Lately I’ve had the toppling of giants on the brain. Apparently so too have some lower-ranked players at Wimbledon. Some unknown Taiwanese named Lu Yeh-hsun, ranked # 82, took out Andy Roddick in the second week opener. A Bulgarian talent named Tsvetana Pironkova (in photo), also eerily ranked # 82, destroyed Venus Williams in straights.
At least the Roddick match went to five sets, with both men actually breaking a sweat. Pironkova took out Venus by an unbelievable 6-2 6-3 score, never losing her cool as she played a combination of lawn tennis, squash, ping-pong, croquet, and racquetball in a collection of unusual strokes not seen since Susan Lenglen played tennis.
But the question that these and similar giant-toppling events raises for me is whether these performances represent flukes, breakthroughs, or the heralding of the next giant of the sport. I think that the question is fair, and I owe it all to George Bastl.
Do you remember George Bastl? I do. I became enchanted with him one summer when he took out Sampras at Wimbledon. Everyone was shocked, no one more so than George himself. In fact his career never recovered from the shock. He has never played at that level since. Come to think of it, I don’t even know what became of him. His will forever represent the type of fluke performance that will happen in tennis from to time. And by this I do not mean that Sampras in any way handed him the win. Bastl won that match fair and square. The fluke lay in the fact that if he had to play the exact same match against the exact same opponent the following day, Bastl would reliably lose. The win was a one-time event, a never to be repeated fluke performance.
On the other hand, when Federer crushed Sampras at Wimbledon some years ago, his win signaled a changing of the guard, a heralding of things to come, the arrival of a new giant in tennis. Federer has taken my advice and has been watching his back ever since.
But I believe there is a middle category of performances, ones that straddle the line between fluke and giant-slaying. And that is the seminal breakthrough. A breakthrough performance is one that signals the arrival of a major new talent. It is not a chance performance, but the person may struggle for some time before getting their act together. With time and experience, the player emerges to become a major contender, sometimes even a new giant of the sport.
Only time will tell if Melanie Oudin’s run at the US Open two years ago represented a true breakthrough. She is young enough that she deserves and has been given the time and experience to develop her game. But as a short woman without a major weapon, it’s looking more and more as if that dream run was nothing but a crowd-pleasing fluke.
Pironkova’s win over Venus is also difficult to categorize. For a start, she has such an unusual style of playing, such an odd combination of strokes, that she may continue to win simply because opponents will not know what to make of her. But it will be just a matter of time also until folks start deconstructing her game and figuring out its Achilles heels. So I am not going to declare her as having Big Babe potential. But it is also unfair to call her win against Venus a fluke when she has bested Venus before, at the 2006 Australian Open. I believe that Pironkova is an original talent. But only time will tell if her run at the 2010 Wimbledon represents a genuine breakthrough.
I also am not clear if Vera Zvonareva’s breakthrough win over Clijsters today signals anything significant. What I do know that right about now, women’s tennis could use some serious giant-slayers. That Clijsters could retire, get married, have a baby, and show back up two years later to win the 2009 US Open, tells you that women’s tennis is ripe for the taking. I don’t know which performance makes women’s tennis look worse -- Clijsters’ return, or the resurgence of the 40-year-old Kimiko Date. I have nothing against either of these women personally. I would say the same thing if Agassi grabbed a racket and showed up in France to win Roland Garros after a two-year absence. It just isn’t done. That is what needs to be the fluke.