Concrete Elbow by Steve Tignor - W: Queen Bees
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W: Queen Bees 06/22/2009 - 2:33 PM

Lr"Lotta pressure on a young girl."

These were the sage and gravelly words of Nick Bollettieri, who was sitting next to me in Wimbledon's brand new Court 2 this afternoon. He should know about the pressures on young girls, and how they handle them. He's seen a lot of both at his academy over the last 30 years.

But his protégés are rarely as young as Britain's Laura Robson when they walk onto a Wimbledon show court. Just 15, the 2008 Wimbledon junior champion and latest subject of press obsession in her home country was given the honor of playing the inaugural match on the All England Club's newest arena. On this gray, dry, mild opening day, every seat was filled, including the section reserved for the country's tennis elite: Sue Barker, John Barrett, and Virginia Wade were watching from first ball to last.

Fortunately for Robson, she had drawn a player who was assured of being just as nervous: Daniela Hantuchova. "This is a tough match-up for Dani," said Bollettieri, who has worked with Hantuchova. "She has to play a younger girl with nothing to lose, who has a big serve and forehand. Not easy." In other words, there was a lot of pressure on both young girls out there.

Did Robson live up to the expectations? Did she raise them? Lower them? While she lost in three after being up a set and a break, I was impressed. So was the British journalist to my right, apparently. After Robson pulled off one of her specialty shots, a swinging forehand volley from mid-court, he mumbled in surprised wonder, "Blimey. She can play, can't she?" Pause. "Is she really British?" 

"No, she's Australian," came the chuckling answer from the reporter next to him. Robson was indeed born in Australia, to an oil exec father and basketball-player mother. The family moved to England when she was 6 and she became a citizen last year. If that doesn't make her officially British, no one here is going out of their way to bring it up.

Wherever Robson comes from, Bollettieri is right about her serve being a reason to like her future. She's a lefty, but she doesn't own the customary nasty hook into the backhand side; instead, she hits it flat and heavy to both corners. It's a more natural and athletic stroke than most other women's serves today; there are no hitches or  screwey extraneous movements. Like the best servers, Robson just tosses the ball up, leans forward, and hits it—it's amazing how easy it looks and how hard it is to do. Her first-serve velocity hovered around 105 mph.

Unfortunately, the serve was also Robson's biggest enemy today. She double-faulted consistently, especially during the biggest moments, including match point. That said, it didn't look like her mechanics broke down, a la Dementieva; she just overhit, mostly because of nerves—her one errant toss came, not coincidentally, when she went up a break in the second set—but also partly because she hasn't had time to develop a second serve of iron-clad reliability. At this point, it remains virtually identical to her first one.

Not surprisingly, Bollettieri was also right about Robson's weaknesses: her movement and her big-loop backhand. The two are not unrelated, according to Nick. "Her backswing is too high," he leaned over and graveled, "so when she's rushed her contact point can be late, and that's trouble." Hantuchova had success taking Robson's time away by going right at her forehand. The Brit, who is already 5-foot-8, didn't catch up to that shot all afternoon. "Let me tell you," Bollettieri intoned with a tap of his hand on my knee, "movement is going to be the key with Laura. She's got to get in the best shape of her life and make herself as fast as possible."

"She's a great girl," Nick leaned back and said just before walking away. "Great girl, very nice. Maybe too nice."

Like a guy at the end of a first date, a young player does not want to hear the phrase "too nice." Robson is indeed charming, as she proved in her jam-packed presser today. Poised, proper, smart, snarky, she parried questions from every corner of the room—about her recent exams, about Federer vs. Murray (she's picking Federer, but hopes "Andy proves me wrong"), about her coach ("he's nothing special" she said with a dry smile), about the fact that she blew a set and a break lead ("thanks for rubbing it in"), about whether she has time to socialize ("what do you want me to say, I've got no friends?"), about whether Henman Hill should be renamed Robson Ridge ("it's not really a ridge, is it?")—with the kind of self-possessed wit that Americans believe is the birthright of all Britons. I walked out trying to imagine myself in that situation when I was 15. All I could do was shudder.

I hope for tennis' sake that Robson isn’t too nice, that she doesn't have too much personality, too much variety in her brain. Not that she's pretending to be an intellectual—she's too smart for that. When Robson was asked what she does in her downtime, she said, "Uhm, I watch Gossip Girl. But no, season two is finished. I'm so depressed." I hear you, Laura.

