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Posts Tagged ‘Grand Slam’

Elena Dementieva: An Appreciation

October 29th, 2010 No comments

Dementieva stops Serena

Today, perennial world top ten tennis player Elena Dementieva abruptly announced her retirement from the sport. She’s 29 years old, and I guess the passion to keep running around the court and hitting all of those screaming line drives just wasn’t there any more.

I read the news just before I was scheduled to pick up the kids, and it took me by surprise — and I was further surprised to discover that I had an emotional reaction to her departure. I’m a rabid tennis fan, but why will I miss her, in particular?

This wonderful piece on the tennis.com site sums up my feelings pretty well. (Read some of the comments to see how much hard-core tennis fans love her.) Dementieva has (had?) a relentless ground game, with her sturdy legs as often unbreachable foundation. Gifted with astonishing speed, timing, and athleticism, she could stand toe-to-toe with anyone, as her titanic battle with Serena Williams at 2009 Wimbledon showed. Running Williams all over the court, Dementieva was a match point away from sending the iron-willed American crashing out of the tournament she eventually won. As was too-typical of Dementieva, she’d given the sport a great match (probably the best of the year) but fallen just short.

Indeed, except for the Olympics — a gold medal in a 2008 and a mostly forgotten silver medal from 2000 — Dementieva’s career is already being summed up as “almost.” Because she had made it to two Grand Slam finals, seven semifinals and a few more quarterfinals, most of us kept waiting for her to bag one. (Please, just one!) She had one last chance this year, with a relatively weak trio of women standing between her and a French Open championship, but she was forced to retire with an injury during her semifinal against eventual tournament winner Francesca Schiavone.

She was the classic underdog, and that status was given epic stature by the one shocking weakness in her game: her serve. For years, it was, well…it was terrible. I can recall watching a U.S. Open semifinal she played against Jennifer Capriati where her second serves were floating in — or out — at a speed that would have embarrassed some weekend players (not me, though). People were actually laughing. Yet she won that match, and developed the amazing ability to shrug off the worst kind of serving woes — including numerous double faults, many at the most crucial times — and soldier on. Her ability to thrive in such a competitive environment without the most reliable weapon — the only shot the player completely controls — was the subject of endless fascination, and tended to humanize her in a way rare for top athletes.

She won’t make the Hall of Fame. No Grand Slam titles (tennis snobs don’t care much about the Olympics), and a career-high ranking of three aren’t quite good enough. Yet she’ll leave a void. As she announced her retirement at the year-end tournament followed only by real tennis nuts, all of her top fellow players stood on the court — and cried. So did the two women in the broadcast booth, Lindsey Davenport and Corina Morariu, who’d played against her and watched her long and impressive career. A more honest, intelligent, and likable player you won’t find.

Tennis will miss her, and so will I. Let’s end on an Olympic high note (her victory screech is so heartfelt):

Shadows and Light — The Compromises of an Aging Athlete

February 1st, 2010 2 comments
Roger Federer poses with his Australian Open trophy on the bank of the Yarra River in Melbourne on Monday, a day after capturing his 16th Grand Slam title.

Yesterday, Roger Federer captured his record-extending sixteenth title in a Grand Slam tournament, winning the Australian Open in a one-sided match against the latest pasty-faced Brit pretender, Andy Murray. (Here‘s a good summary of the match.) Murray, a Scot, ┬áis an inventive and amazingly mobile player, and he’ll soon win one of these big ones: probably either the U.S. or the Australian Open (the suffocating pressure at Wimbledon might be too much to overcome, at least for awhile). But watching Federer cruise to yet another title, one had to ask: “Will this never end?”

It probably will, and sometime soon. But these days, with rival Rafael Nadal’s career clearly in peril because of the persistent injuries his relentless style and body type make inevitable, it’s easy to see Federer as unstoppable. And part of the reason is that the past year has seen a new Federer: a man who realizes that his time at the top is limited, and that he can’t simply assume he’s going to win every match on his unsurpassed talent alone. Compromises have been made; some wise and inevitable, others disturbing (if slightly amusing).

Over the past year, Federer has added the strategic drop shot to his already formidable arsenal. For years, he’d eschewed it as a desperate, almost avulsive, way to end a point. Now he uses it against the Legion of Baseline Heroes, who stand back and blast away. Throw in a drop shot and watch their comfort level drop. He’s also added a violent second-serve return, no longer able to rely on his sliced or chipped backhand to get the point back on neutral terms. He didn’t do much of this sort of returning against Murray (and when he tried, it rarely worked), but the threat of it can have the desired effect of unsettling the opponent.

These innovations are smart, and, if anything, one might ask why Federer didn’t try them sooner in his career. The answer, of course, is that he didn’t need to.With the glaring exception of Nadal (mostly on clay), Federer was unbeatable. From 2005-2007, he barely lost any matches at all.

Now, it’s different. The general public, to the extent it follows tennis at all, looks to the four Grand Slam tournaments (mentioned above, plus the French Open) as the measure of success; there, Federer continues at his insane level — 23 consecutive semifinals, and 8 consecutive finals, reached; an average of more than two of these majors won every year for the past eight years; and so on. But Federer has been mortal for the past few years at all of the other tournaments. He now saves and marshals his best efforts.

Less savory are some of the other things Federer has been willing to do in order to keep winning. In his quarter-final match against the human ball-striking machine named Nikolay Davydenko, Federer was in deep trouble: Down a set and a break of serve, and almost down another. He rallied and won (of course), but he used a kind of perceptive gamesmanship to do so. After the first set, he took a bathroom break. This is permissible, and a regular practice of many players. (Even Venus Williams took such a break at this year’s Aussie Open, and I can’t recall seeing her do that before.) But Federer has long decried gamesmanship of any kind, calling out the whiny Novak Djokovic for his “injury” timeouts. Of course, when I heard why Federer took the time out, I was too impressed by his perceptive abilities to criticize him. Speaking to ESPN’s Darren Cahill shortly after the match, Federer said he was trying to survive until the sun went down; the match had been conducted under a late-afternoon sun, and Federer had said (almost poetically) that the ball was “half in shadow, half in light” so that he could only see half of it. Someone could construct a musical suite on this theme.

But what about Federer’s sophisticated mind-game (not really “trash talking”, to be precise) against Murray in the days before the match? Some of it was just funny: In the interview after his semifinal with Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Federer said that the British hadn’t won a Grand Slam “in like 150,000” years (74 is the slightly more accurate number). But in press conferences before the final, Federer turned up the heat: Murray would feel the pressure; It would be important for Murray — but not for him — to win the first set; Murray’s head-to-head winning record against Federer (which now stands at 6-5) was constructed when Federer “wasn’t at [his] very best”; Murray had cratered during the previous major final encounter (at the 2008 U.S. Open, also won by Federer in straight sets).

The tactics seem to have worked, but maybe they weren’t necessary. Federer enjoys amazing crowd support everywhere he goes, even against home-town heroes. This, too, helps him win. Is his new approach a risk to this capital of good will? Perhaps. And to what lengths will he go to remain on top? We’ll see. But these latest actions by the great Federer remind us that elite athletes will do what they need, even if the rest of us don’t like or understand it. Just watch and enjoy his sublime tennis, while it lasts.