The Best of Times...
They've been part of the best of Backspin times. They've been part of the worst of Backspin times. First up, the best.
About a year ago, I made the first announcement in this space of the "All-Time All-Backspin Team," bringing together as one all the "most favored" players who have helped to shape Your Friendly Neighborhood Backspinner's tennis psyche over the years, starting back with those extremely fuzzy childhood memories of Bjorn Borg being the king of Wimbledon. Some on the list were instant favorites, while some took a bit of wearing before they finally fit like a glove.
Not much has changed with the list in twelve months. But at least one player HAS been promoted, while another that once seemed to be "on deck" for entry into the club has slipped back badly, replaced by a contemporary who, in some ways, is starting to resemble another "social climber" who eventually found her way into my very good graces. That said, here's what I said in 2011 (updated, when necessary), along with a few 2012 comments thrown in to bring things up to date.
=ALL-TIME ALL-BACKSPIN TEAM=
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 decade. 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 metaphors. 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.
[ Since her KL win, tennis hasn't been kind to Jelena over the past year. She reached another final last summer, but hasn't advanced past the 2nd Round in any of her other nearly-twenty tournaments. Oh, and Damir is back in her life. Sigh. Well, obviously, similarly hand-wringing times have come about on Jelena Corner over the years, but they've almost always been followed by better times ahead. Eventually. If you wait long enough. I've been waiting for nearly thirteen years now. I can wait longer and, even if something better never comes around again, I'll still miss The Fair One greatly when she's really gone. ]
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.
[ Talk about passing a torch. The Dokic/Novotna link in '99 had been preceded by Novotna winning her title a year earlier with another All-Time Team member -- Hana Mandlikova -- acting as her coach. Then again, last year, when a certain new 2nd Teamer won HER first title at Wimbledon, guess who was there in the stands cheering her on as a fan and public admirer of her talents. Yep, Jana. I tell you, the Tennis Gods must have SOMETHING to do with this. Oh, and have you seen Jana in any of those "Legends" doubles matches at the slams? I tell you, she might be in better shape now than she was in her prime -- and could probably "pull a Navratilova" and play doubles on tour well into her 40's if she wanted. ]
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.
[ Boris never really totally goes away. Just like the charisma he had in such abundance at an age when he had absolutely no "right" to have it. ]
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 me 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, 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 a 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. Representing Czechoslovakia, 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.
[ We see Mecir nowadays as the Slovak Republic's Davis Cup coach. ]
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 my old Jelena Corner columns on JD.com, 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.
[ Hmmm, I guess that turned out to be a not-so-subtle hint about the top member of the "All-Time Anti-Backspin Team," huh? ]
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 my elementary school years. 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.
[ Borg and McEnroe's rivalry has been chronicled in both book and HBO documentary form over the past year. ]
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.
