Concrete Elbow by Steve Tignor - Thinking and Seeing Doha
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Thinking and Seeing Doha 10/27/2010 - 6:56 PM

Ss The WTA Championships does represent a lost opportunity. Its stands aren’t full and its players aren’t the ones we would ideally like to see. A few of them, namely Jelena Jankovic and Elena Dementieva, don’t even seem to want to be there themselves. But maybe it’s just me, maybe I’m a sucker for marketing design, but when I see the purple and green set-up with the usual logos around the court in Doha, I’m hooked.

I’ve kept my eye on that purple and green in the corner of my computer screen for much of the last two days. You have to: Blink and you’d have missed three or four of the matches entirely. But whatever the results or the quality of competition or the motivation of the players, the variety of points and plays and people in a tennis match will always give you something to think about, or, better, to see. Here are few of the things that I’ve thought about and seen this week.

***

Caroline Wozniacki lost to Sam Stosur Wednesday. Maybe it was rust on Wozniacki's part, but it seemed more like great hitting from the Aussie—as much as we love to see craft in tennis, it’s pretty much helpless in the face of power. If you can only learn one, go with the latter.

Still, Wozniacki is proving to be a player—like, yeah, you know who, the ATP’s current No. 1—who bears repeated viewing. You see things in her game that you didn’t notice the first or second or third time around. Today, for me, it was her method of retrieving a drop shot. To run forward as fast as you can, get the ball over the net and down into the court, and avoid having it smacked back in your face by your opponent is an athletic maneuver of the first order. Wozniacki solved the problem on her forehand side by simply and smoothly rolling over the ball, the same way she does with all of her forehands. This brings the ball up and down and gives it a little forward-kicking spin in the process. Like everything else she does, it also has the virtue of being easily repeatable and not very risky (yes, that’s a virtue, not a vice). Looked at in the right way, the relaxed, automatic quality of Wozniacki’s game begins to seem  hypnotic rather than dull.

***

Jelena Jankovic made a bad error today when she had a break point against Kim Clijsters. The match was hardly over, but Jankovic and her mother looked at each other and started to laugh. JJ seems to have come to Doha to pick up a check and little else, but the fact doesn't have to be made quite that obvious.

Jelena made up for some of it, at least in my mind, a game or so later, when she lofted up a forehand moonball that landed near the sideline and just past the service line. Maybe it was because it was a change from a normal rally shot. Maybe it was because it was a night match and you could imagine the ball against the dark sky. Maybe seeing a ball make a long, high arc just appeals to something in us—watching them is one of the great appeals of golf. Whatever the reason, it was a beautiful thing to see. I have no idea whether she won the point.

***

Most of the commenters here seem to be anti-coaching. You’re purists, I suppose. Like you, I appreciate how resourceful tennis forces a player to be. But I'm also in favor of coaching. I think it could make more matches more competitive. And, as someone who has been coached on a court and still lost, I also know that the purity of the game wouldn't be compromised as much as you might think: You still have to go out and do it yourself. Ask Victoria Azarenka. After getting a pep talk at 4-5 in the second set of her match with Vera Zvonareva Wednesday, she won the first point with a forceful backhand. She looked reenergized. Then she missed an easy forehand. She looked utterly deflated. Azarenka, who lost the game, had swung between these two poles for the whole match, and her coach—who, by the way, is already allowed to give her advice every minute of the day that she’s not playing a match—couldn’t help her with it.

I’ve read recently that seeing coaches run out to give the players advice on the changeovers makes the women look weak, especially since the coaches are almost always men. All I can say is that the thought never crossed my mind. Athletes have coaches.

One more thing on Azarenka: I confess that I smiled when I saw her try to slap herself in the face after an error today. Not because I want to see her beat herself up or emote, but just because in doing it she appeared to be acting out the words we all think so often—how could I do that?

