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The Spartan Believer 03/29/2010 - 10:47 PM

96475752 by Pete Bodo

Well, it wasn't exactly Borg vs. McEnroe, Wimbledon 1980, but Sam Stosur and Jelena Jankovic played an entertaining and meaningful tiebreaker this evening under restless, roiled skies in breezy Miami.

It ended badly for Jankovic, the No. 7 seed and winner at Indian Wells last week, as Stosur held on to win the breaker 11-9, and with it the match. Jankovic's chance to win back-to-back Premier Mandatory events went pinwheeling off into the night like so many chickadees buffeted by the wind, but the palm fronds surrounding the court continued clicking and rattling, taking Jankovic to task for blowing an interesting opportunity.

Stosur had already laid a little wood on Jankovic's fanny when I walked into Court 1, under the erroneous impression that I had plenty of time to settle in and enjoy the show. I might have suspected the direction things were taking by the pair of menacing turkey vultures that rode the gusts like a rollercoaster right above the court. They dropped low often enough to make me wonder if one of them wasn't about to descend and peck out Jankovic's eyes, but some things are better left to coaches, moms, agents and other professionals.

I say that only half in jest, for while windy conditions are equal opportunity irritants, they ought to have been more manageable for Jankovic, one of the most lithe and adaptable of players. Instead, they seemed to have an unduly deleterious effect on Jankovic, at least judging by the scoreboard, and the way her sherbet-green dress kept boiling up around her waist, as if our favorite WTA flake were doing an interpretation of that famous Marilyn Monroe subway-grate photo, but on behalf of Anta.

It ought to have been the other way around. Slammin' Sammy Stosur's game is, on the whole, more dependent on precision and timing (more on that later), and acting out something very like set pieces, all based on her outstanding serve. That serve, she would tell me after win, has been the cornerstone of her recent success. "I've had some good results starting about this time last year, and a lot of it has to do with the fact that I'm serving well. I've been getting a good percentage of first serves in, and no matter how well you serve the ball, if you're not getting it in, who cares?"

Jankovic, by contrast, is at her best when she's free to improvise, counter-punch, and use her natural flexibility to retrieve her opponent's most invasive questions. In fact, she's a lot like a yellow lab, or similar retriever breed of dog. She goes into a serene, focused state when when she's scampering east-to-west along the baseline, at full stretch, making desperate reaction-born fetches. She can do wonders chasing a ball, and never seems happier, or more in tune with what she's cut out to do. But like that lab, there isn't a whole lot she can do if you just give her the ball with the command, Okay, Jelly, now do something...

Whether it was the difficult conditions or Jankovic's flair for the dramatic, or some combination thereof, she was error-prone, grumpy and out of sorts; time and again she would drive a backhand into the net, or miss with the forehand, then volubly rue her fate, addressing the crowed with a slender arm elegantly extended - until she had to drop it to quell the hemline fluttering around her waist. 

Jankovic began to pull herself together in the second set, but she was up against a young lady who's as practical and disciplined as Jankovic is flighty and profligate. Stosur has gradually evolved into something like the consumate professional. When her own hot-salmon dress rode up, the serious tan lines on her upper thighs told the story - this is a woman who has spent a lot of time in shorts, presumably whacking balls under a broiling sun. The dedication shows in her game, too, and not just in the familiar ways. There's a point of diminishing returns where focusing on technique and execution, on maximizing your strengths and hiding our weaknesses, eventually leaves you with a game that, apart from anything else, looks studied. 

But such hard work has its rewards, even if it's at the expense of the natural. The serve is the one shot over which a player has absolute control; theoretically, at least, a player could go an entire match without having his or her serve returned. Stosur plays as if that's her aim, and the priority and focus she assigns the task is palpable. She's learned to trust her serve, and to try to get the most out of each delivery. She's built her game around it in a way that suggests that screwing up is not an option, and that's unusual on the WTA tour.

