Sunday, June 24, 2012

BSMVP 2002-12, Pt.2

After nearly ten years of Backspin, there are bound to be some MVP's with "unfinished business"... just like the entries for #16-20.

In the second group of "essentials," the cheeky, feisty, prehistoric -- and downright spooky -- sides of the WTA get their rightful due:

#20 - Tatiana Golovin
...born in Russia, representing France, and virtually growing up in America, Golovin was bound to be a "multiple personality" tennis player. "The Frussian Pastry," dubbed as such in this space because she wasn't quite a "full" French Pastry, Golovin had a penchant to produce either very good or very bad results. It was a sort of "Good Tatiana" and "Bad Tatiana" situation, with "The Two Tatianas" somehow combining to produce the "real" Golovin. Still, sometimes the difference was so stark that it was as if a bodysnatching had taken place. Armed with a big forehand, Golovin seemed set for great success, if she could manage to get out of the way of herself. Looking back at Golovin's career in preparation for assembling this list, I sort of wondered why I still had such a favorable memory of her despite a lack of truly great success, and with her oft-preferred (and distractingly unflattering) too low, too tight, bulging love handles-highlighting on-court outfits giving her an "unprofessional" look that always sort of bugged me. Apart from the nickname -- really, one of my favorites ever -- I think it was because back in 2006-07 she seemed like a player who was climbing the ladder one step at a time, and one who might be on the verge of something VERY good down the line. Backspin strapped in for a great ride. For a while, it looked like it'd be one worth the price of admission, too. In Miami in 2006, where Golovin had only recently moved, she took advantage of her homecourt advantage. With Anna Kournikova watching from the stands, against Maria Sharapova in the SF, Golovin overcame a 6-3/5-1 deficit and four match points to push Sharapova to the wall in the 3rd set. The Russian was forced to pull out all the stops, taking two oddly-timed (or not) bathroom breaks just as things got tight, but still finding herself in danger of going down a break to Golovin with the crowd ready to jump on Maria for her "gameswomanship." Sharapova wrestled away the lead in the deciding set, then saw Golovin tumble into the corner of the court, gruesomely turning her ankle and tearing two ligaments. One point later, Golovin was forced to retire, and Sharapova was hounded for her seeming on-court "indifference" to her opponent's injury. More than anything else, I think that one match -- albeit a loss -- gives me the favorable impression of Golovin that lingers to this day. Later that year, she reached the U.S. Open QF and met, wouldn't you know it, Sharapova. Golovin gave her a good match, losing 7-6/7-6 in the best match played against Sharapova during her "Exquisite in the City" Open title run. The next season, Golovin won her first two titles, got some attention for wearing bright red knickers under her dress at Wimbledon, and finished the year at #13. Ready to peak, she worked hard during the offseason and was focused and ready to make her assault on the Top 10... but then she injured her back. It was eventually diagnosed as a chronic injury for which there was no treatment. By the summer of '08, she'd already played her last match. Right when the story was about to get good, it just fizzled out. Golovin has since appeared in the '09 Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue, but her future appears to be in tennis commentary work. The Frussian Pastry has never officially retired, so I guess there's always that secret hope that the "lost chapters" of her career will eventually be written, but it's not likely a realistic dream. In a recent interview, she said, "I don't like to say never, and I'm still only 23 (now 24), but I don't think I will be able to play again. At least I don't think I'll be able to play professionally again." So, I guess Golovin is here for a great nickname, some bad fashion choices, a great match she never got to finish and a sad ending to what might have been a wonderful tennis story. To the very end... "Good Tatiana" and "Bad Tatiana." Fitting.

