Concrete Elbow by Steve Tignor - IW: Personality Crisis
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IW: Personality Crisis 03/22/2009 - 9:11 PM

Vz When I woke up this morning in Indian Wells, the wind was threatening to decapitate the palm trees on the other side of the road from my hotel. Driving to the tournament site, I could see it kicking up screens of dust that soared higher than the nearby hills.

An hour later, as the women's finalists walked onto the stadium court, the Serbian fans in the top rows were holding onto their flags for dear life. Ana Ivanovic and Vera Zvonareva did the same with their skirts and their visors. Unfortunately, they were powerless to do much with the tennis ball once it left their racquets.

The breeze blew their service tosses halfway to the net, and their ground strokes from the center of the court all the way to the alleys. It blew a plastic racquet wrapper from the court surface up and out of the arena in seconds. It took shots that must have felt good coming off the racquet and made them very bad—a few times Ivanovic's face went from happy to surprised to woeful as the ball sailed through the air—and took soft, mediocre shots and made them brilliant. It was hard to adjust because the wind wasn't blowing in any discernible direction. It was blowing everywhere.

In the end, the conditions reduced the final of the BNP Paribas Open, which had upped its women's prize money and fielded its strongest draw this year, to a test of resourcefulness rather than pure tennis skill. Zvonareva passed this test by planting herself in the middle of the baseline, facing the net, and getting the ball back any way she could.

"I was trying to put as many balls as I can in the court," was pretty much the extent of Zvonareva's explanation of her tactics afterward. That's as complicated as it can get on a day like this.

The book on playing in the wind is to take more little steps than usual to keep yourself ready for any last second gusts, send the ball down the middle of the court, and don't be afraid to hit it hard so it doesn't have as much time to get blown god knows where. Ivanovic stuck to this script, and she stuck to the attacking script she had written for herself all tournament. She couldn't pull it off. On point after point, she hit a forcing approach only to botch it in the end. Zvonareva was allowed the luxury of waiting and playing it safe. She made a specialty of a shot that on most days even a rank amateur would be ashamed to use: the slice forehand. A couple times it floated upward, crawled over the net, then hung unsteadily in the air, eventually bamboozling Ivanovic into another error. If little steps are the key to playing in the wind, that wasn't going to help the Serb; she's a long-legged strider all the way.

"I tried to get through the middle," Ivanovic said afterward. "but it was very hard to control the ball."

Ivanovic said, naturally, that she was "trilled" to reach the final again here, and she did show signs of the old sharpness, especially in her semifinal win over Pavlyuchenkova. Ivanovic says she's feeling more confident, and that her goal is to win a major, but I'm not convinced she's ready. Her confidence waxed and waned all week. And when it went south, as it did against Flavia Pennetta, she couldn't find the court with anything, and looked extremely anxious trying. Can she go seven matches without a clunker?

Ivanovic, as you might expect, was bubblier than the winner in her press conference. She said she had gotten all of her "emotions" out and composed herself before she faced us. As for Zvonareva, you would never know she was, not too long ago, a self-wounding basket case on court, prone to tear-filled mid-match meltdowns. She's all-business now, and it shows in her results: A final at the WTA championshps in 2008, a semi in Melbourne, and a Premier win in Indian Wells. Again, though, you wouldn't have known she'd just won the biggest title of her career. After 10 minutes of routine answers and little reaction from Zvonareva, she was finally asked, "What's it feel like to suddenly be $700,000 richer?"

Zvonareva didn't blink or crack a smile. "I don't know," she said, "I don't really think about it." What bothers me is that I believe her. She's done a great job of calming down and moving her game up a level. Will it take a little more of the old overt passion for her to take the next step and go toe to toe with the Williams sisters?

The winner aside, the WTA at Indian Wells was notable for it's abundance of personality in the press room, but a parallel lack of personality or individualism in the playing styles displayed on court. Yes, there was expressiveness—Ivanovic's innocent determination was balanced against Zvonareva's hunched resourcefulness today. And you can find those contrasts in every match. At the same time, the four WTA semifinalists—and almost everyone else in the draw, for that matter—pounded the ball from the baseline, wielded two-handed backhands, and approached the net only when they were blown there accidentally (the three missing stars, Venus, Serena, and Maria, fit all those categories as well).