Jankovic returned her share of Stosur's well-placed bullets, but she was backed into a corner  throughout the second set. Stosur's ability to hold, and to work her way out of potentially sticky situations (15-30, or deuce) with the serve must have had a corrosive influence on Jankovic's game. Oh, the Serbian star kept finding ways to stay with Stosur, for that's what she does best; she's the human equivalent of the philanthropic world's "matching grant." But Stosur set the pace, and her ability to hold, slamming the door of opportunity shut each time she leaves it open a crack, eventually took its toll. It always does.

In the tiebreaker, however, Stosur served up a mortifying double fault at 1-1 (let's remember, it wasn't all that long ago that Stosur was a poster child for head case tennis players worldwide). But Jankovic responded in kind (see what I mean about "matching grant?"). From there on, though, both women played pretty tight tennis. Jankovic started points, then tried to figure out ways to win them. Stosur figured out what she needed to do, then started points - and tried to end them on her terms.

The tiebreaker points went on serve until Stosur reached match point, at 5-6 (with Jankovic serving). Stosur made a forehand error and in the blink of an eye Jankovic had a set point. But Stosur brushed it aside. Stosur had another match point at 8-7, but blew it with a wild forehand error. Then it was Jankovic's turn again, with a set point, but Stosur erased it with a good forehand. She ended it two points later with a backhand laser down the line.

Stosur is aware of her shortcomings and she's built around them just as much as she's based her game on her signature stroke. She's developed a streamlined game plan on her journey from electric but sometimes ghastly shotmaker (think Amelie Mauresmo, or Hana Mandlikova). She's become a spartan believer in "the game plan."

Of course, tennis isn't entirely about figuring it out; you have this little matter of physical and even mental limitations, a complex and inter-related set of strengths and weaknesses. Every player's game is unique, like a fingerprint. When a player does due diligence, the way Stosur has, it tends to heighten the visibility of her shortcomings as well as her strengths. In Stosur's case - and it really seems a novel one for a player with such natural feel and athleticism - the outstanding flaw is, ironically, something as fundamental and seemingly second-nature as body positioning relative to the ball.

You'd think that any world-class player would have this distance-to-the-ball thing down pat, but it's surprising how often Stosur overruns a ball, or ends up playing it too close to her body (one by-product of that is a slice backhand that lacks sting). I suppose it's a sign of bad footwork, or slow reflexes. The conditions certainly had something to do with her positioning difficulties tonight, but it was still clear that Stosur doesn't - make that can't - adjust nearly as well to the ball as does Jankovic. Never mind. Stosur compensated for the shortcoming by having a clear idea of what she was going to do, and deciding that nothing was going to stop her. She had the game plan.

When I asked if she was worried that the tiebreaker might slip away and leave her dead-even despite the great start, she merely shrugged and said: "Well, I knew what I wanted to do in that match (serve well, take the game to Jankovic, end points with crisp, positive tennis), so it didn't really matter. I had to keep pushing her. If I'd lost that second set, I would have gone on in the third doing the same thing."

And that's the spartan way, isn't it?


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Posted by Aussiemarg,Madame President,Rafa just get rid of those shorts 03/31/2010 at 09:16 PM

Vamos Rafa just brillant

You are covering the wide serve well Keep it up

Posted by tennisesq. 03/31/2010 at 09:16 PM

jan,
Thanks. In my area, it is delayed on FSN. I'd rather watch it live on a stream.

Posted by Papo (Got Nadal?) 03/31/2010 at 09:17 PM

MA, yes I'm watching the match on FSN.

Posted by greenhopper 03/31/2010 at 09:17 PM

Every single point has been a winner so far. Jo holds to 30.

Posted by Mr.X (Vamos Shaki, give him some confidence) 03/31/2010 at 09:17 PM

Jo holds at 30 to start the match, connecting an ance and an unreturned serve from 30 all. Good stuff from both guys to get to that point, and then Jo's serve decided the game.

Posted by Lynne (Rafalite) 03/31/2010 at 09:17 PM

The match is on FSNL in this area too.

Posted by Kristy (tennis-related moniker: Toppy Lob) 03/31/2010 at 09:18 PM

New Yorkers (or nearby), what channel is FSN? Is it in the 100s?

