Friday, August 24, 2012

BSMVP 2002-12 - The Final Four, Pt.1

Well, the time has almost come. Which player has been the most valuable asset in the ten-year history of Backspin?

The Final Four are arguably the most talked-about individuals since the inception of this space. All have spent time as the #1-ranked player in the world, and three are multiple grand slam champions who rank amongst the greatest players in the history of the game. One, in fact, may just go down as THE greatest. Ah, but that's not overly important on this list when it comes to final standings. This list has been about which players have been my most essential "partners" in the telling of the WTA's ongoing story this past decade. For the good. For the bad. But never for the indifferent. Without them, this list wouldn't even exist.

Any move by any of these players has been noteworthy. Whether it was their rising to career heights, or setting aside their racket bag and calling it a career... only to return in due time for another go at things. They've all been the focus of various controversies over the years, too. Some of their own making, but some not. They've all had their moments when they've been either adored, scorned or looked upon with a raised eyebrow and rolling eyes at some point during their careers by the tennis world. Not surprisingly, it usually depended upon one's own personal feelings about each of these women which of those reactions to their success -- or sometimes lack of it -- that you had.

But that's all right. In fact, it's great. With these four, it's impossible not to have a pretty strong opinion about each one. And as far as Backspin has been concerned, that's made them essential conversations points for many, many seasons. Even when they're gone -- and, soon, half of them will be -- their shadows will continue to be long and their names on a certain Backspinner's lips. Or should I say fingertips? Thus, these final MVP salutes are not only nods to what these four women have accomplished in their careers, but the WAY in which they've done it. For, without their various personality traits and quirks, I wouldn't have had nearly as much fun talking about them as I have.

So, a big "thank you" to these ladies... and to all you readers -- be you a long-timer or relative newcomer -- who've allowed me to put by personal spin on the tennis world without feeling like I've just been shouting into the darkness, with only myself around to hear my voice. Backspin wouldn't be the same without these players, but it wouldn't be worthwhile without all of you.

