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) 

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