Peng Shuai has now been in six or so WTA finals. And she has lost them all. Her official record boasts wins against many former and current top players. The list includes: Safina, Mauresmo, Hingis, Jankovic, Sharapova, Ivanovic, Aggie Radwanska, Li Na, Kuznetsova, Petrova, and Schiavone. But Peng has never won a singles title.
On a good day, Peng can beat almost anyone. Heck, I would never want to play against anyone who plays her brand of tennis. I can just imagine how frustrated I would become after all of those dropshots, junk balls, lobs, shots going behind me, and all of the other sneaky and defensive maneuvers that Peng brings to a typical match.
Her opportunistic style can frustrate almost anyone. Peng’s problem is that by the time she gets to the finals -- the few times she has made it that far -- she is depleted from the amount of energy and stamina required to keep up that level of manipulation. So she loses, often with embarrassing ease.
Peng has managed to win some eight doubles titles, but she has never won a WTA singles event. She has made it to the 4th round of every Slam, but she has no Slam wins. To date, her biggest accomplishment remains her gold medal in the 2010 Asian Games. Most of the Western world probably has no idea what that even means.
Which leads me to wonder – is Peng’s problem one of mechanics or psychology? Is her game limited by a lack of development of strategy? Or is she mentally incapable of taking her tennis to the next level? Or possibly a combination of both?
I studied Peng closely over this past weekend. I watched intently as she beat Oprandi in three frustrating sets at the semi-finals of the Brussels Open. And then she lost, once again, in the finals, to Kanepi who was able to anticipate Peng's every move.
I decided that, as a player, Peng can best be described as a sneaky, defensive opportunist. And it’s hard to win tournaments when that is what your entire game consists of.
Peng is no Fabrice Santoro, the French magician. (Did you see him chatting up Serena after she destroyed poor Tatishvili at Roland Garros today?) Peng is no Radek Stepanek, capable of frustrating anyone on any given day – and also of winning titles. She is no Hingis, the junk ball queen, with sundry Slams and titles to her name.
The problem for Peng is that her game remains woefully under-developed. It has stalled out. Peng rarely ever dominates. Her shtick is to react, swiftly and unexpectedly, yes, but always to react and defend. Occasionally she will demonstrate a moment of power but that is never sustained. She reacts to, but rarely creates. She is an opportunist who seizes the moment and tries to make it hers. She is a sneak. You do not see her coming. She can catch you by surprise.
But sneaky opportunism has its limits. For a start, it becomes predictable in its unpredictability. If Peng serves out wide, 19 times out of 20 she will return to that same corner. She is sneaky but predictable. Furthermore, her game is limited by a lack of development. She is no Na Li. There is nothing new in her repertoire. Yes, Peng works very hard on the court and is known for her stamina. But she still has zero weapons and no titles to show for all her effort.