In place of a regularly scheduled column, I present “Backboard Banter,” a friendly debate with tennis writer Benjamin Snyder. Follow Ben on Twitter @WriterSnyder and leave your feedback; this might become a more regular occurrence.
Maria Sharapova won her second Indian Wells title on Sunday without the loss of a set, capping off the terrific fortnight with an emphatic victory over resurgent rival Caroline Wozniacki. A buzz began to develop around the Russian; more for the cryptic messages she would write on the camera lens post-victory (in lieu of the tradition signature) than even her impressive play. Coy requests to “Tweet me?” turned into warm wishes for “Sweet Dreams.” This week, Benjamin Snyder (a contributor to the New York Times’ Straight Sets blog and a past writer for Wimbledon and the US Open) joins me for a debate on Sharapova’s week, revamped image, and what those messages could possibly mean.
David Kane: For all her inconsistencies, this has to go down as one of the most business-like efforts from Maria Sharapova since her shoulder surgery. While it’s true that she had to play neither Serena Williams nor Victoria Azarenka, she did have to deal with crafty opponents and players who have beaten her in the past en route to the title. As impressive as her ball striking has been in the desert, I have to wonder what has caused this change. Her notoriously streaky play has been well documented, most recently at the Australian Open when she barreled into the semifinals only to suffer a letdown in the penultimate round.
But no letdown occurred this week, least of all in the final when she saved the only two break points she faced. Sharapova herself didn’t feel like she redlined her game to win the final, attributing her success to thoughtful aggression, “doing the right things and being patient enough and looking for the right shot of…when I wanted to move in a little bit.” I know you have a couple of interesting theories, Ben, so I’ll let you draw blood first.
Benjamin Snyder: Well, David, where to start? I think we’re seeing a second coming of sorts for Sharapova, personality-wise. We may never quite get the 14-year old Maria (the carefree, stamp-collecting, camera twirling one), but, I believe, we’re getting a quirky candy tycoon (maybe more of a silly sour than a plain old, purely saccharine silly) who’s trying to portray some semblance of her past.
Why? Because, quite simply, she’s afraid of being boring. Plus, she’s become bored. To combat the on-court intensity and the off-court poise that can come across as over-polished, and probably to also have fun, she’s penning cryptic on-camera messages to illustrate an enigmatic edge of attitude. As David so thoughtfully collected, the messages, beginning from round one to her win over Wozniacki, are as follows: “tweet me, who knows?, feeling silly?, just kidding, sweet dreams,” and “champion.”
Instead of an aimless attempt at interpreting each message, which would end up being more conjecture than substantive, let’s see what the Russian told reporters. “I got bored with the signatures, and actually I don’t even know why we ever do signatures,” she said. “I was just bored of signing my name and started doing something different.”
As you may have guessed, the key word here: bored.
But, before I go any further, David, take it away with the following in mind: Is this a new Maria, a revision of a former model, or neither?
Kane: The Sharapova we’ve seen this week is hardly one invented from scratch. After all, she who once expressed a passion for aromatherapy as a teenager still enjoys a good personalized candle from LeLabo. No, to explain this peak in personality, I’m going to draw a parallel to the men’s game (hope everyone’s buckled their seatbelts, this could get ugly). Once upon a time, Rafael Nadal was undefeated at the French Open. Beyond that, he owned Roger Federer, thought to be the only man who could end the Spaniard’s romp on the Parisian dirt. After losing three straight finals, and with all the attention on the King of Clay, Federer came into the 2009 French Open under the radar. Playing relaxed tennis, Federer played a first week’s full of entertaining matches before Nadal was shockingly bundled out of the tournament. Suddenly the favorite, Federer slipped into the role with relative ease and fulfilled his tennis destiny by completing the Career Slam.
To be sure, Sharapova’s win at Indian Wells lacks some (many) of my parallel’s epic qualities, but the mood was the same. With the focus on the undefeated Victoria Azarenka, Sharapova stopped worrying about her “boring” final finishes and relaxed. After all, we have the cheeky scribbles to prove it. That relaxation failed to loosen her permanently clenched fist, but it freed up her sometimes-shaky serve and streaky ground game beyond the point where she simply inherited the No. 2 ranking from injured Azarenka by reaching the final. Instead, she broke down the door by winning the title.
At the same time, both Federer and Sharapova illustrate the important difference between “relaxed” and “resigned,” for when the moment called, they answered with equal gusto.