Posted by Papo (Got Nadal?) 03/31/2010 at 09:18 PM

Looks like Rafa means to put serious pressure on Tsonga's serve tonight.

Posted by tennisesq. 03/31/2010 at 09:19 PM

I flove Rafa's shoes.

Posted by sblily (Wheeeeeeeee!!!) 03/31/2010 at 09:19 PM

greenhopper - Are you watching the match on tv or stream/tennistv?

Posted by greenhopper 03/31/2010 at 09:21 PM

sblily, TennisTV.
Are there no streams?

Posted by lpb (Susan) 03/31/2010 at 09:21 PM

Kristy: It's channel 48 (msg+) in NYC on time warner cable.

Posted by GB 03/31/2010 at 09:21 PM

Crap! Don't get broken here, Rafa

Posted by Aussiemarg,Madame President,Rafa just get rid of those shorts 03/31/2010 at 09:21 PM

Pfft f/hand up the line rafa?

Posted by greenhopper 03/31/2010 at 09:22 PM

JEEEEEEEEEEEEZ. I can't take this.

Posted by crazyone 03/31/2010 at 09:22 PM

Tsonga should have gone cross court with the half volley.....arghhhh.

Posted by GB 03/31/2010 at 09:22 PM

Vafrigginmos!!!!!!!!!!!!

Posted by greenhopper 03/31/2010 at 09:22 PM

Excellent rally. Had it all.
Rafa rips a running forehand passer to save bp. deuce.

Posted by Aussiemarg,Madame President,Rafa just get rid of those shorts 03/31/2010 at 09:23 PM

Vintage Rafa!

Senseational Point

Vamos!!!

Posted by just a note 03/31/2010 at 09:23 PM

Kristy, in CT it's MSG+, Chn. 72 (Cablevision).

tennisesq, hope it's a good stream. :)

Posted by tennisesq. 03/31/2010 at 09:23 PM

Calm down Rafa, you won a point, not the match.

Posted by greenhopper 03/31/2010 at 09:23 PM

Tsonga looks extremely nervous. Reason for some questionable shot selections.

Posted by swalker007 03/31/2010 at 09:23 PM

Rafa, we know your package is big alright, no need to show off.

Posted by Master Ace 03/31/2010 at 09:24 PM

Jo-W vs Rafael:

http://atdhe.net/7635/watch-atp-miami

Posted by GB 03/31/2010 at 09:24 PM

Crap. Another bp. I fear for Rafa if he gets broken here. Has a Nole Paris, come out playing well and go off the boil vibe.

Pleaseholdpleaseholdpleasehold

Posted by Kristy (tennis-related moniker: Toppy Lob) 03/31/2010 at 09:24 PM

Thanks, lpb!

Posted by tennisesq. 03/31/2010 at 09:24 PM

jan,
Meh, a stream is a stream. I envy you.

Posted by Aussiemarg,Madame President,Rafa just get rid of those shorts 03/31/2010 at 09:24 PM

Rafa why??? s/v good idea but you mucked the volley

Posted by greenhopper 03/31/2010 at 09:24 PM

Jo's retrieving like the best of them. Rafa's totally controlling the points.

Posted by crazyone 03/31/2010 at 09:24 PM

Tsonga's defense is phenomenal. The guy has been moving better this week than I've seen him a long time.

Posted by Aussiemarg,Madame President,Rafa just get rid of those shorts 03/31/2010 at 09:25 PM

I think Rafa has come to play

Posted by kchowcrazy (wants ReRe back!) 03/31/2010 at 09:25 PM

Had to wake up to watch this match, so hard to choose i love both *sigh*

Posted by GB 03/31/2010 at 09:25 PM

F!!!!! Another bp:(((((((

Posted by izidane 03/31/2010 at 09:25 PM

Trying for the second time, here's a stream
http://www.channelsurfing.net/watch-sony-ericsson-open-2.html

Posted by Aussiemarg,Madame President,Rafa just get rid of those shorts 03/31/2010 at 09:26 PM

Keep mixing up the serve Rafa

Posted by Aussiemarg,Madame President,Rafa just get rid of those shorts 03/31/2010 at 09:27 PM

Allez Joe great hands

Posted by jkl 03/31/2010 at 09:27 PM

Rafa spends a lot of energy vamosing :-)

Posted by greenhopper 03/31/2010 at 09:28 PM

Heavens Jo. Put a freaking return on play on break points.

