Saturday, May 23, 2009

Thinking of Amanda Coetzer

I woke up this morning thinking of Amanda Coetzer and wishing she was still playing and that I could see her bring her brand of fire to the French.

I know what caused it too. Yesterday afternoon, I was working with my coach on swinging volleys. He’s been trying to get me to accept that at 5 feet 3 inches short, I cannot reliably count on baseline aggression and net play to help me win games. I have to develop other shots -- such as the swinging volley and the disguised drop shot. So in the middle of the lesson he turned and asked me, “Do you remember that player, Amanda Coetzer?” Of course I did. “Well, I want you to learn to do what she did”. Message received.

It always annoys me when folks with no sense of tennis history give credit to Venus Williams for having first utilized the swinging volley. This is not true. This shot was invented by one of the most brilliant coaches in tennis -- Dennis Van Der Meer -- working with one of his most talented students -- the South Africa born Amanda Coetzer.

Amanda had apparently been becoming increasingly frustrated with an experience that short players everywhere can relate to -- after moving in to net behind a ferocious ground shot, she would find herself either passed at the net (because her wing span was limited), or lobbed overhead (because she was short). Van Der Meer instructed her to follow up the penetrating approach shot with a swinging volley response. The combination was lethal. Just ask Steffi Graf.

With the swinging volley, you move into the court behind a piercing approach shot, but not all the way up to the net. You remain in no-man’s-land and play the return shot before it bounces. But you hit it exactly the way you would hit a topspin forehand or backhand -- which is why it is called a swinging volley.

And if you did not know this before, you know now that it was invented in the late 1990’s by Coach Van Der Meer and his student, Amanda Coetzer.

Amanda Coetzer was always a counterpuncher. She credited this to the wall that her lawyer father built in their backyard for her to hit against. He also apparently made a game of paying her to hit certain targets, an incentive that worked too well as her pockets soon became filled up with his money. The result though was that she could hit a target like few others. Her father has gone on record as saying that he did not over coach Amanda as he had done with her two older sisters. This may be why she never lost her love for the game.

Amanda’s nickname on the tour was “The Little Assassin”. I always preferred the French version; it seemed so much more scary. She got this nickname because of her legacy of having beaten some of the best players at the top of their game. She remains the only player ever to defeat Steffi Graf, Martina Hingis, and Lindsay Davenport while they were ranked No. 1. She also memorably spanked Graf three times in 1997.

Among her many accomplishments, she teamed up with fellow countryman, Wayne Ferreira, to win the Hopman Cup in 2000. Her win at Hilton Head in 1998 was probably a most emotionally gratifying achievement as she had trained at this facility for years. Her loss to Dinara Safina in the second round of the 2004 Australian Open signaled a passing of the torch, from one of the one most petite players to one of the more statuesque, from a gutsy volleyer to a baseline bomber, from a slower pace of play to BBT style power tennis, from one generation to another. As it should be.

I woke up thinking of Amanda Coetzer. She was an inspiration for short tennis chicks everywhere. Including one who should presently be packing for a trip but just had to squeeze that last word in.

Friday, May 22, 2009

The remaining five women go into Roland Garros

Vera Zvonareva
Ranked # 6 and definitely showing signs of a tremendously improved game. Vera has gotten fitter and stronger. She cries a lot less than she used to, even though she still has the ability to irritate me on this front. Does she have what it takes to win Roland Garros? Perhaps she does. But she has been injured way too much. And she lacks a signature weapon. Vera plays gutsy tennis when she is in her confident groove. But when she lapses, she lapses badly and ends up contributing to her own loss. But as long as she doesn't cry, I can live with that.

Svetlana Kuznetsova
One of the most underrated and undervalued players on the WTA tour. Sveta has it all -- she is superfit, she serves big, her groundies are smooth, her volleys pop, and she is an excellent strategist. But sometimes it seems as if she does not really want to win. One gets the impression of a modest woman who would rather not be spotlighted. And winning puts you in the spotlight, with all that that attracts. Sveta doesn’t play the famewhore game like say a Maria Sharapova. Her natural reserve seems to hold her back. It’s almost as if she’d rather not win the big prizes. But she can.

