Wk.12- To Spin Is Divine, but some are more divine than others
As today's tennis stars continue to take their talents to South Beach, why not be a little self-indulgent in the middle of the festivities and talk about the list of my personal all-time favorite players? Hey, SOMETHING has to take the place of the audacity of the finally-left-behind-after-all-these-years (and who's missed it, really?) practice of having the players dress up and gather in a big room in Miami three-plus months into the new season while the tour hands out the awards for the long-since-forgotten previous campaign?
(And no, Kim, you're not on this list. But we all know that your BFF Mrs. Davenport has your name on top of HER list... so you've got that going for you, which is nice.)
ALL-TIME ALL-BACKSPIN TEAMS:
Jelena Dokic, AUS/YUG/SRB... the wild ride began the first moment I saw her, when she popped up at Wimbledon in' '99 and took it to world #1 Martina Hingis in the 1st Round. The thought process went from "who is she?" to "wow, she's really something" in less than an hour.
The 16-year old rode the moment for as long as she could to become the story of the tournament en route to the QF. A year later, she reached the SF. Now, if Dokic were to come onto the scene now, I'd be more familiar with her (she was the world Junior #1 and won the U.S. Open Girls title in '98), and the lethal nature of the "moment" might have been blunted a tad. But, at the time, it was my very first introduction to the whirlwind of fist pumps and stinging winners that is a big win from Dokic, and what a hello it was. It was like crack... one hit and I was hooked. Still am, really, even if I have managed to wean myself off the junk due to its limited availability over most of the last eight years. Still, as her recent title in Kuala Lumpur showed, I'm still susceptible to falling back into the not-so-dark hole when a nice little Ziploc bag full of goodies suddenly shows up at my doorste-... all right, enough with the drug metaphor. Over time, Dokic has more than paid off in the time investment that I put into watching her career go through its various ups and downs. The early years were great, the middle ones weren't. But she's never been boring. Her 2009 Australian Open quarterfinal run again made her the biggest story at a slam once again, a full decade after she did it the first time. And after all these years, there still might be a few good (or better?) moments left in Dokic's racket and boxer's heart (one of the good things that her notorious father donated to her through birth and an estrangement that nearly took her down and out -- though anyone who's closely followed her career probably could never REALLY see her giving up or giving in when the fight seemed to be getting the best of her). Her neverending story has seemed to be close to ending a few times, but it continues. That trait, even more than any win she's ever had or will have, is why she'll go down as my "most special" player of all.
Jana Novotna, CZE... oh, did someone mention fighting against adversity? Yeah, well, Novotna pretty much set the template for being her own worst enemy, but coming out on top in the end. At first, I became attached to Novotna's career around '90 because I loved her net rushing game. I've even tried to employ her much-loved backhand chip approach shot on the court in my own "tennis" game over the years. But once the Czech imploded and blew a big lead on Centre Court against Steffi Graf in the '93 Wimbledon final, then broke down in tears on the shoulder of the Duchess of Kent, she morphed into something else entirely -- the centerpiece of an ultimate quest. Sometimes investing anything in such a player turns out to be one long whole-lotta-wrong moment (see Ms. Petrova), but every once in a while you get a "Novotna moment." Five years after her biggest failure, just one of many "smaller" ones in her career (I mean, when "pulling a Novotna" can refer to failing to win a match when you have a 5-0, 40/love lead on match point, you know you've got issues with choking that even Heimlich couldn't find a way around), the Czech rose once again at Wimbledon and won the '98 title. I still consider it my favorite sporting moment, because the decade-long trek to get there made her ultimate she's-no-Hall-of-Famer-without-it victory oh so much sweeter. Truthfully, if Novotna had won in '93 she might not have risen to the place in my personal hierarchy of players where she ended up residing. The experience of losing "with" her had made the difference. Interestingly, on the same day in June '99 that Novotna returned to SW19 to bask in the glow of her '98 title, Dokic burst onto the scene with her match against Hingis. The torch was passed. But that wasn't all... it was also the same day that Boris Becker returned to the courts at Wimbledon after a brief retirement.
Boris Becker, GER... while Novotna made me value perseverance, and Dokic made me realize that you could fully embrace a player who often runs head-first into walls simply because every once a while they break through to the other side, it was Becker who ushered me into my generation of tennis stars. When he crashed the party at Wimbledon by winning the '85 title as a 17-year old, the then-West German wasn't much older than me at the time. Until then, tennis for me had revolved around the previous generation of stars -- Connors, McEnroe, Navratilova, Evert, etc. The red-headed Becker, throwing his body all over the All-England Club's lawns, booming bomb-like serves (a metaphor he never liked, due to Germany's wartime past) and celebrating with a kid's exuberance, changed all that. He made me love the sport, and plug myself into its future. He wasn't just a teenaged flash, either. He came back and won the title in '86, too. In '87, he introduced me to the crushing nature of an early-round upset that no one saw coming, as well. Peter Doohan, anyone? For me, Becker was my biggest stepping stone into the heart of the sport.