#19 - Sesil Karatantcheva
..."Come on... who can resist me?" And with those words from a 15-year old Bulgarian named Sesil back in 2005, a Backspin semi-legend was born. Oh, Karatantcheva was a very promising player back then, too -- the junior Roland Garros champ in 2004. But she's listed here because of the underlying sense of mischief that used to practically ooze from her pores. Essentially, in so many ways, she was a ruder, cruder, louder off-court version of Jelena Jankovic, but with a hint of "danger" inherent in her headline-grabbing comments. In '04, before playing Maria Sharapova, Sesil said she'd "kick her ass off," and the media stir was on. The bubbly, talkative teenager was like a character on an HBO sitcom, delivering age-inappropriate commentary with bright eyes and a sly grin. She said she learned to speak English by listening to the music of the Spice Girls, and she took to heart the notion of telling everyone what she wanted, what she really, really wanted. At various times, with something resembling affection, I called her "Bulgarian Bluster" and "Little Big Mouth" back then. In recent years, even Karatantcheva admitted to "always getting in trouble" in her early days, "kind of like the bad kid on the block." That said, she loved the attention, but she could back up her boasts. She famously knocked off Venus Williams -- who admitted to having never heard of her -- at RG in '05 and reached the QF as a 15-year old. By the end the year, she'd climbed to #35 in the rankings. Without any filter to speak of between her brain and her mouth, and talent to burn, Karatantcheva came off as something of a precocious -- warped, in a good way -- genius. Of course, then the real backlash arrived. Later in '05, it was reported that she'd tested positive for the steroid Nandrolone. She tried to explain the test results by saying that, at 15, she'd gotten pregnant and had an abortion, and the resulting chemical changes in her body had led to the positive drug test. Whether it was credible defense or not, it didn't matter. Either way, her's was no longer a "refreshing" story that the sport wished to trumpet. She received a two-year suspension covering the 2006-07 seasons, missing out on ultra-important developmental time for her game in her late teen years, but returned in '08 with a flourish, blazing through pre-qualifying, qualifying and the main draw in a challenger event in Surprise, Arizona to take the title. She won her second event back, as well. When asked what she'd learned from her two-year absence, Sesil said, "Always use condoms." Watching one of her comeback matches, Tennisworld's Peter Bodo said of her, I think, in one of the best lines EVER written about a player, that she was still "made to play and win tennis matches like a coyote is made to kill bunnies." Since then, though, while she has seemed to have matured quite a bit, she's had a hard time finding the consistency to get herself back into the Top 100. As it turned out, Karatantcheva, in a great interview with Bodo, said in '08 that that original Sharapova comment had come about because the Russian had previously brushed her off as a hitting partner at the Nick Bollettieri Academy, and her youthful exuberance had gotten the best of her. But she said what she felt then, and that's always been the refreshing thing about her... even if some things were sometimes better left UNsaid. She's still trying to make her way back. In 2009, looking for monetary support for her tennis, she began to play for Kazakhstan. Lately, perhaps right on time (considering her two-year blank slate), her game seems to have gotten a bit more traction. She's getting close to re-entering the Top 100 (currently, she's #116), and at Roland Garros last month she made the main draw as a "lucky loser" and notched only her second MD slam match win since '05, very nearly becoming the first "LL" to reach the 3rd Round in Paris in sixteen years. In her next event, she once again made a tour event draw as a "LL" and got a match victory. After all these years, Sesil still has that mischievous streak nipping at her heels. If she could ever get a few steps ahead of it, maybe (she's only 22, with two less years of wear on her body than would normally be the case) she can still make a name for herself as much with her tennis as for the sometimes-wild, always-bumpy road she's traveled to get from then to now.