The question for Sharapova, then, is whether there are enough scented candles in the world to maintain this level of giddy zen in fields complete with Serena Williams and a healthy Azarenka. What say you, Snyder?
Snyder: Point well taken with the comparison of Sharapova to Federer’s dominating performance.
Now, when we’re talking Sharapova in the same sentence as Serena and Azarenka, there are a plethora of questions with which to contend: Can she snap the losing streak to the American? And can she continue to out-grunt the scream queen and Redfoo-loving Belarusian in the heat of battle? Look no further than her head-to-heads with both and the answer appears to be a resounding no versus Serena (2-11) and pretty even against Azarenka (5-7).
To talk branding though, I’d argue Sharapova’s competition is essentially non-existent (although Li Na’s endorsement deals in Asia may soundly reject that notion). But in terms of popularity in the United States and Europe, she’s sugarcoated royalty on a WTA Tour of Sour Patch Kids (to keep the cornucopia of candy references coming). The Russian has the compelling rags-to-riches storyline, the comeback from injury to eventually take the Roland Garros title – think: transformation from “cow on ice” to antelope on clay – and the press conference presence a PR maven could only dream of for his or her clients.
While Serena has a love-hate relationship with fans and Azarenka, well, tends to hold a mostly hate-hate relationship at the moment, there’s something to be said about Maria’s charm, poise and mostly unwavering appeal (at least once she’s off-court and keeping the decibel levels down). If the Siberia native finds herself feeling a little bored these days and wants to spice things up, there’s no reason that these cryptic camera messages can’t also strike a positive chord – on-court screeching aside — with her fans.
So, David, maybe Sharapova is truly just “feeling silly” and maybe she’s “just kidding” about being bored. Regardless, there’s nothing more concrete right now that she’s the 2013 Indian Wells “champion.”
For any more analysis on the matter, Sharapova wrote it best: “Who knows?”
Nadia Petrova Goes Back to the (Live Score)Board
Growing up as a tennis fan in the mid 2000s, I remember staying up past 3AM watching matches played in Australia. I remember matches I’ve seen in person around, from New York to New Haven. But if there has been one constant through my tenure in tennis fandom, it has been the omnipresent Live Scoreboard.
Like most who have followed a tournament in the last decade, I cannot tell you how many hours I have wasted staring at a pair of names, willing numbers to flash for one combatant or the other. I would skim the pittance of stats the scoreboard offered in the effort to create a mental picture of the match. How was the momentum swinging? Who was converting the most break points? Did refreshing the webpage make the scores update any faster?
Analyzing a match this way can be more difficult than guessing a meal based on five or six uncooked ingredients. Oh, and you’re blindfolded.
But the more you “watched” a player via the Scoreboard, the simpler it became to a trace certain seemingly minute patterns. Suddenly, why a player wins or loses becomes as black and white as, well, the Scoreboard itself.
Over the years, the technology that aids tennis fans has evolved, and marquee matches are indiscriminately broadcast on streams (legal or otherwise). But every so often, usually during big tournaments like Indian Wells, matches of interest get moved out of the spotlight, and spectators are once again subjected to that maddeningly numerical game of Pong.
Today, the flashing names in question were Nadia Petrova and Julia Goerges. While a match between these two naturally talented athletes would have been a joy to watch by court or by stream, this match-up was fascinating to dissect via the (almost) all-knowing Scoreboard. From years of following the tall Russian’s matches, I can attest that her serve, particularly the first delivery, makes all the difference.
Far from the Tour’s best mover, Petrova’s powerful serve literally makes or breaks her. Serving at a high first serve percentage, she can take advantage of short returns and finish points quickly with thundering groundstrokes or aggressive forays to the net. Forced to hit too many second serves, her biggest weapon is neutralized and big-hitters like Goerges can take control of rallies by getting the Russian on the run.
The first set was over in a flash, but the Scoreboard made it easy to see how Petrova was able to tame her German opponent. Serving at nearly 70% against an intimidating returner, the Russian veteran kept her service games short and efficient, without facing a single break point. With an apparent rhythm on serve, she was allowed to take risks on the return, breaking the Goerges serve three times in the process.
But anyone who has watched Nadia Petrova play (on any medium) in the last decade can tell you that her biggest hurdle is anything but technical. Blessed with immense physical gifts, the Russian has struggled to maintain composure at a match’s critical stages to the point where her career will likely be defined by its losses rather than its wins. A successful campaign to cap off the 2012 season came to an abrupt end when she split with coach Ricardo Sanchez in January, and her results have been middling all year.
