Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Jennifer Capriati: Still battling demons

As a psychologist, I tend to believe that the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior. If for example, I were to meet a gorgeous porn star on the tennis court, my instinct would always be to assume that regardless of how much in love he may be with me, it would be just a matter of time until he goes back to his porny ways. I believe that there is sometimes a sad predictability to human behavior. We do what we know. We have an absurd human tendency to keep repeating the same habits and tendencies.

At the same time, and somewhat contrarily, I also believe in the human capacity to change. Some years ago, a couple of psychological scholars named James Prochaska and Carlo DiClemente developed a theory of how people change. They claim that people often start out with pre-contemplation during which they may not even be aware of the need for change. At some point, perhaps in response to feedback, people begin to contemplate change. Once emotionally committed, they make preparations for imminent change, and move into taking action. Relapses occur when efforts at maintenance slip.

I don’t know where in this model to fit Jennifer Capriati. I don’t know if her recent drug overdose is a reflection of the predictability of her past behavior which includes drug abuse, or whether it highlights the difficulties of maintaining hard-won change. Or perhaps some other option that does not fit neatly into the either-or choices I have mentioned thus far, because people rarely fit into our nicely packaged psychological theories, do they? Certainly not when they are battling demons.

In a 2006 New York Times interview, Capriati acknowledged a poor adjustment to her post-tennis life: “I wake up every day, and my life has totally changed…You don’t know what’s your driving force. Is it sponsors, pressure, money, self-worth? Or is it that you really love the game so much that you can’t be away from it?” She admitted spending a lot of time in her head, ruminating on her unexpectedly changed life.

A year later, in a 2007 interview with the Daily News, Capriati seems worse. She admits to an ongoing battle with the twin demons of pain and depression, and sounds almost suicidal: “Sometimes you get to a point where you can’t stop what you are thinking. It’s like you’re being taken over by a demon. You just feel there’s no way out of this space you’re in. It feels like the end of the world.…I want to be off this planet right now, because I just feel disgusting inside. I can’t even stand my own skin, and I just want to get out.”

The lasting impression is of a lost soul who could not find her way following the premature sidelining of a brilliant tennis career. The kind of lost soul who ends up taking an overdose of drugs in a Rivera Beach, Florida condo. Do you know anything about Rivera Beach? Don’t let the Palm Beach County address fool you. Rivera Beach is a poor-assed town, populated mainly by hard-scrabbling African-Americans, and burdened by a crime rate that is higher than the national average. About 30 percent of its occupants live way below the poverty line. It is a sad place to end up if you are a former tennis giant.

The strongest mental images I have of Jennifer Capriati include memories of her incredible comeback win against a depleted Hingis at the 2002 Australian Open, pictures of her partying afterward in celebration of that win, and a photo of her standing next to a happily smiling porn star named Dale DaBone whom Capriati was reportedly boning from 2003 to 2009 (according to Wikipedia).

According to popular celeb gossip site TMZ, Capriati’s recent overdose may be connected to DaBone’s decision to return to doing porn after the end of their relationship. The Capriati family have not made any comments on this. They have however been busy putting out press announcements claiming that this was not a suicide attempt but an accidental overdose. Are we then to believe that the 34-year-old Capriati ended up in Rivera Beach by accident?

Because I try to make this a fairly clean blog that junior tennis players can read, I won’t give you the direct link to an interview by LA porn personality/pod caster named Jason Sechrest who runs a blog called “The Curious Hours”, and who recently did an X-rated interview with DaBone. Suffice it to say that DaBone admits that he left porn after meeting Capriati, but that the relationship was marred by the pestering of the media and by Capriati’s repeated infidelity. DaBone has recently decided to return to the world of porn. Capriati has overdosed on drugs. And the best predictor of future behavior sadly remains in the past.

