Jon Wertheim: Robson scores another upset - Sports Illustrated

Robson backs up career Slam run with another upset; more mail

Publish date:

Sports, too, traffics in one-hit wonders, and few sports do it like tennis. How often have we heard that a certain player "can beat anyone on a given day"? At Wimbledon we got one of those days. In the second round, Lukas Rosol, a journeyman from the Czech Republic with a ranking in triple figures, faced the great Rafael Nadal. For one afternoon, Rosol entered The Zone, could scarcely miss a ball and knocked off one of the greatest players of all time. When he returned for his next match, it was as if the medicine had worn off. He reverted to form, regressed to the mean and lost quickly. This is still another feature that divides to very good from the next level up. "It's great to [score] an upset," Martina Navratilova said Friday on Tennis Channel. "But can you return and then back it up?"

On Wednesday, British teen Laura Robson knocked off Kim Clijsters, a three-time U.S. Open champion. The storyline, of course, was that this marked the final singles match of Clijsters' exceptional career. But Robson came in for praise too. At age 18, she beat a veteran under difficult circumstances, 7-6, 7-6, a scoreline that suggests superior poise. And while Clijsters wasn't at her best, Robson deployed her left-handed strokes effectively and dictated play against one of the game's heavier hitters.

More impressive, still, Robson backed it up. Playing Friday against Li Na, another recent Grand Slam champ, Robson picked up where she left off. Riding aggressive strokes and some bold serving, she won the first set 6-4. Li came back, as she often does, and took the second set in a tiebreaker. We've all seen this movie countless times. Veteran averts danger and cruises in the third; upstart misses an opportunity, loses match and applies the it-was-a-learning-experience balm.

Robson, though, flipped the script. She played her best tennis in the third set, mixing up pace and moving her opponent halfway to Canarsie with her lefty angles. Despite brutal heat, Robson looked plenty fresh two hours into the match. Without much drama, she closed out the set 6-2, consecrating the biggest win of her career.

A former junior champion, Robson is an undeniable talent. She is also a model of maturity and perspective, a good thing given her nation of origin and the outsized hype that attends a British prospect. As a 16-year-old, she is the second coming of Virginia Wade. As a 17-year-old in a bit of a slump, she is another LTA whiff. She is 18 now, the youngest player in the top 100. Last month, she teamed with Andy Murray to win a silver in mixed doubles at the London Olympics. On Friday she moved into the middle weekend of a Slam, set for a Sunday date with defending champ Sam Stosur. Her measured take? "I've had a lot of tough matches against some very experienced opponents," she said. "The way I see it, it was time to start winning some of them."

Them. Plural. No one-hit wonder here.

Mail call

John McEnroe made a point on the TV broadcast that I thought was interesting. He said that Andy Roddick will be going into the Hall of Fame in five years. But I wonder if Andy is really a Hall of Fame-caliber player. One Slam and five major finals? That gets you into the Hall of Fame? One major and a few top five's won't get you into the World Golf Hall of Fame, that's for sure. -- David D., Brooklyn, N.Y.

? I was surprised how much banter the prospects of Roddick's Hall of Fame candidacy surfaced immediately after Thursday's announcement. Mardy Fish mentioned that Roddick was a "first-ballot guy." Twitter was atwitter. McEnroe mentioned it on the air. Again, it's a matter of precedent. Given the criteria of the past, how can you not vote in Roddick? He won a Slam. He reached the finals of Slams four other times, including, of course, the 16-14 classic against Roger Federer. He had Davis Cup loyalty and success. He spent nine years embedded in the top 10 -- at the time of Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic.

On the other side of the ledger, there was only one Slam, and it came early and it came during a soft spot in the men's game. (Consider: Roddick beat David Nalbandian and Juan Carlos Ferrero in the semis and finals.) There was virtually no doubles success to speak of. Nor success on clay. And while I'm comfortable offsetting it with Roddick's quiet philanthropy, his on-court conduct and occasional -- how to put it? -- difficulty will undercut his candidacy among some voters.

