Sunday, August 19, 2012

BSMVP 2002-12, Pt.4

As the end of this 10th anniversary MVP list nears, it's time to focus on a handful of what might be called "original cast members" in the ongoing storyline that has consumed this space for a decade.

The fourth group of "essential" entries, numbers 5 through 9, includes such originals as the first phenom, the first "loopy" persona, the first onslaught of a band of tennis landscape-changing revolutionaries, and the first invocation of an "otherwordly force" on which to blame things when predictions go awry. And they always do.

And that's not even counting the inclusion of a player who still might, in the long run, turn out to be one of the Backspin "greats"... even if it turns out to be for reasons totally in opposition to those for which she appeared to be so potentially important just a couple of seasons ago. In many ways, SHE might be a living, breathing and still-with-an-entire-career-ahead-of-her "Backspin first" still waiting to happen. In fact, that player is where I'll start this latest group of MVPs:

#9 - Caroline Wozniacki
...oh, I had such grand plans for Caroline Wozniacki before reality got in the way. But, have no fear. Things might just turn out even better when all is said and done. Well, at least for me. A few seasons ago, as Justine Henin -- the longstanding "face of Backspin" -- had exited the WTA scene (for the first time), the role of "most favored" player in these parts was up for grabs. And then the Dane walked through the open door. Or so it seemed. She burst onto the scene, started winning titles, reached the U.S. Open final, became #1 (without winning a slam), and seemed up to playing the part of the latest phenom. Although I'd had a bad experience with another smiley blonde tennis star years earlier, I pushed aside any off-court similarities Wozniacki shared with Kim Clijsters and embraced the moment. C-Woz was "The Princess of Charm," with a touch of tenacious harm. She needed to add components to her game, but her desire to win seemed strong enough to believe that she'd do what was necessary to progress. But, no matter what she believed, Wozniacki wasn't operating in a vacuum. There were other players in her generation working to improve upon their already-more-slam-champion-like games than the defensive-minded Dane's, and Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova were on the comeback trail. Wozniacki was capable of winning a slam with her original game, with a few tweaks, a few years ago, but the window for such a feat was closing quickly as everyone ranked behind her was gaining fast. But she refused to accept that reality. Instead, she talked about "having time" to win a major, and stubbornly stated her belief that she shouldn't fix what's not broken (no matter that "improving" didn't necessarily mean anything was "broken," per se). Meanwhile, as Wozniacki twiddled her fingers, seven different (more hard-hitting and aggressive) women not named Caroline won slams over the last two seasons, while she's recently had to fight against slipping out of the Top 10. Through it all, Wozniacki went from the potential NEW "face of Backspin" to it's biggest antagonist, transforming in many ways from the "new Henin" to the "new Clijsters." I must say, it was quite a feat. A surreal one, in fact. Few things are viewed as a worse offense in this space than a top player's outright refusal to do what obviously needs to be done to be the best player they can be. Well, unless it's doing that AND criticizing others for pointing it out, while ALSO being preoccupied with other nonsensical things at the same time. Somehow, Wozniacki managed to do all that, as well as ramp up her off-court marketing presence (she's debuted her own line of underwear) and visibility (as golf star Rory McIlroy's girlfriend), along with sometimes playing the role of apparent mouthpiece for WTA CEO Stacey Allaster's (don't-you-have-better-things-to-do?) campaign against on-court grunters/shriekers and flashing an immature defensiveness by lashing out at the likes of Martina Navratilova for daring to simply say that Wozniacki needed to improve her game (something which, by that time, should have been obvious to the Dane herself, not childishly argued against). Whew! And all that's pretty much happened in just a little over a year. I've hammered her quite a few times for it all, too. Probably a little too harshly on at least one occasion. But it was all in good "fun." Well, on some level. To her credit, Wozniacki has at least spent much of '12 (belatedly) trying out new things. She's still being overlooked (coached?) by her father Piotr, but she did undertake a (misguided) partnership with coach Ricardo Sanchez that mercifully went by the wayside pretty quickly, and has recently added Thomas Johansson to her team. So far, results have been mixed. There has been much Backspin talk -- dubbed "Wozniology-101" -- over the last couple of seasons about what is and isn't right for the Dane's game and future prospects. While the talk of whether she was TOO defensive-minded, and how she could add to her game without detracting from what she does best, was eventually run deep into the ground, the subject of Wozniacki herself continues to be an intriguing one. It's why she ranks so high on this list, while her slam-winning twentysomething contemporaries are still a little too new to the scene to have been included at this point (although Victoria Azarenka has been making a nice case this season for herself to be a true mover-and-shaker on this list if it ever gets updated in the future -- and will likely single-handedly spawn a new season-ending, 2012-only MVP list at the end of the year). You see, I'm envisioning this Wozniacki back-and-forth lasting quite a while longer. For good and for bad. Both on court and off. Even if Caro never comes close to getting back into Backspin's "good graces," while she may never be up to rising to the level of a "Barbie"-like (KC) antagonist, playing the role of a wannabe "Midge" would still make her a constant companion around these parts, with her alternate rises and falls continuing to be grist for the Backspin mill for years to come. She's already managed to essentially fill TWO spots on this MVP list, with her "proverbial 'roo" coming in at #25. As far as "Backspin immortality" goes, it's a good start. Plus, with Wozniacki having managed to pull off the unprecedented transformation from would-be "face of Backspin" to Clijstersian adversary, who's to say she can't swing the pendulum back in the OTHER direction? I mean, if I can reach a "truce" with Clijsters, anything is possible. Stay tuned. The Dane might just turn out to be the most fascinating MVP of them all.

