Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Ostapenko, Stephens and Muguruza--they "come and go"

Ostapenko and Stephens photos by Daniel Ward, Muguruza photo by Leslie Billman

Karma, karma, karma, karma, karma chameleon
You come and go, you come and go 
From "Karma Chameleon"
Boy George, Moss, Mikey, Craig, Hay, Pickett
Color By Numbers, Virgin, 1983

Today, two of the WTA's most colorful chameleons played each other in Eastbourne, and the scoreline perfectly reflected the players' mercurial personae. Alona Ostapenko defeated Sloane Stephens 1-6, 6-0, 6-3--and would you have it any other way?

Ostapenko and Stephens are two parts of a trio of elite players who can enter a tournament--especially a major--and either crash in the opening round or win the whole thing. The third member--and perhaps the most frustratingly unpredictable of all--is, of course, Garbine Muguruza. 

Among them they own four majors: Muguruza--the 2016 French Open and 2017 Wimbledon, Stephens, the 2017 U.S. Open, and Ostapenko, the 2017 French Open. 

Ostapenko is the least polished of the three. She struggles, sometimes terribly, with her serve, and her hard-hitting rampages can get out of control. Watching her, one can't help but think that--with the right guidance--she could become consistently dangerous. 

The Latvian star has been very open about her inability to regain the free-swinging, instinctive ball-striking that allowed her to win the French Open two years ago. She says that she can't stop thinking, and thinking, of course, is the enemy of instinct. Also, she said in Charleston that she has had to become more process-oriented, which is against her nature.

Stephens is a little harder to figure out. When she goes into a relative slump, she just tells fans and the media not to worry. And then she wins something big. Ostapenko's woes are easier to deconstruct--she wants to hit the ball very hard into the corners and overwhelm her opponent, and she needs to (sometimes) slow it all down and play more strategically (in fact, it's easy to compare her with a very young Petra Kvitova).

But with Stephens, there aren't any obvious clues. The 2017 U.S. Open champion is affable and even loquacious, but she doesn't say much that would help us understand why her somewhat relaxed approach to playing matches sometimes results in what appears to be an almost effortless win, and other times, results in what looks like a lack of sufficient effort.

Muguruza is another story altogether. The Spaniard's game--when it's on--is so fluid, it sometimes seems that she does it with mirrors. But then the "other" Mugu shows up, and that one makes a lot of errors and isn't fluid at all. There can be a lot of unpleasant emotion during on-court coaching sessions, and the charming Spaniard can suddenly appear sullen.

Ostapenko, Stephens and Muguruza are all big-stage players. The French Open was the first WTA event Ostapenko had ever won, and she has won only one other event since she prevailed in Paris. She is currently ranked number 35 in the world. Stepens, ranked number 9, has a bit more "normal" tennis biography; she has won six tournaments, including Miami and Charleston. Muguruza has won seven titles, including Cincinnati and Beijing; however, she is currently ranked number 27 in the world.

These statistics don't make "sense" in the context of professional tennis as we know it. We expect consistency within a certain tier of players, but Ostapenko, Stephens (who is at least in the top 10) and Muguruza have turned that expectation on its head. We may never know what has caused this phenomenon, at least in the case of Stephens and Muguruza--Ostapenko is considerably more open about the issue. 

I should add that there isn't anything "wrong" with these inconsistencies; perhaps it is we who need to make an adjustment. But for now, an awkward sense of mystery hangs over three players who have achieved the very highest awards offered in their sport.

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