PARIS—Serena Williams was doing her thing, working the big room as only she knows how. She was jerking Anna Tatishvili all around on Court Philippe Chatrier, and the best you could say for the unfortunate girl from Georgia was that she looked awfully good for a player destined to bite the red dust, 6-0, 6-1.
That’s one of the interesting things about Serena—she makes opponents look great, just like the local pro or hotshot who deigns to hit with a weekend hacker and ends up inspiring and bringing out the best in the lesser player. Against some people, you just know that if you don’t play out of your mind you may end up a laughingstock. That, too, can be motivation.
Serena was hitting with such velocity and ferocity that Tatishvili didn’t have time to screw up badly, or even to think about just what she was going through out there. But over on Court No. 6, another Georgian—this one from the American state that borders Florida—was in an entirely different boat under very different conditions. That was No. 82 Mallory Burdette, who was trying to break her two-tournament streak of qualifying but failing to win a main-draw match (having done in Rome and Brussels).
Is there a more classic, “tennis-y” name than Mallory Burdette? I doubt it, but then the vowels aren’t any more useful to her out there than her drop shot is at the motor vehicle office. And Burdette had her work cut out against Croatian teenager Donna Vekic, a 16-year-old who presented an intriguing contrast to Burdette, the 22-year-old who took her sweet old time diving into the deep end of the pro tour. Burdette played at Stanford for three years, until a nice run to the third round of the U.S. Open persuaded her to bolt for the WTA.
The contrast between the two women sent out to a pastoral court flanked by towering pines looming over largely empty seats was pronounced. Burdette is an imposing 5’10”, with muscles less cut than smooth and rounded, and not for lack of attention to her fitness, either. She’s one of a number of women these days built on something like the Lindsay Davenport platform. By contrast, Vekic looked extra lean.
Vekic, who achieved a career-high ranking of No. 76 earlier this month, walks straight and contains her emotions, resembling a cute little tennis-player doll, which is less a snide remark than an observation about a certain state that countless other 16-year-olds also fall into while growing up. What all of them lack, though, is the healthy dose of aggression and blistering groundstrokes that characterize Vekic’s game.
A thin, leggy, tall blonde who wears her in a French braid, Vekic’s clothes were not only the height of tennis fashion, but so clean and crisp that your eyes hunt for a price tag dangling off the shirt, or mini-skirt. By contrast, Burdette looks loose, unstudied, and out on the court for one reason and one alone: To win the tennis match. There’s no matching visor, make-up, or complimentary hair ribbon, just an outfit consisting only of a white skirt and vaguely pink top. She’s all business, and lately it’s been pretty good business, despite those disappointing first-round losses.
While her dolled-up acquaintance Serena was commanding center stage, Burdette had arrived at something of a crisis. She’s a smart player with good power real talent for building a point—and sniffing out the tells and tendencies in other players. She’s powerful and something of a risk taker, but also has excellent, soft hands and isn’t reluctant to use the entire court.
Sometimes, though, Burdette is tempted to go for a little too much—as she did today after building a 5-0 first-set lead. Vekic rallied at that point, aided considerably by Burdette suddenly losing the plot. But after allowing one break back, Burdette settled in to win the set with a hold, 6-3.
In the second set, Burdette started with a break and held that slim lead until she served at 5-4. She jumped out to a 40-0 lead with crisp inside-out forehands and some excellent serving, but looked on as Vekic wiped them out—and even held two break points—before Burdette blasted and schemed her way out of trouble to win, 6-3, 6-4.
“The end of matches are always a little bit difficult, especially first round,” Burdette said afterward. “But I think I did a good job of continuing to go for my shots. I think that’s the biggest thing for me at the end of matches—it is just continuing to pick my targets and hit my big shots.”
Burdette’s brain played a notable role in this win as well, and before she’s done playing it will probably develop into a serious weapon. After all, she used YouTube the other day to do a little DIY coaching, finding footage of Vekic and studying it for gain.
“One of the biggest things is I saw that she’s a very big hitter, so I knew that when I got on the defensive in points I kind of picked out a couple shots that I thought she liked to go for,” she revealed. “That held true today in the match, and I think it helped me to get a couple extra balls in the court and continue to make her play. I think that was important.”
When I asked if she considered herself a student of the game, Burdette replied: “I like to think so. You know, I think that being a great player means being willing to find solutions out there on the court and work on every single point no matter what the score is. You hear a lot of great players say that. So no matter what’s going on out there, I’m always trying to figure things out and find solutions.”
Burdette has been particularly effective solving problems against her American peers, whom she’s been beating left and right. Since the beginning of the year, Burdette has bopped Samantha Crawford, Madison Keys, Jill Craybas, Lauren Davis, and Taylor Townsend. Her record underscores an interesting fact at this event: With 15 players in the main draw, the U.S. has more entries than any nation—including host France.
All this has caught the eye of that countrywoman who leads this particular parade, Serena. She said of Burdette: “Yeah, I see her (around) a lot. I like her as a player. I think she’s cool . . .has a good game. I played her in Charleston, and I really respected how she played.”
Grace Min and Venus Williams were still waiting in the wings to play as I filed this story. But a 2-0 start is welcome news for the U.S.