After all's said and done, we're at the same place we often land on this topic. Is Roddick one of the GREATS? Will we mention him among Federer and Nadal and Laver and Borg and Steffi and Martina and Evert? Not hardly. If this were baseball, does he get in to Cooperstown? Perhaps. But does his career stack up pretty darn well against, say, Yannick Noah or Pam Shriver or others who have made it to the other side of the velvet ropes? Absolutely. As a friend put it to me this morning, "If Michael Chang was a .295 hitter, Roddick is at .302." (A discussion for later: Are we concerned about a Hall of Fame that lets in .295 hitters?!)

Thanks for the bit about Robson. She hits that running forehand in every match. In her post-match interview, she mentioned that she practices it. She is the real deal. Gorgeously clean shots, as effortless as Lindsay Davenport's. Old-school eastern forehand grip, steps IN and hits through, not across the ball. Her footwork and serve consistency have improved a good 70 percent this year. She's had to become accustomed to her new height, 6 feet of Laura.-- Ash, Long Beach, Calif.

? Youngest player in the top 100. Lefty game. The poise to defeat a three-time champion in Kim Clijsters and sentimental favorite on a show court. Goes on to score another upset, against 2011 French Open champion Li Na, to reach the fourth round, her best major showing to date. Olympic silver medalist with an endearing personality. Lots to like here, folks.

You should have known this sooner. Of course Robson is a complete delight. Back in January, I remember her playing at the Australian Open with a rainbow ribbon around her hair. When questioned by a reporter if she was protesting Margaret Court and her views, Miss Robson replied that she was not trying to make any political statements, but did believe in equal rights for all. I thought that was very clever. No mention of Court. No talk of the gay community. And yet she had said all that was needed to be said. -- Charith, Bangalore, India

? You're absolutely right. Most of the top players avoided the issue. Here comes a teenager with a triple-digit ranking who made the most eloquent "soft power" protest.

Not so much a question, but how about a shout-out to Steve Johnson and Jack Sock, both of whom have advanced to the second round in singles (with Sock reaching third round Thursday), and paired up to bounce the No. 1 doubles team in the world in the first round? And an honorable mention to the Harrisons for bouncing the No. 4-seeded men's doubles team. -- Doug, Los Angeles

? I'll do you one better. What a tournament it's been so far not only for the USTA prospects (Sloane Stephens, Sock and Ryan Harrison topping the list) but also for NCAA tennis alumni: John Isner, Steve Johnson, Bradley Klahn and Mallory Burdette and in doubles Dominic Inglot. We've dwelt on the NCAA's controversial proposed and rescinded format change in recent weeks. But let's acknowledge the success of college tennis as a path to the pros.

Having a Grand Slam with a best-of-three format is crazy. First it would forever create more senseless debates across generations. It's also so much easier for a marginal player to serve well for two sets and knock out a top player, I don't buy your sense of urgency argument. The point of five sets is the weaker player's level usually drops. Why don't you add in making "let chords" playable and completely ruin tennis? -- Eric, Philadelphia

? Let's put this topic on hold for a while. I'm not ready to admit defeat yet, but I will concede that my defenses are weakening. Let's revisit after the event. Deal?

I was watching the Open today, and during the Isner-Malisse match, the TV commentators -- I think it was Brad Gilbert and John McEnroe -- were discussing the possible advantages of serving first in the fifth set. They mentioned that the statistics show that it makes no difference, but Gilbert in particular said he didn't care, he'd like to serve first. As an author of a book about sports, stats and behavior, what's your take on the discounting of such statistical findings? Why don't the commentators want to believe? -- Evan Lieberman, New York

? Gilbert? Relying on intuition instead of consulting the data? Come on, now we're talking crazy! We ran the numbers on this during the Olympics and it's basically a coin flip. There is nothing in the data to suggest that serving first in a play-em-out five-setter gives you a better chance of winning -- counterintuitive as that may seem.