Ana Ivanovic
She’s ranked # 8 but Azarenka and Wozniacki are breathing down her neck. I know that Ivanovic has been injured but that in my opinion is just a part of the problem. The rest is that she's lost her fire. What is it about some of these women and success? It’s almost as if they were too deprived and once they got a chance to eat -- or shop, or play, or pose -- they lose all drive and hunger for more achievement. The affair with Verdasco may not have helped. He’s gorgeous and I don’t blame him at all for sleeping his way through the tour. That’s what horny young men do. Heck I'd stand in line for a crack at him. It’s up to his women not to get swayed from their focus. Ana swayed. And then posed some more for the cameras. Steups.

Viktoria Azarenka
I like this girl. I like her drive to achieve. I like her fighting spirit. But she seems the type to push herself too far and then have to pay the price of recovery. She alternates between flame and flame out. Unfortunately her flaming style of play is more effective on grass or hard courts. She lacks the subtlety of good clay players. That said, I hope she brings her flame to Roland Garros. But unfortunately I expect her to flame out by week two.

Caroline Wozniacki
Brand new to the top ten and clearly feeling great about being there. I find her baseline game somewhat mind-numbing to watch at times, but her consistency and endurance are exactly the qualities you need to win on clay. I like that she plays smart tennis -- when pulled way off the court, she never tries to pull off a winner like some of the other top players, but will throw up a lob and buy herself the opportunity to work herself back into the court. She must have been trained by a traditionalist. She has had some good wins on this surface and she seems less banged up than say Azarenka or Venus Williams. But watching her at the Family Circle Cup, I hated how often her coach came out to whisper in her ear. I’d like to see her move beyond the dependency that that implies and be able to think more for herself out there. I think she has it in her. And Roland Garros just might be the tournament that makes her believe.

Because I am focusing on the top ten, I have had to ignore lesser players who could challenge any ones of the above on a good day. Amelie Mauresmo (photo above with Sveta) has been looking good recently. But this is her home turf and that has never brought out the best in her. The good news is she’s older and wiser now. Hopefully this is enough to get her beyond choking in front of her homies. If she wins, I will shed real tears of happiness for her.

My love for Carla Suarez Navarro remains unabated. Chick can play. And that backhand -- sweeeet. But so far she hasn’t lived up to the promise she signaled a year ago. It’s time for her to step up.

Sabine Lisicki: Love her. Love her fight and confidence. Love her BBT style play. Hate the fact that she’s too banged up to win it. But there’s always next year.

[I started this idea too late so I may not get around to the men. I am also traveling next week and may not be able to post until June. In which case, enjoy the first week of my favorite Slam and see you back here soon!]

Thursday, May 21, 2009

How the top ten might fare in France: The Women

Today I’m introducing a new feature to this blog. In anticipation of an upcoming Slam, I will look at the top 10 players on the WTA and ATP tours and analyze their current form. And by top ten I don’t mean by Serena’s standards (ha ha) but how they actually fall in the rankings. Here goes.

Dinara Safina
Currently the world # 1. This time last year she fought her way to the finals of Roland Garros after several heart-stopping come-from-behind wins. But by the finals she was pooped -- she had nothing left. I’d like to say that since then she has changed this pattern but that would not entirely be true. She still has a bad habit of falling asleep in the middle of matches and then waking up when it is almost too late. She needs to stop that. Her self-confidence has improved but she can still be somewhat mentally fragile. But there is no shot she cannot play. And her newly refined disguised drop shot will definitely be a bonus on this surface. I’d like to see her move into net more, but I say that about all the women and some of the men. As far as baseliners go, she is among the best. I would like her to win. I think she can, if she can only stay awake.