#18 - Sania Mirza
...during her star-making turn at the U.S. Open in 2005, a nose-pierced teenager named Sania Mirza wore a series of t-shirts emblazoned with sometimes-cheeky sentiments. One of the more sobering phrases on her chest read, "Well-behaved women rarely make history." At the start of her tennis career, Mirza seemed to embody the sentiment. Breaking down barriers for young Indian girls and women, she won her first WTA title in her hometown of Hyderabad early in the '05 season. It was just the beginning of Mirza's rise to superstar status in one of the most populated nations on the globe. But it was in Flushing Meadows later that year where Mirza truly broke out. I wrote then, "Back in her home country, the 'Indian Princess' needs to be flanked by bodyguards to avoid being swamped. In New York, though, Sania Mirza could walk through Central Park and be mistaken for your average, multi-pierced 18-year old with a penchant for wearing t-shirts that announce her daily mood (or just serve to get people talking). No, she's not your average Muslim teenager... and it's not just because she's now ventured deeper into a grand slam draw than any Indian-born woman before her, either," noting that, "Occasionally, (she) smacks a ball down the line so hard that you'd swear that it must have made a disparaging remark about her nose ring." In just her fourth career slam appearance, Mirza ultimately reached the Round of 16, becoming the first Indian woman to ever do so. But it was her attention-getting post-match t-shirts and comments that made her that Open's "It" girl. Actually, she was Backspin's first official slam "It" girl, too. While I'd started to award special "Miss Opportunity" and "Upset Queens" awards at slams in 2004, it was the inclusion of the "It" girl award to the Backspin slam ritual that began the expansion to what is now a passel of honors given at each and every major, marking the day-by-day march through time of the season's four biggest events. Mirza was named the WTA's "Newcomer of the Year" in '05 and, with looks that matched her talent, she began to rival the likes of Maria Sharapova in endorsement deals in India. I even sometimes referred to her as "The (Indian) Supernova," as a take-off on Sharapova's Backspin moniker. Of course, Mirza's fame was a double-edged sword. Because of all the attention she received, she was put in the crosshairs of all sorts of Muslim groups in India that found issue with just about everything she said and did. She showed too much skin on the court, she didn't comport herself as a Muslim woman should, etc. There were protests and fatwas, and sometimes a real sense of potential personal danger, as well. Eventually, she even made the decision to no longer play tour events in India (though she did participate in the Commonwealth Games there in '10). For years, it seemed as if a few months couldn't pass without some "controversy" coming her way, usually through no fault of her own, such as the big brouhaha over an oddly-angled photo that seemed to show her propping her bare feet up in front of an Indian flag (an act which, we were told, was surely one that would bring down the Wrath of Khan on civilization as we know it), when she was scheduled to play doubles with -- egads! -- Shahar Peer, an ISREALI (as it turned out, they played together... and no walls came tumbling down as a result of such an "unnatural" act), or when a fatwa was issued by an obscure cleric because Mirza and her fiance were staying in the same house for a week before they were to be married. Still, she was the first Indian woman to reach the Top 50, Top 40 and Top 30, in which she finished the 2007 season. After that, her upward mobility ceased and, while still a big star in India, so did her growing name recognition in the sport. Quite possibly, it was a "perfect storm" that occurred: an ultimately limited game predicated on ridiculously hard groundstrokes, but no "Plan B" if things weren't going her way, as well as a lingering wrist injury that cost her parts of the next three seasons and, maybe, being worn down just a little by all the controversy and pressure spawned by her simply trying to be herself. Over time, Mirza has more adhered to the social mores of her country and religion, either for "her own good," or just because it made her life a little bit easier. While the flashy and opinionated Mirza of '05 has been muted, it should be noted that she did one say that she'd retire after she was married... but she's been hitched to Dubai-based Pakistani cricket star Shoaib Malik for over two years now, and hasn't announced the end of her career yet. In fact, while she still plays singles, she's made a great career for herself lately as something of a doubles specialist, reaching the Top 10. She became the first Indian woman to claim a slam title when she won the Mixed Doubles with Mahesh Bhupathi at the '09 Australian Open, and they just won a second at the '12 Roland Garros. With the Olympics coming up in London later this year, Mirza has the chance to add another "first Indian woman to" accomplishment to her resume. To date, only one woman from her nation has ever claimed an Olympic medal, a weightlifting Bronze in the 2000 Sydney Games. With controversy raging over India's Olympic doubles pairings -- for once, though, Mirza isn't the focal point of it -- it appears as if she'll be teamed with Leander Paes in London later this summer as she attempts to match or better India's previous best-ever female Olympic result. Backspin surely wishes her all the luck in the world, but no matter what happens there'll always be at least a little longing around these parts for the Mirza of 2005, back when she was as fun to watch play as any woman on tour and everything she said and did seemed like it was the newest revelation under the sun. Maybe because it sort of was.

