I just returned from sunny BNP Paribas 2012 in Indian Wells, California and watched some of the most talented players in the world putting on some masterful, beautiful displays of the game of tennis. Congratulations to Roger Federer and Victoria Azarenka for winning the titles.
As fans of the sport, it is easy to watch it with a bias, paying attention to the dazzling ESPN Top 10-worthy highlights alone. But, tennis perfection is an Illusion; my trip just refreshed some of the misconceptions we unintentionally pick up as juniors being groomed for tennis careers. These misconceptions are just as common in recreation tennis. Coaches use pros as examples; these players then become our idols. The phrase “textbook tennis” is thrown around by both our coaches and television commentators so much at that impressionable age, that by the time we take to the court, we cannot imagine any other way to compete but the “textbook” way. Tennis academies and high performance programs are packed with young gifted athletes with aesthetically pleasing—effective, even--tennis strokes, except they do not necessarily win. On court, they possess the flair, the charisma, the presence of future champs, but they forget one rule: we do not have to be perfect to win.
I thought it would be cool to know that some of our tennis heroes who featured at Indian Wells and on the tour in general, are just as flawed as Jane Doe at the local park, except they have perfected the artistry of accentuating their strengths rather than dwelling on their shortcomings. When our coaches hold them up as examples, they usually zero in on what they do well. But of course they are well intended; the aim is to build us up rather than cripple us.
* Note the language used is relative compared to the competition pool or league, if you may.
6. Radek Stepanek
He did not give Jo-Wilfred Tsonga an easy passage. To be fair, Stepanek has no obvious weakness, but he has no distinct strength, either. He has a great net game that is very handy in doubles, but the modern singles game discourages serving and volleying as a sole strategy. The most superior being his volleys, Stepanek has a complete all court game and is extremely capable at placement as well as taking away rhythm from his opponents. He is crafty. While everyone is playing checkers out there, he is playing chess. He reminds me of Guiellmo Coria with lesser results but convincing longevity, but fortunately or not, depending on how you look at it, power trounces craftiness. He is not as powerful as his counterparts.
5. Dominika Cibulkova
She is pugnacious; at 5’3” (1.61m) on her tallest day, she needs to be! She lost a weird contest to Roberta Vinci. But what she lacks in height and fire power she makes up for with speed.
4. Geal Simon
He Lost to John Isner—great win for Isner—but worse than the loss is the other negative connotation “pusher” that follows Simon amongst players and commentators alike. In all honesty, there are no pushers on the pro tour but Simon’s aces and winners are far in between. He does not give any free points, however, and is comfortable patiently grinding and either waiting for your mistake or an opportunity to hit a sure winner.
3. Nikolay Daveydenko
He withdrew due to the “Indian Wells Flu”, unfortunately. His net game is almost nonexistent, especially for the arena he plays in. He is an aggressive baseliner, however, whose penetrating groundstrokes leave you little opportunity to draw him into the net, and he would rather hit a winner before he volleys. He is so good at his game that when Federer and Nadal had the #1 and 2 positions on lockdown respectively, he was one of only 2 players to have beaten both players in their reign of 2009.
2. David Nalbandian
He was knocked out after giving Rafael Nadal a legitimate scare, falling 2 points from winning the match. In a sport that rewards big servers, some of Nalbandian’s serves are mid to high 129km/h (80mph), and to put it into perspective, most top women are serving faster speeds consistently. Yet Nalbandian dictates the court with deep penetrating groundstrokes with significant spin that buck and kick like deer. He is such a master at it that he is the only other player besides Davydenko convincingly beat Federer and Nadal repeatedly in 2009, and has beaten Federer 8 times in his career.
1. Caroline Wozniacki
The reason I put Wozniacki at the top is because she actually made #1 and had a convincing reign. Contrary to what the naysayers whisper, a player is not only legitimized by winning a Grand Slam. Though Wozniacki still has an entire career of attempts, currently she exemplifies an accomplished player without a Grand Slam title. She was knocked out by a resurging Ana Ivanovic. When Wozniacki is overwhelmed, she moon balls. “Moon balling” on a tennis court carries negative connotations but as fast as she is and considering that she does not have a distinct weapon, even she needs to buy some time to recover. Impeccable defensive skills and high consistency adequately make up for her deficiencies.
Obviously the sport is ever so dynamic, the above examples are just but caricatures of those players. But, although pros obviously set a high standard of the game comparing ourselves to them is accurate, relatively of course.
Having all-around confident tennis strokes definitely helps your game, but having a certain weakness should not necessarily dismiss or limit you as a tennis player, either. The next time you are on the court with your coach, device strategies around your weakness and make it hard for your opponents to find your weakness.