Concrete Elbow by Steve Tignor - W: Character Studies
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W: Character Studies 06/23/2009 - 5:45 PM

JjIt's a storyteller's dream: Whatever type of character you like, the first week of a Grand Slam offers it to you. Wide-eyed up-and-comer, star in free fall, underachieving sure-shot—all three were out on the grounds on a hot Tuesday at Wimbledon. Here's a look at how each of them struggled, straggled, succeeded, and failed to make the best of their particular situations. 

The Falling Star
"Come on, JJ, come on," urges Jelena Jankovic's mother with a rhythmic clap. 

She's sitting forward, her shoulders pressed up against the wall at the back of the north side of Court 3. Her frosted hair and glinting sunglasses make her an unmistakable presence, though it's odd to hear her using her daughter's nickname to cheer her on, like any other fan. 

It's 1:00 and the sun is at its peak. The view south runs in an invisible cone from the base of tennis courts at the club to the steeple of St. Mary's Church on the hill above. In between, trees alternate with white houses, and red-double-deckers run back and forth between them. A new bus has joined them this year, a yellow double-decker sponsored by Corona and topped with a giant plastic beer bottle. It's a jarring sight.

Whatever number it is currently assigned, this court is best known as the Graveyard of Champions. It's open to the elements—gusts of wind, blinding sun, attacks of noise—but high seeds are forced to venture out here nonetheless. The combination has produced dozens of stunning upsets; yesterday James Blake lost in the first round. As Tuesday begins, it seems like it could be Jankovic's turn. 

After starting the year at No. 1, she has had a disastrous 2009. Her season bottomed out last week in Eastbourne, where lost in the first round and watched her ranking slip to No. 6. Jankovic's opponent today, Germany's Julia Georges, hits a heavier ball than she does. Her serve is strong enough to knock Jankovic a full step backward. From the first row of the press seats, it's easy to see JJ's fundamental flaw: Compared even to this journeywoman player, her shots have no heft. Her whippy strokes produce a light, pingy sound when she makes contact. When Georges gives Jankovic a short ball, she doesn't know what to do with it. Without pace coming in, she can't make it go out. 

Jankovic begins to falter, and now it's her coach, Ricardo Sanchez—sitting well away from her mother—who does the urging. For anyone who thinks there is a lot of detailed instruction given during matches, here is what Sanchez says when Jankovic looks up to him after a changeover: "Go for it." 

Somehow that advice doesn't help her turn things around. Early in the second set, Jankovic begins to spray balls. She's broken, and on the first point of the next game, she frames a forehand that ends up in the first row. Jankovic looks back at Sanchez. She keeps her eyes on him the entire time it takes her to cross the baseline. Typically, when she looks into the crowd, she's kvetching about an opponent's luck or a chair umpire's incompetence. This is different. This is a cold, silent, fearful stare. Every tennis player knows the look: Jankovic is beginning to panic. Sanchez doesn't say a word. 

Georges sprints out to a 5-2 lead; the set is essentially over. Jankovic appears to be tanking the last game. But her shots begin to find the mark despite her intentions. She extends the set to a tiebreaker, goes up 3-0, and lofts up a lob that should be an easy putaway. Jankovic stops playing, but Georges mishits the sitter overhead long. Jankovic wins 7-0. After the last point, she turns to face her coach again. A broad smile has replaced the look of cold-eyed panic. The free fall is over for today. 

At some point in their press conferences, every tennis player reverts to a litany of platitudes. Jankovic, while she can be funny, is no exception. Today she utters the most famous platitude of all: "I've got to take it one match at a time." For once, those words have significance. At this point JJ has to take every win she can get. More than that, like most of us, she knows that even a seemingly routine win in a tennis match often involves moments of desperate, soul-clutching, I-can't-breathe panic moments that are conveniently forgotten after the last ball is hit, but which every player knows can return at any point. Knowing that, who would want to take more than one match at a time? 


The Not-So-Sure Shot 
"I hear Gulbis is 15-1 against Murray," a man shouts to his friend with a laugh as he spots the Latvian setting up to serve. "Who'd take him?" 

A year ago Ernests Gulbis was the young man of this moment. The 19-year-old played Rafael Nadal in the second round and took a set, the only one Nadal would lose until the final. That match took place on Court 1. Today Gulbis, who has struggled for the last 10 months and failed to build on what most observers say is Top 5 talent, has been assigned Court 6. It's the last in a row of outer courts with no bleachers. Fans come and go as they please, and say what they please. 

Gulbis, a child of privilege who has had his motivation questioned, is out with the masses. After an early loss at the French Open, his ranking has fallen to No. 67, the lowest it has been since 2007. Despite his wiry explosiveness, he has reached a stage in his slump that every losing player knows well: Anything that can go wrong will go wrong. Whatever a player's talent may be, losing can often be a matter of building up a momentum of misfortune—in other words, one unlucky break seems to lead to another. And another.