The McEnroe brothers were exceptionally harsh on Donald Young during his match with Federer even though Young put up a better fight than the first-round opponents of both Djokovic and Murray. It sounded as though they took his not living up to his prodigy status and their endorsement personally. As a longtime tennis player and teacher in watching Young's game, at his size I don't see anything special that would take him to the upper echelons of the game. He's a good but not great volleyer, moves well, but not in the Nadal, Djokovic, Murray class. Has a good, not great forehand, and a solid but not dangerous backhand. And his serve is not a weapon. What does he do better than Yen Hsun Lu from Taiwan, who is an excellent all-around player ranked No. 64, or Benjamin Becker, or Alejandro Falla, or Jesse Levine, for example? I sure don't see it.

Based on Young's game and lack of weapons, he's just a journeyman-level pro as I see it. He's not an aggressive baseliner like Federer, or a relentless grinder like David Ferrer, or a crafty counterpuncher like Murray. Whatever precocious talent Young displayed as a teenager hasn't translated to the pros, but there are many former junior No. 1 players who couldn't replicate their success at the pro level. In fact, that's more common than unusual. In addition to Young, there are several players having disaster years in 2012. Fernando Verdasco, Jurgen Melzer, Alex Bogomolov, Jelena Jankovic, Francesca Schiavone and Ernests Gulbis (possessor of far more weapons than Young) are all dramatically underperforming this year. Verdasco in particular has fallen off a cliff and is suddenly no longer a contender. Bernard Tomic had an eight-match losing streak. Young had no chance against Federer, but he competed until the last point. The McEnroe brothers didn't seem to notice that. -- Franklyn Ajaye, Melbourne, Australia

? Really good comments, Franklin. I'm just going to play middle man on this one, in the interest of fair and balanced. So for a slightly different take:

During his time in tennis no one has given Donald Young more opportunities than the McEnroes, except perhaps the USTA. They, perhaps more than anyone else, have earned the right to comment positively or negatively about Donald Young. Having said that, I did hear their comments but did not think them to be harsh. Mr. Young's future is in his own hands now, as it should be, and the McEnroes simply spelled that out.-- Steve Bailey, Greensboro, N.C.

I've seen Petra Martic play at full strength, and liked her game the times I saw it. I've also seen Mona Barthel (huge serve) play at full strength during the clay-court swing. I think they're both promising but they certainly haven't shown much in the last few months. -- Ehrich, Los Angeles

? Quick story: At the first Australian Open I covered, an agent sidled up to me and said, "Want to come out with me and see a future Grand Slam champion?" That player? Henrietta Nagyova. Never heard of her? That's the point. This business of prognosticating talent is tricky. But fun. Give Martic and Bathel a little more time and then we can revisit.

Your WTA top five in 2015:

1. Petra Kvitova2. Victoria Azarenka3. Sloane Stephens4. Laura Robson5. Nicole Vaidisova -- Astro, Manila

? Who's that fifth name?

Is ESPN contractually obligated to show only Ashe matches at night? We've had some terrible mismatches the first few nights, while other matches are going on around the grounds. Yet, ESPN doesn't switch to the competitive match. What's happened to night tennis at the Open? For the first time in years, I'm switching channels ... instead of watching tennis. -- John, Greenville, S.C.

? Two points:

1) These blowouts pay dividends later in the tournament when the draw is still lousy with the best payers.

2) There are so many other ways to watch the other courts -- starting with Tennis Channel and the excellent online streaming option -- that you have no excuse to switch to other programming. Here's a note Diane of NYC sent Thursday: "Props to the site -- the live video streaming is great multiple court choices, picture in picture, stats ... it's almost (almost) as good as being there!"