Against Goerges, Petrova was clutch in the important moments. Facing six break points in the second set, she saved five. Faced with the opportunity to break Goerges’ serve six times, Petrova achieved a rare perfect conversion rate. Put those numbers together and the Russian easily dispatched the No. 21 seed 6-1 6-2 to set up a fourth round encounter with Caroline Wozniacki.
Theoretically, one has not seen Nadia Petrova hit a tennis ball, save for those who have been courtside. How can we, the tennis cognoscenti, know if she is playing as well as she was last November, when she last played (and beat) Wozniacki? The arcane system of live scoring can be frustrating at first, but taking a few cues from what it tells can help a fan uncover a match’s nuances, and be amazed by what the numbers truly show.
I Love the 90s: A Reflection on Two Teen Phenoms
The year was 1994. The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) had just been established. Groups like Weezer and Green Day dominated the airwaves. The Lion King was released and quickly became the highest grossing animated film of all time.
Oh, and a pair of 14 year olds, Martina Hingis and Venus Williams began their careers as professional tennis players.
Snuck onto the WTA Tour before the now infamous Jennifer Capriati Age Eligibility Rule was adopted, Hingis and Williams were the sport’s last prepubescent prodigies. In a class all their own, the two young women could not have been more different. Martina, named for compatriot and living legend Navratilova, was the Swiss Miss of the international junior circuit. At 12 years old, she won the French Open girls’ title, defending it a year later and picking up a Wimbledon title along the way. Thrashing opponents years her senior, Hingis played a grown up game within a child’s frame, one that barely scratched 5’7″. Far from a baseline aggressor, Martina preferred to light up the court with cunning variety and flawless shot selection.
Across the Atlantic was Williams, whose father Richard taught her and her sister, Serena (perhaps you’ve heard of her) the sport with thanks to instructional VHS tapes and gang-infested Compton courts. Making school a priority, Richard kept his daughters stateside and entered them solely in USTA events. Venus went undefeated in 63 matches, setting a precedent on a soil she would come to dominate as a senior. Where Martina represented a keen tennis brain and sharp instincts, Venus was raw talent and natural athleticism. Statuesque and 6’1″, she was known for possessing a powerful, well, everything. The young American was breaking records for serve speeds as a teenager, and helped usher in the era of Big Babe Tennis that persists to this day.
In the mid-90s, while Venus broke records with her serve, Martina wrote her name in the record books simply by winning. At 15, she became the youngest-ever Slam champion, taking the 1996 Wimbledon doubles crown with veteran Helena Sukova. A year later, she became the undisputed queen of the tour, falling one match shy of the Grand Slam and began a reign atop the rankings that was largely uninterrupted for the next four years.
Venus reached her first Slam final that same year, falling to Martina in Flushing. At the time, she was no match for her rival’s fully-developed game. But while the American made steady improvements, fine-tuning her power game to match the consistency of those ranked above her, injuries tended to derail her cause, most notably when she succumbed to cramps against Hingis at the same event two years later.
As she was getting her legs massaged by the trainer, Hingis put a towel on the ground so she could lie on the court with her feet up.
It is a scene that is just so Martina. Once quoted as saying she was a “player, not a worker,” the Swiss superstar was a young woman to whom much (perhaps too much) came easily. Her consistent style meant she could compensate for a powderpuff serve, the biggest weakness in her game, relatively speaking. While those around her got fitter and tougher, Martina laid back with her feet up, never losing that signature wry grin. And why shouldn’t she have? She was assured of a Hall of Fame career by the age of 18.
Sure enough, Hingis was elected to the illustrious Interantional Tennis Hall of Fame on Monday, a class of 2013 for which, once again, she seems too young. While her powerful, injury-prone contemporary once looked more likely to be the proverbial flash in the pan, it was Hingis herself who burned out at 22, made a comeback at 25 only to retire for good at 27. Even in her much anticipated mid-2000s comeback, it was apparent that she had failed to make the necessary changes to compete with what had become the game’s best. The comparative lack of success meant, for Hingis, an exponential decrease in desire.
By comparison, Venus has become the posterwoman for overcoming adversity. Over almost two decades on tour, she not only became a great champion (though her head-to-head with Hingis ended at 11-10 in the Swiss’ favor), but also an ambassador for her sport and an inspiration to all who have seen her battle and conquer Sjogren’s Syndrome, a debilitating autoimmune disease, to win a fourth Olympic gold medal last summer in London. Who could have predicted the way this story would end? Certainly no one in the 90s.
