Posts Tagged ‘bouchard’

Kerber and the pressure of no.1

May 29, 2017

I am writing on tennis after a long while and as I sit to write, the hot topic is the ‘shock’ exit of world no.1 Angelique Kerber in the first round of the French Open, in fact on the opening day.  On a day marked by a one sided win for Grigor Dimitrov and yet another listless display by Bernard Tomic, it was Petra Kvitova who provided entertainment.  If Kerber’s match against Ekaterina Makarova provided something, it was mostly fodder for armchair psychologists.

Let’s start with why I put the word shock in single quotes. Because it was a defeat that many people, be they journalists or amateur bloggers, had smelt the moment Kerber was drawn against Makarova in the first round. Makarova’s current ranking of 44 (which left her unseeded in the French Open) belies her pedigree and with Kerber being woefully out of form, facing an aggressive Makarova with nothing to lose was not the way she would have hoped to launch her French Open campaign.

By now, defeat is hardly a stranger to Kerber, at least so far as 2017 is concerned.  She has a horrific win-loss tally of 19-13. World no.1s do not notch up so many losses in just the first half of the season.  Elina Svitolina, Daria Kasatkina, Elena Vesnina, Anett Kontaveit, many are the players who can boast of having beat Kerber this year.  That she may lose to Makarova was not a surprising outcome.

What was nevertheless disturbing (and which made for uncomfortable viewing) was her resigned air and diffidence throughout the match.  Her movement was sluggish (she blames it on clay, but look at her losses this year and you will find it has generally been a problem and a pretty big one for a counterpuncher like her), her shot making tentative and her body language negative in the extreme.  As Makarova punished a serve that barely touched 140 ks (screaming forehand winners are sometimes clocked at 160 ks), Kerber’s shot tolerance fell off a cliff and she pulled the trigger way too soon way too many times.  In just over an hour, she had been packed off, managing just 4 games in her straight sets defeat.   Her shoulders slumped pretty early in the match (if not from the get go) and stayed that way till the end, much like Eugenie Bouchard in her prolonged slump.

I have written earlier about Bouchard’s own rise and fall and yet to be concluded struggle for form (by the way, even Bouchard beat Kerber this year!).  At least, Bouchard was a young player thrust into the SW19 spotlight against an opponent who outplayed her in all departments.  It is understandable that a player ostensibly pump primed to believe she was the future of women’s tennis would be shaken to learn the reality (which was more unflattering).

But Kerber is no greenhorn.  She has been around since 2007 and made deep forays into grand slams from 2011.  She has on occasion beaten both Williams sisters, Maria Sharapova, Victoria Azarenka, Simona Halep among other top players.  She is not new to this as such.

And yet, she has increasingly looked tormented on the court  and unable to get on with the business of playing tennis (in one article, she mentioned paying too much attention to where she was in the race to Singapore and such other noise).  Her mental strength has, as expected, been called into question with her ignominious run of defeats this year (she hasn’t won a title in 2017 yet).  But it was her mental strength which was praised when she overcame Serena last year at the Australian Open.  Besides, a counterpuncher cannot consistently remain in the top 10 or so of tennis, as she has, without mental strength because by definition, a counterpuncher doesn’t rely on huge weapons to win.

Instead, the problem is simply that she is no.1.  The pressure of being no.1 is not easy to handle for many players as her travails this year show (or Andy Murray’s for that matter).  In the immortal words of Shakespeare, uneasy lies the head that wears the crown and right now, Kerber seems to be more ill at ease than Macbeth himself.

Some players may manage to get to no.1 but only a few of them in turn can hold on to it for a long time.  For one thing, the tour wakes up and starts chasing them and in doing so picks holes in their game.  For another, the weight of expectations, self imposed and external, may become a hindrance to free expression of the player’s talent.   Let me take this opportunity, then, to close with a tribute to the ultimate hustler in tennis and the man who spent more consecutive weeks at no.1 than any other barring Roger Federer – Jimmy Connors.  It’s not easy to stay at no.1 and he stayed there for 160 consecutive weeks (and a career total of 268).  Many great players have left their mark on the game since his time but on these two parameters, he remains firmly in the all time top five of men’s tennis.

