Grass-Court Report: Sun From Clouds

Saturday, June 22, 2013 /by
AP Photo
AP Photo

EASTBOURNE—For the second week in a row on English grass, a young pretender fell to a more experienced veteran, as 23-year-old American Jamie Hampton, playing in her first WTA final, fell to Elena Vesnina. The 26-year-old Russian swept Hampton 6-2, 6-1 to claim the AEGON International trophy and her second title of the year.

At Devonshire Park, it's a bit like the circus has gone away. With no play on the outside courts and everyone watching on Centre, the grounds are empty of all but a scattering of patrons, the booths deserted or being packed away. It would be peaceful, but the infamous Eastbourne winds are in full force today, blowing in off the sea and swirling around Centre Court. Its a day for huddling in thick jackets, for paper bags being snatched out of hands and sent whirling in the air; perfect weather for the lively seagull population, but not so much for playing tennis.

"It was not about serve," Vesnina says later. "It was not about good forehand or good backhand. It was just about fighting spirit."

Vesnina, who won her first WTA title earlier this year in Hobart, has spoken about how windy conditions were there, and it was evident from the beginning that she has a clear idea about how to approach this match. Her somewhat courtly service motion matches the neatness of her footwork and her more conservative game, its prim quality serving her well on a day when the ball is liable to swerve wildly into the body or be carried meters outside the court; she's happy to keep it well inside the court, taking no chances, to slice off both sides and wait for the error to come.

Hampton, on the other hand, struggles to do anything but go for the lines. She starts well, shaking off a five-minute delay as rain sprinkles the court to hold for 2-1 with a cavalier dropshot, then earns two break points on Vesnina's subsequent service game. Shes unlucky on the first, as the ball moves on her, forcing her to lunge for the return which shes unable to improvise. On the second, she puts a forehand wide and Vesnina holds.

It is, as it turns out, the closest she will get to taking the lead in the match. Broken in the next game as Vesnina wrongfoots her with a cross-court slice backhand winner, Hampton struggles valiantly for nearly nine minutes to get the break back before Vesnina's consistency pays off and she holds. "I was surprised honestly how she was even hitting the ball on the court," Hampton admits later, "and on top of that she was playing very good tennis. She was very deserving of the title today."

The Russian has been teasing us all week with hints about changes in her life off the court which are making her happy, although even winning the title won't make her tell us: "Every woman has secrets. I have plenty of them. Which one do you want to know?" She parries smilingly. She also achieved a lifelong dream a few weeks ago and finally won a Grand Slam title, the women's doubles at the French Open with doubles partner Ekaterina Makarova, the significance of which cannot be overestimated in terms of her confidence and singles game. "When finally I lift the trophy with my partner ... I felt that all my work that I was doing all my life ... Since I was a little kid I was thinking about winning Grand Slam."

She reminisces about visiting the house of fellow Sochi native Yevgeny Kafelnikov, whose father was her coach, after his Roland Garros victory. "His dad showed me the trophy. He told me that it's going to be your first Grand Slam title, believe me. And it happened."

Under the circumstances, it's no surprise that she seems deeply, serenely confident; even her squeals of despair have the ring of enjoyment about them.

By contrast, Hampton grows ever more frustrated. Broken to lose the first set 6-2, a coaching timeout can't prevent her from struggling in her first service game, fending off three break points before Vesnina converts to lead 2-0. Hampton, on her coach's advice, tries to play more centrally and up the middle of the court, demonstrating greater patience in constructing points, but the she simply can't keep the ball in the court when she tries to inject pace and consequently struggles to finish points even when she's worked her way into a winning position. She plays Vesnina hard on the Russian's serve at 3-1 but can't manufacture a break point and deflates rapidly in the next game despite the crowd's encouragement, making four unforced errors—if any error in these conditions can be said to be wholly 'unforced'—to give up the double break.

Hampton has made remarkable strides this week, coming through qualifying and recovering from the brink of defeat against first Lucie Safarova, then Caroline Wozniacki. Although she says she's not at all physically tired, it's perhaps a bridge too far to summon the mental energy and focus to battle such draining conditions. There's no comeback this time as Vesnina, feeling good enough to hit a rare forehand winner into the corner, serves the match out to love, drops to her knees and bounces up, beaming from ear to ear.

I asked Vesnina last night what her best memory of playing at Wimbledon is, expecting her to name perhaps one of the three occasions on which she's reached the final in women's or mixed doubles. Instead, she settles on last year's straight-sets defeat of Venus Williams in the next round. Eastbourne champions often don't do well in the Wimbledon that follows hard on the heels of getting their hands on the trophy, but Vesnina—who opens against Andrea Hlavackova—could do some damage before she runs into Serena Williams in round four.

As for Hampton, she's not thinking about Wimbledon just yet. "I've given myself like a two-hour time limit to sulk, basically the journey up to Wimbledon ... Can sulk, maybe have a little chocolate and then move on and get on with Wimbledon."

Hampton has been handed a tough first-round opponent in the shape of fellow young American Sloane Stephens, who also got to the round of 16 in Paris. It's Stephens's lack of matchplay on grass against Hampton's probable mental, if not physical, fatigue. But she's upbeat and smiling, oddly, more than she has in any of her press appearances after winning matches here, perhaps still enjoying what she describes as a "very encouraging" week. Asked if she will come back to Eastbourne, she's quick to declare: "Of course! I love this place."

"Even if they make you play in a cloud?" She's asked, referencing the heavy mist that hung over the grounds during her match with Safarova.

"Even if," Hampton says, smiling again. Clearly, her two-hour sulking window hasn't opened yet.

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