BSMVP 2002-12, Pt.3
The official origins of Backspin stretch back ten years now, so it seems appropriate to shine a light on "roots."
The third group of "essential" entries, numbers 10 through 15, includes a few individuals without whom this space would likely never have been born, plus the supernatural beings whose "fingerprints" are on everything that exists in Backspin, as well as on the entire tennis landscape populated by us "mortals." In other words, just your "run-of-the-mill" MVP's:
#15 - "Punch-Drunk"/"Punch-Sober"
...otherwise known as Elena Dementieva. Stretching back to the earliest days of Backspin , the Russian became known as "Punch-Drunk," quite possibly my all-time favorite moniker. She'd earned this less-than-complimentary nickname with her "wobbly-knee" style of play (like a punch-drunk boxer) when under pressure during a period when she continually made a habit of winning the 1st set against lesser-ranked opponents only to figuratively stumble around and ultimately squander the match in three sets. Although she was highly regarded, Dementieva was into her twenties without having yet won a tour singles title (and, unlike today, this was during a time when teenagers were still regularly winning WTA events). She began her career 0-4 in finals, starting with her first shot in 2000 Olympic Gold Medal match. While I came to love Dementieva's "Punch-Drunk" status, I vowed that she could shed the nickname if her on-court results warranted the change. At age 21, the long-overdue crown came in Amelia Island in 2003 and, keeping my word, I never referred to her by her old moniker again after she won title #2 later that season. "Punch-Drunk" was dead, and "Punch-Sober" was born. She'd earned the change (and, newly-confident, she even came back and won another title one week later), and I think the whole situation proves that a player who is often negatively portrayed in this space can rightly and justly change that characterization if said player actually manages to perform at a higher level (so consider that a memo to a certain Dane, who's already managed to pull off the nearly-unprecedented transformation from "most-favored" to "most-derided" over the past year or so... the pendulum CAN swing back in her direction). Of note, though I've always wished for another player to inherit the old "Punch-Drunk" label, no one has. Samantha Stosur probably came the closest, but gradually built upon her accomplishments after finally winning her first singles title at age 25 (after an 0-5 start) and then going on to win a slam at 27. In retrospect, Dementieva's entire career was a testament to a player who was able to, for years, cover up one horrendous shot (her serve), and work tirelessly to improve it enough that by the end of her playing days it was no longer the liability it has once been. Still, that ugly serve is probably THE reason why she's arguably the best player ever to never win a grand slam singles championship. Nonetheless, Dementieva's crisp groundstrokes -- the envy of most of the women on tour -- was a two-time slam finalist ('04 Roland Garros & U.S. Open) and Olympic Gold ('08) and Silver ('04) Medalist. Dementieva defeated Serena Williams (QF) en route to the Beijing '08 Olympic Gold, and maintained afterward that her win there was something she'd cherish more than she ever would have a slam victory. I'm sure she was sincere when she said it... but it felt more like an attempt to convince herself that the words were true since she questioned whether or not she'd ever be able to be in position to compare the two. She almost got there, though, as Dementieva narrowly missed a third slam final appearance when she failed to convert match point in the '09 Wimbledon semis against eventual champion Serena in one of the classic matches of the 2000's. With her ground strokes still among the best in the game, and her serve no longer the worst, Dementieva might have had at least another such opportunity. But she surprisingly retired at the end of the 2010 season, at age 29, her unfinished slam business never completed. She couldn't have had more regrettable timing, missing out on a huge opportunity to cap her career with her biggest win yet. Right before, and immediately after, Dementieva left the game, a string of first-time slam winners rose to the top of the game at the season's four biggest events, with three players in their late twenties reaching the winner's circle for the first time. In my "Decade's Best" series, Dementieva came in as the 15th-best player of the 2000's. With a slam title, she'd probably settled in somewhere between #6-#9. The sober reality of "Punch-Sober's" still likely-Hall of Fame worthy career is that it will always feel somewhat "incomplete."
