Concrete Elbow by Steve Tignor - "That's Yanina Wickmayer"
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"That's Yanina Wickmayer" 03/15/2010 - 11:29 PM

Ym It’s 9:05 A.M. Monday morning. A deeply tan and muscular woman, 6-foot-tall, her face concealed beneath a black visor, is hitting volleys on Stadium 3. There’s no one in the stands or in the vicinity other than myself, until a father and his two young sons walk up to peek inside. They watch for a minute, mutely. The father leans over and asks me, “Who’s that practicing?”

“That's Yanina Wickmayer.”

He nods, turns to his sons, and begins to lead them away. “Let’s go see what else is going on.”

Obscurity and under-appreciation aren’t new concepts to Wickmayer. Unknown and ranked far from the Top 50 for most of her four-year career, the 20-year-old Belgian couldn’t even get any respect after she came out of nowhere to reach the semifinals of the U.S. Open last year. In an on-court interview with her opponent in that round, Caroline Wozniacki, ESPN’s Pam Shriver referred to her with something less than awe in her voice: “Now you play Wickmayer,” she told Wozniacki. The implied next phrase being: “Whoever that is.”

All that changed, in a bad way, last November. Wickmayer, along with fellow Belgian Xavier Malisse, was given a one-year ban for failing three times in 2009 to alert tennis’ drug-testing authorities of where she could be found for out-of-competition tests. The ban was later overturned by a Belgian court, and the case remains tied up in that country’s legal system—it could be years before anything is resolved. Wickmayer, who said she cried for days when she learned of the ban, maintains that she was away from home when the doping authorities attempted to contact her for testing. She says she hadn’t realized that she was subject to the rule, since it only applies to players in the Top 50, a club she didn’t join until the fall.

Wickmayer is nothing if not determined—her eyes have a steely quality—and, though she denies it, she appears to have been motivated by the ban. She began the year with a title in Auckland and extended her countrywoman Justine Henin to three sets in the round of 16 at the Australian Open. Because she had to qualify, she actually won seven matches in Melbourne. But all that tennis took its toll. Wickmayer lost early in her next two events, in Paris and Dubai.

“I started off the year really well,” she said today. “That was quite exciting. Then I was sick. I had a stomach flu, so I was pretty bad [in those tournaments]. I was mentally tired, but I’m feeling better again and playing good here.”

Wickmayer has won two three-set matches so far in Indian Wells. Today she faced Italy’s Roberta Vinci, a 27-year-old with a nice but inconsistent one-handed slice backhand who pretty much defines the term “crafty veteran.” It looked like a match that could trip up a young and relatively inexperienced baseline basher like Wickmayer.

“Baseline basher” sounds like an insult, of course, but what I really mean is that Wickmayer, though she’s Belgian, has brought a pugnacious Eastern European approach to the sport that contrasts sharply with the bouncy athleticism Kim Clijsters and the classic flair of Justine Henin. Instead, Wickmayer, who is coached by her father (her mother died of cancer when Yanina was 9) and who joined the Mouratoglou Academy in Paris in January, has followed in the Maria Sharapova footsteps. She whips her forehand around her head and circles through the backswing on her two-handed backhand, both à la Maria. She can’t match Sharapova’s screech, but she has developed a reliable grunt, and at least for the moment her serve is an asset. Despite a high ball toss and a lack of flexibility in her front leg—she doesn’t get much knee bend before she extends up—she hits it cleanly for power and has a kick serve that bounced high and won her several points outright against the shorter Vinci.

Like most Eastern Euros, Wickmayer’s best shot is her backhand. She has the flexibility to hit it completely flat or with topspin. Her forehand, which she hits oddly—the racquet head is perpendicular to the ground at contact—is shakier. When Wickmayer stumbled at the start of the second set, it was the forehand that let her down. She appeared to get tight, which is not an uncommon occurrence after an easy first set. The nerves manifested themselves in her forehand, which she began guiding rather than hitting, with predictably bad results.

“I’m a little disappointed about the second set,” she said. “I let her back in the game and started playing less aggressive, and she took over.”

What was surprising, and what bodes well for Wickmayer in the future, was how she handled this bad stretch of play. With a player this intense—think Victoria Azarenka—the flip side will often be a temper, a temper that can easily be lost. As Wickmayer went down 1-3, and then 1-4, and then 1-5, I waited for the meltdown. I’m happy to say that it never came. Wickmayer kept her head in it and climbed back to 3-5 before Vinci finished the set off.