NEW YORK - SEPTEMBER 10:  Jennifer Capriati  reacts to a missed point against Elena Dementieva of Russia during the women's semi-final match during the US Open September 10, 2004 at the USTA National Tennis Center in Flushing Meadows Corona Park in the Flushing neighborhood of the Queens borough of New York. (Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Flukes, breakthroughs, and the toppling of giants

Lately I’ve had the toppling of giants on the brain. Apparently so too have some lower-ranked players at Wimbledon. Some unknown Taiwanese named Lu Yeh-hsun, ranked # 82, took out Andy Roddick in the second week opener. A Bulgarian talent named Tsvetana Pironkova (in photo), also eerily ranked # 82, destroyed Venus Williams in straights.

At least the Roddick match went to five sets, with both men actually breaking a sweat. Pironkova took out Venus by an unbelievable 6-2 6-3 score, never losing her cool as she played a combination of lawn tennis, squash, ping-pong, croquet, and racquetball in a collection of unusual strokes not seen since Susan Lenglen played tennis.

But the question that these and similar giant-toppling events raises for me is whether these performances represent flukes, breakthroughs, or the heralding of the next giant of the sport. I think that the question is fair, and I owe it all to George Bastl.

Do you remember George Bastl? I do. I became enchanted with him one summer when he took out Sampras at Wimbledon. Everyone was shocked, no one more so than George himself. In fact his career never recovered from the shock. He has never played at that level since. Come to think of it, I don’t even know what became of him. His will forever represent the type of fluke performance that will happen in tennis from to time. And by this I do not mean that Sampras in any way handed him the win. Bastl won that match fair and square. The fluke lay in the fact that if he had to play the exact same match against the exact same opponent the following day, Bastl would reliably lose. The win was a one-time event, a never to be repeated fluke performance.

On the other hand, when Federer crushed Sampras at Wimbledon some years ago, his win signaled a changing of the guard, a heralding of things to come, the arrival of a new giant in tennis. Federer has taken my advice and has been watching his back ever since.

But I believe there is a middle category of performances, ones that straddle the line between fluke and giant-slaying. And that is the seminal breakthrough. A breakthrough performance is one that signals the arrival of a major new talent. It is not a chance performance, but the person may struggle for some time before getting their act together. With time and experience, the player emerges to become a major contender, sometimes even a new giant of the sport.

Only time will tell if Melanie Oudin’s run at the US Open two years ago represented a true breakthrough. She is young enough that she deserves and has been given the time and experience to develop her game. But as a short woman without a major weapon, it’s looking more and more as if that dream run was nothing but a crowd-pleasing fluke.

Pironkova’s win over Venus is also difficult to categorize. For a start, she has such an unusual style of playing, such an odd combination of strokes, that she may continue to win simply because opponents will not know what to make of her. But it will be just a matter of time also until folks start deconstructing her game and figuring out its Achilles heels. So I am not going to declare her as having Big Babe potential. But it is also unfair to call her win against Venus a fluke when she has bested Venus before, at the 2006 Australian Open. I believe that Pironkova is an original talent. But only time will tell if her run at the 2010 Wimbledon represents a genuine breakthrough.

I also am not clear if Vera Zvonareva’s breakthrough win over Clijsters today signals anything significant. What I do know that right about now, women’s tennis could use some serious giant-slayers. That Clijsters could retire, get married, have a baby, and show back up two years later to win the 2009 US Open, tells you that women’s tennis is ripe for the taking. I don’t know which performance makes women’s tennis look worse -- Clijsters’ return, or the resurgence of the 40-year-old Kimiko Date. I have nothing against either of these women personally. I would say the same thing if Agassi grabbed a racket and showed up in France to win Roland Garros after a two-year absence. It just isn’t done. That is what needs to be the fluke.