Posted by just a note 03/31/2010 at 09:28 PM

Gee wilikers!! fast and furious and it's only the second game.

Posted by Aussiemarg,Madame President,Rafa just get rid of those shorts 03/31/2010 at 09:28 PM

Nadal getting 80% of his first serves in

Will have to keep serving like this

Posted by greenhopper 03/31/2010 at 09:29 PM

Excellent hold from Rafa. He looks confident.

Posted by Mr.X (Vamos Shaki, give him some confidence) 03/31/2010 at 09:29 PM

Nadal holds to get to 1-1, after saving 3 BPs, one with a crazy FH passing, followed by a wild celebration, another one with a very good aggressive point to overcome Jo's defense, and the other with a good serve down the T. Still, he made too many errors in that game: a couple of FHs, a BH, a DF, a volley...
I'm impressed with Jo's play so far, specially his defense.

Posted by GB 03/31/2010 at 09:30 PM

Jo's holding so easily:((((((

Posted by swalker007 (let's go Pekingnese Fed, Ratface Nadal!) 03/31/2010 at 09:31 PM

Easy hold by Tsonga...

Posted by Tigress (back to basking in Sweet 16) 03/31/2010 at 09:31 PM

Remember how Tsonga repeatedly blew shots from up and net in winning situations against Rafa at Paris. Don't do this again, J.W!

Posted by jb (go smiley fed!) 03/31/2010 at 09:31 PM

good lord, y'all were hard to find!

looking forward to a good match here.

Posted by sblily (Wheeeeeeeee!!!) 03/31/2010 at 09:31 PM

greenhopper - Nope, I'm relying on streams. Was just hoping that maybe some station I'd overlooked was covering the match.

Ugh. 10 minute Rafa opening service game + Tsonga/worries of a trademark Rafa HC beatdown + slightly blurry, quake-y stream --> shot nerves. :( I need some wine.

Posted by Mr.X (Vamos Shaki, give him some confidence) 03/31/2010 at 09:31 PM

Jo holds at love to go up 2-1, serving well, and getting his FH working to Nadal's BH side, where Nadal hasnt been able to defend much.

Posted by manuelsantanafan 03/31/2010 at 09:33 PM

I borrowed someone's Rose-Colored Glasses.

Consequently, I missed the following:

In Rafa's first service game: 2 Forehand Errors, 1 Backhand Error, 1 Volley Error, and the Double Fault.

In Tsonga's second service game: Rafa's 3 Backhand Errors and Rafa's 1 Forehand Error.

Rafa is playing the greatest tennis ever seen.

Vamos

Posted by greenhopper 03/31/2010 at 09:34 PM

Relax MSF. Most of those were "good" errors.

Posted by Papo (Got Nadal?) 03/31/2010 at 09:35 PM

Yes! Rafa with an easy hold to 15. Vamos!

Posted by greenhopper 03/31/2010 at 09:35 PM

Rafa's throwing down body serves. Holds to 15. Jo made a sum total of 2 returns in that game.

Posted by Lynne (Rafalite) 03/31/2010 at 09:35 PM

Manuel ...............

Posted by Mr.X (Vamos Shaki, give him some confidence) 03/31/2010 at 09:35 PM

Jo is expecting Rafa to serve to his BH, and he has been surprised a number of times when Rafa serves to his FH.
Now, if someone found Rafa's BH. It must be around here, somewhere...
*starts opening drawers*
Nadal holds at 15 to get to 2-2, after some poor returns by Jo.

Posted by Aussiemarg,Madame President,Rafa just get rid of those shorts 03/31/2010 at 09:36 PM

There are "forced errors" and just plain horrid ones lol!

Posted by Tigress (back to basking in Sweet 16) 03/31/2010 at 09:37 PM

Don't have time to watch the whole match on TV, but if it looks like Tsonga is winning, i'll have to go check it out. Don't want to miss the Knockout. Great fun will it be!

