Once ranked 11th in the world, Shahar Peer is in the throes of a crisis, perhaps the worst of her professional career.
By Yoav Borowitz
Just over a month ago, during her second round match against local girl Sloane Stephens at the U.S. Open, Shahar Peer lost it.
"At the start of the first set, she spotted her father, Dov, sitting right next to her coach, Harold Solomon," recalls one eyewitness, who was also sitting in the family enclosure, just meters from the court. "After several points, Shahar looked over at her coach, and when she saw her father sitting next to him, she shouted out, in the middle of a game, demanding that he move. Dov moved back one row and to the side, but Shahar was still visibly upset, and she lost in two sets." According to the eyewitness, "When Shahar was about to walk off court, she saw her father applauding her and she starting screaming at him, 'Go away!' and 'What are you doing here?'"
"She was the epitome of a tennis player who couldn't take the pressure," the eyewitness said.
Sources close to Peer confirm that she asked her father to move during the game, but they say the claim that she shouted at him is "a downright lie."
As she closes in on the end of her seventh season as a professional, Peer is in the throes of a crisis - perhaps the worst of her career. Over the last two years, she has had a record of 41 wins to 24 losses (in 2009 ) and 47-21 (in 2010 ). So far this season, she's recorded just 23 wins and 20 defeats.
On Monday, when the latest WTA rankings are published, she will find herself outside of the top 35 women players. It seems long ago that she was 11th in the world and within touching distance of the Top 10.
Lior Mor, the captain of Israel's Fed Cup team, insists that being in the Top 10 is purely symbolic. Mor, who practiced with Peer last month, concedes that "she may have been disappointed not to break into the Top 10, but I wouldn't say that's the reason for her crisis."
"All I can say is that, in training at least, she looks like she's in great form," Mor said. "I really couldn't say why she hasn't been able to translate her form in training into competitive matches."
A string of defeats
Peer has been beaten in the first round of tournaments seven times this season. Another seven times, she was ousted in the second round. Among her defeats were losses to players ranked 64th, 73rd, 86th, 89th, 106th, 150th and 429th in the world.
After reaching six finals between 2006 and 2009 - of which she won five - this year she has reached just one. Even in that tournament - a relatively minor tournament with prize money of just $220,000 - she made it to the final without beating anyone ranked above her and lost to Nadia Petrova, who was ranked a dozen places below her at the time. It has been almost two years since she last won a title - the Tashkent Open.
"Shahar's career has known ups and downs," said Tzipi Obziler, a close friend and, until two years ago, a teammate on the Fed Cup team. "She's had at least two major drops in form over the years and she's managed to push herself both times and come back stronger than ever. I'm sure it's too early to write her off."
In the past, Peer has been criticized for her frequent change of coach: She has come under the tutelage of a dozen coaches since she was a youth player. Today, the situation is different; she is going through one of the toughest periods in her professional career under the watchful eye of one coach, Harold Solomon.
"Who am I to criticize Solomon?" said Oded Tayeg, one of the most senior coaches in Israel, who worked with Peer five years ago, and under whom she reached 15th in the world. "But from what I hear, they've been working a lot on Shahar's weak points, such as her serve, and maybe that's why her traditional strong points look less sharp this year."
Mor is hopeful that working with Solomon will pay dividends. "It takes time for a coach and a player to gel," he said, "but in the meantime, it's clear that something's going wrong."
Sources close to Peer, however, insist that her relationship with Solomon "is the best she's ever had with a coach. She trusts him implicitly."
Solomon, who was ranked fifth in the world in 1980, has previously coached Mary Joe Fernandez, Jennifer Capriati and even worked with Monica Seles and Jim Courier. "He's a true professional," said Obziler. "As a player, he was known for his very defensive style and that's more or less the kind of tennis that Shahar plays. That's why it's so surprising that their work together hasn't paid off more quickly."
More than at any time in the past, women's tennis is based on athleticism and powerful hitting - neither of which are Shahar's forte. "She grinds out points," said Tayeg. "She chases balls, fights for points and wears down her opponent. That's why she's got a glass ceiling, which is good enough to get her almost into the Top 10. She has a lot of great qualities, but the problem is that recently she hasn't been showing them too often."
Noam Eyal, a sports psychologist who has worked with the Israeli Olympic squad, as well as with Peer and Andy Ram, believes that "the psychological aspect of tennis is critical. Unlike many other disciplines, it's really difficult to restore lost confidence. Players who lose in the early round of competitions find themselves with an unexpected week-long vacation, where all they do is train and think about the last loss. There are long periods of inactivity between matches, which is not the case for players on a winning streak. In women's tennis, the players also provide each other with much less of a support system than in the men's game, where there is a lot of camaraderie, which can certainly help."
Peer, who earlier this year split up from her long-term partner, Fed Cup coach Tomer Dank, communicates with the world primarily through Twitter. Few of her Tweets, however, have anything to do with tennis or her private life; instead, they focus on the trivial aspects of her life and, increasingly, her reactions to her favorite television reality show, "24/7."
People who have worked with her in the past claim that "Shahar doesn't like to talk to the media when she's losing. She doesn't share her feelings and plays things very close to her chest, but this losing streak is tough on her. She cries after almost every defeat."
Yesterday, Peer announced via Twitter that she should not be participating in the final two tournaments of the season. But for a tennis player, calendar years mean very little; more important is the dynamic and the momentum. And, at the relatively advanced age of 24, Peer can't quite seem to create the momentum that will lift her up to her highest-ever ranking.
"It's a tough business," says Anna Smashnova, who was, until Peer showed up, the best tennis player ever to represent Israel. "People seem to have forgotten how many years Shahar has been a Top 30 player. If she's managed to be up there for so long, that's her level - but there are always young girls coming along who want to take her place."
All of that is well and good, but Peer has never had such a poor run of form in the past. "Next season will be a big test for Shahar," Obziler predicts. "She's had comebacks in the past and she may know what she has to do - but she must know that the older she gets, the harder it is to get back to her best form. After all, it's up to her. She didn't live up to her potential last year; if she does next year, she'll climb back up the rankings."
The question is how high she can climb. She may have climbed to the very edges of the Top 10, but even when she has been playing well, she has failed to maintain any stability at the top levels. It's possible that, in terms of her world ranking, she's already gotten as high as she can.
"You never know," insists Mor. "That's the big question: Have we seen the best tennis that Shahar Peer can produce, or is her best still ahead of her? No one - not even Shahar - knows the answer to that question."