Sunday, October 16, 2011
Part 4 in our Series of contenders for WTA: Player of the Year. Next week we will look at some other contenders for this prestigious title.
See Part I, II and III.
Winning a Grand Slam is the highlight of many players’ careers. They work hard. Train hard and they sacrifice a lot just to be able to even qualify for a Grand Slam and even getting to the second week of a Major is a really big accomplishment. When you come from circumstances that are not the usual places, i.e. country clubs or you do not have a big name trainer, or you do not have the money or the looks that comes with being a protégé, when you finally win a Grand Slam, you are showered with so many expectations and money and so much is expected of you that some players falter while others use it as an opportunity to shine.
For years Samantha Jane Stosur, a player from a country that has provided Grand Slam champions in the same way that many others have not, was known more for her doubles prowess, moreso than her singles career. In late 2007 Stosur was struck down with Lime disease, a condition that left her off the Tour for a time. When she returned in 2008 she decided to concentrate on her singles career, rather than doubles. The going was tough and she took her losses with a stoicness that has always defined her. In the face of adversity she would have a semblance of a smile on her face.
In 2010, Stosur went on a run on the red clay of Europe, the likes of which had never been seen before the great Justine Henin. In getting to the finals of Roland Garros, she beat in succession, Serena Williams, Justine Henin and Jelena Jankovic. It was a masterclass in topspin, big serving and playing your best tennis when under pressure. Unfortunately for Stosur she came across another player who was playing with complete and utter abandon. She would lose in straight sets to Francesca Schiavone of Italy in what I consider one of the best tennis matches I have ever seen and what is sure to be a classic that needs to be shown on rain delays.
After that defeat, most players would have gone away, but not Stosur. She persevered, hired herself a sports psychologist and went back to what she did best. There were no titles and her losing streak would see her fall outside the top 10 for a brief moment in 2011, but it is said that “what is for you cannot be unfor you” and watching her performance in the 2011 US Open final against Serena Williams, you have to think that it was her destiny that she would win a Grand Slam.
Stosur faced insurmountable challenges during her 2 week stint in Flushing. She played some of her best tennis when under pressure. She came up big when she needed to against Nadia Petrova, Maria Kirilenko and against Angelique Kerber. These names are not Grand Slam champions. They are not players who you would put your money on, but Stosur struggled mightily against these players but she came through. When she got to the final, she faced a player who had endured a lot since her last Grand Slam title. Serena had just beaten her a few weeks ago decisively in the Toronto finals and here they were once again. This time, Stosur would do what she needed to do when it mattered most.
That stoicness that has defined her career was put on full display. Her serve worked. Her groundstroke worked. It helped that the person on the other side of the net did not seem to turn up for work that day, but in saying that, it would have taken away from the shine of Stosur’s victory. She played amazingly well and fully deserved her victory.
Stosur’s year has not been kind to her. She had a losing streak heading into Flushing and apart from that title, she has yet to win another this season, having just lost to Marion Bartoli in the final of Osaka. She has qualified for the Year End Championships but one has to wonder just how she will deal with the expectations that have been placed on her now that she has won a Grand Slam title.
This is the third part in our series of contenders for WTA: Player of the Year. Part 1 can be found here and Part 2 here.
The year was 2008. The event: French Open. She was playing Kai Kanepi, a player that I have always personally liked to watch and who I believed had a sure shot at reaching a Grand Slam final or even winning one. Before that though, there was a result that left me in awe. Petra had taken out Venus Williams in 3 tough sets in the Cellular World Cup in Memphis earlier in the 2008 season.
When she was slated to face Serena Williams in the second round of the Australian Open in 2010, I was understandably nervous for Ms. Williams. However, she lost to Ms. Williams 6-2, 6-1. Later that season she would go on to face Serena again in the semifinals of Wimbledon, where after putting up a tough fight in the first set, taking it to a breaker, she would lose the match in straight sets. However, prior to that Wimbledon semifinal match, Petra would go on to save multiple set and match points in her quarter final match against Kaia Kanepi. However, it was early on in the season that Petra had started to make her presence felt on the women’s tour.
The 2010 season however signified just what was to come with Kvitova in 2011.
In her first tournament of the season at the Brisbane International, she defeated up and coming rising star, Andrea Petkovic to win that tournament. She then lost in the third round to eventual champion Kim Clijsters at the Australian Open. Showing that she has the capacity to rebound from defeats, the next time she met Clijsters was at the Open Gaz, Paris Indoors. In that tournament she beat Kim Clijsters in a display of power and precision to win her second title of the season.
