fifth Slam

The CadanDo’s and Don’ts of the WTA’s Other Half

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.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dvyOQGOdv6U&t=1h35m02s

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.

Which Juan is the Fifth Slam?

Outside of the US Open, the back-to-back two-week hard court events in Indian Wells and Miami are the biggest tennis events in the United States. As a result, every year around this time, the same tedious debate arises between fans and pundits alike; is tennis ready for a “fifth slam” and if it is, where should it be held? Everyone has their own opinions about which tournament could be upgraded to the “fifth slam.” Is it Indian Wells because it has Hawkeye on every court? Or is it Miami because the presence of the Williams sisters completes the women’s field?

(For the record, I think that they should hold it in Bogota. I mean, Jelena Jankovic won there and it had live streams from two courts from the first day! Bogota sees your bet and raises you, Miami.)

This year, Miami’s status as the “fifth slam” has taken a hit, as the men’s event has been decimated by withdrawals; Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer are the marquee names skipping the event, along with notable top 50 names Radek Stepanek, Stanislas Wawrinka and Mardy Fish.

While that isn’t great, let’s focus on the players that are actually in Miami. One of those players in Juan Martin del Potro.

Del Potro was the only player not named Federer, Nadal or Djokovic to win a major title on the men’s side in the past six years until Andy Murray joined the club at the US Open in 2012. As Murray’s pushed his way to the top and expanded the “Big Three” to the “Big Four,” Del Potro has taken up the reigns as the most accomplished, and probably most dangerous, of the supporting cast of relevant characters on the ATP tour.

Despite being troubled by his wrist last week in Indian Wells, Del Potro put together one of his best runs since being sidelined for almost a year by that very wrist after winning the US Open. He defeated Murray in the quarterfinals and Novak Djokovic in the semifinals to reach the final against Nadal. Despite leading by a set and a break, Del Potro couldn’t seal the deal and Nadal won his third event out of the four he’s played since returning from injury. If anything, Indian Wells was a testament to the vice grip that the so-called “Big Four” have on the ATP; an accomplished player can beat two of them, only to run into another and come home with the runner-up plate.

In his post-final press conference, Del Potro said that despite the amount of tennis he played in Indian Wells, he would be going to Miami; despite the fast turnaround, he was “excited to play there.” Del Potro’s excitement, which he later elaborated on, stems from how many of his Argentinian fans, friends and family come to watch him in Miami.

Thus, we return to this illusive idea of the “fifth slam.” Butch Buchholz founded the Miami Masters in 1985 and helped develop it into what it is today; while he had hoped to turn the event into the fifth major, Miami has instead settled for title of “the grand slam of Latin America.” Latin American and Spanish-speaking players receive immense support in Key Biscayne, as it lies south of Miami Beach and east of Miami itself. It came as no surprise that Fernando Gonzalez, one of the biggest tennis stars from that part of the world, chose the Miami Masters as his farewell tournament when he retired in 2012.

With Gonzalez now out of the game, the pressure is squarely on the (very broad) shoulders of Juan Martin del Potro to be the big name of Latin American tennis. Having only been past the fourth round once in Miami, Del Potro appears to be rounding in to form, even showing glimpses of what made him the last man standing at Flushing Meadows in 2009, just in time for his “home slam.”

Nadia Petrova Goes Back to the (Live Score)Board

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.