Signs of Fall

Monday, September 24, 2012 /by

What are the tell-tale signs of fall in the tennis world? Thus far we’ve been missing the most obvious and reliable one: Complaints about the length of the season. Maybe it’s a tad early to get into all of that again. Maybe it’s because one of the traditional agitators for shortening the schedule, Rafael Nadal, is out of commission for 2012, while another, Andy Roddick, is out of commission forever. Or maybe the fact that the tours have already tightened up their seasons—for the first time, the ATP will end its year in mid-November—has quieted the critics. The test, I suppose, will come when a star goes down with an injury.

Still, it’s clear in other ways that fall is here. For one, the players, after uniting in New York, are scattered across the globe again. There are suddenly more tournaments, even in a supposed down period, than you can watch or Tweet about at once: Last week the men were in Metz and St. Petersburg, the women in Guangzhou and Seoul. This week they move on to Tokyo, Bangkok, and Kuala Lumpur. All of which is fine for tennis junkies like ourselves, except for one thing: What do we do with all of these results?

What does it mean, for instance, that Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Caroline Wozniacki, U.S. Open underachievers, returned to the winner’s circles in Metz and Seoul? It probably means what it always means for Jo and Caro, who may be the best players on their respective tours never to have won a Grand Slam. These two start getting revved up just as the Slam winners are shifting it down a gear. Last fall, Tsonga won in Metz and Vienna and reached the finals at the Paris Indoors and the ATP World Tour Finals. As for Wozniacki, it was an end-of-year push through Asia in 2010 that put her in the No. 1 spot for the first time.

All of this could force fans to maintain a delicate balance for the rest of 2012. We may have to watch and appreciate Jo and Caro as they continue their winning ways, while at the same time avoiding all speculation about their Slam-breakthrough potential in 2013. Can we pull this off? I have my doubts. But even if Jo beats Murray, Djokovic, and Federer to win Paris, I’m going to try.

Tsonga’s and Wozniacki’s wins may have been harbingers for this season, but it was one of the weekend’s losers who had the tennis world speculating about the long-term future. That was 18-year-old Laura Robson, a U.S. Open achiever—she upset Kim Clijsters and Li Na at Flushing Meadows—who backed up that performance by beating the No. 2, 3, and 7 seeds to reach the final in Guangzhou.

You would expect, by now, that speculation about Robson’s future would have tipped into all-out overreaction in the London papers. So far, though, the tabs have been disappointingly straightforward with their clichés, and level-headed with the assessments. This was the Sun on Robson’s quarterfinal upset of Peng Shuai:

BRITISH NO. 1 LAURA ROBSON PROVING AN ACE AGAIN
Rising tennis starlet Laura Robson reached the semifinals of the Guangzhou Open

It was left, instead, to an American to go a little overboard about Laura. As a commentator at the Open, Chris Evert was obviously impressed by Robson’s wins over Clisters and Li. Chrissie upped the ante last week in an interview with the Tennis Space.

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“It’s time for Britain to celebrate, and to stop being so negative,” Evert advised the people of the United Kingdom. “In a couple of years, [Robson] could be in the Top 5. What impressed me so much was that she was fearless and consistent. It’s easy to be fearless and to spray balls around. But she was fearless, and she kept her levels of consistency so high....If she gets to the Top 5, she’ll be capable of winning a Slam. I wouldn’t bet my life on it, but it’s definitely possible.”

OK, so Chrissie hedged her bets there at the end. Which is smart, because it remains difficult to tell exactly how far Robson can climb. The fact that she’s a hard-hitting lefty has led to comparisons to Petra Kvitova recently, but with Kvitova you knew that her upside was always going to be high, provided she could maintain her consistency. Robson's qualities are more mixed. Her serve can be a bomb—she hit nine aces in the Guangzhou final—but also a liability. She threw in 11 double faults with those aces, and her toss can go wayward. Robson is an offensive threat from both sides, and already owns one of the WTA’s better inside-in forehands. But she’ll never match the top players for quickness, and there were moments this weekend when she was a step slow to the ball. At the same time, she has an excellent return, especially from her backhand side. Don’t throw a weak slice serve her way.

The mind is always the mystery when it comes to tennis prodigies—determination is worth a 1,000 beautiful backhands. Robson has shown improvement on the mental front as well. Two important mid-year events appear to have helped her confidence, as well as her ability to play to her strengths: The Olympic silver medal she won with Andy Murray in the mixed doubles, and her new partnership with coach Zeljko Krajan. By the U.S. Open, Robson had a new sense of purpose. Krajan, former coach of Dinara Safina, advised aggression, and that’s how Robson played in New York—she went after every ball she could. More impressive was her poise. Even across the net from veteran Slam champs Clijsters and Li, Robson had a presence.

For the most part, that was true again in China. Robson didn’t show much emotion, didn’t get too up or too down, and always seemed focused on the next point. Of course, she might not have had the energy to do anything extra; Guangzhou appeared to be one giant sauna—Robson tweeted that she must have played “the sweatiest WTA final of the year.” Under pressure, her results were mixed. In her final against Su-We Hsieh, Robson staved off five match points in the second set. But after going up 3-0 in the third, she collapsed and lost 6-4. Afterward, she said she was exhausted. The final, which featured back and forth rallies and score lines, looked as tiring as it was entertaining.

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A word about Hsieh. The 26-year-old from Taiwan was also gassed in the third, though it can be hard to tell with her. I’ve never seen a player hit winners while barely moving her feet; watching her redirect the ball while staying flat-footed yesterday, I began to wonder whether footwork was really necessary after all. This was her second career title, and she’s cracked the Top 50 for the first time in 2012. Hsieh has been working with Australia’s Paul McNamee, and the partnership seems to have been as productive as Robson’s and Krajan’s.

I’m obviously discovering Hsieh at a late date, but she’s an interesting talent and the definition of a tricky opponent. She walks lightly, on her toes, and her anticipation and timing can make her look like she’s hardly moving at all. Hsieh hits with two hands on both sides, but she can also come under the ball for a perfect drop shot or nasty sidespin swipe at any time. Could she be the female Benoit Paire we’ve all been waiting for? She might be more: Even after blowing those five match points, Hsieh found her focus again in the third set.

After Guangzhou, Hsieh is No. 39 and Robson No. 57. Both are on the upswing, but it’s the teen Robbo who is going to feel the immediate pressure. She even got some in China. Every so often in the final, a woman in the crowd could be heard yelling, “Robson, hurry up!” I’ve heard Chinese tennis fans tell their players to “step on the gas,” so this may have an English version of that idea. Robson obviously heard the advice, because she tweeted afterward, “I think that got a bit lost in translation.”

Yes it did. But now that she’s become the first British woman to reach a WTA final in 22 years, and raised expectations at home, Robson may be hearing those words—“Hurry up!” “Hurry up and win Wimbledon!”—for some time to come.

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