The momentum from the second carried over into the third, when Wickmayer turned the rallies around completely and jumped to a 3-0 lead.  “I just started off really moving well,” she sad of the third set, “and being aggressive on my legs and moving into the court.”

Wickmayer held out for 6-3 and the match. For today, at least, she showed that determination and intensity don’t have to go hand in hand with impatience and negativity, which is often the case with the Russian and Eastern European women. Sharapova has that winning psychological combination, but it’s a rare find. Wickmayer is aware of its importance. Asked today what she’s improved most over the last year, she said, “Mentally, for sure. Today I proved that even if the second set wasn’t too good, I can go into the match and do things better and just start over and play good again in the third. A year or two ago I wouldn’t have been able to do that.”

Wickmayer lacks finesse and touch—Vinci was by far the smoother player—but she’s tough, and she’s a jock whose height doesn’t hinder her movement. She’s the flavor of the month, but will that taste last into next month, or next year? There's no saying on the WTA side these days. But she did make at least one stride today, recognition-wise. Near the end of her match, I caught a conversation between two guys in front of me.

“Who is that?” one of them asked. His friend was a big blond dude in a sweaty baseball cap who had just cracked open a can of Bud. I anticipated a shrug, like the one I got from the father this morning while she was practicing. Instead, the big dude turned and said, “That’s Yanina Wickmayer, ranked No. 13.”

For the record, Wickmayer is No. 15. But maybe this guy knows which way she’s heading.


Posted by Sunny 03/16/2010 at 12:22 AM


Posted by Sunny 03/16/2010 at 12:26 AM

Thanks for the post Steve. Really Appreciate this one. I think Yanina is actually one of the young guns, who is going to make it big in the Grandslam, once the Williams and the other 2 Belgians era would be over.
Caroline looks quite pretty defensive too me. I dont see her rip off winners from any part of the court.
Only Azarenka and Wickmayer are aggressive and i think will make it big in the future of grandslams

Posted by SteveX 03/16/2010 at 01:17 AM

I always thought Wickmayer is a very strong player. Definitely has the qualities of making it big. Quite possibly as big as Sharapova. Glad that an expert agrees with me. :-)

Posted by luckky girl 03/16/2010 at 03:26 AM

she definitely will make it on d big stage along with klebanova. think she will b a threat 2 azarenka though. i c her getting a slam b4 most of d young guns when d oldies burn out.

Posted by k1c 03/16/2010 at 03:33 AM

could we please do something about not having the latest blog post on the main page?

Posted by k1c 03/16/2010 at 03:41 AM

shes definately making strides in women's tennis, but we shall have to wait to see if she can continue her ascent

Posted by Reader 03/16/2010 at 05:43 AM

Steve, please stop calling Wickmayer Eastern European, Belgium is in Western Europe. I mean, look at the map. What is Western Europe then for you? It is the same if I said US is in South America.

Posted by to reader 03/16/2010 at 06:37 AM

He only refers to her playing style as eastern-european

Posted by embug 03/16/2010 at 07:16 AM

Thanks for this, Steve. She is an exciting woman to watch. Love her groundstrokes and your description and analysis of them. She is dynamic with both fore- and back-hands, which heightens her game and our enjoyment of watching her. She has, as you correctly point out, a steely gaze. Motivated by her mother's early death and now the WADA episode, she should sprout into a formidable opponent. Hopefully, she will begin to use her serve to move toward the net, taking time away from opponents to dictate and dominate.

Posted by Master Ace 03/16/2010 at 09:45 AM

Yanina is now doing well after a few weeks of rest and with the main attention on her fellow Belgians, Victoria and Maria, she is able to concentrate without too many people(except Steve Tignor) watching. Now, since Victoria and Kim was eliminated last night, Yanina chances of making the finals increased drasctically as I think she is the best player left in the top half followed by Alisa Kleybanova(P.S. - Do not let her size fool you as her movement is pretty good as she ran down some shots and hit them back across the net with interest. She won one point in the first set when Kim hit a decent volley but Alisa hit a running CC FH passing shot with interest that Kim could not handle at the net)

Posted by Cloud 13 03/16/2010 at 10:58 AM

A good call, but not a new one. The call was made a while back: Wickmayer the top Belgian by the end of 2010:

Posted by FloridaSilverAce 03/16/2010 at 11:35 AM

Wickmayer is the real deal. She is just terrific off the ground and is very, very intense. I saw her play at the Clearwater(Florida)Open in 2009 (a $25K tournament)when she was ranked 97th and she was clearly the class of the field but she was disqualified in the final for hitting a linesperson with a ball after a call (She was up a set at the time) -- she claims it was accidental, the officials obviously felt otherwise.