#14 - Nadia Petrova
...maybe Petrova is coming in a little high on this MVP list, but I feel I owe it to her. After all, she's quite possibly the most star-crossed player of her generation, and certainly the most "unlucky" of the Russians. And, remember, we're talking about a crazy group that includes the slam-less Dementieva, enigmatic Svetlana Kuznetosva, overly-emotional Vera Zvonareva, and the collapse-prone (and then injured) Dinara Safina. Blessed with a big game and volley skills, Petrova always seemed tailor-made to be a slam contender... but her body continually let her down. Finally, she seemed to be ready to overcome her injury-prone past in '06. Already a two-time semifinalist in Paris, Nadia had dominated the clay season heading into Roland Garros, winning three titles and defeating Justine Henin in Berlin. As the #3 seed, she was arguably set to be the favorite to take her first slam title. But then she got injured in practice in the days leading up to the start of RG play. Hardly physically able, she gave it a go, but lost in the 1st Round. She hasn't reached a slam semi since, battling through injuries that have never really allowed her talent to matter when it's mattered most. Last year, Petrova battled Samantha Stosur in the longest (3:16) tie-break era match in U.S. Open history, eventually won by the Aussie. Stosur went on to win the title, while Petrova is a footnote. I've always longed for Petrova to have her day in the sun, but it's never really happened. And time is running out, if it hasn't run out already. Thing is, though, maybe time WILL ultimately be on her side. While many of her Russian generational counterparts are gone (Myskina/Dementieva), nearly gone (Chakvetadze/Safina), barely escaped being gone (Sharapova), look like their time might soon be limited (Zvonareva) or are an even bigger wild card (Kuznetsova) than Petrova is, there is Nadia. Still standing. Literally and figuratively. After years on the road, Nadia recently settled and is now living in south Florida. The stability seems to be working for her. Although she just turned 30, Petrova isn't showing any signs that age is dampening her results. In fact, injuries seem to take her out of commission a little less these days. Last year, after a nearly three-year drought, Petrova won a WTA singles title outside Washington, D.C. (should I take a little credit for sending her good vibes from such a short distance away?). Last month, she won a grass court crown in the Netherlands, completing a "career surface slam" and notching titles in back-to-back years for the first time in four seasons. Her week, in one fell swoop, raised her back into the Top 10 in doubles and Top 20 in singles. She followed up by reaching the Wimbledon doubles final with Maria Kirilenko, losing to the Williams Sisters (so, no great shame there). Now, I've wasted a lot of breath in this space wishing and hoping for greater things for Petrova. So much so that I've become gun-shy and now am generally afraid to even bring her up most of the time because, if I do, I figure it'll serve as a prelude to Nadia suffering some sort of calamity. But, still, I hold back on that long-promised "What If?" Backspin Special about a slam-winning Petrova because, in the back of my mind (WAY back, but back there nonetheless), I'm quite possibly still hoping she'll make it unnecessary during one wild two-week stretch some day in the future. With 49 slam appearances on her resume, no active player with a SF result in a major has gone as long without winning a slam crown (stunningly, she's played in 24 straight slams, and 38 of the last 39, only missing the Wimbledon after that '06 RG loss). Serena Williams thinks that "30 is the new 20," so maybe Petrova's time isn't over just yet. In an old WTA site bio, Petrova once said that Gone With the Wind was her favorite novel (it's a "great history of a woman and what she went through and how hard she fought," said Nadia). I tried to hang a "Scarlett" nickname on Petrova because of that. But it never worked. She'll always just be Nadia... but maybe it's a good sign that she was so enamored with a woman who continued to fight back, huh? Hey, the "What If?" can wait a bit longer, right? At the very least, she'll never go hungry again. Just like Backspin, as long as there's even a tinge of hope for Petrova to be able to do something great.
#13 - Venus Williams
...truthfully, as great as Venus has been through the years, I've never really had tons of fun writing about her. Well, at least not compared to her sister Serena. And, thus, you see, is the problem. While Serena's awesomeness is often on full display for all to see, hear and admire (or actively resist, depending on your POV), Venus is the more contained, less melodramatic Williams. While Serena has a "superhero"-like personality, the quieter Venus sometimes resembles a female "Clark Kent." During Backspin's years, Serena's long shadow has somewhat dimmed Venus' impact. As was the case with so many women, from Lindsay Davenport on down, Venus' career was forever altered by the presence of Serena. If Backspin had begun a few years earlier so that I'd covered the back-to-back "Summers of Venus" when she swept both Wimbledon and the U.S. Open in 2000-01, Venus would rank MUCH higher on this list. Just when Venus was hitting the prime slam-winning period of her career, Serena became THE star in the sport. In fact, the first official stand-alone