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FACING UP TO THE FACTS

by

Matt Zemek

When a card goes from face down to face up, human emotions — and bank accounts — have been known to be powerfully affected.

So it also is with several members of the WTA Tour as the grass season begins.

A number of players were thrown face down into the dirt over the past few months. They need to dust themselves off, refresh their minds, and face up to the reality in front of them over the next five weeks.

Last year’s Wimbledon women’s quarterfinals did feature the new Roland Garros champion, Simona Halep, and the defending Wimbledon champion Garbine Muguruza, who just reached the semifinals in Paris before Halep knocked her out. They don’t have to carry an enormous burden heading to the lawns of Europe. Neither does Svetlana Kuznetsova, with two major trophies firmly in her possession. Neither does Venus Williams, tennis icon and one of Wimbledon’s most significant women’s singles champions.

As for the four other women who reached last year’s final eight, this grass season feels like a prove-it moment to varying degrees. Competitors live for moments when they can silence outside doubts and answer the questions which are endlessly repeated in press conferences and other interactions with the media. Four WTA performers face that fundamental challenge on grass in 2018.

Jelena Ostapenko’s run to the Wimbledon quarterfinals in 2017 was hugely impressive. The result might have been modest, but the staying power demonstrated by the 20-year-old (now 21) suggested that she was made of sterner stuff. There was no letdown after her out-of-nowhere Roland Garros championship. She continued to show the same fighting qualities which marked her triumphant run through Paris.

One year later, after modest clay season results and a brutal first-round exit at Roland Garros, Ostapenko arrives at grass season under profoundly different circumstances. Grass no longer feels like the next destination after a life-changing championship, a point in time when superabundant competitive confidence can spill into the next few tournaments. This is an urgent situation and a chance to restore something which — if not exactly lost — needs to be called forth more consistently. Ostapenko will create sharp reactions no matter what she does at Wimbledon. Inverting the reactions she earned in Paris is her goal.

Magdalena Rybarikova made the meteoric rise on grass in 2017 which Mihaela Buzarnescu just made on clay this year. Jumping several hundred ranking points by winning stacks of grass matches gave Rybarikova a catapult heading into Wimbledon, and once she got there, she didn’t stop. She upended Karolina Pliskova in the second round and moved all the way to the semifinals before Muguruza stopped her. Rybarikova — no longer having to play “minor-league” ITF matches this year due to her boosted ranking and a regular series of main-draw entries into tournaments — played the clay season at the WTA Tour level. Predictably, she didn’t gain much ground. Grass is a breath of fresh air for her… but one year after her breakthrough, the 29-year-old knows she has ample points to defend. She also has to show that her 2017 successes — partly a product of the rest of the tour not playing her very often — can be replicated. This time the tour will be gunning for her. Success this season would in many ways mean more than last year’s prosperity.

The woman Rybarikova dismissed in the 2017 Wimbledon quarterfinals was CoCo Vandeweghe. The American made the semifinals in each of the two hardcourt majors last year, yet she has never made the semis at Wimbledon, where her huge serve has made her dangerous yet not done enough to lift her through six or seven matches. Vandeweghe is 26, which suggests that she has several years left in her career. Yet, ask 29-year-old Agnieszka Radwanska how quickly the tennis biological clock can tick. Vandeweghe — should she avoid injury — will be able to play hundreds of additional matches in the future. Yet, she might play only five to seven more Wimbledons, and only a few of them might feature her as a primary favorite. This is a “seize the day” situation for CoCo. If she can’t take advantage of the 2018 grass season, why should anyone expect her to take the next step in her career and make her first major final?

Last but certainly not least, Jo Konta returns to Great Britain, liberated from the clay surface where she (like Rybarikova) never expects to do well. Konta — buffeted by winds known as coaching changes and fluctuations in confidence — lacks the solidity she possessed for much of the 2017 season. Home-nation pressure can be oppressive — and it is worth recalling that Konta very nearly exited Wimbledon in the second round last year against Donna Vekic — but if Konta can turn it into a source of petrol, she can abruptly transform not only her season but the level of respect she gets in the locker room. At 27, the late bloomer knows this is a crossroads point in her career.

Image – tennis with an accent

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