Hana Mandlikova, CZE/AUS... before Mandlikova, I'd been mostly a fan of men's tennis. In fact, with the Czech being something of a "third wheel" in the era of Navratilova and Evert, I really wasn't even much of a fan of her's at the start. She came off as arrogant, and I was too young to remember the early years of her career. In the final stage of her career, though, I clued in. It was the variety of her game, and the way she so effortlessly glided around the court that got me. I can remember some famous dancer at the time saying that she'd kill to have Mandlikova's legs. If Becker brought the brutal athleticism that can exist in the game into my view, it was Mandlikova who made her respect and admire the beauty of it. It says something for Mandlikova's talent that even while Navratilova and Evert dominated the sport during her prime, she still managed to win titles at three of the four slams. Her double-takedown of both of them en route to winning the '85 U.S. Open turned my eyes her way (I can still remember doing a big "The Battle for #1" drawing not long afterward, featuring likenesses of Navratilova, Evert, Mandlikova and the just-on-the-scene Steffi Graf), and by the time she won her last slam at the Australian Open in '87 I was fully in the Czech's camp. Two months later, I was in attendance at the Virginia Slims event outside Washington D.C. when Mandlikova won in the final to claim what would be the final singles title of her career. I can still remember her O.C.D. tendencies as she walked around the court in between nearly every point picking up the little pieces of fuzz that had been knocked off the tennis ball during a point, and the woman sitting beside me questioning her friend about it, asking, "What's she DOING?" While I wasn't able to follow Hana for long, I do somewhat credit her for my linging attachment to the hope for another Czech star. As it turned out, though, I DID get a second chance with Mandlikova. When I was first turned on to Novotna's, I didn't know at the time that it was Mandlikova who was her coach and had helped her fashion it. So when Jana ultimately won, so did Hana, as Wimbledon was the only slam she was never able to win (losing to both Martina and Chris in finals). It was nice bonus, and one that I felt I came to naturally.
Miloslav Mecir, CZE... the Big Cat was such a smooth prowler of the baseline. He, too, somewhat plays into the Czech heyday that I like to talk about. He reached two slam finals, and won Olympic singles Gold in '88, but really the only thing I remember that sticks about him is how graceful he moved into position to hit his two-handed shots. Oh, and the beard, of course.
Justine Henin, BEL... ah, Justine. La Petit Taureau. The all-time "face" of Backspin. Much like Mandlikova, I didn't start out liking Henin at all. I actually liked Clijsters better. Ha! How great is that!? She won me over, though, with her back-to-back wins over Jennifer Capriati and KC (buh-bye, Kim) to win the U.S. Open in '03, and the rest was history. I loved her fight, and that she didn't care about how she was perceived during her first go-around on tour. She was a great character, and a better one I couldn't have come up with myself. During LPT 2, she eschewed that "black hat" a bit and, well, let's just skip past all that. Now, would Henin appear on this list if not for the existence of Backspin (which wouldn't have come into being if not for those old Jelena Corner columns, bringing things once again back around to JD)? Hmmm, I don't know. I'd like to think so, but making her the leading lady in this space surely helped her carve out a place in my Backspinning heart. Well, that and that she wasn't Clijsters. Ah... ♥ ya, Kim... my all-time Backspin antagonist.
Jimmy Connors, USA... I was too young to know Connors as a player during his early, best years. But I DO remember the post-30 Jimbo. I reveled in him besting McEnroe en route to winning Wimbledon and the U.S. Open back-to-back in '82 (though I don't remember anything at all about it other than the feeling of knowing that he won... and his fist pumps and celebrations along the way). Actually, the Redskins emerged from a strike-shortened season that fall to win their first Super Bowl, too... and THAT'S what I really remember all the detail about from that year. By the time he made that SF run at age 39 at the Open in '91, Jimbo was everyone's favorite veteran/showman. Connors, unlike the players on the 1st team (and even, on a small scale, Mecir and Henin), was never someone I was truly linked into, but he IS still my all-time favorite American player.