[ Well, the quest didn't last too long. Kvitova won Wimbledon last summer. She suffered another downturn after that, before roaring back to life in the season's closing weeks. More than anything, that quick snap-back, and the belief that she has her champion's head in the right atmosphere, solidified her promotion to 2nd Team from her spot on the "Hopefuls" list a year ago. Of course, there have been and are still rocky road moments in Kvitova's path to more success. She's so far failed to grab the #1 ranking, and her "Novotna-esque," error-strewn in-match drifts still pop up far too often. Throw in her asthma making her a question mark in hot (especially North American) environments, and a career of alternating high-and-low points seems a sure bet. Oh, but when she's "on," she's awesome. She's easy to root for. She's Czech. She's great on grass. She makes you want to ram your head into a tree on occasion, but you still willingly step back up to the bar the next time she hits the court. In other words, she's nearly a "perfect" All-Backspin Team member. ]
**Hopefuls/Almosts & Nice Ideas**
[ Well, yeah. The storyline has sort of changed here. In fact, she's off THIS list. At the very least, a member of the "Backspin Inner Circle" has to want to the best he/she can be. And Dane's rest-on-her-laurels, blame-everyone-else-for-the-criticism-of-her-slam-failures, create & hire & fire "coaches" pattern, a-little-TOO-precious Clijsters-like desire to please and apparent inability to admit that her own preferred game style stubbornness might have already put a permanent ceiling on her slam prospects makes me question her commitment. Not to being a very good, well-earning, tour-supporting tennis player... but being the sort of TRUE champion that a player who rises to #1 SHOULD be -- one that is willing to knock down every available door in order to live up to their standing, fight off criticism with their play ON the court and not "waste" any of the prime years of a finite career. The replacement for Wozniacki on the "Hopeful" list doesn't have that probem. ]
Victoria Azarenka, BLR... Vika has always existed on the peripheral of Backspin's consciousness, with a big move by her being the long-awaited next step. Until she made it, though, it was going to be hard to commit to her. But over the last year, she's finally made it. Fully committing to making the most of her career by making more intelligent decisions (as far as her "injuries" and schedule) and being less of a "crazy kid," she decided to conduct herself like a champion both on and off court. The result? An Australian Open title, the #1 ranking and one of the best starts to a WTA season in ages. Better yet, the very same anger-fueled emotion that brought her down in the past is now being channeled smartly into her drive to win, making it even more difficult to beat her as her confidence grows with every match. Much like Henin, whose overt (over?) desire to win was close to being TOO much, at least to fully embrace her, early on, Azarenka's stick-it-in-your-eye-while-I-win reaction to all the "Whack-a-Vika" criticism about her on-court shrieking has me smiling all the time now. Henin's "wave off" of Serena at Roland Garros made me dislike her, then she won me over with her U.S. Open heroics a few months later. Watching Azarenka angrily come back to defeat Carla Suarez-Navarro in a RG match in '09 wasn't a pretty sight, but with a little spit and polish she's turned her sometimes-childish reactions into those of a more seasoned player who isn't going down without a (literal?) fight. While she's not "bad," Azarenka IS often drawn that way. Just like Henin was on more than one occasion. LPT's ever-present hat might have been white, but she filled Backspin's role of lovable, black-hatted "villain" quite well. Over time, we'll see if Azarenka can wear her own version of The Hat (maybe it's the The Shorts?). If so, Petra might have some company.
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.
[ Occasionally, Nadia still produces a few, "Oh, Nadia!" moments, like her Indian Wells win this week over Sam Stosur. But the moments of resignation are still far more common. ]
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, "Lost Generation" years. To this point, at least.
[ Chelsey is still playing college tennis for Georgia, but the "Bannerette Watch List" has grown incredibly over the past year. As far as the youngsters, I'm still more intrigued -- as far as this list -- with the likes of Madison Keys and Sloane Stephens. But the likes of Christina McHale, Taylor Townsend and others are just a few "moments" away from jumping up here. ]
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.
[ Slowly but surely, del Potro is working his way back. As I'll likely never be an Andy Murray fan, dthe Argentine is still by top alternative to the Big 3 (not 4, as some like to count, since the Scot actually has to win something to earn such inclusion, in my opinion). Over the past year, I've come to like Milos Raonic and Ryan Harrison -- but not Bernard Tomic -- enough to consider them as potential future inclusions here. ]
...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.
[ Navratilova is easily my favorite post-career player. She'll make her "Dancing with the Stars" debut next week. I just hope she doesn't become the butt of jokes afterward. Last summer, Sabine Lisicki's big game and just-as-big smile nearly allowed her to leap-frog a few people and get onto the lower level of one of these lists. But she's not there yet, and one wonders if her always-iffy health and inconsistency will ever allow her to cut a wide enough swath through the tour to live up to her potential, both here as well as in her career. Hmmm, who else? Well, if either or both of the Pliskova Sisters ever had a REAL breakthrough, there's always room for another Czech -- or two -- around here. ]
ALSO THIS WEEK: The All-Time Anti-Backspin Team
All for now.