“She plays like someone you would see down at your local courts,” is a common reaction to the sight of Hsieh Su-Wei on TV.
It’s true that the Taiwan native doesn’t look or act like most professional tennis players. She’s a 5’7’’ and 126 pounds, and she doesn’t try to intimidate anyone with a confident strut or multiple fist pumps and screams per game. Once the point starts, she’s even more unorthodox. She hit with two hands on both sides, there’s not much knee bend or upward thrust in her serve, and she hardly bothers to take those little adjustment steps we’re always reminded to take. After a match is over, Hsieh doesn’t sound like most pros, either. When she was asked about her upcoming quarterfinal with Naomi Osaka, she said, “She probably going to smash me on the court.”
At the same time, I don’t know about you, but I’ve never seen anyone play tennis like Hsieh in my neighborhood. I’ve never seen anyone take an 80-m.p.h. ground stroke from their opponent and casually deflect it into the corner for a winner, or redirect it at an impossibly sharp angle crosscourt, or come under it at the last second with a perfectly disguised drop shot, or invent a new angle from the middle of the court. I definitely don’t see anyone closing out points with volleys as compact and unerring as hers.
Maybe, as my friend and colleague Joel Drucker suggested on Twitter this week, recreational players should try to be a little more like Hsieh. Maybe we shouldn’t automatically tell kids to drop their second hands on their forehands when they reach a certain age. Or teach everyone to base their games on the killer Western-grip forehand. Or discourage using different spins and speeds from one shot to the next.
That said, not everyone—or anyone?—has Hsieh’s hands and hand-eye coordination; there’s a purity to the way the ball comes off her racquet. She makes everything in tennis outside of the contact between the ball and string seem superfluous. Strength, speed, footwork, mechanics: What does any of it matter when you can time the ball the way she does?
That’s not to say that her success has been easy. In Melbourne, Hsieh has become, at 35, the oldest player in the Open Era to reach a Grand Slam quarterfinal for the first time. It obviously took longer than normal for her to fulfill her potential and get the most of her natural skills. She learned the game first from her father, far from the world’s most famous academies.
“We always move from south to north, back to south, to move everywhere to try to play tennis,” she said on Saturday. “It was not very easy because there’s no national tennis center in Taiwan. There’s not many people have experience. There’s limited information that we get.”
The fact that Hsieh’s game developed in relative obscurity allowed her, it seems, to play the way she wanted. But it also left her without much of a support system when she joined the tour as a teenager.
“Sometime I go to the tournament, I have no one to warm up,” she said. “I’m more worry about how you going to survive today for the match, I hope I don’t play really bad on the court because I couldn’t warm up.”
Former pro Paul McNamee was a fan of her game, and couldn’t believe she was ranked outside the Top 300. He stepped in to lend a more professional hand.
“Before I work with him, I have a lot of time alone, so I don’t have information [from] other people. So I have no idea where is my game. That’s why is not so easy to improve or find out.”
McNamee helped bring structure, and much more success, to Hsieh’s career. But he’s careful not to crush her free and creative spirit. McNamee told WTA Insider this week that when Hsieh isn’t “feeling it,” her practice session might last two or three shots, and that she has gone upwards of three years without restringing her racquet. Before this year’s Australian Open, she had her first restring since the start of last season.
This is what makes Hsieh’s success so satisfying, and watching her do her thing so thrilling. For decades, we’ve see the pros rigidly change their racquets after every ninth game. We’ve heard them talk about how hard they work 24 hours a day, seven days a week. We’ve seen them become more intense with their fist-pumps and screams on court, and more careful and scripted in the interview room. There’s something freeing about watching Hsieh blow up all of our preconceptions about what a tennis player needs to do to succeed, and how they’re supposed to act and play. It’s a lesson that extends to our lives outside the court—you can, to put it simply, be yourself.
Even if Osaka does 'smash her on the court' in the quarterfinals, Hsieh has brought some much-needed magic to the start of the tennis season.
"I think I just stay the same,” she said of her approach to Tuesday’s match. “Enjoy, try to be positive. If I don’t win, I hope quarantine finish very soon [so] I can go out to enjoy a little bit.”
Hsieh is far from a recreational player, but she has plenty to teach all of us.