#8 - Anastasia Myskina

...ah, the "Czarina." In effect, she was the sometimes-loopy "mother" of the 2000's Russian tennis revolution. While Myskina has since been surpassed by several of her countrywomen -- especially Maria Sharapova -- in most categories when it comes to career success, her biggest "first Russian woman to" accomplishment is the one that will always give her a place in the history of women's tennis. The 2004 Roland Garros champ was the first Hordette to lift a slam trophy, and her win finally lowered the floodgate and unleashed the Russians onto the WTA tour with the knowledge that a grand slam title WAS possible for any of them. But Myskina isn't an "essential" player for Backspin because of that. She's here because she was the first player I really had fun with in this space. Her sometimes which-way-is-up? results, on-court theatrics and often unintentionally charming off-court comments made her, even without her sometimes-overlooked success, one of the most entertaining players on tour over the past decade. I loved to collect some of her wonderfully nutty moments and sometimes-broken English comments into a regular segment I called "The Mind of Myskina." A nice example: after being challenged by a lesser-ranked opponent, she honestly said, "I must admit, she surprised me a lot by playing such good tennis today." You see some very Myskina-like traits in the likes of players such as Li Na (who can always bring an easy smile to anyone listening to her post-match comments) and Agnieszka Radwanska (whose often pointed comments about some of her contemporaries can make one bristle, but still can't touch some of the things Myskina once said about members of the Sharapova clan, with whom Anastasia simply did not get along), but the Czarina will always remain a unique figure. She wasn't the greatest Hordette, but, at her best (with or without a racket in her hand), she might have been Backspin's "guilty favorite."

#7 - The Hordettes
...most of the last decade on the WTA has been defined by a "three-headed monster" of collective forces consisting of two Sisters, two Belgians and a whole horde of Russians. While there are many nations that have put together strong fields of players since Backspin's origin, none have come close to the influence of the Hordettes. Even before their breakout 2004 season, in which Russian women won three slams, the WTA Championships and the Fed Cup, you could see the Russians massing at the WTA's border, preparing to seize control of a majority of the top rankings and titles. And, for the most part, they have. In '04, four Russians finished the year ranked in the Top 6, and the nation has been a consistent force in the sport ever since. Team Russia won FC titles four times in five years between 2004-08. Two players from the generation (Maria Sharapova and Dinara Safina) eventually rose to #1 in the world, and at least two Hordettes have finished in the year-end Top 10 every season since Anastasia Myskina and Elena Dementieva first did it in '03. Since Anna Kournikova became the first post-Soviet era Russian to find WTA success in 1997, finishing in the Top 10 in 2000, eight other Russian women have reached the Top 10 since '01, more than any other nation during that span. In all, they've won seven slam crowns, produced twelve major runner-ups, one singles Gold Medalist, and put four other players on the Olympic medal stand (including a sweep of all three spots in Beijing in '08). Ultimately, the level-headed Sharapova, after surviving career-threatening shoulder surgery, has emerged as the most enduring Russian force in the sport, outlasting pretty much all of her more emotionally-hampered Russian countrywoman as a slam threat and completing a Career Grand Slam this season in Paris. While the overall impact of the NextGen Hordettes will likely never come close to the group of current veteran Horde members who are playing out the back-half (at best) of their careers, it's just as unlikely that any group of players from any other nation will ever have the impact that the Russians have had over the last decade of Backspin. The dubbing of their overwhelming number of contenders "The Horde" has been a useful tool. Surely, it's been the most used moniker for a group of players in this space, which has seen fit to try to re-create -- on a smaller scale -- similarly-collective titles for players from other nations. But while some have stuck -- The Pastries (French), Maidens (Czech) & Bannerettes (Americans), others have bombed (remember the Noodles, shorthand for the Italians? Yeah, it's best that you didn't.), while at least one (the "Swarmettes," for the Romanians) has lingered in spite of itself and the inconsistent nature of the players who fall under the name. But the Hordettes stand alone, for all the right reasons, never be topped as a collective WTA force during the lifespan of Backspin. Although, as usual, it's probably not a good idea to overlook the Germans.