#17 - "The Radwanska"
...who knows what evil lurks in the heart of the WTA? The Radwanska knows. The existence of Agnieszka Radwanska's shadowy, sometimes-meanspirited, Jekyll-esque alter ego was first brought to public attention earlier this year. The Rad's sole mission in "life" is to create havoc and mayhem where there is otherwise tranquility. To spread fear and dread to all corners of the WTA world, seeking vengeance on It's (and A-Rad's) enemies with no thought to the collateral damage that may occur in the process. From the weather to injury-related walkovers, from "crazy, mixed up" scheduling to weird draws, The Radwanska tries to stick its creepy hands into every proverbial cookie jar there is. Just like any creature with a bad attitude and clever Plan, The Rad has a few nemeses that It goes out of Its way to impact, and often tries to use whatever is handy to trip them up -- by any means necessary. If Maria Sharapova, a longtime rival of A-Rad, has a particularly difficult serving day due to windy conditions, you know it's because The Radwanska is hiding in the clouds, exhaling so hard that it kicks up a fierce breeze. If Victoria Azarenka loses her mojo by exchanging her trademark, AO-winning shorts for a fairly typical tennis dress, then loses her #1 ranking with an early slam loss, then you can bet your bottom dollar that it's because The Rad was whispering in the ear of the Nike fashion team during the dark of night, knowing the change would mess with Vika's head. With The Radwanska's existence only recently being uncovered, I suspect that It's position in the overall Backspin universe will only rise over time. At this year's Roland Garros, even I was infected by The Radwanska's insidious virus, as It sort of took over RG's "Daily Backspin." Like a series of bad dreams, the titles rolled out: "Love & War in the Time of The Radwanska," "All Quiet on The Radwanska Front," "Masque of The Radwanska," etc. I seemingly had no control. I COULD NOT stop it. In retrospect, though, it sort of worked out in the end. Sharapova won in Paris. The Radwanska was vanquished, and all was right again the WTA world. Until next time, that is. Just remember, for your own safety, never turn your back on a dark corner of the room... because that's when The Radwanska will get you.

#16 - Carl & Carla
...naturally, my caveman colleague -- and, lately, his significant other, Carla -- HAS to be included on this list, or else he'd have my head. Literally. Though, I'm sure he'll still soon be ranting and raving about wanting to "squish" me because he and his (far-lovelier-than-he) lady friend didn't finish higher. It's hard to believe, but Carl first filled in for me on an edition of Backspin over five years ago, and only later assumed his normal "Bare Bones Backspin" duties the weekend before most every slam. While we've had our differences over the years: I question his world view (namely, that it's flat), he threatens to squish me. I ask if he's ever heard of a pronoun, he says he's never wrong... then threatens to squish me. It's a never-ending cycle. Still, we uneasily co-exist, and only the holiday spirit has ever really allowed us to call a temporary "truce." I will admit that Carl's picks -- or "Carl Picks," as he so eloquently calls them) -- are sometimes pretty good. He DID pick Victoria Azarenka to win the Australian Open this year, something which he'll likely never let me forget. Carl has changed a little since he first contributed to Backspin. As far as I know, he hasn't been chased from a new home by angry, torch-and-pitchfork-brandishing villagers for a while now. And he seems to have gotten over his longtime fear of fire (fire baaaaddddd!), too. Though, honestly, I think he just avoids situations where he might come into contact with it. No matter, Carl HAS seemed to be a (little bit) better caveman since he met the lovely Carla. She's been a valuable member of the Backspin team this year, filling in for an often-M.I.A. Carl with her "Beautiful Selections," dah-ling. It's too bad she hasn't done better with them, as it's only given Carl more opportunities to spout off about his self-proclaimed dominance in all areas of anything that Carl chooses to take part in. Carl and I rarely see each other, so I suspect his threats will mostly remain idle ones. But I will never mistake him for a "friend," for he DID end his very first post with, I believe, a threat, courtesy of the line, "Todd back next time, if Carl no hurt too bad and take over "Backspin" for self." Carl will always bear watching with a suspicious eye, as far as I'm concerned.