Posted by greenhopper 03/31/2010 at 09:37 PM

Casual backhand winner. Don't disappoint me, Jo.

Posted by TennisFan2 (unabashed fan of Rafa and Serena) 03/31/2010 at 09:37 PM

For those of us in New England: UGH!!!

Wednesday, March 31 1P-6P (L) LIVE QUARTERFINALS
No Coverage LIVE MEN'S QUARTERFINALS

Thursday, April 1 2:30P-6P (L, JIP) LIVE WOMEN'S SEMI/MEN'S QF
No Coverage LIVE WOMEN'S SEMIFINALS

Friday, April 2 4P-6P (D) MEN'S SEMFINALS
No Coverage LIVE MEN'S SEMFINALS

Posted by Aussiemarg,Madame President,Rafa just get rid of those shorts 03/31/2010 at 09:37 PM

Great shot Joe exposing Rafa's movement to his left

Though your return game needs more

Posted by Mr.X (Vamos Shaki, give him some confidence) 03/31/2010 at 09:37 PM

Nadal has 10 UFEs already, and the BH is as difficult to find as Harrison Ford in "The Fugitive"
Tsonga holds at love again with a great BH CC winner. The rest of the points were errors by Nadal.

Posted by swalker007 (let's go Pekingnese Fed, Ratface Nadal!) 03/31/2010 at 09:37 PM

easy hold again

Posted by manuelsantanafan 03/31/2010 at 09:39 PM

"Good Errors?"

Normally, I wouldn't think so.

But wearing these special glasses, I wholeheartedly agree.

Posted by jb (go smiley fed!) 03/31/2010 at 09:39 PM

GAH! why can't we in New England watch tennis on tv? pfft.

Posted by Mr.X (Vamos Shaki, give him some confidence) 03/31/2010 at 09:40 PM

Is Jo, heaven forbid, playing some moonballs?

Posted by greenhopper 03/31/2010 at 09:41 PM

He is, Mr.X. He has been lately. Ugh.

Posted by sblily (Wheeeeeeeee!!!) 03/31/2010 at 09:42 PM

Rafa's doing all the running. Me no likey.

Posted by izidane 03/31/2010 at 09:42 PM

Oh my, allez! Dougie was right, these two are pulverizing the ball.

Posted by kchowcrazy (wants ReRe back!) 03/31/2010 at 09:43 PM

Jo defence has been crazy good so far, better then i've ever seen

Posted by greenhopper 03/31/2010 at 09:43 PM

Such a nice point to get to 15-30, then, zero returns.
3-all.

Posted by Mr.X (Vamos Shaki, give him some confidence) 03/31/2010 at 09:43 PM

Jo is playing very well when he can be offensive, and also when he must defend.
However, he sent a couple of returns long that helped Rafa hold at 30 and get to 3-3.
To his credit, Rafa did well punishing the short returns he's getting with his FH.

Posted by swalker007 (let's go Pekingnese Fed, Ratface Nadal!) 03/31/2010 at 09:44 PM

Couple of loose points by Willy...

Posted by Papo (Got Nadal?) 03/31/2010 at 09:44 PM

0-30 on Tsonga's serve. Half chance for Rafa. Vamos!

Posted by greenhopper 03/31/2010 at 09:44 PM

Backhand is imploding. 0-30.
Need bullets. Gets one. 15-30.

Posted by Aussiemarg,Madame President,Rafa just get rid of those shorts 03/31/2010 at 09:45 PM

Come on rafa 2 b/points

Come On

Posted by GB 03/31/2010 at 09:45 PM

Pleasebreakpleasebreakpleasefrigginbreak

Posted by greenhopper 03/31/2010 at 09:45 PM

So he runs around that backhand, gets wayy off court, nets forehand.
bps for Rafa.

Posted by Papo (Got Nadal?) 03/31/2010 at 09:45 PM

15-40 break points for Rafa. Don't waste these Rafa!

Posted by greenhopper 03/31/2010 at 09:46 PM

I forking knew it. Nothing has changed.

