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Hitting All the High Notes 09/02/2009 - 9:57 PM

90309964 by Pete Bodo

Moments after Vania King shocked Slammin' Sammy Stosur on the Grandstand court at the US Open late this afternoon, a dozen teen-aged boys began to leap around, waving their arms, calling out, "Vania, Vania!" She glanced their way, and one shouted, "Wristband!" Whereupon King swiftly peeled off the damp terry sleeve and casually tossed it toward the forest of upraised arms - landing the wristband right in the hand of the kid who had called for it.

It was that kind of day for Vania King.

I had no intention of watching this match, and stumbled on it only because I was expecting to find Lleyton Hewitt and Juan Ignacio Chela having at it like a pair of junkyard dogs. But when I saw that King had taken the first set, 7-5, despite Stosur's painfully obvious advantage in height and power, I decided to stick around - just in case things got interesting. Tennis is a game awash in "small" players lurking in the weeds, ready to deploy mental strength and tenacity to overcome the realities of physique and even talent. Hewitt, in fact, wrote the book on that score.

Stosur, enjoying the greatest extended run of her career, was riding her career-high ranking of no. 15 and, of even greater concern to King, hitting the crap out of the ball. If you haven't seen her lately, Stosur, who's 5-7 and 143 lbs., has become quite a physical specimen - sculpted hard, but not ripped to the point where she looks like a sack stuffed full of walnuts. There's a thickness and solidity in every inch of her; her skin appears taut as the skin of a snare drum. Her quads are substantial, as befits a player who enjoys serving and volleying, but she falls just short of stocky, which is the point where muscles can begin to work against the finer skills required of a player.

Usually, Stosur plays in shorts, so when her skirt flew up today, you could see thick bands of pale skin above the tan line on either leg. There's a little bit of Martina Navratilova in Stosur these days,from the obvious fruits of her dedication to the puzzling lack of confidence and consistency that remain a part of her entire package (it's the bit that rattles around when you shake the box). For Stosur's story is that of a conspicuously gifted player who, until recently, spent as much time pulling it all apart, mentally, as she did putting it all together, physically.

At times during the match, I was struck by Stosur's, well, bigness. . . She cuts an impressive figure on the court and perhaps more important, creates the impression that she's all business. That suggests a degree of focus and discipline that any player can fake at specific moments in a match, but only the authentically and clearly determined players can project over the course of an entire match. It's one of the reasons that a loss like the one Stosur suffered today can be devastating, but becoming impervious to such setbacks is yet another small figurine in the champion's Matryoshka.

It was evident straightaway that Stosur had her work cut out for her in the second set. King is an articulate, clever girl who plays articulate, clever tennis. A good sense of the court's strategic possibilities and nimble feet are a tennis-playing girl's best friend even when, like King, she's in no danger of bumping her head on a door frame - except perhaps the door of a gingerbread house. King is a diminutive 5-5, and gave away at least 30 pounds to Stosur, although we'll never get a precise figure - at least in this area,  many WTA stars are girls first, tennis players second.

But despite her disadvantage, or perhaps because of it, King also cut a striking figure. While her face can be animated and mobile, her expression throughout the match was stony. Her posture was terrific; she walked with firm, purposeful steps, shoulders flung back, head held high. It may be impolite to compare a fine young lady to a canine, but the wonderful thing about small dogs is that they don't know they're small, which is about how King played today.

The terms of engagement were obvious in the first few games of the second set. Stosur was running around her backhand, bent on walloping forehands that would back up King, transform her from pit bull into golden retriever. King held her ground near or inside the baseline as much as she was able, determined not to give an inch, waiting for just the right moment to turn the tables and find an opening on Stosur's backhand side.

"In whole match, I tried to focus on being aggressive," King would say later. "I didn't feel comfortable the whole match because she's so strong, always giving you a different shot to look at. So I had to really focus on going for my shots, because I knew that if I were passive, for she for sure was going to dictate."

Well, well, well, I thought, after watching the first few games of the second set, Here are two women actually playing high-risk, high-quality tennis.

It was certainly encouraging to watch Stosur serve like her gender had nothing to do with it, and mildly surprising to watch King more-or-less match her - at least in terms of that critical willingness to use the delivery for something more than kick-starting a rally. Alas, there's only so much you can do when you're 5-foot-5, even when your heart is in the right place.

