Over the last few years, we have witnessed the rise of the Serbs; with their tremendous athletes and steely wills drastically changing the face of professional tennis. Right behind them stand the Croats; armed with players practically twice the size of any normal human being. But one nearby country often forgotten amongst the hulking superpowers of Serbia and Croatia is the tiny and endearingly understated Slovenia. However, with the emergence of Polona Hercog, the Slovenians will be hoping that it is all about to change.
Born and raised in Maribor, Slovenia’s second-largest city, Polona Hercog’s father introduced her to tennis aged only four. He persuaded her to tag along on a visit to a nearby tennis club, run by 1977 French Open Champion Mima Jausovec, and from that point on she never looked back.
Historically, the best players of yesteryear have usually broken through and made names for themselves immediately, but nowadays this couldn’t be further from reality. There is currently only one eighteen year old in the top 100, and by January 1st, there will be zero. Polona’s rise has been typical of this new wave of youngsters. There have been no spectacular results and no massive breakthrough; just solid and steadily-improving results. She won her first $25k title in 2007, reached her first $50k final in 2008, took her first $50k, $75k, $100k titles, Grand Slam win and WTA quarterfinal in 2009, and then first WTA semi-final, final and Grand Slam third round this year.
Even more so than her contemporaries, time and maturity is vital to Polona’s progression as a tennis player. The Slovenian’s game is unabashedly unique, from her flowing and elegant topspin serve, to the versatile-but-goddamn-lethal monster of a forehand, her intricate drop-shots, the delicate touch at the net and her pure athleticism. When playing well, she is a joy to watch. But that variety is often her Achilles’ heel, as she is prone to losing confidence and her decisions becoming brash and impulsive. A prime example is her clay-court season this year. Three times she had a chance to take that final step and make a name for herself, and three times she let her opportunities slip away; she blew a set and a break against Venus Williams in the final of Acapulco, she quite literally lost her head and choked a 6-2 5-1 lead to Shahar Peer in Rome, and then in Warsaw she let a well-timed injury timeout from Caroline Wozniacki disrupt her rhythm, and she eventually fell after holding a *3-0 final set lead to the current #1.
Even so, the disappointments and near-misses of 2010 should only serve as motivation for the young Slovenian. 2010 marked her first full year on the WTA tour so, hey, she can make all the mistakes she likes, but 2011 represents a bigger challenge. In 2011 she will be looking to fully establish herself as one of the WTA’s brightest prospects, and particularly the strongest clay-courter of her young generation. And I’m sure she will do just that.