Serena Williams
A most reluctant number 2. A most frustrated # 2. With almost 2000 points separating her from Safina, she may be frustrated for a while. The good news is that she could end up on the other side of the draw from Safina which means that I can ideally root for them both right up to the finals. And then I’ll flip a coin. There is no doubting that Serena has what it takes to win Roland Garros. For a start, she’s won it before. Second, she wants to erase Safina from the #1 slot and winning this tournament will go a ways towards helping her do that. Her problem is physical. Her brand of power tennis is brutal on the body. Her thigh has been bandaged a lot recently. She has hobbled her way through some recent tournaments and is not playing at 100%. But her will to win -- or perhaps a bad-minded refusal to lose -- can take her a long way. I will not be surprised if she is holding the trophy aloft in two weeks.

Venus Williams
If this were Wimbledon, I’d factor her in. It isn’t. it’s clay. She may get through the early rounds only because her opponents may be weak. But I’d be shocked if she wins.

Elena Dementieva
Ranked # 4 largely because of subtle improvements in her serve, somewhat contradictorily, there is a sense that Elena may be on the decline. I felt this most acutely when I watched Wozniacki beat her at the Family Circle Cup. Wozniacki had no business taking Dementieva to three sets much less beating her. Elena is just not the same. There’s something missing in her these days. Maybe a lack of fire. For a while I thought that maybe she was distracted by concerns about her mother’s health. But even after she herself reported that her mother was fine, there remained a lackluster element to her game. Maybe she's burnt out. Or maybe she’s in love and just doesn’t give a crap anymore. Can you blame her?

Jelena Jankovic
I have become increasingly irked by Jelena’s attempts at being the sexy fashion plate. I know that there is a lot of pressure on the tour to be pretty and sexy. I just wish Jelena did not seem to so completely buy into it. At the start of the year when she was photographed training in Mexico, I thought that she was focused on tennis. And then she apparently got injured and has been posing non-stop ever since. Ana Ivanovic she is not so I wish she would give it a rest and focus on her tennis. Her movement used to be the best. She won by getting to every shot and forcing her opponents to play another ball. But that Jelena seems to be history. I’m not sure that the new Jelena even cares.

(to be continued)

Sunday, May 17, 2009

“He was simply better than me”

Those were the words Nadal used to describe his loss to Federer today. And you know what? He was speaking the absolute literal truth. Roger Federer looked brilliant today. For a moment, I even allowed myself to hope.

It is hard to believe that this is only the second time that Federer has beaten Nadal on clay. Then again, it’s actually not hard to believe because Nadal has been that dominant, that unbeatable.
I watched a couple of hours of the match he played against Djokovic yesterday. After Djoko won the first set, I took a break and went and did something else. I may have started folding laundry -- yes, it’s been a weekend of banal housecleaning. When I got back to the TV, it was to discover tha
t both players were locked in a brutal second set tiebreak. I remained transfixed ‘til the end.

Although Nadal was wearing a leg bandage, it was Djoko who started seeming the worse for wear by the third set. Sheer guts got him to another tiebreak. But it was nerves that may have lost him the match in the end.
And while Djoko did not burst into tears upon losing like Federer did in Australia, his disappointment was equally palpable. I found myself thinking that he must know what it feels like to be Federer, to play your absolute best, to basically do just about everything right, to have match points on your racket, and still turn around and lose the match. Honestly, sometimes I wonder how these guys keep going.

Having learned th
e hard way that you simply never count Nadal out -- certainly not in front of his paisanos, certainly not in front of Spanish royalty, certainly not with Uncle Toni sitting there looking increasingly pissed off in the audience -- I honestly, truly expected him to beat Federer today. So thoroughly did I expect this that I did not even bother to watch the match live on the Tennis Channel. I watched Dinara and Carolina instead. I don’t get why Wozniacki keeps getting the kind of results that she has. But I get that her consistency is what has made her finally break through to the Top 10. She is the first Dane to do so. I wish her style of play did more for me.

So after yawning thro
ugh the women’s match, I went back to folding laundry. I figured I couldn’t be more bored than bored. And when during a brief email break I discovered that Federer had beaten Nadal, I promptly made some popcorn and sat down to catch the repeat. (Laundry could wait).

