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.
By David Kane
It has been a rough couple of months for American upstart Christina McHale.
After a promising 2011 that saw her topple then-No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki, the New Jersey native began 2012 in bright fashion, taking out Petra Kvitova in three grueling sets in Indian Wells and achieved a box set of third round finishes at the majors by Wimbledon. By the summer, though, her results began to tail off and it was revealed that McHale was suffering from a prolonged case of mononucleosis.
Having famously felled Justine Henin in the mid-2000s, “the kissing disease” sent McHale into a tailspin of form that arguably reached its nadir on her home court. During her rise, the American had credited training sessions at the National Tennis Center. But at the US Open, she failed to make it past an even sicker Kiki Bertens, who ran off the court mid-game to seek relief.
It may be a new year and McHale is mono-free, but things have yet to brighten for the American on the tennis court. Unseeded and overshadowed by compatriots like Sloane Stephens and Lauren Davis, McHale was excluded from an ESPN graphic featuring “Young Americans” as the Australian Open got underway.
But the worst was yet to come.
McHale could have drawn anyone in the first round: a Williams sister or perhaps Maria Sharapova. But instead, she was slated to face World No. 125 and the poster girl of “Generation Spitfire,” Yulia Putintseva. Putintseva earned her place in the main draw at the end of last year, and spent the off-season training at the Mourataglou Academy where she hit with big names like Serena Williams, Martina Hingis, and Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova. Despite dropping her first match of the year in Auckland, Putintseva came into 2013 ready to play.
For a player recovering from mononucleosis, McHale could not have drawn a more ironic opponent. Standing at 5’1”, Putintseva may lack many things, but one thing on which she is never short is energy. Playing in her debut Slam on the senior level, Putintseva unleashed a sampling of that effusive energy as she romped through the first set and a half, dropping a mere handful of points on her serve. McHale had played precious few matches in the last few months, and even fewer matches where she played the role of veteran to Putintseva’s newcomer. Yet, it must have been that veteran sense that allowed the American to take advantage of a weak moment from the Kazakh to level the match.
Unfortunately for McHale, Putintseva has come a long way in just a few months. Notoriously volatile, she remained positive after an embarrassing tiebreaker score of 7-0 and continued serving well to open the third. Faced with an opportunity in the fourth game, Putintseva broke the American and never looked back. ESPN hardly had time to send a camera out to untelevised Court 7 for the match’s hurried conclusion:
Putintseva’s celebration is not only one of legend, but it also signified the dramatic shift in fortune for these two women. McHale looked exhausted and well beyond her years at the end of a brutal effort. Putintseva smiled broadly as she skipped to the net to shake the American’s hand. As a viewer it was a bittersweet moment; as nice as it was to see Putintseva shake some of her demons and close out the biggest win of her career, one could not help but feel for the young American, once on the rise, future unknown.
There’s always a tennis lull for a week or two after a Grand Slam. How many of you were really paying attention to what happened in Zagreb or Montpellier or Viña del Mar? Tell the truth, do you even know where Viña del Mar is? Well, perk up, Davis Cup weekend is coming up. It’s an excellent way to ease back in to watching tennis. There are ties in watchable time zones for almost any part of the world and there are only three days to keep track of. Sounds too easy? Well, it kind of is. There are eight ties to keep track of, spanning three continents. Here’s a short guide to this weekend’s action.
Spain vs. Kazakhstan
Venue: Oviedo, Spain
Spain’s been the team to beat for the last several years, led by the nearly invincible Rafael Nadal. They’re the defending champions, and it would be embarrassing if they were to lose to Kazakhstan in the first round. Kazakhstan has exactly one player in the Top 100. Spain has thirteen, a veritable smorgasbord of options to compile a four man team. Spain’s top guys, Rafael Nadal and David Ferrer, have chosen to sit out, so the team will be led by No. 11, Nicolas Almagro. Throw in Marcel Granollers, Juan Carlos Ferrero, and Marc Lopez for the doubles, and the home advantage and I’m pretty sure they will be able to conquer Team Kazakhstan.
Austria vs. Russia
Venue: Wiener Neustadt, Austria
This tie is notable because Alex Bogomolov, Jr. will be making his debut on the Russian Davis Cup team, as the top ranked player no less. Mikhail Youzhny will be second in command and coming in strong off both a singles title and a doubles title in Zagreb last week. Nikolay Davydenko and Igor Kunitsyn round off the Russian team. Team Austria has the hometown advantage but their star, Jurgen Melzer, has been struggling lately and they don’t have much in the way of depth.
Canada vs. France
Venue: Vancouver, Canada
Canada is kind of like the little engine that could. Not known for a strong tennis tradition, they put in a very impressive performance to beat Israel in the playoffs. But, France is no Israel. France is a Davis Cup power house. Much like Spain, their options for Top 100 players number in the double digits. They will also be bringing their two strongest players to Vancouver, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Gael Monfils. Versatile players Julien Benneteau and Michael Lloda will also make the trip. Either player can be called up for singles or doubles. Vasek Pospisil stepped up as the hero of the Israel tie, but it will take some serious team work to get past France. Canada will likely need a great performance from Milos Raonic.
Switzerland vs. USA
Venue: Fribourg, Switzerland
I’m not one of the believers that US tennis is dead, but I don’t give them great odds when it comes to beating Roger Federer and Stanislas Wawrinka, on indoor clay, in Switzerland. Mardy Fish and John Isner are reasonable clay players, but neither is up to Federer’s level on any surface. The US can usually count on a doubles win by Bob and Mike Bryan, but Bob has chosen to sit out the tie to spend some time with his newborn daughter so Mike will be making the trip solo. He could play with either Fish or Isner, as both are fair doubles players, but they almost certainly won’t have the magic that Bob and Mike create. Switzerland might as well be a two man team. Federer and Wawrinka will play until the tie is won and the doubles will be good practice as they will be looking to defend their Olympic title this summer.
Czech Republic vs. Italy
Venue: Ostrava, Czech Republic
Tomas Berdych was triumphant last week in Montpellier and Radek Stepanek is fresh off a doubles title at the Australian Open. Much like Federer and Wawrinka, they will likely make up a two man team that should easily conquer the crafty Italians.
Serbia vs. Sweden
Venue: Nis, Serbia
Both of these teams will be missing their best players this weekend. Novak Djokovic is sitting out the tie and Robin Soderling has been sidelined since Wimbledon. Lucky for Serbia, they have two singles players in the Top 25 and Sweden doesn’t have a singles player in the Top 300. It’s going to be a tough ask for Michael Ryderstedt and Carl Bergman.
Japan vs. Croatia
Venue: Hyogo, Japan
Kei Nishikori is the high ranked Japanese player in history and the first to make it to the quarterfinals of a Grand Slam. He leads a reasonably strong team on home turf. I’m calling upset potential on this one. Croatia is a tough opponent, but if Nishikori can win his first singles match and Japan can swing the doubles, I would give them a strong chance.
Germany vs. Argentina
Venue: Bamberg, Germany
This is possibly the most interesting tie on the schedule for this weekend. Argentina had a rather gut wrenching loss to Spain in last year’s final and is still in search of their first Davis Cup crown. If Juan Martin del Potro was participating, I would give Argentina the strong edge. Even without their best player, Argentina has a very good team. Juan Monaco won his first title in five years last week and David Nalbandian always brings his best in Davis Cup. I honestly can’t reason out why Germany chose indoor clay. The Argentines love clay. Why not go for a hard court? Either way, the German team is also pretty strong this time around. There’s not really a weak link among Mayer, Kohlschreiber, Petzschner, and Haas.