Sam Smith

HOPE FOR BRITISH TENNIS AT INDIAN WELLS

Despite British tennis being mauled to pieces like an animal’s corpse in a barren landscape, with even the politicians launching an investigation into how the LTA spends its millions from Wimbledon profits and tax payers money, there has been a beacon of hope burning brightly in the Californian sun. Our British fighter, Elena Baltacha, aged 26, became the first British woman to defeat a top ten player since 1998, when Sam Smith defeated the 1994 champion Conchita Martinez at Wimbledon. Baltacha beat world No. 10, the Australian Open semifinalist Li Na in the second round of the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, Calif., in a battling and spirited performance by a 7-6, 2-6, 7-6 margin.

She has since unfortunately lost to Aussie, Alicia Molik, winning just two games in the third round, however this represents a significant step in the right direction for the health of women’s tennis in Britain. This was helped by Anne Keothovong’s movement into the top 50 last year (the first woman to do this in a century) before her knee injury hampered her considerable progress.

Baltacha’s two victories in the main draw was the first time in 15 years that a British woman had won back to back victories in a tournament of this caliber. Both Keothovong and Baltacha are beginning to turn into the kind of role models young female juniors in Britain have been yearning for, such as the likes of Laura Robson.

Baltacha said of her victory against Na, “When I broke into the world’s top 100 in September last year, I felt like I really belong, and that was a defining moment. I’m not struggling with anything major, I’m practicing hard, I’m feeling confident and that all helps. When you are playing the better girls more often, you are seeing a more consistent, faster ball and unless you adapt to that, you aren’t going to survive. I have stuck in there, I think playing three matches already in the event helped but I felt from 4-4 in the final set that I was the one in charge of the match. It took about ten seconds for me to realize she had missed that last backhand but of course I’m elated. I’m playing as well as I’ve ever played and I’m really excited about my prospects.”

That feeling of belonging amongst the world’s best will hopefully transpire through into the consciousness of the young girls currently competing in LTA tournaments across the country. If they can start making headway on the WTA Tour, then why can’t we many will be thinking as they struggle to keep a balance between their time on court and their education. Many of our top juniors drop out at a young age, because quite frankly unlike the Premiership Football League, which contains a plethora of British rags to riches stories to choose from, tennis has so few. Is it worth the risk many players and parents ask themselves as they have to make the difficult decision to drop their studies in favor of a tennis career which seems like a one in a million chance of success; there are no scholarships for tennis in universities like in America, thus the decision is a difficult one for many.

The problem in the women’s game is the number of girls actually playing the game in Britain. There are such a small percentage of girls who play the sport mainly from the middle-upper class bracket, however if Baltacha and Keothovong were to climb further up the rankings, would talented girls from poorer backgrounds begin to see tennis as a way out, like the Russians, who have had a number of role models to aspire to over the years? With Laura Robson hot on the heels of Baltacha and Keothovong, I truly hope that with an overhaul of the way money is spent, Britain will finally have something to cheer about in the women’s game.

Melina Harris is a freelance sports writer, book editor, English tutor and PTR qualified tennis coach from London. For more information and contact details please visit and subscribe to her website and blog at http://www.thetenniswriter.wordpress.com and follow her twitter updates via http://www.twitter.com/thetenniswriter.   She is available for freelance writing, editing and one to one private teaching and coaching.

