Serena Williams Changes Her Spots Again

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The Internazionali BNL d'Italia 2013 - Day Eight

There she stands again; trophy in hand, smile on face and right leg bent just that tiny bit at the knee as she assumes the pose. As always, Serena Williams is accompanied by a taller but less enamored blonde who carries the consolation plate for walking helplessly into yet another defeat by the American. On days she is dispatched with ease, there is usually a smile too. As the loser takes her final bow, Williams invariably busts into a variety of gleeful poses, hamming it up to the delight of the flashing cameras.

The scene has become all too familiar.

The reactions are familiar too. If Spain, the site of Williams’ title-before-last, stood to gain a Euro every time it was suggested that Williams is currently “better/fitter/faster/stronger than ever”, their insolvency woes would have long since become a figment of a past long ago, making way for gleeful affluence.

As it stands, they don’t. Nor does this statement – irrespective however many times blindly repeated – carry any truth whatsoever. Of course it’s not true. Is she great, brilliant, spectacular, and majestic? Oh yes. But the idea that this 31 year-old is somehow greater than a decade younger version who shrugged at one of deepest elite fields in WTA history, tearing it apart as she waltzed to four straight grand slams? Such absurdity is enough make even Yanina Wickmayer chuckle.

The greatest compliment that can be paid to Serena after a renaissance that has seen her at least attempt to fit 12 singles trophies in 13 months into the surely already overstuffed Williams trophy room, is that she has adapted like no other player in the history of tennis. So often it is her power that captures all the attention, but what catapulted her to such unrivaled dominance during her peak and formed the centerpiece of her game was her athleticism. In addition to her technical and mental gifts, Williams brought to tennis such an unheard of physicality to her tennis. On the ball she was impressive enough, but between strokes she demonstrated such a breathtaking level of intensity, speed and intricate footwork.

As the unavoidable nemesis of age grows stronger, it’s only natural that these physical gifts begin to wane. Age has, of course, proved the ultimate rival of many greats before her. But unlike most, Williams’ talent is so great that age has simply forced her to remortgage her game to rely more heavily on different strengths – to change her spots. As she began to navigate her late twenties, a deadly concoction rapidly bubbled under the surface. Though always a great and iconic weapon, slowly but surely Williams’ serve has transformed and improved beyond the realms of human imagination. With her smooth and effortless motion, she has achieved technical perfection, which allows her to create maximum power, deadly placement and unreadable variety with seemingly minimal effort.

The security Williams’ serve offers her cannot be understated. It has opened up a whole realm of new possibilities, allowing her to be more consistently aggressive than ever, ensuring that points are even shorter and offering her the opportunity to consistently take great swipes at both first and second serve returns. Though she remains one of the quickest players on the tour, the result is that this reliance on her athleticism, movement, footwork and intensity has shrunk considerably. It’s a maddening sight for her fans, as she has abjured almost the entire concept of footwork, but the result is that her game less intense, less physical and, therefore, less taxing to her body. In short, over the latter part of her career Williams has completely changed the nucleus of her game yet, despite that, still stands as the undisputed number one.

It was curious then that one set into this tussle with Victoria Azarenka, the world number one had landed a pathetic 45% of her first serves against the best returner in the world and the woman who had defeated her in their previous meeting. Despite that, as she strutted to her chair, only one single game had been offered to the Australian Open champion. For a player so reliant on her serve on the surface that, in theory, requires her to be at her sharpest and most efficient on serve simply to have a chance, how could this be possible?

Judging by Williams’ play throughout the final, the answer is quite simple. She simply tossed aside every pre-conceived notion of her game. In stark contrast to the risk-taking aggressive mentality that she has become so renown for, she appeared transfixed on making as few errors as possible and adhering to the surface’s core rules. She continued to play aggressive tennis, of course, but her aggression was tempered and cushioned with margin and care. Rather than any blistering forehand or nuclear backhand, her biggest asset throughout the match was the manner in which she manipulated the ball into every single angle of the court and picked apart her opponent rather than blasting through her.