And let me tell you, it was one of the best tennis finals ever between these two. Both men seemed trimmed down, streamlined, as if they each has shed a few pounds. Nadal’s ass no longer filled up my TV screen. I’m not sure how I feel about that.


Nadal served well. He has a penetrating kick serve to the backhand that is a beauty to behold. He plays it so confidently, so effortlessly. But in the end Federer served better. His down-the-line serve was brutally on point. Nadal's usually reliable returns-of-serve started to fail him. And in the second-to-last game of the second set, Federer played a down-the-line on the second serve that totally caught Nadal off guard. It was a defining moment of the match.


Both men also moved well and played superb ground strokes. But Federer’s improved down-the-line forehand (to Nadal’s lefty backhand) is probably the single stroke that won him this match. I didn't understand
yesterday why he had used it so much against Del Potro since it was a shot that potentially favored the Argentine's big forehand. (It didn't actually). I got why today -- Federer was warming up for the match that mattered.

The commentators mentioned several times that Nadal was not pleased with the odd bounce of the Madrid surface. And in his post-match interview, Nadal did indeed make a point of saying that the Madrid court bore no relation to Roland Garros. In other words, this loss to Federer means nothing. Come Paris we will see who is the real clay king.


And you know what? He may be right. Maybe the surface in Madrid favored his opponent. Maybe he will get revenge on the terre battue. But for now, for today, Federer finally, gloriously, wonderfully beat Nadal in front of Nadal’s own homies on clay. The shoe is on the other foot. Let me savor the moment for as long (or as briefly) as it lasts.

The lost art of appreciating trash talk

When Serena Williams recently declared that she was the true #1, I had a good laugh. “Nice smack talk Serena”, I thought to myself and moved on to folding laundry or whatever mundane task was occupying me at the time. It never occurred to me -- pardon my naïveté -- that this would end up being something that the news outlets would not only blow up into a front page story, but would then end up interviewing poor Dinara Safina about it.

Huh? When did we lose the ability to understand and appreciate somebody talking trash? Most sport players of any caliber talk smack. They trash their opponents, trash their achievements, and declare themselves to be the best. Trash-talking is a psychological mind-game. It is part of the mental game of tennis (or any other sport). The hope is that your opponents buy into it because then you can climb into their heads and set up camp. And then win.

Trash-talking is a skill, but when done well becomes an art. Mohammed Ali did not invent trash-talking when he declared himself able to float like a butterfly and sting like a bee. But he was one of the best at it. Ali was famous for talking smack even in the middle of matches. Once, in a bout against Foreman, when the latter had managed to land some serious body blows, Ali whispered into his ear “Is that all you’ve got?” Foreman said later that he couldn’t believe what he was hearing.


So when Serena declared herself to be the true # 1, like I said, I laughed and thought, “Dayum, they should give that Serena a Ph.D. in trash-talk”. And continued scrubbing the toilet or whatever mundane task I was engaged in at the time. And I assumed that, given the chance, Safina would try to make Serena eat those words. After all, this is the same gritty Safina who had just survived a brilliant match against Venus in Rome.


But the sp
orts media, with grim humorlessness, grabbed hold of this story and started shaking in at Safina’s face. And if I were Safina, I would have laughed and responded with similar trash. But Safina responded with an equally grim earnestness that made me wonder, what, don't they talk smack in Russia? Is trash talking a peculiarly American phenomenon? I didn’t think so.


So here is poor Safina responding to Serena’s smack talk about Safina having no Slams and therefore not being the real # 1: “Yes, I didn’t win a Grand Slam but I was in two finals and in one semifinal in one year. Many people can’t achieve that in a career. Overall, I think I’m where I should be for the consistency of my whole year.” And you’d think she’s stop there. But you would be wrong. Safina continued: “(When) Amelie Mauresmo became No. 1 she hadn’t won a Grand Slam and nobody told her anything. I don’t know why people tell me and Jankovic that we should have won a Grand Slam. It’s overall how you compete. I still have time to win a Grand Slam. I think that will come.”