Though firmly entrenched among the game’s legends, what would Hingis give to go back?
Jelena & Petra: Best Actresses
There is something fitting about two of the WTA’s most dramatic personae triumphing on Oscar weekend. From Dubai to Bogota, spectators were treated to two comeback stories. One may have had a bigger budget, but both protagonists, Petra Kvitova and Jelena Jankovic, provided compelling drama throughout their title runs.
Amidst a star-studded cast of characters in Dubai (even without top seeds Serena Williams and Victoria Azarenka) the plot focused on tragic heroine Kvitova. An active, if static competitor, the Czech starlet was faced with questions as to whether she could build upon or at least maintain the form she rediscovered in Doha en route to a three-set defeat to Williams in the semifinals.
Jankovic by contrast is a more passive participant in the sport. A gifted counterpuncher who once topped the world rankings, the Serb was playing in a small South American clay tournament rather than an event closer to home to avoid the ignominious prospect of playing qualifying at the latter. This week, the ostensibly washed-up glamour girl was simply looking to string matches together, something she could do in her sleep during her hey day, now a task with which she has struggled since winning the prestigious Indian Wells event in 2010.
It is a truth universally acknowledged in the tennis world that, when Kvitova is playing her “A” game (even perhaps her “B+” game), she is among the fiercest competitors in the sport. Her hyper-aggressive style took her to great heights in 2011, including a Wimbledon crown and a Year-End Championships title in Istanbul. But Kvitova has been criticized in the last 18 months for her propensity to go off the rails. But as the Middle Eastern fortnight came to a close, the Czech’s game was in full effect, which helped her take out three top 10 opponents, including a net-rushing Sara Errani in the final. As flawless, positively cinematic as she seemed for most of the week, Kvitova still treated fans to some of her trademark drama with a sudden dip in form just shy of the finish line. The tireless Errani sensed her opportunity and switched tactics as she took the match to a decisive set. Somehow, Kvitova turned the match around right when she needed to as the final set got underway. As her “Pojd!”s grew louder, it became apparent how much the win meant to Kvitova, who closed in style and nabbed her first title of 2013.
As for Jankovic, the win in Bogota had more of an “indie” feel rather than a mainstream success. In a field far more reminiscent of an ITF Challenger than a WTA International, JJ only faced one player ranked in the top 100 en route to the final, dropping two sets along the way. In the title match, she faced clay court specialist Paula Ormaaechea, who had been ranked in the top 100 as recently as a month ago and took a set from Venus Williams at last year’s French Open. The Serb had lost her last five finals, which gave this match a “now or never” feel, one last chance for the aging veteran to turn around a spiraling career. By the scoreboard, Jankovic’s victory over Ormaechea was more straightforward than Kvitova’s in Dubai, but it lacked the Czech’s authoritative punch. Playing better defense than she had in the last year, Jankovic relied more on errors from her Argentine opponent than her own stellar play. The week wasn’t pretty from Jankovic, nor were the wins particularly impressive. Yet for the first time in what feels like forever, Jelena Jankovic won five complete, consecutive matches. She was far from her best, but wasn’t this kind of “against all odds” consistency the very thing that made her so maddening only few years ago?
The “match play versus confidence” debate is tennis’ equivalent to the chicken and the egg, but after playing week in, week out in search of wins (and the confidence that comes with them), the Academy finally recognized two of the hardest working women in tennis, and both Jankovic and Kvitova are starting to get a little of both.
A Low Roar: Putintseva Steels Past Robson in Dubai
Patient. Poised. Polite.
Few who have watched the “delightfully offensive” Yulia Putintseva Show would use any of those words to describe the demonstrative Kazakh’s on-court demeanor. But as the 18-year-old calmly broke Laura Robson to serve for the match in the final set, many were wondering where the drama had gone.
One day earlier, a shuddering tennis world braced itself for the notoriously over-the-top teenager’s debut. Known for her multilingual affirmatives and incendiary celebrations, Putintseva has set herself apart as her generation’s cartoon villain. To be fair, something like this is, to a slightly lesser degree, what audiences are used to seeing at any given moment from the Putintseva Show. Her wildcard into Dubai’s main draw (at the expense of former finalist Svetlana Kuznetsova) seemed as much a nod to her perceived entertainment value as her talent; assigning her Center Court against Robson, a peer with whom Putintseva had had history in juniors, put the Kazakh in primetime.
