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Top 5 under-achievers in women's tennis

Musab Abid
Editor's Pick
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The Dreaded U-Word

When Ernests Gulbis won the tournament in tiny Delray Beach, Florida last month for his first-ever career title, he took away some of the ammunition that he had so generously been providing the last couple of years to the persistent whispers that the talented 21-year-old Latvian was destined to become the perfect personification of The Underachiever. 

There are many alternative names, not all of them euphemistic, that people use to describe a tennis underachiever – mental midget, headcase, hot mess, or, if you like your nicknames colorful and quaint, The Demented One. 

Is it more than a little insensitive for us armchair analysts most of whom have never picked up a racquet to call out a professional athlete for supposedly squandering his or her potential because of mental shortcomings? I know it is, but I’m not just about to give up on one of my favorite guilty pleasures merely out of the fear of being branded ‘insensitive’. Besides, doesn’t your heart just break into a million pieces when you see a player who has the ability to win multiple Grand Slams put on his most clueless deer-in-the-headlights look at the smallest sign of trouble? 

Whatever the justification, it’s fun to rattle off names of players who we think are classic under-achievers, so here’s my list for the decade that just went by, starting with the women:

1. Nadia Petrova

Nadia Petrova
Nadia Petrova

The 27-year-old Russian, armed with what most experts agree is a ‘big’ game that is designed to achieve success on the faster courts of Wimbledon and the US Open, has reached the quarterfinals of these two tournaments just twice each. Her only two Grand Slam semi-final showings have come at the French Open, and she’s won all of 9 singles titles after nearly a decade on the tour. 

Her inconsistency and indiscipline have often led her to spectacularly unravel on the court; she almost seems afraid of getting the job done against the top players, especially when pitted against compatriot Maria Sharapova. In fact, her record against the glamorous tennis Barbie is so bad that some have even suggested that she is literally terrified of Sharapova’s steely glare and loud grunts. 

Petrova surprised everyone by blowing Kim Clijsters off the court in the 3rd round of the Australian Open this year and going on to reach the quarterfinals of the tournament, but she then proceeded to lose in the first round of Dubai, making it her 3rd opening round loss of the year. Same old, same old.

2. Nicole Vaidisova

Nicole Vaidisova

She drew constant comparisons to Maria Sharapova when she first burst on to the scene, as much for her powerhouse shots as for her blonde, tall, leggy frame. Having made a strong statement by beating Venus Williams in the quarterfinals of the 2006 French Open, Vaidisova was hailed as a prodigy (she was just 17 at that time) with seemingly unlimited potential. 

She followed that up with a semifinal appearance at the 2007 Australian Open, and what seemed like a permanent place in the world’s top ten. But then, something (the cynical say that that ‘something’ was Radek Stepanek) happened, and it was all downhill from there. She is currently ranked 176th in the world, and now struggles to put together back-to-back wins in ITF tournaments. 

Vaidisova hasn’t won a Grand Slam match since the 2008 US Open, and nothing in her attitude or play suggests that a revival of any kind is around the corner. It’s not just that the young Czech is hugely talented and possesses a fearsome forehand; the thing that is most exasperating about her is that she had shown so many signs early in her career that she had a steady head and unflinching resolve to go with her undeniable talent. 

How can all of that have evaporated in a matter of 2 years? And here’s the most befuddling statistic of this gut-wrenching mess – the girl is still only 20 years old. Any takers for a bounty on Stepanek’s head?

Edit: Reports have recently emerged that Vaidisova plans to retire from tennis to get married and start a family. If doing that puts her out of her misery, then maybe it’s all for the best.

3. Vera Zvonareva

Vera Zvonareva

The weeping damsel of the WTA has attained almost legendary status with her dramatic waterworks and displays of hair-tearing frustration (and I mean that literally) when things don’t go her way on the court. The 25-year-old Russian has taken the meaning of the term ‘tantrum’ to another level. 

Effeminate racquet smashes are not for her. No – when in the mood to vent out her aggravation at her missed shots, this bold lass will do anything from bawling at the top of her voice and mauling the chairs on the side of the court to clawing at the bandages on her injured leg. 

It would not be entirely ludicrous to say that Zvonareva has a game almost identical to that of Elena Dementieva, but with a better serve. And yet, all she’s got to show for a decade of toil on the WTA tour is a solitary Grand Slam semifinal showing at last year’s Australian Open and a bronze medal at the 2008 Olympics. 

Maybe, just maybe, the unhealthy loss of body fluids that she suffers in each of her teary moments does act as a hindrance to her play.

4. Elena Dementieva

Elena Dementieva

Ah, The Demented One. What do you do when, for all practical purposes, you don’t possess a serve? Fine-tune all the other aspects of your game to perfection, that’s what.

Dementieva’s baseline game is perhaps among the most solid and incisive in history, but that elusive Grand Slam title has remained frustratingly out of her grasp. For years the likeable Russian sent down powder puff serves and double faulted her way to near-ignominy, but she made up for that with her penetrating groundstrokes and was a perennial semi-final contender at every Slam that she entered.

Then sometime around 2008, she decided that her serve needed to be revamped, so she put in the hard yards and emerged with a serve that could be called average. But that was still not enough to get her over the hump, a fact most painfully reinforced in her semifinal match against Serena Williams at last year’s Wimbledon, a match where Dementieva did everything right except getting the win.

The woman claims that winning the Olympics gold medal in 2008 was, to her mind, a greater accomplishment than winning a Slam, but alas, the tennis world doesn’t think so. She may have a couple of Slam finals in her resume, and more Slam semifinals than I care to remember, but with a game as rock solid as hers, it would be a travesty if she ended her career without a single Grand Slam title.

5. Svetlana Kuznetsova

Svetlana Kuznetsova

I hadn’t intended to number this list in order of ascending level of talent, but I think I have done exactly that, if only accidentally. Kuznetsova is the one player on the women’s tour today who can match the Williams sisters for power and athleticism.

That’s right – not Justine Henin, not Kim Clijsters, not Sharapova – it is Kuznetsova who had the talent to be the female equivalent of Roger Federer, if only she had set her mind to it. (As an aside, is it any coincidence that when asked which female player he liked to watch playing the most, Federer answered “Svetlana Kuznetsova”?).

When she went five years after winning her first Grand Slam title at the 2004 US Open without adding another Major to her collection, casual observers started branding her a one-Slam wonder and began questioning whether the US Open win was a fluke. Tennis experts, on the other hand, knew better: they waited for her to slay her inner demons and go on a Slam-winning streak; they waited, and then waited some more.

Little did they know that it would take another Russian headcase to meet her in the final of a Slam for Kuznetsova to finally win her second big title. Everything fell into place at the 2009 French Open, and Kuznetsova duly whipped Dinara Safina in the final, thus ending the agonizing 5-year wait. But will it be another 5 years before the stars realign themselves and Kuznetsova gets the chance to face another Russian (a Russian not named Maria Sharapova, that is) in the final of a Grand Slam?

For a look at who made the list on the men’s side, watch this space in the next edition of the Sportskeeda magazine.

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Musab Abid
I am an absolute tennis nut if ever there was one. I can spend hours together on tennis - watching it, talking about it, playing it, analyzing it. Other than that, I am a fairly normal guy, with a penchant for reading, writing, and trying to convince everyone around me to agree with me.
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