At the tail end of her presser, she was asked to comment on the grunting phenomenon that passes for the most intriguing topic in women's tennis right now. "It's such an unattractive sound, isn't it," said Robson, who plays in silence.

MldbMost people would nod their heads at that statement. But you wouldn't have guessed it from the number of spectators, press, sound-measuring experts, and assorted rubberneckers who trekked all the way to the hinterlands of Court 17 today to try to hear the new queen bee of the grunters, and Robson's fellow Wimbledon rookie, 16-year-old Michelle Larcher de Brito.

They—OK, we—were bitterly disenchanted. De Brito made normal tennis sounds! Next to me were two women from BBC Radio. As de Brito and her opponent warmed up soundlessly, they became agitated.

"Bit boring, isn't it?"

"Very disappointing."

"When are we going to hear something?"

As the first games went by and de Brito began to make little peeps here and there, the BBCers perked up. They even tried a little coaching. "That's it. She just has to swing through more to get it going."

De Brito never got the grunt going—the longest ones I heard were an extended exhalation when she had a chance for a break point in the first set, and then another one of similar length at match point.

If the sounds were disappointing—wait, weren't we supposed to hate her grunting?—de Brito's game was worth seeing. She's the daughter of a tennis-crazed dad from Portugal who took her to Bollettieri's when she was 9. That's where, presumably, she learned to express herself in the time-honored fashion of past Bradenton products like Monica Seles and Maria Sharapova.

She also learned to hit the hell out of the ball. De Brito subscribes to the Bollettieri theory that tennis is all about taking time away from your opponent. She slaps at her strokes, hits them as flat and hard as possible, and likes to go down the line, which gets the ball through the court more quickly than going crosscourt. At times she even cups under the ball the way Jimmy Connors did, a stroke that can produce a ball with no spin at all. And like Jimbo, de Brito throws everything she has into every shot. There are no rally balls with her, and a shot that's even slightly mishit sprays wildly.

But they went in today, and De Brito won in straight sets. While she lacks Robson's elegant serve and forehand, and many of her rallies lack all texture, watching de Brito scorch a winner like a slap shot from just inside the blue line can be electrifying. It's not clear where her power comes from, but it's packed into every part of her 5-foot-5 frame.

Of course, no one cared about that. After a couple of polite warm-up questions, the press went immediately (and rightfully) to the grunt. So much so that the elderly "minder" whom the club had sent to run the presser tried to ban "noisy" questions. But we kept at it, even to the point of employing euphemisms for grunting, and referring to the uproar over her matches in Paris as "the celebrated event." The minder steamed and harrumphed, helpless.

We eventually got what we wanted. De Brito said she wasn't told to quiet down by Wimbledon officials today. She said she was playing well enough not to have to do it today. But at the same time she said she doesn't really control it—"the grunt goes itself." The climactic moment came with the last question. When asked what she would do if she were told to stop the noise, de Brito finally became defiant:

"Nobody can tell me to stop grunting. If they have to fine me, go ahead, cause I'd rather get fined than lose a match because I had to stop grunting. That's all."

You couldn't help but feel that de Brito was wound up to this answer by the contentious atmosphere in the room—at one point, a dozen reporters yelled in unison at the minder, "Let her answer the question!" She may eventually wish she'd never drawn that line in the sand, and she may revise her words at some point. But you had to like de Brito's spirit at that moment.

A witty 15-year-old and a spunky 16-year-old. They put on good shows today, but who will we see more of in the future? I have no idea, so I'll close with a final sage and gravelly thought from Nick Bollettieri.

"So I guess you're high on de Brito?" I asked.

"Michelle?" He started to chuckle. "You better believe it, my boy."


 
13
Comments
 

Posted by Andrew Friedman 06/22/2009 at 03:38 PM

Hey, Steve - Fun post. Nick has come to remind me of Rocky Balboa's coach, Mickey, as played by Burgess Meredith...

Posted by PC 06/22/2009 at 03:46 PM

Great write up. I love the insights (Nick B!).

When I was 15 I'd have stared at my feet while addressing a room full of people.

Go girls!

Posted by Ruth 06/22/2009 at 04:14 PM

I, for one, am happy to hear that de Brito was able to play and win without the grunting/screeching. We'll have to wait and see if she resumes her grunting when, as she implies, it's a choice between grunting/screeching and losing. Yeah, right. :)

Laura Robson seems to have her head screwed on right. Too bad she had to meet a Hantuchova who decided to play up to her level today.

