by Bobby Chintapalli, TW Contributing Writer
[[Mornin', everyone. Bobby Chintapalli is down in Charleston for Tennis.com and TW. I'll be back with a post tomorrow - PB]]
I didn’t realize I missed clay until I watched Nadia Petrova smack it off her shoes.
Playing Edina Gallovits-Hall in the first match on stadium court here in Charleston yesterday, Petrova smacked her strung-in-red racket against the soles of her red tennis shoes, and the clay crumbled away. Like others, she did it before nearly every point, and especially as part of her service ritual. Watching her and seeing all that loose clay (look at JJ's left palm in the photo), I felt the way I do when I pull my summer clothes out of storage – happy for something I didn’t realize I missed because I'd been in an uttterly different mode for so long.
The clay isn’t as thick or dense as I remembered. In fact, it isn't even clay. The clay is the base of the court, and the "clay" is really the top dressing, made of crushed stone. It's just a light sprinkling, like powdered sugar on a beignet, but forest green and everywhere. And it made the game of the long-legged Petrova, a player once ranked No. 3 in singles and doubles, look effortless. One nice thing about clay is that it tends to make any player look smooth. Watching Petrova slide into a backhand volley at the net (she hit it for a winner), hearing the gentle ‘whoosh’ of her soles gliding on the clay, it was easy to forget the ruffles and all the rest (she didn’t wear that absurd tennis dress for singles, but did later for doubles, partnered with Julia Goerges), and it was easy to remember all the things Petrova can do when she puts her mind to it.
In the post-match presser Petrova commented on her first impressions on clay this season: “You feel like you have better coverage on the court, and obviously just a lot more variety of the shots you can use on clay because you have more time to think and more time to select your shots.”
Petrova spoke also, with concern you could see and hear, of the vertigo that caused her to retire against Sabine Lisicki in Miami. “I’m dealing with something very difficult,” she said. “I don’t know how long that will take for me to get rid of it. I mean pretty much I feel it all day. You know, light dizziness and just general a bit of kind of like a fatigue.”
She doesn’t feel she can take a break, because she’s not sure how long it will take to get a handle on this odd condition. Plus, she said, there are all those “points to defend”. Somehow I couldn’t help feeling tired for Petrova - and, just as important, concerned on her behalf. Is it wise for someone with those symptoms to keep playing, simply because there are ranking points at stake?
Jelena Jankovic is familiar with ranking points too, and perhaps they played a part in erasing that old JJ smile from new JJ’s face in recent times.
But yesterday in her post-match press conference, after she beat Tamira Paszek, Jankovic didn’t seem oppressed by those points - or anything else. She showed up within 10 minutes of her match and came directly from the stadium, which is a minute’s walk from the media center. Perhaps a half dozen of us sat in that small interview room, which has chairs for around 50 people, tightly packed.
We were treated to someone who, in many ways, resembled the old JJ.
Commenting on players to watch during clay season she mentioned Sam Stosur and Francesca Schiavone then said, “Justine was one of the best ones, but she doesn’t play anymore.” She laughed.
Commenting on her new green ANTA dress (whether you like the design or not, you must admit it fits her well), she said: “It’s a nice color for spring, and I have these flowers, so it’s kind of like the spring blossom. I’m blossoming.” She laughed some more.
But the most memorable part of the press conference didn’t start out funny at all.
A local journalist began, “Do you still get asked a lot of questions, I guess, about once being No. 1 and didn’t win…”
Before he could finish Jankovic exclaimed, “You still want to ask that?”
Journalist, asking, not really stating: “I’m asking, yeah.”
Jankovic, stating, not asking at all: “You still want to ask that.”
He then mentioned Caroline Wozniacki. At which point Jankovic laughed again, saying, “Well, now you can ask Wozniacki that.”
I thought he’d stop asking, but he didn’t. He asked her if she thought she (Jankovic) would win a Slam.
I thought she’d stop answering, but she didn’t. I think so, she said.
By this time Jankovic, accustomed to this line of questioning and understanding that it was not about to go away, sought allies among us. She made eye contact with a few reporters as if to ask, Is this for real? and proceeded congenially.
“I still have many years to go, and hopefully I’ll win it, but. . .it’s not the end of the world if I don’t. You know, there is many more important things in life than. . .a Grand Slam or something like that. So I will try my best.”
The words were defiant without being unpleasant. Something about the way she said them, and the whole situation really, made you notice, made you wonder what changed and where you were when it happened. Old, new, I don't know... it's JJ, and maybe that's enough.