Has the women's game been over-democratized? The dominant style of WTA play is an outgrowth of what's been taught at the Bollettieri Academy for 30 years. There's a military toughness and precision to it—Nick was an army paratropper, after all—that's undeniably effective: No one can fight the power anymore. But tennis, and women's tennis, has always been a sport of highly unique individuals. It has produced stars as varied and indelible as Steffi Graf, Evonne Goolagong, and Martina Navratilova, each of whom played, sounded, and acted nothing like the others. When you go into the military, you get stronger, harder, and fiercer. But you also have your personality erased. After talking with Cetkovska, Ivanovic, Pavlyuchenkova, Jankovic and others this week, I know there's a lot of life and a lot of unique individuals on this tour. I wish they didn't all express themselves the same way when they stepped on the court.


 
38
Comments
 

Posted by Papo 03/22/2009 at 09:25 PM

Steve, congratulations on your accurate predictions on the ATP semifinalists, finalists and the winner.

Posted by tennisjob78 03/22/2009 at 09:26 PM

first jawb

Posted by tennis765 03/22/2009 at 09:27 PM

first jawb

Posted by VE 03/22/2009 at 09:33 PM

Steve, nice post, becoming more of a fan daily.

Do you think given the current vacuum in the game, a player like Zvonareva could be the one to step up and run the show for a while? She's still relatively young, got plenty of game and seems to have reined in her emotions. Could she be the one we've been waiting for over the last year?

Posted by Jorge 03/22/2009 at 09:42 PM

Steve:

One thing that caught my attention was the constant net aproaching by Ivanovic finishing many points with superb volleys, not just putaways but taking them from her feet or just moving with lots of agrssion up there.

Still, lots of UE from the back, but i think she shows that she may go a bit more all around than most of the girls.

Posted by M Peters 03/22/2009 at 10:04 PM

"the four WTA semifinalists—and almost everyone else in the draw, for that matter—pounded the ball from the baseline, wielded two-handed backhands, and approached the net only when they were blown there accidentally (the three missing stars, Venus, Serena, and Maria, fit all those categories as well)."

Steve, do you really believe that five-time Wimbledon champion Venus Williams only approaches the net when "blown there accidentally"?

Posted by sonya 03/22/2009 at 10:41 PM

Oh Steve, loved that last sentence. I'm very happy that you took the time to decipher the women's personalities. It's really that, that makes the tour stand out, and I think a lot of WTA fans feel the same way. They're practically all, very young, and their maturation has an effect on their success, so it's really fascinating to see it unfold.


But, did you forget about Agnieska? She is very different than her contemporaries, and yes, she does tend to forget her natural game plan and hug the baseline. She has a very smart game, and her sister as well, I heard. Jelena also relies on consistency rather than power.

And while Venus uses primarily her power, she's I believe a great net player, the best right now, plus I've heard Navratilova and Billie Jean King say that she belongs up there with the best ever.

Posted by Tennis Fan 03/22/2009 at 10:52 PM

"I wish they didn't all express themselves the same way when they stepped on the court."

I wish all the articles about the WTA did not have the same theme. What monotonous boredom!

Ivanovic came to the net and Zvonareva passed her. Maybe that is why it happens. I don't see Rafa come to the net any more than your average WTA player.

Posted by deeps 03/22/2009 at 11:45 PM

Tennis fan,

The point is that Rafa doesn't come to the net that much (though I do think he is more willing to use it as a tactic than the WTA players) but there are others like Murray who do. The top four have different game plans, styles of play even though all their games start at the baseline. And when you go down the top 10 - you have the baseliners like Roddick, the counterpunchers like Simon and the flashy players like Tsonga and Verdasco. Each one is completely different. Right now all the WTA players though seem to be carbon copies of each other when they come on court. The closest to variety is Venus.

Posted by Master Ace 03/22/2009 at 11:51 PM

Steve,
Good article today and matter of fact, all week on the WTA. Thank you very much.

Now, as the tour moves to Key Biscayne, will Vera be able to pull off a rare American feat(last done by Kim Clijsters in 2005) BKA Transcontinential Slam(hope I got that right). Will Ana be able to take what she accomplished at Indian Wells and apply them there or will Serena be able to break the tie with Steffi and win her 6th title? Also, will Elena Dementieva and Jelena Jankovic bounce back off their one and done at Indian Wells. Finally, will Venus Williams be able to win her 3rd consecutive tournament in a row after winning Dubai and Acapulco in consecutive weeks. Good times are about to heat up.