16. Carl & Carla
17. "The Radwanska"
18. Sania Mirza
19. Sesil Karatantcheva
20. Tatiana Golovin
21. Martina Navratilova
22. Daniela Hantuchova
23. "The Next Big Thing"
24. Anna Smashnova & Anabel Medina-Garrigues
25. Caroline's 'Roo
HM- "Citizen Anna"

Next time: the Fair One, the one-time Head Honcho and... oh, someone.

All for now.

Other MVP Posts: #21-25 (w/ HM)


Blogger jo shum said...

Nice! I am glad that The Radwanska came on board.

Mon Jun 25, 12:00:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Eric said...

Did MaSha really just say, "Growing up in Russia, the Olympics was such a big part..."

I can understand and appreciate Maria's ties/fondness to Russia. I am the son of immigrants, too. But I think she really does need to separate her heritage and realistically look at her current life and where "home" is.

I would consider her nationalism towards Russia more acceptable if she said she was doing it because it's important to her family or sponsors or etc... Listening to her say things like "Growing up in Russia...," just makes it seem totally irrational. How many things do you remember before the age of 6? Like Azarenka came to the US when she was 15, so I can understand how she feels and remembers Belarus. And now Azarenka doesn't even live in the US anymore. If Maria also feels similarly distant from the US, then she should move back to Russia. It was good for Kuznetsova's soul to return to Moscow, so for a Russian nationalist like Maria, it should do wonders.

I remember when I made a conscious decision as a young adult as to where my home was. It comes down to the simple questions, where would you rather live and call home? All my friends, life, education, career opportunities, LANGUAGE are all tied to America. So I am American. Making this decision doesn't mean that I am dismissing or throwing away my heritage.

I think Maria needs to realize this distinction. Yes, she's an international brand, and yes, some of her money comes from international tournaments. But the majority of her money comes from companies that market to Americans. I don't see SugarPova selling as well in Russia or anywhere else. She also makes her multiple homes in America.

I think if Maria spent more time in Russia, she would realize, as I did, that she is an outsider to her mother country. Of course, since she's beautiful/famous/successful, very few people would keep her away and not be welcoming, but at the core, she's not one of them.

Anyway, besides that, she played well today.

Mon Jun 25, 02:20:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Zidane said...

Eric -

I have a friend. French by birth, he moved in Québec with his parents when he was 7. For the next 13 years, he would seldom visit his home country (maybe 2 or 3 times, mostly to see his grandparents). Then, his parents divorced. His mom decided to go back to France, while his father remained in Québec. Getting along better with his mother, he decided to move back in France at age 20.

Even if he had no friends, barely any contact, no real expericience of living in France, his 13 years spent in Québec were not void of French contact. His parents still mostly watched French TV and movies and listened to French music, making him keep contact with French culture. Though adopting some typical Québec expressions, his parents still kept their French accent (the accent and terminology are very different between Québec and France, in case you didn't know) with typical French terms and expressions, making him keep his accent even through high school. My knowledge of French (as in "typical to France") terms and expressions went way up by befriending him!

Spending a lot of time with him around age 16-20, I would never have hesitated to consider him as a Québécois, having no problems thriving in a Québécois environment. Yet, I was not much surprised when he told me of his decision to move back in France, because he maintained a strong cultural link with France even though he barely went back there in these 13 years.