edition of Backspin was ten years ago following the '02 Wimbledon, a slam won by Serena (over Venus in the final) after which she moved into the #1 ranking for the first time, replacing her sister. Venus never returned to #1 (Serena has -- so far -- spent 122 weeks there), while Serena went on to complete her "Serena Slam" early in the '03 season. But, still, Venus DID separate herself from the rest of the WTA field at the All-England Club, and THAT is where Backspin will always choose to fondly remember her. Before Serena began to encroach on her singular legacy there, as well, Venus and Wimbledon were synonymous as she reached the final eight times from 2000-09, winning five titles. The lawns were her muse, and she was the best grass courter in the world, invariably coming to London and raising her game to a championship level, no matter what her form or mindset might have been just before the start of the fortnight. Venus was perfectly suited to the lawns. Her wingspan at the net, footspeed and large strides always made the courts at SW19 somehow seem "smaller" for her than for any other player in the field. There, her volleys had more punch. Her forehand was more consistent. Her serve, while always hard, was more reliable. Her long legs helped her chase down balls on the edges of the court, eating up large swatches of turf with every large step. If you close your eyes, you can easily recall Venus approaching the net behind a huge, whipping forehand, planting herself at the net and daring her scrambling opponent to pass her, then gobbling up a well-intentioned shot and putting away a lethal volley with a "how dare you, in my house?" attitude. At Wimbledon, in her heart, her confidence was boundless, and it produced one of the most pure relationships between athlete and field of play in all of sport. Sure, I had a few issues with Venus' jumping fit in the post-Wimbledon final ceremony in 2005. While her child-like glee in the moment makes me smile now when I see it, but at the time it came soon after a devastated Davenport had held match point, and then was forced to watch Williams jump and jump and jump over and over and over again just a few feet in front of her for seemingly forever, and not just in the immediate afterglow of converting her own match point, either. And I won't even go into how I listed Venus at #4 on the "Decade's Best" list rather than #3, which went to Maria Sharapova in spite of Williams' seeming overall statistical superiority. The fact is, Venus probably SHOULD have been #3 ahead of the Russian, but I wanted the Hordettes to be represented in the Top 3 for the 2000's. Why I just didn't have them listed in a tie for the spot is a mystery to me. But, in the end, it'll always be about Wimbledon when it comes to Venus. With apologies to Justine Henin on the terre battau, there is no more ethereally pleasing a sight in tennis than Venus lifting the golden (and appropriately named) Venus Rosewater dish, with Centre Court's grass underfoot and an appreciative crowd surrounding her . The vision of her as the champion of Wimbledon is THE most indelible image of this past decade of Backspin.
#12 - Tennisrulz "Head Honcho" Pierre Cantin
...before there was Backspin, there was "Jelena Corner" on Jelena-Dokic.com. And before there was Jelena Corner, there was Tennisrulz.com. The creator of both was Pierre Cantin, the French-Canadian referred to around here as the "Head Honcho" back when the hierarchy at Backspin HQ extended through the roof and northward to Montreal. Needless to say, while this spot would likely never had come about if not for the rise of Dokic of more than decade ago, I probably wouldn't have bothered with starting down the path that led to Backspin if I hadn't linked up with Pierre through his sites. Essentially, Pierre provided the petri dish, while I guess I supplied the specimen. Ewww, that sounded positively gross, didn't it? Well, you know what I MEANT to say. PC and I used to compete in an off-and-on "Battle Royale" when it came to weekly predictions from 2005-09, but I think the best thing we ever did as a joint effort was the annual "Backspin Volley" in which we attempted to predict the year-end Top 10 at the start of the season. Of course, this little "think tank" ended up producing the "Kuznetsova Curse," so, in retrospect, I'm not sure how successful it REALLY was. The Head Honcho is still out there, living incognito in parts unknown, but he hasn't been seen around HQ or even come in through our "visitor's entrance" in a few years. At Backspin, in many ways, Carl has replaced PC as my (occasional) weekly picks "competitor" and major needler... though with the added threat of bodily harm that Pierre was always too polite to invoke. I wonder... could it be that someday we'll discover the ol' Head Honcho tied up in a cave somewhere, tucked away by my caveman colleague on the farthest reaches of the planet, a Stockholm Syndrome victim awaiting the call to do Carl's bidding? Although that DOES seem a little too complex a plan for Carl to pull off, doesn't it? Hmmm, a "plan."
Maybe Pierre will return one day in another form -- much like how Captain Jean-Luc Picard reappeared as "Locutus" in that spectacular "Star Trek:TNG" season finale, "The Best of Both Worlds," from years ago. Except Pierre won't be doing the bidding of the Borg. Rather, he might be answering to... The Radwanska.
Resistence, indeed, might just be fu-tile.
