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Category Archives: French Open

Is Serena Williams Headcase-y?

2013 French Open - Day Ten

A pout - it always begins with that pout. Slowly the pout morphs into a frown, which in turn makes way for the infamously melodramatic “crying face”. Before long, loud and pitifully desperate sound effects compliment her facial expression, and the alarm bells ring in Serena Williams’ head as she panics and descends in complete meltdown.

Despite the luxury of a 6-1 set under Williams’ belt, this is exactly what happened as Kuznetsova broke her serve in the opening game of their second set and toiled to finally make her presence known in the match. The same could be seen a round earlier as Sorana Cirstea merely found herself with two break points in the second second set. When Caroline Garcia simply held serve twice at the beginning of set two, Williams’ volume rose again as she painfully killed the match. Even in her first round against the lowly and laughably under-powered Anna Tatishvili, the one single competitive game in the second set was enough to send Serena into a tailspin.

So, what is the root of this bizarre behaviour from the world number one? Between last year’s full-scale meltdown and her countless infamous chokes at Roland Garros over the past decade, many believe her lack of composure is only natural. Others, of course, brand her actions arrogant and disrespectful to the opponents she has mostly demolished en-route to her first semi-final in a decade. Regardless, this behaviour appears to be symbolic of a fundamental flaw that has enveloped Serena’s game over the course of the last few years.

It’s easy to forget that long before the foot and health issues of 2010-2011, Serena saw constant criticism for her attitude towards competing. It was no secret that, to her, only the slams mattered. When she didn’t withdraw and actually bothered to show up at WTA events, it was clear that she simply didn’t care enough. However, the ends justified the means. She would arrive at the slams having suffered shameful defeats to the likes of Sybille Bammer just days before, only to snatch the big prizes with aplomb. When players did push her to the limit of her powers, despite not properly warming up her competitive juices up at the warm-up events, she would dig deep and showcase the supreme mental strength that has become synonymous with her success. Between her record in finals, her famous ability to launch roaring comebacks against the very best and the sheer clinical manner in which she peaked on the stage it most mattered, it fast became clear that Williams had become one of the most mentally supreme champions ever to play the game.

Since her return in 2011, things have have changed. Given her previous reputation, perhaps one of the most remarkable stats in recent history is that, excluding walkovers, Williams has won 12 of the 15 WTA non-slam events she has entered since Stanford 2011, with her total win-loss record in non-slam events standing at a breathtaking 85-3. By comparison, she managed only four WTA titles between 2007 and 2010 - a period that yielded 6 slam titles - with a 75-18 record at non-slam tournaments.

There has been constant talk about Williams’ domination during this period, and it is certainly true. Time and time again she has proved that the gulf between her and her rivals is greater than it has ever been, with her inflicting countless straight-sets dismissals on all her nearest opponents. It is interesting, however, to compare her performances across slam and non-slam events. Her shaky and unconvincing performances against Zheng, Shvedova, Azarenka and Radwanska at Wimbledon bear a stark contrast to her outlandish demolition of the field on the same courts three weeks later at the Olympics. The same was true of her near-bottling of the US Open final against Azarenka in comparison to her dominant performance at the Istanbul season-ending finale. Accompanying those unconvincing performances are a collection of embarrassing losses to the likes of Makarova, Stephens and Razzano.

Just two weeks ago in Rome, Williams looked supreme and calm as she eradicated the field once more. Though her level hasn’t dramatically suffered, that the hysterical reactions to any resistance have been a fixture since the early rounds is telling. In a way, she has become what she previously abhorred - from the player who rose dramatically when it mattered most, she now only plays her best tennis when the stakes are lower and suspiciously resembles a headcase when pressure is high. Serena’s form and results suggests that she remains the overwhelming favourite to finish the job and complete her two-fold Career Grand Slam, but will her mind follow or will she collapse once again with the trophy in sight?