#6 - "The Supernova"
...Maria Sharapova, or should I say "The Supernova," was the first WTA phenomenon of the "Backspin era." On the heels of Anna Kournikova's inability to combine off-court marketability with high-level on-court success (though Anna K. is perennially undersold as a player, as she WAS a slam semifinalist, Top 10 singles player and doubles #1, even if she didn't ever manage to win a singles title before injuries finally shortened her career), Sharapova promised to be an upgrade to the original model. And she was, too. In "going Supernova" by winning Wimbledon at 17 in '04, she established her generation's template (and that of each one since) for a tennis "starlet." Though I didn't (totally) correctly call her ascension back then, I did come close (picking her to reach the final before her "surprise" title run, then seeing Sharapova's big moment becoming more and more possible by mid-tournament). So many times since Sharapova's breakout, the promised "Next Big Thing" has failed to live up to the hype, but that has never been the case with the player who went supernova before them. When the Supernova won big titles, she did it with the utmost of style, managing to tear out an opponent's heart, then smile for the cameras even as the still-warm blood of her defeated foe's most vital organ continued to drip down her arm... but never stained her fashionable tennis attire. In the slam title run that most defined her Supernova years, Sharapova was "Exquisite in the City" in her little black dress at the '06 U.S. Open. I called her "La Belle Dame Sans Merci... the beautiful lady without mercy. It seemed to fit. When she handily won the Australian Open in '08, the Russian seemed on the cusp of dominating the tour. And then the Supernova Era ended. Sharapova's career nearly did, too, as a misdiagnosed shoulder injury resulted in rotator cuff surgery and a four year battle to get back atop the WTA mountain. Battling a now-balky, post-surgery serve and confidence issues, Sharapova had to remake her game. When she finally did earn back the #1 ranking earlier this season, she did so by completing her Career Grand Slam with a win at Roland Garros -- on clay, the surface on which she'd once compared her movement to "a cow on ice." After seasons of hoping to welcome my old friend, the Supernova, back, since Sharapova finally has become a major champion again, I've come to realize that "THE Supernova" will never be back. She's a part of Sharapova's -- and Backspin's -- past. And that's all right. By definition, a supernova is supposed to be a short-term phenomenon, and, I admit, there is some sense of "relief" that the moniker I hung around Sharapova's neck eight years ago turned out to have an abbreviated lifespan, after all. It just feels more realistic, you know? Of course, that doesn't mean Sharapova's career is over. Far from it, in fact, it would seem. The player who solidified the Russian tennis revolution has turned out to be the one who has almost single-handedly sustained it into the 2010's, albeit in "2.0" form. Since her RG win, she's added "Olympic flagbearer" and her first Olympic medal to a career accomplishments list that already includes the roles of spokesperson, model, businesswoman, tennis ambassador, intense competitor, champion, "most famous face in the WTA" and, any minute now, candymaker (Sugarpova is coming!!). Plus, she's set to be married after the 2012 season. With so much on her plate, even when she sets down her rackets, Sharapova won't be going anywhere for a very long time. After being burdened with the pressure of having so much talent as she emerged from the Bollettieri Academy, Sharapova has arguably outpaced some of the more optimistic scenarios that revolved around her future when she was just a kid. Having outgrown her "Supernova" beginnings, in so many ways, she's turned out to be much more than a sudden star that illuminated the sky, then faded to darkness. So, for the first time in this space, I'll take this moment to finally put to rest the eternal quest for the resurrection of the Supernova. Maria -- and a certain Backspinner -- don't need HER to return to fully embrace the Russian's career and prospects anymore. R.I.P., Supernova. And long live Sharapova.