Kvitova has always been an inconsistent player and her results in 2011 have showed why many of her fans are left holding their heads and wondering what is going on with her. Petra’s results throughout the season have been head scratching or blink and you miss them moments. Her results after winning the Paris Indoors went something like this:-
• fell 1st round at Dubai
• fell 1st round at Indian Wells
• reached 3r at Miami
• won fourth WTA title at Madrid
• reached 4th round at Roland Garros
• runner up at Eastbourne
Since winning Wimbledon, Petra has reverted to her first round losing days. Much of this has to do with her inconsistency, but some of it can also be attributed to injuries. She was diagnosed earlier this year with asthma, which seemed to affect her more during the North American part of the Tour, perhaps due to the high level of humidity that occurs during this time of the year.
Receiving a wild card and seeded No. 1 at the tournament in Linz, Petra would go on to beat some notable players, including former No. 1, Jelena Jankovic in 3 sets, in a match which included some wonderful tennis and then went on to beat Dominika Cibulkova in straight sets in a display of tennis not seen since her Wimbledon run.
Every tennis fan agrees that when Petra is on, she is really on, and when she is off, all you can do is say Oh My in the same way that Dick Enberg says it. Petra has always reminded me of a young Venus Williams. All that power, poise, no outward sign of emotion, those deep hard groundies and those unforced errors that just keep piling up during a match and then she wins, despite her best efforts to lose.
With 5 titles to her credit this year, her wins against top 10 opponents, the fact that she has won a Grand Slam, a Premier Mandatory event, and has qualified for the first time for the Year End Championships, Petra Kvitova has put herself in the driver’s seat for WTA Player of the Year.
Friday, October 7, 2011
I have tried on several occasions to write the second in our series on contenders for the WTA: Player of the Year. You would think with 4 different Slam winners, 3 of them first time winners, that it would be easy to write the narrative for these awesome women of the WTA, and especially the narrative for Li Na, but this has been without a doubt the most difficult post I have ever written.
I think one of the reasons why I am finding it so difficult to write about Li is that I am intrigued and confused about Li. I have always been unimpressed with her style of play. There does not seem to be much imagination to her game, and her attitude on court leaves a lot to be desired. However, her press conferences and the paths that she has taken to winning her first Grand Slam title and being the first player from China to win a Grand Slam title has left me being intrigued and admiring of that aspect of her persona.
However some of her recent utterances have left me shaking my head in disgust as for a woman to basically imply that the women of the WTA are not as mentally tough as the men leaves a really bad taste in my mouth. I understand that there is a level of sexism that permeates the narrative about women’s tennis. It is either they are all lesbians; they are on steroids; or as some would say they are so muscular as to not even look feminine, the commentary about the women of the WTA has not always been, to put it politely, very tennis friendly.
However, when a champion such as Li, a champion who has overcome so many personal obstacles in her own life, to now be ranked as one of the biggest stars of the WTA, a signal of hope for a country’s women and a player who will now find herself in the conversation every time she enters a tournament, her recent utterances leave a lot to be desired and really sets back the progress that have been made by Billie Jean and the Gang of Nine in seeking equality and recognition for female professional tennis players.
In reviewing Li’s year, one could be asked how in the name of all that is holy did she manage to win a Grand Slam, beating the likes of Sharapova, the allegedly toughest player on the WTA mentally, or indeed beat defending champion Francesca Schiavone in straight sets. Li’s path to the final was filled with intrigue and drama. She played some tough matches but in the final, just as Schiavone did before, she played absolutely flawless tennis. She served well, returned even better, did not get down on herself, and took the opportunities when they were presented to her.
Li has won one other title this year, at Sydney, beating Australian Open champion Clijsters in what was a very good match.
There have been much written about Li’s slump since winning the French Open, but a quick check of her year in review on the WTA’s website shows an observer exactly what you usually get with Li. There is a reason why she has such a small number of titles since joining the Tour. In her first 5 tournaments, apart from reaching the final of Sydney and the final of the Australian Open, Li’s record at regular Tour events have been a series of 1st rounds, 2nd round etc. Her best performance at regular Tour events prior to the French Open were at Rome where she fell in the semifinals to Stosur and her win at Sydney.
By winning a Grand Slam, Li has put herself in the conversation for Player of the Year. She has qualified for the Year End Championships and one can only hope that despite her recent utterances of not being able to find her game, she will embrace the challenge of being a Year End Champion and play like the champion we know she can be.
Give us your thoughts on Li as WTA Player of the Year
Next up: Petra Kvitova