fortitude

Caroline Wozniaki has Reached the Pinnacle of the WTA Rankings

By Maud Watson

At the Apex – Dane Caroline Wozniaki has reached the pinnacle of the WTA Rankings, and it will be interesting to see how she is perceived in the weeks to come. Like some of the other recent No. 1’s such as Safina and Jankovic, she has reached the top without a Slam to her name. But while it may not pan out this way, Wozniaki seems as though she’s more in the vein of a Mauresmo or Clijsters, who also reached the top ranking before going on to win their Grand Slam titles. Besides, Slam or no Slam, Wozniaki deserves the No. 1 ranking the same as Safina and Jankovic did when they held it. History will remember more those who won the majors, but finding a way to stay healthy and having the mental fortitude to perform consistently at a high level week in and week out is a great achievement in and of itself, and there should be no qualms if that achievement is rewarded with the top ranking in the game.

Breakthrough – The 2010 season is winding down, and many in the tennis world are already anxiously looking forward to 2011. But for Spaniard Guillermo Garcia-Lopez, the best moment of his season, and indeed, perhaps of his career, came last week in Bangkok. He recorded his first win over a current world. No. 1, defeating compatriot Rafael Nadal in three sets. Garcia-Lopez showed nerves of steel in his victory, having to save 24 of 26 breakpoints to see himself across the finish line. Impressively, he didn’t suffer the let down that so many do after such a big win, taking out the man from Finland, Jarkko Nieminen, in three close sets to secure the title. This could be a flash in the pan, but such a week could give Garcia-Lopez and his fans even more of a reason to look toward the 2011 season.

Early Exit – More players are calling time on their 2010 seasons in an effort to get healthy going into 2011. Svetlana Kuznetsova has been suffering from an illness that has prevented her from playing at her top form. Unable to practice or work on her fitness, the Russian veteran has smartly opted to close the curtain for the time being in order to allow her body to rest and recharge for next year. The situation for Aggie Radwanska is unfortunately more serious. The young Pole is suffering from a stress fracture in her foot, and as she correctly pointed out, it is a tricky injury. She is unsure if she will be prepared to play the Australian Open next January. Fingers crossed she’s able to make it, as unlike so many of the game’s current stars, Radwanska brings an entertaining game of cunning tactics and touch to the court. As for the elder Williams sister, she is still struggling with a niggling knee injury. Venus hasn’t alluded to the injury being a threat to her chances to go for her first title Down Under, and as a young 30, pocketing another Slam or two isn’t out of the question. Finally, Spaniard Juan Carlos Ferrero has been forced to undergo both wrist and knee surgery, and will need the next two months to rehab and get healthy. It would be a cruel twist of fate if Ferrero is unable to bounce back from these injuries given the admirable turnaround he has done this year as far as his career and ranking are concerned. Hope to see all of these players in full flight next season.

The Great Compromise – Not so long ago, it was announced that the powers-at-be in the ATP were looking at the possibility of shortening the length of the season by 2-3 weeks. As the starting date of the Aussie Open wasn’t set to move, speculation was that a shortened season would also mean the axing of a few ATP events. But ATP CEO Adam Helfant has put that speculation to rest, stating that no tournaments would be lost should the ATP shorten its season. Undoubtedly some tournament directors are breathing a slight sigh of relief, though no cutting could mean stacking another tournament or two within a week, which means more competition to secure the best field, but it’s better than being wiped off the map completely. Hats off to Helfant if he’s able to find a way to make all parties happy.

Grunt Work – In a study performed at the University of British Columbia and the University of Hawaii, the Public Library of Science put out their findings showing that there’s a good chance that those players who grunt (or shriek as the case may be) actually gain an edge on their quieter opponents. The study’s findings suggest that “the presence of an extraneous sound interfered with participants’ performance, making their response both slower and less accurate.” More research into this subject will have to be done, but hopefully the ITF is taking a hard look at this. Particularly in the case of some of the louder shriekers on the WTA Tour, things have gotten out of hand. It’s an annoyance to the fans and takes away from the game. Plus, given how far things have come since Monica Seles, recent history would also suggest the problem will only get worse as this ugly trend is allowed to continue. One hopes that similar studies to the one conducted by the Universities of British Columbia and Hawaii will give the ITF the evidence that they need to start taking more action.