Case in point: Up a set and a break against an overmatched opponent, Gulbis holds game point on his serve. He hits what he thinks is an ace and slaps the ball to the ball kid, believing the game is over. But his serve has been called a let. He double faults and eventually loses the game. 

The crowds get bigger and the noise increases. Creaking food carts are hauled past. But Gulbis is calm; it's obvious he's a cut above his opponent. When he has time to set up, he hits his windmill two-hand backhand to the corners like it's batting practice. But for every buzzing winner he puts past his opponent, Gulbis does something to keep the match close. He gets ahead on his serve and double-faults. He has an open court for an easy forehand, but he sends it whistling wide. In the end, its Gulbis who gets the lucky break. Serving for the match at 5-4 in the third, his opponent commits a crucial unforced error. Gulbis, like Jankovic, has found the bottom for now. Sometimes talent is enough. Sometimes the wheel of good fortune spins in your direction. 

Gulbis' tournament is starting to look like last year's: He plays Andy Murray in the second round on Thursday. It's been a bad season, but one win can turn your mindset 180 degrees. Gulbis is 0-2 against Murray, though after his match today he said brightly, "I think it’s going to be like a new match and the past won't count as much." Call it a good sign—Gulbis is living for tomorrow again. 

Ag The Rookie 
"Who's this girl?" a young man asks his friend as they walk past 19-year-old American Alexa Glatch on Court 6. "She's—" he stops as Glatch glides her racquet under an elegant two-handed drop shot that clears the net by an inch and bounces backward for a winner. "Jesus Christ, did you see that? Unbelievable hands!" 

The kid had been about to remark on how big Glatch is. She is—6-feet and muscular, with a gait like her fellow Southern Californian Lindsay Davenport. She has followed Gulbis onto Court 6. The sun is low and casting long shadows now. Sunglasses aren't enough; spectators have to shade their eyes with their hands as well. Glatch has said she is looking forward to bringing her heavy-hitting game to grass. But early nerves affect her footwork—a chronic problem—and she loses the first set of her Wimbledon debut to Peng Shuai. 

In the second, Glatch makes it look easy. There's a lot to her game. Mellow power—she appears to hit downhill to Peng. Variety—few if any women have the athleticism to hit a full-blooded slice forehand return and follow it to the net. A versatile serve—she has a biting hook to back up her flat one. And, as the kid said, very good hands. A drastic 2005 motorbike accident set Glatch's career back years, and she may never reach her early potential. But her game remains unlike any on the WTA tour. 

It appears that Glatch will cruise to a win. She breaks, goes up 4-2, and has points for 5-2. Her friends on the sidelines sit back, texting and waiting happily for the inevitable. But out of nowhere, she can't finish. Peng shovels the ball down the middle of the court. Glatch, her footwork slowing again, hits from a wide-open stance and pops a ball long. She rushes a backhand into the tape. Up 4-3 in the third but down break point, she seizes up completely and sends her second serve on a violent downward arc to the bottom of the net. At no point does Glatch show the slightest emotion. Even her body language is unchanged.

On the final point, Glatch cuts under another perfect drop shot. Peng scrapes it up and hits a ball that appears to be heading well long. But Glatch reaches up with her racquet and it ticks off the top. Somehow, the match is over. It almost looks like she has lost the final point intentionally. Glatch strides laconically to the sidelines, gathers her racquets, and disappears into the blinding sun. 

Glatch knows how to do everything on a tennis court. But that's just the start. Before players can win, they must learn all the ways they can lose. The young American is learning those ways as we speak. Now she must learn to forget them.


Posted by davidpeh 06/23/2009 at 06:15 PM


Posted by crazyone 06/23/2009 at 06:19 PM

thanks for the report, especially the bits on Ernie Gulbis, of whom I'm a big fan (though this year, there's been hardly anything to be a fan of). He says he's been working hard with Pat Etcheberry and that the emphasis on physical workouts has caused his tennis to suffer short term but that long term it'll pay dividends.

If he plays like you said he did today he has no chance against Murray. Pity, I'd love to see the guy who pushed Nadal both here at Wimbledon and even more so at the Madrid masters, and the guy who played 1.5 sets of flawless tennis against Roddick at the USO.

Posted by peter 06/23/2009 at 06:23 PM

Great post.. focusing on the non show courts.. i like Gulbis against Murray

Posted by Syd 06/23/2009 at 06:26 PM

Beautiful report Steve,

The only time I've wished a piece on TW were longer. Keep it coming. :)

Posted by TripleF-FedFanForever(Sergeant Pepper Fed's Lonely Hearts Club!) 06/23/2009 at 06:30 PM

Having been to Riga many a times...I know of and spotted Gulbis (as the only Latvian regardless) waaaaaaaay back. I like him game a lot. Hope he reins in a bit and gets his head cleared. He can upset Murray - given how Robby K was taking it to him.

