Gear Talk: Q&A With Pam Shriver

by: Richard Pagliaro | April 06, 2011

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Pam2 Pam Shriver was born on the Fourth of July, a fitting arrival for an American revolutionary with an independent streak.

Growing up in Baltimore in the mid-1970s—when many American girls were devoted baseliners trying their best to emulate Chris Evert’s two-handed backhand—Shriver was a 6’ serve-and-volleyer with a one-hander. She grew up quickly. At the age of 16 (and two months), Shriver helped revolutionize the transition to the oversize racquet in a stirring 1978 U.S. Open debut. Wielding a Prince, Shriver scored one of the most memorable Open upsets in edging top-seeded Martina Navratilova in the semis, 7-6 (5), 7-6 (3). Attacking relentlessly, Shriver tested the second-seeded Evert in the final before bowing, 7-5, 6-4. But she still made history, becoming the youngest U.S. Open finalist—nine months younger than Maureen Connolly, who reached the 1951 final.

Shriver’s run gave the Prince oversize the type of exposure the Wilson T-2000 received 11 years earlier at Forest Hills, when Billie Jean King won the U.S. Championships, Clark Graebner reached the final and Gene Scott advanced to the semis, all using the frame that Jimmy Connors would popularize. As a result, the Prince oversize became a game-changer for recreational players, who relished its larger head size. It began popping up on public courts across the country.

Though a Grand Slam singles title would elude her, Shriver solidified her status as one of the game’s great doubles players, winning 22 majors (21 in women’s doubles; one in mixed), tying Steffi Graf for ninth place on the all-time list. In 1984, Shriver and Navratilova became the first female doubles partners to win the Grand Slam. Their 109-match winning streak remains the longest doubles winning streak in the Open Era.

A past president of the WTA Players Association and former member of the USTA Board of Directors, Shriver has also had her hand on the political pulse of the sport. These days, she calls Southern California home when she’s not serving as an analyst for ESPN2. We caught up with Shriver for this Gear Q&A while she was helping her son, George, in a California construction project—building sand castles on the beach. Prince’s headquarters has a classic photo of you with the original oversize racquet. How did you first come to play with it and when did you realize that racquet would start a bit of an oversized revolution?

Pam Shriver: I started playing with that Prince racquet as a junior in about 1976. Howard Head developed the racquet and he was a Baltimore guy. My long-time coach, Don Candy, was one of the early testing pros who got demos of that racquet and they got it into my hand when I was playing 14-and-unders. I showed up at a Port Washington junior event and I can remember seeing the faces of people saying, ‘What in the world are you playing with?’ Players weren’t really using the racquet back then—maybe a few fringe players used it—but it kind of suited my personality to be a little different. I thought it fit perfectly into what I was trying to do on the court, which was a lot of quick reaction time at net and having a bigger sweet spot.

When I reached the U.S. Open final it kind of offered a uniquely high profile for the early Prince frame. It was really kind of an entrée for most tennis people seeing it for the first time, and for me to reach the U.S. Open final playing with it obviously was a big deal. You are a dedicated serve-and-volleyer. If you grew up with today’s technology on today’s surfaces, how would your game be different?

Pam Shriver: I can’t help but think you would put more spin on the ball and use the equipment to your advantage. I didn’t use spin very much in my strokes; I was using more slice and underspin. I never hit topspin in my life, so it was pretty unique in comparison to today’s tennis in that I was using flat and slice shots. I still think there’s a place for slice and flat shots. The ball stays low and out of the power zone. Of the young American women—Melanie Oudin, Vania King, Coco Vandeweghe, Christina McHale, Sloane Stephens, Lauren Albanese and Madison Brengle—whose game excites you the most?

Pam Shriver: Honestly, I haven’t really watched them all in great depth recently. I saw Coco play a couple of matches in LaCosta last year and she had a really good win over Vera Zvonareva and showed some potential. Melanie’s U.S. Open quarterfinal run will remain a strong memory for quite some time. The challenge for the pro player is to maintain a high level over time. To do that, you’ve gotta win matches week in and week out to progress. That’s easier said than done.

I think Oudin is going to be a feisty journeyman player who had that great quarterfinal run and maybe will have another quarterfinal in her. While I think she has the mindset, the desire, and the competitive spirit, I just don’t think she has the weapons—the overall speed and size—to make it as a consistent Top 10 player. Maria Sharapova has struggled on serve after the surgery yet has still fought through to the Indian Wells semis and Miami final. How do you assess her game?
Pam Shriver: Of the three majors Sharapova’s won, the most impressive, to me, was the last one at the Australian Open. In Australia, Maria was hitting slice approach shots, drop shots, and angles. She had the whole thing going. I will always remember that tournament because she incorporated some variety and finesse shots that set her apart.

At this point, given what she’s gone through, she doesn’t look very likely of being able to capture that again. But I do think she showed more variety in her game then, and that’s a good example of how a power player, through some confidence, can use different shots and spins and it actually kind of made her fast, flat shots look faster as well. In your commentary, you’ve often pointed out how Kim Clijsters has come back as a more offensive player who is better at finishing with the forehand and who likes to go bigger on her serve. How challenging is it for top players to make changes at that elite level after enjoying success?

Pam Shriver: In Kim’s case, I don’t think they’re wholesale changes. It’s just a little change in your mindset. Clijsters is just a little more daring in the big moments than she was before. She can handle the moment and be brave now on big points. I don’t feel like she’s tons different than she was before she retired—she looks like the same player in many ways—but at those snapshots when it means the most in a match, she’s able to handle that better and hit the braver, bolder shots. She probably had those shots before as well, but now her mindset is different. Among all the great champions you’ve played and watched, where do you rank Serena?

Pam Shriver: Serena is an all-time great. I think she will go down as the greatest female server of all time. Think about how well she’s able to serve in the pressure moments. When she won her last Australian Open, the rest of the game was okay, but her serve was tremendous.

Serena holds serve with guts and confidence at a time when the serve has been a horrendous shot in women’s tennis, as it is now. I sit there court-side sometimes and I just can’t believe the breakdowns in serving, particularly now with the advancement in racquet and string technology and bigger and stronger athletes. But you wonder, where are the serves? Where has serving gone in women’s tennis? Serena is the stand out in one of the worst serving eras in women’s tennis. She does it with technique, placement and power, and at the biggest moments it comes through. Also, I think Serena is the ultimate example of someone who loves the biggest moments and the spotlight. Serena will get down in the trenches, she will get nervous at times, she will make some errors, yet she still finds a way to win. I just love that battler in her and I just hope to see it again. You’re a past president of the WTA Players Association and you served on the USTA Board of Directors. When you look at the performance of the game’s governing bodies and the politics of tennis, what concerns you and what encourages you about the future of the sport?

Pam Shriver: Of all my years in tennis, I’m probably most removed from the politics of the game now as I’ve ever been the last 30 years. So I’m kind of looking at it from a 30,000-miles away overview. I really actually love the leadership of the WTA. I feel it’s a smart, efficient, business-savvy, opportunistic operation. I don’t think it’s heavy with fat or too many programs. I like [WTA CEO] Stacey [Allaster] and the job she’s doing. I think they survived this difficult global economic situation in a pretty smart way. I think the Roadmap is pretty successful. In past generations, we’ve seen the spirit of leading players intent on leaving women’s tennis in a higher place than when they came in, and I feel this group of leading European women, players like Clijsters, have that spirit and want to leave the game in a better place than it was when they came in.

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