"I'd served for the first set three times, and that was tough," King would say later. "Sometimes I'd be looking at the radar gun and then I started trying not to look, because it was kind of depressing. Sam was serving at least 20 miles per hour faster than I was, so I knew on my serve I had to be consistent, try to get the first one in."

The first break points of the second set materialized in the fourth game, when King fell behind 15-40. But she survived both - the latter with a bold attack punctuated with a winning forehand volley. She went on to win the game, and I thought: Great hold. The next few games were holds as well, with Stosur battering away but King giving not an inch. My notebook says, King weathering the storm well. . .

Stosur served at 3-all, and wiped away a break point with a stinging body serve that King fielded badly, probably because she had to duck behind he racquet to dodge a direct hit. Stosur followed that with a 117 mph ace, yet King continued to pursue a policy of aggressive resistance, scratching and digging for Stosur's backhand as single-mindedly as a badger. She found that weaker wing at deuce, and scored the break when Stosur double-faulted.

90309494 Stosur broke right back behind a massive, swinging forehand volley; it was the kind of bounce-back that shook my faith in King, for the woeful tale of the underdog who had a match in the palm of his or her hand, only to allow it to slip away, is tennis's equivalent of the cinema's tear-jerker. No matter how often you see it, you still can't help but cry. And it was at just that point that King put the stamp of authenticity on her upset. A precise passing shot here, a sneak attack on the net there, a crisp backhand to force a volley error at break point and King had another break.

Although King won the first two points serving for the match, Stosur reeled off the next three (two of them via King groundstroke errors) to give Stosur a last breath of hope. After a brief rally, Stosur pulled the trigger on yet another atomic forehand; it was the right time but it landed in the wrong place, just outside King's forehand corner. One point later, King chose to attack and won the match at the net, on the second volley she hit. I liked her explanation for why she chose to attack:

"I'd tried a serve and volley earlier, and kind of knew that if I served to the backhand, she would slice the return cross-court (the safer shot) most of the time. So I thought: On a big point like this, she probably won't go for anything spectacular. . .so I'd have a chance to go for a shot. And I knew that if I went to the net, it would make me be aggressive, no matter what. And it worked."

That comment was representative of the match, which offered much in the way of nuance and color. Since I haven't exactly been obsessed with Vania King in her four-year career, I wondered if she was always so composed and pulled together - if she competed nearly as well in most of her matches. After all, this is the first time King's gone beyond the second round at a major - and she's only in the draw because she was awarded a wild card (ranked no. 107 at entry time, she missed the cut-off by two places). Was she always so mentally strong?

"Mentally?" King paused, and laughed as something crossed her mind. "Actually, I beat Sybille Bammer in the first round in Los Angeles. It was a solid match. But then I lost to (Ana) Ivanovic. That one was close; I won the second set, and I was up a break at the start of the third, but.  . . I lost it a little, mentally, so I ended up losing. A few days ago, my coach (Erwann Leridant,  who works with King alongside Tarik Benhabiles) told me: I don't want to see you losing it mentally in the next match, no matter what. . ."

King took his stern warning to heart, and it showed in the set of her jaw and the poise with which she weathered the storm. But the moment she won the match, King's face lit up and she resumed being a gregarious, smart (perhaps too smart - part of her problem last year was a lack of motivation), shrewd girl. As many of you know, King sang American the Beautiful live and acappella on Arthur Ashe stadium before Andre Agassi played Marcos Baghdatis at this tournament in 2006, and she also sang the national anthem before a Los Angeles Dodgers baseball game.

Yesterday, on the grandstand, she hit all the high notes in her best performance yet.

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Posted by GVGirl- USO Tailgate 9/5 09/02/2009 at 10:03 PM


Nice one Pete. Talk about a boost of confidence for Vania.

Posted by Master Ace 09/02/2009 at 10:04 PM

Vania outplayed Samantha in all aspects of the match today by mixing up her patterns of play and the most important thing was she was able to handle Samantha return easily and early. More later.

Posted by jhurwi 09/02/2009 at 10:17 PM

Didn't see this match, but that's the way Stosur played losing to Vesnina at the Pilot Pen, so I'm not too surprised. And I agree that Stosur's muscles are amazing!

