United States and instead, Karin Knapp and Nastassja Burnett cheered from the sidelines. It was the first time neither Pennetta nor Schiavone were named to an Italian Fed Cup team in over 10 years; one or the other was always a constant presence since Schiavone made her debut in 2002, and Pennetta a year later in 2003.

On a Wednesday in Indian Wells, these two WTA stalwarts, Fed Cup teammates and friends took the court for a singles match for the first time in three years. After Schiavone defeated Pennetta 7-5, 6-1 in a non-televised match under the setting California sun, one couldn’t help but wonder if the sun is also setting on their time at the top of the game. Whatever happens at the end of this season, it would be fitting for two of the WTA’s strongest characters to leave the sport the way they entered it.

Together.

Jelena & Petra: Best Actresses

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.

Clijsters Shows a Different Kind of Heart in Inspirational Effort at Australian Open

Kim Clijsters wrote a story of heroic proportions on Centre Court at Rod Laver Arena on Sunday night. The kind of fairytale she could tell daughter Jada before bedtime in the coming days and years. The Belgian is known for her heart of gold, but showed a competitive heart and desire that legends are made of in a dramatic 4-6, 7-6(6), 6-4 victory over Li Na in a rematch of the 2011 Australian Open women’s final.

The Round of 16 match got off to a hot start, but midway through the opening set, Clijsters rolled her ankle in the middle of a rally and the tennis world held its collective breath wondering whether Clijsters’ final Australian Open would end with tears of pain and disappointment. She walked gingerly back to the baseline on her heavily wrapped ankle after a visit from the trainer ready to give it a go. The task ahead seemed all the more daunting against a formidable opponent like Li Na and yet, facing quadruple match point in the second set tiebreak, Clijsters found a drive within herself that she probably didn’t realize she had. A winning lob on the fourth match point was particularly remarkable given that she had hit a poor drop shot to put herself in a vulnerable position.

After escaping the second set, Clijsters seemed to loosen up in the third and took advantage of her rattled and error prone adversary to jump out to a 5-1 lead. Following a few nervy moments of her own, Clijsters completed the miraculous comeback when Li Na hit a backhand into the net. She threw up her arms in triumph and disbelief as the crowd gave their “Aussie Kim” a well-deserved standing ovation.

“At one point you think, Okay, I’m just gonna go for it.  Once I made that decision, I didn’t think,” Clijsters said about her decision not to retire after the ankle roll. “I just tried to find a solution for how I was feeling, to find a new tactic, tactical game.”

The match itself may not have been of the highest quality, but the significance of the end result far outweighed that. In the space of a set and a half, Clijsters added another chapter to her storybook comeback to tennis and her final season already includes a highlight that will be hard to top. As if she wasn’t adored enough already, this performance will endear her even more to fans around the world who secretly hope that her farewell tour never ends.

Prior to the start of the Australian Open, Clijsters gave an interview where she spoke candidly about how she still feels the presence of her deceased father in her life. Leo Clijsters was certainly with his daughter in her latest triumph and she has given him yet another reason to brim with pride.