***

The old-timers, like myself, mourn lost arts like the lob and the slice, but I don’t hear much talk about how, in the last 20 years, we’ve gained the swing volley, especially on the women’s side. The shot is usually couched in negative terms—“no one knows how to hit a real volley anymore, so they just swing at it.” There’s some truth there, but that doesn’t mean we can’t appreciate the fantastic athleticism and timing that’s needed to run forward, get your body set and balanced, take the ball out of the air and above shoulder-height with a full cut, and drill it for a blatant and opponent-demoralizing winner. Have you ever tried to hit a swing volley? When I try, I’m not even sure how to begin.

***

I caught Sam Stosur live in Paris this spring when she was at the height of her powers. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen anyone make hitting a winning shot look more rudimentary, as if there was absolutely nothing to it. She didn’t even bother hitting the ball close to the lines. There’s been a little of that forcefulness in her two wins in Doha. What I liked most, though, was seeing her face go from being clouded with confusion during the first four games against Schiavone, to clear and purposeful—she was almost high-stepping around the court to collect the balls from the ball kids—by the end of her win over Wozniacki. Stosur's sunglass-less eyes said it all: Sometimes good things do happen.


 
41
Comments
 

Posted by wilson75 10/27/2010 at 08:01 PM

Steve: Even though Venus and Serena are not their I'm enjoying the tournament. I agree the first to matches weren't good but the Stosur-Schiavone match was entertaining as well as the last two today.

Re. On-court coaching, I'm against it and it seemed to have a negative effect on Wozniacki in her match today. Oh, I like to the purple and green too.

Posted by tommy 10/27/2010 at 08:04 PM

The WTA set up a good Thursday with Wozniacki-Schiavone then Clijsters-Azarenka. In round robin, this is as close to single elimination as we can get.

If Stosur, Wozniacki, Clijsters and Zvonareva make the semis, it should be a good weekend.

Posted by Dunlop Maxply 10/27/2010 at 08:45 PM

There may have been another "amateur era" justification for the no coaching rule, but for me the major support for it is to keep parents off of the court in Junior matches.

Once you are an adult, it does not matter much. Having been able to sit with a coach all through college matches (and of course, when playing dubs you get to talk to your partner as much as you want). I can also testify it does not affect the outcome, really.

Of course, there is also a sound argument that coaching ought to be limited to competitions where both competitors have a coach.

Posted by Northernboy 10/27/2010 at 09:35 PM

Right on about the swinging volley Steve - as a comp 5.0 player I know it can make the difference between an endless, punishing baseline rally and finishing a point on your terms - ask Maria Sharapova and Robin Soderling what they were missing when they lost winnable matches at Roland Garros this year.

The swinging volley is an exceptionally difficult shot to hit. No one hits it better than Serena Williams I have to say. The weight of the ball falling out of the sky and the fact you have to provide all of your own pace makes it almost impossible to judge the appropriate depth - more often than not it gets netted or sails long. I actually think it's easier to hit a backhand swinging volley than a FH, but both Serena and Sharapova are great at them. Despite Maria being 6'2", she almost never hits a smash.

Posted by Bobby C. 10/27/2010 at 09:38 PM

Steve, I really enjoy your notes pieces. They're bite-size chunks of goodness, you know? Especially enjoyed the bits on on-court coaching and the swing volley. It was tough to choose a favorite line (there were quite a few good ones as usual), but I'll go with this: "I have no idea whether she won the point."

Posted by freddy 10/27/2010 at 09:38 PM

"As much as we love to see craft in tennis, it’s pretty much helpless in the face of power. If you can only learn one, go with the latter."

Too true, unfortunately. Best example - Martina Hingis. I loved her game and court craft, and she was good enough hang in with the power players, but eventually one of them would get her...

Posted by Dan 10/27/2010 at 10:03 PM

"...and Robin Soderling what they were missing when they lost WINNABLE matches at Roland Garros this year". LOL!

Posted by pov 10/27/2010 at 10:03 PM

With the exception of Dementieva and Jankovic( Because of the way they're playing" I'm more than happy watching these players.