Posted by Master Ace 09/02/2009 at 10:21 PM

Monday - Sania Mirza and Somdev Devvarman
Tuesday - Jesse Witten
Wednesday Day - Fernando Gonzalez and Nicolas Massu
Wednesday Evening - Vania King

The good stories of week 1 continues along with Steve Tignor's on Concrete Elbow. 2 of them had an American theme.

Posted by Samantha Elin, awaiting the return of Justine. 09/02/2009 at 10:29 PM

Great article Pete, this was a different Vania then I remember at the Fed cup where she had so many problems. Part of Stosur's problem is that she over played leading up the USO, but all credit to Vania for her great play. Go Caro, Scandinavia's#1!

Posted by Master Ace 09/02/2009 at 10:51 PM

Samantha Elin,
I do not think it was over playing by Samantha. Lets give credit to Vania for outthinking her and executing her game plan.

Posted by Jenn 09/02/2009 at 11:34 PM

Great description of this match. I would have loved to be on the Grandstand watching, particularly as an unheralded American gets such a good result. I was rooting for Stosur because she was my SP pick... oh well! I hope King can keep it up.

I love to hear players who have such a clear, intelligent analysis of matches and their own play/strategy, particularly in the women's game when it often seems like players are not thinking enough about strategy.

Based on Stosur's performance in the first round, and then this performance, I get the feeling that she is really suffering from the weight of expectations, perhaps for the first time in her career (at least coming into a GS). That is to take nothing away from Vania King's performance. But I hope this will be a good learning experience for Stosur and she can rebound and move inside the Top 10 soon.

Posted by Miguel Seabra 09/02/2009 at 11:49 PM

King of Queens?

I did commentary on that match and was highly impressed how well Vania played tactically to Sam Stosur's backhand, then her forehand -- mixing it up with effective forays to the net!

Posted by Arun 09/02/2009 at 11:58 PM

Though I couldn't watch the match, it was really nice to read some of the commentary and analysis here, Pete.

Posted by Dony 09/03/2009 at 12:11 AM

Will someone please to me whether Roger will play Hewitt during the Day Session or the Night Session on Saturday. Also, is there a place where I can trade US Open tickets? THANKS a bunch.

Posted by avid sports fan aka "Sigh-Rena" 09/03/2009 at 01:48 AM

Hi Pete,

Nice read on the match. This was the one match I took my lunch time at work to watch and I really was impressed with Vania as she really exceuted perfectly her game. She also read Sam's serve very well and hence was able to return them extremely well feeding off the pace at which they were coming at her such that Sam had little time to adjust for some of those returns. Sam did have a slightly higher no of UFEs than Vania (I think it was 28 to 20 or so) but was more or less outplayed today and she could not adjust well. Her BH is something she definitely has to work on and Vania just pounded it away. It was a very good match with subtlety and variety involving *lesser known* players.

Posted by Andrew 09/03/2009 at 02:20 AM

Pete: you write "Well, well, well, I thought, after watching the first few games of the second set, here are two women actually playing high-risk, high-quality tennis."

And avid sports fan says "It was a very good match with subtlety and variety involving *lesser known* players."

Flickers of hope....

Posted by Blake 09/03/2009 at 03:24 AM

hey pete, how come no one's discussing Rafa's new haircut?!

Posted by Angel of the Surf (Winner of Wimbledon Suicide Pool) 09/03/2009 at 05:49 AM

Pete nice post on Vania King. I wish Sam wouldn't play doubles as I feel this is way too much tennis. I'm not sold on Sam's muscles, too much for me.

Posted by TennisFan2 (vamos flying under radar) 09/03/2009 at 08:10 AM

Pete, thanks for giving Vania some space!

A nice run thus far for the American players in NYC!!!! Go red, white & blue (and Rafa, too). :-)

Posted by Master Ace 09/03/2009 at 08:16 AM

Roger will play Lleyton Hewitt in the day time as CBS has television coverage of the USO for 3 days beginning Saturday.

Posted by Subhadeep 09/03/2009 at 09:21 AM

I get the whole darth vaderer concept with Roger's attire during night matches AND I know a big bunch of Twibe folks here digs that look but I really don't like the black shoes with the black socks look. Yesterday when I was watching the match I felt like its like a formal office looks and somehow in a rush to get ready for work Roger slipped on a shorts instead of a pair of trousers!