HENIN AND SERENA, THE TWO PRINCIPLE GODDESSES OF TENNIS

By Christopher Rourke

This Final match, the first Grand Slam final of the 2010s brings the two greatest female players of the 2000s into battle for the fourteenth time. Their first match took place at 2001 US Open, where Serena defeated Henin in the fourth round, 7-5 6-0.  The nineteen year-old Henin, had been a semi-finalist at Roland Garros that year and was the finalist at Wimbledon, losing to the defending champion, Venus Williams.  Many would argue that these two players are not merely the two best players of their generation – but the greatest female players *ever*.  Both of these players have the singular ability to hit winners from any part of the court – still exceptional on the women’s Tour – and the capacity to utterly dominate their opponents.  As such, they remain the most aggressive players at the top of the women’s game.  This was demonstrated emphatically by Serena in her quarter-final against Victoria Azarenka. Finding herself 4-6 0-4 down, and seemingly out, of the match Serena cut down her groundstroke errors, and began hitting the ball much harder, hitting return winner after winner, producing yet another serving clinic, hitting 17 aces and many other unreturnable serves to close out the match – dragging out a titanic performance, seemingly from nowhere.  Serena struck 57 winners to Azarenka’s grand total of 22.  She made the match totally about herself, her own  performance.  As Azarenka said: “She [Serena]  started playing unbelievable from 4-0. I’m really impressed with her… . She has very powerful shots. You don’t see many girls serving 200 in the third set”.  In very similar fashion, after struggling through her second, third and fourth round matches against players ranked in the top 5 and top 30, and producing a solid 7-6 (7-3) 7-5 win against the former world no.3 Nadia Petrova, Henin demonstrated her full all-court mastery in her semi-final match against China’s Jie Zheng. In a match that lasted only 50  minutes, Henin struck 23 winners to Zheng’s grand total of 3 and won 10 out of 13 of her net approaches.

As such, this final represents the fourteenth meeting between the two principle goddesses of tennis, a clash that can be allegorised to a battle between the warriors Artemis and Athena.  Here, the splendid Rod Laver arena is the grand stage equivalent of mount Olympus, Rod Laver arena being the Centre Court of the the first Grand Slam tournament of the year.  Remarkably, this will be Henin and Serena’s first clash in a Grand Slam tournament final, because the players have repeatedly found themselves in the same half of a Grand Slam tournament draw – in all six on their Grand Slam meetings.

Here, I will review how these extraordinarily gifted players match-up, stroke for stroke, in primary features of the game.

SERVE
Serena Williams

Serena Williams has the best first serve and the one of the best second serves in the women’s game.  Though not struck quite as hard as her record-breaking older sister’s, Serena can hit all parts of the service box, and hit ‘flat’, slice and kick serves with ease.  Serena consistently leads the ‘ace’ and ‘points won on 1st serve’ categories, at every Grand Slam tournament. At this tournament, Serena has struck a total of 53 aces, to
Henin’s 23.  Venus Williams, a quarter-finalist, finished with a total of 21.  On numerous occasions, Lindsay Davenport described Serena’s serve as the ‘best serve in women’s game’ and the best serve that she had faced in the entire length of her career.  Of Serena’s serve, her fourth-round opponent,  Samantha Stosur said: “I think the three breakpoints I got, she hit two aces and were a completely unreturnable and they were all over 190… Couple times I actually guessed where she was going and she still got me…. (.)more so than even the power, the variety. When she’s on, she’s able to hit it within ten centimetres of whatever line she wants. When she’s got that trajectory and is so close to the lines, it’s not easy to return.  She doesn’t hit every serve over 190. She goes 160, 170, and you think it’s not that fast. But when they’re on or very close to the line, they’re still very hard to get”.  Serena’s serve exhibits a perfect confluence of
technical excellence and simplicity of production.

Henin has a good, and very powerful serve – she has been serving up to 190 kmh at this year’s tournament.  However, she has not been serving as well as she did back in 2003 and 2006 – 2007.  Henin’s serve has always earned her some free points, and allows her to begin most rallies from an offensive position. However, both Henin’s first and second serve can break down, and critically during key points in matches. This occurred in the Brisbane final, when Henin held two match points, serving at 5-4 in the third set against Kim Clijsters.  This brittleness occurs partly because Henin has continuously reworked and reformed her service motion during the length of her career, as far back as the autumn of 2001.  Thus, as Sam Smith has pointed out, Henin’s service motion is never “fully part of her”.  Any frailty on Henin’s service will be brutally exposed by Serena, the most fearsome, and destructive, returner in the women’s game.

