She has the character, but can she join the big guns
By Nir Wolf
Since reaching the quarterfinals of the Australian Open in January, Shahar Peer has come a little unstuck.
Since the start of the year she has won 25 matches and lost 10. While she hasn't reached a tournament final she can console herself in the fact that in six of the 10 tournaments she participated in the opponent that vanquished her went on to win the title.
"I would say she could be No. 5 in the world at some point," says Steve Tignor, editor of Tennis Magazine. She'll probably never be number one because she is slightly undersized and not as fast or smooth as the very top players. At the moment she is not quite deserving of a Top 10 place, but she could be there by the end of the year."
Peer has changed her entire staff and now works with Jose Higueras as her head coach. The Spaniard reached No. 6 in the world as a player, and among his charges as a coach was former World No. 1 Jim Courier. Oded Teig, a 30-year-old Israeli who had an unimpressive singles career as a player, works with Peer from the sidelines while Dr. Muli Epstein is Peer's fitness coach.
The professional staff has put together a program to improve the weak aspects of her game and turn her into an aggressive player with a diverse range of shots.
Peer's forehand has been upgraded and she is now working on improving her serve, volley and slice.
Tignor offers his diagnosis of Peer's game. "She's somewhat typical of the young women players in that her backhand is her strongest shot, and her serve and forehand can be erratic. But for a fairly small girl, she hits as hard as just about any woman.
"Her backhand is as good as anyone's, but her serve is a serious liability right now; her form is jerky rather than smooth and she doesn't get the kind of topspin on it that most of the women can create. But she is as good a competitor as anyone, other than maybe Maria Sharapova and Serena Williams."
Peer doesn't deny she has a problem with her serve. With previous coaches she worked on her serve and failed, and her current team is also putting the emphasis on the problem, but so far she has shown only a minor improvement.
"Serves demand coordination. If you haven't improved after a year then you're not going to improve," says former Israel singles star Shahar Perkis. "When you work on an element of your game for a month or two and nothing happens, that's a sign you need to find another way to improve it."
"If she were to come to me I would improve her serve in an hour," boasts senior tennis coach Shlomo Tzoref.
"Peer needs a technical coach who can improve her game quickly, and that's something she doesn't have at the moment. She needs someone like Dedi Ya'akov who can work with her on her weak points - not that Spanish-speaking guy she brought in in his place. Peer's character has taken her to where she is today. From now on she needs to start working."
Character is one thing Peer has no problem with.
"I saw her come back from 1-5 in the third set to win a match at the U.S. Open last year, and I was very impressed," says Tignor. "The only other person who fights like that is Rafael Nadal."
John Wertheim of Sports Illustrated believes Peer has what it takes to be a Grand Slam champion one day.
All the attributes
"Shahar Peer is one of the brightest young stars in women's tennis. She has all the attributes to be a future champion," says Wertheim.
He describes Peer as a "fairly typical contemporary WTA star."
"She has a "big game" - a surfeit of power and a deficit of nuance. She competes well and seems to cope well with the rhythms and lifestyle of professional tennis," he adds. Wertheim says that Peer's agonizing defeat in the quarterfinal against Serena Williams was the kind of character-building experience that will help her become a top player.
"Against Serena Williams, she failed to serve out the match in the third set. On the surface, this is disappointing. But look at any great player and she's been through a similar experience early in her career - getting nervous and failing to seal an upset late in a Grand Slam. She'll be more poised next time."
Tonight Peer begins her French Open campaign with a match against Kaia Kanepi, the 55th ranked Estonian. Peer has an easy path to the last 16, where she is expected to face Svetlena Kuznetsova of Russia, last year's runner-up and the only Top-5 player Peer has beaten in her career.