Ever since Pete Sampras chased Roy Emerson’s tally of 11 slam titles, slams have become the key factor in determining a player’s greatness.  I do not contend that it is not, but there is a tendency increasingly to forget about how long the player could hold on to no.1.  Because there is no truer measure of domination than the no.1 ranking.  There is also no greater measure of just how much the player thrives (or doesn’t) under pressure.  As Kerber’s 2017 suggests, sometimes no.1 can even be a curse.  For Connors, it secured his place in the pantheon of all time greats and any time somebody scoffs at ‘only’ 8 slams, remind him or her that only a very few like Federer, Sampras and Lendl could vault over Connors in the true test of domination, indeed the ultimate pressure cooker in tennis.

 

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Watch out for Belinda Bencic

August 18, 2015

Belinda Bencic, an 18 year old Swiss player, won the Toronto WTA Premier title (equivalent of ATP 1000) on Sunday, beating Simona Halep who retired even as she was falling apart in the decider.  Bencic also beat Serena Williams, Ana Ivanovic, Sabine Lisicki, Caroline Wozniacki and Eugenie Bouchard en route.   The significance of this event needs to be brought home tellingly.

I am not a statistician or tennis trivia expert.  But if memory serves me right, Bencic is the youngest winner of a Premier level title since Maria Sharapova’s Tokyo win in 2005 (she was 17).  The only other 18 year old winner of a Premier level title since then was Ivanovic, who also won the Canadian Open in 2006, beating Martina Hingis in an amazing coincidence.  But if we reckon by months, Bencic is even younger than Ivanovic.

Yes, 10 years.  It’s been that long.  Women’s tennis was once known for churning out precocious teens who struck gold very early into their careers, the Swiss Miss Hingis being one such herself.  But with WTA introducing age eligibility rules and the game itself becoming slower and more physical, favouring tall, well built players on the WTA, we haven’t had any teens breaking through so early to win a Premier Level Title, let alone a Slam.  Petra Kvitova, Victoria Azarenka, Caroline Wozniacki and Simona Halep had all breached 20 when they won their first Premier Level title.  By contrast, Bencic has broken through earlier.  Bencic also made it through a very tough draw to get there and that she should achieve this in her maiden Premier title win is an incredible achievement.

So what accounts for her swift rise to success at the top most level of women’s tennis?  What makes Bencic special?

Basically, the things that made Hingis special, with significantly less finesse.  Bencic’s game looks innocuous on the surface and if you were to watch her now for the first time after she’s created a splash, you would be forgiven for wondering what the fuss is all about.  Her serve is not a great threat and the second delivery is already a liability (shades of Hingis again).  Her groundstrokes are somewhat underpowered and she’s also not the quickest mover on court.  But it’s the way she reads the game that compensates for all these problems.  Observe carefully and you will find Bencic improvising incredibly smart plays out of nowhere to come out on top of baseline exchanges with her opponents.  And while her volleys are definitely not Hingis class, as I already alluded to, she too has a great sense of when to come in and sniffs opportunities where most other players on the tour would prefer to hang back.  Maybe a serve volleyer like Kirsten Flipkens might come in on such occasions, but you get the picture.  And Bencic is just 18, so the fact that she already plays this interesting, hybrid game of baseline and all court strategies must itself come as a surprise to opponents.  She’s also held tough through adversity, not throwing in the towel after a flurry of double faults and fighting on to win.

With the Toronto triumph, Bencic has risen to no.12 in the rankings.  She has considerable upside at the Cincinnati event too where she lost her opening game last year.  This year, in the first round she is slated to play Angelique Kerber who could prove a tough nut to crack.   But Bencic is riding high on confidence after her fabulous winning streak in Montreal and might just put it past Kerber at Cincy.  The fast paced surface should suit a smart counterpuncher like Bencic very well too.  At the US Open, she has quarter final points to defend.  Hopefully, she will go further than that and break into the top 10 of WTA.

