Tuesday, March 25, 2008

IW: "Sorb-eee-Yhuh!"

It took me a while to discover where the guttural cries were coming from. The sounds in the air during the women’s final between Ana Ivanovic and Svetlana Kuznetsova were incomprehensible, but consistently so: something like “sorb-ee-yhuh!!!” was being hollered over and over, at different pitches and volumes. Then I glanced up to the very top of Indian Wells’ Stadium 1 and understood. There a small pack of wild youths had taken over a section of the cheap seats and unfurled the red, blue, and white flag of Serbia (“sorb-ee-yhuh!!!”). A few glances later I noticed a second, smaller, black flag beneath them that read, “Kosovo is Serbia.”

The soccer-match intensity and nationalist fervor was jarring in an arena filled with the docile, golf-hatted tennis fans of California. Needless to say they weren’t going to be any match for the Serbs, even if some of them harbored a deep, previously unrevealed passion for Kuznetsova. It was also hard to connect the Serbian fans with the object of their affections at the bottom of the stadium. Ana Ivanovic’s personality can be described in many ways, but “guttural” is not one that comes immediately to mind.

That doesn’t mean she isn’t tough. You know how some athletes are described as “sneaky fast”? Ivanovic is “sneaky tough.” Her walk is delicate, her speech guileless, her fist-pump less-than-terrifying, and she’s wilted under pressure in the past. Today Ivanovic played a cagey match, a scrappy match, a veteran match. When she missed, she went right back with a big shot in the same direction; if that didn’t work, she bailed herself out with clutch serving. She took her time between points and never looked anything other than composed, even at her worst moments.

After another scratchy, momentum-less, hit-and-miss start—is this an Ivanovic specialty?—the Serb decided to take a step forward and create a little momentum at just the right moment. With Kuznetsova serving at 4-4, Ivanovic let fly with a backhand winner for 15-30, drilled a forehand winner for 30-40, and then moved into the court and put together a pretty one-two forehand combo, first crosscourt and then down the line for the break. It was the first moment of strategic focus in the match that had been sustained for longer than a single point.

Contrast it with the play of Kuznetsova, who, as you may have heard, has now lost eight of her last nine finals. This was the first time I’d watched her at length this week, and I’d forgotten how messy her game can be. Nobody makes as many athletic moves as Kuznetsova; the problem is, she makes so many of them in the wrong direction. How many times have you seen her go for the corners while falling backward or sideways onto her back foot. She always seems to be in her own version of no man’s land; she has the shots to dictate every point, but she never settles down and takes over the center of the court, which is what Ivanovic did at 4-4 in the first.

We’ve learned three things about Ivanovic this week: She can win a big tournament as a No. 1 seed and favorite; she’s entrenched herself at No. 2 in the world; and, most important, she’s learning, rapidly, how to win. That doesn’t just mean hammering winners at 4-4. It means saving a break point with a service winner, getting a return in the court at 30-30, and following up a break by winning the first point of the next service game, which Ivanovic did at 5-4 in the first set. She went on to hold at love and never lost focus after that.

By the time the Serb fans' second hero, Novak Djokovic, took the court, they were a bit more subdued (they would take down the “Kosovo is Serbia” sign at the tournament’s request; it gave us too much to consider on a hot afternoon in the desert, I suppose). Djokovic, of course, didn’t need any fans. He came out in his usual flawless way, his clothes and hat brilliant white, his wristbands fastidiously mismatched, and his pinpoint game perfectly organized.

I’ve always liked a fast starter, a guy who comes out having already found his range by the end of the first point. Nadal is like that, and Djokovic even more so. Today he won eight of the first nine points, quieting a pro-Fish crowd and heading off any thought in his opponent’s head that he could ride the momentum he had going yesterday.

But Djokovic is different from champions like Federer, who, once they get you down, step on the gas and offer no hope whatsoever. The Serb often mysteriously stalls just when you think he has the match in his grasp. It happened today when he was up a set and serving at 4-2 in the second. He chose that point to miss three backhands and double-fault to give the break back (in the presser afterward he said he was “really nervous”). Suddenly Fish found the momentum he had lost from the previous day. The forehand winners were back with a vengeance and Djokovic found himself in a third set.

It got worse in the first game, when he went down 0-40 on his serve. While Djokovic is not a supreme front-runner yet, he chose this moment to remind us of what type of champion he is and will continue to be: The kind who hits three aces in a row to stop his opponent’s momentum in it tracks. Some romantics of sport might say this is the time when the great ones “raise their games,” as if these things are done by choice. I would say that Djokovic is simply the type of player who can hit three aces in a row at a moment when all signs say he shouldn’t. Djokovic is not a momentum-rider, he’s a momentum-stopper. Better, he’s able to ignore momentum altogether, which requires a deep confidence that can’t be shaken from one game to the next.

The missiles had been fired, the message had been sent, and the match was over in three swings. Fish never seriously threatened again. Even when he was smoking service returns deep into the court, Djokovic parried them with his fast-handed open-stance defensive forehand (another form of momentum-stopper). The gates were closed for good.

Djokovic came into his presser looking, as always, bigger than you think he is. Big head, big sneakers, lots of hair, long arms—a jock through and through. How did he feel about representing his country and his wild pack of fans in the stands? He said “athletes are the biggest ambassadors for their countries,” but declined to do more politically other than his “job," which is playing tennis. Ivanovic had said much the same thing in her own press conference. She claimed she didn’t know much about politics, but it was important to “represent your country well.”

These might sound like safe answers coming from an American athlete. But they have a different ring coming from Serbians. The faces and names that have come to my mind in recent years when I think of Serbia have been the ones I’ve seen on TV: Milosevic and Karadzic. Now there are new faces—confident, intelligent, youthful, successful faces—from Serbia to put in their place. That's "political" contribution enough in my mind. Djokovic and Ivanovic would be winners wherever they came from and whatever they did. Tennis, with its international, meritocratic nature, should be proud that it has provided the stage for them

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