Sunday, January 25, 2009

Yes Jelena, there are match-ups from hell

I have a good friend, a tall lefty player, whom I have never beaten in tennis. Sure we often trade breaks of serve, but I have never won a match against him. Because he loves me, he knows that I will become very pissed off if he ever offers me any pity wins, and so he routinely - and I might add, gleefully - spanks my ass off the court. I have concluded that the problem is that I have not figured out a way to master his nasty lefty spin.

The closest I ever came was one night when we played in 30-something-degree weather. Yes, we are both nuts. For tennis that is. That night, I came close. We ended up with a 6-6 score in the first set. But we never played the tie-break. It was almost as if neither of us wanted to risk messing with the equilibrium we have established. He suggested that we call it a night because the temperature had dipped and it was so damn cold. I graciously went along. But I will always wonder - would I have won? Could I have won?

Ever so often in the world of tennis, one runs across a match up between two players where the one is so completely
mismatched against the style of the other that repeated losses become the order of the day. Brad Gilbert, back when he was a player and not just a big mouth on TV, lost 16 straight times to Ivan Lendl. Jonas Bjorkman lost 11 straight times to Yevgeny Kavelnikov. Wayne Ferreira never beat Andre Agassi, in 11 tries. And Tommy Robredo has never beaten Andy Roddick, to name just a few.

There are times when it seems as if no matter how the one player improves her fitness, aligns her game, maintains her focus - frankly, no matter what she does - when facing a certain opponent with a certain style of play, her game simply folds. Her weapons become neutralized.

Such seems to be the situation between Jelena Jankovic and Marion Bartoli. From the minute that I saw that Jelena was going to face Marion in Australia, I started thinking that this might be the end of her run. And it was.

Kudos to Jelena who (at least during the immediate post-match interview), when baited by the press to come up with a bunch of excuses for her loss, simply refused to do so. Sure she was a bit graceless when she claimed that she had allowed Bartoli to win. But she also gave credit where it was due. Marion beat her. No she wasn’t tired, no she hadn’t overtrained, no she wasn’t ill. She had simply lost.

There is something about Marion’s two-handed-on-both-sides kind of game that seems to make it unpredictable for Jelena who thrives against opponents whose games she can predict, anticipate, and crush. Their respective styles of playing tennis seem to be fundamentally incompatible.

Of course there are times when the problem between two players is entirely mental. Such was the case for Patty Schnyder versus Anna Kournikova. The very sight of Anna would send Patty into such a fit of negative emotions that she became literally unable to play. When asked to explain their lop-sided 1-4 rivalry, the far more talented Schnyder once replied, “I hate playing her. And I don't play if I'm on the court against her. It's her person and everything around her.” The problem, as Patty herself recognized, was entirely mental.

But in some situations it is the styles of two players that seems to be so fundamentally incompatible that one player ends up genuinely disadvantaged against the other. Of course, what starts out as a stylistic incompatibility can easily become transformed into a mental roadblock. And there were moments when Jelena seemed frightened. I was shocked at her
inability to throw in a decisive second serve the minute Marion planted herself four feet into the court. Jelena seemed intimidated. The more she loses to Bartoli, the more she may become mentally unable to beat her and the issue of stylistic incompatibility will become moot.

But Jelena needs to not give up. With persistence, she may eventually have a breakthrough. All it takes is one win to upset the balance and start the process of believing.

When Andy Roddick finally won a match against Roger Federer in the summer of 2003, there was a hush heard around the tennis world. Up until that moment, Andy’s record against the Fed was 0-9. In their tenth match-up, Andy finally prevailed, beating Roger 6-4, 3-6, 7-6. Of course, ever since that win, Andy has gone right back to his losing ways. But he no longer has that deer-in-the-headlights look when facing Federer. He now seems to believe that he can win.

Yes Jelena, some match-ups are just match-ups from hell. There may be a fun
damental incompatibility between the styles of two players such that the one does not have a chance in hell of beating the other. Until she starts to believe that she can.

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