Anticipation had reached a fevered pitch as the match got underway. Diehard tennis fans, hip to the often circus-like atmosphere of Yulia Putintseva matches, expected a verbal bloodbath between the youngsters. As the match wore on, it became clear that the Show had undergone drastic retooling. Perhaps knowing the world was watching, the young Kazakh was shockingly quiet in showing off deft feel and exposing her rival’s weaker movement en route to winning the opening set. Drawing errors from the hyper-aggressive Robson, Yulia forced viewers to watch her for her tennis, without any antics to serve as diversions. Some were put off by this unplugged, otherwise weaponless Putintseva; others had signed on too long ago to jump ship now.
Despite making vast improvements after an off-season at the Mourataglou Academy, the diminutive Putintseva still struggles with consistency. To play her brand of brash defense, she must stand close to the baseline so she might successfully absorb pace from players like Robson. As the British phenom edged the match towards a deciding set, Putintseva was falling farther and farther behind the baseline, allowing her taller, more powerful opponent to dictate. Fans who were looking for jubilation when she was winning were equally disappointed to find no histrionics when she was losing. No racquets were smashed. No heavens were screamed up to. When the match reached equilibrium, it had caught up with Yulia Putintseva.
Instigators looking for a boiling point were hopeful in the third set. Putintseva, ostensibly unable to accuse officials of conspiring against her with incorrect calls, challenged a shot that had been called wide. When Hawkeye overturned the call, umpire Kader Nouni called for a replay rather than awarding her the point. Robson had no play on the ball; even British commentators David Mercer and Annabel Croft felt the hitherto reserved Putintseva had been wronged. But rather than theatrically arguing the decision, Yulia politely asked for confirmation, won the replayed point, and proceeded to break Robson a few points later.
A fellow spectator and blogger tweeted me about Putintseva, how her faultlessly calm disposition was, well, boring:
@ovafanboy you promised drama. I want drama.
— Anna L (@anna_tennisfan) February 18, 2013
To which I responded:
@anna_tennisfan We haven't even gotten to the third set tiebreaker yet.
— Davey (@ovafanboy) February 18, 2013
It is evident that Yulia Putintseva talks a big game. She is on record as having aspirations of winning a major title and being No. 1 (in 2013). But she has yet to assert herself as a clutch match-closer. In her two matches in Australia, she served for the both in the second set, only to lose both sets in tiebreakers. As if on cue, Putintseva sensed the moment and froze. The young woman who is “never scared to lose” did little to silence a talented opponent, and found the set leveled at 5-5, winning only 2 points in 3 games.
Serving to avoid a heartbreaking loss, Putintseva played an inspired game to hold at love. The ensuing tiebreaker that I had promised forty minutes earlier was ugly, one of those tired affairs played on guts alone. Putintseva began the season losing one such sudden death game. But she somehow parlayed the momentum from that revitalizing hold into an 8-6 squeaker.
As Robson’s final forehand sailed long, it became apparent to both the crowd in Dubai and fans around the world that the fiery Kazakh had saved her best reaction for last. Celebrating a win that will propel her into the game’s top 90, Yulia Putintseva unleashed those expertly contained emotions and showed us how much this victory truly meant.
(GIF courtesy of @TheGrandSlams)
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.
“DelPetra” Showing Signs of “Peak Pierce” Syndrome
Comparing the WTA to the ATP is called farfetched. Comparing the ATP to the WTA is called insulting. However, few fans of either disciple can dispute the similarities between 2011 Wimbledon Champion Petra Kvitova and Juan Martin Del Potro, winner of the 2009 US Open.
Both juxtapose lethal games with breathtaking power against soft-spoken demeanors and “gentle giant” reputations. Both have amazed spectators with their shared ability to play unbeatable tennis and end points at will with thudding winners. Both shocked the tennis world with ruthlessly won Slam titles that seemed less like blips and more like the starts of dynasties.
Yet despite all of their talent and proven potential, both have found it difficult to back up their big wins and to challenge the game’s best (or more consistent?) players. By all accounts, Kvitova had a solid 2012 that featured two Slam semifinals and wins atop her nemesis, the North American hard court. But it was far from the dominating display that her ’11 Year-End Championships win seemed to foreshadow. Various injuries kept her from top condition. Her confidence has taken an undoubted hit as she starts 2013 with early losses to Laura Robson and Kristina Mladenovic who, with equally fearless games, are arguably younger versions of herself.