RETURN of SERVE
Serena / Henin

Both players have very destructive returns and frequently hit outright winners on both second *and* first serves – which has the effect of immediately demoralising their opponents.  Serena’s return-of-serve [look out for her forehand crosscourt return-of-serve from the ‘deuce’ court] can be a little more powerful than Henin’s but Henin gets slightly more of her service returns back into court.  In her 2006 – 2007 prime, Henin was winning as much as 55 – 60%+ points on the return-of-serve, more than any player on the women’s Tour.  Both players are roughly equal in this feature of the game.

FOREHAND
Henin

Serena possesses a very powerful forehand – and has recorded, from the data that i have collected, the fastest groundstroke in the ‘Hawk-Eye’ era; a forehand meassured at 154 kmh [= 96 mph] in her quarter-final match against Ana Ivanovic in Dubai on the 19th February 2008.  However, Serena’s forehand can break down, primarily because as she needs a lot of set-up time to prepare for the full-length of stroke. To explain, on the take-back, Serena often takes the racquet face as far back as [behind] her head and completes the swing with the racquet face lying down the length of her back, over her left shoulder.  The whole stroke is comparatively long and requires both good timing and excellent footwork to be fully effective. See: http://www.metacafe.com/watch/2114649/safina_vs_s_williams_forehand_r45_view_slow_motion/ – this is only moderate swing-length for Serena’s forehand.

Serena likes to perform the stroke with full extension, and when she doesn’t have the time for this, the stroke can lose a lot its potency and effectiveness.  There are some players on the Tour, notably Elena Demenetiva [specifically from 2007 onward], that exploit the mechanics of the stroke by taking the ball very early off their much shorter swings, hitting shots directly down the length of the court, straight at Serena. This takes away Serena’s set-up time on the ball, and forces Serena to improvise by using an almost ’emergency’-type swing, tamely brushing up against the ball, yielding a midcourt ball that can easily be attacked by the opponent.  However, when Serena’s footwork and balance are fully co-ordinated with the stroke production on forehand, it can be utterly devastating.

Henin’s forehand is equally as powerful as Serena’s, and certainly at average rallying speeds – but is produced from a far shorter and more compact swing, so is more functional, and efficient, especially when placed under direct pressure in a rallying situation.  At coaching conferences, Henin’s forehand has been isolated in seminars as the best in the women’s game.  My last coach, a performance coach based in the UK, explains that, almost unique among women players, Henin’s stroke production on the forehand closely resemble that of an ATP player. Henin’s forehand is both technically and (uniquely, in the women’s game) biomechanically excellent.

BACKHAND
Serena

Henin’s backhand received enormous attention from the tennis establishment when she broke into the top of the game in 2001 because it is a single-handed stroke that combines both high levels of power and variety.  However, much like Serena’s forehand, Henin requires a good deal of set-up time to unleash her single-handed topspin backhand – and many players exploit this by taking the ball early and hitting the ball very hard into the corner of the ‘ad.’ court.  This forces Henin to employ her slice backhand, as a defensive response to keep herself in the rally.  Early on in their head-to-head series, Serena directly attacked Henin’s backhand, knowing that she could rob Henin of time on the ball, and force defensive replies.  Many other players employ this strategy now, though some players find it hard to adjust to Henin’s slice -which can cut right into the court. Historically, though, Serena has been able to pounce upon defensive shots coming off
Henin’s backhand, and take control of the rally.

Serena’s backhand remains one of the more powerful backhands in the game, is technically sound and rarely breaks down.  Also, Serena is able to create acute angles off her crosscourt backhand, even when placed under pressure.

VOLLEY
Henin

Both Henin and Serena can volley well, especially at critical points in a match.  However, Henin is a superlative volleyer, with exceptional feel – and she has wide repertoire of volleying shots.  Henin has the ability to hit volleys from behind the service line – and still create winning shots from a very difficult position on the court.  Henin is probably the best volleyer in the women’s singles game, and certainly at the elite level.  Henin volleyed with increasing frequency towards the end of her first career, circa 2006 – 2007, and seems to be picking up from where she left off in this feature of her game.

Serena’s speciality is the forehand drive-volley, which she can play to spectacular effect. Her drive-volley is the best, the most destructive, in the game – a shot that she helped to popularise at the top of the sport. However, Henin has an almost equally good drive-volley, and has employed it frequently during this year’s tournament.