The flat-footedness onlookers have become accustomed to was offered a temporary on holiday as Williams focused so diligently on her movement. At times she even happily offered Azarenka the initiative in points because she was so comfortable on the run. Not only did she navigate the court magnificently, the movement that was so uncomfortable on the surface a weak earlier had seen such a dramatic improvement – both from the small balance-ensuring slides when the ball was close by, to the long and effortless sliding at full stretch. So often the Belarusian would attempt to either pin Williams into a corner or force her on the run, but Serena would simply wait patiently until a gap appeared, before ruthlessly uncorking an angle to send her opponent scuttling after it. The match proved a perfect demonstration of just how sizable the distance between good and great is, with Azarenka unable to attempt anything other than her standard, regular brand of tennis against Williams, while Williams chopped and changed certain aspects of her game yet the outcome remained the same.

And so they stood there once again. Of Serena’s eight Tier I, Olympic and Slam titles over the past 13 months, seven times (Azarenka 3, Sharapova 4) this scene has repeated itself. The world number one has now won 82 of her last 86 matches. If this dominance isn’t reason enough for her to pose and milk the cameras for all she’s worth, then not much is.

From The Vault: Monica Seles

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Only a few weeks ago I randomly decided re-read Monica Seles’ first auto-biography for the first time since I was barely able to comprehend the contents. So often we criticize athletes and celebrities who toss out books at a young age without actually living life. It was far from the case with Seles, who had been attacked at 19 on a tennis court, suffered depression, an eating disorder, a dreadful court injustice, the wrath of sponsors and the media that eventually turned on her, and then came back from it all in remarkable style.

Rather than posting a video of the attack or a long-ass post, above is simply her speech after her first tournament back at the Canadian Open in 1995. A tournament she won, defeating Po (133) 6-0 6-3, Tauziat (17) 6-2 6-2, Huber (10) 6-3 6-2, Sabatini (8) 6-1 6-0 and Coetzer (27) 6-0 6-1 en-route to the title. Before the stabbing, she was easily on her way to becoming one of the greatest of greats and received universal acclaim for her mental strength, but it goes without saying that her resilience and mental strength in overcoming far worse than some 1-4 third set deficit catapulted her to heights far greater than she could have ever achieved. A legend.

How different are the WTA and ATP rankings?

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I’ll never fully comprehend why so many feel the need to waste endless amounts of time waxing lyrical about a ranking list that, in the greater scheme of things, is about as relevant to the WTA as Maria Sharapova’s moustache is to her endorsements. In a world where people don’t suck, Victoria Azarenka’s catwalk to the number one spot with Australian Open title in-hand and a subsequent 26-match winning streak would have struck the final nail in the coffin of this wretched number one “debate.” Yet, as the season comes to an end, Serena Williams’ superiority over Sharapova and Azarenka not reflecting in the rankings is all people can talk about.

But, alas, for the time being, let’s pretend that we live in a world where rankings do mean a great deal (they don’t) and that spending the last four years obnoxiously questioning the “legitimacy” of the rankings at every opportunity has been time well spent for all involved (it really hasn’t.) Over this period of time, I’ve always been struck at how readily the word “flawed” has been constantly tossed about in the relation to a ranking system that does exactly what it says on the tin, while being constrasted with the ATP’s system which – as with seeming everything involving the ATP tour – is presented as a shining beacon of flawless perfection. But, really, how different are they?

WTA under ATP Rankings:

. ATP Points Grand Slam Masters 1000 Best of Rest Tourns Counted
Azarenka 9905 4100 4415 1390 17 of 17 (1)
Williams 9250 4190 3220 1840 13 of 13 (2)
Sharapova 9220 4100 4160 960 14 of 14 (3)
Radwanska 6676 1830 3440 1406 19 of 22 (0)

ATP under WTA Rankings

. WTA Points Grand Slam PM+Best 2 P5s Best of Rest Tourns Counted
Djokovic 12090 5700 4220 2170 15 of 16 (1)
Federer 9585 4300 3875 1410 13 of 17 (3)
Murray 8290 4800 1755 1735 15 of 18 (1)
Nadal 6990 3500 2840 650 10 of 12 (6)

() = 0 pointers.

Not very.

