Friday, March 03, 2006

Second wind

It was 1999. According to Prince, it was time to party. Jesse Ventura was a governor. Postage stamps cost 33 cents. And Martina Hingis was atop the tennis world. She was hoisting the Australian Open title she won over Amelie Mauresmo, and reclaiming her place at number one.
Well, that's how it started. By the end of the year, she had lost in the final of the French Open, the first round of Wimbledon and stepped aside to give Serena Williams her first U.S. Open title. Despite the Australian being her last singles Slam win, she held on to number one, with steady results, except where she wanted them.
By 2003, she'd packed it in, citing serious ankle problems. Not cited was the feeling she must have had that she was a Lilliputian, and everyone else was Gulliver. She decided that it was time to have some fun, ride horses, and sleep until 9 a.m.
Since then, Martina Hingis has retired and returned. She started slowly, losing to Justine Henin-Hardenne in her first tournament back, but picked up speed, momentum, and confidence. She's beaten Maria Sharapova, Anastasia Myskina, Vera Zvonereva, and stretched Kim Clijsters at the Australian.
While Hingis was controlling women's tennis like Bobby Fisher in a chess match, she may have gone somewhat unappreciated. Toward the end of her reign, some commentators thought it wrong that that Hingis was in a two-year drought in majors, and still No. 1. It's the slams that count, they said, and it's true.
But back then, few appreciated that she was able to show up for work almost every week. She consistently won the smaller tournaments, and was almost always around for the second week for Grand Slams. But the way the bigger and stronger players took her down mesmerized fans hungry for some excitement in a game that has never known how to market itself. The fact that she stayed healthy and sharp wasn't enough sometimes. Not when girls fifty pounds heavier and nearly a foot taller didn't so much focus on strategy as they did clubbing the ball.
Now, most of your favorite players take about two months off at a time. Strangely, Venus and Serena Williams introduced the 'power' game, but now their bodies seem as fragile as twigs. The jockeying at the top of the rankings depends largely on which injuries Davenport, Clijsters, Mauresmo, Sharapova and Henin-Hardenne are nursing now. Now, the winner of Grand Slams is largely determined by who can hang on, not on who's playing the best tennis. Sound familiar?
It took the rise and stumble of the Big Babe Brigade to see there is value in endurance in tennis. Martina Hingis made it infuriating then, to those awaiting the advent of the power game. Now, it's nice to see a familiar face in a familiar place, who isn't limping off the court.

Getting served:
It was another easy week for Andy Roddick, getting ousted in the quarters in Memphis. Andy's pretty frustrated right now, saying he's hitting the ball well, but everyone beating him is playing out of his mind. There are a lot of upstarts in tennis right now, the Murrays, the Gasquets, the Baghdatises, and among them, there's no respect for a top player. Roger Federer's been seeing that a lot lately, too, and somehow he still wins. So that's not the problem. The problem is that players have the book on Roddick. His rocket serve paralyzed opponents for a few years. Now they've figured him out. The problem is that Roddick needs to take his game to the next level. Either he doesn't realize this or he doesn't know how to raise his level.
It's only a matter of time before the same thing happens to Federer. The difference is that he is such a great all-around player that he'll answer, all the way down to Plan Z.

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