Posted by PS 03/23/2009 at 01:02 AM

Ivanovic today was what Federer was yesterday - beautiful to watch, fiery but error prone. Zvonareva today was what Murray was againt Federer - just putting the ball back in the court, boring to watch but consistent - just a counterpuncher. Alas, counterpunchers won the games!

Btw, such approach of Murray didn't cut it against Nadal today - did he have a single winner today at all?

Posted by azinna 03/23/2009 at 04:23 AM

Well, that list of varied and indelible -- Steffi Graf, Evonne Goolagong, and Martina Navratilova -- does span several decades of tennis. Serena's likely to be added to that list, and twenty years from now someone will be saying she also didn't play, sound, or act anything like the others.

Look: we're just going to have to detect and enjoy individual paersonality within this crop of baseliners with two-handed backhands. We were able to do so with the top players of the 1970s -- when most all were serve-and-volleyers with one-handed backhands. It isn't all that hard to do, actually. And I like that you were able to admit some very descriptive differences between Ivanovic (innocent determination) and Zvonareva (hunched resourcefulness).

Posted by CTJam 03/23/2009 at 07:17 AM

I saw the second set only. I thought it was a ghastly spectacle, mostly on account of the windy conditions. Did anyone notice that Ana's lone ace came after her second serve being so short and against the wind that it actually bounced TWICE before Vera could get to it!!! Vera even ended up tripping herself up trying to retrieve the shot. First time I ever saw such a thing at this level.

Posted by Peaches 03/23/2009 at 08:07 AM

wow, why so mean?

Posted by Master Ace 03/23/2009 at 08:08 AM

CTJam,
Yes, that was the ugliest ace I ever saw and Vera's attempt to get to the ball. Wind was the winner in this match.

Posted by connie 03/23/2009 at 08:54 AM

You were lucky to see the finals as Foxsports in our area of Michigan didn't even carry it! The Tennis Channel wouldn't have been any better as it is not available in southwestern Michigan except on Direct TV (cable channels say it is too expensive to offer).

Posted by Ryan 03/23/2009 at 10:41 AM

Women's tennis is in a holding period, waiting for the new iconic player (and style) to appear. As long as everyone plays the exact same way, only the mentally toughest (ie Serena, Venus, Sharapova) will be the most successful.

Long live Henin...

Posted by Andy 03/23/2009 at 11:44 AM

Has anyone noticed that March30th, Safina is going to take over Sareena in the ranking. However, she can not become #1 or cna she become #1 for recrods?

Posted by polyhistor 03/23/2009 at 12:19 PM

"the four WTA semifinalists—and almost everyone else in the draw, for that matter—pounded the ball from the baseline, wielded two-handed backhands, and approached the net only when they were blown there accidentally (the three missing stars, Venus, Serena, and Maria, fit all those categories as well)."

Steve, do u really think that Serena and Venus only approaches the net accidentally? have you really seen them play? Serena and Venus are the powerhouse of WTA today and no one can match them especially when sharapova is missing who can go toe to toe with them...

Posted by C Note 03/23/2009 at 01:49 PM

Sigh.

And here I thought this was going to be an in-depth write up on Vera's journey from headcase to WTA rock. Maybe a mention of her work with Sam Sumich. Perhaps a thematic reference to her graduate studies in international relations?

But no. Just more WTA bashing.

Bummer.

Posted by azinna 03/23/2009 at 02:13 PM

@ C Note. Peter Bodo offered something more subtle in a recent ESPN entry ("Time is ripe for mentally mature Zvonareva.")

Not to slight your own entry, Steve, but I did really like how Pete distinguished Zvonareva's style from Safina's, for example, and made connections to Svetlana and Justine. I think it's the way forward in analyzing and appreciating the current women's game.

Posted by Yummy Prince Fed - Still my heartbeat 03/23/2009 at 02:22 PM

Very disappointed in this article. What I saw on Sunday were 2 women who tried to play a match not only against each other but against the natural forces of nature. One triumphed and the other did not. They both tried different tactics, including trying to keep the points short in order that the wind would not be much of a factor. Vera prevailed in what I thought was a very well played match and congrats to her. Ana was I think 10/15 points won on net approaches yesterday. While she may have missed some of her approach shots as well as her volleys, she had a game plan as a result of the weather and even though she did not get the win, more power to her.
While I am not a fan of men's tennis, I stuck around and watched the men's match and all I have to say is while Vera had a game plan, clearly Andy Murray, the so-called greatest thinking tennis player in history could only muster up 3 games in what can only be described as "kick ass and take no names" manner. He had absolutely no idea what to do save and except for crushing the ball to Nadal's backhand and when that did not work he started mouthing off on the umpire about a let that should have been called. Clearly, Andy Murray needs to go the school of VeraZ - how to keep your emotions in check whilst playing a tennis match.