Considering that Florent Serra only had a few hours' notice that he was going to play a main-draw match, I thought he did quite well. But I'm really surprised that the U.S. Open waited until the morning of that match to determine the ranking order of the lucky losers. Why wasn't that determined earlier in the week? Qualifying ended on Friday. -- RZ, Los Angeles

? No, this was handled fine. The lucky loser would be picked among the four highest-ranked players who lost in the FINAL round of qualifying. Those guys stuck around hoping for a pullout. When Nalbandian withdrew on Tuesday with a chest injury, Serra's name was drawn. The hitch is that then that lucky loser must physically sign in to play at the referee's office. He had until 10:30 am Wednesday to do so. So Juan Martin del Potro likely knew the scenario Tuesday night. But it couldn't be made official until Serra actually showed up in person. Seems fair all around, no?

Shots, miscellany

? Steffi Graf throwing some love to Kim Clijsters.

? Brent Diaz of Toronto: "Hey Jon, check this out. Djokovic having a bit of fun with a young fan. In what other sport do you see such unscripted interaction? Fun stuff."

? Nice piece on USTA player development -- and lack thereof -- from Pamplona bull-running veteran Hunter Atkins.

? Dane of Cambridge, Mass.:

"Catching up on pre-Olympics mailbags, I noticed that the -OVA pronunciation discussion concluded in error (or so my Russian coworkers assure me). While 'SHVEDova' and 'shaRAPova' are indeed the correct native renderings, it would be wrong to generalize this into a rule as one reader ventured. 'KuznetSOVa' and 'HantuCHOVa' are counterexamples. 'IvanOVa' is another. Unfortunately, there's no way to tell where the stress falls by mere inspection. As the Wikipedia page on lexical stress explains:

Languages in which the position of stress in a word is less predictable are said to have variable stress. This applies to English and Russian, and to some extent to Italian and Spanish. Here stress is truly lexical: it must be memorized as part of the pronunciation of an individual word. In such languages stress may be phonemic, in that it can serve to distinguish otherwise identical words; for example, the English words 'insight' and 'incite.'

"Tennis fans need not despair, though. When it comes to pronunciation, just go with the crowd. It's counterproductive to risk appearing pretentious or clueless (or both) by doing otherwise."

? Rick Vach of Florida.: "For older Pickleball enthusiasts who gave up tennis as too strenuous for 65+ age players, USTA Florida is piloting a program in Lee County (Ft. Myers/Naples) area tentatively called Senior Mini Tennis, using some of the 10-and-under tennis formatting -- doubles on 60-foot courts with the lower-bouncing 'orange' balls and underhand serving. It has been getting rave reviews from senior players still wanting to play, but not able to cover the court like they used to or to deal with the harder, higher-bouncing regular tennis balls. We're hoping to roll this out on a wide scale in 2013. For more info on the Lee County Senior Mini Tennis pilot program, go here."

? Press releasin': "The United States Tennis Association (USTA) today announced it will launch a new Public Service Announcement (PSA) featuring Dr. Jill Biden that highlights the USTA's efforts to use tennis to support military families. The PSA, written and produced by the USTA, is part of Joining Forces, the national initiative started last year by First Lady Michelle Obama and Dr. Jill Biden that seeks to inspire, educate and spark action from all sectors of society in support of veterans, service members, and military families."

? Helen of Philadelphia: "Roger Federer takes the court Monday night wearing navy blue, trimmed with red and white. I think, Really?? Roger is trying to pander to us?? (I'm also thinking that Anna Wintour probably does NOT approve of this look.) Then Tuesday night, Djokovic takes the court wearing ... navy blue, trimmed with red and white. I'm sensing a theme here. Last night Andy Murray takes the court wearing navy blue -- I'm thinking, Oh, come ON -- until I noticed it was trimmed with gold. Whew."

? Karunya of Chennai, India: "Long-lost twins? Andy Murray and Henry Cavill."