Playing around with the two ranking systems is hardly a new concept, but despite the notable differences between the points structures of the ATP and WTA rankings, this factor is rarely taken into consideration. At first glance, both ATP and WTA point allocation systems are near-identical – with 2000 awarded at slam-level, 1000 at masters and so on. However, the big difference occurs amongst the players who leave tournaments without those big trophies, as the ATP offer considerably less points between the second round and finalist stages of events, in comparison to the WTA’s points system.

So, which system rewards greatness over consistency? Neither. A tick in the ATP’s favour is its point structure placing far greater emphasis on titles rather than a steady string of consistent results. It means that a player like Sharapova, who was the runner up in an immense 6 slams and Masters 1000 equivalents in 2012, is penalized most under the ATP system. However, the downside of this structure is the ease at which players can inflate their rankings by notching up titles at lower events against far lesser competition. On the other hand, the WTA only counts a total of 16 events compared to the ATP’s 18, lessening the influence of playing a significant amount of events.

Thus, the most effective objective ranking system would probably be one somewhere in the middle of the two. Even that would have its own glaring flaws, however, and on the whining goes.

Breaking: Scientific Proof That Maria Sharapova Is Better Than Novak Djokovic

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Last week, Novak Djokovic and Maria Sharapova each posted pictures of themselves while filming their new Head commercial. As per yushe, when these two join forces the result is usually a copious amount of laughs, sarcasm, banter and even a bit of flirting. Though Djokovic jokingly stated that Sharapova didn’t “take it easy” on him during their training, he didn’t quite elaborate on the complete emasculation that took place on the lawns of Stoke Park. Sadly for Djokovic, sovsport (check out the fully translated great write-up here.) was there to expose the Serb for the world to see.

What is this Serbian guy doing here? – I ask Maria.
Ha, he just lost his number 1 spot after Wimbledon and wants to train with me to increase his level of play, – Maria laughs but adds seriously: – We will have a photoshoot together and Novak came earlier to train a bit.

When was last time you played on grass? – Maria laughs after Novak’s first bad shot.
Haven’t played since Wimbledon – Novak shouts from the other side of the court.
It’s very, very obvious – answers Maria while embarrassing Novak with her killer forehand cross.
And Novak begins to play with all passion and training quickly transforms into a real match with heav,y raging shots. There is absolute silence around, because the entire Russian team stopped training to watch the breathtaking match.
I know you girls like all these slicesjokes Novak while running up to the ball. – But we deal with it just like this!
Novak hits ball heavily to the other side but Maria answers with lightning shot. Novak artistically falls down, showing all his disappointment.
OMG, that was cool… – Maria’s hitting partner Vladimir Volthckov seems still shocked.
Ha! – laughs Maria as she walks to her bench.

Ouch. No one tell Gilles Simon.

Believe It Or Not, Nadal’s Withdrawal Doesn’t Signal The End Of The World

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So, let’s have some facts, eh? Today, Rafael Nadal dropped a nuclear bombshell on the Olympics build-up as he announcing his withdrawal from the event. His infamous chronic knees are to blame. The signs were there – not only have rumors and talk about his knee injury been swirling around long before Wimbledon even concluded, but it has always been fairly evident that aside from his knees, Nadal’s biggest enemy has been the ticking clock as the Olympics draw ever closer. But even so, considering just a couple of days ago Benito he was posting pictures of himself doing rehab in the gym with an insanely gleeful smile plastered on his face, the alarm and shock at this turn of events is more than warranted.

Discussions on whether or not Tennis deserves its place in the Olympics have raged on for years now, but regardless of whether tennis as a sport is suited to the competition, there’s no doubt that Nadal himself is. He stands as one of the players (also look towards Venus Williams) who genuinely cherishes and truly understands the significance and honour of being an Olympian. For him, the Olympics is clearly more than the pursuit of nice, shiny medals. He gets it, and in a sport like tennis, not every player does. He called the withdrawal one of the toughest decisions he has ever made and one of the worst days of his tennis career, and it’s not difficult to see why.

But aside from disappointment and sympathy towards Nadal, I’m struggling to understand the point of speculating about much else. People are already collapsing into hysterical wrecks and proclaiming Nadal’s career over, or else pointedly suggesting that the knees must *clearly* be in awful condition for him to withdraw. Perhaps the doomsaying and worrying has some merit, but one thing we do know is that we saw this all before in 2009 and a year later he went on to have the best year of his career. He isn’t the first player to suffer from tendinitis and he won’t be the last. It’s certainly not easy, but it’s something he has managed and will continue to do so.