#5 - "The Kuznetsova Curse"
..."the devil made me do it." "Everything happens for a reason." "Karma." "The Kuznetsova Curse." For anything that occurs, there's always a reason, excuse, or dose of blame ready to be pulled out to explain it. In this space, while predictions do come true on occasion, just the lightly tapping of a particular player to achieve something is reason to think that, since the possibility was even brought up that it COULD happen, that from that point on it might now have ZERO chance of actually becoming reality. The notion has history, too. In fact, it even has a name. "The Kuznetsova Curse" goes back more than than seven years now, and was unleashed upon the WTA (and, later, ATP) landscape all because of one double-headed prediction back in 2005. You see, after the official birth of the Russian tennis revolution back in 2004, Tennisrulz Head Honcho Pierre Cantin and I posted our dual Top 10 predictions for the upcoming season that January. Without any consultation between the two of us, we'd both picked the same player to finish as 2005's #1-ranked player. And it wasn't a "tried and true" champion, either. It was Svetlana Kuznetsova, the third Hordette who'd grabbed a slam title (U.S. Open) in '04, and who'd finished the year at #5. We both had surmised that the hard-hitting teenager might just be the "most talented" of the Russian horde. Of course, as soon as the predictions were made I knew they -- and Sveta -- were doomed. As I said then, "hmmm. Both Pierre & I picked Kuznetsova to be #1? One is a prediction. Two is a jinx. So, it probably won't happen now. Sorry, Contessova. (Psst... blame Pierre!)" I didn't know how right I was. After reports of a failed drug test greeted her at the Australian Open, Kuznetsova suffered through a less-than-compelling "year after," becoming the first defending U.S. Open champ to lose in the opening round, and finished the season at #18. Thus, the "Kuznetsova Curse" was born... and lives until this day, and into the future. The Curse seems to have covered the Russian's entire career. Dinara Safina aside, the free-spirited Kuznetsova has been the most enigmatic of the Hordettes. She's always been supertalented, with two slam crowns and years of Fed Cup leadership to prove it, but is probably the most boom-or-bust player who has shown the ability to "win it all" over the last decade. For years, she's often bounced back and forth between being "focused & lethal" and "distracted & an upset waiting to happen." The change can occur not only between tournaments, but between rounds in a single event... and sometimes between sets, games and, even, points. You just never know when Sveta will start to look like she has something else better to do than hit a fuzzy yellow ball with a racket. The Curse eventually spread to other players, and has become the easy thing to "blame" whenever a perfectly reasonable prediction ends up looking pretty bad once the dust has settled, while (fill in the name of the unlucky individual) is forced to suffer through the consequences. It didn't take long for the pandemic to become reality, either. In 2007, I was even forced to issue an only-partly-in-jest "Statement" to "protect" Pierre and myself from legal action after both of us predicted Sharapova to finish '07 at #1, and she quickly fell into an early-season slump. Three years later, the Curse jumped tours. I picked reigning U.S. Open champ Juan Martin del Potro to be the ATP's #1 player for 2010, only to see him injure his wrist and miss three slams before having to embark on a comeback that he is STILL trying to complete. I now no longer make a preseason #1 prediction, and instead simply compile an alphabetical list of players I think might finish in the Top 10. So far, so good. Of course, strengthened through years of action, the Curse nowadays can strike even after a seemingly passing comment in support of a particular player (poor Nadia Petrova has maybe taken more hits than anyone). As for Sveta, she's never reached #1, topping out (so far) at #2 in September '07. Truthfully, I think it's very fitting that Kuznetsova is the only slam-winning Russian who didn't actually make this MVP list... but the Curse named in her honor finished higher than ANY of her countrywomen who did. Like I said seven years ago -- I blame Pierre. Just kidding... kinda sorta.

5. "The Kuznetsova Curse"
6. "The Supernova" (Maria Sharapova)
7. The Hordettes
8. Anastasia Myskina
9. Caroline Wozniacki
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: a final battle for the Heart of Backspin.

All for now.


Blogger jo shum said...