#4 - Serena Williams

...faster than a speeding Spaniard. Able to leap tall Czech maidens in a single bound. Look! Up in the sky! It's an ace! It's a winner! It's Serena Williams." If any woman fits the description of a comic book "super-heroine" over the last ten years, it's been Serena. So much so, that sometimes you half expect her to bound onto the court in spandex and a cape with a big "S" stitched into the fabric. There's been no other player with the ability to swoop in from out of nowhere to save the day, her legacy or any lingering notion that might develop during some of her lengthier absences from tour or injury-related dips in results that she is quite simply best best female tennis player on the planet. And maybe ever... though that's a debate for another day, I suppose. Over the years, Serena has given us everything: highs, lows, injuries, comebacks, controversies, familial tragedy, sisterly love, triumph, emotions-on-her-sleeve, primal screams, a near-death experience, potentially-ungracious post-match commentary, an indomitable spirit, a contestable anger and the simple ability to drive the WTA story in nearly every direction. Oh, and then there's been her tennis -- an oft-times awesome blend of power and athleticism that had never been seen in women's tennis until she came along. With a palpable "aura" surrounding her when she's at her very best -- with quite possibly the best first serve in women's tennis history, and most definitely the greatest second serve -- Williams is still capable of overwhelming an entire grand slam field, ever after surging past her 30th birthday. Serena's ability to lap the field has been in existence since the early days of Backspin, and covering it has been a "a gas," from seeing fit to take the easy leap and start calling her 2002-03 attempt at four straight slam wins a "SerenaSlam" (a takeoff on Tiger Woods' 2000-01 "TigerSlam") before the term came into common usage, to the completion of her "Career Six Pack" (titles in all four slams, the Olympic Gold & a year-end tour Championships title -- something only Serena, Steffi Graf & Andre Agassi have done in professional tennis) this summer. Never boring, even if it might be for all the "wrong" (or nit-picky) reasons, Williams is the most full-figured personality in Backspin history. From here, even her faults, sometimes misunderstood audacity, and missteps are acceptable. They give her depth. Plus, she'll occasionally show a sort of sweetness not generally associated with her persona that tends -- along with the awe associated with watching her in full flight -- to smooth out any edges that might be viewed as rough. Still, some will always find fault. It's seemingly fitting that Serena's recent possibly-better-than-she's-even-been run (and for her, a 14-time slam winner, that's saying something) to an Olympic singles Gold ended with an uncharacteristically joyful on-court dancing display that brought forth some of those child-like qualities that sometimes get lost in the bravado and dominating performances... and then was immediately barraged with complaints about the "appropriateness" of her imitating a dance that apparently has gang-related origins, no matter that it crossed over into mainstream usage years ago. Sigh. In some quarters, Serena will never be able to do right without rubbing SOMEONE wrong. So be it. It's their loss. It just proves that that 2010 Sports Illustrated cover ("Love Her. Hate Her. She's the Best Ever.") still rings true, and will continue to do so. Throughout the rest of Williams' career, through her Hall of Fame induction and up to the likely eventual release of her "tell all" autobiography in which maybe she'll finally decide to enlighten everyone about the "things you guys don't even know about" that she dealt with during her career-and-life threatening health issues in 2010. Without question, Serena is the BEST player in Backspin's history, the most powerful force in the WTA universe. In somewhat halting English, Petra Kvitova made a (perhaps only partly-unintentional) direct hit regarding the uniqueness of Williams when she called her "The Serena" not that long ago. Williams has surely earned such respect. Sometimes the ability to be such a dominant entity can bring a certain "sameness" to things (it sort of happened during Graf's best years, making the rise of Monica Seles a welcome change of direction), but Serena's overwhelming and "underrated" moments of vulnerability have managed to somehow make her great accomplishments all the more incredible because, no matter how things might sometimes seem on the surface, NOTHING that she has done has ever been "easy" or a fait accompli. The most dramatic thing about Williams career is that, even when she might begin a slam in bad form, she's never been able to be overlooked as a potential champion. Even a "lesser" Serena is still Serena. She's never down and out... especially when she actually IS. Sure, the up-and-down, now-you-see-her, now-you-don't nature of Williams' career has, at different turns, caused her to be deemed both the "best" AND most "disappointing" player. But that's just Serena. In truth, the sometimes-long absences and occasional spin-outs have probably served to extend her career far beyond the point it might have been expected to last years ago. With luck, she'll still be around for a nice chunk of time, too. Both she and sister Venus have now stated goals of playing in the Rio Olympics in '16. Ah, in this election season in the United States, the chant of "four more years" never sounded so sweet. For sure, the WTA will be an entirely different animal without the possibility of Serena being able to arrive at a slam on a wing and prayer, and pulling off yet another fantastic feat. Seriously, it's hard to knock greatness. And, when it comes to Williams, I never have. So, go ahead, Serena. Scream all you want. Everyone should hear.