And finally there’s the case of Mr Federer and people subsequently expecting him to waltz to his first singles Olympic Gold. Despite Nadal standing as the sole (ahem) relevant active player to defeat Federer on grass, the Spaniard’s fairly appalling 21-11 record in three-setters off grass over the past year pull him straight back down to earth. Massive opposition remains in the form of Djokovic and Murray, the Brit holding an exemplary 8-5 record over three sets against Federer over three and Djokovic who will undoubtedly be hungry for revenge after Federer wrote a new chapter into ther rivalry at Wimbledon. I would even venture to suggest that Nadal’s withdrawal is far from being a pivotal or draw-altering.

But while I close my eyes, place fingers in my ears and hum away the blind speculation, others are… not. Namely Uncle Toni who stated that London was the last Nadal’s Olympic opportunity, implying that he will be retired within four years. Not only is writing Nadal off for the next Olympic games as premature as Novak Djokovic when retreating into the shade on a hot day, it’s just, well – to quote Federer – I mean, puh-lease. Are you kidding me?

Hot Shot: Ana Ivanovic’s (alleged) New Man

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According to Serbian press, this is Ana Ivanovic’s new boyfriend. His name is Vanja Udovicic and – get this – he’s an Olympic (duh) Water Polo player.

According to well informed sources, Ana and Vanya were seen daily for two months and published in two well-known Belgrade shops, and only recently has their friendship grew into something more. The two knew each other before, but intense friendship began in April when Ana is the second time hung up with Adam Scott

All that matters is, if this is true, Ana and Jelena are now both dating Water Polo players. Consequently, they have no excuse to not to start going out together on double dates. I want pics.

Quotable Quotes: So, Janko Tipsarevic still has a big mouth, eh?

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At this point, it’s an undeniable fact of nature that Janko Tipsarevic has the biggest mouth on Earth and all surrounding planets. In the past he has criticized the WTA, branded Amelie Mauresmo a “pervert” for her sexuality, criticized the WTA, compared his “friend” Ana Ivanovic to “a truck on steroids” (I still don’t understand…what does that even MEAN??!!), criticized the WTA, claimed that he stays well away from all gay ATP players, oh, and he criticized the WTA too.

Today, after Gilles Simon and the rest of his crew idiotically kicked the door wide open at Wimbledon, the Serb has once again stepped in and decided to put his Grand Canyon-sized mouth where it isn’t wanted, tackling his favourite topic once more.

(via @svenja_sportch)

‘It’s ridiculous that women get the same prize money at Slams. They should at least play Best of Five […] I don’t underestimate Azarenka’s achievements, but the best time (for women) is over. It was when the Williams sisters and Clijsters, Henin and Mauresmo played at the top of their game’

Let’s get one thing straight, the Best of 5 vs Best of 3 argument is perhaps the most laughable, desperate and tired argument in history. It has beeen battered to death yet keeps on coming back. The fact remains that if those poor, unfairly treated and persecuted men really have a problem with women playing less sets for the same prize money, then they should be campaigning for best of 3 sets at slams. If not, then they should shut up. Full stop.

The rest of Tipsarevic’s quote is not unlike Simon and co.’s comments at Wimbledon. The thing is, Tipsarevic obviously isn’t actually wrong in stating that the WTA was better a few years back. It certainly was. But this entire argument is completely perplexing. How is this remotely relevant? What does that have to do with anything? Prize money isn’t calculated based on subjective preferences, nor is it based on the revenue each tournament makes each year. It’s a fixed sum and equal because men and women play alongside each other as equals. Plus, every TV deal, sponsor and other major revenue source pays for the men and women as a joint package regardless of whether men or women are on top.

