Steel Traps, Big Hearts
Mornin.' I took Bucky the Wonder Pet on my run this morning, expecting a flat-learning curve for the 11-month old dog. Well, he trotted along with me, four-and-a-half miles, like a champ - then spent 15 minutes in the dog run, making the other dogs chase, rassle, and drool all over him. I can't believe how lucky we are with this dog, and I say that knowing what a bore it is listening to parents rave about their kids or dogs or pet snails.
But on to the business at hand, because I have a busy day and am off to Tampa tomorrow to spend a day with John Isner (any questions for him, post them here and, if appropriate, I'll try to ask them).
I have a new post up at ESPN on the Charleston final, and I'd like to amplify some of the comments I made there. Let's start with this: predicting a Rafael Nadal vs. Fernando Verdasco final in Monte Carlo was not an act requiring genius, but who would have called for a Slammin' Sammy Stosur vs. Vera Zvonareva final in Charleston (and yes, I also thought Bobby Chintapalli did terrific work for us in Charleston; she has a bonus doubles piece researched there in the pipeline as well, probably for publication tomorrow or Wednesday)?
Now I'd be the last person on earth to equate the Monte Carlo Rolex Masters with the Family Circle Cup (although the latter has a rich tradition of its own, going back decades and through great times as well as tough ones). For one thing, most of the very best women were absent from Charleston; for another, the stakes simply weren't as high on the Har-Tru of Carolina as on the red clay of Monaco, so the pressure is less intense.
But let's also keep in mind that even if the top players were in Charleston, as a group they just don't have the consistency and day-in, day-out dedication we've come to expect. I don't care if the issue is taking a long and well-deserved hiatus from the game (a la Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin), or indifference to playing a strong schedule and doing the hard yards to maintain a ranking. The bottom line is that the women don't have a top player who laces them up and comes to play on a regular basis with anything like the heft, grit or ability of a Nadal, Roger Federer, or Andy Roddick.
So while you can't exactly call the Stosur-Zvonareva final an anomaly, it did highlight an interesting state-of-the-game issue, one which Patrick McEnroe spends a little time on in his forthcoming book, Hardcourt Confidential (full disclosure: I wrote the book with Pat). Put simply, it used to be the WTA that featured a sometimes mind-numbing lack of stylistic diversity. The women once played a broadly similar style (with a few exceptions, chief of which was Martina Navratilova) on all surfaces, and a long list of great champions developed their resumes mainly on the strength of tremendous baseline consistency.
That trend really began with Chris Evert (although the attacker Navratilova morphed over the years from burr under her saddle to dagger in her heart); it continued through Tracy Austin, Jennifer Capriati, Aranxta Sanchez-Vicario, Steffi Graf, Monica Seles and a host of lesser lights. With few exceptions, the women conformed to the model created in the Open era by Evert (although she certainly had formidable antecedents, including Maureen Connolly).
Today, though, it's the men who ply a one-size-fits-all game, although "one style fits all" might be a better description. Attacking players are few and far between - even those who have the standard tools of the attacker, like Federer and Roddick (although their tools are very different) don't attack nearly as much as they might have, back in the day. More important, the aggressive baseline game, built on prodigious swings, topspin, superb fitness and physical strength and stamina has become coin of the realm. The style is adaptable to all surfaces, and it has very few elements that can be described as "creative."
Until not too long ago, great clay-court WTA players were made of equal parts consistency and determination, or mental toughness - qualities that all great players possess, but which really seem most striking and useful on clay. But look around: the ATP is awash with superb clay-court players, but the WTA has a dearth of them. Where is the just-say-no baseliner? The WTA player who's ultra-reliable off the ground, with a mind as strong as a steel trap and a heart bigger around than one of Serena Williams's hoop earrings? She may no longer exist. That's one of the main reasons an attacker like Stosur and a creative but erratric shotmaker like Zvonareva were able to punch through in Charleston.
I'm tempted to call the situation downright bizarre; it certainly is unusual. Serena, Venus and Maria Sharapova certainly have the kind of heart that once made Evert, or Graf, famous. But they don't have the consistency on clay. Ana Ivanovic and Jelena Jankovic are capable of the consistency, but they don't seem to have the heart or determination. Dinara Safina implodes at the very sniff of a major. Kim Clijsters, who's cut from the traditional baseline cloth, has never won the French Open, and she's been surprisingly up and down since her big triumph at the U.S. Open last year. Justine Henin has won the French Open many times, but with a game that to some eyes is better suited to success on grass and hard; her triumphs in Paris were emotional ones. That doesn't diminish their value or credibility, of course. But it helps put the state of affairs into perspective. Imagine the 1970s and 80s without an Evert around to tease the best out of Navratilova. That's kind of where we are today.
Looked at through this lens, you really see the weakness in Serena Williams's grip on the game. For her inability to truly dominate, with all that implies, is probably rooted in the gradual erosion of her clay-court skills. Sure she's got other things on her mind, and god bless her for it; this woman has incidentally put a lot of food on the tables of her rivals and peers. But keep in mind that with the exception of Navratilova, we've never had a truly dominant Open-era WTA player whose empire wasn't built on clay, or whose game didn't shine most convincingly against a backdrop of dirt. And while Serena is certainly the best and toughest of WTA players, you can't say she's got a stranglehold on the game - not the way a Graf or Seles once did.
The up-side here is significant; the WTA game is nothing if not interesting. It has more tone and color than the ATP game, and greater diversity. But it doesn't have a dominant champion. And when the next one emerges, it will be from red dust - and I'm not talking about the particle matter on Mars, either.