Posted by Pspace (Lestat de SW19) 06/23/2009 at 07:40 PM

Glatch knows how to do everything on a tennis court. But that's just the start. Before players can win, they must learn all the ways they can lose. The young American is learning those ways as we speak. Now she must learn to forget them.

Wow! Well said. Perhaps the same is applicable in a way to Gulbis.

Posted by jb... (i miss wimby live!!) 06/23/2009 at 08:47 PM

thanks for the reports on the 'outsiders' steve. but honestly, i didn't think last year i'd be seeing ernie in this write up. hopefully he can find his game again, because he'd be great fun mixing it up with the top 10.

alexa glatch... i shall keep my eye on her. if i can. hopefully she'll make it to some later rounds where i can catch her.

as for JJ, oh hail, if momo can pull it off, JJ FTW! (or at least a few more?)

Posted by alex 06/23/2009 at 09:02 PM

JJ is in a slump but i think if she can play well she can go far and test venus and maybe even win. i hope she does ill be cheering her on. Go JJ!!

Posted by Heidi 06/23/2009 at 09:13 PM

Steve, you are absolutely outdoing yourself on these. I love them. What better time than the first few rounds of a major for these character studies? Great mix here. Sad to see Gulbis slide; OTOH, if Hantuchova goes anywhere, that'd be an interesting piece to see from you! I'd forgotten she existed till someone remarked on her win on Pete's blog.

Posted by Master Ace 06/23/2009 at 09:34 PM

Thought Jelena changed coaches or will it be after Wimbledon. ESPN2 said that Chip Hopper will/is coaching her. If that is the case, that will be her 3rd coaching change since the beginning of 2008.

Posted by edna 06/23/2009 at 10:17 PM

Thanks for the "character studies". I'm glad Gulbis is one of them. No doubt he is one of the most interesting players on tour. Such blazing talent but nothing much to show for it, so far. He defies expectations, as in losing when he should win. But in spite of Gulbis' struggles I'm a huge fan because when his game is at its best, he is one hell of a player to watch. Thanks for the article!

Posted by Josh 06/23/2009 at 11:05 PM

Sweet piece Steve. Thanks.

Posted by jewell - Make tea, not war. 06/24/2009 at 02:11 AM

"even a seemingly routine win in a tennis match often involves moments of desperate, soul-clutching, I-can't-breathe panic moments that are conveniently forgotten after the last ball is hit, but which every player knows can return at any point."


So true.

Posted by DH 06/24/2009 at 03:47 AM

These articles are excellent!!! I felt like I was on court watching those matches. Its like you were born to write about the drama)

Posted by Aussiemarg Madame President finally comes out of rehab and rejoices in Vamos Forever 06/24/2009 at 05:07 AM

Steve Thanks for your great report on those matches you certainly make us feel in the moment

I agree with Master Ace,JJ another coach well I hope for her sake she can find the missing component in her game.It has been lost for some time now.JJ was the no 1 player regardless of not winning a slam back then she was playing good consistant tennis.

Find of Mo Jo again JJ.

Earnie to me has the best techincal serve in the game,great groundies as well.Showed great promise then his game has certainly gone downhill.Parted with his coach.Now has hooked up with another.I believe at times he lacks the most important Self Belief and confidence,especially on big points.Today without it sorry you will get no where.

Again Earnie you have too much talent please dont waste it.

Posted by peter 06/24/2009 at 08:05 AM

I hate even getting a glance of womens tennis, sissy tennis.

Why do they have to bounce so much all the time between balls and their pigtail sways side to side, and, moan when they hit the ball? Proud of ya, good girl.. so needy, all these nervous tics to get prize money to buy a Pravda bag? They should use stretch pants more also instead of the fluttering skirts, they can lift those up and moan, in pornos.
Perhaps I should jump around while I check the balls and while I bounce the ball with the racquet before a serve, that would irritate the hell out of my opponent. JUMP AROUND.

Posted by solid35player 06/24/2009 at 09:18 AM

like most of us, she knows that even a seemingly routine win in a tennis match often involves moments of desperate, soul-clutching, I-can't-breathe panic moments

And one of the things I love most about tennis is that the above applies at the top of the game, and at the lowly league level where I dwell. How do you deal with the pressure, how do you respond to an opponent who just won't go away, how do you deal with the cruelty of the net cord?

Posted by Kristine 06/24/2009 at 01:35 PM

Wonderful write-ups. Would do the players good if they read this themselves.

Posted by Annie (Heavenly Creature will be missed like no other) 06/24/2009 at 04:53 PM

wow Steve. your write-up on Glatch was stellar. thanks.

Posted by Christopher 06/24/2009 at 09:03 PM

"He says he's been working hard with Pat Etcheberry and that the emphasis on physical workouts has caused his tennis to suffer short term but that long term it'll pay dividends."

Crazyone-- I hope so, but it didn't work out that way for Jankovic. For that matter, he almost drove Henin to total exhaustion.

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