Unsung Heroes: Tommy Robredo and Roberta Vinci
With the 2013 tennis season in the past, it's time to dole out our annual awards. Look for the winners—for better or worse—throughout this week on TENNIS.com. (To see what's been unveiled thus far, click here.)
Tommy Robredo: Although he was overshadowed by that other “Tommy”—Haas—and by his fellow Spanish countrymen, Rafael Nadal and David Ferrer, Robredo made nothing less than a heroic comeback at age 31 following a history of injury and surgery.
Robredo finished 2013 ranked No. 18 in the world, his best finish since 2009, when he finished 16th. He also accomplished a formidable task for a man of his age and recent physical travails: At the French Open, he became the first man since French icon Henri Cochet in 1927 to come back from two-sets-to-love down to win three consecutive Grand Slam matches.
Some of you will always think of Robredo as “Disco Tommy,” a moniker he earned during his salad years thanks to his layered shag haircut and short shorts that made a dead ringer for one of those busboys in the heyday of Studio 54. In those early years (circa 2003), Robredo was a fleet, spectacular shotmaker. At a time when Roger Federer was still trying to work out the puzzle of winning majors, Robredo was already enchanting tennis romantics with one of the most appealing and lethal of one-handed backhands. The overall package was so appealing and flashy that Men’s Health magazine once named Robredo “the most stylish man in Spain.”
Robredo had game to go with the glitz. He was barely 21 when he cracked the Top 20 (in 2004), and spent the next four years in the Top 10. After a decade spent mostly in the Top 50, he’s won 12 ATP titles—and may not be done yet. Two of that dozen were won this year, in Umag and Casablanca. Robredo also has as many Masters 1000 titles as any player from Spain other than Nadal—one, at Hamburg in 2006—and reached the year-end championships that same season.
One of the main reasons Robredo failed to make a bigger dent in the public consciousness despite his impeccable consistency was the emergence of a number of Spanish players who would equal or overshadow him, including Nadal, Juan Carlos Ferrero, Ferrer, Nicolas Almagro, and Feliciano Lopez. It was easy to get lost in the shuffle, especially when back and leg injuries began to influence Robredo’s results starting in 2010.
Then, Robredo missed the first five months of 2012 following surgery on his left hamstring. His ranking gone too far south—No. 470—he made a laborious comeback on the Challenger circuit and finished the year at No. 114. By the time the French Open rolled around last year he was No. 34 and thanks to injuries earned a slot as the final seed.
Robredo won his first match at Roland Garros easily, and then put together that record run. He didn’t come back from the dead against pikers, either. His first five-set win was over Igor Sijsling, but then rallied to beat Gael Monfils and Almagro before running out of gas in a straight-sets loss to Ferrer.
That’s Disco Tommy, theme song by the Bee Gees: “Stayin’ Alive.”
Roberta Vinci: I’m not sure how Vinci managed to reach the age of 29 before she made her first quarterfinal appearance in a Grand Slam singles event (at the 2012 U.S. Open), but I’m fairly certain that it helps explain why the 30-year old Italian has been something less than a media darling.
Vinci reached a career-high ranking of No. 11 this year and finished the season at No. 14. She has nine career singles titles, and has done nothing less than formidable work in doubles—at the moment, Vinci and Sara Errani comprise the top doubles team in the world and anchor an Italian Fed Cup team that has won the championship four times. Vinci has three Grand Slam doubles titles—among her 19 career doubles triumphs—and she’s shattered the record for consecutive doubles wins in Fed Cup: 18-0, and still counting.
Then there’s that backhand, a one-hander that might make a Richard Gasquet or even Federer turn green with envy. Vinci is a master of slice—shades of Steffi Graf—but she hits a much greater variety of slice-based shots than Graf, or anyone else in recent memory.
Vinci started 2013 solidly entrenched in the Top 20 at No. 16, and she got off to a great start with a win over Jelena Jankovic in Sydney. In Dubai, she showed how effectively she can carve up opponents with her slice backhand by demolishing former Grand Slam champion Svetlana Kuznetsova, No. 6 Angelique Kerber, and No. 9 Sam Stosur—all in straight sets, without even having to play a tiebreaker. A few weeks later, in Katowice, Vinci won the title over former Wimbledon champ Petra Kvitova.
Part of Vinci’s problem as a singles player is that she’s never made a deep run at a major. Over the years, she’s taken Grand Slam losses administered by the hands of suspects as unlikely as then-No. 175 Kristina Barrois, or then-No. 54 Sofia Arvidsson.
This year was no different. While she lost to Serena Williams at Wimbledon, she dropped winnable matches in Australia and Roland Garros, and was crushed in the U.S. Open quarterfinals (her second Grand Slam quarterfinal) by her great childhood friend Flavia Pennetta. Vinci doesn’t compete very well against her friends and fellow countrywomen—Errani halted that inspired run in Dubai, and with straight-sets authority.
All this is almost enough to convince you that the un-demonstrative Vinci is averse to the limelight that might have fallen upon her had she won her Cincinnati quarterfinal in August—a win that would have ensured her a spot in the Top 10. But she lost to a resurgent Jankovic. That’s fast company, and it just doesn’t seem that this multi-talented but shy Italian rolls that way.