Concrete Elbow by Steve Tignor - IW: Hard Lessons from Court 4
Home       About Steve Tignor       Contact        RSS        Follow on Twitter Categories       Archive
IW: Hard Lessons from Court 4 03/15/2009 - 5:58 PM

WozniackiOpposition is tennis' essential quality. Two people face each other with nothing but themselves and a stick. The court's 90-degree grid and pure white lines are set off by the curve of the ball. At the professional level, the grunts of the players and the dry thud of their shots are enclosed in the soft authority of the chair umpire's voice.

All that was true this afternoon when Caroline Wozniacki of Denmark stood across from Kaia Kanepi of Estonia at the BNP Paribas. The match was played on Court 4, where the Tennis Garden meet the desert. Beyond this, there's nothing but sand and scrub grass. Call it another form of opposition.

The stands are low out there. You get a full view of the cavernous sky and its gradations of blue—it seems more prominent here, a bigger deal, than in the East—which is set off by jutting brown hills and rows of stark, white lighting towers that line each side of the courts. From this vantage point, everything is dry and stripped and hard. Wozniacki's and Kanepi's shots cracked through the air, and you could hear each individual scrape—chicka-chicka-chicka—of their shoes as they set up to hit.

The two were opposed in appearance. Wozniacki is blonde, small but strong-legged, and wore a gleaming yellow top. Kanepi is broad and tall and power-packed, with short hair. But when they hit the ball, each seemed equally unlikely to be able to do what she did, to generate so much pace, to put their shots in the corners so consistently—Woz because she seems too small; Kanepi because she doesn't fit the body type of a tennis player. Wozniacki makes up for her size with lots of left-hand in her elaborate two-handed backhand, while Kanepi has tremendous timing on her forehand. Chalk it up to the power of good hands and hard work to overcome physical obstacles.

How good is Wozniacki, who is already ranked No. 13 at 18 years old? She's isn't a fluid mover and her strokes don't have effortless pop the way Kanepi's forehand does—Wozniacki is listed at 5-foot-10 but doesn't play that tall. For Wozniacki to become the "real thing," a Top Fiver, it will be an uphill fight all the way. It's how she plays each point now, fending the ball off and sending it away from her opponent with maximum effort and focus. She'll have to fight for everything.

Wozniacki won this 6-3 in the third, but the final set was a back and forth affair, as so many women's matches are. Each player was loose when she was behind, tight when she was ahead, somewhere in between when the score was tied. The key game was the seventh. Wozniacki served at 4-2 and went up 40-15. Kanepi unloaded on a slew of forehands and came back to hold break points. But those same forehands caught the tape when it counted, and Woz held for 5-2. Were those just mistimed, or mis-aimed, or just plain missed shots? I can say from experience that there's no such thing as a simple missed shot in a final set. It's the result of a slight tightening when you know there's something on the line.

Kanepi, who plays a riskier game than Wozniacki, was just a little more susceptible to those tightenings. Her shots have too little margin to survive them. In the final game, Wozniacki ended the back and forth by coming up with her biggest serve of the match at 30-30, and repeating it at 40-30. A good sign: She knows how to win these types of tight, early-round, side-court contests.

When the two walked to the net to shake hands—the opposing forces of tennis brought back together in the end—I was thinking more about Kanepi, the loser on the day. Why had she tightened when she was ahead and loosened when she was behind? Why do all of us do the same thing every time we play a match that matters to us? When we're on the verge of disaster, we relax; when we're on the verge of triumph, we do the opposite. Maybe this is the real, hard lesson that tennis teaches us about ourselves: We're more afraid to succeed than we are to fail.


Posted by gpt 03/15/2009 at 06:05 PM


Posted by Andy 03/15/2009 at 06:26 PM

Good questions.

I'd say that tightness on the verge of triumph reflects our understanding of just how quickly victory can slip from our grasp. When we're so close, we just want to nudge the match over the finish line. Ironically, that tentativeness is often our undoing.

I guess if you can tame this mental reflex, you'll have a lot more success--and fun--out there.


Posted by dj ois 03/15/2009 at 06:30 PM

aha.. so that is why Brad Gilbert was trying to persuade his followers to stay behind in their mind, when they are actually ahead in the score? Kaia should follow the advice

Thanks Steve

Posted by Master Ace 03/15/2009 at 07:19 PM

"For Wozniacki to become the "real thing," a Top Fiver, it will be an uphill fight all the way. It's how she plays each point now, fending the ball off and sending it away from her opponent with maximum effort and focus. She'll have to fight for everything."

Was that Rafael a few years ago before he improved his game?

Posted by eric 03/15/2009 at 07:32 PM

i always play loose when i feel the match is probably over anyway. then if i've crawled back, the thought of potentially winning causes me to play safe and tighten up. pretty much hate myself.