Posted by whatthedeuce 03/23/2009 at 03:00 PM

Many sports (and sporting positions, i.e. goaltending) are now much more of a science than an art. There is a way to play, that you don't have to subscribe to, but if you play someone who does and does it well, you'll very probably lose. How many flamboyant stars can beat the disciplined stars on more than just the rare occasion? Re:the WTA, all I can say is that I miss Justine...she combined all of the attributes that makes the game so appealing and did it at the highest level...flare AND brains.

Posted by Al 03/23/2009 at 04:05 PM

Link to this article on the TENNIS.com homepage:
"WTA bashing baseliner of the week"

Excuse me?

Agree with CNote, Karen & Tennis Fan,
this article was a big diappointment.

Posted by Sarah 03/23/2009 at 06:36 PM

lame article. it's like you all don't even care about the wta. atleast try and pretend to care about vera's great accomplishment. she played excellent tennis. i don't care if it was windy, she played wonderful tennis despite this. get your act together steve. you don't have many fans at the moment.

Posted by Piper 03/23/2009 at 06:37 PM

WOW Steve way to write a nice essay on rafa but write this tiny poor blip on vera. way to be prejudiced. i hope you weren't payed to write this garbage!

Posted by Lynnette 03/23/2009 at 06:39 PM

This article is a peice of horse shit. Seriously Steve. Were you payed to write this crap? Atleast PRETEND to care about the WTA and the many talented women apart of it. You leave me annoyed and confused.

Posted by Opal 03/23/2009 at 06:42 PM

Steve, you can't write worth a damn. Incase you were wondering many of us like to hear about the atp and the WTA. did you ever think of this? come of us like to follow both men and WOMEN. i don't understand why you would write something like this. it's boring, disrespectful and pathetic. i seriously hope you weren't payed to write something like this. does anyone read what you write after your finished? you may want to get someone to do this. just my opinion. please READ your comments and you'll see that i'm not the only one offended and upset.

Posted by Olivia 03/23/2009 at 06:44 PM

Frankly I don't give a crap how the women act on/off court. We have established that all women have different personalities. WOOPEE. My five year old son knows this. Now can you please write something reguarding the match. You don't have a problem talking relentlessly about Rafa, which I understand to a certain extent because he is amazing...but try talking about the women a bit more. And please sound like you care.

Posted by Kim 03/23/2009 at 06:45 PM

Well this article was forced. I'll write you a better article for free. I don't have a problem with taking a couple of minutes to do so. I think many of us could do a lot better than you.

Posted by Lilly 03/23/2009 at 06:45 PM

Your personality is what's lacking, Steve. Not the ladies of the WTA.

Posted by Ruth 03/23/2009 at 09:36 PM

I can see that many posters were ayed by this ppiece, and I can see why.

But the comment that I appreciated the most was from azinna who pointed out that the popular serve and volley, OHBH style of another era could be described as just as boringly as the play of the current hard-hitting baseliners.

In fact,if you were so inclined, you could take almost any style of tennis and write about it as if it were deadly boring and repetitious: serve, run to net, volley or get passed; serve, run to net, volley or get passed etc etc. LOL

You can do better, Steve!

Posted by Master Ace 03/24/2009 at 11:56 AM

Steve,
Taking another look at the article and I can see why fellow posters were not happy. First half of the article was pretty good telling us how the players had to deal with the windy conditions but I was hoping that the second half was going to be about Vera finally winning her first major Premier title and how she overcame some obstacles and/or talking about her good play since 2008 United States Open.

Posted by elisse 03/24/2009 at 04:46 PM

I think this article over generalizes way too much where the women's game is concerned. Andy Murray is the only guy with a style different from Fed/Nadal/Djokovic and co. in the top of the men's game who has been able to distinguish himself, yet he still has not won a slam.

Sure the WTA has its issues, but it has more to do with mentality and less to do with game.

Players like Venus, Serena, Ana, Maria...who have won slams recently are extremely powerful baseliners and that is being diminished as some easy task. Moreso, these players have been able to win, by not "just bashing the ball" as a comment above dismissively states.