Bjorn Borg, SWE...I barely remember him as a player, but he epitomized "cool" when I was first introduced to the sport early in elementary school. I can remember him beating McEnroe, and wanting that neat-looking black-painted Borg wooden racket I saw hanging on the wall in a Shipley's Sporting Goods store at the mall. (I've never played with a wood racket. My first racket, which I still have, was a metal Wilson Rebel... which sort of looks like the one used by Connors.) If Borg had only stayed in the game longer, my memories of him might have some depth. But, then again, that detached nature of the Swede epitomizes the mystique he so effortlessly embodied, too. So I'm all right with it. He wasn't McEnroe, and that was all that mattered to me at the time.
**Hopefuls/Almosts & Nice Ideas**
Caroline Wozniacki, DEN... the likely inheritor of Henin's "Face of Backspin" position. And while her charming nature surely goes against those of so many others on the above lists, what's looking like it might become a protracted quest for a grand slam title DOES play into her favor when it comes to her ultimate standing on my personal rankings. Hmmm, maybe I really don't want her to win a slam in '11 (or '12?) just so that she'll have to work for it, making it "worth" more down the line if and when it comes.
Petra Kvitova, CZE... of course, Jana, Hana and Miloslav instilled my affinity for Czech stars. And Kvitova is from Bilovec, Czech Republic. But it's more than just that. She's also very fun to watch (when she's in form), and sometimes just as frustrating (when she's not). After her career's two best moments -- reaching the Wimbledon SF, beating Clijsters to win the Paris Indoors -- she's experienced prolonged letdowns. Could we finally be seeing the Czech inheritor of the mantle once populated by Hana and Jana? Could be, could be. She's great to watch, and has some self-imposed hurdles to clear, too. Sounds like we have the makings for a good quest. Plus, Petra's a dead-ringer for a great girl I used to know -- and that'll probably be enough to put her over the top at Backspin HQ in the long run.
Nadia Petrova, RUS... oh, Nadia. That hoped-for great moment isn't going to happen. I've long since come to that realization. She had her moment, but didn't seize it when her body (as it so often has) let her down. Thus, she's been moved down from her previous spot on the 2nd Team. Of course, Nadia still DOES have a few years left. I won't be holding my breath, though.
Carly & Chelsey Gullickson, USA...sisters with a Mixed slam trophy and an NCAA singles championship, respectivey, to their credit. The Naturals (their dad was a MLB pitcher... remember the old Robert Redford movie?) are really the only recent young American players that I've taken an extra liking to over the last few years. To this point, at least.
Juan Martin del Potro, ARG... I haven't really been a huge fan of a men's player -- though I've enjoyed players like Federer, Nadal and others -- since Becker, but del Potro is currently nibbling at the corners of my mind. I enjoyed him when he won the Open in '09, then jinxed him when I picked him to finish #1 in '10. Back from his wrist injury, he's been burning up the courts the last month or two and I've really been feeling good rooting for him. Thus, he slipped onto this list at the last moment.
...of course, these lists leave off a lot of players that I DO like, have enjoyed over the years and have great hopes for (Ms. MarinoRiske, I presume?). I was a fan of Evert's in the latter stages of her career, and Navratilova at Wimbledon in her heyday (and everywhere in her post-40 days). Maria Sharapova was once a Supernova and was a pre-shoulder surgery star, and might still someday resemble something close to that again. Nothing beats Serena Williams when she's in full flight, unless it might be Venus on the grass in London. And, of course, no F.O.B. (Friends of Backspin) list would be complete without at least a knowing nod to Queen Chaos herself, Jelena Jankovic, without whom things wouldn't have nearly been as fun around here as they sometimes can be when she in "full Dervish" mode.
COMEBACK: Sabine Lisicki/GER
...it's been a long, hard road back from the devastating knee injury that wrecked Lisicki's upward mobility. She's starting to show some progress, though. She lost in Miami in a 3rd Round meeting with Maria Sharapova, but notched wins over Melinda Czink and Nadia Petrova (who, right on cue as the clay season is about to begin, retired in the 3rd set).
FRESH FACE: Lyudmyla Kichenok/UKR
...it was a family affair in the $25K challenger in Moscow, as 18-year Ukrainian Lyudmyla claimed both the singles (def. Daria Gavrilova 6-2/6-0 in the final) and doubles (with twin sister Nadiya, who'd lost in singles qualifying as the #1 Q-seed) titles. In the doubles final, Ukraine's pair of tennis-playing sisters not named Bondarenko knocked off Russian siblings Alexandra and Olga Panova.
DOWN: Li Na/CHN
...success hasn't spoiled her yet, but Li surely hasn't reacted all that well on the court since she reached the Australian Open final. After starting the season by winning her first eleven matches, after her ouster by Johanna Larsson in Miami, she's now lost her next five matches all in a row.