#11 - Jelena Dokic
...oh, how I wish that the comet that was (and still might be for a while longer) Jelena Dokic's career shined brighter in people's mind's eyes. In the end, she'll likely be more the answer to a few trivia questions ("Who defeated world #1 Martina Hingis in the 1st Round of Wimbledon in 1999?") than she'll be remembered as a player who actually accomplished quite a lot -- and did so very excitingly -- as a teenager. Her fans, though, of which I was and still am, will always remember her for the whirlwind of fist pumps and stinging winners that accompanied all her big wins. When it comes to following the dramatic arc that an individual player's career takes over the years, it generally pays to have been paying close attention at the start. The ultimate highs are more fun, but with that usually comes the lows that are simply downright demoralizing. It's usually worth it, though. And when it comes to the once-exhilarating, oft-frustrating and, still, occasionally fulfilling career of Dokic, the journey has been a wild, and surely exhausting, one. Aside from her "comeback" QF run at the Australian Open in '09 and her emerging-from-the-darkness singles title in Kuala Lumpur in '11, most of what I've written about an of-the-moment Dokic took place on Jelena-Dokic.com. But since JD is, quite literally, the reason that Backspin exists in the first place (as "Jelena Corner" debuted in 2001 and led to weekly WTA reports that eventually morphed into this space), I'd be remiss to not include her on this list. My penchant for using nicknames for players began with Jelena -- "The Fair One." Her off-court life so often resembled a soap opera-esque merry-go-round that she picked up another, "The Debutante" (of drama), along the way, as well. So, maybe the idea of often covering the players in the ongoing Backspin saga like they were in some sort of soap opera -- complete with cave people, alter egos and curses -- sort of grew out of the experience of trying to ride the wave of Dokic's career. Her never-ending story has seemed to be close to ending a few times over the years, but it continues. As has so often been the case, Dokic tennis life now finds herself in another "hand-wringing" chapter, having seen her results go down the rabbit hole since her KL win, and with injuries knocking her out of action for most of the 2012 season. She'd expressed a desire to climb back into the Top 20 this season, but her absence has almost knocked her out of the Top 200. Could the end be near? Maybe, but similarly frustrating times have come about on Jelena Corner before, and they've almost always been followed by at a few better moments in time. Eventually. If you wait long enough. When the day does arrive when Dokic walks away for good, I'll surely put together all my thoughts and personal memories into a heartfelt tribute to a player who has always fought back -- sometimes with success, sometimes not -- be it against herself, her family, depression, bad luck, injury, controversy and whatever else has been put in her path. That battling trait, even more than any win she's ever had or will have, is why she'll go down as Backspin's "most special" player of all, even if she isn't its official "MVP." I WILL write that tribute... but I hope I won't have to do it for at least a while longer, and maybe The Fair One will even see fit to provide one more great chapter to remember her for before the time DOES arrive when she's no longer around to make yet another comeback. Crossing fingers.
#10 - The Tennis Gods
...the "Tennis Gods" are nine immortal and all-powerful beings. A secretive, soundless Greek chorus that oversees and directs with a sometimes-invisible hand all aspects of professional tennis in the past, present and future from their seats on the Supreme Court of Tennis. Anything that happens in the sport is because of them, or allowed BY them. If it does not happen, it is because they wish it to not be so. The Gods have often been referenced in Backspin through the years as a way to explain the odd occurrences that sometime come about during a WTA season. The TG's keen awareness and biting (some might say warped) sense of humor have blessed us with a few unique "gems" that we would never have dared to dream up ourselves. Hence, one Miss Jelena Jankovic. Yet, even with all the tremendous power they wield, we know very little about them. We've only been privy to the names of five of the TG -- Goolagongis, Borguese, Connorsican, Evertienne and Lendl -- and we don't even know if all those are still serving in the same capacity as a few years ago, when Their Highnesses last deigned to make official contact with a certain appropriately-reverential Backspinner.
Her Highness, the Goddess Goolagongis
(authenticity of photo unconfirmed)
One of the Gods DID agree to write a guest Backspin column a few years ago, though: Goolagongis, the slightly imperial and condescending-to-"little-brained mortals" Goddess who oversees the happenings at the Australian Open. Oddly enough (or maybe not?), in the June 2008 Backspin in which we heard from Her Highness, the Player of the Week was -- wouldn't you know it -- Agnieszka Radwanska, years before we learned about the Pole's shady alter ego. Talking about the Radwanska siblings, Goolagongis said of Aga, "as you've noticed, the older sister is improving all the time, and even more quickly than even she expects," and talked of the Gods' "plans" for her. Thus, it seems that the research that uncovered this little nugget of information may serve to add another potential layer of intrigue to the inexplicable story of The Radwanska.
10. The Tennis Gods
11. Jelena Dokic
12. Tennisrulz "Head Honcho" Pierre Cantin
13. Venus Williams
14. Nadia Petrova
15. "Punch-Drunk"/"Punch-Sober" (Elena Dementieva)
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: a Dane, a Curse, the Hordettes and the greatest player in Backspin history.
All for now.
Other MVP Posts: #16-20, #21-25+