Piotr Wozniacki Retires From Professional Tennis (Coaching)

In a year that has already forced the world of sport to deal with the deeply-bruising blow of losing the great Sir Alex Ferguson to retirement, a second uppercut has landed squarely in its chin with the news that his tennis equivalent, Sir Piotr Wozniacki, will be also stepping away from the sport he revolutionized so dramatically. Speaking in Paris with, Mr Wozniacki spoke in length about this shocking revelation, revealing that Caroline is already close to finding his permanent replacement.

“We have a couple of advisors who help us with, but they also have other responsibilities. This will change soon. The aim is that one of the will be Caroline’s full time coach, and it’s just a question of whom we trust the most.

“What happened last year didn’t change anything with the fact that we wanted a fundamental change. I need to get away from this circus, so I can stay home, watch the matches on TV, and only go to a few tournaments, while another coach directs the work with Caroline. We’ve found the pieces, now we just have to make them fit.

“The new coach will have full responsibility, that’s been the aim the whole time. The coaches last year just weren’t optimal for Caroline. Of course, they did their best with the tools they had, but it didn’t feel right for Caroline, so she decided herself to say stop and take stock as to what she wanted before making a final decision.

“We want someone who can be with her the rest of her career and not just for a half year, because that’s no good and wrecks things. Caroline’s old enough to make her own decisions, even if it’s not easy, because she has to find someone who understands her game and personality. She’ll never play like Serena Williams. Every player has has a different understanding of the game, technique and strengths, and now we’ve found the two we believe in, and we hope to make a decision soon.”

(translation via @markalannixon)

In all seriousness, many will automatically be ecstatic to see the back of Mr Piotr and consider a new coach progress for Caroline. Despite that, it’s certainly interesting and notable that Caroline’s rapid demise can be traced back to the moment she and her camp crumbled under the media pressure and attempted to appease the so-called “experts” with the infamous mystery coach charade during the 2011 US Open series. Since then, her results have steadily crumbled and her enlisting of a new coach in Thomas Johansson only proved a catalyst for this fall.

This time, though Wozniacka’s recent horrendous form may have played a part, they have correctly reached a decision without any outside interference. While the route back to the top is in considerably greater shape than the derelict, injury-laden wasteland Wozniacki sauntered through in 2010, who she hires and how they at least attempt to rediscover her old results will make for interesting viewing.

As for Piotr, good on him for finally deciding to sever ties with the often exhausting traveling tennis circus in favour of his sofa and TV. Considering all that his daughter has achieved in tennis and how she has turned out personally, he has certainly earnt it.

Benoit Paire And The Pursuit Of Sanity

The Internazionali BNL d'Italia 2013 - Day Seven

On some cold winter’s day once upon a time, a tennis coach found himself in the bizarre position of attempting to convince his charge to undertake exactly what he had hired a coach for - competing at a tournament. The player in question asserted that he had no intention of traveling to this tournament, but the coach persisted and the pair quietly argued amongst themselves. Eventually growing tired of such unnecessary deliberation, the player walked slowly to his racquet bag, emptied its contents and then calmly began to smash each and every piece of vital equipment to rancid smithereens. Once satisfied with the irreversible damage inflicted upon his racquets, Benoit Paire looked up at his coach, momentarily scanning his horrified expression, before slowly and quietly asking: “Are we still going now?”

Needless to say, they did not go.

Long before his first appearance in the top 500, Benoit Paire had already carved out a reputation for himself in the sizable circles of tennis’ working class. Despite the seeming vital requirement of all tennis players to come innately equipped with a figurative screw loose in order to cope with the demands of travelling around the world, inflicting irreparable damage to their bodies and bank account as they chase measly pots of money and almost non-existent points in the hope of one day breaking that tiny glass ceiling; the Frenchman somehow pushed boundaries of batshit insanity beyond what the human mind could ever envision. That these stories - and there were numerous - were stretched to their very limit and perhaps carried barely an atom of truth to them was quite irrelevant. As the Frenchman rose, his on-court demeanor spoke louder than any old fable, and the noise his behaviour emitted was pure garbage.