Given the state of the women's game it is not surprising she has come this far but given the Clearwater incident and the troubles with the Belgians, she might need adjust her attitude.

BTW -- The winner in Clearwater this year -- Johanna Larrson of Sweden (currently 132) shows real promise

Posted by usopenrockz 03/16/2010 at 02:36 PM

I remember her US Open run thinking that it was not going to be a fluke. She has played very well since, and is showing some improvement. She's definitely a young one to watch. People may get on Wozniacki for not having much firepower, but she is the only one of the young ones, in my mind, that can play consistently enough to challenge the Williams' and the older Belgians on a regular basis. I'm positive Yanina will be in the top 10 very soon. I'm hearing some people mentioning Kleybanova, which is a little surprising to me. Considering her collapse to Henin in the Aussie Open was due to lack of proper fitness, she's going to REALLY need to work on her body if she wants to advance. We all know she is one of the hardest hitters on the tour, but her movement truly suffers becasue of her size.

Although the Williams' and the older Belgians will be around for a least the next three years, these are the young guns who I think will take their place as future top 5 players OR grand slam champions:
Caroline Wozniacki (already a top 5), Victoria Azarenka, Yanina Wickmayer, Dominika Cibulkova, Alisa Kleybanova (only if she becomes more fit), Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova (same w/ Kleybanova; only if she becomes more fit), *Sloane Stephens* (I know we haven't seen much from her as of yet, but I really believe in this girl), and Michelle Larcher de Brito (I hate her shriek, and she's in a little slump right now, but she has the goods for the future)

-Keep an eye on Aravane Rezai and Olga Govortsova's progressions as well.

Posted by Sam 03/16/2010 at 02:43 PM

Hi Steve, I am really disappointed that you did not comment about the Women's game in Hit for Haiti. How come everyone talks about the bad stuff and do not want to highlight the good that happened ?

Posted by Codge 03/16/2010 at 06:50 PM

Belgium is in Eastern Europe?? Lots of changes since the fall...but not this.

I've seen Wickmayer play, like her game. I think Pammy knows who she is now :D

Posted by M-life 03/16/2010 at 07:01 PM


No Sabine Lisicki??? She was the flavor of the month just about this time last year. Aravane Rezai is not a young gun rockz. She's been around for a while and while she has shown some moments of real explosiveness, girl doesn't have it between the ears. Cibulkova has a ceiling but will be a good pro for many years. Govortsova- hmmm???

Posted by usopenrockz 03/16/2010 at 07:48 PM

@ M-life

Sorry, you're right, I forgot all about Lisicki. With her massive serve, she can very well be a Wimbledon champion in the future.

I didn't exactly put Rezai and Govortsova in the same category as the rest. Rezai has been around for a little while, but at only 22, she's still young. Govortosova is just one whose caught my eye as of late. Like I said, I'm not as sure of these two as I am of the rest. Just thought they were worth mentioning.

Posted by jo shum 03/17/2010 at 03:28 AM

the young ones need to make it now and today in grand slams, else they are too late after williams and belgiums 2-3 years later. i think the dominance has to start at the age of 20/21 and have a few years to solidify. else, we will have to wait for the next generation of younger ones still. and that's really not a problem, good players come along every year, great players come once in a blue moon (i mean the ones who can dominate and win multiple slams), it's just a longer cycle.

Posted by Jerell (Serena #12) 03/17/2010 at 03:32 AM

openrockz, how does Stephens play, if you've seen her?

And no Oudin in that mix?