ITF PLAYER: Aleksandrina Naydenova/BUL
...the 19-year old Bulgarian won the $10K Rancagua, Chile challenger, defeating Catalina Pella in the final. It's Naydenova's second challenger title this month, and her circuit-best third of the season.
JUNIOR STAR: Eugenie Bouchard/CAN
...a Girls semifinalist at the Australian Open in January, Bouchard claimed the Grade A Copa Gerdau junior event in Porto Alegre, Brazail. After taking out #1-seeded Irina Khromacheva in the SF, the #3-seeded Canadian defeated Viktoria Malova (SVK) in the final.
[Miami Week 1 - Tuesday-Sunday]
1. Mia 3rd Rd - Wozniacki d. Hantuchova
...6-1/7-6. This match was both "interesting" and "frustrating" to watch on the court, as well as listen to on Tennis Channel, home of the player who finished year-end #1 without winning a slam during the season three times in her career (but never heard an ounce of flack about it, though it was obvious she was no longer the best player on tour at the time), and now has to seemingly be stretched out on the rack to say anything positive about the current #1. Oh, Lindsay Davenport (perhaps having heard some comments about her less-than-thrilled-with-the-Dane Indian Wells commentary?) did make a point to compliment Wozniacki on a few things during the match, but it was hard to escape the feeling that it was often akin to someone patting a puppy on the head because he DIDN'T take a poop on the dining room carpet for the first time all week (those moments are usually preceded by LD saying, "You've got to give her credit...). Uh, yeah... Wozniacki IS #1 for a few reasons. Is her game complete? Not by any means, but she's not there by accident, either.
Wozniacki's (TOO?) defensive skills (her fatigued demeanor in this match carried over to her three-set loss against Andrea Petkovic today, when she failed to convert 3 SP in the 1st and wasn't even as pick-her-spot aggressive as she has been in recent weeks as, eventually, the German couldn't be denied) were on full display in the 2nd set of this match, as Hantuchova took more chances and began to hit her stride All the questions about Wozniacki's play against aggressive hitters were on display, as she ultimately ended up waiting for the Slovak to make an error rather than taking the initiative herself. If Hantuchova had been up to it -- she was 0/7 in break point chances in the set, and double-faulted on match point -- things might have become stickier for the Dane, but there was every reason to believe that the former Top 5 player WOULDN'T be able to rise to the occasion. It was the correct notion. Hence, Wozniacki's hang-back tactics might be looked at as strategically intuitive, even if they weren't exactly aesthetically pleasing. Interesting, but also frustrating because such a gameplan would mean a loss nine times out of ten against Clijsters and others in the big-time matches that Wozniacki needs to figure out a way to win down the line.
Naturally, in the end, Davenport lauded Hantuchova -- err, I mean "Daniela," since that was how she referred to her throughout the match against the player only called "Wozniacki" -- for making a match of it in the 2nd, although it was the Slovak's failure to take advantage of the opportunities she carved out for herself that was really at the heart of that particular match storyline, as well as a large part of her career.
So, I'm back to Davenport again. Geez, has the American actually replaced Pam Shriver as the most annoying on-air tennis commentator in North America? Oh, that's as easy one -- I actually like Pammy now, because sometimes she's right on the mark with things, and even when she isn't it's actually fun, sort of like witnessing one of those implosions of a high-rise building or outdated sports stadium. Davenport is never anything resembling fun, or Shriver-like looney. Thing is, I really take little issue with anything LD says about C-Woz (I've said many of the same things myself), just the manner in which she says it, and what she doesn't say. Surprised or not, should one be as literally floored as Davenport was in the Hantuchova match when Wozniacki came in behind a 1st serve return to put away a volley, rather than simply express the desire to see more of such a thing from her since it proves that she CAN do it? Of course, there was no holding back once Wozniacki had the audacity to spin in a 70-or-so mph serve on match point, which Davenport attacked as if was an affront to the sport for a world #1 to do such a thing. Hmmm, might she secretly wish that she was in HER prime now, with the Sisters absent, rather than when she was shut out of slam titles by Venus and Serena (and Justine) over most of the last decade of her career? I'm just sayin'. I don't wish for LD to "play stupid," but a little more acknowledgement that the Dane has reached #1 not only because plays so often and/or because of who's NOT playing would be a nice thing once in a while, just for variety's sake.