Where the Czech’s form has ebbed and flowed, the ATP’s top Argentine suffered a traumatic wrist injury a mere months after his US Open triumph. Sidelined for nearly an entire season, Del Potro has struggled to rebuild his career in the last two years. While he has made steady improvement, even capturing the Bronze medal at the London Olympics, he too has dealt with bouts of erratic form. In his first major outing of 2013, he crushed his first two opponents only to lose his way against Jeremy Chardy in the third round.
Still, it cannot be denied that, on any given day, either player could dig out of these patches of poorer form and go on a run at a Grand Slam tournament. Such a run would be considered as jaw-dropping and awe-inspiring as their first victories.
Such is the characterization of “Peak Pierce” Syndrome.
The notion of “Peak Pierce” is brought up in online tennis circles as a half-meme, half-miracle-of-nature. Centered around French superstar, Mary Pierce, a “Peak Pierce” performance is one of sheer dominance, a brilliantly effortless display of power. An undeniable talent, Pierce’s career lasted nearly twenty seasons. Of those twenty, she made Grand Slam finals in four of them: 1994, 1995, 2000 and 2005. Such winless stretches are unheard of in today’s game; for Mary, it mattered neither her age nor the players against whom she competed. When she was playing “Peak Pierce” tennis, the Frenchwoman could dominate the sport in the way we were coming to expect Kvitova and Del Potro to do.
But Mary Pierce is one of the sport’s greatest tragedies. Subjected to an abusive father, Pierce will be remembered as much for “The Jim Pierce Rule,” the first WTA legislation against out of control tennis parents, as for her dominating performances and inspiring perseverance. Her tortured past is looked on by many as the reason why she is among a small group of Slam champions to retire with only two (the majority of Slam Champions have either one or more than three).
Perhaps the examples of Del Potro and Kvitova provide evidence that they, along with Pierce, are simply too talented to be consistent. An oxymoronic concept, to be sure, but few can argue that when these three are playing their best tennis, they are among the best in the game. We have seen each of these players post dazzling statistics, and seen them hit incredible winners. How could anyone be expected to maintain such superhuman form?
Whether a fan values combustible brilliance or dependable consistency depends on what players that fan prefers, but the real issue is whether we, as fans or pundits, can feel right about criticizing these streaky players, belittling their accomplishments by calling them “underachievers.” Of course, it would be great if Mary could have “Peak Pierce’d” into a Golden Slam, if Petra had taken the #1 ranking that seemed all but assured 12 months ago, or if Juan Martin could have taken out Federer at the Olympics to compete for a Gold medal.
Their lows are surprising, frustrating, and even sometimes comical when they fail to find the court. But there are few things for which I would trade the memory of Petra Kvitova demolishing the field to capture the Wimbledon title, of Juan Martin Del Potro handing Roger Federer his first US Open loss after going undefeated in Flushing for five years, of Mary Pierce saving her best tennis for the end of her career and reaching two Slam finals in the process.
These highs, in my opinion, make everything, even “Peak Pierce” Syndrome, worth it.
As Serena Slips, Razzano Regains Footing
There are precious few constants on the WTA Tour, but one bizarre set of coincidences seems to point towards an inverse proportion in the careers of Serena Williams and her nemesis, Virginie Razzano. For much of the last decade, the Frenchwoman has made her biggest strides while Serena was struggling beneath some of her career’s stickiest situations.
At the 2006 US Open, Razzano upset Martina Hingis to reach the second week of a Slam for the first time. On the same half of the draw, Serena was laboring through thanks to a wildcard that compensated for an injury-deflated ranking. Days before Razzano reached her career high of 16 in 2009, Serena lost her cool and the US Open semifinal to Kim Clijsters on a point penalty.
Most of us remember when these two very different players clashed at last year’s French Open, the shockingly momentous occasion that it was. For Razzano, it was her first French Open main draw win since she lost her fiancé and coach, Stephane Vidal, to a brain tumor. For Serena, it was her first-ever first round loss at a major tournament, one that catalyzed a crisis of confidence that saw her pair with Patrick Mourataglou and tear through the second half of 2012.
As Serena soared, Razzano faltered, winning only two more WTA matches for the rest of the year. Already in the midst of an injury-induced tailspin at the time of their infamous encounter, the Frenchwoman’s slump reached its nadir when she failed to qualify for this year’s Australian Open. It was the first time she had even been forced to play Slam qualies since 2004.