E
arth to Safina. If you’re gonna be a great # 1, (and trust me, you have what it takes), there are certain arts you have to master. And one of them is knowing how to respond to trash with more trash. If I were Safina, I would have said something like, “Well, I am choosing to focus on tennis and not fashion or so-called acting, and I intend to have a long career with lots of Slams”. You know, something that calls Serena out for her trash-talk but at the same time lets her know that you ain’t afraid of her and you’re willing to meet her behind the gymnasium, just name the time.


What else does Safina do? She reaches emotionally for the company of another loser and declares that she isn’t the only loser on the planet. Ouch. Somebody in the WTA needs to set up a class to teach these newbies how to survive at the top. For a start, they need to grow a sense of humor. And then learn how to appreciate trash-talk at its finest. And then how to throw trash back on trash.

Safina's incredibly honest interview (no trash) after losing to Serena at the US Open 2008


Monday, May 11, 2009

Coming out from under a brother’s shadow

There are certain experiences that shape your life, that forever capture a dynamic that may influence some of your choices. Psychologists believe that the majority of these experiences happen within the family. We remain influenced by family dynamics of which we are sometimes not even consciously aware.

Take for instance the fact that I have never fallen in love with an older man. Younger or the same age - fine. But older than I? Forget it. I can no more sexualize my response to an older man than I could imagine not having tennis in my life.

I’ve always attributed this to a complex relationship with an older brother. He was five years older. He is five years older, but the age difference no longer matters. But for a long time, he cast a huge shadow. I remember being angry with him once when I was about 11 or 12. He had used my hair comb without my consent. I launched into a prepared verbal attack, “What do you think this is?”, I screamed, “the universal comb???” It was months before I realized how stupid I sounded. Wanting so hard to stand up for myself, to prove that I knew big words too, words as big as the ones that floated off his superior 17-year-old tongue, I had ended up sounding like an utter fool.

It would take leaving home and moving far away to get me past a sense of inadequacy. It would take defining my own sphere of success to get me to a point of personal esteem. It would take surpassing him to get me beyond our sibling rivalry.

No doubt it probably helped that I had a love for tennis that equated his madness for soccer. But what if he had played tennis too? Or had decided to become a psychologist as well? Would I have been able to deal with that? I think not. I know not.

And so I think that it is only fitting that Marat Safin has decided to bow gracefully out of tennis at a time that his sister has ascended to the top. His timing seems just right. He had his turn, and now Dinara can have hers.

Of course Safin has admitted his pride in his sister. And one gets the sense from his cheerful interviews that it might never occur to him that his ongoing presence might negatively affect her. And it may not. Perhaps this is just me projecting my issues onto their situation and feeling a relief and lightness for her that Dinara may not even wish for herself. But I suspect that I may be more right than wrong, and that in an imperfect world in which siblings happen to occupy the same special space, it is fitting that as one star ascends, the other begins to fade.

I cannot imagine how difficult it must be to be Safina. To ascend in the same sport as your older brother. To be identified for years as “Safin’s little sister” long after you stop being little and have the courage to insist on the correct pronunciation of your own name.

Marat is now 29. He is doing his farewell tour. I will miss him. One of my favorite memories of Safin was watching him become utterly frustrated at the US Open years ago as he tried to beat the slice king of Italy, Gianluca Pozzi. It was a wonderful match. Pozzi simply refused to die, no matter how much Safin tried to kill him. We all knew that Safin would win eventually, so the crowd became raucously, gloriously, unashamedly in favor of Pozzi. We did wave after wave in support of Marat's unlikely challenger. It took Safin five sets to put the old man away. The crowd was in stitches by the time he eventually did so.

I adore Marat Safin. In a different life, I would have been a Safinette, one of those pneumatic blonde chicks that used to show up in his player’s box. Marat was the sex. I will miss him. I will miss the irreverence of his observations about the sport. I will miss his Letterman interviews. I will miss his awesome play, his capacity for phenomenal tennis. But he needs to go. Because it is now his sister's turn.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

To be young, rich, and disciplined

It is difficult to manage money at any age but it is probably far more so when one is very young and very rich. Think of all of the temptations available to you when you were Richard Gasquet’s age. Now imagine being able to afford them all. Would you resist?

