Many variables come into play when one considers which WTA or ATP athletes one enjoys watching, but I would guess that most viewers of tennis roughly belong to the following four categories (not denying the possibility that some slight overlaps among them may exist).
There are those people who watch tennis for professional reasons. They could be writing or reporting on matches for the media, conducting a study, or representing a sponsor. There are those who center their interest on fanship around one specific player. They watch, for the most part, his/her matches and perhaps a few of his/her main competitors – in the hopes that they lose, naturally. To these fans, little else in the world of tennis matters, including the sport itself. A third group of viewers prefer to only watch the largest tennis events, such as the Majors, because they are mainly interested in seeing the best players in the world perform. Finally, there are others who enjoy watching tennis players perform at any professional tournament, simply because they love the sport and genuinely find it pleasurable to watch a competitive tennis match.
I would like to believe that I belong to the last category of tennis viewer noted above. I can watch any tennis match from the very first point to the last and get a thrill out of its “story.” And yes, every match has a story, regardless of the score. I must nevertheless admit that I do enjoy watching a few players more than others. It could simply be the result of a personal connection to the player or their style appealing to me as an ex-player, ex-coach, or simply as a tennis fan. Throughout the Spring season, leading up to Roland Garros, I will attempt to write as many match reports as possible, involving some of these types of players. I will also add, if needed, some useful “side notes” at the bottom of each match report.
The talented eighteen-year-old Marketa Vondrousova is one of those. In case you have never seen her play, the 54th-ranked Czech is a left-handed player with a strong first serve and a fine touch. She uses a two-handed backhand and plays mostly from the baseline, although she will not avoid approaching the net if given the chance.
Vondrousova began her BNP Parisbas Open campaign in Indian Wells against the 76th-ranked American Madison Brengle. Both players held serve to begin the match, but you could already see signs of Vondrousova’s plan when, in four out of the first five points of her serving game (including the double-fault on the second point), she used slice serves curving away from Brengle’s backhand. It is nothing unusual for left-handed players to work the outside corner of the service box on the advantage side to move the opponent off the court so that the winner to the open deuce side becomes available for the next shot. Yet, Vondrousova used the same slice serve also on the deuce side and showed from very early on that she would seek to earn short returns from the outstretched backhands of Brengle in order to either control the ensuing rallies, or hit a winner with the second shot of the 1-2 punch (example: the very first point of the match on her serve at 0-1).
One area of Marketa’s game that remains error-prone at times is the return of serve. It was nevertheless her returns, mixed with a bit of luck, that earned her the first break of the match. At 1-1 and 30-0 for Brengle, Vondrousova hit three aggressive forehand returns in a row over the next three points. The first one forced the American into an error on the next shot. The second one put her in a defensive position enough to commit one later in the rally. The third hit the net and dropped over for a winner. Vondrousova was now up 30-40. She squandered that break point on a forehand mishit that sailed up and out. She earned a second one later after she nailed a sharply angled cross-court-backhand return that eventually led to her winning the point two shots later. She would capitalize on that ensuing second break point and go up 2-1. More on her returns a bit further.
Once down a break, Brengle began stepping into the court and accelerating her down-the-line shots, usually one of her game’s strengths. But the one she missed at 1-3 down, serving at 15-0, did not help her cause. She also attempted to come to the net behind short balls and pressure Vondrousova’s forehand (her weaker side by a thin margin). Yet, to apply that pressure, you have to first start the point. And the two double faults in that game, first at 15-15 and the second to squander a game point later, only served to lead to another break against her.
In the meantime, Vondrousova was continuing her all-around solid, but not perfect, returning performance. By the time she won the first set 6-2, she was allowing Madison to win only 40% of her first-serve points. When the match ended one hour seven minutes after it began, that number decreased further to 38%. Brengle fared better on points started with her second serve, mainly because Vondrousova risked and missed more, thus the “but not perfect” clause in the first sentence of this paragraph.
Brengle continued to search for solutions after losing the first set. Her best opportunity to turn the tide came early in the second set when she was leading 1-0 and had two break points (see also side note no.1). She committed a forehand unforced error in the net on the first one. Vondrousova moved in on a floater and hit one of her several forehand swing-volley winners of the day to save the second. She finally held with a well-placed first serve into the body that jammed Brengle’s forehand.
The curtains seemed to be coming down on Brengle in the very next game when Vondrousova played her best tennis of the match to go up a break again. As a matter fact, you want an example of her versatility without having to watch a long game? Watch this one. A thunderous, inside-out forehand return gives her the first point. At 0-15, a long rally takes place. Marketa eventually nails the flat forehand down-the-line to Madison’s deuce corner. Madison gets it back but the ball lands short. Marketa moves forward, slices the low backhand approach inside-out, spinning away from Madison on the ad-side. Madison cannot get the ball back and now it is 0-30. After the American misses a backhand to go down 0-40, Marketa breaks her serve on a point that ends with her accelerating a flat backhand cross-court and sneaking to the net behind it to win it on a backhand volley punctuated by an overhead.
Brengle is a fighter though. She responded with her own best returning game of the match to earn her only break of the match and get back on serve at 2-2. As if Vondrousova needed luck to seal the deal for her, in the first two points in that game, her shots clipped the net and dipped on Brengle’s side of the court for winners. Vondrousova would break to go up 3-2 and would do it again after tightly contested seventh game to go up 5-2. The second break, ending on a backhand error did truly shut the curtains on Brengle. Two minutes later, the scoreboard would read 6-2 6-2 and Vondrousova would be on her way to face the 11th-seeded Johanna Konta in the next round.
Side note no.1
Juniors should take heed of what Vondrousova did at 0-1 down in the second set. She had a game point at 40-30, only to double fault twice and go down a break point at ad-out. Vondrousova served perhaps her safest first serve of the match to get the ball in the service box and avoid at all costs the prospect of facing another second serve. Remember that losing that point would have given Brengle a break and a 2-0 lead in the second set and possibly turned around a match that had been one-sided in Vondrousova’s favor until then. This tactical decision by Marketa only makes sense. It is not some wondrous secret to other tennis players or coaches either. Yet, it remains rarely practiced and under-rated.
It does not matter that you rarely double-fault or that your first serves earn you a slew of free points. In that type of situation, following a double-fault or two, your first priority is to avoid the “oh-dear-what-if-I-do-it-again” apprehension that will undoubtedly slip in the center of your brain and grow there within a matter of seconds, if you miss the first serve. Get that first serve in, period!
Side note no.2
Vondrousova has the habit of bending down and grabbing her knees to catch her breath after long points (example: 0-1 in the second set, deuce). It is perfectly understandable that she is exhausted after a taxing point, however, I have always been for the idea that you should hide all indications of physical condition from your opponent as much as you can. And this is a case where you can do that by walking around, breathing deeply, and/or going for the towel. Bending over and resting your hands on your knees basically shows your opponent that you may not be fully recovered by the time the next point begins or that you are not as fit as you may have looked otherwise. While either or both of those cases may well be true, there is no need to telegraph that to your opponent.
Until the next match report, enjoy BNP Parisbas Open 2018 !