Saturday, August 1, 2015

The kids are alright--for now

Even in the WTA, which has become a proud standard bearer for the strength of veteran athletes, the power eventually shifts. Older players retire or experience the natural decline of their skills. Historically, super-stars have arrived in a flash--or at least it seemed like a flash--and begun their domination. But today, the "rising star" category isn't that easy to sort out.

Take, for example, Simona Halep. Some of us have watched her for several years and have known of her immense potential. But to the public, and--unfortunately--to the sports media, she was a virtual unknown. When she broke rank a couple of years ago, it was considered "surprising" news. But anyone who had watched Halep over the years wasn't surprised. Angelique Kerber made a similar "surprise" appearance among tennis elite, as did Dinara Safina before her. Timea Bacsinszky, whose comeback was extraordinary, also falls into this category. These players were always under the radar, and only serious fans understood that the breakthrough could happen at any moment.

Some very young players, like Chris Evert, Maria Sharapova and Venus and Serena Williams, step into success at an early age and don't have to look back. But others, especially in the current generation, go forward and back with such rapidity that it's hard to keep up.

Sloane Stephens is a good example. Much was made of Stepehens' obvious skills during her 2013 breakthrough, despite the fact that she was peaking at major events only. Stephens, who is now ranked number 34 in the world, has yet to win a WTA title, or to even reach a final. She's young, and could just as likely have a second "breakthrough." Or not. It wasn't that many years ago when the names "Tamira Paszek" and "Michelle Larcher De Brito" were uttered as Next Big Thing phenomena.

Karolina Pliskova has a huge serve and a very good all-around game, and appears to be comfortable on different surfaces. She is, however, the anti-Sloane, in that she does not do well at the majors, despite doing quite well at other events. The talented young Czech player has played in ten WTA singles finals and has won four of them. However, she has yet to advance beyond the second round of a major, having done so only twice. On those two occasions, she was defeated in the third round.

Again, this doesn't necessarily "mean" anything. Whatever obstacles are in her way can be removed through appropriate coaching (physical and otherwise) or perhaps just maturity.

Belinda Bencic is only 18 and has already won Eastbourne; she has also played in two other finals, and she reached the third round of the 2015 French Open. It's too early to really know just what Bencic can do, though her tennis future appears very bright.

There are several young players who show signs of enjoying bright futures: Madison Keys, Elina Svitolina, Camila Giorgi, Kiki Mladenovic, Anna Karolina Schmiedlova, Heather Watson, Lesia Tsurenko, Elina Svitolina, Katerina Siniakova--this list could go on to include others. What's interesting is that we don't know who (if any) will rise to the very top, who will have an outstanding career, or who may fade away.

In the "rising star" category (and I don't count Halep as such--she's a star who is trying to glow brighter, and I actually think of her as a kind of veteran player), there are two names that deserve special attention. One is Garbine Muguruza, who just seems to have "I'm it!" written all over her. From her gutsy play to her comfortable-in-her-own-skin persona, the Spaniard--at this time--comes the closest to looking like a major star in the making. She was out for a long time because of injury, and when she returned, she had trouble closing matches. But these problems appear to be behind her, and it's hard not to expect some big things from her in the near future.

Finally, there is the matter of Genie Bouchard. I can't recall any player experiencing such a dramatic rise, to be immediately followed by such a dramatic fall. Bouchard is in something that is beyond "slump," and her current abdominal injury does little to give hope to fans that she will somehow sort out her career in the next few months.

The Canadian's woes began in 2014 after she was blown off the court by Petra Kvitova (someone who knows a thing or two about sudden soars followed by dramatic drops) during the 2014 Wimbledon final. Coincidence? No one knows except Bouchard, and she may not even know. 2014 was a very dramatic year for her; she reached the semifinals of both the Australian Open and the French Open, and the final of Wimbledon. She also reached the round of 16 of the U.S. Open, which isn't exactly shabby, but her decline had begun.

Bouchard has been kind of a walking injury for the past several months, and when a player gets injured frequently, I tend to look at the psychological aspect as well as the physical. All players are going to sustain injuries in this very demanding sport, but sustaining a lot of injuries (or experiencing a lot of illness) can be a sign of an individual whose overall balance may need to be restored (that goes for the rest of us, too).

There has been a media frenzy over Bouchard, who is a "marketable" blonde with her own army of supporters that travels around the world to cheer and sing for her. She is an official Big Deal. Once you are a Big Deal, you face unbelievable pressure, from within and without, to perform at a very high level. Bouchard is also quirky, though--as a Big Deal Blonde--she isn't presented that way. (Maria Sharapova is quirky, too, but has always appeared to have the self-containment to pull it off and still be a BDB.) The handshake quirk, the kimono, and the over-"candid" press conferences point to a complicated person.

This isn't a criticism, by the way. I like quirky, and I want every player to feel free to be exactly who she is. The wonderful blend of personalities is what makes the WTA irresistible. But even a mature 21-year-old can freeze when caught in a web of undeniable talent, chronic injury and international hype and expectations.

Genie Bouchard is currently ranked number 26 in the world. Her 2015 season has been miserable so far. She lost in the first round at both the French Open and Wimbledon, and has suffered repeated first and second round losses. She has continued to suffer with an abdominal injury. Bouchard lost both of her Fed Cup matches to Romania, and also received something of a personal beat-down from Alex Dulghuru, who mocked Bouchard following their match.

In short, Genie Bouchard's brief career already qualifies as a mystery, and who doesn't enjoy a good mystery?

It may take Bouchard and her team a while to figure out what went wrong and why, and then to fix it. Maybe a long while. Or she could storm back in 2016 and push even Muguruza into the background. In the meantime, the veterans are doing just fine, thank you. Kvitova remains the only player born in the 90s who has won a major (she has won two, and "should" have already won more, but that's another story, and one that has been covered here with frustrating frequency).


Todd.Spiker said...

And then you also have a case such as that of someone like Laura Robson, who probably would have fit snugly in the middle of that list of young players who included, but who has seen her career take a detour for a reason that didn't even have anything to do with pressure, talent, etc.

One just never knows what might happen to derail a career, or at least change it (maybe for good, maybe for worse). Crazy things sometimes happen.

See Monica Seles, to cite the craziest example of all.

Diane said...

I thought about Laura while I was posting this. And who knows if Dinara herself might have overcome her nerves one day? Another sad case is Tatiana Golovin, who had just started to play her best tennis--an it was very good--when illness finished off her career. I'll throw Kournikova into that mix, too. We'll never know what might have been.