News of the Day: The Backsliders

Friday, October 08, 2010 /by

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by Pete Bodo

Venus Williams wasn't the only WTA star and former Grand Slam champion to end her year on a down note. The decision to end her 2010 campaign, effective immediately, is the back end of a tough one-two punch that the WTA has had to absorb in the last few days. The women also took a hit two days ago when Svetlana Kuznetsova withdrew from the upcoming Moscow event, thereby pulling the plug on her season. Turns out she "got sick" and lost the entire week she'd penciled in for practice to prepare the Asian swing.

"From Sunday to Saturday, one week, I wasn't home," she tweet-moaned. "I didn't go out, I didn't do any fitness, I was in bed. I didn't have time, but that's how it is."

The defending champ in the women's division of the China Open, Kuznetsova lost in the first round to Roberta Vinci and left Asia with just one win—and that via default, when Agnes Szavay had to retire during the first set of their match in Tokyo. Still, we'll miss the sometimes maddening, hip-hop loving Russian two-time Grand Slam winner.

Kuznetsova has been carrying the lovable flake banner cast aside not long ago by her countryman, Marat Safin. The comparison is counter-intuitive, but it holds up. While Sveta has never had anything like Safin's glam appeal (who does?), in some ways their careers run on surprisingly parallel tracks. Both of them have had a penchant for winning when it was least expected, and suffering inexplicable collapses when they were expected to do well. They both came out of nowhere to win their first major at the U.S. Open. And they've both been seen smoking cigarettes, right?

Kuznetsova's troubles added to an emerging, inter-tour theme—the failure and frustration experienced by players of both sexes who have either done well in the fall before, or were expected to do so because of the hard court surfaces. Maria Sharapova, a multiple Grand Slam champion, like Kuznetsova, has had a dismal Asian swing. And what about Tomas Berdych?

Going into the U.S. Open, Berdych's fans could be forgiven for insisting that his days as a headcase were finally over. He followed up his championship match loss at Wimbledon (his dreams were shattered by some uppity Spanish clay-courter, remember?) with a pair of hard-court quarterfinals (Washington and the Masters 1000 of Canada, where he lost to Roger Federer). That's good, if not great.

But then Berdych presumably began to hear those voices in his head again, bidding him to "lose, collapse, blow-it, cave. . . " In Cincinnati, he won one match before falling in straight sets to Marcos Baghdatis, and he was bounced from the U.S. Open by Michael Llodra in a shocking first-round upset (a dangerous player on faster surfaces, but still. . . Berdych was the No. 7 seed).

Since then, Berdych has won exactly one match and lost four.

He isn't the only backslider among the big male hitters, either. There's Nikolay Davydenko's latest autumn victim, Marin Cilic, whose personal history has been more stable than Berdych's, although you might argue that it's only because the 22-year-old Cilic hasn't been around to disappoint us as long as the other guy.

Cilic was expected to join Berdych, Robin Soderling, Juan Martin del Potro and injury-plagued part-timer Jo-Wilfried Tsonga as a card-carrying member of the Big Scary Guy Club. He's been ranked as high as No. 9 (he's now No. 14), and a little over a year ago he dismissed former U.S. Open finalist—and hard-court wizard—Andy Murray in the fourth round of Flushing Meadows. It took the eventual champ, del Potro, to stop Cilic. And the tall, raw-boned Croatian then went on to make the final in Beijing (losing to Novak Djokovic). Many pundits thought that his day had come.

Not so fast.

Cilic's loss to Davydenko, a guy he ought to be able to overpower, caps a lackluster showing on the hard courts best suited to his game. Although he reached the semifinals at Washington, he went 0-2 in the U.S. hard court Masters events, bombed out in the second round of the U.S. Open (loss to Kei Nishikori) and won exactly two matches since the the last major of the year, beating Lukas Lacko (whoopee!) and talented Brazilian, Thomaz Bellucci.

103848443 This trend is sweeping through the big men like some kind of plague. Heck, Sam Querrey is out of Beijing as well. But Robin Soderling, who's emerging as the most reliable of the big power players, is still in the mix in Beijing. So is Long John Isner, who's into the Beijing semifinals after wins over Philipp Kohlschreiber and Nikolay Davydenko.

In beating Kohlschreiber 7-6 (3), 3-6, 6-3, Isner perfectly executed his plan, which seems rooted in the concept of atttrition. Keep a guy out there for two, three, four hours, frustrating his hopes for a break while making him extra-conscious of the need to hold. Pound him with the serve in an effort to extinguish his hopes as well as his confidence and will. (Isner struck 20 aces against the German and 18 against Davydenko.) It's an interesting and unconventional formula, but if you think about the mental energy and tension Isner's opponents have to expend just to remain even, while feeling like they haven't had a sniff at a break. . . well, you can see why Isner wins so many of these knock-down, drag-outs.

Isner overcome (likely) tired legs to beat the nimble, swift and seasoned Davydenko 7-6 (4), 6-4. The Russian is seemingly unable or uninterested in relying on any adjective other than "fast" when he tries to describe a win—or a loss. He says "fast" more than Jennifer Capriati used to say "like," or "Ummm. . ." 

"Fast" is not just Davydenko's all-purpose word, it's his one-size-fits-all analysis of almost every match he plays. Either Kolya played "fast" or the other guy played "too fast." In other words, either Davydenko used adequate (read, "aggressive") pace, combined with depth, penetration, a relatively low bounce, first-rate shot placement and excellent defense and recovery, or the other guy did. You've got to hand it to Kolya, he pretty much sums up winning tennis with one, four-letter word—and it's one that can be published on a family-friendly website. "Fast."

Let it never be said that Davydenko isn't attuned to Pete Sampras's theory that when you take away an opponent's "time"—meaning, when you can impose the pace and force him to feel rushed, or uanble to execute within his comfort zone, you're halfway to a win.

Incidentally, Davydenko's win over Cilic represented his entry into the elite 400 tour-level win club, which consists of just eight active players. But I I had to pull a tribute to the accomplishment and this meditation on Davydenko the other day because of the breaking news about Venus Williams. Then, a short while later, Davydenko was moved from the back seat to the trunk of the car when Caroline Wozniacki became just the 20th player (and seventh youngest, as well as the first Dane of either sex) to earn the No. 1 ranking. Great job, Caro, now go and consolidate by winning a Grand Slam event. I have no doubt that she will do this, but then I've also said that of Andy Murray.

Unlilke, Murray, though, Wozniacki is presently accomplishing something that only the greatest of players manage. She is building a remarkable record of consistency—of showing up and playing like she means it, week-in, week-out. That ability is not to be underestimated. Confidence is the spirit world's version of muscle memory, and you only get that one way: through repetition. I also find a lot of the talk about her "boring" game, well, boring. Forcing or enabling opponents to commit an error is a talent in and of itself, and in some ways it's more rare than the ability to bang out winners or club aces.

And Wozniacki's "come to play" attitude looks particularly good in light of what's been happening on the Asian swing. The backsliding big hitters are proving the point: Never send a big man to do a job best left to Kolya the Fast.

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