US Open: Why Top Players Lose

At the start of every tournament, a player’s slate is cleaned. Whether they’ve won the previous week’s tournament or failed to even qualify, in tennis, everything can change in a week. Player’s go on hot-streaks as well as cold-runs, losing to lower-ranked opponents who simply took advantage of the opportunity to play a big name in a big stadium at a big tournament. And this was the case in the opening rounds at this year’s US Open, where several seeds took early surprise exits.

On this big of a world stage, anything can happen: youngsters take out veterans and darkhorses, players finally fulfill their potential and take out higher-ranked opponents, and heat favors the mentally strong ones. But why do the game’s elite succumb to players sometimes ranked 200 spots below them? It is simply nerves? Yes and no.

After a loss, we sometimes hear the top-seeded players give the easy answer: blaming the wind and crowd, grasping at any phantom injury they could think of, and overall citing their games’ weaknesses instead of their opponents’ clear strengths as the deciding factor. What they fail to mention, is the state of their psyche. For a sport so dependent on mental strength, it seems strange that players don’t talk about that more often. Mental fortitude was clearly the culprit that kept Tomas Berdych from breaking through until earlier this year in Miami. Like him, many players have the talent, the tennis I.Q., the physical strength, yet simply lack the stability in the mind to come back from 0-5, 0-40 down. After all, tennis players are still human, though as fans, we tend to build them into superheroes. But, as evident by Roger Federer’s struggles this year claiming only two titles, even superheroes can falter.

Kei Nishikori of Japan. September 2, 2010

Take, for example, Kei Nishikori’s second round defeat of #11 Marin Cilic yesterday. Not only did the match almost break the record for the longest match at the US Open at a whopping 4 hours and 59 minutes, but Nishikori handed Cilic a breadstick in the fifth set, 6-1. Cilic is no slacker however. He overtook both Juan Martin del Potro and Andy Roddick at the year’s first slam, the Australian Open, to reach the semis, beat Rafael Nadal in Beijing last October, took out Andy Murray in straight sets at last year’s US Open, and has been firmly planted in the top 20 since January of 2009. Nishikori, on the other hand, is ranked #147 in the world and even fell out of the rankings earlier this year due to an elbow injury sustained last year. He’s on a comeback trail and clearly using his experiences away from tennis to fire himself up in his game. After the 3-hour mark of a match, fitness can no longer be cited as the culprit for a player’s loss, as clearly both are fit to last the scorching New York sun. After 4 hours, it’s all about mental strength and who can stay focused and ‘win ugly’ better. With the first four sets being marginally close, the 6-1 score in the fifth set is pretty telling of who lasted longer mentally.

Americans Ryan Harrison and Beatrice Capra

Then, there are those youngsters who have absolutely nothing to prove and walk away with a great victory over a top player. Ryan Harrison’s defeat of #15 Ivan Ljubicic in the first round, or Beatrice Capra’s advancement to the second round including a win over #18 Arvane Rezai shows another side to why seemingly great and capable players lose to relative nobodys. After having lost her chance to get a wildcard into the US Open by losing in the Girls’ 18 national tournament, Capra went home to Ellicott City, MD to “chill.” She then received a call from the USTA to play in their wildcard playoff tournament and voila, she got into the main draw as a wildcard after all. Harrison, on the other hand, went through the qualifying tournament and had match-play under his belt when he took on Ljubicic. With both Rezai and Ljubicic, you could say the heat and nerves were a factor as neither had played a match in days and perhaps weren’t acclimated. But with their gutsy defeats, Harrison and Capra say the rest is “just bonus.” The youngsters had more time on court, nothing to lose, and increased confidence in their game. Their competitors simply weren’t prepared and couldn’t study their opponents in time.