It is easy for me to say that I have never done cocaine. That is the truth. It is also the truth that at age 22, I could not afford to experiment with drugs. I had grad school to pay for, with no family assistance. Drugs were the furthest thing from my mind. I think that part of the reason why I still own every single psychology book I ever bought is because I remember how hard it was for me to afford them.

But if I were 22 and rich, could I honestly say that a lot of my money would not have ended up going into partying, or even up my nose? For young players like Richard Gasquet, the temptation must be unbearable. Some time ago I saw a photo (left) of Gasquet and Tsonga dancing up a storm in a club. They looked like young people everywhere, slightly drunk (to my eyes), and having a grand old time.

Compare them with players like Sébastien Grosjean who, by age 20, was already married and had his first child. Today, he is the father of three. A completely different path, a totally different life. Grosjean chose responsibility over recreation, solidity over squander. A much more difficult path, in my opinion. It is so much easier to party and put things up your nose.

Of the group of young male French players, Gasquet was always the one signaled for glory. Ever since he was very young, predictions were being made that he would be “The One”. At age 15, he made his much lauded grand slam debut on his home turf at Roland Garros. But today he is ranked behind fellow country-men Gilles Simon, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Gaël Monfils. Who woulda thunk it?

There is no doubting Gasquet’s talent. He can play on any surface. He is a breath-taking shot-maker. His down-the-line backhand is not something one can teach -- you have to be born with that shot. On a good day, he can challenge anyone on the tour. On a bad day, he looks like a junior still trying to figure it all out. And with his admitted positive drug test, it’s clear that he’s still trying to figure it out.

I feel more sympathetic towards Gasquet than I did towards Hingis when she was thrown out of tennis for allegedly using cocaine. I say allegedly because Ms. Thang denied it. At a teary news conference in Zurich, Switzerland, Hingis insisted on her innocence: “I am frustrated and angry. I believe that I am absolutely, 100 percent innocent…They say that cocaine increases self-confidence and creates a type of euphoria. I don't know. I only know that if I were to try to hit the ball while in any state of euphoria, it simply wouldn't work. I would think that it would be impossible for anyone to maintain the coordination required to play top class tennis while under the influence of drugs.” I agree with Hingis; you can’t play tennis while high. But no one ever accused her of taking a bump just before she came on the court. Doping experts say that cocaine can be detected for up to five or six days after use.

Am I being unfair to Hingis? Should I have been as compassionate about her dilemma as I am being with Gasquet? I think not. The difference in part is their ages and experience. At the time Hingis was 27 and a seasoned performer. She had already delivered on the promise also noted in her as a child. She won the girls singles at the French Open at age 12, the youngest to ever do so. She went on to win every slam on the WTA tour, and made it to the finals of the French (which she squandered to friend and then fellow party animal, Iva Majoli.)

The other difference is that Hingis always seemed to enjoy a measure of freedom. One never got the sense of her being boxed in by tennis. Her mother has been quoted as saying that she only coached Hingis for about six hours a week. The rest of the time was spent in pursuit of other interests including horse-back riding, skiing, and swimming. I remember a commentator once wondering why Hingis’ mother allowed her to continue riding horses after she had gone pro. He could not imagine why she would take the risk. I could not comprehend his inability to understand the idea of having a balanced life.

Gasquet, on the other hand, has always seemed bottled, controlled, repressed. Some called him a head case. News reports criticized the omnipresence of his parents. Unsubstantiated rumors questioned his sexuality. About the latter, I really don’t care. My point only is that where I found myself wanting to slap Hingis, I find that I want to hold Gasquet close and remind him that he is still young, that the time off can be spent learning how to acquire true discipline, of the kind that Agassi learned late in his career, of the kind that Grosjean role models. I want to urge him to spend the time off working with a trainer to strengthen his body, and with a psychologist to fix his mind. Because it’s not over ‘til its over, and it’s entirely up to him if the fat lady sings.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

From Favored Coach to Tennis Terrorist?

