Ever so often, a new sports person emerges from the pack and stands out as a special talent. Asafa Powell of Jamaica. Ian Thorpe of Australia. Rafael Nadal of Spain. Within the domain of excellence, these figures stand out as uniquely talented, gifted in a way that simply no-one else is. At least for a time.
Part of their success comes not just from being better than everyone else, but also from being different. It is this difference that provides a unique edge that, for a while, makes them seem unbeatable, unchallengeable.
But then, with time, their opponents start to deconstruct their talent and find ways to beat them. No-one remains unique forever. That’s the nature of sports. Talent comes and goes in waves. Asafa’s record has been erased by his countryman, Usain Bolt. Novak Djokovic has stolen some of Nadal’s thunder.
In tennis, special talent is only special for a while. The newness of the talent provides an edge. The advantage comes in part from the lack of familiarity. Opponents find themselves temporarily confused, upstaged by a game that is fresh, startling and different.
This is the advantage that Rafael Nadal has been enjoying for some time on clay. But his dominance will not last forever. He is due to be upstaged as folks become familiar with his game. With time, opponents will start to pick it apart, as they have done with Federer’s, and Roddick’s, and every other player who for a while seemed unbeatable.
It is exactly for this reason that when a special new talent appears, it is important to pause and appreciate it, knowing in advance that it will not last forever. This is how I feel about Alize Cornet. I first noticed this spirited teenager when she lost to Venus Williams in the third round of Roland Garros last year. I was surprised that she won 5 games against Venus, and, for moments, was clearly challenging her. Cornet seemed so unfazed by Venus’ power that I sat up and took note. My my, I thought, this is a plucky one!
Cornet, a Junior Champion at Roland Garros, made it to the second round of the Australian Open this year. She then reached the finals in Acapulco, losing to Flavia Pennetta [who just sent Venus packing from Roland Garros]. She made it to the finals in Charleston displaying superb court movement and excellent anticipation, but lost in two close sets to Serena. It was clear that clay is her best surface.
But it was her performance in Rome this year that caught everyone’s attention. She made it to the finals, after beating Schiavone, Kuznetsova, and most notably Chakvatadze who pissed her off by dismissing Cornet as a “junior” player. But by the time she made it to the finals in Rome, Cornet was visibly exhausted. Reports say that she burst into tears between sets against Jankovic, so frustrated was she at not being able to compete at the level that she wanted to. However, her excellent run in Rome thrust her to #20 spot in the world rankings. Not bad for an 18-year-old who turned pro only two years ago.
It’s easy to see what makes Alize special. On clay, her instincts are impeccable. She has a gutsy, fearless style of play and does not ever seem intimidated, regardless of who is her opponent. She has the emotionality of a Navratilova, but also the level-headedness of an Evert. It is an incredible combination in someone so young. Despite her tears in Rome, one does not get the sense that she has the mental fragility of Amelie Mauresmo. On the contrary she seems that much more mature. Finally the investment by the French Federation in its program for young players is beginning to pay dividends. Alize Cornet, Gael Monfils, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, and Jeremy Chardy have emerged as special talents of which that country can be justifiably proud. Who knows, a French person may finally win the French Open since Yannick Noah did it in 1983.
Cornet bowed out of Roland Garros in the third round. Her match against Agnieszka Radwanska was one of the most enjoyable clay matches I have ever seen. In fact at points I found myself laughing out loud at the clever exchanges as each woman strove to break the other.
Perhaps it is her youthfulness, but one of the things I also like about Cornet is her refreshing honesty. I have become so accustomed to tennis players who have not only taken the WTA or ATP media courses but have gotten to the point where they could practically teach them, so well have they mastered the art of saying nothing in their interviews. But here is Cornet’s clearly honest and open assessment of her match against Gisela Dulko, whom she defeated over two days in the second round of Roland Garros: “I thought I was a bit too weak at the very end of the third set. I didn't really know how to manage stress. I have to work on this next time, because the more I go, the more important matches will be, and I’ll have to manage this nervousness.” Once she learns how to do that, there will be no stopping her.