Sunday, April 1, 2012

When emancipation works, and when it doesn't

Of course I don't mean emancipation in the strict legal sense of a minor who persuades a court that living independently as an adult is better for them than remaining under the care and control of toxic parents. I am referring more to the psychological separation between parent tennis coach and adult child. Sometimes emancipation works for a player. Sometimes it doesn't. It has clearly worked for Aggy Radwanska.

Radwanska fired her father Robert as her coach in July 2011. There seemed to be no negativity in the decision. Their father-daughter relationship seems fine. And one imagines that Robert is tremendously proud of the fact that she has won some four tournaments ever since she emancipated herself and hired Polish Fed Cup captain Tomasz Wiktorowski full time. Her father remains a sometimes hitting partner when she is in Poland. But coach Wiktorowski is coolly in charge. Long time WTA veteran coach, Borna Bikic, was recently added to the team. And their results have been phenomenal.

Few parents who have spent a lifetime hovering over their children's careers can let go as gracefully as Mr. Radwanska has. He came to Miami, his daughter said, but as a tourist. And really the years of sacrificing for his children's achievement must have meant that Mr. Radwanska would have missed out on the pleasures of sight-seeing despite having traveled the globe. This time he elected not to change his ticket for a Friday departure even though he knew that his daughter was playing in the finals the next day. I truly admired that.

The typical tennis helicopter parent – yes Mr. Wozniacki, I am watching you – would never have gotten on that plane. Mr. Radwanka expressed to his daughter his confidence in her ability to win the match, and got on the plane. His departure was a statement of respect for and confidence in her. And it was clear that those were the messages that Agnieska received and internalized.

Her confidence never wobbled against Sharapova. And really it was Sharapova who should have been the more confident of the two. After all, she has a decidedly winning record against Aggy. And she has the bigger game. But Sharapova got broken in the last game of each set, making 45 errors in total. In the end Radwanska won because she had the higher first serve percent (never mind their lack of fire power), she committed far few errors, and she forced Sharapova to generate her own power – a strategy that almost guarantees that Sharapova will hit many balls long. And she did.

Sharapova also emancipated herself from her father. In her case I think that this has neither helped nor hurt her. And really it was never clear if it was Sharapova who told her father to back off or if Yuri came to the conclusion that his daughter didn't need his input anymore. Either way, his absence has made no difference to her tennis success.

This is because Sharapova is a stubborn competitor. She has one knob on her dial – full-blast. When it works her tennis can be scintillating. When she starts making errors, yet continues to go for broke with zero adjustments, it can be shocking. Really her father's presence or absence would make little difference to such an inflexible mentality.

Up 4-1 in the first set in the semi-final match against Wozniacki, with a point to go up 5-1, Sharapova smacked a backhand hard into the net. This was followed quickly by two massive forehand errors. Next thing you know it was deuce and you could tell that Caro was going to seize the chance.

In fact it was in that match that I finally hit on the word that I think best describes Wozniacki's game. Wozniacki is opportunistic. She has a keen nose for sensing those micro-moments when an opportunity to wedge herself into a match has presented itself. And off she goes, determined to exploit it. It took three sets for Sharapova to finally throttle her.

Wozniacki's weakness is her frank inability to create or set up such moments. She doesn't seem to have the strategic intelligence to figure out exactly how to beat her opponents. She can sense their lapses but she cannot create them. All she knows how to do is scamper and defend, defend and scamper. And this may why she remains a good tennis player but will never be a great one.

I had hoped that the temporary emancipation from her father would have made a difference to Wozniacki's psychological growth. The truth is that it really has not. Or maybe it did not even really get a chance to because it didn't last long enough. Because Mr. Wozniacki is solidly back, on his knees court-side, urging her on, drilling into her psyche, dominating her will to win with his own. Emancipation? She probably can't even spell it in Danish.


1 comment:

Klaas said...

Good article, but beware of that mean streak!

Last year Wozniacki responded to a call from WTA and the tournament organizers to play Charleston, and when she had the audacity not to pick up some easy money and lose early, but to play in earnest and win, she got blamed for that all year long. You know, winning smaller tourneys...

This year it is the coaching. My experience is, based on danish tv interviews and comments from people who know them well, that Caroline and her father have a fairly well-balanced relationship. Sooner or later they will part, that is almost inevitable, but not until she finds somebody she clicks with. Or would you rather have her go through a large number of coaches a la Ivanovic, and become confused on court? Anyway there is no secret whatsoever, what she needs to do to improve her game, there your analysis is completely correct. Be more aggressive and control more points, and execute that better both strategically and tactically. That last part took Federer some 6 years on tour...