Saturday, April 9, 2011

Family Circle QFs: Where pluck lost out to patience

There were four interesting quarterfinal match-ups at the Family Circle Cup yesterday: Wozniacki vs. Wickmayer, Jankovic vs. McHale, Peng vs. Mirza, and Vesnina vs. Georges. And in every single instance, the plucky player who came out zinging ended up losing to the player who kept her cool and simply played the reliable, patient, persistent tennis that got her to where she was in the first place.

First up was Caroline Wozniacki vs. the Belgian, Yanina Wickmayer. It was my first time seeing Wickmayer playing up close. I like what I saw. (OK maybe I'm biased -- I always favor players who wear practical shorts over the latest fashion statement). Yanina is a lanky young woman who hits the ball way harder than you'd expect given her slight frame. Indeed none of the players on the court yesterday were big women. And all of them hit the ball so fiercely that it was proof that you don't have to be a muscled behemoth to spank the crap out of a tennis ball. Power in tennis comes as much from timing as it does from the proper use of the legs, not the arms. But I digress.

Wickmayer is a talented player and in the first set, she gave Caroline more than she could handle. Caro had to run to daddy on several occasions in order to be told what to do. The disadvantage of being a live spectator is that you are not privy to his advice, not that I speak Polish anyway. But the interesting thing with Caroline is that I never really saw any change in her game after these consultations. After a few aggressive rallies, she would retreat to defensive retrieving and would play out the rest of the point by patiently getting the ball back, keeping it in play, and making intelligent placements instead of always going for sheer power. This is how she won that match. This is how she wins every match.

Next up was Peng vs. Mirza. After the white girls left the court, so did most of the audience. The few remaining clearly did not have a bitch in this fight and simply applauded good tennis. The interesting thing with the audience though -- not just this one but every tennis audience everywhere -- is that plucky shots get more applause than intelligent persistence. So when Mirza came out painting the lines and playing her aggressive, non-varying tennis, the audience lapped it up.

Sania Mirza barely looks like a tennis player, by which I mean that she seems to have so little muscle tone that you really wonder how the heck she is able to play so aggressively. Her single unvarying strategy is to hit the ball hard. She does nothing else. Peng on the other hand, simply waited her out. Her patience and persistence eventually paid off. She won the match.

Next up were Jelena Jankovic vs. Christina McHale. No surprise -- the crowd returned for this match. McHale is a plucky player. I hate being repetitive but this is the best word to describe her. She's had some of her best tennis results to date at this event. It's hard to believe that she is the contemporary of seemingly promising players like Asia Muhammed. Remember her?

McHale is a fearless player who, like most of the current crop of newbies, is very comfortable at the baseline. But play her a drop-shot, as Jankovic did, time after time, and she has no idea what to do. That tells you something about how players are being coached today. They can all hit massive shots from the baseline. They can serve like demons. And there is nothing else.

The remarkable thing about Jankovic was how little energy she brought to the first set. She was downright subdued. I wasn't sure if she was just untroubled by her opponent or whether this whole tennis thing is becoming a bit of a drag for her. (During the post-match interview she said that she was getting the hunger back which was an admission that she had lost it).

I was however surprised when Jankovic asked for coaching consultation during the set break. After all, she was clearly going to win this match. Pluck did not have a chance. I don't know what her new coach, Andrei Pavel, told her during their chat, but Jankovic came out playing much more aggressively. She shut the plucky one entirely out of the second set.

Finally, the last singles match of the day featured the feisty German, Julia Georges, against the patient and more experienced Russian, Elena Vesnina. The latter was wearing a high left thigh brace. So when Georges came out hitting zinging shots down the line, for a minute I started composing a different article in my head. I wondered if I would have to go instead with: "Pluck 1, Patience 3".

I should not have wavered. Pluck may win the occasional tournament like Azarenka's big trophy in Miami. But the players who know how to dig deep and grind it out when they need to, who know how to combine power with intelligent placement, who understand when and how to implement finesse (drop-shots, lobs, slices, sweet angles) -- these players will always have the better careers. Which is why Vesnina came back and won the two remaining sets. And this is how I ended up not having to change the title of this entry.

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