Oh my. What a shocking turnaround. And what an unfortunate way for a group of women players to go about sending a message to their coach. It’s one thing to be pissed off with the woman. Who has not had their share of irksome feelings towards a pushy coach? But to gang up on her collectively and send out these negative messages through the media? Yikes! Problem-solving 101 this is not.

I’m referring of course to the ugly, nasty, messy situation involving female tennis coach Dawna Prevette, and her team of disgruntled women at Penn State. And yes I am emphasizing the gender on both sides because the passive-aggressive and mean-spirited nature of this attack is distinctly feminine. As a straight-shooting, straight-talking woman myself, I often feel out of place in the world of nasty subtle innuendo -- the kind that women often specialize in, the kind in which they join forces to bring down another woman. It makes me sick to my stomach.

I have never met Dawna Prevette. I do not know her personally. I am not defending her. I am however criticizing the process by which she is being criticized. And I am thinking about the implications of this nasty, messy, ugly process for all women tennis players who aspire one day to coach tennis at the college level or beyond.

It is a hard enough struggle to try to break through the barriers of top-level success, a sphere that remains dominated by penises and testosterone. But the truth is that if you are brilliant -- because good isn't good enough, you have to be far better than good -- so if you are a brilliant woman, along the way you will always run across the odd man or woman who are willing to lend you a helping hand. But sadly, it is always women who will conspire behind your back to bring you down.

There are very few women coaching tennis at the college level or beyond. Most tennis coaches, even in the world of women’s tennis, are men. Those few female tennis coaches who break through the ceiling -- women like Dawna Prevette -- inevitably help to pave the way for others simply by being there. They are no different from female astronauts, soldiers, or lobbyists -- women who penetrate a bastion of male success and occupy it, sometimes defiantly. Even if they are bitches, in fact, especially when they are bitches, they help pave the way for others.

Even if one assumes that she might have gotten the odd helping hand here or there, it’s hard to discount that Dawna Prevette seems to have earned her success the hard way. As an undergraduate at North Texas, she was the No. 1 in singles during her junior and senior years, serving as team captain in her senior year. She earned other accolades as well, including the Big West Female Scholar Athlete of the Year, was named to the Raptor All-Eagle Academic Team, and served as the Student-Athlete Advisory Committee and Scholarship Director. Notably, Prevette also twice won the North Texas' Team Eagle award for best work ethic and team spirit.

After a five year stint as head coach at her alma mater, in 2006 Prevette was invited to serve as assistant tennis coach at Baylor University. A year later, in the fall of 2007, she accepted the offer to coach at Penn State. Prevette acknowledged in an interview that she was not looking to leave Baylor but that “Penn State's tradition and strong school spirit made the job more appealing and made me want to come here to coach.” The Collegian, Penn State’s student newspaper, wrote a warmly welcoming profile on her, acknowledging that Prevette had introduced new training routines that emphasized overall fitness, strength-training, and a focus on team-building both on and off the court.

A year and a half later, and apparently the worm has turned. The same Collegian has become the conduit for some of the nasty, petty, ugly complaints against the coach. One woman’s father claims that his daughter got suspended for removing pepperoni from a slice of pizza. Another woman, recruited from Europe but already chock full of American entitlement, claims that she got dismissed for not making eye contact. Others say that the coach is abusive, bullying, and constantly threatens to take away their scholarships. Players seem to be practically accusing Prevette of being a tennis terrorist.

Was there no other way for a group of women to express their dissatisfaction with a coach? Was there no other avenue for a group of parents to encourage their daughters to develop and practice the skills of communication, problem-solving, and conflict resolution? Would many of these complaints have been made were Prevette a man and therefore not expected to be sugary sweet, kind, and nurturing all the flipping time? Points to ponder, no?

Prevette’s response? “If they don't want to work hard and be competitive and fight and improve, then maybe this isn't the place for them.” On paper I do not at all disagree with her. If your vision is that of preparing players for the blood sport called professional tennis, then you really have no use for whiners wanting to run home to their daddies to complain about their entitlement to slices of pepperoni.