What Would Shamil Do?

by: Peter Bodo | November 08, 2010

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Mel by Pete Bodo

Greetings, everyone. I've posted some thoughts on Roger Federer's victory in Basel over at ESPN, in case you're interested. Also, I watched Flavia Pennetta clinch the Fed Cup tie for Italy yesterday evening, and found the experience somewhat dispiriting, at least from a chauvinistic point of view. As I wrote in my Racquet Reaction piece, times must be pretty grim if a back-to-the-wall win at 0-2 by Melanie Oudin launches wild and desperate hopes for a miracle result by the U.S. Good grief.

It was pretty clear from the second game of the Penetta vs. Coco Vandeweghe battle that if the U.S. were to upset Italy by winning three straight matches, it would be a feat only slightly greater than the 1980 USA Olympic ice hockey team's "Miracle on Ice." As it turns out, Lake Placid is a long, long way from San Diego in every regard, as was the distance between the respective efforts by the American teams in their moments of reckoning.

Flavia blew away CoCo; the U.S. has walked away from consecutive Fed Cup finals with one of the smallest of consolation prizes—a single match win, courtesy of Oudin. The USA's Fed Cup record against Italy now drops to 9-2, and judging by the success, commitment, and simple joie de jour of the Italians, they've excised the once 0-9 record from memory pretty easily. We were just warming up, Italian captain Corrado Barazzutti might remark.

The most recent match win by an Italian before last year's final was in 1999, when Silvia Farina Elia shocked Monica Seles to level a World Group semifinal played on red clay in Italy at 1-all. Elia took that tough three-setter, 6-4 in the third, after which Venus and Serena Williams said, "No mas!"

Venus surrendered just two games to Elia in the next match of the tie, and then Serena, a substitute for Seles, posted an identical 6-1, 6-1 win over Rita Grande. Remember the Williams sisters? Their past service somewhat mitigates their late-career indifference to Fed Cup.

When it comes to the specifics of the tie that ended yesterday, I come down on Mary Joe Fernandez's side when it comes to the singles nominations. Choosing Vandeweghe over Oudin was the right move. It's funny, but in our podcast before the tie started, I made a point to say it was probably premature to assume that Oudin would be nominated to play singles. Pundits and fans tend to overlook one critical dimension of team selection, which is current form. I'm not talking about the official WTA records over the past three months, either (although those were inconclusive in this case). I mean the team practices that take place in the days leading up to the tie. Trust me, the captains often demand that their singles candidates go at it tooth-and-claw, in order to get a good, "live," sense of each player's game. Practice sessions have often been the determining factor in nominations.

Those of us who weren't in San Diego had no idea of how the team practices went, and when you're talking about a pair of youngsters as talented—and still flawed—as Oudin and Vandeweghe, you don't have a lot of history to draw upon, either broadly speaking or in terms of recent WTA/ITF tournament results. Both girls have struggled, but Vandeweghe probably was playing slightly more consistent tennis. Plus, nominating Vandeweghe must have come as at least a mild surprise to the Italians (as it did to so many USA fans). I imagine the Italians were licking their chops at the prospect of getting a whack at America's darling, Oudin.

Another factor in play, and perhaps the most important one after current form, had to be the sheer bigness of Vandeweghe's game. Oudin, despite that Miracle on Cement slapshot forehand, just isn't the kind of player who can crush or dictate to an opponent. But CoCo can; she's 6-1 and (reportedly) 155 pounds (No, I am not going there. Fingers please stop!). She can crack the big serve and powder the forehand. And she seems comfortable attacking the net. All she lacks is the quality that, regrettably, is the ante for becoming an impact player—consistency.

But if you're Mary Joe, why not ask yourself, What would Shamil Do? (Shamil being Russian Davis and Fed Cup captain Shamil Tarpischev, who's made a career out of his out-of-the-box, last-minute substitutions that inevitably seem to work out.)

And here's something else: Don't you think seeing Vandeweghe selected to play singles helped light a fire under Oudin? She played a good match against an obviously off-form Francesca Schiavone. Still, it went into the books as a W over the world No. 7 and French Open champion. There's nothing like an implicit rejection to motivate a player, and if it jump starts Oudin's confidence, the up-side of this otherwise banal loss could be significant.

Coco At this year's U.S. Open, Oudin was a player suffering terribly from lack of confidence. I believe Oudin is destined to be a much better player than she's been this year. Maybe not Top 10, but at least a player who swings freely and confidently, and believes she has a right—and the tools—to be a factor at tournaments. I believe the same of Vandeweghe. The raw material is good, although I have some reservations about what I can only describe as a lack of discipline—usually, by 18, a player has the strokes that are going to make or break her career.

Vandeweghe will need to control all those moving parts better, play tighter, and work up an A-game based on making the best use of that big serve to hold games (rather than just clock aces or unreturnables), and develop a returning strategy based on the assumption that she can hold. Allowing Pennetta to break her right back at the beginning of the match, despite having led 40-love and extending the game to an excruciating 13 minutes, was the critical error of the tie. For it looked to me that Pennetta was struggling and playing too much within herself through the entire match. Vandeweghe couldn't exploit that timidity.

I thought Tracy Austin made the most relevant remark about Vandeweghe, while trying to describe a pretty egregious error CoCo made with, I think, her backhand. All in all, it was a botched shot, and you could get pretty deep into stroking science to explain it—postion of the hip, turn of the shoulders, yadda-yadda-yadda. But Tracy nailed it when she said the culprit was footwork. Pure and simple. Lousy footwork is a bit like a sloppy error in math. You inadvertently substitue a 6 for a 9 at the beginning of a calculation, and by the time you've arrived at the end of your formula you might as well throw it all out and start anew.

Basic speed and quickness are—more or less—god-given. Vandeweghe moves around the court pretty well for a girl of her size. What she'll need to do is improve that footwork, which will make her mobility more dangerous and effective.

I'm not prepared to give up on Vandeweghe yet. Nor on Oudin.

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