Saturday, January 16, 2010

Serena vs. Elena: Best instructional match-up?

Yesterday while watching the Sydney finals between Serena Williams and Elena Dementieva, it occurred to me that these women have a future market in producing instructional tennis tapes if they wish. It’s incredible the degree to which their rivalry produces consistently high quality and creative tennis. They have faced each other 11 times in their career, with Serena having a seven game advantage. And they quite literally bring out the best in each other.

Their matches are not only beautiful to watch but they are also highly instructional. If I were a tennis coach, watching Serena vs. Elena matches would be required homework for my students. This is because between these two women you can see exactly how to go about constructing and winning (or defending) a point.

From watching their matches closely you can learn how to move from aggressive to defensive, when to use drop-shots and lobs, when to move into net and volley, how to use the other’s pace and power, when and how to re-direct the ball, how to create perfect angles, and of course how to serve and return serve properly. Of course Serena maintains the advantage in serving but yesterday Elena produced some surprise down-the-line winners that let me gasping. And even the bad serves can be instructional because they highlight the importance of the toss and proper follow-through.

Between both women you also see the importance and effectiveness of proper footwork. Serena was injured yesterday so her speediness was a bit lacking. But let’s be honest, even when she is playing 100% there are times when Serena can get tangled up in her feet; this rarely if ever occurs for Elena who is quick-footed and moves sharply. Both women are fluid tennis players with excellent and intuitive anticipation. And of course both are very fit. Between them they offer a ton of free tennis instruction.

I’ve also been thinking about my distaste for side-to-side bashing tennis of the kind that women like Jelena Dokic and men like James Blake play. I’ve since grudgingly conceded that this type of tennis can be effective, particularly against baseliners who are allergic to coming to net. And yes, everyone needs to know how and when to play side-to-side tennis. Even between Serena and Elena yesterday, there were moments of excellent side-to-side exchanges. But what makes their matches instructional is that this is not all that they can do. They produce and create (and therefore teach) so much more.

To clarify, the kind of side-to-side bashing that turns me off is when that is all that the players know how to do, and when their only goal is to move the tennis ball from one pocket of the court to the other, from the deuce court to the ad court, back and forth and back and forth, until the opponent gets tired or preferably sprains her or his ankles and can move no more. That kind of tennis shortens careers. And makes me yawn.

Unfortunately, there are a lot of tennis players for whom this is their only game-plan. Nada mas. I personally find it is boring as hell. And no match was more boring so far this year than the finals between Bhadatis and Mardy Fish in Sydney. Side to side, back and forth, pocket to pocket, sprinter vs. sprinter, until Mardy started running out of steam, hit a ball out of the court, and the match was finally and blessedly over. I had dental surgery yesterday so I couldn’t even numb the painfulness of this match by drinking a beer. I had to endure it stone cold sober. I can think of few punishments more awful.

What makes Serena vs. Elena the best instructional match-up for me is the sheer variety of the shots they manage to produce between them. More importantly, you get a sense of the high level of strategizing that goes into the choice and timing of each shot. I’m not saying that theirs is the best rivalry in woman’s tennis (although it is certainly one of the best). I’m arguing that theirs is the most instructional. Feel free to tell me in the comments below who are your best instructional match-ups in tennis.


Karen said...

Hey chica. Much as I love to watch Serena play tennis, there is no other opponent I hate to see her play against and that is Dementieva. Dementieva to my mind has arguably the worst tennis game ever. She never does anything on her own. She is the consummate counter puncher. I think she developed that game as a result of her poor serve early on in her game. I recall years ago a commentator said that one of Dementieva's gifts was her ability to defend her serve. People always said that when she developeed a decent serve she would be very effective as her ground game is so good. I think right now the only thing stopping her from winning a major is her head, that and the quality of the opponent that she would face in a major final. If Serena is determined to beat LenaD you best believe it can happen no matter how good a returner, or no matter how good LenaD moves - witness Doha and Wimbledon 2009. One a match that LenaD should have won (Wimby) and the other one in which Serena was just too good on the day. I dont know about the instructional part of Lena's game, except her ability to answer the powerful return of serve from Serena. I think her whole career she has had to develop a very good return game and no one does the return off the return like she does. She has exceptionally strong legs and like you say is very fit. The titles that she will win are the ones that she always wins. She will not win a major no matter how fit she gets.

tennischick said...

I don't know that our perspectives are incompatible. Serena plays an excellent aggressive game and Elena plays an excellent defensive one. Between them, any student of tennis can get superb instructional information. The point of my article was not to speak to Elena's chances at Slams etc etc. My point only was that against Serena she plays great tennis. And that between them they put on free clinics on what to do and what not to do.

Karen said...

hmm, when you put it like that in your comment I guess you do make your point, I was actually just expanding on the theme which reading back looks like it got a little bit lost in translation. What else is new? My sole defence is that I seem to be coming down with the flu and I am really trying not to, but boy, it could not have happened at a worse time.

tennischick said...

it's quite OK to take the convo in a different direction. i also didn't realize that that is what you were doing and i stuck to the theme of my piece.

that said, i disagree with you on Elena and her match-ups against Serena. i always enjoy watching them play and they also seem to enjoy playing against each other. their matches are always close and tight but lacking in animosity. i think that this is because they complement each other. each one has special strengths that the other lacks -- hence the whole notion of how instructional their matches are.

i too believed that if Elena fixed the yip on her serve, she could be a Slam contender. she has come so close on occasion. i hope she doesn't close out her career without a Slam win. that would be very sad.

hope you feel better! :-)

Anonymous said...

Very nice article! would you suggest other players that produce 'instructional tennis'? Thanks!

tennischick said...

Hey Anonymous:
I was thinking of developing a similar article on the men's side. Keep tuned. I will also give some thought to other instructional match-ups period. Thanks to both you and Karen for commenting. Feel free to leave your name next time! :-)

evgapo said...

It would be nice to share your experience about it. I sent a mail to your gmail account saying how much I liked your writing in the blog and how I use them as english lessons for my children - they both play tennis and already watched parts of the game you mentioned above. Thanks. Evgeny Apostolov