This past week of tennis saw the confirmation that a current group of newbies on both sides of the tour are continuing to make their presence felt. And I for one am totally excited about this. I am thoroughly enjoying watching some of the Medium-to-Old Farts get slapped around and off the court. But it is disappointing when said Medium-to-Old Farts don’t have the grace to take their beating like champs.
In truth, I am speaking only of Fernando Verdasco and his thoroughly disgusting response to getting his ass kicked by the 20-year-old Milos Raonic. During the second set tiebreak, Verdasco seemed to be feeling the pressure. And he showed everyone how much he was feeling the pressure. When the score went up to 5-3 in favor of Raonic, Verdasco started muttering to himself and yelling at his box. On Raonic’s serve, he challenged a return that had gone so far out that he didn’t even bother to look up at the screen to see the results of his desperate ploy.
Verdasco became a man possessed by negative emotions. He stalked the baseline, and worked himself up into more and more anger. When Raonic served at 6-5 for the set, pounding a confident kick-serve into the pocket, Verdasco looked as if he could commit murder. He seemed furious. He was so angry that he shook Raonic’s hand dismissively at the net and waved down the Chair with his racket, never actually approaching to shake his hand. Apparently it was the Chair’s fault that he had lost the match.
I can’t begin to describe how disappointed I was in Verdasco. Look I get that it is painful to lose, especially to a newbie. I get that it must hurt like hell to have an audience that was solidly in your back pocket for the entire tournament, suddenly change favorites and adopt the curly-headed Canadian on the other side of the court. But Verdasco is a seasoned professional. It is his job to represent the sport, to show newbies how to both win and lose gracefully. I know that everybody can’t be Federer but I don’t think it’s asking too much to expect an experienced player with five titles to act like a good sport no matter the outcome. Instead he demonstrated a kind of inchoate rage that frankly I found off-putting.
And yes I get that it must truly suck to have to be interviewed right after a loss, and have to remember to thank sponsors and ball-kids when all you want to do is go back to the hotel and smash something. But Verdasco makes in a week what most people would be thrilled to make in a whole year. For this alone he owes it to his fans to find ways to dig deep and act with grace when the going gets tough.
That’s what Clijsters did, around the same time actually. In fact her loss to 20-year-old Petra Kvitova at the Open GDF SUEZ was even more pitiful. At least Verdasco made it to two tie-breaks. Kvitova cruised to victory in two sets, 6-4 6-3. The match lasted barely an hour.
Kvitova had had the much more difficult time of it at this tournament. She came into the finals after surviving a 3.5 hour match against Strycova in the second round, followed by another tough three-setter in the quarter finals. But no one doubted that Clijsters would beat her. I certainly didn’t. In fact the anticipated victory was expected to cement Clijsters’ return to the #1 position in the rankings.
Except that no one told Kvitova. Damn she plays beautiful tennis. And she plays with a calm and controlled intelligence that is a refreshing change from the Sharapovesque era of desperate uncontrolled screaming. Kvitova out-played Clijsters on every score. In fact, to add insult to complete injury, she broke Clijsters in the last game, to win her third title. Damn that must have hurt.
But Kim took her spanking with class. I would not expect anything less from her as an experienced tennis champion. And we all know that Clijsters can bring her bitch-game if you cross her. Just ask that Woodie whom she humiliated in front of his entire country for daring to ask someone if she was pregnant because she was looking so frumpy. Girlfriend took him down with a smile firmly planted on her face.
But in her post-match interview in Paris, in response to a question about her loss to Kvitova, Clijsters simply replied: “Petra just did everything better than me today. She was serving extremely well, being really aggressive from the return, and yeah she deserved to win. She was the better player”. I also read another news report that Kim refused to blame a neck injury for the loss (although I couldn’t help but wonder why she even mentioned it).
It is interesting that both Verdasco and Clijsters are 27, not old by any means but certainly far more experienced than their 20-year-old opponents. But there is no doubting the raw talent of these newbies. With three titles under her belt, Kvitova has well-earned the #14 berth on the WTA tour. And Raonic has leaped almost 100 places to #59. He deserves to be there. If you had reservations in Australia, and if these got reinforced when he lost after qualifying for Johannesburg, well it’s time to stop doubting. Because baby boy with the curly hair who clearly loves his mommy and sister is frankly a joy to watch.