guts

On Guts Alone

To win a tennis match, a player usually requires a near-perfect alignment of their physical and emotional states. For most, even the slightest niggling pain or mental wobble can derail what would otherwise be a clear course to victory. But to say that all players can achieve this elusive equilibrium would not only be a gross oversimplification of the game, but also ignores those who can make up for a physical lack on the strength of one muscle in particular: the heart.

Such heart was on full display during a first round encounter in Doha between Marion Bartoli and Francesca Schiavone. Bartoli, a notoriously unorthodox player who sports two-fisted groundstrokes, was recovering from a flu virus that ruled her out of a return to Fed Cup. Schiavone, her undersized and underpowered opponent, is a crafty veteran who has suffered a lackluster 18 months arguably fueled by decreased motivation. Both came to court seemingly aware of the other’s deficiencies and sensed their own opportunities.

The Italian was largely story of the first set. A player who has only won one of her last seven sets played, Schiavone was whipping the kind of angles that took her to the 2010 French Open title. Exposing Bartoli’s flu-hindered movement, she had multiple chances to take a 5-1 lead and re-assert her quickly fading presence on the WTA Tour.

For Bartoli, this was not simply a first match post-illness: this was the first time in her career that she was playing without lifelong coach, father Walter Bartoli. While she has expressed an interest in working with two-time Slam champion and French Fed Cup Captain Amelie Mauresmo, the Bartoli came to Doha only with a fitness coach from the French Tennis Federation, the governing body that kept her out of the last two Olympic Games. With all of these careening circumstances, the stage appeared to be set for a Schiavone comeback performance.

Assuming this underestimates Marion’s own heart. The Frenchwoman, regardless of illness, may not be the fittest player on tour (something that might be due to training methods like these), but like Schiavone, has been able to rely on her heart, mind and resilience to pull off some improbable victories. Looking down and out at the US Open against former Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova, Bartoli charmed a packed Grandstand crowd with her earnest effusiveness as she turned the match around and bageled her highly lauded opponent in the third set.

After holding for 2-4, she took advantage of Schiavone’s suddenly tentative play and began red-lining her own game for some incredible winners off of the Italian’s serve. The tiebreaker was a tense affair, but Bartoli kept her nose in front and parlayed the momentum into a big second set advantage.

Schiavone was far from finished, however. She used all of her veteran wiles to put off the inevitable, even attempting to engage Bartoli at the net following a failed volley attempt. With both beneath peak physical condition, the two played brilliant all-court rallies on guts alone as the Frenchwoman wrapped up the match in straight sets.

Playing another gutsy player in Kuznetsova, Bartoli will have to hope she recovers from the draining physical effort that comes from fending off a game opponent. If not, she will have to call again upon that indomitable heart.

The LA Open Day 6: Semi Final Saturday

The Beach Boy does it again! Top seed defending champion Sam Querrey fights back yet again, showing some seasoned craftiness, testing his guts to the limit to ward off a match point and set sail for another final at the Farmers Classic LA Open.

It was hotter than yesterday, only by a few degrees, but in tennis everything is margins, inches, nanometers, and things sway by the slightest hitch in the universe, and today was no different. Sam’s opponent was the philosophical, wise beyond his years, Serbian, Janko Tipsarevic, who is seeded sixth in the tournament. Janko has a tattoo of the nineteenth century Russian literary giant Dostoyevsky’s ‘The Idiot’ on his person and when listening to him in the press conference, one gets the impression that tennis isn’t what Janko only thinks about, but when directing his lofty thoughts on the subject can offer an uncanny insight that is concise, just, well articulated (even in English, which isn’t is native tongue), and is devoid of any pretense. Most athletes when interviewed sound like terminator cyborgs, spewing off rehearsed answers to questions without the slightest note of feeling. If you’ve ever seen a Shaquille O’Neal interview, you know what I’m talking about. I walked into the press room and saw Janko seated in his chair at the head of the room with a look of calm discontent. He wasn’t sad, but he wasn’t thrilled either. I was surprised most of all that a player had actually arrived on time for their meeting of the press, a first for the tournament, and when Janko described the match, whereby he lost in a bitterly fought three setter, I was even more surprised to hear the free flowing candor and wisdom come from this young man. “I should not have lost this match,” Janko said, in response to the first question about his feelings, and he didn’t sound bitter or resentful at all, just right to the point and he supported his statement with a play by play account of what he “should” have done. “I was forcing the ball in big points, instead of returning the ball into play. I was going for too much when there really was no need.” The Serbian was steadfast in his assessment of his serve. “My serve was not there at all today. I don’t know what happened. My ground game was good, and I felt I could hit any ball back but my serve completely left me.”

Tipsarevic’s claim to fame was his long five set war with Roger Federer in the Australian Open of 2008 where the holy one barely got by in a grueling fifth set. One of the reporters asked Janko what he thought of Querrey’s game, and the Serbian spoke without hesitation. “I think he has top ten potential. He is a steady top twenty player, but to be top ten you have to have great results at grand slams and masters series events.” I agree with the soft spoken Serb. He should have won the match. But, I also think that Sam Querrey looked about as good as I’ve ever seen him. Aside from a mental snap toward the end of the first set, where a convincing ace registered for Sam was snuffed by the umpire who called it a let, Sam looked like he definitely could be a potential top ten player. His first serve consistently fired in the lower 130’s and even registered in at 139 once, his fastest for the match. His decision making, to my humble eyes, appeared to finally transcend that barrier between novice green to that of touring professional honing his craft and making choices, which have to be made in a matter of seconds, that provide evidence of a steady evolution. Steadiness, movement, well-timed aggression, and the ability to hold back when he needed to, were on display and Querrey even managed to shoot a few smiles toward his SAMURAI posse of shirtless hooligan supporters after a forehand winner or ace up the T. The fact that he has won two matches in a row that he was losing for the majority of the time, shows me that he is ready to make a deep run at a slam.

Murray and Lopez faced off for the second semi-final of the day under the lights, which makes me wonder how Murray will do playing in the hot afternoon sun against a Beach Boy born and bred under these conditions. All of Murray’s matches have been at night, and he managed to wiz past Mr. Beautiful with relative ease, even though he dropped a level yet again after a first set steamroll handing over the second like a platter of potato salad. Lopez was outmatched, outwitted, and out played. I think if he ever wants to be considered a serious threat he needs to acquire a backhand. The slice and dice game just won’t cut it against top players. Neither will the profile of Adonis. You relinquish too much control with the slice, and if it’s not picture perfect Roger Federeresque, you’re offering up a tee shot for your opponent. Murray was quick to pounce on the mismanagement of the Lopez slice, and turned a second set let down to a third set triumph.

Dare I make a prediction? But of course… Sam in three. The defending champion repeats. I will be there for finals Sunday, please join me at tennisgrandstand.com for all the latest.