Saturday, January 6, 2018

The lure--and the mystery--of the big stage

I live for the applause, applause, applause
I live for the applause-plause, live for the applause-plause
Live for the way that you cheer and scream for me
The applause, applause, applause
Lady GaGa et al

The "big stage player," as far as I can tell, is a relatively new phenomenon. Let me be clear about what a "big stage" player is, in this context: It's not an elite player like Serena Williams or Maria Sharapova, who loves playing in the biggest events; rather, it's a player who could be called "good" or "very good" who performs at her best at majors. Big stage players, for the most part, create an air of mystery that is usually never solved by fans or observers.

The queen of big stage players is Russia's Ekaterina Makarova. There was a time when one scarcely heard about Makarova unless she was participating in the Australian Open, Wimbledon or the U.S. Open. Gradually, she began to focus more on her performance in other events (consequently--or coincidentally, I have no idea which--her performances in majors decreased in intensity). 

Makarova, an outstanding doubles player who has won three majors in doubles one and one in mixed doubles (and has been a finalist an equal number of times), has also won the WTA Championships, and she owns an Olympic gold medal. Makarova is also a very fine, but inconsistent, singles player. She has reached the semifinals of both the Australian Open and the U.S. Open, the quarterfinals of Wimbledon, and the fourth round of the French Open (twice). The Russian has been ranked as high as number 8 in the world, yet she has won only three WTA singles titles.

The quirkiest big stage player is Tsvetana Pironkova, though her big stage days appear to be over. The Bulgarian Woman of Mystery, as she is known on this blog, had a bit of a specialty, for a while, and that specialty was going after Venus Williams at majors. In 2006, she defeated Williams in the first round of the Australian Open. That victory earned a "fluke" label which later had to be peeled off. 

In 2010, Pironkova, with her tricky serves and forehand slices, defeated five-time Wimbledon champion and 2nd seed Williams 6-2, 6-3 in the Wimbledon quarterfinals. The next year, she again defeated Williams at Wimbledon, this time in the round of 16, and--once again--with a score of 6-2, 6-3. Surely, the saga of Pironkova and Williams is one of the strangest in all of WTA history. (One final note: Guess who beat the Bulgarian in the semifinals of her very first WTA tournament? Uh huh.)

Petra Martic also holds membership in this group. Last year, returning from a serious back injury layoff, Martic reached the round of 16 at both the French Open and Wimbledon. She also reached the French Open round of 16 in 2012 and she reached the 3rd round at Wimbledon the next year. Martic, however, has yet to win a WTA title.

A recent entry into the big stage club is Charleston native Shelby Rogers. Rogers began playing in major main draws in 2015. She has reached the third round of the U.S. Open twice, the third round of Wimbledon, and the quarterfinals of the French Open. That French Open run was dramatic; Rogers defeated clay expert Irina-Camelia Begu, Petra Kvitova (with a second set bagel), Elena Vesnina, and Karolina Pliskova. 

Rogers also got off to a roaring start last year when she took current world number 1 Simona Halep out of the Australian Open in the first round. She has yet to win a tour title, so Rogers is clearly in the "big stage" group--for now.

But that doesn't mean she has to stay there. Just ask Sloane Stephens, who spent the first part of her WTA career as a big stage performer who frustrated fans at every turn in regular tour events. Stephens stunned the tennis world in 2013 when she defeated Serena Williams in the quarterfinals of the Australian Open, a tournament Williams had won five times. Stephens would go on to reach the fourth round of the French Open four times and the quarterfinals of Wimbledon (2013).

Meanwhile, Stephens would go one step forward and two steps back, sometimes appearing that she wasn't even that interested in the game. She did win some titles, though, most notably in Charleston in 2016. In August of that year, she ended her season early because of a right foot stress fracture. She had surgery in January 0f 2017, and did not return to the tour until grass season. 

It was the North American hard court season that served as the scene of Sloane Stephens' stunning comeback from injury. Unseeded, she advanced to the semifinals in both Toronto and Cincinnati. She then re-entered the top 100, and--to commemorate the occasion--won the U.S. Open. Stephens performed poorly after that, even losing both of her singles rubbers in the Fed Cup final. Only time will tell how consistent Sloane Stephens will be as a player, but for now, she's lost her membership in the big stage club.


Todd.Spiker said...

Another player applying for membership in this club: Jennifer Brady. She reached a pair of slam Round of 16's last year, going 7-4 and knocking off two seeds (Vesnina/Strycova), as well as Watson, Petko and Niculescu... but didn't win her first non-slam MD tour match of 2017 until October.

Diane said...

Yes, Brady is definitely the next member, if she keeps up her 2017 pattern. I’m watching her—I find this phenomenon interesting.