I Want to Hit a Ball Like That!
It's hard to watch the likes of Nadal, Murray, Djokovic and Federer and not feel inspired to try to hit a ball and move that well. The articles here on playing on clay have also created interest, particularly amongst players who have never tried the surface, junior tennis players and teaching professionals looking to expose students to new learning opportunities. Play the Clay events are being hosted in Northern and Southern California as well as a few other select locations. In fact the company that makes Har-Tru will work to set up a playing opportunity for you and a group of your friends. Click here to learn more.
Disarray in the Dirt
Thinking about the Sony Ericsson WTA Tour as the French Open nears reminds me of a day several years ago when I was interviewing a tennis legend for a Grand Slam preview article. As we went though the contenders, his comments were accurate but also highly critical. This guy’s forehand was dicey under pressure. Ditto contender number two’s backhand. Another’s body language was terrible. Then there was the dude who usually came up small on the big occasion. “Hey, somebody’s got to win it,” I wanted to scream.
The same holds true of the women’s field heading into Roland Garros. Two body blows endure: the sudden retirement of Justine Henin and the continued injury-induced exile of Maria Sharapova. Not only could each of these two win Grand Slam titles, but they each had the desire to be number one week in and week out. Having been a devoted student, I like players who commit this way.
Click photo: Dinara Safina is the current number one, however, as of yet, she has failed to win a Grand Slam singles title.
Instead, what we have now is a strange, bifurcated ranking structure. Two recent number ones – Jelena Jankovic and the current top dog, Dinara Safina – have failed to win a Grand Slam singles tournament over the 52 weeks of their respective reigns. The reigning French champ, Ana Ivanovic, has played horribly since taking the title at Roland Garros last year and earning the number one ranking. Serena Williams currently holds the Australian and US Open titles, but her spotty play and erratic scheduling habits have left her number two. It’s yet another case of the Williams’ beguiling commitment to competing regularly leaving the rankings in turmoil; so often they’ve blown off periods of each semester but are stellar when it comes to acing finals.
Just recently in Rome, Serena spoke to this with typical bravado. “We all know who the real number one is,” she said. “Quite frankly, I’m the best in the world.” I actually agree with Serena, as her two Slam wins in my mind trump any other player’s set of current results. Alas, the next day she was pummeled in the first round of Rome. It was her third match loss in a row.
Somebody’s Got to Win
But again, somebody’s got to win the French Open. This year, whoever that is, her life will be dramatically changed by the result. Serena’s pre-Slam results matter little. Even though clay’s her worst surface, if she can play her way into form, her sky-high confidence could take her to her second Roland Garros title. To a significantly lesser degree, the same holds true for Venus.
Safina, Jankovic, and long-standing contender Elena Dementieva – three tour veterans who have yet to break through.
Safina, Jankovic, and long-standing contender Elena Dementieva are each hoping to shake the Grand Slam monkey off their backs. It was a year ago in Berlin that Safina started to make her big move. One day she took down Henin in what proved the Belgian’s last-ever match. Then she beat Serena, Victoria Azarenka, and Dementieva to take the title. More good things have since happened to this powerful, likeable Russian, including runs to the finals in Paris and Melbourne. What I hope now is that as Safina nears crunch-time that she thoroughly commits to competing. In the Australian Open final, for example, she was being blitzed by Serena, down a set and 5-3 when Williams handily served out the title. But perhaps next time Safina will merely view that moment simply as a moment – a chance to break serve and sink her teeth into the match rather than merely capitulate.
Ditto for Jankovic, a player of engaging defense and verbal charm, but still to my mind somewhat of an accidental tourist among the elite. For so long she’s been the class clown, the goofy girl who plays the daylights out of the tour, a strategy that to me seems somewhat fatalistic: better make the most of it before the spell wears off. This year was supposed to be different, Jankovic devoting much of last winter to training, beefing up her serve and learning to play more offense. But little has panned out in ’09, Jankovic sinking from number one at the start of ’09 to four by this spring.
Ivanovic’s approach has been to schedule herself judiciously, to keep her knife sharp and her energy fresh. But so much has gone awry since her ’08 Roland Garros triumph. Confidence, strokes, and tactics have been flying in all directions. A new coach, Craig Kardon, came on board this spring, no doubt pointing towards a successful title defense. It’s hard to find a defending Grand Slam champion who could do everything from lose in the first round to win again.
Click photo: Victoria Azarenka and Caroline Wozniacki (below) are two of the youger players who could break through at Roland Garros this year.
The clear sentimental pick is Dementieva. The hard-hitting Russian had fallen out of the top ten in ’07, but last year underwent a pleasing renaissance, highlighted by a personal high of winning the Olympic gold medal. More importantly to me, Dementieva has made it to the semis of her last three Slams. Like Safina and Jankovic, she can fight, compete and strike the ball well, but so often I feel she lacks the illogical optimism that has long made the Williams sisters so effective. My sense is that Dementieva is so effective running and hitting when she’s down because at that point she’s mostly enjoying the process, less concerned with outcome. But once the possibility of big-time goodies enter the picture, she seems to lose faith in herself, her moxie and tactical sense plummeting. This drop in performance holds true, alas, for her fellow Russians, Svetlana Kuznetsova and Nadia Petrova – each of whom is far more versatile than Dementieva.
The Younger Players
Then there come a number of younger players. The most prominent, paced by a resounding win in Miami, is Victoria Azarenka. Rapidly improving, committed to playing all-court tennis, Azarenka could even sneak her way to a French Open title. Others who are still raw but rising include Caroline Wozniacki) a hard worker but still a bit prone to overhitting), counterpuncher Agnieszka Radwanska, and France’s Alize Cornet. I wouldn’t be surprised to see at least one in the quarters.
That this year’s French is so wide-open is merely one symptom of a women’s tour whose competitive culture could be described with three different words: disarray, flux, opportunity. But again, that’s how it’s viewed prior. Once someone wins the tournament, she will take on a whole other shape. It’s far easier to regard a queen wearing a crown than a mere aspirant.
Tennis One’s Joel Drucker will be at Roland Garros working as story editor for Tennis Channel’s coverage.
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