It is as yet far too early to tell how good a player Bencic will turn out to be.  There have been players before who shone briefly like a meteorite and just as suddenly disappeared from top flight tennis.  Last year’s hot new talent Bouchard herself is Exhibit A of said phenomenon, currently languishing at no.25, having got as far as no.5 last year.  But early indications of Bencic are very promising.  It does look like WTA has a new star, one who will hopefully entertain connoisseurs and recreational players just as much as casual fans.  Go Bencic!

Halep and Bouchard’s contrasting paths to ignominy

July 5, 2015

Eugenie Bouchard, last year’s Wimbledon finalist, and Simona Halep, the semi finalist who lost to Bouchard in said event, were both knocked out in the first round of this year’s Wimbledon.  Both of last year’s rising stars have had a disastrous last few months but their route to ignominy couldn’t have been more different.

After Bouchard got beaten soundly by Petra Kvitova in last year’s Wimbledon final, I wrote about how she had paid the price for hubris that was not backed by enough game to beat a player like Kvitova.  The very fact that I am able to write about how she has fared in this year’s tournament in the first weekend of Wimbledon speaks volumes.  I had hoped in last year’s write up that she would not repeat Martina Hingis’s mistakes and learn quickly.  Yes, she hasn’t.  She has done much worse.  Hingis at least had/has a great tennis mind and bona fide strokemaking ability; she has found a second wind in doubles partnering Sania Mirza.

It is becoming increasingly hard to believe that Bouchard has either great tennis IQ or great shots.  Her conqueror at Wimbledon does seem to lack the former a lot of times and lost to the crafty Jelena Jankovic yesterday.  That’s what separates the stunningly talented Kvitova from the legend that is Serena Williams, who grits through bad patches and uses her underrated tennis mind to find a way to win. You can get by with one of either qualities to some extent in tennis but not without both.  It also seems that even something as fundamental as adequate transfer of weight has not been fixed in Bouchard’s technique.  With the result that after making the Australian Open quarterfinals yet again (where Sharapova drubbed her), Bouchard has struggled to just win matches…against any player on the WTA tour.

Her now much disliked smugness was on evidence again during Canada’s Fed Cup tie against Romania.  Her Highness expressed her unwilingness to shake hands with her opponent prior to the match, calling it ‘lame’.  Shortly thereafter she limped out lamely, losing both of her singles matches in a humiliating fashion.  From that point on, her slump just plummeted to new depths with a first round exit at Wimbledon capping her woes.  Could it get worse for Bouchard from here?  Who knows.  A 4th round appearance at US Open and finals at Wuhan may still prove too much to defend for her, with the result that she may lose yet more points.  While Bouchard has made a reference to learning a lot through this experience, it is not clear whether she is simply referring to the fact that there would be reversals in a tennis career or to the fact that much needs to be done for her to remain in the top 20 on a consistent basis.  It is worth remembering that she referred to the Wimbledon final drubbing as a good learning experience with evident sheepishness and yet little signs of said learning have been evident a year on.

What of Halep?  She too reached the quarter finals of the Australian Open, where another powerful Russian, Ekaterina Makarova, dislodged her with ease.  But after a good showing in the American slow hard court stretch, Halep has faltered with early exits at both French Open and Wimbledon.

If Bouchard reeked of false swagger and a possibly deluded bravado, Halep seems to struggle to cope with the weight of expectations.  She made a reference to it as early as the US Open last year, where veteran Mirjana Lucic-Baroni beat her.  Since then, it’s not clear if she has made much progress in handling nerves.  Considering that she was a finalist at the French Open last year (apart from making the semis at Wimbledon),  it would only appear that she has regressed further in this regard.