By the way, on the topic of rushing out to work and making weird choices I have a good one. Last week I was in the elevator with someone in my work building but not in the same place I work and I noticed he had one brown shoe and one black shoe! I somehow felt that I should let him know in case it was a genuine mistake, and he is not embarrased if he has some important meetings and meets clients and stuff. When I pointed out that to him, being very cautious not to offend, he looked down and then gasped and said thats what you pay for dressing in dark!

Posted by evie 09/03/2009 at 10:14 AM

I watched a lot of the match. King was playing some inspired tennis and Sam looked like she didn't know what hit her. I thought even when she was only the first set point down, she looked to her camp like it was over. I like Sam, but it was great to see Vania with the upset. It obviously meant so much.

Posted by mcakron 09/03/2009 at 10:14 AM

Enjoyable article. Makes me want to take a look-see at King's next match. All for clever tennis and mental tenacity.

Posted by Game Lover 09/03/2009 at 10:20 AM

Loved Rafa and even Serena and Venus's play yesterday!

Some of Roger's as well (minus his later movement to his FH side), imho.

But Murray- Gulbis has been the highlight of the tournament so far, at least for me!!!

I got a question for all of you amateur players out there:

Could it be that at our level, the guy who takes chances, the agressive one, losses more often then not? :)

Speaking of which, I've played with a partner Francois (who has trained with some very good player lately and as is stronger then me, epsecially in terms of sheer power) last night and it was all about serving, we didn't have more then a handfull of rallies...

I win the toss and decide to serve first, except you can't just serve normally against him: he'd swat away your second serves like flys... So I lost my service, but later on, I warm up and try to put more on my serve and I go up 4-3 (at times playing like my friends Mark or Douglas in some rallies lol, meaning moving him around, slicing, lobs and getting to all the DSs).

Then, towards the end of the set I either get tired or the nerves got the better of me, cause I double fault 2-3 times per game at 4-4 and 5-5 and I lose my service twice, so he was serving for the set at 5-4 and then at 6-5...

And (according to him) he was serving better (stronger and with no double faults)!

But I decide to hang tough and as opposite to my double faults, I do now more winning returns on his first (cannon ball) serve! Two of those at 5-6...

We go to the tie break and as I was still trying to improve my serve (more extension and more relaxed arm basically), I win that one.

End of rant :)


Posted by Donal 09/03/2009 at 10:46 AM

I watched Stosur gutsing it out against Sugiyama in the first round and after a great summer she looked like the wind had finally come out of her sails. Agreed though - she is an incredible physical specimen, although up close she looked taller that her official height. I would have thought she was about 5'9". she seems to get a lot of "work" on every ball. Doubles partner Renee Stubbs was watching too. Seems like she's been around since the 80s.

Posted by Matt Zemek 09/03/2009 at 11:17 AM

Texture. Humanity. Insight. Guts.

All on display at the Grandstand, the court where the US Open sings.... as does Vania King.

Terrific article, Pete.

Posted by Ross 09/03/2009 at 11:34 AM

One of these days, Pete, I'd like to see you tell us about Nicolas Lapentti. How many former top ten guys do you find, at age 33, continuing to play challengers, qualifiers, DC, and occasionally taking a scalp in a slam (this week Wawrinka, in 5). The guy must really love tennis.

Posted by lightforce101 09/03/2009 at 11:48 AM

pete, I agree with Ross. and besides Lapentti, maybe you can also pay tribute to the "Magician" Santoro and Safin for their character and the uniqueness of their game. They did make the tennis world more interesting and fun.

To the veterans, I salute!!

Posted by CherryNYC 09/03/2009 at 12:29 PM

Is this the CC for today? Dare I look at the Dina score?

Posted by lois 09/03/2009 at 07:27 PM

Vina King, I am very proud of you are finally getting somewhere. I grade you an A+ since you always play for Fed. cup I feel like you really deserve this WIN. VAMOS

Posted by lois 09/03/2009 at 07:33 PM

Vaina King, Hoorah-you deserve an A+. Since you always play for the US Fed. Cup, you are finally getting somewhere in your game.
And beating Stouser, Well will wonders never cease. VAMOS

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