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.
Robin Soderling used to be one of the most misunderstood players on the the ATP World Tour. Nowadays, however, he’s just one of the most missed.
Earlier this week Soderling, who has been off of the tour since July fighting mononucleosis, withdrew from the Australian Open. He tweeted that he was hoping to be able to return to the tour in February. It was heartbreaking news for myself and the rest of the tennis community. Though we haven’t always fully embraced and appreciated the shy but unyielding Swede, the thought of a Soderling-less January just seems completely wrong. Something’s missing, and it hurts.
How did we get here? Did absence make our hearts grow fonder? Did we not know what we had until it was gone? Are we just feeling sympathy for an ailing athlete, or is this group heartache a symptom of something else? Is it possible that, without even realizing it, we all fell a bit in love with Robin Bo Carl Soderling?
The Early Years
What did we know about Robin Soderling the morning of May 31, 2009? Dedicated tennis fans knew him primarily as an indoor-tennis-specialist, a rare breed of player who’s only significant results came when the stadium was closed off from the outside world. He had been in nine finals and won three titles, all indoors on either hard-court or carpet. Unfortunately outside where the rest of the tennis players lived he was seen as an underachiever, another in the endless parade of players who seem destined to never live up to their potential.
He also had a reputation as a, well, to put it nicely- a brat. In a 2007 Wimbledon five-set match against Rafael Nadal he made waves by mocking the French Open Champion and playing mind games (seen in the video below). This ruffled the Spaniard so much that in his post-match interview Nadal made some uncharacteristically harsh comments about his opponent, calling Soderling “strange”, and saying that he had a hard time finding anyone in the locker room with nice things to say about him. Those comments would follow him around for years to come.
I’m not sure that “breakthrough” is a strong enough word for Soderling’s 6–2, 6–7(2), 6–4, 7–6(2) defeat over Rafael Nadal on May 31, 2009 in the fourth round of the French Open. In fact, I’m quite certain it’s not . That match is the tennis world’s “Where were you when…” moment. I’ll never forget the surreal, uncomfortable, queasy feeling I had sitting on my couch that morning watching the upset unfold. Some things in life were certain- death, taxes, and Rafael Nadal winning the French Open. Robin Soderling and his monster forehand knocked the entire tennis world off it’s axis that day. It was as exhilarating as it was terrifying.
As we all tried to gather our breath and find our footing again in this strange new world, Soderling steamrolled through Nikolay Davydenko in the quarterfinals and survived an epic five-setter against Fernando Gonzales in the semifinals to make it all the way to the French Open final. The man who had never been past the Third Round of a Major and who had never made a Final outdoors on any surface was now facing Roger Federer in the French Open Finals.
Though Soderling lost rather meekly to Federer that day, he shocked the tennis world again during the trophy presentation. His speech was one of the most memorable runner-up speeches ever- sincere, funny, and incredibly endearing. He “yoked” his way into our hearts that afternoon, and showed that his personality was just as complex and surprising as his game had become. (His speech starts at 7:20 in the clip, everything before that is crying Federer.)
So many players are defined by their breakthroughs that the word has become rather transparent. Not Robin Soderling. After the 2009 French Open he was not intimidated by his new-found fame or astronomically increased expectations. He finished 2009 ranked number eight in the world, his first Top Ten finish ever, and powered his way to the Top Five in 2010. He showed no fear going into the 2010 French Open where he had the bulk of his points to defend. He made it all the way back to the final and he did it in style, defeating a guy named Roger Federer in the quarterfinals. Rafael Nadal got the best of him in the final that year, but one thing was for sure- Robin Soderling 2.0 was not a fluke. He was here to stay, and it was time for the rest of us to get used to it.
Things came full circle in he fall of 2010 when he went back to his beloved indoor courts to win the biggest title of his career, the Paris Masters, by defeating hometown favorite Gael Monfils in the Final.
Despite only playing for seven months and battling nagging injuries and illness for most of the spring, Soderling still managed to win four titles this year. Four!
Tennis is a scarier place when Robin Soderling is around. He has the potential to beat any player on any surface at any time, and he’s proven that he’s not too scared or intimated to do it. Tennis needs that. We as fans need that. This sport is at it’s best when it’s knocked off balance, when it feels like anything is possible, when there are dynamites in the draw.
Let’s face it, we didn’t fall in love with tennis because of the security it provided. That’s not who tennis fans are. We love the heart-attacks, the unpredictability, the nauseating knowledge that nothing is a given. We love the underachievers, the floaters, and especially the villains.
Get well soon, Robin. We can’t wait to have you back.
(Thanks to my twitter followers for sharing their favorite Soderling moments with me this week, especially @A_Gallivant and @ptenisnet for the links to the videos above.)
Now that it’s officially the off-season, which is all of one month long, you’ve probably seen many many retrospectives and “Best [insert tennis topic here] of 2010” lists. So, instead of doing my own “best of” this week, I thought it would be fun to look back at some of the 2010 storylines that didn’t quite pan out.