Posted by ryan Baker 03/15/2009 at 07:44 PM

I love the first two paragraphs Steve, they describe IW perfectly, and could have come straight out of a novel. Great read.

Posted by Samantha Elin 03/15/2009 at 07:53 PM

Steve, a great post. I absolutely love this girl and yes she is the real deal. She will have to tighten up her game, reduce the unforced errors, diversify her game by coming to net, but she can be a top five player. Does everyone remember when she almost beat Serena and Jankovic? I do, she is almost there where she can start beating the top players. I'm very proud of her. Go Caro, Scandinavia's#1!

Posted by sonya 03/15/2009 at 08:12 PM

Thank you Steve, what impressed you in Wozniacki's game, if anything at all? Is it her game, or her tenacity at such a young age? Also, we should keep in mind how many we've said that since those girls were young, they had all the time to improve. But i don't think we should rely on that anymore. Szavay, Vaidisova, Agnieska, all those girls two or three seasons ago were touted as the WTA's future, and now they're struggling and already have been replaced by the Wozniackis and Azarenkas of the world. This is why it's important for those girls to get accustomed to the pressure and fast, you never know when another youngster will just blow past you.

Meanwhile, one thing that we remains constant, is the high number of Russian players. Goodness, just how do they do it? And it seems as if some of them are quite gifted, with all-around games just like Sveta. Just amazing.

Oh and Steve, i'm sure the WTA fans will be appreciating this, it's a real disgrace that no women's matches are being broadcast, up until now.

Posted by Matt 03/15/2009 at 09:30 PM

As have many, I have followed your pieces for their content and form. Nice capture of the desert/court contrast. Keep the posts coming.

Posted by imjimmy 03/15/2009 at 09:54 PM


What a wonderful piece! Thanks so much! I look forward to reading more such narratives.

Posted by tenisistka 03/15/2009 at 11:27 PM

Hej, this next match will be interesting to watch!
"you never know when another youngster will just blow past you" another Radwanska...! Karolina, because to us Poles she is Karolina (not mentioned often - her parents are Polish!) is going to play the younger Radwanska sister, Urszula, good friend for many years! Karolina, Ula i Agnieszka played matches between each other for years in juniors, and now it starts on the senior level! And I wouldn't discount Agnieszka just yet, she is still number 10, playing III round match tomorrow with another (Polish ) Canadian Aleksandra Wozniak! So we have two Polish girls againsts two girls who speak polish at home! And I am happy for all of them! Let the best win!

Posted by tenisistka 03/15/2009 at 11:31 PM

Posted by Markic 03/16/2009 at 08:49 AM

Kanepi "doesn't fit the body type of a tennis player". Nicely put. If she gets in shape, I think she can be top 5.

Posted by mick1303 03/16/2009 at 11:03 AM

Well, you have only ATP without WTA and you think you have it bad? Eurosport Russia (all I have now) behaves like tennis is a sport for ladies only (sort of like artistic gymnastics). They don't even mention that there is an ATP tournament as well here!

Posted by Ruth 03/16/2009 at 11:23 AM

mick: Couldn't what you describe simply be the result of there being so many good Russian women players on the scene right now? (Note sonya's comment above.)

I find that the networks all over the world are influenced very much -- not surprisingly, I admit -- by what player or group of players is popular at any given time. But, yes, I would think it unfair and upsetting if I were in your place and couldn't see some matches of Marat or Davydenko or other Russian male players.

Is having ATP matches shown without WTA matches (TC last week) somehow more acceptable to you than having WTA matches shown minus ATP matches (Eurosport Russia, according to you)? I find both situations unacceptable.

Posted by nica 03/16/2009 at 03:15 PM

Nice job Steve. Seems like Updike-reading is kicking in.

Posted by dj ois 03/16/2009 at 04:30 PM

it all about broadcast rights..imho
Eurosport has all the WTA rights, and sometimes (mostly during combined events) show some ATP ones. Looks like it's vice versa for ESPN or what US stations sonya mentioned in the post

Posted by dj ois 03/16/2009 at 04:35 PM

it is about brodcasting rights
Eurosport has bought TV rights for all WTA matches and not ATP. Only during big combines events (mostly Slams) Looks like vice versa situation with US TC

Posted by steve 03/17/2009 at 12:27 PM

wozniacki's game: she's not big or explosive, which i think will keep her from ever winning a slam. But she's learning to win and is very intense

Posted by Diet Pills 10/01/2009 at 11:12 PM

wow.. nice post thanks! i really like it

We are no longer accepting comments for this entry.

<<  IW: Looking Out for No. 1 IW: The Trouble with JJ  >>

A Little Less Life and Death
Playing Ball: Good Luck to a Partner
Playing Ball: Losing Them All
Keeping Tabs: August 8
Quick-Change Artists
Hard Landing
Part of the Action
This blog has 1484 entries and 99627 comments.
More Video
Daily Spin