March 25, 2012 -- To be consistent is to be peerless, to be The Greatest.
Tennis is about consistency. It is, as one sage commentator put it, The Holy Grail of tennis.
The quest for this preeminence can be witnessed on the WTA and ATP tours almost every week. It is fraught with ups and downs because perfection is a hoax. The trick, though, which is no trick at all really, is sought through hard work on and off court. The risky end of the stick says nothing's guaranteed, and timing of a career is an outlying data point that messes up even the best of athletic tennis players' intentions.
We can't control everything.
Grigor Dimitrov has been called a Federer look-alike. And why not? The 20-year-old Bulgarian could pick worse. He has a one-handed backhand with a flare finish reminiscent of The Mighty Fed. His foot speed is improving, his balance is good, his first and second serves are solid, his timing on the ball exact, and his intensity brave.
If we consider a few aspects that might make up 'consistency,' keeping groundstrokes deep has to be near the top of the list. Here Dimitrov is ahead of the game, and at least ahead of the pack considering his age. Keep the ball deep and no one can hurt you, tennis teaching pros advise. That one skill alone will bump him up the rankings.
Tomas Berdych, Dimitrov's opponent this morning in the 3rd of the Sony Ericsson Open, is a master at consistently placing groundstrokes deep. To contend with this top-ten player, seeded #7 in Miami, was a major obstacle for the youngster. Dimitrov, though, matched deep strokes for deep strokes, throwing off Berdych's rhythm and timing.
In the third set, Dimitrov, currently ranked 101, broke Berdych to serve for the match and his first win over a top-ten player.
"It was an amazing match," he said on court immediately following the upset -- 63 26 64.
Indeed it was. Dimitrov's face reflected joy and his gestures touched on sweet. Fans knew this memory would last a lifetime. After Dimitrov signed the camera lens, as is the rite for all victors, he waved into it as if saying 'hi' to millions of viewers around the world. Federer does that, too.
Wildcard Venus Williams's match against Wildcard Alexandr Wozniack was a pure example of inconsistency. For a great champion like Venus Williams, inconsistency is an obstacle. For Wozniack it was trying to overcome the situation, being on Stadium Court, and the nerves that occasion can evoke.
Serving for the match at 5/4 in the third, Wozniack's body tensed. The free-flowing follow-throughs on her groundstrokes screeched to a halt. She collected five doubles faults; and, one second serve was clocked at 60 m.p.h. Williams donated the point when she dumped the return in the bottom of the net.
Nevertheless, Wozniack lost the game. It was a regrettable moment for her because the odds skyrocketed that Williams would be the one moving to the fourth round.
So holding serve and breaking serve become another important element in the fight for consistency. In this match they lost serve a total of 7 times. In the 12 points of the tiebreak, 50% of the points were won off unforced errors. Only two points were won from aggressive and clean tactics. At match point, Venus hit an unreturnable serve at 119 m.p.h. Guess she'd had enough.
She wanted the match and she held tough to earn it: 64 46 76(5), in just under three hours.
Both women, though, showed little to no emotion over the course of this roller-coaster ride. Venus has never been one to let on what she felt and to Wozniack's credit she, too, did not demonstrate disappointment or anger or frustration, which she had to have felt at times.
Your outer tennis being, therefore, is also a benchmark of consistency especially to your opponent. Marat Safin was said to have broken over 75 racquets one year, during the course of matches. He screamed at chair umpires, his box, and generally took himself to the woodshed. His face contorted and one could only imagine what went on inside his mind. Nothing flattering that's for sure.
Safin's opponents knew in a instant where they stood. Safin's mood frequently lead the Russian down a dark path and the opponent's job was to clear the way.
Venus's desire to win, her years of experience at winning, and her formidable athleticism and tennis were assets Wozniack came close to overcoming today. But she couldn't.
So what seems to stand out as the most salient characteristic of consistency is the mind as it works during matches. The Wozniack/Williams match was a case in point.
Williams was not at her best. Wozniack blew the match due to nerves. One woman had to win. You could conclude that Williams's match toughness, although she hasn't played any since the U. S. Open, occupies a vast section of her mind and can be called to duty in a snap, the way an intuition would surface. Whereas Wozniack's mental fortitude needs time.
Alexandr Wozniack broke through to the top 40 in 2009. She has one career title, Stanford where she defeated Marion Bartoli in the final. She has been plagued with wrist and shoulder injuries since then.
She has held match points in several matches, once up 5-3 over Melinda Czink in the second set in Birmingham, and once against Melanie Oudin at Stanford where the Canadian was up 5-1 in the second. At Indian Wells earlier this month, she lost to American Sloane Stephens, after holding match point in the 3rd-set tiebreak.
She has her work cut out, but what better way to learn it than from Venus Williams on Stadium Court in the Sony Ericsson Open? Wozniack can't be thinking about her loss in those terms, yet. However, determination coupled with confidence when the match is yours to take will have to be incorporated into her game or she faces the reality of losing more than gaining and thus continue to reinforce her own inconsistencies.
Once the log jam's cleared, she could be in a position to scale the rankings. If she keeps maintaining a free flowing form, she's on her way to greatness.