Concrete Elbow by Steve Tignor - New Again
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New Again 04/19/2010 - 2:26 PM

Ss Are we ready to believe in Sam Stosur? I did once, very briefly, years ago, when I first saw her play somewhere in her native Australia. She had a game that might have been described as half-Heninesque. She had the inside-out forehand and the aggressive, jocky, all-court style, but she didn’t whirl around that court quite like the Belgian. And while Stosur’s backhand was strong, it was a workmanlike two-hander, one that would never make it into tennis’ Hall of Great Shots alongside Justine’s Olympian one-hander. Still, Stosur appeared to have Top 10 athleticism, her kick serve had the virtue of simplicity, and she was more capable of dictating a point from the middle of the court with her forehand than most of her opponents.

For years, it seemed that those gifts would be wasted. Stosur bounced around the rankings—No. 65 to 46 to 29 to 47 to 52—but never landed anywhere near the Top 10. The relatively few times she popped up on my radar screen, I could see that the shots and the talent were still intact, but she seemed to have no idea how to use them or to modify them for the moment. Like, say, Ernests Gulbis or Svetlana Kuznetsova on a bad day, Stosur could hit the ball as hard and as well as anyone, but her game lacked texture and adaptability. Like Kim Clijsters, if she got tight and things didn’t go well, she could rush herself into a trip to the showers.

But you don’t need to adapt when you can just hit a blatant winner off any ball you like. That’s what Stosur did for two very quick sets against Vera Zvonareva on Sunday in Charleston. The Aussie, who, even as she improved in 2009, had a habit of folding in finals, won her second and most prestigious title at the Family Circle Cup. At 26, she’s in the Top 10 for the first time, with a 17-5 record on the year. More impressive is the way she won this title. While Stosur hasn’t lost to Zvonareva since 2004, she made the sometime Top Tenner look like a barely coordinated amateur. Along the way, she inspired Vera to commit one of her most YouTube-worthy meltdowns—after double-faulting at 0-3 in the second, she broke her racquet, chucked it into the sideline sofa, and then, after it landed on the court, gave it a kick for good measure. It was the highlight of her afternoon.

Otherwise, it was all Stosur. Every time I looked away for a second—at a newspaper, out the window, at the floor—I looked back up to see her sending another viciously angled winner past a staggering Zvonareva, who had trouble even getting within five feet of some of these balls. Stosur’s uncluttered service motion and the powerful kick it produces is a thing of athletic beauty, one of the finest shots on the women’s tour. She can backpedal and hit her forehand for winners equally well to either corner. And she was using her slide-and-slice backhand when appropriate yesterday—that’s the texture and adaptability I was talking about. Better than all these, though, was Stosur’s return. She took it early, used a truncated backswing, hit it crisply, but never went for an outright winner with it.

So, back to my original question. Are you ready to believe in Sam Stosur? Can she rise higher than No. 10? Can she avoid the dismal early losses that have plagued her at the majors (before 2009, she was a collective 17-22 in the Slams)? Is she a match for the even more physically gifted Williams sisters, Henin, and Clijsters? Can she overpower someone as steady as Wozniacki, who will make her hit an extra ball to finish a rally? For the moment, as we head to Roland Garros, I'll say yes. Stosur made the semis in Paris last year, and she has the point-ending power for clay. Maybe now she’s learned to use all of her gifts. I hope so. Normally a blowout final is dull stuff, but not this one. After the Henin-Clijsters trainwreck in Key Biscayne, it was satisfying to see a player grab a match from the first game and win it decisively, with outstanding play from start to finish.


The same could very nearly be said for the men’s final that had been played earlier in the day, in Monte Carlo. Rafael Nadal grabbed his match with Fernando Verdasco from the start, winning the first six points and ending the second game with a vintage crosscourt backhand pass from off his shoe tops and outside the doubles alley. It's probably a shot that only a right-handed left-hander could hit. In other words, it's probably a shot that only Nadal could hit.

That’s the shot we’ll remember from his 2010 Monte Carlo win, his sixth in a row. What was most memorable the rest of the time was how routine this title was and how self-assured Nadal was winning it. He didn’t drop a set and, as he has in years past, the anxieties that seemed to plague him through the early part of the year all blew away in the red Monaco dust. There wasn’t a moment all week where Nadal seemed in any kind of doubt about who the tournament’s winner would be. There was more confidence in every part of his game. He had no issues going up the line with his forehand or taking an aggressive cut at his crosscourt topspin backhand, two shots that he gets cautious with when he’s not confident. What I noticed most, though, was how seldom he was forced to hit his slice backhand, which is a shot that can float on him. On hard courts, when he’s pushed back, he’ll resort to this stroke. On clay, with a little more time and his ability to slide, he seems to have no trouble taking the extra step needed to get in position to drive the ball. Nadal has mastered the surface, the subtleties of footwork and court positioning needed to get around on it efficiently, to the point where he appears to believe he can hit any shot from any spot, and that he’s never out of a rally. Must be a nice feeling. A confidence-boosting feeling.


