Monday, August 8, 2011

When grace won out over pressure

I will be the first to admit that I love Big Babe tennis. I love the big-serving, big forehand power game that many of the top women now play. I love the fact that oohing and aahing over the speed of a serve is no longer relegated to men’s tennis. Women tennis players are increasingly showing that women can hit big and win big too.

But in the absence of the Williams Sisters for much of this year, and during the phase when Sharapova was too injured to be a force, I found myself forced to watch a different kind of tennis. Mainly the experience has been frustrating. It still galls me that the likes of Caroline Wozniacki has managed to maintain a strangle-hold on the #1 position. And while I am still unable to appreciate what Caroline has to offer, I find that I have been enjoying watching some of the other up-and-comers in women’s tennis.

Over this past weekend, I found myself reversing my former opinion of Agnieszka RadwaƄska. About this same event last year, I wrote an honest entry about my difficulties appreciating Radwanska’s style of tennis. I had back then problems with the way she jumped around the court when receiving serve. I disliked the predictability of her moves. I was bored by the side-to-side windshield wiping strategy that she deployed on point after point. I questioned her ability to win when she couldn’t conquer an opponent who was choking so hard it was painful to watch.

So I was shocked to discover a subtly changed Radwanska over this past weekend of the Carlsbad CA event. If she still jumped around like a jack rabbit when receiving serve, I did not notice. I was too busy appreciating the graceful elegance of her tennis. If she ran Zvonareva side to side, I did not see it. I was too busy appreciating the keenness of her intelligence as she deliberately, intentionally constructed her points.

Radwanska is still not a power player. But in one short year she has become far more than a retriever content only to chase balls down and force her opponents to play another shot. She has morphed herself a confident player who manages her own game and does not only react to what the other produces. It’s a subtle sign of improvement. I am happy that I noticed it.

Over on the other side of the court, Zvonareva was clearly under pressure. No she did not have any of the spectacular melt-downs for which she is unfortunately famous. But she paced, quarreled, and slammed her racket in frustration. She was a woman under pressure. This was a weekend in which grace and finesse would win out over pressure.

This was true for the men as well. Defenders of Monfils and Zvonareva will say that the lateness of their previous matches must have interfered with their form the next day. I disagree. This isn’t ten-and-under tennis where the little tykes are expected to be too tired to handle a demanding schedule. These are pros, and there are points at stake.

And in fairness to both Zvonareva and Monfils, they are two healthy players who have improved their fitness tremendously. Like Zvonareva, Monfils found himself losing in straights to the player not known for power but for his gifts of grace and finesse.

Radek Stepanek was chock full of confidence during his run at the Legg Mason tournament in Washington. And yet he must have wondered if he could beat Monfils having lost to him just last month in Hamburg. But that was clay, by far Monfils’ favorite surface. Dude can slide like few others. On clay, Monfils plays with grace. On a hardcourt, his shot selection can be illogical, clumsy, oafish.

Stepanek on the other hand, plays with grace regardless of the surface. He moves with the smoothness of a man half his age. While Monfils seemed to feel continually pressured to come up with big shots, Stepanek would quietly sneak into net and put the shot away. It was a weekend of truly graceful performances. Watching Radwanska and Stepanek was like watching a kind of tennis ballet. 

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