Tennis from the Tundra: Love-15 -
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Tennis from the Tundra: Love-15

Posted Feb 16th, 2008 at 12:51 AM by

It's February 15th, the one date of the year that can kind of become a tennis pun. This is my first foray into the blog-o-sphere, so let's see how this goes.

I picked up the nasty little flu that's been running around the USA while in Minneapolis (!!!) for a job interview. You'd think Oslo would make me immune to weather-related diseases, but no. As a result, I haven't been able to focus much on the tennis since before I left for America (basically since the Australian Open). But, with the miracle of TiVo, I caught up on one thread that's been just waiting to come to surface since the start of the year: the return to form (and fall, again) of Agnes Szavay.

I'll make no bones about it, I'm a sucker for Agnes Szavay. She's got the composure, backhand, and variety on the baseline that makes me a believer. And she's cute. I saw in the newspaper that she had made the semifinals, and was thrilled to see that she had reached the final. I didn't see how she had done it until I got back home, but her march to the finals seems important, at least in my book.

First, she beats Olga Govortsova, who has come from virtually nowhere to the top 50 in about 6 months, handily. Considering the rough start to the year for Szavay, that little masterclass must have been some sort of redemption. I didn't get to see that one, or the match against Garbin, but they stand out in my mind as something important about Agnes Szavay. She had, honestly, a brutal start to the year. With a lot of people proclaiming her top 10 in waiting at the end of last season, her two early losses to two sub-100 players were a little embarrassing. Getting that redemption against Govortsova was nice, but winning a match means nothing if you can't back it up. And the next-day letdown of tennis is a legendary phenomenon. So to pull herself back together against Garbin was an awfully auspicious sign of things to come.

From this point on, her tournament just became a big old pile of gravy. Knocking out Hantuchova was a nice way to start, reaffirming the fact that she's got the game to mess with big players, and the serve to make you suffer if you don't have good movement. What struck me the most about this match was the sheer quality of Szavay's backhand. She doesn't have the power of a Sharapova (or a Serena, or Davenport, or maybe even a Jankovic) but she makes that shot extremely effective. She doesn't hit the same kind of backhand ever. In one rally, she went from flat to topspin to slice, all with two hands, before pounding one inside out with topspin for the winner. She manipulates the ball very subtly off the backhand, in ways that change pace, spin, angle, and depth. The player it immediately reminded me of was Chris Evert. While Szavay isn't the mental powerhouse or bastion of good health, that backhand could grow to be one for the ages. Keep an eye on her. The way she simply took over, serve and return alike, in the 2nd set against a player who doesn't go down easily was a very positive sign for the future.

Now, after beating up on a top 10 player, one could expect a little bit of a letdown, no sweat. But letdowns against Elena Dementieva are dangerous. For any player, Dementieva is someone you can't drop your level against. And Dementieva came very close to taking the match, leading by a break three separate times in the third set. But, and I mean this with all due respect, it's hard to call Dementieva's losses chokes, especially when she's serving for it. Ultimately, that's Dementieva's biggest problem; she can't really blame anything on her mind. It's her game. There actually IS something holding her back, and she can't really fix it easily.

Szavay returned smartly in that final set. At 3-2 down, returning at 30-15, she stepped in, clocked the backhand inside out, and didn't even have to wait to see for Dementieva to try and return it; she knew she had that point. She didn't take huge chances, she just waited for the right shot, and took it. It's matches like this that give her a lot of aura heading into clay tennis. With the slower US hardcourts (stretched over two weeks, too!) coming up, Szavay is likely to make an impact. The time to set up her backhand, and move without damaging her back, will let her reap dividends. And I'm still convinced that her forehand is going to be scary on clay. That big backswing generates a fair bit of power, and with the extra time (which cleans it up), she's going to be a force.

As for the final match, this gives me a chance to look at another stellar younger player. Chakvetadze uses her head on court in a way very, very few other top 10 players do. One member of the boards pointed this out early last weekend, citing her post-semifinal interview (in which she highlighted Szavay's backhand as a very good shot) as evidence of her foresight. The difference between Chakvetadze's foresight and everyone else's? She actually puts it into play.

For a player who uses the side-to-side angles and spin shots more than the up-and-down angles and drive shots, Chakvetadze has come into her game pretty quickly. Considering that several older top 20 players have games with similar reserves of variety and spin (Kuznetsova, Bartoli, Schnyder, Mauresmo), yet fail to put that variety into action, Chakvetadze's success is all the more impressive. And not surprisingly, she executed her game plan quite well, save for a rough patch in the middle when it looked like Szavay was going to make a fight out of this match. After taking it up a notch for the 2nd set, Szavay's backhand was locked in, her serve was quite good, and her forehand was as dynamic as it should be. Yet Chakvetadze, in about two points time, rattled the confidence out of a confident player. Pretty remarkable stuff, including some nice mid-court tennis and volleying, to put her back into the winners circle and unbeaten in finals.

But now, take a look at the next matches for both of these players and what they indicate for their seasons: Szavay losing to Alisa Kleybanova and Chakvetadze losing to Sofia Arvidsson.

Szavay's loss isn't a huge shame; Szavay played about 8 hours of competitive tennis in Paris, and Kleybanova had just won three qualifying matches. Szavay isn't yet the most healthy player. She probably thrives better in extended tournaments (US Open '07, for example) with a day or so off in between matches. And hardcourts can take a lot out of players whose natural habitat is clay.

And I'd say Chakvetadze losing to a lucky loser is a little embarrassing if it weren't for the fact that Arvidsson is in the middle of a Renaissance. She's beaten Dementieva and Bartoli in the past month, and would have qualified had it not been for (obviously) red hot Alisa Kleybanova.

All in all, Paris gave us a nice look at two players who seem likely to move into or stay in the top 10 for the next few seasons. And in Szavay's case, gave us Hungarian tennis fans a big sigh of relief.

That's all for now, I'll be back after Antwerp for some Belgian dispatches.

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