Tuesday, June 28, 2011

THE STATE OF WOMEN'S TENNIS

At the quarterfinals at Wimbledon, the powers that be may have been delighted at the prostpect of a brand new blonde-haired, blue-eyed, girl next door champion of women's tennis - even if you'd have to be familiar the cyrillic alphabet to read her name on the mailbox. There were no less than four "ova's" in the quarterfinals, six Eastern Europeans, and suprisingly there was just one Russian amongst them, and ironically she happens to be about as Russian as she is a damn monkey, but who's counting. They're all European, and just one of them had a major title to her name, and that was three years ago in Australia, so statitically, we had an 87.5% chance of a new champion. That normally incites a lot of rumination about the state of the game, and I, of course, have my opinion.

First, the return of the Williams sisters at Wimbledon brought so much energy and anticipation - all the more reason it's so disappointing that Venus will have to take a hiatus from the game. It has obviously been a tumultuous 9-12 months for both of them, never more revealed than through the tears of Serena after her first round victory over Aravane Rezai at Wimbledon and the shocking withdrawal of Venus at the US Open. Who could blame them, after facing death and retirement so recently. And for some, the air may have gone out of the Championships when the siblings succumbed to the Slavic invasion (well, Bartoli is french, but I couldn't resist the alliteration). But John McEnroe could have hit the nail on the head when he contended that it's actually good for women's tennis that they didn't come back and win Wimbledon after being away from the game for so long. As good as Federer, Nadal and Djokovic are, I can't imagine them leaving the game for 6 months and winning a major, let alone 12. The same could be said for Stosur's victory at the US Open - unwittingly, she just may have salvaged the reputation of women's tennis.

Having said that, I couldn't help but wonder what happened to all the good will towards Serena at Wimbledon. I mean, on ESPN it was an aboslute love fest, with piano ballads in the background, and black and white slow motion clips of her wiping her brow, and every commentator remarking on how "emotional" it was for her. It was a bit like the film "Quiz Show", hearing one Senator after another commending Charles van Doren for his "soul-searching" testimony - if they hadn't all fallen over themselves to praise her simultaneously, I might have found it more genuine. She promptly let the air out of that balloon by doing two things - (1) making the women's game look like it hasn't evolved one iota, with her domination of the US Open series (and very nearly the US Open itself) and (2) her sense of entitlement and bad demeanor on court in the final, but more on that later.

But even at Wimbledon, when she was getting pounded by Marion Bartoli in their 4th round match, Dick Enberg was forced to admit that the English audience were squarely behind the quirky frenchwoman. In other words, they were rooting against a woman who was just returned from death's door 6 months ago. I think it suprised both Enberg and Mary Joe Fernandez, although only she was willing to confront it. Enberg, rather transparently, tried to attribute it to Bartoli being the underdog. But there was something else about it...something more practical, maybe. Perhaps they too felt it would have made a mockery of the game if yet another opponent failed to beat a woefully out of practice Serena. For, who could take the game seriously if the best player turned out to be someone who hadn't played in a year?

But I digress.

Speaking of Bartoli - has there ever been a player on tour who more epitomizes everything that sticks in the craw of old school tennis?  To begin with, her father successfully circumvented the French tennis federation, which in and of itself is not such a bad thing (after all, the Williams sisters circumvented the USTA, and look how that turned out). But Bartholi's game is so bizarre that those of us who enjoy the aesthetics of a well produced one-handed backhand, face the dark epiphany that maybe, just maybe, our concept of the game is well and truly passe.  Everything about Bartholi's game smacks of gimmicks; from hitting with two hands on both wings, to the extra long racquet, to the irritating dress rehearal between points.  The coup de grace for those of us who long for brave and solitary combattants who rely on their own intrinsic committment and determination, is this irritating habit of looking at her box and shouting "Allez!" after every...single...point.

I mean, give me a break, already.

There's something about the "team" concept in tennis that is just plain irritating. Is it the obvious exploitation and suckling at the teet of talent by the entourage? And what of this concept of coaching? If coaching were so crucial and so critical, you would expect something other than the monotonous big babe ball bashing we see sullying our beautiful game with all the subtelty of a cream pie in the face. Instead, every coach seems to give the same awful advice, "Hit it hard and cross-court, don't change the pace, direction, or spin, don't take any chances and whatever you do, don't EVER come to net." That, and the, "Just play YOUR game," speech is about as helpful as handing them an anvil to carry with them on the court. They'd all be better off coachless - at least they'd have more money to take home. I mean, at the very least, you'd think one of these coaches, who are obviously way over-paid, would bother to teach one of these ladies to serve properly.

But I digress.

Unfortunately for Bartoli she represents all of this to those of us who consider ourselves, or would be considered by others to be, old school. And so perhaps there is a kind of sick satisfaction with her ultimate demise - if only it were at the hands of a player who wasn't merely less irritating, but no less monolithic than Sabine Lisicki. At the end of the day, women's tennis today is a game that is beset by worthless hangers on, including parents and coaches who do worse than prey on the insecurities of these young women - they in fact encourage them - the better to make onself indispensible.

And thus the team concept in tennis lives on.

I feel this is an issue that needs to be addressed, and commentators blithely glossing over this phenomenon does not help. Unfortunately many of the commentators are current and former coaches, and as such would be very brave to strike so near to their own livelihoods. Most of these coaches should do the honorable thing and fall on their swords (quit) when they have so woefully under performed in their stewardly duties. Frankly, I'm surprised that the greats of tennis' past have been silent on this issue, but they're so busy promoting the game to its own detriment, they either haven't noticed, or haven't the fortitude.

