Sunday, February 26, 2017

It really IS a process

I'm a psychotherapist who goes out of my way to keep from saying "It's a process" to my clients. Because who wants to hear that? But really, it is. It's a process in tennis, too, which fans sometimes forget. But these past two weeks, we've seen two revelations of that truth.

There was never much doubt about Karolina Pliskova's innate talent. Tall, with a deadly serve and a calm demeanor, Pliskova appeared destined, from the start, to make a name for herself on the WTA tour. But at just the moments when the most was expected of her--during the majors--the Czech player disappointed. Getting no farther than the third round in any major while simultaneously winning some tournaments and performing consistently on the tour put Pliskova in an awkward position.

She just wasn't ready. Then, last year in Cincinnati, something clicked. Pliskova beat world number 2 Angie Kerber in the final, earning her first premier title, and also denying Kerber the number 1 ranking. Kerber corrected that slip by defeating Pliskova in the U.S. Open final. But, even with this loss, the Czech had finally "arrived." To reach the final, Pliskova defeated both Williams sisters, which put quite a flourish on her run.

Pliskova opened her 2017 season with a big message by winning the Brisbane title. She lost in the quarterfinals of the Australian Open (a victim of the on-fire Mirjana Lucic-Baroni), in which many observes had her listed as the favorite. Pliskova put on another splendid Fed Cup show, then went on to win Doha, in which she defeated Dominika Cibulkova for the first time in her career. Currently ranked number 3 in the world, the long, tall Czech (whose only New Year's resolution was to "bend my knees more") is headed toward greater stardom. It just took her a while.

Meanwhile, Elina Svitolina, whom many (and I have never been among them) refused to think of as a potential WTA star, has skillfully worked her way to a number 10 ranking. Svitolina, who is now on a 12-match win streak, won the Dubai event this weekend, beating Angie Kerber (for the third time), then defeating Caroline Wozniacki in the final. The Ukrainian player also won the Taipei Open earlier this year.

The Dubai match point was memorable:

Svitolina, who can be considered a defensive player, has always shown some expert court movement and anticipation, but in the past year, she has sharpened her groundstrokes. Perhaps most important, she has changed something in her head, and that change has to be related to the period she spent with Justine Henin, who joined her team for a while as a coaching consultant. When this consultation was first announced, I remember thinking "clever move, Elina." Because who knows more about how to win than Henin, who spent the early part of her career choking away matches, and then spent the rest of her career delivering misery to her opponents.

Henin understood that power could be flummoxed by movement and stroke precision (Simona Halep understands this, too, but appears to lack belief in herself). All one has to do is observe Svitolina's body language to understand that some psychological switch has been turned on. The Ukrainian star is also a good doubles player (her ad hoc winning run with Daria Gavrilova was hilarious), and that never hurts.

Both Svitolina and Pliskova will be fun to watch this season, and we can look to both of them to improve their games. It's a process.


Todd.Spiker said...

Oh, I somehow missed this post when it went up. :(

These two, maybe more than any other players on tour (though Keys could maybe put her name on the list in '17, if she hasn't yet), best exemplify the push-and-pull of building a great WTA career in the current era. (In another way, Barty could further rewrite the template.) It's just hard to imagine a young player making a truly immediate MAJOR impact in the sport today, for a wide variety of reasons, and it takes trial, error and intelligence to get there... and that takes time, even after they hit the regular tour on a full-time basis. For a bit, it looked as if Bencic might be an exception, but now reality has hit her, as well. She still has work to do (see Sloane and Genie).

Of course, people have to actually pay attention to the tour in order for people to see the Pliskova and Svitolina-like stories happening in real time. Unfortunately, it's easy for some to willfully ignore such things, as we saw when Serena & Venus played in the AO final and all the legitimate progress of a whole generation of players and/or new stars, just over the previous year (two first time slam winners in' 16, and another first-time major finalist), was suddenly dismissed and forgotten, and the tour was once again left to deal with more "where are the new stars?" commentary (while, "shockingly," very little similar sentiment about the ATP was expressed after the Roger/Rafa final the same weekend).

I hope Svitolina can take that "next step" in '17 with a big slam run, because then she would officially have a tangible result that could be held up as further evidence of the presence of the next generation waiting in the wings for an opportunity. The tour will eventually be theirs to rule, and patience and process should ultimately prove rewarding, not only resulting in success, but (maybe) also longevity at the top of the sport.

Diane said...

And sometimes the process is long and painstaking, as in Angie Kerber. I consider Kerber to be a most effective role model for the younger players (or anyone, for that matter): listen, learn, fix, add, practice. The thing about both Pliskova and Svitolina is that they are level-headed and focused. Problem-solvers.

I do think Keys is quite likely to follow in this mode, for she, too, appears level-headed (and has been influenced by Chris Evert, the queen of focus).

People like a "phenom," but the expectations can be brutal. Michelle Wie is probably the most dramatic example (pity she just missed winning Singapore, after holding a lead for so long), and her response was worthy of great respect. She may never catch up with Lydia Ko or Inbee Park (though you never know--one can have a very long golf career), but the fact that she survived and thrived is a testament to her patience and belief.

The kids really are alright :)

Ronald said...

I believe it will svitolina and mugurusa will contend against each other for the major titles the next 5 years.

Diane said...

Garbine has the talent but I wonder about her head. I feel more confident about Pliskova (perhaps Pliskovae?). I hope that Svitolina can keep moving up--that would be great.

Fred66 said...

I don't mean to nitpick, but Karolina Pliskova is right-handed. Her twin Krystina is the lefty.

Diane said...

Hardly nitpicking--thanks! Just my brain these days :)