Last time I looked, a player's ability/willingness to stay on the court is part of the equation in any sport, no matter how talented the athlete. And Clijsters, who doesn't play all that often anyway, is already complaining about how often she does. She began to sow her whiner oats in Indian Wells when discussing the WTA's demands on top players to play so often. Comments to which, to her credit, WTA CEO Stacey Allaster responded by essentially replying (in my words), "tough noogies -- if you don't want to play, don't play. But if you don't, you won't be able to take your piece of the bonus money prize pie at the end of the season... and I don't want to hear anything about you possibly getting special treatment on this issue. Rest, or money -- every player is capable of making that choice, including Clijsters."
Of course, she'll get both at the end of this coming week, as she'll be able to take a rest after likely defending her '10 Miami title. Sure, she's only in the Round of 16 at the moment, but it'd be just like KC to win the title after failing to do it when I've so often picked her to do so, then lifting a trophy immediately after I vow not to pick her again the rest of the season. A Belgian scorned, after all...
2. Mia 3rd Rd - Clijsters d. Martinez-Sanchez
...6-4/4-6/6-3. My, was Lindsay in a giddy mood anytime Clijsters... err, I mean "Kim," since Davenport prefers to call her by her first name virtually every time she mentions Jada's Mom, while everyone she plays is always worthy-of-last-name-only treatment... took a lead. Although the Belgian certainly showed some wobble here, committing 10 double-faults and 39 unforced errors throughout. Shockingly, I'm actually looking forward to ESPN2's upcoming coverage. Though I must thank LD, considering her grating commentary concerning everyone but Clijsters probably played a large part in my better-for-me "breakup" with Kim. Thumbs up, Lindz.
3. Mia 1st Rd - Lepchenko d. Vandeweghe
...7-5/6-7/7-6. Uzbeki-born Varvara Lepchenko was actually the last American woman standing in this event. Coco, meanwhile, has now put together just a 6-8 record since her disappointing bomb-out performance in the Fed Cup final last November.
4. Mia 1st Rd - Schnyder d. Keys
...3-6/6-1/7-6. On a brighter note, 16-year Madison Keys continues to show progress, as the wild card took Patty to the limit in the 1st Round.
5. Mia 1st Rd - Safina d. Dokic
...6-4/6-4. Odd note: six of the seven career sets played between these two have produced 6-4 scores, including the last six sets. In the next round, Safina lost in three to Zvonareva.
HM- Mia 3rd Rd - Pavlyuchenkova d. Kvitova
...6-4/6-7/6-0. After reaching the Wimbledon semis last year, Kvitova went 0-5 in her next five matches and lost six straight. Since winning in Paris last month, after opening the season winning 11 of 12 and being 16-2 overall, she's gone 1-3.
**BACKSPIN PLAYER-OF-WEEK WINNERS**
Week 1 - Vera Zvonareva, RUS
Week 2 - Li Na, CHN
Week 3/4 - Kim Clijsters, BEL (AO)
Week 5 - Flavia Pennetta, ITA (FC)
Week 6 - Petra Kvitova, CZE
Week 7 - Caroline Wozniacki, DEN
Week 8 - Vera Zvonareva, RUS (2)
Week 9 - Jelena Dokic, AUS
Week 10/11 - Caroline Wozniacki, DEN (2)
Week 1 - Lu Jing-Jing, CHN
Week 2 - Sharon Fichman, CAN
Week 3 - Tedeja Majeric, SLO
Week 4 - Marta Domachowska, POL
JANUARY: Lu, CHN
Week 5 - Michelle Larcher de Brito, POR
Week 6 - Lucie Hradecka, CZE & Irina-Camelia Begu, ROU (co-POW)
Week 7 - Iryna Kuryanovich, BLR
Week 8 - Hsieh Su-Wei, TPE
FEBRUARY: Kristina Mladenovic,FRA
Week 9 - Yurika Sema, JPN
Week 10 - Alja Tomljanovic, CRO
Week 11 - Anastasiya Yakimova, BLR
Week 12 - Lyudmyla Kichenok, UKR
Week 0/Pre-Season: Lauren Davis, USA
Week 1 - An-Sophie Mestach, BEL
Week 2 - Monica Puig, PUR
Week 3 - Monica Puig, PUR (2)
Week 4 - An-Sophie Mestach, BEL (2) (AO)
JANUARY: Mestach, BEL
Week 5 - Eugenie Bouchard, CAN (ITF)
Week 6 - Ilka Csoregi, ROU
Week 7 - Monica Puig, PUR (3) (ITF)
Week 8 - Alison van Uytvanck, BEL
FEBRUARY: Puig, PUR
Week 9 - Cristina Dinu, ROU (ITF/non-Jr.)
Week 10 - Alison van Uytvanck, BEL (2) (ITF)
Week 11 - Yuliana Lizarazo, COL
Week 12 - Eugenie Bouchard, CAN (2)
All for now.
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