By October 2009, the French Tennis Federation (FFT) had enough, eventually deciding to kick Paire out of their facilities and withhold his financing. Considering the FFT are well known for affording their top talents more freedom than almost any other major Federation, offering their players the opportunity to grow at their own pace and in their own time, this decision conveys just how staggeringly poor Paire’s attitude was. It came as no suprise that Paire’s reaction to this news was akin to a baby tossing toys out of the pram, but the lesson was learnt and his rise up the ranks slowly resumed:

“I got fired in October by the French Tennis Federation. For two months I did not really want to play tennis. But frankly since I calmed down. I feel good in my head and everything is better. I want to prove to everyone that I can play tennis and mentally I’m not crazy.”

Three and a half years later, Paire’s career stands in far greater stead. One of the most curious and irony-laced features of his rise is that, despite all his physical and mental ebbs and flows, his ranking has seen such a steady and seamless ascension from derelict obscurity to the privileged top end of the spectrum. Though the disappointing, braindead and cringeworthy losses remain omnipresent, not once has his mental deficiencies threatened to obstruct his immense talent and force him on a backwards rut. In fact, with each season has come a major milestone - after finishing 2009 outside the top 300, he halved his ranking and broke the top 175. A year later he had successively navigated his ranking into double figures. And by the end of 2012, Paire was a certified top 50er.

And now? Now Paire stands at 26th. Just last week he achieved his major breakthrough, dispatching the likes of Juan Monaco, Julien Benneteau, Juan Martin Del Potro and Marcel Granollers in a variety of different tests. First he was forced to fight through gritty early wins, and then before he knew it, he was soaring. A career-best victory over Juan Martin Del Potro was backed up emphatically with a spectacular lights out, all guns blazing 6-1 6-0 demolition of the Granollers in the quarterfinal. Throughout this grand dissection and in his following contest against Federer too, one of Paire’s early comments rang through for varying reasons:

“People must think I’m crazy. My philosophy is that if I have to play a point, try to play a beautiful one, no?”

Not much has changed since he uttered these words, and yet everything has. The entertaining silky tennis was still there, clear as day - the equal-parts bombastic and smooth backhand, the silky dropshots that constantly tread the perilously thin line between genius and unspeakable foolery, the unannounced forays to the net that have the power to thrill and embarrass, and that’s not forgetting the athleticism that makes a mockery of his tall and skinny 6ft5 frame.

Despite all that, as Paire took to court against Federer, there was such a unforeseen simplicity to his play. Rather than over-complicating thins by trying to thread that perfect, beautiful point, the Frenchman simply went for it. He served to the limit of his capabilities, aiming for the corners and firing down warning shots. Off the ground, he launched a single-minded assault on Federer’s favoured forehand. This isn’t exactly an approach that many attempt when facing Federer, but after being sliced apart by the 17 time slam champion in their previous meeting, it an ingenious adjustment. From the very first point he produced an array of dazzling winners off the ground into Federer’s forehand corner. Most came from his brilliant backhand, but his notoriously less reliable forehand kept Federer guessing with a surging display too. With each hold and every winner, the confidence seemed to vibrate through him. Even when lazy footwork proved his undoing and he found himself at Federer’s mercy and down three break points, he calmly served his way through five consecutive points to hold once more.

Suddenly, he broke. He was playing well. He was dominating. He had come to win. It seemed that in his mind, he was going to win. At *4-3 deuce, with all the adrenaline pumping through him, he lost himself - or at least, he lost this new self. Out of nowhere, he attempted a terrible dropshot, which Federer happily brushed aside. Floundering and panicking, he then attempted another. It failed again. In the blink of an eye, the spell was broken. From the privileged position of a break lead, he suddenly found himself chasing again. More chances came and went, but the initiative he had held appeared to have been surrendered for good.

This time however, he didn’t descend to smashing every racquet in his possession with childish frustration. He didn’t stand on the side of the court, hollering at his coach in an unintelligible yell. He didn’t throw his toys out the pram and shamelessly intentionally gift Federer the remainder of the match. Once again, it was this newfound simplicity that impressed as he simply fought until the final ball. Other chances came and went - and the first set should have undoubtedly been his - but he left Rome with his head held high and the suggestion that maybe, just maybe, he really isn’t that crazy anymore.

Serena Williams Changes Her Spots Again

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.


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