Venus is great at net, and most times, does incorporate it into her game. So does Serena.

Furthermore, Serena is a player who is extremely smart when it comes to varying pace and angles. Have you watched any of their matches.

Did you see the dismantling that Maria did to JH in AO 08? More than the democraticized play, as you call it.

Sure, there are those who ball bash, etc...but there is Momo. There was JH. Players will come and go, and there may be another type, like an A. Radwanska who will come into her own with a unique, "Andy Murray-like" style of play.


Posted by elisse 03/24/2009 at 05:13 PM

I agree with most of the sentiment here.

I think more thought went into Vera's game plan than Andy's, and certainly more thought than was put into this article.

I'm calling all journalists of this sport to jump off the bandwagon and post a good analysis of the WTA, siting the good and bad.

Certainly the players who have won slams the past year and a half have displayed more tactic than "accidentally" being blown to the net.

True enough, that there are more baseliners, but since we insist on comparing the men to the women, the ATP has its share of baseliners FOR SURE.

Murray has a good game, but he has yet to win a slam, yet he is being praised...fine.

The women do not play his style simply because it is ineffective, unless you're a JH type. Those kinds of players do not come about easily.

I was hoping that you wouldn't place Venus or Serena in tow with the rest of the WTA.

1. If it aint broke, don't fix it. Whatever you call their style of play, they have been extremely successful. I see no need for them to change anything.

2. They are not just base-liners, and particularly Serena has shown an improved tennis IQ with varying pace, using angles, etc. Venus is second to no one when it comes to net play...but No, she isn't a serve and volleyer.

3. Sharapova's dismantling of JH in AO 08 is particularly a stand out performance of power player using more than power but touch to get the job done. And it, along with JH's losses to Safina and Serena later that year, are reasons why her style of play can only be sustained so long.

4. Passing shots

5. It was this style of play that ushered in a new dawn of women's tennis, increasing its popularity and making it exciting to the casual viewer.

6.Why are players like Mauresmo and A. Radwanska overlooked? One of which is just outside the top ten

Posted by Joana 03/24/2009 at 05:15 PM

I agree with most of the sentiment here.

I think more thought went into Vera's game plan than Andy's, and certainly more thought than was put into this article.

I'm calling all journalists of this sport to jump off the bandwagon and post a good analysis of the WTA, siting the good and bad.

Certainly the players who have won slams the past year and a half have displayed more tactic than "accidentally" being blown to the net.

True enough, that there are more baseliners, but since we insist on comparing the men to the women, the ATP has its share of baseliners FOR SURE.

Murray has a good game, but he has yet to win a slam, yet he is being praised...fine.

The women do not play his style simply because it is ineffective, unless you're a JH type. Those kinds of players do not come about easily.

I was hoping that you wouldn't place Venus or Serena in tow with the rest of the WTA.

1. If it aint broke, don't fix it. Whatever you call their style of play, they have been extremely successful. I see no need for them to change anything.

2. They are not just base-liners, and particularly Serena has shown an improved tennis IQ with varying pace, using angles, etc. Venus is second to no one when it comes to net play...but No, she isn't a serve and volleyer.

3. Sharapova's dismantling of JH in AO 08 is particularly a stand out performance of power player using more than power but touch to get the job done. And it, along with JH's losses to Safina and Serena later that year, are reasons why her style of play can only be sustained so long.

4. Passing shots

5. It was this style of play that ushered in a new dawn of women's tennis, increasing its popularity and making it exciting to the casual viewer.

6.Why are players like Mauresmo and A. Radwanska overlooked? One of which is just outside the top ten

Posted by joana/elisse 03/24/2009 at 05:16 PM

sorry for the double posts...
i thought neither went through.
i make the same points in all 3

Posted by manuelsantanafan 03/25/2009 at 10:20 AM

Maybe the WTA would be taken more seriously if one couldn't get into the top ten with second serves that are an embarrasment. See Dementiava, Ivanovic, etc.

I've been lucky enough to see players like Virginia Wade, BJKing, Margaret Court, Evonne Goolagong, Chris Evert, Martina Navratilova, Steffe Graf, A-S Vicario, Conchita Martinez, Maria Bueno, Martina Hingis.

So, after these predecessors, WTA tennis has devolved to where Dementieva can make the top ten with serving that has often been embarassing (altho it has been better of late).

When the WTA puts out a considerably better product, I might take the above criticisms of Mr. Tignor more seriously.

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