By David Kane
Whether you remember her as one half of “Dulketta,” the headband-wearing giant-killer whose name made you shudder if it was too close to your favorite’s during a Slam, or as simply the best South American player of the last decade, nearly every WTA fan has memories of Gisela Dulko, something made clear as the Twitterverse reacted to her sad, yet unsurprising retirement announcement posted on her blog yesterday.
The injury-filled 2012 leading to her retirement does not seem to do the Argentine veteran justice. Although 27, traditionally an age when players begin a decline, Dulko was one of this generation’s late bloomers who had spent the last few years claiming the scalps of some of the sport’s biggest names, from Maria Sharapova to Victoria Azarenka to Samantha Stosur. What makes these results startling was where they took place, on the sport’s biggest stages. What made Gisela Dulko notable was that this kind of result was her specialty.
Despite never breaking into the top 20 in singles, “Gise” consistently played well above her ranking during the Grand Slams, making up for a petite 5’7” frame with loosely tightened strings that allowed her forehand to penetrate the court with a force akin to a cannonball. She wasn’t the kind of streaky player who played lights-out tennis to shut out top players at random times. Most of her biggest victories occurred over grueling three-set matches which illuminated her mental strength for fans and commentators alike.
In fact, her first foray into the spotlight was against current Tennis Channel commentator, Martina Navratilova. At consecutive major tournaments in 2004, the ageless Navratilova attempted a singles comeback that Dulko halted each time, most surprisingly in three sets on the American’s beloved Wimbledon grass. Five years later, she took out the champion of the ’04 event, Maria Sharapova, and her comeback from shoulder surgery.
While she rarely followed up these wins with deeper tournament runs (her best Slam results were a trio of 4th round appearances, two at Roland Garros and one at the US Open), these ostensibly unconnected upsets became less the exception and more the rule when it came to Dulko. As the 2010 French Open draw was announced, you could hear the sound of fans everywhere penciling the Argentine into the second round, heartily anticipating her upsetting the at-the-time struggling Azarenka. At the dawn of Day 1, Dulko delivered and mercilessly sent the No. 10 seed out of the tournament with the loss of only three games.
Her most heart-warming victory would come a year later in the third round of that same event. Coachless and taking on defending finalist Stosur, Dulko grinded out a three-set win and ran to her bag to wave a flag welcoming her coach’s newborns – her nephew and niece – into the world.
What makes the giant-killers, the Gisela Dulkos, Tsvetana Pironkovas and Tamira Paszeks of the world, so effective against the game’s best, but relatively ineffective against their peers? Logically, it takes the best to be the best, yet Dulko seemed to carve a very successful career out of sharing the headline with the big names she conquered, only to spend the majority of her career decidedly out of the limelight.
It seems appropriate, then, that she reached her biggest heights in doubles, where she was once again required to share the spotlight. With the affable Flavia Pennetta as her co-star, Dulko did so delightedly, even sharing a Twitter account (@FlaviGise) as the two dominated a 2010 season which culminated in a shared ascension to the #1 ranking and an Australian Open title to start 2011. At least in doubles, Dulko was comfortable playing the “favorite” and has the results to prove it.
So Gisela Dulko retires from the sport without many of the accolades expected of a player as well-known as herself. But in this instance, consistency, at least in its customary context, would not have made Dulko memorable. Instead, she was consistently shocking, which made her unforgettable.