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The Case Of The Pesky Nemesis

Why do some Sony Ericsson WTA Tour stars struggle against certain less celebrated opponents?

Published August 19, 2009 05:44

The Case Of The Pesky Nemesis
Francesca Schiavone, Amelie Mauresmo

At Cincinnati last week, Flavia Pennetta beat Venus Williams for the fourth time in seven meetings, confirming her status as the five-time Wimbledon champion's nemesis. On the very same day, Sybille Bammer shocked Serena Williams. Or did she? In fact, the 29-year-old Austrian mother had beaten the 11-time Grand Slam champion in their only previous meeting, in the quarters at Hobart in 2007. That means her head-to-head against the former world No.1 stands at 2-0 - a statistic many players with stronger resumes would kill for.

On-court rivalries inevitably wax and wane, depending on factors such as the playing surface, age and stage of career, even illness and injury. Obviously, it may not be fair to compare a Tour veteran in the twilight of her career with a fast-rising teen phenom. But Bammer and Pennetta are in their late twenties, and as such very much contemporaries of the Williams sisters. And, given that world No.2 Serena is the holder of three Grand Slam titles and Venus is right behind her at No.3 on the rankings, they are hardly in decline.

Of course, a one-off upset, however spectacular, does not a nemesis make. The real trick is to do it again... and again. In this respect the Williamses aren't the only legends being stalked by 'mere mortals' , however - just ask Amélie Mauresmo, who surely cringes when she sees the name Francesca Schiavone on the order of play.

In the first round of this week's Rogers Cup in Toronto the feisty Italian, who has been as high as No.11 in the rankings, scored her fifth win in nine outings against the former world No.1 and two-time Grand Slam champion from France. Twelve months younger, Schiavone has now triumphed four times on the trot, a run that includes the period when Mauresmo was at her peak. While similar playing styles - including one-handed backhands - may be a factor, it is worth noting two of these wins have been in Fed Cup, where Schiavone thrives under the pressure of playing for her country.

Easier Said Than Done

High profile 'victims' prefer not to dwell on the dynamics of playing styles, presumably to avoid adding to any psychological edge their rival is building. In Cincinnati, a post-Bammer Serena clearly didn't think there was an issue to discuss: "I made so many unforced errors - anyone could have beaten me today." For her part, Venus would only concede of Pennetta, "She plays well… she moves well… After a while it was obvious to see that she was just keeping the ball in play and waiting for me to self-destruct."

Even the vanquishers can struggle to identify the secrets of their success - or are reluctant to broadcast them lest the magic vanish. But new Top 10 arrival Pennetta, armed with a flamboyant game and a clay courter's ability to stay out there all day, will say it is all about confidence.

"When I play a great player like Venus, I just go in the court and think I can beat them," said the recent champion of Los Angeles and Palermo, and holder of eight Tour singles titles. "Because most of the players get on the court and think, 'Oh, I would like to make a good match.' If you go on the court and just think you want to make a good result, not lose 60 60, you can never win against them."

She added: "I think Venus made a lot of mistakes today because I was really consistent. I didn't make a lot of mistakes, so she tried to find something different. That's why she started making mistakes."

Meantime Bammer, a late bloomer who has won two titles on the Tour and been ranked as high as No.19, was prepared to offer more technical reasons for her win - aside from her opponent's high unforced error count.

"I think sometimes I served very well on the break points," she said, referring to one of her lefty weapons. "I did a good slice to the body, and sometimes she was surprised that I went wide with the slice." Whether this was a tactical ploy that happened to work on the day or a pointer to an Achilles heel, it's hard to say.

Age-Old Intrigue

There are other examples: three of the talented but mercurial Ukrainian Alona Bondarenko's four wins over Top 10 players have been at the expense of two-time Grand Slam champion Svetlana Kuznetsova, who has beaten the former world No.19 just once. But while such match-up mysteries might be linked to the ever-increasing depth in women's tennis, but they are nothing new.

In the 1980s tenacious American Kathy Jordan acquired something of a reputation as a nemesis of Chris Evert - even though the pair's head-to-head eventually settled 12-3 in Evert's favor. Indeed, an underdog can be elevated to nemesis status by inflicting maximum damage on the favorite at a key moment. In this case, the rivalry is remembered because one of Jordan's wins would go down as the worst loss Evert would ever suffer at a Grand Slam, in the third round of Wimbledon in 1983.

At the time, Evert was ranked No.2 in the world, had just won the French Open for the fifth time and was also the holder of the US Open. What's more, until that point she had never lost before the semis of a Grand Slam.

Jordan's other defeats of Evert came a year later at Eastbourne and in 1985 at the high-profile Virginia Slims Championships. Yet Jordan never beat many players the American icon never lost to. Nonetheless, her panhandle grip made her style unorthodox, her inside-out forehand kept Evert guessing, and she attacked the net relentlessly because she knew it was her only chance. What's more, she walked with a swagger that said she wasn't intimidated.

"Sometimes it comes down to logical, technical and tactical reasons why some inferior players beat those with larger reputations and records," observed tennis commentator Steve Flink in an interview with fan-operated website chrisevert.net. "In other cases, it is psychological. In some cases, both factors contribute to the outcomes."

Whatever it was, Jordan found a mix that worked - but Evert made sure she never lost before the quarters of a major again.

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