So excited to come down to the last few. The Kuzzy curse, so fun how you just lumped every extreme outcome to it. The unpredictability of WTA really. And seriously I never get Kuzzy as a player as well, the 'on' 'off' button is so unpredictable it kind of defiles the logic as a tennis player. Week in and week out consistency and improvemt to make one great. She never really catches on a good momentum and out if a sudden she can play well again.

Can I guess the last 4? Henin, kvitova, azarenka and Serena. But I can't believe Kim is out, so will you put in 'the waffles' as the one?

Mon Aug 20, 08:08:00 AM EDT  
Blogger Todd.Spiker said...

No, as I sort of hinted here and elsewhere, neither Azarenka or Kvitova made the list (though they were sort of included in the "catch-all" of the "Next Big Thing"). I thought it was just a tad too early. Wozniacki had the benefit of 3-4 years of close scrutiny here, while Petra and Vika's big time participation has been most hot-and-heavy over only a one-year span. A year from now, though, they'd probably end up making it.

Although, as I mentioned in the Wozniacki section here, Azarenka has made a nice case for herself when it comes to inclusion this season. If I was starting the list right now, she'd slip into the lower section of the list (maybe knocking out Caro's 'roo). Because of this, Vika has sort of forced me to commit to doing an abbreviated 2012-only MVP List (non-"Ms. Backspin" related) near the end of this season, just to try to give her her do. She'll certainly be very high on that one, probably fighting it out with a certain alter ego for the season's top MVP honors. Of course, that "entity" made the big list, too, with just a short "active" period... but, as is the case in so many ways, It is sort of working on a different level from mere mortals like Vika and/or Petra.

As far as the Top 4 on THIS list, they'll be Henin, Clijsters, Serena & JJ. Not necessarily in that order, mind you. ;)

I guess I could have combined Henin & Clijsters. But, you know, I couldn't resist one final Backspin battle between the two players who've pretty much lived on both ends of the "most favored player" spectrum over the years. :D

Mon Aug 20, 11:29:00 AM EDT  
Blogger jo shum said...

Ah true, vika and Petra are quite 'young' in your column and much less invested time in guessing and grooming of how these players would turn out. Yeah you still have a soft spot for Caro in the bunch of the younger generation. ;)

Of course, how can I forget JJ! So much fun. What a character. And so close to the breakout too....

Mon Aug 20, 12:22:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Eric said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

Mon Aug 20, 01:21:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Zidane said...

I must admit Sugarpova's branding is smart. I must take a bite of these Spooky Sour!

Mon Aug 20, 10:05:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Todd.Spiker said...

I think I'll try the Sporty tennis gumballs... even though you do have to buy four bags at a time.

Tue Aug 21, 12:45:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Leif Mortensen said...

I like the way you split Caroline up in small sections and try to tell who she is - not far from agreeing with you - and it's fun too with a wink - well done.

Tue Aug 21, 01:30:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Todd.Spiker said...

Thanks. Good -- I tried to be as even-handed there as I could. Plus, as I said, if she never becomes "favored" again, in many ways, she'd probably play an even "bigger" part in things as the seasons go along, as far as I'm concerned.

"Midge" was a semi-shot at her when I started to call her that, but there's also a bit of endearment there, I guess.

It's a journey, you know? :)

Tue Aug 21, 01:57:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Diane said...

Bow down to the Czarina. There will never be anyone like her again, and the whole is definitely greater than the sum of her parts. And that is still one of the greatest tennis photos ever.

AS for Sharapova--you know I have such a soft spot for her. And being a Supernova--though wonderful--isn't as important as being who she is, I agree. I always wait for Sharapova to surprise me--and it's almost always good.

The Kuznetsova Curse is obviously all your fault, but thankfully, it doesn't hold the power of, say--The Radwanska. I stopped letting Sveta drive me crazy long ago--about the same time as I let go of David Nalbanian. (Is that your fault, too?)

Tue Aug 21, 10:26:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Todd.Spiker said...


"AS for Sharapova--you know I have such a soft spot for her."

When you started that paragraph like that, I thought you were headed right for a Sugarpova reference. Oh, well. :D

Totally agree about the Myskina photo, too.

Meanwhile, the hold of the original Hordettes continues to wane. Myskina and Dementieva are gone. Safina, too (I guess). Now, both Kuznetsova and Zvonareva are out of this year's Open.

A little more all the time, Sharapova is the Last Hordette Standing. Though I guess that's not really a HUGE surprise, is it?

Wed Aug 22, 12:13:00 AM EDT  

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