Tuesday, December 27, 2005

2006 Intriguing Question #6

Well, you've caught me with my hand in the after-Christmas cookie jar. I admit that the first IQ since the season of fruitcake (love it...really!), family gatherings (ummm...), and gifts (I got The Rivals, the story of the rivalry & friendship between Martina Navratilova & Chris Evert, so expect some thoughts on that to creep in around here as 2006 goes along) has something of a special place in my heart. You see, I've always had a thing for Czechs. Don't know why, really...but Czech players played a large role in the pre-WTA Backspin formulative tennis years for your friendly neighborhood columnist (or it it "blogger," now?) in the 1980's.

I first started to seriously pay attention to tennis right at the time when Czechs were dominant forces on the women's, as well as men's tours. My first true "favorite" player was Hana Mandlikova. I was a late convert to her smooth, athletic all-court game (first being attracted to power, such as that of a teenaged Boris Becker at Wimbledon), but once I tuned into the more elegant aspects of Mandlikova's game I was hooked (and am proud to say I was present in the stands when she won the Washington D.C. crown in 1987 for what would be her final tour singles title). I enjoyed "The Big Cat," Miloslav Mecir (even if he was born in what is now the Slovak Republic, he represented Czechoslovakia at the time), and his deceptively silky movement around the court, too. But it was the Rubik's Cube of tennis psychology, Jana Novotna, who was Backspin's all-timer. The 2005 Hall of Famer's long, tear-stained, pothole-marked path to her ultimate triumph at Wimbledon in 1998 still ranks as one of my most beloved sports viewing experiences, not just because of Novotna herself, but because she was joined in the excitement by her coach... one Hana Mandlikova. To this day, my favorite combination to emulate on court is Novotna's slippery chipped backhand approach shot, followed by a punch volley winner at the net (if I'm lucky). If not for the likes of her, there'd likely be no WTA Backspin, and you might be perusing the wares on SaveManny.com or some other such site.

So it's been heartening to chronicle the steady rise of the young Czech Maidens over the past two seasons. It's been like reconnecting with a special childhood memory. As 2005 neared its end, the Czechs had their own headlining "Supernova-esque" starlet in Nicole Vaidisova, and the growing number of other upcoming countrywomen made it easy to compare the current happenings to the Russian tennis revolution that's changed the face of the sport during the first half of the 2000's. It is true that the Horde and the Maidens do have certain similarities, some of them quite striking.



It's actually oddly easy to match up the roles of the members of the House of Russia with the House of Czech. Just take a look:

The Forerunner: Olga Morozova ('74 RG/Wimbledon/RU)...Vera Sukova ('62 Wimb.RU)
The First Star: Anna Kournikova...Martina Navratilova
The New "It" Girl: Maria Sharapova...Nicole Vaidisova
The Up-and-Comer: Lucie Safarova...Maria Kirilenko
The Late Bloomer: Nadia Petrova...Klara Koukalova
The Older Sister: Elena Likhovtseva...Kveta Peschke
The Disappointing End: Lina Krasnoroutskaya...Daja Bedanova

I could go on (well, for a little while)... but you get the idea. But that sort of thing is more fit for the WTA Yearbook (hint, hint...11 months in advance). Okay, one more:

Best Name Combination: Zuzana (Ondraskova) (Ekaterina) Bychkova

Any more will have to wait. But my point is that it's interesting to compare the tennis homes of the Russians and Czechs -- right down to the competing "ova's" on the mail boxes -- but maybe the question should really be whether or not the "Czech Revolution" is even a "revolution" at all. Unlike Russian tennis, Czech tennis has been in the vicinity of this neighborhood before... and actually resided in even classier digs that the Horde does today, to be honest. There was a time, not that long ago, when nearly all the top players, if they weren't Americans, were Czech-born.

From 1975-93, Czech-born women accounted for 22 slam singles titles and were runners-up 25 other times. Navratilova was #1 for 331 weeks (second-most all-time) and has more singles and doubles titles than anyone in professional tennis history. Mandlikova rose to #3 and won four slams (including pulling off the rare Evert/Navratilova combo in the '85 U.S. Open SF/F). Helena Sukova advanced to four slam finals, and Renata Tomanova played in two. On the men's tour, Ivan Lendl was #1 for 270 weeks (second only to Pete Sampras' 286 in ATP history), and Czech men have won 12 slam titles since 1970.