Posted by Pierric Bross 10/27/2010 at 10:08 PM

Stosur's forehand is beautiful. It blasts through the court and is so accurate when she's confeedent. Seeing players like Henin and Serena avoiding her forehand like the plague during the French was awe-inspiring and the reason she's one of my favourite players. It's great that she's picked up her form again.

It's amazing to watch. :)

Posted by skip1515 10/27/2010 at 10:13 PM

Love the purple and green, too, but it's been done before. http://tinyurl.com/26rfk4r

Posted by Aussiemarg,Madame President.Yes Indeed I am A One Woman Show 10/27/2010 at 11:09 PM

Steve Thanks

Well I am eating Humble Pie.I thought Stosur was just making up the numbers at Doha after 3 disaster hard court tournaments before this one.

I was impressed how she came back in her game against Fran and won in straight sets.Though even more proud how she defeated Caroline in straight sets.She remained aggressive and her kicker serve was a high light of her game.The spin and slice of Stosur works well on this med pace hard court.Her one two punch works time and time again.Even when she had b/points against her she stayed calm.Good to see.I hope she continues in the same vein in this tournament.Time will only tell.

Posted by TMman 10/27/2010 at 11:37 PM

@skip1515: yeah, barney did it too

Posted by tennyrunners 10/28/2010 at 01:29 AM

Steve...

Great thoughts. All of them.

In watching Wozniacki today, I realized that she can hit the ball really really hard if she wants to. It sort of highlighted why her rise to #1 has been a bit brilliant. She did it being comfortable, and only taking out the big guns when she needed to. But I think she needs to work on the aim of her big guns a bit more.

Stosur was so impressive today. After playing like that, she seems under-ranked. Maybe she can right that ship this week. Stosur seemed like the angler fish today, and Caro bit the shining light.

Posted by cortomaltes 10/28/2010 at 03:04 AM

Steve, thanks for your thoughts.

In my mind, the fact that tennis players are (were) not allowed to talk to their coaches during a match greatly contributes to the epic of the game. Tennis is the one sport in which players can go on for five hours, maybe more, while not being allowed to speak to anyone. Although I agree with you in that a pep talk during a changeover might not do much of anything, it might help a player to express his/her frustrations out loud and to some extent vent off. And that, at least in my case, sometimes makes a difference.

And yes, those comments about women looking weaker because of the advice they receive from coaches during changeovers do not make any sense.

On a different note, Jankovic's attitude is almost disrespectful, not to her opponents but to the game itself. She could be very good (her second set yesterday was not bad, I thought) but it looks like she does not have the fire in her.

Incidentally, Northernboy, you are delusional. Robin Soderling did not loose a winnable match at Roland Garros this year. Not even close.

Posted by Thomas Christiansen 10/28/2010 at 03:54 AM

Good points Steve, if Sammy keeps this up she'll reach the final!

I hope Caro takes out Fran tonight :-)

Posted by Blake 10/28/2010 at 04:28 AM

Really wish JJ hadn't shown up. It seems very apparently she's not in good shape to play, doesn't have the desire, and may also have a litany of illnesses. Why didn't she do the honorable thing and step aside for someone who would have killed to be a part of the tournament - like Li Na?

Posted by M.J. 10/28/2010 at 06:59 AM

The most destructive I've ever seen Stosur's forehand was in Charleston; she consistently shrunk the court on Zvonareva, blowing the ball past her nowhere near the line. It was almost ruthless for a set and a half because Zvonareva couldn't find Stosur's backhand, it was just bang bang bang, forehand winner after forehand winner.

Blake, I agree about Jankovic, she didn't need the money that bad, so if she couldn't compete, or didn't care to, then she should've stayed at home.

Pierric Bross, I'm sure Serena and Henin respect that shot, but you're making it seem like they fear Stosur, and I don't believe legendary champions of their caliber are afraid of anyone or anyone's game.

Posted by london2018 10/28/2010 at 07:35 AM

For me the main difference in yesterday's match between SS and Woz was in their styles: attacking against defensive. Woz was defending all the time and never she had a chance (or just could not because it is not how she plays) to counterattack. And against the players with big muscle power you lose at the end of the day. Yesterday I just clearly saw it - Woz did not attack, the question for me - can she?