Bulgarian Tsvetana Pironkova celebrates her Quarter-Final win over American Venus Williams at the Wimbledon championships in Wimbledon on June 29, 2010.  UPI/Hugo Philpott Photo via Newscom

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Giant-Slaying: The Final Frontier

Rafael Nadal is one of the greatest tennis players ever because of his relentless fighting spirit. It doesn’t matter who is on the other side of the net - whether it’s one of his good pals from the Spanish Armada, or an opponent from a country whose name he can barely pronounce - Rafa aims always to win. Another opponent, when playing one of his friends, might let him off the hook, might try not to make him look bad, might allow him to win a game or two instead of completely humiliating him. True giants however, don’t allow their emotions to dictate the score.

I remember some years ago an early round match at the 2008 Australian Open between Roger Federer and the now retired Frenchman, Fabrice Santoro. I can’t prove this of course, but it seemed to me and every commentator as if Santoro was practically begging Federer not to feed him a bagel in the third set. At the changeover Santoro could be observed making his case at the net to Federer. But Federer showed no mercy - he destroyed Santoro 6-1, 6-2, 6-0. True giants show no mercy. And ironically, it is this very quality that constitutes the second-to-last step in my list of ingredients in the TennisChick recipe for giant-slaying.

2.  Show no mercy/Don’t fear success
Would-be slayers would do well to copy Nadal’s relentless, never-say-die attitude, as well as Federer's mercilessness. Giant-slayers must possess Rafa’s ability to keep on fighting, along with Federer's tendency to show no mercy when he gains the upper-hand. Having lit the fire in their belly, would-be giant-slayers must also have the cojones to move in for the kill. But this is harder to do than you would imagine. And I have a few ideas why.

There are few experiences more annoying than watching a tennis player play out of his or her mind, push their opponent to the absolute limit, have her or him against the rope, neck bare, just waiting for that final lethal blow - only to back off and let the other off the hook. Think Falla against Federer at Wimbledon a few days ago. Think Petzschner against Nadal just yesterday. It’s like these pretenders couldn’t believe that they were up two sets to none against opponents who are both larger than life. So they backed off.

True giant-slayers have the guts to move in for the kill. True giant-slayers wouldn’t be caught dead playing a match that lasts three days and eleven hours. Folks who don’t know tennis, or only watch it at Wimbledon, would have found the Isner-Mahut storyline fascinating. Me I found it embarrassing. Two pipsqueaks dragging out a pointless contest that left them both too beat to stand two days later. What was the point? True giant-slayers step up and move in for the kill. And I believe that this is because they have absolutely no fear of success.

One of the biggest mistakes that people make is mislabeling the fear of success as a fear of failure. Of course the fear of failure is a very real phenomenon. It can make some people so risk-aversive that they never jump into the pool. But I believe that it is the fear of success that drives some players to back away from closing out an unexpected big win.

Trust me when I tell you that I now regret screaming myself hoarse in support of Isner when he beat Roddick at the US Open last year. I thought I was watching a giant-slayer in the making. In hindsight I was wrong. Isner doesn’t have the guts. He is a baseline-loving pipsqueak willing to battle against another pipsqueak for a pointless place in history.

I am more into giant-slaying, watching to see who has the guts to step up and declare herself the next big thing in tennis. A changing of the guard is inevitable in any sport. As much as I adore Serena, I already accept that her days on top are numbered and that she will be felled one of these days by a would-be slayer. It’s just a matter of time. And this brings me to the final step in my list of suggestions for giant-slaying. Watch your back, slayer.

1.  Watch your back
Why? Because you are now the giant. You’ve bested the giant and usurped her place on the throne. So now they’re gunning for you. They’ve studied your every move. They know every aspect of your game, having patterned their game after yours. They know your strengths and your weaknesses. And a small handful of them has the guts to try to take you down. You’re not paranoid, they are out to get you. So watch your back.

