Tuesday, January 10, 2006

2006 Intriguing Question #1

The girl has star power.

If that line sounds vaguely familiar, it's because it should. It's the same way the Intriguing Question #1 began at the start of the 2004 season. That turned out to be a prophetic Backspin moment, for seven months later the WTA Tour would be changed dramatically at the All-England Club when a 17-year old Russian went Supernova.

Two years later, does anyone else feel a sense of deja vu coming on? Now, a 16-year old Czech has assumed the lead role in her country's ever-more-captivating tennis future, and as she and her fellow horde of racket-wielding Maidens charge into 2006 could we literally be on the eve of another major moment that'll be heard 'round the world?

There was a sense that something special might be brewing in Vancouver in late 2004, as Nicole Vaidisova became the sixth youngest tour champion in WTA history. Then, a year later that hunch was verging on becoming a certainty. Thus, the question lingers with an air of heady expectation...


The top Czech Maiden has some great things ahead of her, but in the tennis world of 2006 to be a true "star" means not only being a terrifically talented player (just ask Svetlana Kuznetsova, who barely registered on the international radar even after winning the '04 U.S. Open), but also having a big personality and an ability to casually jump from the court to a photo shoot and back again. One doesn't have to be an aspiring movie star like Serena Williams, or a perfume peddler like Maria Sharapova, but having an "it" factor that transcends the sport, the sports pages and places her name at or near the top of internet search lists? That's a must.

Okay, so Vaidisova appears to have the ability to get that area of stardom under control, too. But this girl is more than just the next teen pinup athlete coming to a cell phone ad near you. And, like Sharapova before her, she knows it.

There's a literally fine line between the virtual gulf that separates the likes of Sharapova, who's traversed the potentially damaging minefield (see Daniela Hantuchova) as well anyone before her, and Anna Kournikova, whose tennis accomplishments were minimal in comparison, though hardly nonexistent (she was a former slam semi-finalist and a doubles #1)... but the flash-heavy road she chose to travel caused her tennis abilities to be deemed incidental by many of the new fans she attracted, if not completely overlooked. Even with all her endorsements and advertising campaigns, Sharapova is still thought of as a tennis champion first and foremost.

Sharapova never intended to follow Kournikova's lopsided path, and it doesn't appear that Vaidisova will, either. Thanks to the Supernova, she has a new blueprint to follow. Her will to win will win her a lot of tournaments. She's already one of just six women in tennis history to claim five WTA singles titles by the time she turned 17.

Tracy Austin
Andrea Jaeger
Monica Seles
Jennifer Capriati
Martina Hingis
Nicole Vaidisova

You'll notice, all but Jaeger (a two-time slam finalist) won slam titles and/or were ranked #1 in the world. Vaidisova won't become an exception here. But the opponents for her aren't on that list, nor are they found in the great Czech tennis heritage that she's trying to resurrect.

51 Martina Navratilova (1974-81)#
27 Hana Mandlikova (1978-87)
24 Jana Novotna (1988-99)
10 Helena Sukova (1982-92)
10 Regina Mariskova (1976-81)
5 Nicole Vaidisova (2004-05)
#-also won 116 as American citizen (1981-94)

Vaidisova not only has the chance to be mentioned along with the best players in the game, but also to have her name on everyone's lips... even if they're only tennis fans by coincidence, osmosis, or maybe simply because of Vaidisova herself. That's a very potent power for a player on the WTA Tour to possess. In fact, with a partner in crime, we could see Vaidisova play a role in something very special -- a rivalry for the ages that comes about because of the actual accomplishments of both parties, not because of accidents of birth. Her equal partner, of course, must be Sharapova.

Opposites make for great sports matchups. At first glance, a pair of tall, photogenic blondes would seem to be more similar than different. And in the ways of their games -- they're both big serve, big point players with Bollettieri Academy-fashioned groundstrokes -- they are. Their will to win is the same, too, but it's that similarity that is their greatest asset that reveals their intriguing difference. While Sharapova maintains a hard-charging demeanor, she does so with a slick, controlled sense of style and decor (as long as you're not offended by all the grunting, that is); while Vaidisova is still a little rough around the edges.

Remember last year's U.S. Open? There, Vaidisova blew a lead against Nadia Petrova in the 4th Round and virtually exploded. She smashed a ball, threw a water bottle and essentially acted like an immature teenager. But, often, such emotion -- and channeling it -- is just as important an ingredient in becoming more than just a "good" player (see Jelena Dokic) as crisp groundstrokes and a strong court sense.

After losing to Petrova, when questioned about her outburst, Vaidisova said, "Anyone who doesn't get upset when they lose has not won very much." But maybe more important than her words was what she did on the court immediately afterward. After Flushing Meadows, she went from Vesuvius to turning everyone she faced into something akin to the denizens of Pompeii. She won three straight tournaments and 18 consecutive matches (only Clijsters and Henin-Hardenne fashioned better runs in '05). The titles came in small events, but learning to win small leads to winning big (just ask Kournikova, who never did the former and thus never was able to do the latter, either).