Posted by wilson75 10/28/2010 at 07:41 AM

london: That's why I disagree with Steve when he says Caro reminds him of Rafa. She's more like Murray IMO.

Posted by Master Ace 10/28/2010 at 08:42 AM

London2018,
I have seen Caroline attack before in her matches but Samantha did not allow it as she dictated play and as Aussiemarg stated in the past, if her serve(especially kicker) is on, her forehand is lethal.

Posted by for the love of sport 10/28/2010 at 08:57 AM

I DO love you Steve Tignor...if you could have played tennis as well as you write about it, we might just have dispensed with all the who's-the-greatest-ever debates that we are plagued with :-)

Posted by Babe 10/28/2010 at 09:15 AM

"london: That's why I disagree with Steve when he says Caro reminds him of Rafa. She's more like Murray IMO."

ICAM, wilson75--the comparison to Rafa made little sense to me too.

Posted by Brany 10/28/2010 at 09:21 AM

Honestly Stosur has the best shot at winning this besides Clijsters. Her game is strong all around, fantastic serve, powerful forehand, beautiful slice backhand. If there's anything she needs to improve is her mental toughness/confidence. With a game like hers she can truly win any slam.

Posted by Andrew 10/28/2010 at 10:27 AM

wilson75: yes, Wozniacki's game more resembles Murray's -if you take away all the shot variation. Which sorta makes me despair.

Steve is in the front rank of tennis writers I enjoy reading, and I take him at his word that he's getting something out of watching these matches. But then you see something like "[t]he old-timers, like myself, mourn lost arts like the lob and the slice," and I think "Hey, what lost art???" Murray, Federer and Nadal slice the heck out of the ball. So does Roddick, etc. Lobs - many ATP matches see a DS-lob combination.

I know I'm being a curmudgeon about this (and to a certain extent monomaniacal), but the WTA has abandoned whole rooms in the house of tennis. How many of the players at Doha this week approach the net with confidence? Stosur, Schiavone and...er.... that's it, I think. Is it too much to ask that the eight players representing the WTA be technically competent (not necessarily outstanding) in all the basic shots in tennis? For the last decade, I think it has. And some of that comes from the choice that's been made about power - all the players have to be able to hit with power, all of them are superb athletes - but the finesse and all around craft aspect of the game have gone missing, IMV.

The ATP has been able to combine power with craft. There are different varieties of it, and different balances: the power baseline game is the dominant version, but within that basic framework there are lots of different styles, and players use the whole of the court and vary height, pace, spin and trajectories to coax errors or set up winning positions. Once in a while, you get a Schiavone-Stosur match where this is also the case, and it's a joy - but also a reminder of how rare it seems today.

/rant

Posted by weak4.0player 10/28/2010 at 10:27 AM

Just say NO to coaching during matches. Team competitions are different; it's called "singles" for a reason.

Even if the coaching doesn't change the outcome of the match, it injects a 3rd (or 4th) party into a contest between two opponents.

My 2¢.

Posted by Suresh R 10/28/2010 at 10:35 AM

Steve, I watched the Vera - Victoria match live at the stadium last night. In the pre-match interview, Vera clearly took the lead saying she is very comfortable playing in the heat and humidity of Doha. And so it was ! Even when Victoria was in the lead in both sets, she looked more tired than Vera and we could sense that Vera would always come back. Her pre-match comment was backed solidly by on-court performance. A strong case of a player stepping onto the court with a 1 set lead in her mind. Gives a real boost !!