Posted by swalker007 (let's go Pekingnese Fed, Ratface Nadal!) 03/31/2010 at 09:46 PM

Stupid point there by Willy..

Posted by crazyone 03/31/2010 at 09:46 PM

geez, Tsonga has gone off the DEEP END.

Posted by Papo (Got Nadal?) 03/31/2010 at 09:46 PM

That's what I'm talking about! Only needs one ; )

Posted by GB 03/31/2010 at 09:46 PM

Don't you dare go thinking about giving this back this set, Rafa

Posted by Aussiemarg,Madame President,Rafa just get rid of those shorts 03/31/2010 at 09:46 PM

Great low return Rafa

Rafa breaks after a wonky game by Joe

Rafa consolidate and dont give me crap

Posted by Master Ace 03/31/2010 at 09:47 PM

Jo-W is fussing with Ali Nili,chair umpire. Wrong match to give to Ali.

Posted by sblily (Wheeeeeeeee!!!) 03/31/2010 at 09:47 PM

Whew. Thanks, Jo.

Jo kvetching to the ump about how long Rafa's taking. Keep your cool, Jo.

(I do agree re: Rafa taking a long time, even by his standards).

Posted by greenhopper 03/31/2010 at 09:47 PM

Wilfried is complaining about Rafa taking too much time or something.
Mainly though he's taking his anger out on the umpire.

Posted by swalker007 (let's go Pekingnese Fed, Ratface Nadal!) 03/31/2010 at 09:47 PM

Problem with the back...NO NO no no...oh dear...

Posted by Mr.X (Vamos Shaki, give him some confidence) 03/31/2010 at 09:47 PM

I see nothing wrong with it at the right times, greenhopper. He has been doing it only occasionally:)
And now, Bad Jo appears. He starts the game with 2 long BHs, then hits a running FH to the net (granted, he was forced), and gets broken hitting a BH volley to the net. Nadal goes up 4-3.
Jo complaining quite loudly about something. Is it the time Nadal's taking?

Posted by izidane 03/31/2010 at 09:47 PM

Oh man Jo, you were totally careless with that. And calm down now.

Posted by TennisFan2 (unabashed fan of Rafa and Serena) 03/31/2010 at 09:48 PM

thanks for the live stream izidane....
I hate cheering against J-W but nice break Rafa!!!!

Posted by sblily (Wheeeeeeeee!!!) 03/31/2010 at 09:48 PM

Did the ump say anything to Rafa during the changeover? That would've been the time. Nah, he's probably waiting for 15-40 to mention it.

Posted by kchowcrazy (wants ReRe back!) 03/31/2010 at 09:48 PM

Oh Jo its not Rafa's fault you couldn't find a backhand that game

Posted by Papo (Got Nadal?) 03/31/2010 at 09:48 PM

Take your time, Rafa. Take even longer. Get in Jo-Willy's head, hehe.

Posted by Aussiemarg,Madame President,Rafa just get rid of those shorts 03/31/2010 at 09:50 PM

Joe I suggest you just concentrate on getting your game back

Posted by Pspace (Allez Tsonga!) 03/31/2010 at 09:50 PM

Looks like Rafa has come to play. Hmmm...sucks for Jo.

Allez it up. C'mon.

Posted by Aussiemarg,Madame President,Rafa just get rid of those shorts 03/31/2010 at 09:51 PM

Good serving by Rafa soo far he has been mixing it up nicely

Posted by manuelsantanafan 03/31/2010 at 09:51 PM

Tsonga definitely is in the right concerning Rafa's excessive time between serves.

WTF.

Rafa hits a service winner.

Then goes to the towel.

Ridiculous.

Posted by GB 03/31/2010 at 09:52 PM

Is it just me, or does Rafa look v tired again?

WTF Rafa, WTF?????? Don't let Jo back in the set FFS

Posted by Sherlock 03/31/2010 at 09:52 PM

Terrible miss on the short ball, Rafa. Deuce.

Posted by swalker007 (let's go Pekingnese Fed, Ratface Nadal!) 03/31/2010 at 09:53 PM

WTF point there by Rafa

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