It's Such a Fine Line Between Stupid and Clever

Tuesday, May 04, 2010 /by

Jh The two most prominent and hopeful storylines in women’s tennis collided on Sunday in Stuttgart. One of those stories—how long will it take Justine Henin to get back in the winner’s circle?—we fully expected to be following as the year began. The other—is Slammin’ Sammy Stosur really as slammin’ as her game looks right now?—has come as a surprise, and a lifesaver in a season that’s been shot through with injuries.

We received a definitive answer to the first of these questions. After reaching a couple of finals, losing a few three-set heartbreakers, and playing some whiplash-inducing up-and-down tennis, Justine won the first tournament of her comeback. In doing so, she gave us a little of the old and a little of the new. Henin looked more comfortable back on her favorite surface, clay, where running counts as much as hitting. But even there she continued to implement her new, fast-court-oriented game. Like this final, and like many of Henin’s matches so far this year, that new game had its pros and cons, and produced violent swings in quality.

The upside was that Henin, who has made some minor adjustments to her toss and motion, got herself out of trouble with strong first serves on several occasions. She also broke Stosur by attacking a very good second serve up the middle with an even better forehand return. In these moments, Henin looks like the player we knew, better then her opponents in part because she’s more fearless, at the right times, than they are. The downside is that fearlessness in a tennis player exists about a millimeter from recklessness. What’s the Spinal Tap line, said with a nod of somber, earnest wisdom? “It’s such a fine line between stupid and clever”? The line is even finer in tennis—at some level, everything is execution.

This is especially true for Justine, who lives right on that razor’s edge. While she broke Stosur with a sizzling forehand up the middle, on other occasions she sent that same forehand five feet long. Henin moves into the ball and has to catch it early to make it work. On a second serve, it’s a fearless and intelligent play; but, Justine being Justine, she tried it even on Stosur’s heavy first serve and hit it long. That’s when she moves into reckless territory. The same was true on her forehand. Henin had this shot working for her in the first set, particularly the inside-out and inside-in versions. But like her return, her forehand is a risk. For Henin to generate the racquet-head speed she needs, she must get around it early and get her weight moving forward—it’s much tougher for her to hit off her back foot than it is for, say, Rafael Nadal. In the second set, Henin didn’t quite get all the way around the ball in time, and the result was a shot that started to find the tape. Like I said, more than most great players, Henin lives on a razor’s edge of success and failure, and she can cross it quickly. But this is the way she has chosen to play; or, with her body size, she simply has no choice. She can’t fear the mistake.

How did our other storyline turn out? It was a very good match and tournament, all told, for Stosur. She followed up her Charleston win with another clay-court final. This doesn’t just show that she’s mentally steady. The more important thing is that, for the moment at least, Stosur’s game itself is dependable from week to week. She’s winning because she’s hitting the ball better—heavier, with more pace and action—than just about anyone, including Henin, whom Stosur more than held her own with during rallies. Stosur is also no longer alternating the good stretches with the old, inexplicable lapses—col-lapses—in form that have always plagued her. If I didn’t know better, I’d say she's improving by the day. At times in Stuttgart, her serve was significantly better—deeper, with more kick—than it had been in Çharleston a couple weeks ago. She almost hit Justine in the face with a nasty slice on a second ball.

Yesterday, I wrote about the difficulty that David Ferrer must have faced, when he saw that he had a chance to win the first set, in trying to forget just who he was about to win that set against. The same was true for Stosur at the beginning of the third set. All of the momentum was with her. She had won the second set easily, held at love to start the third, and watched as Henin made yet another ugly error to start the following game. On the next point, Stosur had Henin out of position, but she didn’t do enough with a sitter backhand. Henin, given an extra opportunity, flicked a crosscourt backhand of her own behind Stosur for a winner. For no obvious reason, it was enough to bring the Aussie's momentum to a screeching halt. She missed a return on an easy second serve, and when Henin held and yelled “Allez!” you had the feeling that an opportunity had just been missed, and that the match had turned again.

The trouble was, Stosur seemed to feel that way, too. After constructing points patiently for two sets, she suddenly let everything fly at the first opportunity and was quickly broken. It was as if Stosur, at the point when she was ready to take the lead for the first time, let the stress of that prospect throw her off her game plan. When her momentum ended, and it became apparent that Justine wasn’t just going to keep making errors and throw the match away, Stosur wasn’t the same player. It’s amazing what a sharp little “Allez!” can do to an opponent. Still, success in tennis is a step-by-step process—first you get the dependable strokes, then you get the confidence to use them—and Stosur, who had never played Henin before, may be ready for that moment the next time.

Yesterday, I also wrote that Rafael Nadal plays within himself when he's on clay. Can we say that about his WTA partner in dirtball, Justine Henin, a four-time French Open champion? I was struck on Sunday by a moment that seemed to sum up the odd mix that makes up Justine. She hit a serve, which was called long, and followed it to the net. Before she heard the call, Henin took Stosur’s return and banged an overhead aggressively, then walked forward, again very aggressively, to look at the mark. Her whole demeanor was that of the tough, borderline-belligerent competitor. Then she went back to the baseline and looked plaintively, with those famous eye-balls, at her player’s box before she hit her second serve.

Which is the real Justine? Or is one Justine, the fearful one, necessary to create the other Justine, the cutthroat one? What comes through most, in her strong emotions, in her attack-at-all-costs style, and in her up-and-down results, is that Henin, the undersized champion, must constantly will herself to play at this level. She must accept the reckless errors to earn the fearless winners. She must accept the 6-2 losses to Stosur and then fight her way back from there. Most greats, like Nadal on clay, play their best when they’re within themselves, when they’re not trying to do more than their bodies will let them. What makes Henin different, as well as unpredictable and entertaining from game to game, is that she’s the opposite. She plays at the extremes. She plays, for better and worse, beyond herself.

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