But, hey, let’s just consider Tiparevic and Simon’s argument for the hell of it. Tennis is all about phases and eras. There are countless stats to support the fact that previous WTA era was far more popular and famous than the then-weaker and volatile ATP (yet the WTA players were being paid less prize money) and the tables have turned over the past few years. When the big 3 cease to be, well, the big 3, it’s fairly obvious that – if they even make it to the top – the current ATP youngsters won’t be nearly as popular or dominant as the current top players. So, the only resolution to the argument the ATP players have wasted so much of our time on would be to give equal prize money, then take it back, give it again, take it back again, give it again and so on based on the revenue and interest each era of each tour creates. That would, of course, mean the male players would likely be paid less than the women at times. In what world is any of this remotely realistic or plausible?

The entire “debate” just seems like an excuse for most ATP players (and it isn’t just Simon and Tipsarevic) to flex the muscles of their offensively humongous and extraordinarily obese egos and assert that they’re far more superior to the women. The good news is that regardless of how much Simon, Tipsarevic, Tsonga and co. bitch and moan, nothing is ever going to change. And that’s how it should be.

Quotable Quotes: Grigor Dimitrov Still Ain’t Got Time For Federer comparisons.

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When asked last week in Bastad to discuss the similarities between himself and Federer for at least the nine thousand six hundred and seventy-second time, Grigor Dimitrov immediately cut off the line of questioning with interesting retort.

“I am sick and tired of comparisons between my game and Roger Federer’s,” he sighed. “I have not won a single ATP event and I have reached only number 69 in the world ranking,”

Grigor’s handling of these Federer questions over the years have always been bordering on impressive. It could have been easy for Dimitrov to find himself completely carried away and sucked in his own hype, just as it could conversely have badly affected his career, but he always appears grounded and completely realistic when discussing his career. The same can’t be said for those so-called experts (including former coach Peter Lundgren) who look at his service motion, see his strokes and immediately lose their heads and run around proclaiming him as a future 97-time slam champion.

Really, you’d think people would’ve gotten over the Federer-Dimitrov comparisons after our years, but as evidenced by that interview, they’re going strong.

Let’s Talk About: Bernard Tomic

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The tennis tour we enduringly follow is often, ironically, so little about the actual tennis. The gruelling, demanding and overly pressured nature of professional tennis demands character, reveals character and builds character. Only a select few come innately equipped with a hybrid of the required mental, physical and tennis qualities needed to ease their way to the summit of professional tennis. For the rest, the tour itself moulds them – soul-destroying losses come before gleeful wins, humbling lessons are received before the tables are turned. It’s all a process, a vital one.

Why the hell am I babbling on about nothing in particular, I hear you ask? Well, earlier this week the tour’s resident “wundakid” Bernard Tomic was destroyed by Benoit Paire in the lowly Gstaad ATP 250, receiving a bagel and managing only four games in total. A week earlier he was brushed aside in straights by an out of sorts Thomaz Bellucci and the tournament before saw him bounced out of Wimbledon – the scene of last year’s heroics – by grass novice David Goffin in four sets.

It was the Wimbledon loss that most interested me, or, rather, his reaction to the loss. Unlike the vast majority of players who offer the usual generic answers after a bad loss, Tomic was conversely candid when exploring the reasons for his defeat, blaming his lack of effort for his poor form, evidently assuming his talent would be enough. I was shocked. Not shocked at the mere omission of him not trying hard enough (in the timeless and eloquent words of Maria Sharapova; duhhhh), rather the combined knowledge that Tomic is notorious for his amusingly lofty ambitions, that he’s falling so painfully short of those amusingly lofty ambitions and that he evidently has a crystal clear understanding of exactly why he’s falling so short of those amusingly lofty ambitions yet hasn’t made any attempt to rectify it? I shouldn’t be, but again, I was shocked.

It all comes back to my original point. Relative to practically every other player, Tomic has barely had to lift a finger during his short career. He achieved immense success in juniors solely down to his natural talents – slicing, dicing and reading opponents like a book without bothering to properly construct points. The success in juniors brought hype and self-hype which prompted tournament directors to toss a never-ending stream of wildcards in his direction (he received 10 wildcards in his first 15 tournaments of 2011) which were treated with arrogant indifference by Tomic as he only put his full efforts into the main events.