FOOTWORK
Henin

Henin has sublime footwork around the ball, perhaps the best in the women’s game. She rarely overruns the ball and is especially economical in her movement.  In marked contrast, and especially for a player of her ability, Serena has relatively poor footwork.  It can take Serena a full set of matchplay before Serena has properly conformed her footwork to the stroke production on her groundstrokes – as clearly evinced in her quarter-final match against Victoria Azarenka, where appeared off-balnace for almost a set and a half of matchplay.

BALANCE
Henin

Again, Henin is exceptional in this feature of the game – and normally retains superior balance than Serena on the fundamental strokes.

COURT COVERAGE
Henin

Though athletically restricted because of her height and natuural wing-span [Henin stands  1.67 m), Henin is one of the best technical movers in the sport and covers the court remarkably well.  Serena used to be an especially athletic player, able to retrieve many balls hit past the sidelines and return them with ease.  However, though she still covers the court well, Serena is no longer one of the very best athletes on the women’s Tour – players such as Elena Dementieva, Svetlana Kuznetsova and Jelena Jankovic have all overtaken Serena in terms of court coverage and athletic output.

* * * * * * * * * * * *
Serena and Henin are roughly equals, when examined across all features of the game, which serves to make this rivalry especially compelling.

Two external factors may effect the outcome of this match, however – Serena has clearly been injured from early on in the tournament, and her multiple leg and ankle injuries seem to have become more serious in her last two matches, inhibiting her movement, specifically in the ‘ad.’ court. Serena has made no attempt to retrieve what are, for her, easily makeable balls, hit within metres of her reach.  This is potentially concerning as Henin has the perfect game to exploit weaknesses in movement and court coverage, hitting to short angles off wings, to both sides of the court.  In particular, the short angles produced off Henin’s crosscourt backhand could be very damaging – and telling – for Serena.

On the other hand, Henin has struggled both mentally and especially physically to complete some of her matches in Melbourne, appearing physically exhausted in the closing stages of her third and fourth round matches.  Henin has spoken, quite honestly, of how her body has yet to fully adjust to the demands of playing physically and emotionally draining matches, having been absent from tournament play for a full twenty months.  Henin’s very quick semi-final win will help her enormously in this regard going into Saturday’s final.  However, the and the greater question may well prove to be Henin’s level of mental resilience in a Grand Slam Final – Henin’s first since September 2007.

Mao and Zheng – China’s Most Notable Tennis Players

Jie Zheng of China is making waves at Wimbledon and is now beginning to rival her nation’s former leader Mao Tse-Tung as the most famous tennis player from her country.

Zheng is the first Chinese player to reach a singles semifinal at a major championship, thanks for a wild-card entry in the tournament and string of unlikely wins, highlighted by her third-round upset of world No. 1 Ana Ivanovic.

As documented by Bud Collins in his newly released book THE BUD COLLINS HISTORY OF TENNIS, Chairman Mao was the first Chinese of note to play the game. Wrote Collins, “Chairman Mao’s biog­rapher, Edgar Snow, reported that the chairman enjoyed playing tennis with comrades in Shensi Province after his army had survived the famed, brutal Long March of 6,000 miles in 1935. Unfortunately his tennis career ended when a goat ate the net. That must have gotten his goat. But he would have been proud of Zi Yan and Jie Zheng, first Chinese ladies to win majors, Aus­tralian and Wimbledon doubles, 2006. Mao was born December 26, 1893 in Shaoshan Xiang Tan, Hunan Province, China and died at the age of 82, September 9, 1976 in Beijing.”

Zheng is the best performing women’s wild card at Wimbledon in the history of the tournament. (Previous best were fourth round performances by Zina Garrison in 1982, Anne Smith in 1985, Sam Smith in 1998 and Maria Sharapova in 2003.) Goran Ivanisevic won the men’s title as a wild card in 2001.

The Bud Collins History of Tennis: An Authoritative Encyclopedia and Record Book