There are players whose shots make you go “wow.” There are others who make you plant your palm against your forehead. Then there’s Su-Wei Hsieh. How do you know when the 32-year-old from Taiwan is making a rare appearance on TV? When the person watching is constantly breaking out in laughter.
The laughs that she inspires aren’t ones of mockery, but ones of surprise, disbelief and appreciation—you might call those last three words the three stages of watching Hsieh. Seeing her stand flat-footed and take her casual, almost cursory swipes at the ball, many mistake her for a glorified rec player. Even today, when she was on No. 1 Court, playing in the third round at Wimbledon, one commentator claimed that her unorthodox style was “an inspiration to club players everywhere.” All I can say to those club players is: good luck doing what she does.
There are certainly no club players who pull off what Hsieh pulled off on Saturday: she came back from 2-5 down in the third set, and a saved a match point, to upset the No. 1 seed, Simona Halep, 3-6, 6-4, 7-5. With Halep’s exit, the first-week carnage among the women’s Top 10 seeds is nearly complete. Only No. 7 Karolina Pliskova survived.
WATCH—Match point from Hsieh's win over Halep:
Hsieh represents the upside of mass upsets. This veteran and doubles specialist was way past due for a moment like this, on a court like this, in front of an audience like this. Rarely has there been a player who shows us how much is possible with a tennis racquet. Rarely has there been a player who is so fun to watch think. Rarely has there been a player who defies everything we believe we know about what makes a great athlete.
First, there’s her appearance. She’s a skinny 5’7” and 126 pounds. She walks slowly and on her toes, and she almost never changes her facial expression. She usually looks as if she’s vaguely in pain out there.
Then there are her shots. The sport is often described today as “ever more physical.” Yet Su-Wei Hsieh takes all of the physicality out of it. She makes it all about timing instead, her own exquisite timing.
She hits with two hands from both sides, but hardly ever takes a full, unadulterated cut at the ball from either wing. Her baseline attack is an ever-shifting and deliberately counterintuitive mix of flat drives, slice forehands, well-disguised drop shots and volleys that come in all spins and angles.
She wastes no time at all before serving, and doesn’t get much leg power into her motion, but she can still make the ball pop when she’s in the mood. During rallies, she hardly appears to be moving, and she often makes contact with the ball while standing flat on her feet. But she’s still an excellent defender because, with her hands and touch, she can reach out, stab at the ball, and still measure a lob well enough to land it deep in her opponent’s court.
Have you heard that you’re never supposed to try a drop shot from behind the baseline? Hsieh seems to only try them from there, and she never seems to miss them. More than that, they’re usually cut so fine that they go for winners, despite having been in the air for so long. She can do that in part because she waits so long to decide to try the drop shot that her opponent is inevitably surprised by it.
The best aspects of Hsieh’s game, though, are the shots and angles she invents on the fly. She’s as much as geometrician as she is a tennis player, and she can make the riskiest idea appear logical and calculated. During one rally Saturday, she worked Halep out of position and approached the net. But rather than simply knock the next volley into the open court, she hit a delicately sliced drop volley that landed right in front of Halep; by the time the Romanian knew what was happening, the ball had bounced twice.
On another high volley, Hsieh took all the pace off the ball, angled it inside out, and placed it inside the service line, a few inches from the sideline. It was the type of cheeky, teasing concoction you might expect to see in an exhibition between Ilie Nastase and Mansour Bahrami, not in the third round at Wimbledon. But Halep was completely fooled by it.
WATCH—Halep's post-loss press conference:
The only trouble with Hsieh’s game is that, at some stage, it stops working; magical shots don’t tend to be high-margin. In her 15 years on tour, she’s won just two singles titles and has never finished a season ranked higher than No. 79. Despite her game’s obvious affinity for grass, she was just 5-9 at Wimbledon coming into this week. But at this year’s Australian Open, she beat Garbiñe Muguruza and Agnieszka Radwanska to reach the fourth round, and almost beat Angelique Kerber when she got there.
On Saturday, when Halep went up 5-2 in the third set, it appeared that this would be another entertaining near-miss for Hsieh. She looked tired, and was beginning to spray the ball. Halep, with the French Open title under her belt, seemed to have too much confidence to let herself be submerged in Hsieh’s strange shotmaking brew.
But Hsieh had one more surprise in store. She started hitting harder. The junk was largely shelved in favor of hard drives into the corners, one of which saved a match point. Of course, when she served for the match and fell behind a break point, Hsieh couldn’t help carving under another drop shot from behind the baseline. It worked, like everything else she did down the stretch. And like so much else that she does, its blithe daring made me shake my head and laugh.
On her first match point, Hsieh hit a slow second serve right into the middle of the box, with little spin. Halep somehow put her return into the net; it was probably the strangest shot she’d seen all day.
Fans inside No. 1 Court stood and cheered. Over the last two hours, they’d been through the three stages of watching Su-Wei Hsieh: Surprise, disbelief, and finally, appreciation.
Strokes of Genius is a world-class documentary capturing the historic 13-year rivalry between tennis icons Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. It is timed for release as the anticipation crests with Roger as returning champion, 10 years after their famed 2008 Wimbledon championship – an epic match so close and so reflective of their competitive balance that, in the end, the true winner was the sport itself.