Nadal didn’t beat Federer or Djokovic or Murray or del Potro or Davydenko or Soderling or a bunch of other very good players. It doesn’t matter—do you really believe that he can’t beat those guys on clay? What matters is that he’s found his best form, and that, after the “accidents” in Indian Wells and Key Biscayne, he knows that it’s still good enough to put him on the winner’s stand. But let’s set aside what this means for his future for the moment. The win was Nadal’s 16th Masters title, tying him with Federer and putting him one behind the record-holder, Andre Agassi. It’s extremely unlikely that Nadal will challenge Federer’s Slam record, but he’ll probably retire as the all-time Masters winner, a record indicative of consistent excellence and persistence. His record in Monte Carlo itself is even better; at 23, Nadal has already won six straight titles there. What will he end up with, 10? Whatever it is, it won’t be surpassed any time soon.

I talked recently with Nadal’s former Davis Cup captain, Emilio Sanchez, for an article for Tennis Magazine. He said that he hoped Nadal would find success again soon, because “he’s so emotional, and he suffers so much when he’s not winning.” You could see the truth in those words after match point yesterday, when Nadal fell straight to the ground as if he’d been shot, and ended up crying into his towel on the sideline. You might say that a guy who has won a tournament the previous five years should act like he’s been there before. I say the opposite. Would you rather that Federer, when he won his fifth straight U.S. Open in 2008 after having a tough season, had just flashed a smile of satisfaction, shaken Andy Murray’s hand, and sat down, instead of rolling on the court in berserk joy the way he did? Which would have been the more memorable reaction? Which would have revealed more of the man? Which would have moved us more? The same goes for Nadal’s tears in Monte Carlo. They came after a year of ups and downs for him, of physical and emotional disappointment and pain, and they showed that it isn’t just the majors that need to matter. After every match he wins, wherever it is, Nadal takes the time to celebrate as if the experience is brand new. It’s one reason why he continues to win, and why he can stay motivated at Monte Carlo. Keep acting like you’ve never been there before, Rafa. It's why tennis players keep playing, and it's why tennis watchers keep watching. We want to feel that way, too.

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Posted by Anna 04/21/2010 at 01:49 PM

I think Nadal has been the most gracious in victory. His reaction at the 2008 FO or at the 2009 AO were the classiest of a winning champion against his main rival

Posted by chegu 04/21/2010 at 01:52 PM

Nam1@1.17, your smiley's are duly noted:-)
but your point is not correct. he sobs even when he wins, i bet you have seen some of it too.

Posted by chegu 04/21/2010 at 01:58 PM

Also he never cried (in public) during any of his FO losses or during 08 wimby or 05/08 AO.
And i don't think you meant he sobbed in all of his 164 losses during his career cuz i don't remember anything other than AO 09

Posted by Nam1 04/21/2010 at 02:04 PM

"Also he never cried (in public) during any of his FO losses or during 08 wimby or 05/08 AO.And i don't think you meant he sobbed in all of his 164 losses during his career cuz i don't remember anything other than AO 09"

I know, I know, I was just funning!! Roger is very gracious in victiry and defeat, I was just pushing buttons!!

Probably get banned for it...

Posted by chegu 04/21/2010 at 02:21 PM

Nam1, its nothing to do with your smiley comment,
i just wanted to bring out the facts as i keep hearing this often.
I for one don't care if someone is gracious or not in their victories and defeats. every1 has their own way of celebrating/consoling and i like to see emotions on the court.

Posted by Dale C. A. 04/21/2010 at 02:47 PM

oh Steve, everytime you write things like these about Rafa, never fails to make me cry
thank you so much :-)

Posted by Jamesss 04/21/2010 at 03:02 PM

Nam1, I don't think Nadal's way of denying his opponent the win by retiring midmatch is that graceful either...


Posted by Rafur 04/21/2010 at 03:17 PM

Steve, brilliant as usual, so glad you like Nadal.
Jamesss @03:02pm Remember at Rotterdam 2009, Nadal Murray Final; Nadal played 3rd Set virtually on 1 leg. He could have retired much earlier.

Posted by manuelsantanafan 04/21/2010 at 03:26 PM


I suggest that you consult the appropriate ATP rulebook.

When Rafa retires "midmatch," he DOES NOT deny his opponent a win.

The opponent is credited with the win, as is reflected in official ATP records.

Now, if you believe that "deny" is synonymous with "credited with," you may want to refer to a dictionary or, in your case, a dicktionary.

Posted by Jamesss 04/21/2010 at 03:56 PM

Getting a bit testy, are we?


Posted by SR 04/21/2010 at 04:08 PM

Great piece, Steve. Getting seriously jazzed for the French. So much energy for Rafa in the air right now! Just read this piece on SI which was also a lovely take on Rafa, the clay-court season and his rivalry with Fed.

Posted by Ashkelon 04/21/2010 at 04:58 PM

When, where, and how will we call BS on the women's game, which is a disgrace? Most particularly, I think the women's game has been far more ruined (in the long-term) than it has been helped by the Williams sisters. They both exemplify selfishness and the antithesis of "the tour". The WTA is rotten product.

