Sunday, November 06, 2005

2005 Review: Good Fortunes & Maiden Voyages

With the "Russian Revolution" having changed the face of the sport in the first half of the 2000s, one can't help but be on the lookout for the next breakout nation whose wave of young stars will quickly alter the tennis landscape. Before this season began, the fledgling stages of an eventually-burgeoning Chinese tennis empire were already an established talking point, and the "Intriguing Questions #7-8 column" attempted to gauge what would be the advances made by the "Cookies" in 2005, as well as determine which was to be the next "country to watch."

The choice then was the Czech Republic. As it turned out, it was a very accurate one. In fact, as the season comes to a close, the "Czech Maidens" have overtaken the Chinese as the current powerplayers in the "revolution" that could change the last half of this decade.

On May 1, in the final of a Tier IV event in Estoril, representatives of both the Maidens and Cookies faced off in a sort of "Gunfight at the Portugal Corral" between the two nations. The result -- 18-year old Czech qualifier Lucie Safarova (world #155) defeating the player generally considered to be China's best, Na Li (#40) -- was the on-court crystallization of how both's collective fields of players stack up against each other. If you want quantity, you'll likely look to the Cookies in a few years. But if you want quality -- right now, the Maidens take the cake. That may not be the case a few years from now, but it certainly is in 2005.

But the Chinese tennis organization has long range plans in mind when it comes to building an "empire." The foundation for the Cookies' future success has been constructed with one date in mind -- 2008, when Beijing hosts the Summer Olympics. With the athletics establishment given the task of building up China's prowess in all sports, women's tennis was given a significant boost.

In 2004, the strides were obvious. The first WTA singles champion from China (Li) was crowned in Guangzhou, three players were ranked in the Top 100 (up from one in '03) and six were in the Top 200 (two in '03). In 2005, progress continued to be made as Jie Zheng (Hobart) and Zi Yan (Guangzhou) won WTA titles, and the number of Cookies in the Top 100 (four) and 200 (seven) increased. But the buzz around the Chinese girls wasn't as loud this season as it was as '04 ended.

None of the Chinese players had great grand slam success in 2005, and the whole lot of them were held out of Wimbledon to participate in the Asian Games (important there, granted, but the Cookies need to face the top players on a consistent basis if any are going to improve enough in time to be a factor in the battle for Olympic medals in singles come 2008). Not surprisingly, the one player perhaps most disconnected from the rest because of her training in America -- Shuai Peng -- now looks to have surpassed Li (and the underrated Zheng) as the best of the bunch. Her defeat of Kim Clijsters in San Diego this summer, the Belgian's only hardcourt loss on the North American circuit that ended with her U.S. Open crown, might be more important a result than either of the titles won by Chinese players in 2005. Peng ends the season as the top-ranked Cookie, and her bigger game could make her a threat to reach the second week of a slam in 2006.

[as of October 31]
#33 Shuai Peng
#42 Jie Zheng
#56 Na Li
#100 Tiantian Sun
#102 Zi Yan
#152 Meng Yuan
#170 Ting Li (Sr.)

The Chinese talent pool is like a trench -- narrow, but deep. They'll be spending the next two-plus seasons working feverishly to fill in that trench with more and more skilled female players. By 2008, who knows, maybe there will be at least one with the ability to consistently challenge the top players. The Chinese have the time, inclination and a tremendous number of athletes to choose from in the world's most populous country... but "the one" has to be found for the Cookies' uprising to begin to become a true revolution.

The Maidens have no such worry. The Czech Republic's "It Girl" has already been identified as 16-year old Nicole Vaidisova, and she's poised to become (at least) the second-most popular tennis-playing teenager (after you know who) on tour in 2006.

[as of October 31]
#19 Nicole Vaidisova
#31 Kveta Peschke
#40 Klara Koukalova
#51 Iveta Benesova
#52 Lucie Safarova
#78 Zuzana Ondraskova
#103 Hana Sromova
#118 Eva Birnerova
#130 Katerina Bohmova
#132 Denisa Chladkova
#140 Michaela Pastikova
#145 Barbora Strycova
#168 Libuse Prusova
#178 Sandra Kleinova
#184 Olga Blahotova
#201 Petra Cetkovska
#202 Lucie Hradecka

In 2005, the Czechs showed the promise that had largely eluded them since the days when nearly every top player in the world who wasn't an American seemed to have been born in the former Czechoslovakia (Navratilova, Mandlikova, Sukova, etc. combined to win 22 slams from 1975-93, and were RU an additional 25 times). After some decidely lean years after the Czech and Slovak Republics split (in fact, Jana Novotna's '98 Wimbledon title is the only by a Czech-born woman in the last fifteen years), the Czech tennis empire looks to be well on its way to being fully rebuilt. Vaidisova won three straight titles (and 18 consecutive matches, more than anyone not named Justine or Kim) this season, while Klara Koukalova and 18-year old Lucie Safarova were first-time WTA singles champions... twice each (Vaidisova won her first two titles in 2004 at age 15, when she became the sixth-youngest WTA champ in history). 20-year old Petra Cetkovska won half a dozen ITF titles in 2005, and might be the next Maiden to voyage into the deeper tour waters next season. And even 30-year old Kveta Peschke, one of the few holdovers from the largely "lost" Czech decade of champions after so much 70's & 80's success, perhaps spurred on by the exploits of her more junior compatriots, put up some of her best results since she was a young Miss Hrdlickova.

If Peschke's part in the latest Czech uprising is akin to veteran Elena Likhovtsova's in the "Russian Revolution," Maria Sharapova's counterpart is most surely Vaidisova. Everyone wants to spot "the next Maria," be it in marketability or talent (or both)... so it's become en vogue to label the latest Nick Bollettieri pupil as just that. Everyone may be right.

Vaidisova narrowly missed a quarterfinal berth at this year's U.S. Open, blowing a lead in the Round of 16 against Nadia Petrova. Her volatile reaction -- for which she's been nicknamed "Vesuvius" here at Backspin -- to the loss got her fined and reprimanded, and she countered negative comments about her behavior with words that essentially said, "Anyone who doesn't get upset when they lose hasn't won very much." Touche, Nicole.

What was more important, though, was her immediate on-court reaction after her loss: she won those three straight titles and eighteen matches before finally going down on Saturday in the Philadelphia SF to Amelie Mauresmo by a 7-5/7-5 score. Another few months, and that scoreline could be reversed... maybe in Melbourne.

So as the Chinese attempts to manufacture a tennis empire from the top down will continue in 2006, the Czech Maidens' retro-revolution from the bottom up might just hit full stride. The Cookies have a few more seasons to sweeten the field before an up-or-down verdict on their revolution's fortunes will be read. The Maidens, though, could be ready to "arrive" in the sporting world's full consciousness in 2006 if Vaidisova continues to follow in the rather large footsteps Sharapova set down as a 17-year old in 2004. In 2005, only the Russians (17), Americans (17) and Belgians (14) made more finals than the Czechs (11). It's only the beginning.

In the first half of this decade, the Russians flooded the field with quality. In the last half, it'll be the Czechs. Either way, the "ova's" have it.

All for now.


Post a Comment

<< Home