(Part 4 of 4)

LONDON, June 27, 2010 Rafael Nadal of Spain celebrates scoring during his third round match of men's singles against Philipp Petzschner of Germany at the 2010 Wimbledon Tennis Championships in London, Britain, June 26, 2010. Nadal won 3-2 to enter the last 16.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Giant-Slaying 101: Part 3 of 4

When Dudi Sela took out Andy Roddick yesterday at the Aegon Championships, I considered taking full credit. I almost sent his coach a bill in the mail. After all, it’s not everyday that his giant-slaying virtuoso performance just happens to coincide with a series that I just happen to be writing on giant-slaying. Of course I am just kidding. But really, Sela’s performance fit right into any manual that I could consider developing on how to take down the best in their prime. I’m sure you’ll agree that Sela seemed at times to be guided by the following principles.

Step 4:  Attack his weaknesses, and his strengths
It goes without saying that any player hoping to take down a giant in his prime would necessarily go after the giant’s areas of weakness. And truth be told, no matter how good you are at playing tennis, there is always going to be some area of weakness that your opponents can exploit. Mary Pierce would drive her opponents crazy by taking forever to fix her hair and pluck her eyelashes in between probably saying a complete rosary before she served the ball. Her opponent’s increasing frustration with Pierce’s unhurried pace of play then became something that could be exploited. I am not saying that Mary got up to these shenanigans just to drive her opponents bonkers. I’m just saying that it worked, and that in her day she could beat anyone at their best.

Which is all by way of saying that attacking a player’s weaknesses does not only mean going after her technical flaws. Attacks can be completely psychological, or may be a combination of both. When Azarenka rushes in her matches against Serena, her strategy seems to be both to gain control of the pace of play, as well as to catch Serena mid-step, knowing that Serena is inclined to be lumbering and heavy at times. As a strategy this would work if Azarenka also had the ability to endure. Her problem is that this strategy takes more out of her than it does out of Serena, hence their lop-sided head-to-head.

But one of the biggest mistakes that would-be giant-killers make is the tendency to focus only on attacking the giant’s weaknesses. One of the reasons why this is a bad idea is quite simply because repeatedly going after the same shot gives the better player a chance to develop and strengthen it in the middle of the match. Remember when Justine Henin’s forehand used to be weaker than her backhand? Well after everyone and his sister kept pounding her forehand in efforts to beat her, guess what happened? Justine’s forehand ended up just as lethal as her backhand.

The true giant-slayer has the guts to know when to catch the giant off-guard by also attacking her strengths. For example, a common strategy for attacking Venus Williams is to attack her relatively weaker forehand. As a strategy, this is time-tested and sensible. But the players who beat Venus actually do so by taking away the angles, driving balls straight up the middle of the court as Venus is sprinting to the other side, throwing her off-balance, and then pounding her backhand when she least expects it. The trick is to deploy the element of surprise.

Step 3: Into every life, some luck must fall
One of my grandmother’s favorite sayings was, “everyday can’t be Sunday”. She said this whenever anything bad happened, either to herself or to someone she loved. By this she meant that everyday couldn’t be perfect, that some days are just going to be rotten, and that that is perfectly OK because other Sundays would eventually come around.

But the opposite is also true. Everyday can’t be Monday either. Sometimes you just get damn lucky. The best kind of luck is when you happen to be facing the giant on her off-day. I often wonder how tennis players deal with their menses. For me, that time of the month is a nightmare. I know that there are ways to shut the entire system down, and this is what I assume most professional sportswomen do. After all, you can’t tell the Queen that you’re not coming to Wimbledon because it’s a bad time of the month to wear white.

Luck of course can take many forms. Federer insinuated that the weather conditions on that particular day at Roland Garros favored Söderling’s game. Sometimes a Lucky Loser makes it deep into a draw. And sometimes fans interfere and root against the top-dog, giving the underdog the lucky break of a life-time. I’ve written before about my own participation in rooting noisily for the aging Italian, Gianluca Pozzi, in probably his last appearance at the US Open. I believe that crowd support alone buoyed Pozzi as he took Marat Safin to five thrilling sets. As much as I adored Marat Safin, I remember how much we all wanted to see the giant go down.