Posted by Kimeron 10/28/2010 at 10:59 AM

On court coaching should be banned because the players appear mentally weak and become mentally weak. Its your job as an athlete to figure ut how to win. HAving a coach come oncourt to tell you what to do is pathetic. Thats why the players struggle in majors. In a major there is no coaching so these girls cannot figure out what to do when the match is tough because throughout the year they don't have to since their coach does it. Thats why there is not competitiveness at majors for Serena and more. For example Serena came back from 6-4, 4-0 against Azarenka in AO QF. If Serena was one of the girls who took oncourt coaching she would not have made a comeback. Had Azarenka on the other hand made to think for herself on court during the year she would have figured out what to do to close the match out. But instead she crumbled. (If your going toe to toe power tennis isn't working it's your JOB to figure out look: maybe I need to take some pace off, get more depth and spin on the ball and possibly attack the net). Thats what great players do.
Wozniacki is not a real no.1 because when her oponent is playing lights out tennis she has no idea how to turn things around. 2 eg. Kivitova Wimbledon 6-2,6-0 and Stosur SEC 6-4, 6-3.. commonsence should tell wozniacki to attack Stosur backhand alone

Posted by M.J. 10/28/2010 at 11:19 AM

Kimeron, I'm inclined to agree about Woz. I take nothing away from what's she's accomplished, but what I take issue is with her performance in majors this year. No #1 or major champion will win every match or every major they play, but it's also important how one loses. Look at Serena and Henin this year for examples. Serena as #1 lost in one of the three majors in which she played, but in that match she had a match point and lost 8-6 in the 3rd. Henin lost in the AO final in 3 sets, in the 4th round of the French Open in 3 sets, and in the 4th round of Wimbledon in 3 sets (after injuring herself). But Wozniacki has been blown out the door in straight sets at all 4 majors this year, only making it really far at the US Open. And when have you ever seen the likes of Serena, Henin or Venus as long-term #1s and champions gutted at a major 2 & 0?

Posted by Account Deleted 10/28/2010 at 12:14 PM

Steve,

Have you followed the "weird" betting patterns in some matches in recent weeks? Namely Tipsarevic-Zeballos match last week and Tursunov-Przysiezny match this week; both in Russia. I would be delighted to know one of the biggest internet sources in tennis is not just ignoring the situation as I have not seen anything being reported or acknowledged here in the blogs or the news (or maybe I missed it)

Posted by gabos 10/28/2010 at 12:48 PM

If coaching "could make more matches more competitive" then coaching changes the game, taking away the uniquely solitary and self-reliant nature of singles tennis, and shouldn't be used.

If "the purity of the game wouldn't be compromised [...] You still have to go out and do it yourself" then coaching isn't very useful, and shouldn't be used.

True, "athletes have coaches"... except in tennis, during actual play. That is one of the truly beautiful things about tennis, and "could make matches more competitive" is not a very compelling reason to change that.

Posted by gabos 10/28/2010 at 01:13 PM

BTW, on the subject of "athletes have coaches," coaching is also prohibited during match play in squash, racquetball (under some rule variants), beach volleyball (olympic style), billiards/pool... and probably a number of other solo or two-person sports. "Athletes" do have coaches, but sometimes a sport benefits if coaching is restricted to before and after the actual match. So tennis is not actually unique in this regard-- it's just much, much better for it.

Posted by Tallboyslim 10/28/2010 at 01:29 PM

Nice writing Steve. Couple of thoughts..
1.) I had noticed an increased number of posts from you before you mentioned that the nature of your job had changed. Being a skeptic I said to myself " I hope more writing from Steve Tignor doesn't mean the quality also goes down". Well I am glad that so far, I enjoy your columns as much as before. So am happy that quantity has not compromised quality. Kudos to you.

2.) Power overpowering craft:- You could have seen that in Federer's loss to the Sod at the French Open too. I agree outright power will always overwhelm the craft. However, how often can you consistently play on full power ? That is why Fed and Nadal have consistent results. They will take the occasional loss to a power game, but overall they rule !

3.) I am an anti-coaching proponent too. If it doesn't change anything why add another variable. Other spots and athletics are so different its unfair to compare it to Tennis. And the fact that other sports and games have coaching is no argument to have it for Tennis too. The worst argument in my opinion is "...to make it more competitive...". I don't understand what that means. What I get from that statement is that Tennis is all physical. If a gifted player who is not mentally strong enough is losing matches, then having a coach during the game will help him. I say that is unfair. Tennis is as much about the mind as it is about the athleticism and ball-hitting skills. You can't rule with one. You need both.

