Flawed Fun in the Desert

Friday, February 18, 2011 /by

Jj Should the women just play their entire season in Dubai or Doha? It’s starting to seem as if they’re there, under the lights, in the desert, all season long, the way it can seem as if the Lakers have taken up permanent residence at the Staples Center and Duke never has to play in front of anyone other than their obnoxiously hopping student fans.

In theory, the atmosphere in Dubai should be stultifying. There are tons of empty seats, especially in the “royal” sections at the ends—at times, there may be more corporate logos around the court than there are spectators. But when I watch on TV, I don’t get the feeling that this is an appearance-fee boondoggle, which in reality is what it is. Against all odds, the atmosphere feels good to me, loose and sociable, looser certainly than the crowds that turn out for most indoor events. In Dubai, with the matches scheduled mostly in the evening, the crowd gets to feel the air but it doesn’t have to survive the heat. Could more outdoor tournaments be scheduled mainly at night? It would do a lot for the North American hard court events.

It hasn’t hurt that what I’ve seen of the tennis has been entertaining, in a topsy-turvy way. Much of it has reminded me of what a friend said last week after he’d watched the Soderling-Tsonga final in Rotterdam. He mentioned that when you dropped just a few places down the ranking ladder, you could see that the players were just a little more flawed than the very top guys—the differences were small but always noticeable, and they showed up in every part of their games. I’ve felt the same way watching Dubai. Without Serena or Clijsters, what you get are excellent players with definite flaws. The quality may not be as high as it is when those two are around, but it doesn’t hurt the drama. Just when you think one player is ready to shut the door, she opens it wide again. Just when you think another is going to crumble, she pulls herself together. Until she falls apart again.

I’ve watched what I could on my computer in my office, which has its good points and bad points. I can check in on it no matter what I’m doing, but sometime the feed simply doesn’t work, for no good reason. Can the Internet do something about that, please? Here’s what I’ve taken away from a week of peeking in on Dubai, flaws and all.

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No. 1, Again
Disorder has been restored at the top of the WTA rankings: Caroline Wozniacki is back at No. 1. Whether or not she belongs in that spot, Wozniacki has continued to impress. The last I saw her was in Melbourne, where she was gutted after her semifinal defeat. But that hasn’t stopped her from marching right back to the semis in Dubai without much trouble. So far, Wozniacki hasn’t let being No. 1 throw off her evolution. She hasn’t won a major, but if she hadn’t been artificially ranked at the top, you wouldn’t really have expected her to by now, would you? What she has done is elevate herself above everyone else outside of the tour’s elite. She’s doing the first thing that’s expected of a top player, and what may be the hardest: She’s beating the players she’s supposed to beat in the early rounds and giving herself a shot on the final weekends.

It’s JJ Time, Again
I used to go to a lot of Jelena Jankovic’s press conferences; you could always count on something wacky coming out her mouth. I spent the better part of a day with her at Bollettieri’s, and there was plenty of wackiness to go around there as well. Then, around the time when she began to drop in the rankings, I began to think I’d heard it all from her, so I stopped paying as much attention—her crazy press conference comments got to be a dime a dozen, like shooting fish in a barrel. But this week she’s been fun to watch again. She’s pulled off two Houdini acts in a row, against Kanepi 7-5 in the third and Stosur 7-6 in the third. Jankovic’s flaw is her first-strike inability; she’s very good at taking what an opponent gives her, but she has trouble taking it herself. Stosur and Kanepi gave her a lot. Wozniacki won’t this weekend.

Fightin’ Sveta
Maybe we will see a new Svetlana Kuznetsova this year, after all. It looked promising for a few matches in Melbourne, and while her play has been up and down and everything in between so far in Dubai, she has fought with uncharacteristically overt determination to the semifinals. She looked exhausted and dead to rights in the first-set tiebreaker against Radwanska today, but she fist-pumped her way through it and gained energy from there. Kuznetsova’s flaw? She plays her best when she plays her riskiest, which means that's also when she plays her worst.

Sammy Slamming—Herself
When things go bad for Kim Clijsters, she moves faster. Sam Stosur seems to handle disaster with a thousand mile stare. Even as she was busy giving away the third-set tiebreaker to Jankovic today, Stosur didn’t flinch, didn’t change her tempo, didn’t stop and let out any frustration, didn’t show anything at all. She did the same thing during her disastrous tiebreaker loss to Kvitova in Melbourne. It’s as if she’s in denial, physically, of what’s happening to her.

Agi: Too Nice and Smooth
Agnieszka Radwanska, unlike Jelena Jankovic, is a player I could never get tired of watching. The natural game and controlled demeanor are always a pleasure to see—Radwanska puts you at ease. In that easy variety, she’s like the return of an old favorite, Martina Hingis, without the spit and vinegar. And there’s the problem: Radwanska doesn’t have Hingis’s ego. She didn't shut the door in the first set against Kuznetsova today, and never recovered.

Being a well-adjusted person: That too can be a flaw in a tennis player.

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Have a good weekend.

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