There’s something about the game of tennis that makes it produce intensely compelling storylines about players and their lives. There’s Maria Sharapova and her borderline manic father who brought her all the way from Russia to the USA so that she could hone her tennis to robotic perfection. There’s the delightful Safin duo of Marat and Dinara, two siblings who couldn’t have been more different from each other in terms of their natural tennis talent or dedication to the game. Then there’s Andre Agassi and his famed wild-child-to-graceful-statesman transformation that has literally spawned a thousand words and earned the big bucks in the publishing business. Perhaps it’s the highly individualistic, me-against-the-world nature of competitive tennis that makes for such persuasive drama when it comes to tennis players’ personal lives. A quick question, though: Is there any correlation between the degree of drama in a player’s life and the success that the player enjoys in his or her career? I’m sure Yanina Wickmayer would like to believe that there is, in fact, such a correlation, and a very sharp one at that.
The spirited Belgian lost her mother to cancer when she was 9, and the incident was literally life-changing for her. So devastated was she by the loss that she persuaded her father to leave everything behind and make a fresh start thousands of miles away, in sunny Florida. The decision, although based much more on emotion than any practical consideration towards Yanina’s young career, had a big effect in helping her develop her tennis skills. She joined the tennis academy in Saddlebrook, and the rest is, while not quite history, then at least a part of the WTA merry-go-round chronicles. Today, at 20 years of age, Wickmayer is equipped with a playing style that is dangerously close to that adopted by scores of other baseline ball-bashing banshees ruling the WTA circuit, but what sets the Belgian apart is her steady head coupled with her fearlessness when it comes to taking her chances on the big points. If these traits have anything to do with her tragic early life, then her pro career would be as poignant as it is inspirational.
Wickmayer’s struggles with personal loss are not the only obstacle she’s had to face in her career, of course. Late last year the tennis world was rocked with the announcement of a one-year ban on the girl for failing to comply with the whereabouts rule of the World Anti-Doping Agency, or the WADA. No, she didn’t actually test positive for any banned substances. Nor was she convicted for lying to or cheating the doping authorities in any way. All she did wrong was to fail to inform the WADA about her whereabouts 3 months in advance, as the rule strictly requires. Was she irresponsible and a little careless about the whole thing? Sure she was. But many would make a stronger case that the punishment handed out to her was far more draconian than the situation warranted. The decision was overturned on appeal, and Wickmayer was cleared to play. Justice may have been served, but not before the promising youngster was deprived of the chance to get direct entry into the Australian Open main draw despite holding a ranking of 19. I know the WADA has only the best interests of the sport at heart, but if this unholy mess had in any way jeopardized the girl’s career (getting over doping controversies can be a mighty difficult job – just ask Sesil Karatantcheva), then it might have been time to reconsider some of the statutes up in the prison-style rulebook.
The Australian Open organizers refused to grant Wickmayer a wild card, so into the qualifying draw she headed, holding her head high with as much dignity as she could summon (or so I imagine). Her results confirmed what everyone already knew – the girl had too much talent to be playing the qualifying rounds. Once into the main draw, however, Wickmayer started to show what she’s really made of. She came through a couple of very tough matches in the first three rounds, including a match that went 10-8 in the third set. By the time she reached the 4th round she’d have been forgiven for mailing her next match in, having already played 6 matches on the trot and being drawn to face none other than the Queen of the Belgians herself, Justine Henin. What she produced, instead, was a lesson in attacking tennis (even if it was baseline attacking tennis), scorching the court with blazing groundstrokes that shook even the normally composed Henin. The two women fought tooth and nail for well over 2 hours, and at one point it seemed as though the match rested completely on Wickmayer’s racquet – there simply wasn’t anything Henin could do in the face of the onslaught of sizzling forehands, backhands and even serves (!) flowing off Wickmayer’s racquet. Although she ended up losing the match 6-4 in the third (owing more to Henin’s big-match experience than to any great disparity in tennis skill), the display confirmed to everyone that her run to the US Open semifinals last year was no fluke. The girl clearly has game, and plenty of it – heck, some have even been moved to compare her forehand to that of Steffi Graf! Exaggeration, yes, but there really never is any smoke without fire.
The tough thing about talking up the chances of a young player making it to the big league (and more importantly, staying there) is that you can never be sure what turning point may arise in the player’s life that can swing his or her career arc in one positive direction or in another, diametrically opposite one. Wickmayer is probably the most promising youngster to burst on to the scene since Ana Ivanovic came into the spotlight, but we all know the story of Ivanovic’s spectacular downslide. What changes things a little in Wickmayer’s case is that she’s already faced her life-changing moment. And not just one, but two of them. The way she’s reacted to both of those events tells me that that head that she’s got on her shoulders might just prove to be a handy asset in her journey toward glory. All through the Australian Open Wickmayer seemed determined to prove to everyone that she wasn’t just a third wheel in the Belgian feel-good story that was threatening to take over the sport. If her play in her matches through the tournament is anything to go by, Ms Clijsters and Ms Henin would be well-advised to sit up and take notice.Published 24 Feb 2010, 22:45 IST