Posted by sigmund 03/17/2010 at 05:58 AM

Nice discussion on the future of the women's tour. Among these ladies, I personally like Wozniacki the best with her personality, and also a nice contrasting character in Azarenka. But to be honest, C-Woz really doesn't have a big technical weapon - which is all the more amazing that she's ranked 4th in the world right now. It shows how strong her consistency and mental strength are (not to mention her intelligent shot selection) to compensate for her still very defensive game. Her lack of offense was laid bare at the US Open final where she was clearly out-played by Clijsters who was hitting winners left right and centre.

It's also nice to see that a lot of these younger players like Wozniacki, Azarenka, the Radwanskas, etc, seem to get along well with each other off the court. And let's not forget that Maria Sharapova and Ana Ivanovic are both still quite young at 22 years old - they may be badly underachieving these days, but both of them have proven they have the potential to do great things. It will be an interesting scenario in the women's game in next few years. Also interesting to see the Chinese players making their mark. Zheng has become quite the giant-killer lately. She reminds me of Amanda Coetzer.

Posted by M-life 03/17/2010 at 08:49 AM

Forgive me but I'm carrying this a bit (but not entirely) from Yanina thread but I spent the time to write it so here it is.

Jo Schmo-

(sorry guy, not to much disrespect to you, just couldn't help it, its an M-life thing) For the most part I agree with you that if you are not really, really good by the time you're 20, you're not going to become great in your early to mid twenties. That being said, how do we take into account the girls of recent years who have shown tremendous promise and have or in the process collapsed. Going back to 2005 to present, Vaidisova who was most everyones pick for immenent #1 for years to come, just retired at age 20 ranked 175ish. Ana Ivanovic has dropped out of the top 50 and is heading towards a Kournikova type career. Why is it that the hot young players who seem to have everything a coach would ask for can't sustain there success? Other factors clearly are involved.


Last year the discussion surrounding C-Woz went on and on particularly whenever Sam Elin is around. I've been watching her since she graduated from juniors with enormous fanfare and still don't understand why she is that good. She is not that great at any one thing. Her serve is, well, serviceable, she moves well but not super great, her forehand is pretty okay but as virtually everybody says, not a formidable weapon. She doesn't have a kill down the line shot, or a tremendous inside outer. I will say that I was enormously impressed with her strength of will and sheer guts displayed during the YEC or whatever they call it now, hobbling around with tears streaming down, beating a healthy and two legged Azarenka in the 3rd. I thought at the time if you could only fuse those two girls together like some Star Trek episode, women's tennis would then have a special player. If only...


Happy New Year to you my brother, even though its mid-March. Getting back to my comments to Jo Schmo- (I know I gotta stop) With Sharapova, we all (including Steve) have at one time or another have to the effect mentioned Maria being an exception to the Eastern European girls who strike the ball with thunder but are mentally fragile. Why- because she is a multiple slam winner and has shown consistency with high rank standings. Kinda like Dementieva, but who has actually done it. This of course puts her in elite status in the minds of many. But in the last 3 years she has been anything but consistent. Her loss to Jie Zheng who basically picked her apart, really being no surprise. I know, I know, injuries, shoulder, motivation, prima donna status, demands on her time (endorsments) et all. Is she just not as good as she used to be, or has the rest of the field now better and more varied, if not more dominant than in 2005? If we could pull an 18 year old Sharapova out of time to play todays Sharapova, do you think the 18 yr old Maria would beat todays' ass. I don't know, but I think so. Which gets back to my original question, why is it so difficult for todays rising star who "has it all," to continue steady improvement and progress.

Steve- this is the kind of question I used to throw at you, but you never answer me anymore. So MA is the next best option to bounce ideas and discourse with, while you just steal my ideas and use them as your own thread topic. At least you can write well.

My pick for afterthought girl who I think will have a big, big year in 2010. One who has shown continuing progress but is always an afterthought. Agnieszka Radwanska.

Posted by SSS2 03/17/2010 at 01:51 PM

too bad she lost to martinez, but she has greaT talent. A grand slam win in waiting.

Posted by Jim 03/18/2010 at 08:03 PM

Posted by Codge 03/16/2010 at 06:50 PM: "Belgium is in Eastern Europe?? Lots of changes since the fall...but not this."
Tignor said, "Wickmayer, though she’s Belgian, has brought a pugnacious Eastern European approach to the sport." If Tignor thought that Belgium is in Eastern Europe, would've said "Wickmayer, *because* she's Belgian, has brought a pugnacious Eastern European approach to the sport."

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