Navratilova escaped the influence of the USSR's Iron Curtain, defecting from Soviet-controlled communist Czechoslovakia in 1975 (she became a U.S. citizen in mid-1981). It took about fifteen years for it to play out to its conclusion, but it was the beginning of the end of the state-sponsored sports system that had produced so many great champions (a blueprint China is now trying to replicate). As Navratilova's singles career was winding down in the late 1980's, so was the very existence of the Communist Bloc. Ultimately, the Soviet totalitarian state fell in 1991, but it was preceded in revolution by most of its satellite governments in eastern Europe, including Czechoslovakia, which fell in "The Velvet Revolution" in 1989. Not ironically, the end of the line for the Czech power position in tennis ran parallel to the end of Czechoslovakia, which was split into the Czech and Slovak Republics. Wholesale social change -- even when it's for the good -- tends to put a temporary hold on sports. The case of Czech/Slovak tennis was no different, as the continuous line of champions experienced a clean break. Since 1990, only one Czech woman (Novotna - Wimbledon '98) and one man (Petr Korda - Australian '98) have been crowned slam singles champions.

Novotna was the last Czech-born female to end the season ranked in the Top 10. She was #3 in '98, when interestingly enough Martina Hingis finished at #2. Hingis was born in what was then communist Czechoslovakia in 1980, in a city in what is now Slovakia (so, on that and other technicalities, the "Swiss Miss" -- there's another -- doesn't play a part in all this... though her Czech roots, and that she was named after Navratilova, certainly give her strong ties to the "Golden Age" of Czech tennis).

Since 1990, Slovak tennis has only produced one player with what was thought to be "great potential" (Daniela Hantuchova), though the nation has thrived in team competition, winning the Fed Cup in 2002, then being runner-up in the 2005 Davis Cup.

It's taken fifteen years for the Czech tennis machine to gear itself up and spit out potential champions again, but the Czech "retro-revolution" has been steadily picking up steam the last two seasons. In 2004-05, there were more first-time WTA singles champs from the Czech Republic (4) than any other nation (second were Russia and China, tied with 3). In 2005, the country ranked fifth in total singles finalists (with 11, behind powers Russia, Belgium, France and the U.S.), with three players splitting a total of seven titles.

At the leading edge of the surge was 16-year old Vaidisova, who won three straight titles late in '05 (already giving her five for her career), while Klara Koukalova, 23, and Lucie Safarova, 18, won two apiece after entering the season having never won a WTA title. Safarova was one of only two players last year who claimed singles titles on both the WTA and ITF tours. Iveta Benesova, 22, was a first-time champ in 2004, while 20-year old Petra Cetkovska claimed six ITF crowns last season (third-best in '05). As of now, only #15 Vaidisova is ranked in the Top 20, but she'll be shooting to become the first Czech Top 10 player since Novotna by mid-season. The 2005 WTA season ended in November with a total of four Maidens in the Top 50, two more in the Top 100, and a whopping nine more in the Top 200 (while Cetkovska was nestled in at #201).

It's just the beginning... but it's not a "revolution," per se. Unlike the Russians, the Czechs have already flooded the tennis marketplace with talent once. Now they're just rediscovering their roots as the back half of the 2000's begins next week. Czechs changed the landscape of the sport almost thirty years ago, but can they do it again? Vaidisova will certainly play a vital (and big -- she'll be the subject of her own IQ later this week) role, but this first wave of Maidens might not have the same effect on the upper echelon of the game that the members of the Horde did. But, then again, wasn't it just a few seasons ago that we were debating whether the Russians' role on tour was a case of "quantity over quality?"

The Czech tennis comeback, a "Resurrection" rather than a "Revolution," is still in its infancy. But by the end of 2006, it'll have its first bona fide world star, and a solid foundation for even greater accomplishments down the road. Who knows, come 2010, the second "Golden Age" might be a reality.

1.The Resurrection will be in full swing in '06 as the total number of Maiden appearances in finals will jump from 11 in '05 to more than 15, putting the Czechs in direct competition with the Russians for most on tour
2.They'll claim at least 11 titles...
3. ...two of which will go to first-time champ Petra Cetkovska and vet Kveta Peschke (her first since '98)
4.But the leader of The Resurrection -- Vaidisova -- will climb the mountain quicker than anyone, moving into the Top 10, even ahead of Sharapova at some point during a season...
5. ...in which she'll claim at least 5 titles and -- I may as well walk the plank on this so I can shout about it if it actually happens -- (drumroll, please)... will reach her first grand slam singles final. (Put that in your pipe and smoke it.)

All for now.


NEXT: In 2005, Chekhov had nothing on the Russian girls. Will the same hold true in 2006?


Blogger thesupernova said...

I hope you didn't just jinx Vaidisova!

Fri Dec 30, 09:27:00 PM EST  
Blogger Todd Spiker said...

Well, I'm not picking her to finish #1. :)

Fri Dec 30, 11:33:00 PM EST  
Blogger Button Gwinnett said...

Hana was my favorite as well. And she remains my all time favorite player to this day.

Sun Aug 27, 02:18:00 AM EDT  

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