Womanhandled!

Monday, November 05, 2012 /by

Sometimes it’s a blessing in disguise that all but the most diehard fans tune out the women’s game when the Grand Slams and WTA Championships are over. Because of that, only those with a need—or a profound and perhaps perverse desire to know—were aware of the tennis doings this week.

After the Championships in Istanbul ended, tennis had a shot at going out on a high note with the Fed Cup final. It featured the traditional powerhouse Czech Republic against emerging tennis power Serbia, which undoubtedly has two of the most successful, charismatic, and watchable players on the WTA in Jelena Jankovic and Ana Ivanovic.

The other event last week was the Tournament of Champions in Sofia, Bulgaria, which technically featured the six highest-ranked winners of second-tier tournaments who failed to qualify for Istanbul (along with two wild cards for an eight-woman field). So it’s more accurate to bill the event as the Tournament of Also-Rans and Pretty Faces (the wild cards went to Maria Kirilenko and local attraction Tsvetana Pironkova.

Nothing wrong with that, by the way—I’m happy that eight more women had an extra income-earning opportunity. Besides, judging from some of the soccer tournaments you see, this is pretty benign stuff. Don’t footy fans happily tune in to things like the International Cup Runners-up Cup?

The lesson is obvious: You follow where your team or favorite player goes. They call it being a “fan.” Period.

Back to Fed Cup. The Czechs were led by Petra Kvitova, the 2011 Wimbledon champ, who’s as shy and socially awkward as Jankovic is gregarious and relaxed. But two weeks ago, Kvitova had to pull out of Istanbul after just one match, suffering from bronchitis, and this weekend she was still dealing with lingering after-affects—including a lack of training and fitness.

That situation put a lot of pressure on the slim shoulders of Lucie Safarova, and it opened a huge window of opportunity for the Serbia. Both of its singles players are former No. 1s and Grand Slam finalists (Ivanovic won hers, at Roland Garros in 2008), while Safarova, the WTA No. 17, has never been within shouting distance of such accomplishments—plus, her overall record against the two Serbs was a losing one (4-7). Sure, she was 3-2 against Ivanovic, but she was 1-5 versus Jankovic.

But Safarova, the Czech No. 2, responded with one of the all-time great Fed Cup efforts, womanhandling both opponents without losing a set, or relying on the smoke-and-mirrors sometimes provided by the draw or the Machiavellian maneuverings of a Fed Cup captain .

Drawn to open the tie (the best result for Serbia) against top Serb Ivanovic, Safarova was cool and effective in wiping her out, 6-4, 6-3. Kvitova then predictably hammered Jankovic, 6-4, 6-1, setting up a Czech sweep. And that’s when the plot took an abrupt turn.

Ivanovic put in a good effort and surprised Kvitova in the third match in straight sets, and suddenly, all bets were off. But Safarova responded to the challenge magnificently. Despite her poor head-to-head record against Jankovic, she blew her away, 6-1, 6-1.

I once thought it impossible for Serbia not to win the Fed Cup at least once, but this team is now high up on the short list of Fed Cup underachievers. Jankovic’s poor showing in that fourth rubber was baffling as well discouraging. You force the tie to the decisive fifth rubber and—who knows? Granted, the Czech doubles team of Lucie Hradecka and Andrea Hlavackova probably would have made mincemeat of Bojana Jovanovski and Alexsandra Krunic. But that speculation just makes you wonder, why wouldn’t Ivanovic and Jankovic play the doubles? After all, it’s obvious that great singles players tend to be equally adept at doubles. Furthermore, the partnership in doubles tends to take pressure off each individual, unless he or she is dramatically better—or worse—than her teammate. Some possible answers:

No. 1: Perhaps Serb captain Dejan Vranes wanted fresh legs for the winner-take-all fifth rubber.

No. 2: Perhaps the Serbs would have changed the line-up at the last minute, inserting Jankovic and Ivanovic.

No. 3: Jankovic and Ivanovic don’t particularly like or want to play doubles together.

I have no specific intelligence re: answer No. 3. But I have to believe that Ivanovic and Jankovic, being such great singles players, would be deadly in doubles. I also have to face the seemingly odd fact that they’ve only played together twice in Fed Cup (1-1), and I found no evidence of them having played together on the tour at all.

The major takeaway? Like Davis Cup, Fed Cup is much more of a team effort than it may seem. And the Czechs really have got that aspect of the competition nailed. Their pride and solidarity was conspicuous, and it only makes the Serbs (whose Davis Cup team is the antithesis of their Fed Cup squad) look that much more vulnerable. In classic “there’s no ‘I’ in team!” fashion, Safarova answered the call and had career week. Well done.

Meanwhile, the women in Sofia were turning their shadow Championships into a thing of nearly poetic beauty, with the results beautifully mirroring the shortcomings that sent this group here instead of Istanbul. I almost feel bad for having taken so many potshots at this strangely conceived event. I would probably throw my arms around it, if only the WTA renamed the darned thing. Tournament of Flawed Talents would also do the trick, if Tournament of Also-Rans seems too much of a bummer.

I ask you, what could be more fitting for a tournament of such design than seeing Daniela Hantuchova get in (and go winless) as a prelude to a Nadia Petrova versus Caroline Wozniacki final?

Petrova has been one of the least reliable singles performers through her long though admittedly successful career. In fact, she ranks right behind Wozniacki as the class of this field. The 5’11” Russian has made a very nice living shuttling mostly between the Top 5 and Top 40 for over a decade (her career-high ranking was No. 3, in May of 2006). But her top Grand Slam performance is a semifinal, at Roland Garros in 2003 and 2005.

The quality of the 6-2, 6-1 beating Petrova laid on Wozniacki in the final was surprising for a number reasons:

No. 1. Wozniacki enjoyed a 4-1 head-to-head edge going into the match.

No. 2. Petrova has often choked in the face of prosperity (even more so than Wozniacki).

No. 3. Just 12 months ago, Wozniacki wrapped up her second straight year ranked No. 1.

Lastly, this was a fine opportunity for Wozniacki to assert her dominion over the second-tier players whose company she now keeps, given that she’s dropped 10 places over the course of the year.

Wozniacki seems to have accepted this fate with good cheer and relative immunity to criticism. I don’t know what’s in her heart, but she seems like a young lady who’s pretty pleased with herself—and why not? She’s young, making tons of money, emotionally fulfilled, and has cashed in big-time on the rush to glamorize women’s tennis.

The only thing that seems missing in Wozniacki is that champion’s heart and self-punishing drive to excel. Those old-school virtues are well and good, but how many of us really have them? In any event, the time to exercise those virtues is past, at least for this year in women’s tennis.

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