I think it's very tough to assess one's cultural affiliation. First, they are not mutually exclusive. For example, though having made the decision to live in France, my friend has taken a strong interest in the current events and debates that are currently happening here since the winter (in case you're not aware of it, student strike, humongous protests, Bill 78 limitating freedom of speech and of association, probably inconstitutional, etc.). Likewise, Sharapova feeling American doesn't necessarily exclude her feeling Russian.

Second, one has to consider that in most of her public appearances, she is expected to appeal to an American or Western audience. Of course, in such contexts, she probably attenuates her Russian habits and linkages. In fact, your comment made me realize that, because I had never thought of it up to now.

Does it mean she's not American? No. Does it mean she's not Russian? No. It means that probably only she knows, and it's probably impossible to judge of the sincerity of what she says about her cultural heritage without knowing her personally. Yet, I know my friend often mentioned his upbringing in France, how things were different, how it gave him some perspective. And he moved from there at age 7. He probably wouldn't have moved back to France without his mother moving back herself; yet, his French "side" was palpable for anyone getting in close contact with him. Something that Sharapova being renowned for her distant and professional approach would never allow to be transmitted in public appearances. Making it a notch tougher, I guess, to assess where she belongs culturally.

Mon Jun 25, 03:41:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Eric said...

Hi Zidane,

I agree with a lot of what you said.

I think you hit the nail on the head regarding my issues with Maria's comments. It seems insincere. Yes, I agree that that's part of her public persona...but I think you can use actions to also judge someone's intent.

I feel like the key distinction is that your friend ultimately ended up moving back to France. Sharapova continues to live in the States yet professes (perhaps mindlessly) that she is Russian. Nothing is keeping her from moving so why not move back to Russia then? Kuznetsova made the move. Azarenka left the States...

Sharapova has the means and shouldn't have any concerns with her training being affected since there are many top facilities there. What she says and what she does doesn't add up. She needs a more believable reason to play for Russia or people are going to continue to challenge her affiliation.

(And by continuing to live in the US, when she has the means to go back, them doesn't that mean she prefers life in the states?)

I also agree that only she knows her cultural affiliation...Part of me thinks that sometimes she's assessed her situation and realized that she's painted herself in a corner and she can't backtrack now even if she wanted to. She might be able to change affiliations towards the end of her career or most likely after she retires, but doing so now would be disadvantageous and she would lose fans. She's nothing, if not savvy about her public image.

Yes, I heard about the student riots...hope you're not negatively impacted.

Mon Jun 25, 07:02:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Diane said...

I think that Maria's knowledge of the bullet her parents dodged, and her subsequent heartfelt generosity to the children of Russia speaks volumes.

I have a particular heritage I didn't even know about until I was 18 years old, and which I do not pursue in any active way, yet I feel it as a significant part of me. Some things transcend the seen and obvious.

Mon Jun 25, 07:39:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Diane said...

And by the way, these are such great picks. I feel really bad for Golovin; what a sad occurrence for her. I followed her career from the beginning and there was so much potential.

And Sesil, well, I wish she'd get a better ranking just so we could see her and hear from her! One of the tour's great personalities hidden in the rankings :(

I miss cheeky Mirza, too--but she still has quite a spark. And the forehand from hell.

Wonder how Carl feels, being placed right next to That Which Cannot Be Squished.

Mon Jun 25, 07:47:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Eric said...


I laughed when you brought up golovins live handles. It always seemed like she was deliberately showcasimg them with her wardeobw selection.


I think i stepped in it with what I said. Lol. You're right...her support of Russian causes is in line with her public statements.

I guess my opinion comes from larger issues on immigration in the US, but I'll abstain from going into it more here since its not the place.

I suppose I shld celebrate the American value of personal choice.

Mon Jun 25, 08:06:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Diane said...

Eric, Maria is always going to have that bit of controversy around her, I think. It's part of the Sharapova Mystique, perhaps.

Mon Jun 25, 08:46:00 PM EDT  

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