Well all that is IMHO.

Posted by pogiako 10/28/2010 at 01:37 PM

I think we have to start appreciating the WTA players without the Williams. Eventually those 2 will be retiring and tennis will still be played. We should just be happy what in the menu right now because these 8 players have fought their hearts out for the whole season.

Posted by CHARLENE 10/28/2010 at 01:54 PM

The only four women I would love to see in the end are Kim Samantha Vera and Victoria. To me these are the top 4 women in this tournament. I would like to see Vera reach No. 1 and take it from Wozniacki because I don't think she deserves it. Though Vera has not one a Major, she at least made it to 2 Major Finals where she ended up being the runner-up. Wozniacki has only made one Major Final and that was 2009 US Open where Kim Clijsters handled her well after all that time off!!! These 4 women can easily beat Wozniacki when they are at the top of their game (including if Wozniacki is at the top of her game). Go Top 4 Women in this tournament in my opinion!! It is never a dull moment watching them. And my 5th pick is Schiavone!! She isi brutal when she is confident. She is another player that I feel Wozniacki cannot beat if they are both playing at the top of their games.!!!

Posted by Hmmm 10/28/2010 at 04:38 PM

Just to let everyone know: They say Caro's fate for the semis depends on how Elana Dementiava does tomorrow.

If Elana wins, their match count will be tied 2-1 each.

If Elana wins in strait sets, their total set count will be tied 4-3 each.

But even if Elana wins 6-0, 6-0 against Shiavoni, Elana's win-loss percentage is still only 52.54% to Caro's 60.71%. Caro would be 34-22 and Elana would be 31-28.

So, Caro is definetly the number 2 for the Maroon group.

Posted by The thinker 10/28/2010 at 04:44 PM

I don't understand why the Wozniacki critics and in some case haters always compare Caroline's results both alltime and this year against Clijsters and Serena but never seem to think about the age difference. Clijsters and Serena are 27 and 29 years-old. Caroline is just 20, you really can't expect that she has the same experience playing the majors here in 2010, but just wait her time will come, that I'm getting more and more sure of seeing her play better and better here in 2010. By the way nice win to here tonight against Schiavone which secure that she is finishing the year as number 1

Posted by Ruth 10/28/2010 at 07:07 PM

"She [Schiavone] is another player that I feel Wozniacki cannot beat if they are both playing at the top of their games.!!!"

Well, so much for that thought! I think that Frannie was playing the best she could for the whole match, but Wozniacki was just too good for her today.

There's probably only one player in the WTA who, playing her best against any other player's best, will come out the winner every -- or almost every -- time. That player is not Caroline at present, but I could see Caroline becoming that player in the future.

Posted by Jankofan 10/29/2010 at 04:08 AM

Charlene - your are way off - Vera has only ONE win all year, it is absolutely ridiculous to argue that Vera deserves to be No. 1.

Posted by Jankofan 10/29/2010 at 04:13 AM

Charlene - you will get more respect if you saíd Kim deserves to be No. 1 - but Vera - come on!

Btw. I absolutely loves to watch Sam play when she's at her best, but you never knows what happens next game.

Posted by Thomas Christiansen 10/29/2010 at 06:43 AM

"Charlene - your are way off - Vera has only ONE win all year, it is absolutely ridiculous to argue that Vera deserves to be No. 1."

I was about to write the exact same!

Vera won Pattaya - 1 international event...
Caro won 6 titles - 2 international and 4 premier events. Including 2 Premier 5 and 1 Premier Mandatory!

Yes, Vera reached 2 slam finals, but she didn't win any. Besides she lost in the 2nd round of the French. Caro reached at least 4th round in all the majors.

Posted by Jon 10/29/2010 at 10:36 PM

On-court coaching may make the women look weak to some not because their coaches are predominantly men, but because the male players don't have that option to receive some words mid-match. At least not legally.

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