#3 - Jelena Jankovic does Backspin love JJ? Oh, let me count the ways. One, I love how weirdness and drama routinely seem to follow her matches around like a lost puppy. Two, I love how she once complained about needing a helicopter to take her to her assigned court on the far side of a tournament's grounds, and how she wished for air-conditioned shoes on a particularly hot day. Three, I love how even when she's frustrated and angry in a match, she'll do or say something slightly possessed or crazy that can make a Backspinner grin. Oh, and I love how she can turn rivers into apple sauce and trees into pretzel sticks. Okay, okay. I know that last one makes absolutely no sense (as if the others were composed with dead-on logic, huh?), but why should it? When Jankovic is in top gear, banging off the walls and leaving a trail of tears (from laughing so hard) behind her, hardly anything ever really does. And that's all right. In fact, I think it's preferable because it's just so much fun. Fact is, there is rarely more joy expressed around Backspin HQ than when JJ is winning. But even if she's not, just having the chaos-addicted Serb in the mix means the possibilities are simply endless. Never has a player ever lived up to her Backspin moniker as thoroughly and completely, with such vigor and joy (for me, anyway), as Jankovic, aka "Queen Chaos." Comebacks! Blown leads! Outbursts of rage
directed at former coach Ricardo Sanchez (oh, how the tour is so much less exciting without them butting heads on a regular basis)! Outbursts of rage at herself! Breaking into a fit of laughter! Breaking into a hissy fit of despair! As far as this space's lore goes, Jankovic has never been -- or needed to be -- a "great" player to maintain her elevated place of honor. Still, she DID reach #1 and reach a slam final. But she never won a major, and likely never will (oh, but if she did, it'd be like the circus had come to Backspinland -- the clowns would NEVER stop emerging from the little car!). But that doesn't mean she's not as indispensable a part of Backspin as just about any other player over the past decade. If it's a slow week, as long as JJ is around, there's always a chance that she'll say or do something, or be the spark of inspiration, win or lose, that gives birth to a something like an impromptu peak inside the Church of the Holy Chaos. It takes a special sort of personality for a player to be so versatile a subject. Some might not totally "get" the oddball appeal of Jankovic, but if you do you should count yourself lucky. And if I've helped along that "understanding" for even one person over the years then it'd color me proud to no end. But as great as a partner as JJ has been for for myself, even with her legitimate accomplishments, the walking-dramatic-moment that is QC is still in search of the TRUE career-high moment that will make all the false-starts and near-misses worth the fuss. For her. Ah, but there IS hope. Jankovic will get at least one more shot at a "defining" moment, in the form of this season's Fed Cup final in which JJ will lead Serbia into the Czech Republic to face the defending champions. A win and JJ would complete the cycle of her long-time, oddball quest to become an honest-to-goodness tennis folk hero, an honor that has sometimes seemed her birthright. No matter what happens in November, though, ol' QC is already rest assured of such status here. Cracked or not cracked. Meanwhile, as I post this penultimate MVP list entry, Jankovic has gone to Dallas on a 1-8 run in her last nine matches and seen her ranking fall to its lowest position in years. But after the #1 seed pulled out at the last moment, JJ assumed the role of the draw's top seed and has ridden it all the way to the final. So very Jankovician. Ahh... she's simply still the whirling dervish who refuses to stop spinning. At least not yet. Bless her. Speaking of... pardon me, I do believe there's a church service that I need to attend. Even if it's just to see the smiling face of the icon staring down at me from her photo on the wall.

3. Jelena Jankovic
4. Serena Williams
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"

THIS WEEKEND: one final all-Belgian Battle for the benefit of Backspin.

All for now.


Blogger Diane said...

Oh, Todd--those are just wonderful; I look forward to reading them a second time. I was just saying to someone last night that everything about Serena is so larger-than-life that--when she finally retires--it will change the entire tone of the tour (Venus, too). She isn't just one of the most endlessly entertaining and perplexing tennis players in the world, but one of the most endlessly entertaining and perplexing celebrities in the world.

As for you-know-who: All I have to do is think about her and I smile. In addition to being a real scream, JJ is also much more intelligent and genuinely engaging than some people may think. Whether she's battling an earthquake, mocking her Serbian colleague, changing her undergarments on court, or choosing a Porsche to match her shoes--she's the most hilariously charming entity to grace the WTA--maybe ever.

Sat Aug 25, 01:15:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Todd.Spiker said...

Oh, I should have mentioned JJ and the earthquake, especially since the one-year anniversary just rolled around this past week. Really, it would have just been wrong if she HADN'T been on court when it happened. :)

And, of course, get ready for some hoping-against-hope anticipation for the Open. There's a chance for a JJ/A-Rad match in the 3rd Round, even if both are probably crazy bets to make it that far (for different reasons, of course). Crossing fingers.

Speaking of Serena, if you didn't watch it, you should see her Letterman interview from last week (I have the link in the sidebar). Sometimes she comes off a little distant in those sort of situations, but I thought that was one of her best outings. And I don't know if she's ever been made up quite so glamorously as she was there.

Sat Aug 25, 05:42:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Diane said...

My deep aversion to Letterman kept me from watching that, but I went ahead and took a look. Serena's rocking that Diana Ross look! She's such a celebrity--just imagine all the people who see her in that context, but have never seen her on the court.

Sat Aug 25, 06:21:00 PM EDT  

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