media

The Curse of the Stars and Stripes

It’s no secret that tennis is considered a niche sport in the United States. Mainstream American sports media does little to cater to the tennis fan base unless it has to or they have a narrative to sell. Therefore, the presence and popularity of tennis in the United States will always be dictated by the presence and popularity of its American stars. With Andy Roddick already retired and the Williams sisters approaching their mid-thirties, American tennis will soon be missing many of its dynamic, larger than life personalities. As a result, the mainstream media are desperate for the next star to promote the sport’s life and longevity in the United States; they look to embrace an emerging talent before he or she is ready to embrace them. Spoiler alert: it rarely ends well. The same mistakes continue to be made, yet little is being done to prevent the cycle from repeating itself.

It began with Melanie Oudin.

We all know the Oudin story. “Giant-killer” this, “giant-killer” that were the prevailing narratives during Oudin’s run to the US Open quarterfinals in 2009, where she defeated Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, Elena Dementieva, Maria Sharapova and Nadia Petrova. All of a sudden, Oudin from Marietta, Georgia, a city with a population of about 57,000, was thrust into the spotlight in arguably the most famous city in the world.

We also know what happened next.

It’s not uncommon for a young player to have a breakthrough at a slam and then fail to produce the same results soon after. It’s only the special exceptions, the Sharapovas or Hingises, who adapt to the pressure and completely handle it at an early age. Couple that with Oudin’s grinding, counterpunching game, a game that a zoning opponent could competently dismantle, and she was bound for failure. After peaking at No. 31 in 2010, Oudin languished around in the lower echelons of the top 200 before returning to a double-digit ranking last year.

Next, Sloane Stephens arrived. Nobody seemed to learn. Stephens was different, they said. She can take matches into her own hands, they said. She had power, athleticism, the natural physical gifts that Oudin doesn’t. En route to the Australian Open quarterfinals, Simona Halep was Stephens’ highest-ranked opponent; the Romanian was ranked 45 when she fell in the first round. A solid run turned into a stunning one as Stephens defeated a hobbled Serena Williams, the prohibitive title favorite, in the quarterfinals. As quickly as Oudin’s star flamed out, Stephens’ supernova was born.

As the youngest player in the top 20, it appears that no one’s clued Stephens into the fact that it only gets harder the higher you rise. She’s become the hunted, rather than the hunter. If anything, she needs to work harder to stay ahead of the pack. After losing the last 10 games in a 6-4, 2-6, 0-6 defeat to Agnieszka Radwanska in Miami, Stephens displayed a somewhat complacent attitude. “I’m 16 in the world. I can lose in the first round the next two months and I probably would still be top 30. I’m not really too concerned about winning or losing or any of that, I don’t think.” Statements like this show that Stephens is already feeling the pressure to produce week in, week out.

Not only is she struggling to beat the elite (that win over Williams is her only top 10 win), but she’s struggling in matches she the favorite to win. She let huge leads slip against Klara Zakopalova and Sorana Cirstea in Doha and Dubai; these are not terrible losses, but no one seems to want to write about that. The story of another post-slam breakthrough slump is far more attractive.

Stephens was in tears following her 6-2, 6-0 loss to fellow American Bethanie Mattek-Sands in the second round in Charleston; the one-sided scoreline was incredibly unexpected if only for the reason that Mattek-Sands played nearly four hours in defeating Anastasia Rodionova the day before. Surprisingly, the “Mattek-Sands triumphs on the comeback trail from injury” narrative was non-existent; instead, “What’s wrong with Sloane?” dominates the headlines.

If you think this is only a WTA problem, you should ask John Isner, Sam Querrey and Ryan Harrison how they’re doing lately. You might even run into Donald Young along the way. One successful run does not make a superstar. Superstars are made over an entire career.

