I’m a little inconsistent with regard to how, when and why I first take notice of a new player. In fact I have come to the conclusion that there is no rhyme or reason to my likes and dislikes. I think that I am one of those fans who are going through a transition from one generation of tennis players to another, and so I randomly glom on to the flavor of the moment only to abandon her for chocolate. I think that my problem may be that I am going through anticipatory grief for the end of the current generation of tennis players, but I haven’t quite figured out who is going to keep my attention in the next.
And so one minute I am talking about Sloane Stephens whom I glowed about some time ago even though she hasn’t really done anything yet on the tour. And then there was Aravane Rezai who charmed me with her Big Babe attitude and cosquel carnival costume. And Alize Cornet who grabbed my attention with her patrician nose and confident attitude that seemed to promise so much, but whose inconsistent performance has resulted in a downward slide. And so on.
I went through this before when I was transitioning from Steffi Graf and Martina Hingis. But that transition was eased by the quick and clear ascendance of the William sisters, or I should say Serena because I’ve never particularly been a fan of Venus. Similarly I had transitioned easily to Steffi and Hingis from the highly imperfect Navratilova whom I preferred over Evert whose game I only belatedly came to appreciate. My point is that my transitions have hitherto been smooth and drama-free.
I could say the same for my transitions on the ATP tour. I remember when I used to adore the Argentinian Franco Squillari. I studied his forehand closely because I thought it was the best ever. But then along came Guillermo Coria and the Chilean, Marcelo Rios, whom I adored beyond reason. Now I can’t remember the last time I even thought about Squillari. I can’t even tell you what he’s been up to.
My point is that I have never struggled like this with transitions before. I think that factor may be the improved amount of depth on both sides of the tour. It’s become exceedingly hard to pick clear leaders and dominators. Sharapova could just as easily have been beaten by Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova last evening as she could have beaten her. The outcome of that match was not clear until the last few games. And I’m not exactly indicating that I am transitioning to the plucky Pavlyuchenkova, but I certainly think that she is one to watch.
Pavlyuchenkova is only 19 and therefore has a lot of years left to grow into top form. I hope that her coach, (who may or may not still be Patrick Mouratoglou), manages to persuade her to add more variety to her game. After all, we have enough baseline bashers on the tour. With the advantage of her height (listed as 5 feet, 9.5 inches), her tremendous movement, and her gutsy persistence, Pavlyuchenkova has the potential to be much more than just another baseline basher.
But she does not seem to fully know this as yet. I believe that one of the reasons she lost to Sharapova last evening was that she got sucked into playing Sharapova’s kind of game. Power for power, bash for bash, big serve for big serve, corner to corner, in a mind-numbing lack of variation. (At least I was spared Pavlyuchenkova also matching her scream for scream.)
In my opinion, Maria Sharapova has become the poster child for baseline-banshee bashing. (Try saying that three times!) For every point, in every game, Sharapova’s single strategy seems to be to hit the ball hard, and when that doesn’t work, hit it even harder. I look at Michael Joyce’s face as he is watching her play and I want to ask him if this is all they talk about in their training sessions. I know that it is not because on the few occasions that I was able to listen to their courtside consultations, I have never heard him to tell her to just hit the ball hard. Never, not once. On the contrary, he makes intelligent comments about what she seemed to have missed about her opponents’ weaknesses and then makes strategic suggestions for how she can exploit this. And to Maria’s credit, she always seems to follow her coach’s excellent advice.
But when left to fend for herself, Sharapova seems to go inward. It doesn’t seem to matter who is on the other side of the court. What matters is that she hits the ball hard and if that doesn’t work, then she hits it harder, screaming louder and louder to obtain maximum muscle output. I can’t bear to watch her play.
I worry that the upcoming generation of young tennis players may be watching this kind of crap and aspiring to play this type of body-bruising, career-foreshortening, baseline-banshee type of tennis. And as the premier and most financially successful Russian export, I worry about Sharapova’s impact on the sport in general and on her countrywomen in particular. Which brings me to the second reason why I may be singing the transition blues. I worry that, as a fan, in the future I will have nothing else to choose from but an unvaried assortment of baseline banshees.