World #214, Andreas Haider-Maurer. August 30, 2010

And that brings up another reason why top players struggle in the opening rounds: the relative lack of knowledge about their lower-ranked opponents’ game. The elite play each other week-in and week-out, and know what to expect in another’s shots, playing style and strategy. Journeymen, however, travel the futures and challengers circuits struggling to win but tend to have a strange familiarity with the top players’ games when they are slated against each other. The journeymen already know the ins and outs of the top opponent’s play, as they’ve either watched them live, on tv, or perhaps even grown up admiring them. The top dog, on the other hand, may never have even heard of his opponent. Now, how do you study and learn someone’s game who you’ve never even heard of? Well, if you have a smart enough coach, you would scope out the player’s previous match. This can be time-consuming and even often prove unreliable since players at that level are inconsistent and may simply win by default because of their opponent’s more aggressive, but error-filled, play. All in all, if you’re a ‘Djokovic’ taking on a ‘Jesse Witten’ like in last year’s third round at the US Open, you may become easily frustrated when your 276-ranked opponent is blowing you off the court with his forehand and unexpected lateral speed. Four days ago, we saw a similar pattern in Robin Soderling’s opening match against 23-year-old Austrian Andreas Haider-Maurer. Haider-Maurer, currently ranked 214, not only won the third set tiebreak but also won the fourth set, forcing a fifth. He barely lost 6-4 in the fifth to a man who has commandingly beaten both Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal in recent times. It’s interesting watching Haider-Maurer stay cool and collected while Soderling scrambled to figure out his opponent.

Another factor during a match also includes the high heat and humidity, but which player does this favor, the journeyman or top dog? In short, neither. While it’s easy to think that the top players have gotten to the top precisely because their fitness overcame the heat, in reality, fitness almost becomes null at this level of the game. It’s a strange concept to analyze, but it makes more sense when you realize that the scorching heat envelopes everyone’s lungs, legs and head in the same way. Rarely do players have the upper hand when play gets heavy, dragged out, sloppy and almost slow-motion. The big guys, like Rafael Nadal, Andy Murray and Robin Soderling seem to be exceptions and all have speed, strength and stamina. But how do players like Michael Llodra outplay and outwit ones like #7 Tomas Berdych in the first round? Or how Robert Kendrick was able to take Gael Monfils to 6-4 in the fifth set, or Viktor Troicki take Novak Djokovic to 6-3 in the fifth as well? Or even how newly-fit Mardy Fish was forced to five sets against Jan Hajek, even while winning three of them 6-0, 6-0, 6-1? Tennis is a strange sport and it is hard enough picking winners on any given day when the weather is mild. Throw in 140-degree temperatures on-court with not a single cloud in the sky, and you have the recipe for any top player’s nightmare. At these temperatures it’s hard to argue that a win comes about because of fitness or physical capabilities when neither player retires from the match. Instead it seems to favor the one who is able to squeak by with a few more winners and more playing experience on a big stage. Both players are battling the same demon and this is when mental toughness sets the two players apart.

Tomas Berdych. September 1, 2010

The first three days at the US Open were filled with storylines about cinderella stories and other notable exits by top players, such as Andy Roddick going out to Janko Tipsarevic in surprising fashion. But as tennis fans we expect this sort of drama to happen. In fact, it’s almost a pre-requisite to viewer involvement; it’s what makes tennis so exciting and unpredictable. But then one question still remains for me: why do we insist on calling all of these losses ‘surprise exits’ if we expect them to inevitably happen? What’s your take?

JUSTINE HENIN IS SCINTILLATING

By Melina Harris

The Rod Laver arena witnessed a scintillating 7-5, 7-6(8-6) win for comeback queen, Justine Henin over world No. 5 Elena Dementieva Wednesday. The match could signify the dawn of a new age for women’s tennis and possibly a coronary for Dementieva’s mother and coach, the omnipresent Vera who was uncomfortable to watch as she appeared to play every single shot for her gutsy daughter.

With US Open champion Kim Clijsters and the uber-talented former world No. 1 Henin back with a vengeance, the women’s tour has never held so much promise and wide spread appeal. This year’s Australian Open is panning out to be a classic for the WTA, undoubtedly helped by unseeded wild card Henin’s random placement in amongst the top seeds in the mouth-watering bottom half of the draw, which provided a second-round battle worthy of a final.

In my preview, I debated Dementieva’s mental fortitude which was sorely tested by Henin throughout. However, I do not believe Henin’s victory was down to a lack of fight from the Russian, who displayed admirable gut and determination to push Henin to the brink and back time and time again in this hotly contested second round match, rather it was Henin’s relentless resolution to come forward when playing the big points which caused the upset, marking her out as a true champion.

In her first tournament back in Brisbane, Henin fell at the last hurdle failing to close out the match against Clijsters by pressing too hard for victory, displaying a possible chink in her come back preparation.