There are currently nine women not named Williams in the top 100 on the WTA rankings and a handful just on the outside. Let them share the spotlight. Are some of them more likely to win slams than others? Maybe. If they do, they’ll do so when they’re ready, not when a media narrative thinks they are. There’s nothing wrong with encouraging young talent but too much encouragement, too much “hype,” is a clear hindrance to their development. Young players can’t be expected to win a marathon before they can run an eight-minute mile.

Barely Breathing: Dominika Cibulkova and the Choke Which is Not One

Long after the last point of a match is won (or lost), it is unlikely to be remembered by its combatants’ first serve percentages or backhand errors. No, in the immediate aftermath of a match, especially at a big tournament like the Sony Open in Miami, how a match is remembered largely depends on how it is framed by fans and media. Was it a tension-filled epic, or was it an inconsequential blowout?

Unfortunately, tennis matches are not remembered through such a clean-cut binary. There is a third, shame-based category known as “the choke.”  Once reserved for a tear-stained Jana Novotna, the choke has come to more broadly encompass any and all matches during which a player loses from a winning position. While a true choke knows no gender bias (according to Tennis Channel, three of the top five “greatest” chokes happened during men’s matches), the supposedly more “hormonal” sex has been assigned the greater concentration of “chokeworthy” matches over the last several years.

Can one then classify yesterday’s fourth round encounter between top seeded Serena Williams and Slovakian dynamo Dominika Cibulkova as a choke? That Cibulkova, far from a notorious closer, lost the match from a set and 4-1 up would imply at least a numerical case of neck constriction.

But in order to properly “frame” this match, it needs to be made clear what a choke is and is not, and we need look no further than Cibulkova herself for a relevant historical precedent.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CjVWBx1TusI

Exactly one year ago, at the exact same tournament in the exact same round, Cibulkova also had the top seed, Victoria Azarenka (then undefeated in 2012) on the ropes. Taking advantage of a flat, uninspired opponent, the Slovak was punching well above her weight class to outstanding effect, redlining her already aggressive game to take the World No. 1 within moments of defeat.

Yet, when twice given the opportunity to serve out the match, she froze. Throwing in consecutive double faults, Cibulkova did not leave the door slightly ajar. She hammered at its hinges until she had broken it down herself. She would recover to play an exciting third set after losing the second in a tiebreaker, but the result was a foregone conclusion. Azarenka had been allowed to believe she could win and Cibulkova had choked away the chance to snap the Belarusian’s winning streak.

Fast forward to yesterday, and it was a very different story. Yes, Serena was flat for a set and a half, but flat in the “two winners, eighteen unforced errors” sense of the term. Where Cibulkova was gunning for outright winners against Azarenka a year ago, she was playing Williams tough enough for the American to make the mistake. This was not a case of one opponent outplaying the other only to become tentative, the purest definition of a choke. For Cibulkova, this was the athletic equivalent to a participation grade. She had shown up, and was being rewarded for doing so.

But down an early break in the second set, Serena Williams went from bad to better. She started moving her feet and stopped spraying the ball to dramatic effect. While she showed marked improvement, the top seed did not begin playing at a superhuman level, the kind we’ve seen from Williams over the years when her back is to the wall. She raised her level just enough to make what had been an embarrassing steamroll into a competitive match.

A competitive match, evidently, was not what the Slovak had signed up for. Not having been asked to play anywhere near her best until two games from the finish line, she was unable to ramp up her game in the same way Williams had done almost involuntarily. Stuck in third gear, she had no answers for the sleeping giant she had accidentally awoken and lost 6-2 in the final set.

So, did she choke? Not in the traditional sense. The form that took her within points of upsetting Serena pales in comparison to the brilliant ball bashing that nearly took out Azarenka a year ago. Cibulkova’s fire did not burn out at the last minute, because it was hardly there in the first place. However, a giant-killer type like Cibulkova knows the intensity needed in order to defeat a Williams or an Azarenka. Even if she had not been at her best the entire match, the time to raise her level came when she was serving for 5-2 in the second.

Instead, she remained static, and in a way, that can be equally disappointing.