A Player’s Edge

By Jane Voigt

Daniel Island, S.C. — Where is the “magic edge” in pro tennis? Where can players find that one ingredient which turns them from a close-match loser to a consistent, productive and profitable winner?

It’s complicated. Players can throw knockout punches from any spot on a court. They serve well and return well and are extreme examples of fitness, both physically and mentally. Mix in racquet and string technologies, which free them up to swing out on shots, and it’s clear that any two similarly-talented tennis players can do a lot with the ball. All of this elevates the task of winning to levels of difficulty which did not exist in previous eras when strength training and racquet innovations were not as developed. Margins are narrow; any edge is paramount and will stand out if attained.

Paula Badosa (No. 12) came through a tough match on Stadium Court. Down a break in the first set against Canadian Leylah Fernandez, Badosa had to work her way to even the set and then break to win it. In the second, her break advantage vanished early, as Fernandez’s aggression overwhelmed the Spaniard. Yet, in the end, Badosa elevated her game to a level high enough to win the match: 7-5, 7-6 (6). In other words, she found that edge.

“I think the serve was very important today,” Badosa said. “I tried to be aggressive as well, but she wasn’t letting me do a lot. But I think the key was a little bit the serve and to accept every moment, because she was playing unbelievable shots. I had to accept and keep fighting, keep fighting. I think that’s what gave me the match.”

On a day with morning temperatures creeping toward 80 degrees and humidity closing in on 80%, Badosa’s acceptance of where she was in each moment paid off. She was facing an aggressive opponent throwing a variety of shots her way. Badosa had to maintain enough grit to ‘keep fighting,’ and it helped her serve well. The percentage of points she won on first and second serves: 75 and 56, respectively. These are high rates of performance born of a mind keen to stay ahead and push. 

Badosa has not had a good beginning to her 2023 season. She lost in the first round of Doha and Dubai, then reached the semifinals at Adelaide, but withdrew because of a right thigh injury. The same injury forced her to withdraw from The Australian Open as well. Since then, she hadn’t put together two consecutive match wins… until Wednesday. 

“Every win right now counts,” Badosa said. “And against a player like Leylah, and especially the level she played today, it’s very positive. I hope I can play many more matches [here]; and, I hope it’s the start of the Paula I want to feel again.

Bottom line: Confidence adds to that edge. 

Jessica Pegula, the top seed here this week, plowed through her opening match against Anna Blinkova, 6-2, 6-0. The American served well, winning over 70% of points on her first serve and close to 65% of points on her second serve. The 64-minute match was Pegula’s first match on soft courts this season. Additionally, she delayed travel to Charleston from Miami because she and doubles partner Coco Gauff won the title there Sunday. When Pegula arrived Tuesday, she could only fit in one practice, so her move from a hard court to a soft court was dramatic. 

But the American brought with her an inherent edge, making that leap more like a hop. She was raised on Hilton Head Island, S.C., where playing on green clay is an everyday practice as much as hitting on a hard court is for Californians.

“I felt great today,” Pegula said. “I felt a little better than I thought [I would]. But, again, I feel pretty comfortable on clay.”

Pegula, though, has never advanced beyond the third round in Charleston, which contrasts with her performances on European red clay. In 2022, she was runner-up to Ons Jabeur in Madrid. She made the quarterfinals at Roland Garros, losing to eventual champion and world number one Iga Swiatek. She and Coco Gauff were doubles finalists in Paris. 

“I think my court sense really helps,” she began. “My touch has gotten a lot better, too, so as far as drop shots, lobs, sliding, the slice, which I wasn’t bad at, but they’ve gotten so much more efficient; and, I’ve been more confident about using those skills.”

Pegula’s forehand and forehand returns peaked on Wednesday afternoon as well. “I feel as if I can use it on clay. I used it today really well, especially on returns, looking for my forehand to dictate.”

Maybe Pegula’s biggest edge is tied to her court smarts. She calls them “intangibles.” 

“I think I have some good intangibles, and with my court sense and smarts around the court, I’ve been able to find my game a little bit better on clay than in the past,” she said. “I think that showed a lot last year.”

The more efficient forehands, sliding and drop shots, plus the intangibles are definitely enhancing her intuition on court. They could give her a superior edge that could kick in automatically, jetting her to a zone of her own.  

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