Halep, like Bouchard, is grossly underpowered in the “Strong is Beautiful” era of women’s tennis.  Like Bouchard, she needs to use her brains to select her shots intelligently and scramble to win, as she cannot blow her opponents off the court.  But what is noticeable even in Halep’s wins is her shot selection and court positioning can go completely awry in patches (which is why she often wins in three sets rather than just two).  Many a time, I have noticed her getting caught mid court for no apparent reason and losing the point.  For a petite player like Halep, such lapses can be costly and combined with what appears to be timidness in the face of pressure, it’s going to be one hell of a monkey to get off her back.  The saving grace is unlike Bouchard, she doesn’t seem to have any serious problems with her technique.  It’s just that she can’t possibly hit the ball much harder even if she tried.

Signing off, the media, including commentators who have played the game, made references to attitude-related aspects of Bouchard and Halep in talking them up.  With Bouchard, it was her mental strength and immense self belief and with Halep, it was her feline-like demeanour (which apparently is evidence of aggression).  The problem is an appearance of mental strength or aggression cannot win matches on a tennis court.  I would be the last person to downplay the importance of the mental side of the game, especially at the highest level where thin margins separate winners from losers.

But it is no substitute for a bare minimum level of ‘game’.  Shots struck with a certain amount of power and produced with precision, aiming for the lines, with consistency.  Much has been written about Sharapova’s grit and intensity too, but she basically has two amazing shots that she can rely on to generate winners.  The backhand cross court and the off forehand. She can aim for the corners with these shots relentlessly to break down the opponent.   This is how she’s got to 5 slams, not because she clenches her fist ever so tightly between points or because, ahem, she is easy on the eye.

Hollow, superficial contextualisation of tennis is understandable from media pundits since they seemingly know no better.  But at least former players owe it to us to make intelligent, objective analysis of the game instead of making an utter mockery of women’s tennis by refusing to engage with it deeply.  Whatever Halep or Bouchard may or may not have learnt from their terrible slump, I hope it has also been a learning experience for the commentators.  Else, we are probably better off without having any commentary at all.

Bouchard: Construction and deconstruction of hubris

July 6, 2014

In tennis, it is rare that a former champion, especially one in her mid-20s and at the peak of her physical prowess, flies under the radar as the less fancied contender for the title while her opponent, contesting her first grand slam final, becomes the hot favourite.  One would ordinarily assume this to be on account of the extraordinary quality of tennis already displayed by the latter, turning conventional wisdom on its head.  But perhaps in the modern world, perceptions and PR management can be added to the list of possible reasons.  Such is the curious case of Eugenie Bouchard.

 

Long before Wimbledon 2014 got to the business end, the Bouchard army was steamrolling all opposition in the PR sweepstakes.  We kept hearing of how Queen Genie, as she is referred to, was a champion and future star in waiting.  By the time she got to the quarter finals, she was all but crowned as the new champion.  It was, or so it seemed, only a matter of time before she completed the last remaining formalities.  She duly egged on the media managers with statements like “I feel like I totally belong” and “It’s (greatness, presumably) been years in the making”.  That just about every reasonably successful professional tennis player has worked for years to get to wherever they are, irrespective of their slam count, is another matter.

 

But as it was, Bouchard was and is an advertiser’s dream come true.  Young, outspoken, eerily confident and, last but most certainly not the least, attractive, she will probably be soon seen endorsing popular sporty footwear brands if she isn’t already.  Since overly talking up a glamorous tennis player without great results on court has at times attracted flak from spectators, Bouchard presented an ideal balance of beauty and talent.  She seriously upped the ante after the semi finals, saying she had expected to win and wasn’t particularly surprised with the result.  Her steely confidence in choosing such bold words without resort to an appearance of modesty must have left more than a few observers awestruck.

 

And then along came Kvitova.  In less than an hour (but not a minute too soon to beat the rains), she demolished the champion in waiting in straight sets to win her second Wimbledon title.  But it wasn’t just the fact that she won in straight sets.  At 3-2 in the opening set, as Kvitova closed out a long and well fought rally with an incredible backhand crosscourt passing shot, John McEnroe declared on air that if Kvitova kept playing shots like this, it would be a long day or rather a short day for Bouchard.  McEnroe declared during the 2003 men’s final that Federer reminded one of somebody who had won the title 7 times.  McEnroe often calls it perfectly and this time too, he was spot on.  The second set was even more one sided with Kvitova gifting a grand bagel to Bouchard.  Defeat seemed to leave Bouchard shell shocked, flustered and upset rather than just disappointed or sad.  But, really, should she have been shocked?