(to be continued)

Jun. 10, 2010 - 06018090 date 10 06 2010 Copyright imago BPI Dudi Sela of Israel Celebrates defeating Andy Roddick of USA AT Queens Club London 2010 PUBLICATIONxNOTxINxUKxFRAxNEDxESPxSWExPOLxCHNxJPN men Tennis ATP Tour Queens London Single Action shot Vdig xmk 2010 vertical premiumd Tennis.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

How to Slay a Giant: Part 2

There are certain tennis players who have made an entire career of giant-slaying. The problem lies in the fact that they may not do this consistently enough to rise up in the ranks. Against such players most commentators will say that they can beat anyone on a good day. These are the dangerous floaters of the tour. And this series of articles is meant to highlight what they are sometimes brilliant at doing.

Step 7: Respect, but never fear him
When embarking on a course of giant-slaying, it is imperative that you respect the giant as an opponent. But never, ever fear her. That seems obvious enough doesn’t it? 

And yet even that respect needs to be qualified because too much respect may be as obstructive as too much fear. This is especially tricky for juniors who grow up idolizing and being inspired by players, only to confront them at the different stages of their careers. Sometimes the junior ends being too much in awe both of her hero and of the occasion to produce meaningful tennis. This is the problem of too much respect.

But too little regard for the giant can also interfere with your slaying potential. Take Anna Kournikova for instance. Kournikova is not a giant by any stretch of the imagination. But she might as well have been one when playing Patty Schnyder. Schnyder experienced such contempt for Kournikova that it interfered with her ability to play her. So never fear the giant, but don’t get caught up in disrespecting him either.

Fear can be a paralyzing emotion. Fear inspires us to avoid, not to confront. You can’t take it to the giant if you’re standing there wanting to piss your pants in fear.

Step 6:  Take the fight to the giant
I have mentioned before that I believe that Jelena Jankovic has a superb defensive game. The problem with defense is that it can win you battles but it will rarely win you the war. The true art of slaying comes from having the guts to step up and take the fight to the giant. That is the quality that Jankovic lacks, and for that reason alone she will always be a bit player in the world of women’s tennis. 

For a while there, someone persuaded Jankovic that she had what it takes to become a Master Slayer. So she went down to Mexico and started training with an Olympics sportsman. She transformed her body into a muscled dynamo. And then apparently panicked. The next thing you know, Jankovic had reversed all the work, shedding every last piece of bulk along with all of her courage. Now she continues to look cute in her tennis dresses as she plays defensively. Her make-up remains perfect throughout the match - God forbid we manage to see any acne scars while she is playing defensively. She is no fighter - that was just a passing fancy.

Of course the true art of giant slaying means more than just having the courage to transform your body into a lean mean fighting machine. It also means playing a relentless attacking game that sends the message that you mean business. This is what Stosur did in the match against Serena. She took the fight to Serena and beat her in three scintillating sets. Which brings me to her performance against Schiavone, and my final point in this column.

Step 5:  Don’t peak too soon
One of the problems that many would-be giant-slayers face is that they prepare for the giant and completely forget about the lesser players waiting in the wings. Sometimes of course the problem is that the player simply runs out of steam. I remember the time when beating the William sisters back to back in Australia took so much out of Martina Hingis that she had nothing left when facing Capriati in the finals of a scorching Australian Open. Sure the heat got to Hingis. But it was hot on Capriati’s side of the court too. What really went down was that slaying giants back to back had left Hingis spent.

A much bigger problem occurs when the peak of a player's performance coincides with slaying the giant leading up to the final, such that his psyche has nothing left when subsequently facing lesser opponents. This I believe is what happened to Robin Söderling in Paris. Having finally beaten his nemesis after thirteen tries, it took Söderling five long sets to put away Tomas Berdych, a player against whom he had a 5-3 winning record. You wouldn’t think this from watching the way Söderling had to claw himself out of a giant hole. By the time he got to the finals against Nadal, his giant-slaying motivation was spent. Söderling had peaked against Federer. He was very happy to celebrate that breakthrough. But the problem for Söderling was that the tournament was far from over.