But as everything seemed to go wrong for Williams over a traumatic fortnight that featured no less than three separate injuries, one could not help but think of what had happened to the last architect of the American powerhouse’s discontent. As it turns out, she was simply biding her time for another Serena meltdown to make her move. Playing in qualifying on home turf, Razzano bulldozed the field at the Open GDF Suez event in Paris, most notably taking out Dutch star Kiki Bertens in three sets.
Should she beat a fellow qualifier in the first round, the Frenchwoman would get a crack at struggling No. 1 seed Sara Errani, who also lost her opening singles match in Melbourne (albeit in the main draw).
For all her Serena-related notoriety, Virginie Razzano is quite a tennis player in her own right; with an all-court game, the Frenchwoman has excelled on every surface and, in addition to Serena, has wins over multiple Slam finalists, including Dinara Safina, Vera Zvonareva and Elena Dementieva. An engaging and endearing personality, she earned numerous fans for the courage she displayed in fulfilling her dying fiancé’s last wish for her to continue playing in his memory.
Serena too has dealt with her share of tragedy; no moment in her career has been more poignant than when she dedicated her improbable 2007 Australian Open win to murdered half-sister Yetunde Price. On the wrong end of incidents like “The Hand” and “The Shot Seen Round the World”, it’s hard to argue that the American household name with the Hall-of-Fame career has truly had it all her own way.
Does Serena really have to be at her worst for Virginie to play her best? Obviously not. But it is strange to think that two women, already inexorably linked thanks to one of the strangest matches in French Open history, might be a little more connected than we thought.
“The Choke of the Year:” Victoria Azarenka Behind The Mic
Barring a toe injury that kept her from finishing a warm-up event in Brisbane, Victoria Azarenka has not lost a match all year. There have been a few tense moments during her matches in Australia, most notably when she fell behind a break to American Jamie Hampton in the third, and most recently when she squandered five match points against Hampton’s compatriot Sloane Stephens. But the World’s No. 1 has been solid when it matters most and finds herself in her second consecutive Australian Open final.
If only she could be as clutch when she trades the racquet for a microphone.
In another serious gaffe, the Belorussian spoke to Sam Smith after her win over Stephens:
The crux of Smith’s question spoke to Azarenka’s “difficulties” in finishing off the feisty American, who was in her first Slam semifinal. However, the former player and commentator was referring to the medical timeout Azarenka took before the start of the final game, one that lasted nearly ten minutes and required the top seed to leave the court.
Evidently under the impression that Smith was asking about her inability to serve out the match at 5-3, Azarenka laughed off the scary prospect of having avoided “the choke of the year” and admitted to feeling “overwhelmed…one step away from the final.”
Smith’s first question made a brief reference to the timeout, but when she got no answer, she moved on. The decision not to press Azarenka about her apparent injury, both by Smith and later Tom Rinaldi, only fueled the speculation further and gave the defending champion more rope with which to hang herself.
To Smith she admitted, “I just couldn’t lose, that’s why I was so upset!” When Rinaldi asked her why she left the court, she said she could not breathe and had “chest pain.”
By the time she made it the formal press conference, Azarenka faced a lengthy interrogation about her injuries and their legitimacy. Azarenka defended herself and called her prior diction “my bad.” Critical of the MTO process, Patrick McEnroe called for an overhaul of the rule itself so players like Azarenka are not “able to manipulate the rules.” Stephens’ coach David Nainkin called what happened to his charge “cheating within the rules.”
All of this came days after her battle with Hampton, who was visibly hampered despite bringing her higher-ranked opponent to the brink of defeat. During another one of her now-infamous on-court interviews, Azarenka accidentally implied Hampton’s injury was not as bad as it seemed, quipping, “Can I have a back problem?”
Hampton was later revealed to have two herniated discs.
How can the woman who can seemingly do no wrong on the court be so inept the moment she steps off of it? She combines perfectly timed, almost balletic groundstrokes with a boxer image, usually taking the court with earbuds in and hoodie up. Prickly between points, her signature celebratory moves include finger spinning and tongue wagging. Often (to quote rival Maria Sharapova) “extremely injured,” she has become notorious for withdrawing from smaller events only to show up on the biggest stages playing flawless tennis.
A woman that cannot afford even one bad quote, Azarenka is quickly compiling a chapbook full of verbal “oops,” one big enough for the tennis community to want to ride their No. 1 out of town on a rail.