 

In their only previous meeting at Toronto last year, Kvitova had prevailed in straight sets.  Kvitova serves and returns powerfully, moves well for somebody of her height and hits sweetly timed classical groundstrokes rather than bludgeoning the ball. Lately, she has begun to hit behind the opponent so she is developing tactical nous as well.  Bouchard’s groundstrokes are on average nearly 20 mph slower than Kvitova’s. Her second serve sat up to be treated to punishing Kvitova returns.  Her movements on grass were less than perfectly balanced and she relies heavily on hitting the ball early rather than timing.  Should Bouchard really have been so surprised by the defeat?

 

It is not so much the defeat itself as the thought that perhaps Bouchard looked underdone, underprepared for an event as important as a Wimbledon final.  I don’t know if she actually did say it or not, but at least in the excerpt of the press conference after the semi final uploaded on the Wimbledon website, Bouchard did not acknowledge Kvitova as a former champion. She only mentioned vaguely that she knew of her weapons on grass. In her head, she seemed to be the favourite. As a contrast, Federer, the 7 time Wimbledon champion, mentioned Raonic’s serve as something he would have to counter, by taking care of his own serve games.  He did exactly that, clinically, on Friday.  It is interesting to note the difference in approach between one of the greatest players in the history of the game and one who is, as yet, an upstart.

 

This is not to say that self belief is a bad thing, as Bouchard fans have argued is being insinuated by critics.  No player can get to the top of the heap without self belief.  But there is a thin line separating self belief from hubris.  Where does believing that you can make it end and believing you already have arrived begin?  The problem, again, wasn’t that Bouchard lost.  The problem was she simply tried to play her usual game when it seemed evident to most serious watchers of the game that that wouldn’t work if Kvitova hit her stride.  Kvitova was quick off the blocks.  Bouchard should have tried something else, maybe use a lot of slices to keep the ball low and slow down the game.  Kvitova thrives on pace and rhythm.  Bouchard didn’t do anything to take that away from her.  Surely someone as certain of success as she appeared to be would have also prepared a strategy that would attain it and execute said strategy well on court?  Instead, Bouchard looked shaken even halfway through the first set, as if this wasn’t part of the plan.

 

After the defeat, Bouchard said in the presentation that she didn’t know if she deserved all the love she got from the audience.  Later in the press conference, she said the defeat was a good experience for her and she would learn a lot from it.  Without reading too much between the lines, it was perhaps a tacit acknowledgment that she had been a bit too sure of success without yet possessing the weapons she needed….to beat a former champion and one who at her best can blow away many players on tour.  She beat Venus Williams in a tough match in the run up to the final, in case the Bouchard army noticed.  Against Sharapova in the French Open semi final earlier this year, Bouchard had the consolation of walking away a gallant loser.  Kvitova didn’t even afford her such pyrrhic victories.  It was complete and utter demolition in full public view.

 

The Bouchard episode is a good demonstration of the highs and lows of hubris.  People, especially those working in the media, enjoy a quote-worthy star.  And they also enjoy taking her down when she cannot live up to her own boast.  In 1999, Martina Hingis, having earlier claimed Steffi Graf was over the hill, walked off in bitter tears from the French Open final, not only facing defeat but finding the crowd firmly against her.  When she broke through in 1997, Hingis was hailed as a precocious talent and a genius in waiting.  In the end, though she did win plenty of slams, she fell some distance short of meriting comparison with Graf, Evert, Navratilova or the Williams sisters.  It is perhaps fortunate that Bouchard’s bubble burst before, rather than after, she had won a major.  She should hopefully return a bit older and a lot wiser and fulfill her tryst with destiny at a future date.  Tennis is richer for the presence of talents like her and a shrewder Bouchard will only make the game more exciting, more interesting to watch.

 

 


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