Finally, it’s all coming back to haunt him. His talent has fallen in place only a handful of times over the past eighteen months, while for the most part the ATP tour has been quite the culture shock. His weaknesses are being effortlessly exposed at all levels and the tactics he utilized so much in juniors are unsurprisingly ineffective against professional tennis players. He has crashed straight into a glass ceiling and, at least for now, hasn’t armed himself with the knowledge of how to break through it.

The good news for Tomic is that he’s certainly talented and, of course, still extremely young with plenty of time to learn and appreciate the art of hard work and improve both the mental and physical aspects of his tennis that are clearly lacking. But looking just thirteen spots below him at the sorry state of Donald Young’s tennis career, he would be well-advised to hurry.

From The Vault: Jennifer Capriati

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Jennifer Capriati. What is there to say that hasn’t already been said about this woman? She stands as one of the greatest, most talented and divisive players in a generation bursting at the seams with greatness, talent and controversy. In her wildly scattered 14 years on tour, the American amassed a total of three Grand Slam titles, an Olympic Gold Singles medal, 17 weeks at number one and countless classic victories (and losses) against the greatest players over two separate generations.

It’s tough, however, to pinpoint her single her most memorable moment. Was it her supernova rise up the rankings while barely a teenager? She made her tour debut on the WTA tour in 1990 aged 13 and immediately stormed to the final of two of the first three events before reaching the semis of her first Grand Slam in Paris. A year later she broke into the top ten, and in the following year dispatched of Sanchez-Vicario and Graf – the top two players in the world – to take the Olympic Gold in Barcelona aged 16. Not too shabby.

Of course, there’s also that small issue of the “c” word. We’ve all heard about her famed comeback – the burnout, the shoplifting arrest, the marijuana possession, that mug shot, her resulting lengthy break and the desperate struggle (and initial failure) to regain anything resembling previous form, the reporters who smugly wrote her off. She could have easily allowed herself to swept away into the tsunami-sized wave of burnt out young prodigies. But she didn’t. She persevered, slowly building her way back to the top. After completely falling out of the rankings in 1994 and failing in her initial comeback a year later, she picked up her first Grand Slam win in 5 years at the 1998 Wimbledon. A lowly title and #23 finish followed a year later. A slam semifinal and top 15 finish in 2000. And finally, the fairy tale was completed in 2001 as she eased past second-ranked Davenport and top-ranked Hingis in succession to capture her first slam title in Australia. But you already new that all.

Two of Capriati’s single most memorable moments were her famed epic slam finals. The first at Roland Garros in 2001 when a young Aussie Kim burst into relevance by reaching her first slam final. Despite the young Belgian matching both Capriati’s supreme athleticism and power with ease, there was no panicking to be seen from the reigning Australian Open champion as she was swiftly delivered a shock first set breadstick. Instead, she embraced the challenge, putting her head down and finding her range to level up the match. By the third, both women were in full-slugfest mode with their lightning-fast movement, intricate footwork and spectacular shotmaking simultaneously cancelling each other out and enhancing the other. The third set wore on well into overtime, with Capriati twice serving for the title while a resilient Clijsters pegged the American back each time. But eventually the champion‘s extra grit and mental strength proved the difference between the two and she edged out the title..

Capriati’s third and final slam title would come in Australia the very next year in conditions so difficult that the heat practically radiated through the television set and left Capriati even pissier and more vexated than her, well, usual pissy and vexated self. Hingis raced up a set and break, looking ripe for her sixth slam title. In response, Capriati dug deeper than ever before, first hunting back the break before fighting off multiple match points. Her effort was painfully visible as she collapsed into the linesman chairs between most points, but she refused to succumb, saving yet another match point and spectacularly surviving the second set tiebreak. Before long, the script was flipped on its head as Hingis ditched her trademark overly self-confident and carefree demeanour and retreated back into the shade, panting, exhausted and defeated. The 2002 Australian Open may have proved to be Capriati’s last great victory, but she saved the best til last.

None of this answers the original question, however. Probably because she herself is far more interesting than the titles she collected. She’ll always be remembered as the complex figure she cut – the tennis player whose game was not defined simply by defence or offence, the person who paradoxically stood as the ultimate role model in the art of never giving up, yet was notorious for her vulgar attitude and behaviour. In other words, Jen-Cap will be remembered as Jen-Cap.