I firmly believe that women's tennis would be better off if players couldn't play professionally until they were at least 18 years old; that would give them more time to develop complete games, and they wouldn't start playing professionally until they were in the burgeoning stages of their own adulthoods, rather than the throes of a their parents' mid-life crises, dreams and aspirations. This would give them the independence to drop some of their entourage if they sought genuine improvement, including parents or coaches. As it is now, they are children when they turn professional, they develop the habit of dependence on their "teams" that continues long into adulthood, and this doesn't do anyone any good.

But then we get to the case of Sam Stosur...ah, Sam Stosur. Those of us who observed her new physique and viciously produced forehand, following her 2 year hiatus recovering from lyme disease, wondered if we were witnessing the advent of a brand new kind of women's tennis. One more akin to the men's game (which is developing it's own brand of monotony, by the way - but that's for another post). Her movement can be graceful, particularly when setting up the inside-out forehand. And her serve is a real novelty - above average consistency AND above average power - and spin that's simply off the charts. I thought her breakthrough was there for the taking at Roland Garros last year, where she beat Justine, Serena and Jankovic...but then that pluckly little Italian threw a monkey wrench in the machine. And it seems she had some trouble coping with that loss. (Speaking of Schiavone, what a breath of fresh air she is as well - but that too is for another post).

But she slowly and surely progressed this year. Her results were awful - failing to reach the quarterfinal in any tournament for the first six months of the year (with the exception of Dubai). But, she was adding a little more net play and a slice to her game that she hadn't really mastered until the US Open. That slice won her the final. She'd played Serena in Toronto and hadn't really mastered it. And her forehand, played too far behind the baseline, sat up right into Serena's wheelhouse, and boy did she ever make it look ordinary. Fred Stolle commented at the Hopman Cup in January that he felt her backhand was her albatross, and in that assessment I believe he was correct, but he offered no advice on what to do about it. It is a painfully manufactured stroke, much like her forehand, but lacks the bite, disguise or consistency.

But in the US Open final, rather than coming over her backhand, she consistently sliced, forcing Serena to hit up on both her forehand and her backhand, which she promptly dumped in the net time after time due to her lack of topsin. To compensate, Serena started taking pace off those shots, and left the ball short and in the middle of the court, which Stosur promptly belted inside-out and inside-in on the forehand side. So adding an effective slice to her backhand repetoire actually helped her forehand. And as anyone who's played against someone who mixes slice with topspin can tell you, it's very hard to maintain your rhythm and play your best.

Hmm...a slice backhand with a purpose - what a novel idea.

I've always wondered why it is nobody tries to do anything different against Serena - and after reviewing the players at the "top" of the game, the reason is obvious - nobody can. They all play the exact same way, all have the exact same problems, and all of their weaknesses play right into Serena's strengths. No variety, nothing to throw her off her rhythm, and no serve; so, it's no surprise that she has had no problem dealing with them one by one. And all this idiotic talk about being intimidated by her - what do they think? That she's going to reach across the net and beat them up? What are they so afraid of? Losing? They're doing it every week anyway, so what difference does it make if they lose to Serena? You may as well try something different against her - that is, if you have something different to try - which of course none of them do.

And I don't feel sorry for Caroline Wozniacki (Who? oh, yeah - the #1 player in the world). She's made almost no effort to go beyond being a backboard, and until she does, she will not only not win a major, but she'll continue to symbolize much of that's wrong with the WTA. Take a look at this clip of a match between Martina Navratilova and Hana Mandlikova in 1985 (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TMqaJz510E4&feature=related). The athleticism and shot-making was phenomenal, and I suspect a relic in the history of the game that we'll only come across when sifting through the archives, like archaeologists discovering a new method of firing pottery in the stone age. Fascinating, but never more.

I sure hope I'm wrong.

Finally, I have never been particularly impressed with Serena's attitude on court - some excuse it by saying it's her personality and that gives her her edge. I think that's nonsense - plenty of women were just as determined and committed (if not more so) and exhibited very little of the entitlement and paranoia, that always seems to eek out at the most inopportuned times with Serena. In her defense, I believe her general behavior throughout the tournament was excellent - better than most of her contemporaries. No tantrums, no crying on court, and no desperate yelps of tension masquerading as the side-effects of exertion (i.e. no 3-note grunts). She was all business and I loved it - until...

The littany of bad-behavior all elicited by a correctly applied hindrance rule was almost as comical as it was ugly. First, she demonstrated her ignorance of the rule. That's not so bad - I'm sure most players on tour barely know the hindrance rule. Not that it would have made a difference - she didn't shout, "Come on!" before the point ended because she thought she'd get a let!

But then she proceeded to accuse the umpire of being the same one who screwed her over in 2009 against Clijsters (she was not) or (as McEnroe suggested) in 2004 against Capriati (wrong again), and thus concluded that the umpire had it in for her. When she was properly assessed a code violation warning for verbal abuse, she then went on a tirade telling the umpire to walk the other way if she sees her in the locker room, which could be constured as threatening, that she truly despised her, and that she's ugly...on the inside. Because after insulting her, and calling her a cheat, the last thing you want to do is tell her she ugly too - at least on the outside.

Just like in 2009, the umpire was just doing her job (and doing it correctly, by the way). I don't think Serena deserves a ban for her behavior, it was just ugly - at least she learned not to let loose with the kind of foul language and physical threats that got her in trouble the last time around.

At the end of the day, Sam Stosur did women's tennis a big favor by winning that match the way she did. If Serena had won, after unjustly lambasting the umpire, it's all anyone would have discussed, and the victory would have been hollow to all but her most ardent supporters. Never mind the fact that there wouldn't/couldn't have been more salient evidence that the women's game hasn't evolved at all in 12 months, and that doesn't do anybody any good. If Stosur can sustain her level of performance, it may force some of her contemporaries to do more than close their eyes and hit it as hard as they can.

Well, at least we may see one or two more slice backhands.
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