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


Anonymous said...

The minute Pironkova won I knew you will write an interestig article and I was not mistaken! As everybody is so happy in Bulgaria no one analizes Pironkova's style of play. They focus mostly on the fact that she is the first bulgarian to reach Wimbledon semi ever.
Now, please, explain in detail why do you think her strokes are so 'old fashined'? All coaches here pointed that in the last 4 years she only missed mental strenght to pass into 3-rd round on any GS. And now you may put the conversation in competly differnt direction. In fact, one of her 'sparing - coaches' in Sofia is the coach of my children! And he won aganst Federer when they were both 14 in a 'Tennis Europe' tournament. Another issue , besides fluke or old fashioned trokes, is that most talents here just don't develope after their success as teenagers due to 'old fasioned coaching'. And you may be saying the true that two generations of coaches and journalist simply don't see and insted of 'modernising' the strokes pay attention just to mental strenght. And this is a good excuse for every coach as he can do nothing about it....
But changing old fashioned strokes to modern or preventing deconstruction of the game is just hard working. Something that few people practice here.

Evgeny Apostolov

TennisAce said...

This was a fluke, just like Australia was a fluke. Simple as that. Since taking down Venus in Australia in 2006, she has done absolutely nothing. She lost first round in 9 matches on the regular tour and this is her best showing at any tournament in a long while.

She is a big match player. That is it. There is a reason why she is ranked No. 82. Let us see what she does in the semis. I expect Vera if she can hold it together to take her out.

Kim is not as hungry as one would expect. She is contented with her life as it is. She wins, she wins. She loses, no harm.

As to Federer, a 29 year old lost today to a 24 year old. It had to happen at some point in time. Age takes over. The problem is that as much as some would like it to be a changing of the guard, consistency has never been the key thing for those at the top. That is what Federer represented all these years. By the time the next season rolls around, let us see who out of all these mental giants are still walking or have become the walking wounded.

Nadal, the everlasting knees, Murray, wrist and head, Novak (everything), Berdych (head) and the list goes on and on. Somewhere Sampras is smiling as his one little record is still intact for now. Unfortunately it will only be a matter of time before that goes as well.

tennischick said...

You both make great points. Forgive my lengthy response.

I think that Pironkova is simply a bad match-up for Venus. She can absorb Venus' power (sometimes literally, as she bends her knees on the backhand), and channel it right back into the open court. Venus made Pironkova look better than she actually is because Venus foolishly kept going for more and more screaming power instead of mixing things up. That suited Pironkova just fine -- all she had to do was defend and chop, defend and slice.

Pironkova's game is not that difficult to deconstruct -- she plays like a talented old-time Country Club hacker, with her swift flat serves, and her endless chopping and slicing on both sides. At this stage of her career, it's going to be hard to introduce more traditional strokes. In fact, doing so might completely ruin her game. Honestly she plays like some of those self-taught players you sometimes see on public courts, and who can beat anybody on a good day. But if I had a child who was learning tennis at this stage, I would not allow her to be turned into a Country Club hacker.

I also agree with TennisAce. Federer has represented consistency. Like Pironkova vs. Venus, Berdych is emerging to be a bad match-up for the Fed. But the difference here is that Fed has the winning head-to-head. And I believe that he still has a whole lot of tennis left at age 29.