However, today’s performance quashed any remaining doubt that Henin is ready to compete at the same level at which she left the game 20 months ago. Henin’s coach and mentor Carlos Rodriguez interestingly underestimated his diminutive pupil’s prospects in a recent interview with The Sunday Times prior to the Open, stating cautiously ‘I am not expecting her to be back at her best at the Australian Open or maybe a few months after that’ and expressed his surprise at her reaching the final in Brisbane because ‘she’s not certain about her game yet. Sometimes she’s too defensive, other times she goes on the attack when it is not wise. But those things come with time and matches. So far she has only played five.’

Perhaps this was a psychological tactic to relieve the pressure from Henin’s petite shoulders or a genuine miscalculation by the contemplative coach? Whatever the case may be, Rodriguez must be delighted with her swift progress which has shot her into contention at the Australian Open like a lightning bolt over the Rod Laver Arena, illuminating the women’s game with her unique style in comparison to the one dimensional baseliners who have dominated thus far.

Concerns about Henin’s serve, which Rodriguez cleverly modeled on the biomechanics of the Minnesota Viking’s quarterback, American NFL football star, Brett Favre were magnified in the first set, when Henin threw in six double faults. She often had to catch her first throw up which frequently veered disturbingly to the right, suggesting a possible lack of confidence in her new technique. However, by the second set as she got into her stride, those double faults reduced down to just two in a long and hotly contested set, with her first serve percentage at 48% in contrast to Dementieva’s at 65% across the total 2 hours and 50 minutes.

From the offset, the momentum of the match swung from side to side like a ship caught in a storm. In the first set, Dementieva’s depth and relentless pace of shot raged against Henin’s touch and variety resulting in copious break points for the Russian. At 5-4 with two set points for Dementieva, Henin produced a great drop volley to save the first and then constructed a brilliant point, resulting in a forehand approach and backhand volley winner to bring the game back to deuce to save the second. Henin broke back with an audacious drop volley leveling the set at 5 all.

In the following game, Henin matched Dementieva shot for shot by producing deeper and more penetrating ground strokes. A gutsy movement forward with a convincing volley at the net, secured a 6-5 lead. Indeed, it was her intuitive awareness of when to move forward to finish the point which pegged her back level at 30 all in the next game, which she then went on to win with an impressive forehand, hit on the rise, following a powerful first serve at deuce.

Dementieva opened the second set with another difficult hold of serve and followed with what appeared to be the beginnings of an impressive fight back, breaking Henin in the second game. However, with the grace of a ballet dancer Henin passed Dementieva at the net in the next point and went on to force a double fault from the uncharacteristically stoic Russian on break point.

Henin produced a magnificent game, maneuvering the Russian with deft precision around the court at 2-1 down to level the set at 2 all. Dementieva won two games in a row and appeared to have the upper hand as she went 4-2 up in the second. However, the tides turned once again as Henin went for the jugular and won the next three games to go 5-4 up, but lost her first match point in the next service game with a tight forehand into the net. Sensing Henin’s nerves, Dementieva took advantage and secured the break with a punishing backhand down the line.

At 5 all, Henin broke the Russian’s serve once again to set up yet another opportunity to serve out the match. While the crowd’s cheers reached a deafening crescendo, Rodriguez motioned animatedly to Henin radiating positivity and determination, while in contrast Dementieva’s mother and coach looked unnervingly at her daughter and then as if she were praying to the Gods for help.

Rodriguez must have been concerned (even if his face was a picture of confidence) as Henin once again failed to close out the match seemingly straining a quad muscle while serving. An impressive fight back from Dementieva secured the break to take the second set to a mouth watering tie break.

Despite racing to a 3-1 lead, Dementieva succumbed to Henin’s variety of shot and willingness to risk all on the important points (possibly in fear of a punishing third set) and like a true champion won the match on a serve volley; glaringly symbolic of what women’s tennis has been missing since her retirement from the game.

Henin is destined to meet Clijsters in the quarter finals (if they both proceed as predicted) in a repeat of the recent Brisbane final. What another great advert this would be for the women’s game and also as evidence for their inclusion in the proposed Tennis World Cup if the stars contrive to place these brilliant Belgian rivals together once again.