By David Kane, Special for Tennis Grandstand
At Wimbledon several years ago, Serena Williams mused that there were so many “-ovas” in the draw that she herself had adopted the Slavic suffix. Indeed, there may not have been a “Williamsova” on the grounds of the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, but three years later, Serena’s words ring true; it is difficult to navigate between the outer courts without stumbling upon an “ova” or seven. Not just from Russia, though. In fact, the “ovas” quest for world domination has transcended the sport, with players representing countries across the globe. In my rain-interrupted Day One of the US Open, I watched three “ovas” who represented three different countries and stations in the tennis hierarchy (the veteran, the journeywoman, and the champion). For all of their differences, the women did share one thing in common yesterday: victory.
I began my day on Court 7 to watch 19th seeded Russian Nadia Petrova take on Jarmila Gajdosova, who had taken Australian citizenship during her two-year marriage to ATP player Samuel Groth. See what I mean about that world domination? Both had flirted with the upper echelons of the women’s game to various degrees of success; Petrova has been high as #3 with two Roland Garros semifinals, but has become more remembered for her mental fragility and heinous Ellesse dresses in recent years, while Gajdosova rocketed into the top 30 last year only to be derailed by inconsistency and her divorce from Groth. With an “ova,” it is so often their story, and not their baseline game, that makes them so compelling.
Gajdosova, or “Jarka” as she is known to friends and fans alike, has had a rough 2012, losing twice as many matches as she’s won, but had to feel optimistic at the prospects of playing Petrova, who went 0-2 during the US Open Series, punctuated with a second-set retirement only two weeks before. Unfortunately for the Aussie, Petrova’s serve, her signature shot, was on in a way I haven’t seen it in many years. Hitting 15 aces, Nadia held serve with ease and only faced one break point in the first game of the match (which she predictably saved with a big serve). However, things are rarely straightforward for the Russian whom the New York Times once described as “tall, prim and sturdy;” the serve was “on,” but the return and backhand were decidedly “off,” which made for a tense two-set match that culminated in a tiebreaker in the second set upon returning from the two and half hour rain delay. It was in the ‘breaker that Petrova ran away with it as convincingly as she could, and booked a place in the second round.
It was during this match that I took time to analyze the so-called “vocal frustration” and perceived “brattiness” of “ovas” like Nadia. Not a warm player on the court, she didn’t so much celebrate winners so much as she would appear miffed that it had taken her *that* long to get it right. Tennis can be a beautiful game, with swings, according to Mary Carillo, “that defy the imagination.” But ultimately, tennis is a sport, with a winner and a loser. More and more for Petrova and “ovas” like her, success is not winning, but being perfect, and with that kind of pressure, no wonder we’ve seen such disastrous meltdowns from her and her compatriots.
Anastasia Rodionova is a player who doesn’t just desire perfection; she demands it, from herself, the linesmen, and those who come to watch her play. Although only ranked as high as 62 in her career, this attitude has made the Russian-born, Australian naturalized Rodionova infamous among fans. I’ve been watching her play matches at the US Open for a decade, and the reputation isn’t totally unwarranted; on the court, she has two emotions: indignation, and amusement born out of said indignation. On one hand, it’s admirable that Rodionova expects so much from her petite, 5’5” frame. On the other hand, her flat, hard-hitting game is as high risk as I’ve ever seen; when it’s “on,” it’s that poetry in motion Carillo described, but when it’s not (even for a minute), god help us all.
However, “The Rodionova Show” has been much more consistent than controversial since she arrived in Flushing. Fresh off a stint with the Washington Kastles, Rodionova is determined to turn around a disappointing year, even adopting the undefeated Kastle’s motto “Refuse to Lose,” into her tweets. This mentality has translated beyond matches in general; in three qualifying matches, the only player to win more than three games in a set was Caroline Garcia, the young Frenchwoman who nearly beat Maria Sharapova at last year’s French Open. Taking to Court 10 against American Julia Cohen didn’t seem like a tall order on paper, but don’t forget that “Nastya” requires perfect match conditions. Between the fireworks of the US Open Opening Ceremonies and the ghastly shrieks of one inebriated Cohen fan, the first few games looked dicey as the Aussie fell behind an early break.
One would think that a player like Rodionova would balk the notion of rowdy fans cheering her errors. But I was reminded last week of an odd piece of trivia: Anastasia Rodionova is the 2010 Commonwealth Games gold medalist, and beat Sania Mirza in front of the most partisan crowd I’ve ever seen. Rodionova herself seemed to remember her love of playing the villain as well, and steadied herself back into playing the laser-like baseline game that had taken her through qualies, and romped into the second round winning 11 of the final 12 games. It seems foolish to crave for perfection in a sport where one is automatically given at least two tries at a serve, but if perfection is athletic nirvana, Rodionova has come dangerously close to achieving it this week.
Speaking of perfection, I would be remiss in leaving out Petra Kvitova. The 2011 Wimbledon champion made a strong case for being remembered as the player of the year when she won her maiden Slam and ended the season undefeated indoors. But she is another player who has, in the past, been felled by her desire for perfection. Until this summer, the word on Petra was that she couldn’t play on the hard courts of North America. Why? She was allergic. It’s an uncharacteristically “diva” excuse for a most unpretentious young woman, but with a 2-3 record in North America last year, it was hard to argue with the facts. Thankfully, with titles in Montreal and New Haven, the Czech star has concluded that she is not a Lenglen-esque one-continent wonder, and can indeed dominate in the land of the free.
Not without some struggles, though. All those match wins may have been great for Kvitova’s confidence, but they’ve done little to leave her fresh for the last Slam tournament of the year. Against the tattooed Slovak Polona Hercog, Kvitova was often undone by what appeared to be her own exhaustion. She was a step slow, so her perfectly timed groundstrokes were off and she danced on the faultline of losing the first set. For a woman who had only won New Haven two days earlier, disaster (and another early round US Open loss) seemed imminent. But yesterday, the Hard Court Education of Petra Kvitova was on full display. On the shaded Grandstand court, Petra appeared to realize during the tiebreaker that she would not be perfect. That didn’t mean she wasn’t good enough to win the match.
And win, she did. She rediscovered the striking mental fortitude that took her within 70 points of the number one ranking last year, took the tiebreaker, and dominated the second set 6-1. I left the match feeling optimistic about the Czech’s chances this fortnight. Petra wasn’t perfect, true, but how often does one win a Slam because they played perfect tennis? The moment when they hear their name and get to hold the tophy aloft and realize that tournament is “ova” is perfect enough.
David Kane is an avid tennis fan reporting from the grounds of the U.S. Open. You can follow him on Twitter @ovafanboy.