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.