But before we burn a 23-year-old woman at the stake, let us remember with whom we are dealing. Victoria Azarenka is, above all things, an athlete. The “swagger” for which many deride her is proof of that. What goes on with an athlete’s mind and body is sacred to them and ultimately irrelevant to the task at hand.
As Azarenka was asked about her “difficulties,” there was no doubt that she believed Smith (and others) were referring to her near “Choke of the Year.” How often do we criticize players for blaming injuries on missed opportunities? Yet here is a woman who made no excuses, blamed mind before body, and the media calls for a crucifixion.
There are many things about Victoria Azarenka that grate. Her honesty should not be one of them.
"Bark or Bite?": A Defense of Bojana Jovanovski
Yesterday, the up-and-coming Sloane Stephens fought off a mid-match surge from a game opponent to reach her debut Grand Slam quarterfinal. After taking the deciding set 7-5, the bubbly American was pleased to have put on a show for the crowd, and promised another one when she played her mentor and idol, Serena Williams.
Leave it to the media to turn a show into a circus.
As the match unfolded, Stephens seemed to establish an unassailable advantage over her equally inexperienced opponent, Bojana Jovanovski. A heavy hitting but inconsistent player from Serbia, Jovanovski was deemed a beatable foe, one who would easily bend to the will of the quickly rising American teenager.
As the second set reached a critical juncture, however, Stephens began to retreat and revert to a safer, more defensive style. Jovanovski had been missing badly up to that point, so waiting for the error was not a completely ill conceived strategy. Yet, in doing so, she made an almost fatal mistake: giving Bojana Jovanovski a short ball is like feeding live bait to a shark.
The No. 3 Serb hits groundstrokes like missiles, and is an exciting player to watch when she is striking the ball well. Most comfortable playing in Australia, she had her breakthrough tournament in Sydney two years ago where, as a qualifier, she reached her first Premier semifinal. A week later, she pushed then-world No. 2 Vera Zvonareva to three tight sets at this very tournament. Since then, she won her first WTA title last summer in Baku and is also a player on the rise, give or take a few hiccups and patches of poor form.
Despite her obvious talent, she is still better known for the quirkier aspects of her life and bio. For one, not a televised match of Jovanovski’s goes by without a retelling of the embarrassing story where the Serb traveled to the famed WTA event in San Diego via Carlsbad only to wind up in Carlsbad, New Mexico.
Quirkier still is her unusual grunt. Oft-described as a sound similar to a sneeze (“ha-choo!”), it is definitely one of the stranger sounds one hears during a tennis match, but is not nearly as off-putting as many seem to think. Having watched the majority of her US Open singles campaign, I can say that it was hardly as noticeable in person as it is when amplified by the on-court microphones.
But as Jovanovski began to take control of a match she seemed well and truly out of last night, the focus centered not on her screaming winners, but on the alleged screaming itself. Stephens lost the plot and allowed her fiery opponent back into the match. Instead of giving praise to Jovanovski for not giving up and playing some inspiring offense, she was castigated, mocked and name-called for her grunting.
A lot of people take issue over noises that aren’t perceived to imply exertion. “How does shrieking assist a person in hitting a ball?” asks a public often corralled by visibly disgusted commentators (for more on grunting and the hindrance rule, I refer you to unseededandlooming’s comprehensive take on the matter). But as bizarre as Jovanovski’s grunt sounds, it is still a grunt at its very core.
And if you stopped to watch the Serbian bombshell scurry about the baseline, you would see a shockingly high level of exertion, mixed with some extreme torque and intensity.
What makes Jovanovski so electrifying on the court is the reckless abandon with which she hits every ball. The notion that “a tennis ball is there to be hit” is taken to delirious extremes during her matches, much to the delight of those who enjoy “Big Babe Tennis.” In fact, it was her tentative serve, the one shot in her repertoire that lacks her almost hysterical punch, that did her in late in the third set against the American, who eventually regrouped to serve out the match herself.
In her first Slam fourth round appearance, Bojana Jovanovski did herself proud. She recovered from a lackluster beginning and found her range in impressive fashion, only to fall just short of the finish line. In all, the week that the Serbian star had was a tremendous effort, and definitely as much noise with her tennis as she did with her grunting.
You may not like Bojana’s grunt from an aesthetic point of view, but it is hard to argue that her bite doesn’t match her bark.