(to be continued) 

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Ten-Step Guide to Giant-Slaying: Part 1

More than any tournament that I can remember, Roland Garros 2010 seems to be characterized by the number of big-name players who have been felled, cut down to size by lower-ranking opponents. It’s been a season of giant-slaying. The carnage has been devastating.

Samantha Stosur showed her promise at the start of this year, and yet few predicted that she would dispatch both Justine Henin and Serena Williams on clay. Robin Soderling has lost to Roger Federer so many times that his losses became their own story-line - until Paris. Tomas Berdych stepped up the plate, destroying Andy Murray on his way to his first Slam semi-final. And the Bryan brothers found themselves summarily dismissed in the second round by the unknown Brazilian duo, Marcelo Melo and Bruno Soares.

No giant has felt safe in Paris, not even ones who have previously dominated the terre battue. Observing the detritus has inspired me to write a guide to giant-slaying. The following is my ten-step guide on how to slay a tennis giant. My goal is to make giant-slaying within the reach of anyone.

Step 10:  Study your giant closely
You can’t slay a giant whom you don’t know. But how do you get to know a giant when you’re just one of the also-rans? I mean it’s not as if you can just knock on the giant’s hotel door and ask her out for dinner.

And yet, getting to know a giant can take many forms. Some of the paths to acquiring knowledge about your giant are obvious: watch videos of the giant’s game; consult with scouts-for-hire like Brad Gilbert who are gifted at deconstructing a player’s strengths and weaknesses; hire the giant’s former coach if you can afford to do so. After all, giant-slaying is not cheap. It’s a serious investment with massive pay-offs.

Other approaches to giant-studying may be more subtle. For example, you may find out what kind of food your giant likes to eat, what he likes to do for fun, whom she confides in, and what are some of her interests outside of tennis. Some of the information you will gather may seem useless. But if you were at Davis Cup and had found out that a Bryan brother was vomiting after stuffing himself with curry, that little tidbit of information would have inspired you to confidence, and possible victory.

Information is power. Information about your giant’s possible Achilles heels may be even more so. Did Dementieva come into the match against Schiavone with an injured calf or did she acquire that injury during the match? It would have been important for Schiavone to know this. Information about the giant’s weaknesses can help you to exploit them.

Step 9:  Learn from each encounter
This is related to Step 10 but it is not identical to it. But some of the most valuable information you can acquire about a giant will come from match-play against him. Probably no one knows Roger Federer’s game better than Robin Soderling. After all, they have played each other time and time again. And about a year or two ago, Soderling started closing the gap. As a Federer expert, Soderling anticipated every Federer move seemingly before Federer himself even thought of how to execute it. That is knowledge in action. A string of losses to a giant must be re-framed as a series of opportunities to gather information directly, as opposed to the indirect methods I advocated in Step 10. So keep learning, and keep growing. Which naturally brings me to Step # 8.

Step 8: Be persistent. Don’t give up
You have to decide ahead of time how serious you are about wanting to slay your giant. Don’t waste your time and your fans’ energies if you’re just wanting to make a lame-assed effort and then go home. This guide is not for the timid. It is for the determined. But Rome was not built in a day. You have to lay the foundations first and then build on them. You need to decide on your end-goal and then work persistently towards it. There’s nothing more disheartening than watching a player (like Nicolas Almagro) who seemed at first to be interested in trying to beat Nadal, but who appeared to change his mind at some point and decided to go for not shaming himself by getting a low score. Almagro seemed to give up on winning and went for ego-protection. And for that single decision I concluded that he does not have what it takes to be a giant-slayer.

(to be continued)