Friday, December 24, 2004

2005 Intriguing Question #9

Up next on the Intriguing Question list is #9, which involves a pair of longtime Backspin favorites. So often here, Wonder Girl and the Debutante's fortunes have been linked. Nothing's changed as 2005 kicks off.


As we saw after Maria Sharapova won the Tour Championship title, nothing causes the vultures to circle quicker than early success. A teenage girl wins a big title, and she's immediately subjected to an onslaught of fame and pressure just as she's attempting to make the transition from the emotional underpinnings of childhood to the (hopefully) more stable foundation she'll eventually build as an adult.

In tennis, how well a teen superstar traverses this potentially rocky road usually tells the tale of the long-term success of her career. For these girls, talent isn't enough. Injuries, family cohesiveness, and maturity are equally, if not more, important, and a major problem in any one of those areas could beat a promising girl's career into a premature submission. Steffi Graf was mature for her age, and her career titles speak to that fact. Jennifer Capriati wasn't, and some might say still isn't, but her toughness and perseverence ultimately allowed her to fashion a post-mug shot comeback that few could have envisioned. Mary Pierce eventually broke free of her unhinged father Jim and found major success; while Mirjana Lucic couldn't, and didn't. Anna Kournikova gained fame but never learned to win, then moved beyond her underrated game, which never managed to equal her force of personality; while Martina Hingis never learned how to lose, and when she started to do so she couldn't/wouldn't handle herself in a manner that bespoke a never-say-die champion (she now finds herself on the cusp of possibly attempting her own, more mature, "second act").

As 2005 beckons, there are two more girls-turned-women who are in a pitched battle against these forces, hoping to emerge on the other side of the internal skirmish with their wits AND careers intact. Whether or not they are capable of winning out is still in question, so we could be about to witness the final "big-time" acts of the careers of both Wonder Girl and the Debutante, Daniela Hantuchova and Jelena Dokic.

The two 21-year olds, born just eleven days apart in 1983, have seen their careers progress and regress in near hand-in-hand fashion. Both were top junior stars, with Dokic finishing as the #1-ranked girl in 1998. The Debutante made her name by reaching the Wimbledon QF at age 16, then following up with a SF there the next year. The next season, she claimed two Tier I titles and climbed to #4 in the world.

Meanwhile, Hantuchova became the toast of the WTA, inheriting the tiresome "next Anna" label after she sent photographers/tour marketers into a tizzy when she won the Tier I Indian Wells in '02 and soon found herself at #5 on the computer. No less than Martina Navratilova identified Hantuchova as a potential great champion, and the seemingly well-adjusted Slovak teen said all the right things about preferring tennis success over photo sessions and fame.

But Hantuchova's never won a second title, while Dokic hasn't raised a trophy since she completed her career "surface slam" with a grasscourt title in June '02. In the interim, Dokic finally succumbed to the "parent trap" that was always set around her relationship with daddy Damir, leaving him behind but still fighting him word-for-word through various media outlets; while Hantuchova's health was questioned when a dramatic weight loss coupled with her terribly emotional matches to produce a sad sight the likes of which has rarely been seen on a tennis court. 21 is too young an age to write off such talents, especially as the 28-year old Capriati still hangs around the Top 10 after having sunk as low as possible. Both Hantuchova and Dokic are still two years younger than some of the Spartak Russians who made such huge leaps in '04 but, as with Mauresmo, 2005 has to be looked upon as a make or break year for them.

Do Wonder Girl and the Debutante have what it takes inside to accomplish anything on the scale of the bullheaded Capriati's climb back to the top? That's the big question that the upcoming season will answer. If either is going to avoid becoming nothing but a dangerous draw floater who "used" to have great promise, they'll have to stir up tangible evidence to the contrary over the next eleven months. Remember, the WTA core of talent is deeper and more accomplished than that which existed just a few years ago. The pair will have to be better to even approach their former Top 5 positions in the game, and it could be that neither is now capable of pulling off a full resurrection. One disappointing season is a fluke. Two is a trend. Three is a career reality check. Failure to turn upward in 2005 would force a severe reassessment of their futures by both.

At least Hantuchova showed some (albeit short-lived) resuscitation skills in 2004. By mid-season, she'd re-upped with former coach Nigel Sears and declared her problems a thing of the past as she made an impressive RU showing in Eastbourne. But she went 12-12 from that point on, and closed her season by losing to an unknown 17-year old Canadian qualifier in Quebec City. Ultimately, her season-ending ranking actually fell twelve spots from a year earlier (from #19 to #31).

Dokic, though, was a sorry sight for most of the season. Lacking confidence, out of condition, emotionally drained and looking to all the world as if she wanted to be anywhere but on a tennis court, she played just 22 matches all season, winning six, with only one match taking place in the final five months of a season that ended with a nine-match losing streak. Following the season, she, too, returned to her former coach -- Damir, as constructing a familial peace finally won out over a career that's spiralled into a worrisome freefall. The intelligence of that move will bear out over time, but it appears that Dokic has decided that subjugating her "freedom" and once again subjecting herself to her oft-daffy father's will is more honorable than drifting aimlessly as she has for most of the past two years. Problem is, Dokic's career may have already peaked. A quick look at her season-ending rankings reveals a decidedly easy-to-track, rise-and-fall trend: 1998: #341 1999: #43 2000: #26 2001: #8 2002: #9 2003: #15 2004: #125 Dokic needs to find her level and correct place in the game. It may not be as high as she once hoped. She'll never be a true contender for #1, and likely won't be able to return to the Top 5, either. But a respectable, consistent Top 15/20 career (with brief sojourns into the Top 10) is nothing to sneeze at for a player who has shown little versatility over the years, but has often made up for that deficiency with a killer instinct that served to feed her confidence in good times. When on a roll, she's been capable of almost anything. With little faith in herself for so long now, she's more often resembled a faded ghost. On the other hand, one gets quite the opposite impression of Hantuchova. Despite her one-time Top 5 standing, she never really reached the peak of her powers. She showed a willingness and ability to learn and grow as a player, and seemed on the verge of something breathtaking. Maybe even Supernovian. But then her body collapsed from the inside out. She used to talk openly about becoming #1, and still COULD accomplish that goal someday.

While Dokic's task is to reclaim lost groud, Hantuchova's is to stake out new territory that's still within her reach somewhere down the line. Wonder Girl's task will take more than one season. Dokic could claw her way back to respectability much sooner.

As far as 2005 in concerned, I think Dokic will outperform Hantuchova. Currently ranked outside the Top 100, Dokic has a huge mountain to climb, but she'll be defending no points after Wimbledon and could shoot up the rankings with a handful of decent results. By the end of the year, she'll be back in the Top 25 and have claimed a sixth career singles title. Hantuchova won't be far behind (say, Top 30), but by the end of the upcoming season will begin showing signs that she'll be able to outshine Dokic in '06 and beyond as she begins to re-instill her lost "Wonder Girl glow." She won't win a title in '05, but she'll build the foundation for a big one in '06. As they approach their 22nd birthdays by early spring, the "Lost Girls" aren't girls anymore.

They're young women... but they still have some growing up to do in order to shed the "lost" label that's managed to stick itself to them like glue. If they can manage it, their careers should be long and prosperous. If not... well, we can cross that bridge when and if they come to it.


All for now.


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