By the time the 2006 slam season closes in New York (which Vaidisova says is her favorite city... hmmm, THAT could be interesting down the line), the previous eight-plus months will have seen the Czech-born, self-professed Madonna fan "Causing a Commotion." No one will be asking, "Who's That Girl?" "Like a Prayer," she'll cross over the "Borderline," traversing the well-travelled path from Player to Watch to S-T-A-R. Her name won't be whispered, it'll be shouted.

Just like Sharapova's was in 2004. Strike a pose, Nicole.

But for how far will Vaidisova's shoes travel in Sharapova's 2004 footsteps? After all, their birthdays ARE only four days apart. Sharapova turned 17 on April 19, 2004 and won Wimbledon soon after. Vaidisova will turn 17 on April 23, 2006. Hmmm... interesting. She couldn't, right? Yeah, maybe not quite yet.

But how deep this Sharapova-Vaidisova link goes in '06 won't be nearly as far as it might in '07 and beyond. But it IS the future that this season will set up that should give everyone goosebumps. Imagine... live amidst the bright-lights, big-city atmosphere of Arthur Ashe Stadium... Sharapova vs. Vaidisova for the U.S. Open title. The crowd goes wild. It could put a Hollywood red carpet premiere to shame. We WILL see it. One day. And so will the rest of the world.. tennis, sporting or otherwise. Sharapova-Vaidisova has the ability to transcend the confines of tennis.

Without familial ties and/or questionable backbones to get in the way, Sharapova-Vaidisova could be a special rivalry about to happen. Women's tennis really hasn't seen a great longstanding rivalry for quite a while, since the Navratilova-Evert days in the late 1970s/early 1980s. Graf/Sabatini never panned out. One addled lathe operator prevented Graf/Seles from becoming historical. And family bonds held back Williams/Williams from ever reaching its desired heights.

Vaidisova, barring unforeseen circumstances, will reach the stage that will allow her to fulfill her role in the drama. And Sharapova will be there waiting for her, as the sport will bow to a great rivalry that will begin to be born as soon as Vaidisova makes her "breakthrough" (and when it happens, it'll be so big that absolutely no one will miss it). They've only met once at this point, in World Team Tennis action soon after Sharapova won Wimbledon in July 2004. Vaidisova, barely 15 at the time, beat the just-christened Supernova. Obviously, the girl had no sense of decorum even then. Isn't it great?

So sit back and wait for the upcoming epic "Battle of the Ova's." May the best one win... but really it'll be us and the sport that'll be flying higher than either of them.

What's Vaidisova on the verge of? Whatever she wants.

1.By the end of 2006, Vaidisova will be the most popular (and searched for) teen on tour not named Maria and Sania. In fact, she might even be ahead of both of them.
2.She'll become the first Top 10 Czech since Novotna, winning at least 5 singles titles, including at least a Tier II (and making a Tier I final).
3.She'll get a "real" win over Sharapova, too.
4.Vaidisova will play in the YEC, and reach the first of what will be many slam finals.
5.She'll be the first Czech to reach the #1 ranking since Navratilova first attained the top spot in 1978. It won't happen in 2006, but it will occur within the next two years.

All for now.


Anonymous Andrew said...

Oh, poor Nicole, I see another 'ova curse coming :)

Seriously, she is talented and should go very close to the top. The acid test, I think, will be surviving the "growing pains" phase that Maria S is currently going through, as well as surviving media, boyfriend, parent pressures, of course

Wed Jan 11, 12:36:00 PM EST  
Blogger Todd Spiker said...

Groenefeld's started 0-4 this year... so maybe she's this year's victim. :)

Wed Jan 11, 07:36:00 PM EST  
Blogger thesupernova said...

Great article! And not to nitpick but Sharapova's b-day is April 19, not the 24th.
I can't wait for the first Sharapova v Vaidisova match. If both players are healthy it should be an awesome match, worth owning on dvd and watching over and over!

Thu Jan 12, 04:05:00 PM EST  
Blogger Todd Spiker said...

Hmmm, guess I should have caught that considering the sentence before that said their birthdays are four days apart, huh? Let's see, 24 - 23 = 1, not 4, right? 23 - 19 = 4? Ahh, yes. That's it.

Thanks. :)

Thu Jan 12, 11:11:00 PM EST  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


You guys are way offline.

You see, Davenport beat Vaidisova 2 and 2 in Hong Kong, and 2 and 4 in the Aus Open 05.

And Sharapova plays a similar game to Davenport, even more intense and has the power to retrieve.

Vaidisova has a superb game, but unlike Sharapova, lacks mindpower and will - Sharapova will NEVER get angry at herself and just keep fighting, while Vaidisova will often get angry at herself and capitulate.

Vaidisova will not reach number 1. Number 2,3,4,5 is probably more realistic, and she'll only win around 2-4 slams.

And this is coming from a non-Sharapova fan. There are even more natural (and generally better) players such as Clijsters, HH, Mauresmo. These players have touch, class and power naturally, and judging by Vaidisova's play, she'll never develop such touch around the net and a court sense that of JHH.

Sorry, but Vaidisova's temper is equal to Mauresmo's choking ability. You're all way in over your heads.

Sat Jan 14, 03:22:00 AM EST  

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