Posted by Mr.X 06/22/2009 at 05:26 PM

WHAT? She didnt make a noise? That's enormously surprising, Steve, as she was the worst thing i've ever heard on a tennis court at RG. Well, i guess she explained it.
Those girls are still too young for us to be able to know what the future is gonna bring them, but it could be a nice contrats of styles between them in the future. The stylish, polite, "too nice" Brit (or half-Brit?), against the loud, in-your-face, wild Portuguese.
Very impressed by their answers in the press conference, specially Robson's smart ones and De Brito's "Stop grunting? No way".
I wonder if Bollettieri taught De Brito not to be "too nice"

Posted by Heidi 06/22/2009 at 10:19 PM

Nice analysis of two up-and-comers, Steve. Thanks! I look forward to seeing Robson in the future. Whether De Brito needs to grunt or not, she'll certainly find herself having to think and talk about it a lot more in future. Hope that alone doesn't psych her out, but she seems to have a pretty strong Bollettieri competitive spirit.

Posted by Heidi 06/22/2009 at 10:19 PM

Nice analysis of two up-and-comers, Steve. Thanks! I look forward to seeing Robson in the future. Whether De Brito needs to grunt or not, she'll certainly find herself having to think and talk about it a lot more in future. Hope that alone doesn't psych her out, but she seems to have a pretty strong Bollettieri competitive spirit.

Posted by Ryota 06/22/2009 at 11:20 PM

When did grunting become such a fixture in women's tennis? Do tennis coaches actually teach the young ones to grunt during their practice sessions?

Posted by ahhh_silence 06/23/2009 at 02:18 AM

"She said she was playing well enough not to have to do it today."

That sounds like the ultimate in gamesmanship! Blech! That smarmy over-tanned Bolletieri can probably single handedly claim all credit for ruining our eardrums and creating these self-absorbed adolescents!

Just speculating -- what would happen if all the tournaments suddenly got a spine and say "shut up or you can't play here?" I mean, wouldn't all the screechers have to zip it?

Posted by karmica 06/23/2009 at 06:54 PM

In response to Ruth, who said "We'll have to wait and see if she resumes her grunting when, as she implies, it's a choice between grunting/screeching and losing. Yeah, right."

Ask Monica Seles if it was choice between grunting and losing. Her only Wimbledon final the media made such a circus out of the grunting issue that Monica put all her effort into NOT grunting and lost the match. The ONLY slam final she ever lost before the stabbing. So, yeah RIGHT is right.

I say to Michelle, do what you have to in order to play your game and let all the whiners deal just with it.

For the record, where's the hoopla when Serena Williams shrieks like a banshee during some matches. Guess some players are just "off limits" eh? Nice double standards.

Posted by jai 06/23/2009 at 11:02 PM

re: karmica & "double standards"

Of course there are double standards. The tour would be devastated without the Williams sisters. De Brito's got no leverage, so umps should go after her while they still can.

Posted by jewell - Make tea, not war. 06/24/2009 at 01:29 AM

"After Robson pulled off one of her specialty shots, a swinging forehand volley from mid-court, he mumbled in surprised wonder, "Blimey. She can play, can't she?" Pause. "Is she really British?"
"No, she's Australian," came the chuckling answer from the reporter next to him."

LOL

*back to finish reading*

Posted by Paulo M 06/24/2009 at 04:32 AM

Finally I read a good report on the rookie ladies, not the paparazi stuff about the grunting and screaming and politeness, good job Steve, I am bookmarking your blog.
Cheers

Posted by skip1515 06/24/2009 at 08:49 PM

"De Brito subscribes to the Bollettieri theory that tennis is all about taking time away from your opponent."

If Nick really thought tennis is all about taking time away from your opponent, he'd teach his students to volley more often. After all, what could possibly give the other guy or gal less time to get ready than hitting the ball from 30' closer to them than from your baseline?

(And, by the way, what ever happened to simply saying, "rushing your opponent"? Where'd this "taking time away" come from?)

Nah, Nick's overarching theory is that there's no subsitute for power, more power is better, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

Well, okay, perhaps he doesn't believe in the last one.

As far as the grunting/screeching/caterwauling is concerned, upon reflection it makes me think of nothing else so much as a young player trying to prove to their parents or coach how hard they're *really* trying.


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