It’s Finally Andy Roddick’s Year
The Rationale: Last year, Andy Roddick took part in one of the most memorable Wimbledon finals of all time. At 27, most people thought his chances of winning a second Grand Slam were slim, but he powered through the field, defeating hometown favorite Andy Murray in a great four set semifinal. Just like 2004 and 2005, Roddick would face Roger Federer in the final; however, unlike those two times, Andy went after the title with a vengeance, giving us an epic fifth set. Well, a 16-14 fifth set was epic before Isner-Mahut and for a championship match I still consider it pretty incredible. Anyway, we all know how that turned out. Poor Andy went home empty handed once again. Even though he didn’t win, reporters jumped at the idea that Andy was on the right track. So, when Andy posted a quarterfinal appearance at the Australian Open and backed that up with a finalist appearance at Indian Wells and a win in Miami during the US hardcourt season, a lot of people felt that he was on track to finally win Wimbledon.
The Reality: Unfortunately Roddick crashed out to Yen-Hsun Lu in the 4th round of Wimbledon. After losing in the round of 16 at Legg Mason in early August, Andy fell out of the top 10, leaving no Americans in the top 10 for the first time since the ranking system was instituted. He later confirmed that he was suffering from mononucleosis and had to skip the Rogers Cup in Toronto. The disappointments continued when he lost in the 2nd round of the US Open to Janko Tipsarevic. Then, he was forced to retire from his 2nd round match in Shanghai. However, Andy worked incredibly hard in Basel and Paris to salvage his spot in an eighth consecutive year end championship and is currently ranked 8th in the world.
Nadal’s Winning Ways Are Over
The Rationale: Rafael Nadal is pretty much the King of the French Open and in 2009, for the first time since he started participating, he didn’t take home the trophy. In fact, Nadal lost rather shockingly to Robin Soderling in the 4th round. Suffering from tendonitis in both knees, Rafa was unable to defend his 2008 Wimbledon title and eventually lost in the semifinals at the 2009 US Open. Rafa failed to defend his Australian Open title after being forced to retire in the quarterfinals against Andy Murray. Nadal’s last title came in Rome in April of 2009. By April 2010, he still hadn’t won a single title.
The Reality: Nearly one year after his title in Rome, Rafa decimated Fernando Verdasco in the Monte Carlo final. Proving his Monte Carlo title was no fluke, Nadal blew through the clay court season, winning Rome and Madrid, and capping it all off with his fifth French Open title. After that, Rafa went on to win his second Wimbledon title and completed a career Grand Slam at the US Open. After a slow start to the year, 2010 actually ended up being all about Rafael Nadal.
Justine Henin’s Magical Comeback
The Rationale: After a two year retirement, Kim Clijsters came back to win the 2009 US Open in just her third tournament back from retirement. So, when Justine Henin announced that she too would be returning to professional tennis, the expectations were high. Not to disappoint, Henin defeated Elena Dementieva, Nadia Petrova, and Zheng Jie en route to the Australian Open final. She lost to Serena Williams in three sets, but was off to a good start considering this was her second tournament back from retirement. She reached the semifinals at the Sony Ericsson Open in March before losing to compatriot Kim Clijsters in three sets, but managed to crack the top 25 after starting the season unranked.
The Reality: Justine has won the French Open four times, but fell to Sam Stosur in the 4th round of this year’s tournament. No matter, Justine had mentioned that the purpose of her comeback was to finally win Wimbledon. Justine is a two time finalist and three time semifinalist at the grass court tournament and it is the only trophy keeping her from completing a career Grand Slam. Henin was seeded 17th by the start of the 2010 Wimbledon Championships but was set on a course to meet fellow Belgian Kim Clijsters in the 4th round. It was one of the most anticipated match ups of the tournament and Kim prevailed in three sets. The real disaster was not the loss, but a fall Justine took in the first set. After sustaining an elbow injury, she was forced to end her season after her Wimbledon loss. Henin is set to return to tennis at the Hopman Cup in January, and this story may very well become relevant again.
Ernests Gulbis Is Ending His Slacker Ways
The Rationale: Ernests Gulbis is only 22, but he’s already compiled quite a reputation on tour for having lots of untapped talent, but little motivation. Some days he looks absolutely inspired and some days he looks anything but. However, 2010 started off as a great year for the young Latvian. In February he reached the semifinals at the Regions Morgan Keegan event in Memphis and went on to win his first ATP title at Delray Beach. At the Internazionali BNL d’Italia in Rome, Gulbis reached his first semifinal at an ATP Masters 1000 event. The real story from Rome was that Gulbis beat World No. 1 Roger Federer in the second round. While he eventually lost the semifinal to Rafael Nadal, he was the first player to win a set against Rafa in the 2010 clay season.
The Reality: Gulbis was forced to retire in the first round of first round of the French Open and skipped out on this year’s Wimbledon. He proceeded to lose in the first round of the US Open as well. Articles popped up everywhere in May about Gulbis’ new dedication to tennis, but as soon as he started losing consistently again, those articles were nowhere to be found. He ended the year without progressing past the 1st round of any major. However, he did manage to finish the season at a career high No. 24.
Clearly this is just a small sampling of the stories that weren’t quite right. We aren’t psychic so journalists can only go off the information they have at hand. All of these stories made sense at the time but fortunes change and injuries occur. Since this is certainly not a comprehensive list, feel free to send me some of your favorite false stories of 2010.