Posted by Master Ace 04/21/2010 at 05:49 PM

Steve has posted another thread that basically continues the discussion from this thread

Posted by Nam1 04/21/2010 at 08:04 PM

The SI article was lovely, if somewhat obvious for anyone who watches tennis regularly.

Posted by TennisFan 04/22/2010 at 12:38 AM

Rafa is a master of clay when he is confident. He plays such high percentage (he seems to hit 10 ft above the net, yet with such power) and can run from anywhere to anywhere, sometimes you wonder how someone can win even a single point against him.

I am a Fed fan and know that Fed's work would be cut out for him. Yesterday i was watching an old Rome final which Fed lost 7-5 in 5th set tiebreaker which reminded me that Fed's no slouch either. But Rafa is as close to unbeatable on French clay as one can be.

Hoping for an exciting final this year. Hope Fed has a better scoreline than Verdasco :-).

Posted by reckoner 04/22/2010 at 06:15 AM

so so SO late to this discussion... (still recovering from 2 days ago perhaps)

but the bottom line on lendl vs mcenroe is that lendl is far and away the superior player w/ the superior career and record, and any tennis purist will tell you just that

mcenroe may have been more popular in america and at times a more intriguing figure to watch b/c of the volatility of his temper and his style of play (he weilded his dunlop like a wizard using a wand), but it was lendl who, in retrospect, was the more intriguing figure due to entirely different circumstances, bringing a new level of fitness and a bludgeoning ground game that would lay the template to modern tennis and, ultimately, pushed the entire sport forward

Posted by Geellis 04/22/2010 at 04:05 PM

@Freddy: the idea that Borg was so fast based upon an idea of his besting the Swedish sprinters is.......funny. I don't recall the Swedish sprinters ever winning an olympic medal, so I'm not sure that says much. Moreover, pulse rate (otherwise known as heart rate or, more technically, VO2 max) relates more to endurance and not speed. I just say again, watch the video. It's obvious. I don't care how many of you older guys try to say it, I cannot except that he was as fast as the fastest players today because, again, the balls were just not moving as fast. Again, there's a reason it looks like they're playing in slow motion in the 70's. Cause they were.

I guess I'm just not that bright. Listen dude. The game has changed/evolved. You don't come close to specifically responding to all of the points I make about he evolution of the game. Moreover, I didn't just say that height, size equals quality. However, there's a reason we've never seen a repeat of a Laver sized person being number one over the past 20 years? Not even close. It's clear that, today, to be the best player, you need to be no less than about 6'1" to be at the top of the game. But, Mr. Santanafan, you hold your breath waiting for another player at 5'8" who will achieve even a single GS (w/the exception of the French) in the future. It's sadly not likely to occur.

As for Laver beating taller players, you've skipped over other aspects of my post. For example, I said it indicates the limited nature of the talent pool that Laver, at his stature, was able to dominate his era. Sorry, he could not do so today. Not close. He couldn't do it today because size, strength, speed (or court coverage) are bigger factors in today's game than they were in the game during Laver's time. That was the heart of the serve/volley tennis era. You served, rushed the net, and the point was over. That game would lose today. Therefore, Laver would have to rely upon other skills where his stature would act as a limitation. Perhaps I should make a slightly more nuanced point that, if today's players had to play with yesteryears' rackets, that Laver might have a chance to compete (no way dominate, he's just too small/weak comparatively). However, there's equally no question, that if Laver is forced to play with modern equipment, he gets waxed. Not just loses, he doesn't win a game and maybe even loses to Serena.

Posted by Geellis 04/22/2010 at 04:21 PM

are you kidding. In the 20s and 30s you had the reigning title holder at a GS waiting to play the other person who made it through the draw. Are you seriously comparing the skill sets of the players from the 20s and 30s(Tilden, the four musketeers, Budge etc.) with the skills of players today. The evolution of the athlete in that time is enormous. The impact of money on the game, is enormous. Just look at the speeds in the 100M or the marathon to see how training has impacted sport in that time. Again, if you simply took the number one player from, say 1930, and gave him a new racket and strings (making sure he knows/understands how those things impact how he'll have to play), he gets KILLED by Roger Federer. Not only has the game evolved. More importantly the entire science and training that is sport today means our modern athlete is just light years better than those from that time. Add to that the globalization of the talent pool and you've got a much tougher road for a player to become the best today than you did in the 20s. In the 20s/30s remember, it was an amateur sport. No longer today (Wimbledon this year will award $1.54M to the winner). And that money matters. It matters hugely to the level of competition and the quality of athlete (many of whom, Like Nadal, could have been great athletes in other sports). That's just part of the reason the modern tennis star kills the tennis stars from not only the 20s/30s but from Laver's day as well. Sorry to attack some of you folks' heroes, it's just the nature of sport. Athletes get bigger, stronger faster. It doesn't necessarily result in a more aesthetically pleasing game. However, the best amongst the modern tennis players would simply kill the best amongst their ancient ancestors.

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