Sunday, September 6, 2009

Pennetta and Zvonareava: Grace Under Pressure and Melting Under Pressure

Last nights heated 4th round battle between Flavia Pennetta and Vera Zvonareva was the mind blowing type of tennis warfare that we tend to expect during the Slams. It is why we get squeamish when faced with the possibility of missing a match on television. It is why we hoard the remote control, refusing to acknowledge the presence of other sports, and rolling our eyes at the insensitive requests of anyone crazy enough to desire even a temporary channel change.

During the U.S. Open, high drama is more of an inevitability than a possibility. We know the mind blowing, stomach searing tennis is coming, but we just don't know when.

But that doesn't change the fact that when we get what we expect it never really comes in the form that we expected it to come in. It is always a surprise, gift-wrapped in gripping suspense, and we always watch in that awestruck state of disbelief, wondering how in the heck these players can perform these super human feats of athleticism under all that pressure.

Vera Zvonareva looked to be on the fast lane to victory in the latter stages of the 2nd set last night. The 24-year-old Russian and her Italian opponent, Flavia Pennetta, were engaging in sweat inducing rallies that were as beautiful as they were long, with each player paddling the ball squarely, and playing the angles artfully.

It was one of those matches that you just felt lucky to be watching, with each point seemingly a story within a story, and each player striving to create an opening for herself and then courageously stepping up to go for the kill in the form of a winner when the situation called for it.

But as Pennetta prepared to serve to stay alive in the 2nd set, she found herself in a heap of trouble. Zvonareva had been intense all evening - extremely focused, calm, and moving with a sense of purpose that was not at all hindered by the heavy tape on both of her legs and one of her ankles. Now, it looked as if Zvonareva was going to put this one to bed.

Pennetta had been playing well, but it appeared as if it wouldn't be enough to force a decisive third set. In spite of her feisty baseline play, the Italian had been serving poorly all evening (she had a first serve percentage of 37% during the 2nd set, and 45 % for the match). As the 12th game of the 2nd set progressed, it looked like the lack of a few key first serves would be the thing that would do her in.

Then suddenly, as the Italian stared death in the eye, and as Zvonareva found herself one more point from a post match celebration that she could no doubt taste, the psychology of this match became more intriguing than the clinical precision and breathtaking physicality of the tennis. A seething undercurrent of emotional content carved another layer into this match, and when Pennetta found herself in real trouble she was able to find a sense of purpose that was stronger than her sense of fear.

Whenever Pennetta faced a match point, she seemed to be able to ignore the heightened tension of the moment and revert to a very smooth and relaxed form of tennis. Somehow, the Italian was able to take her mind out of the equation, and by doing so her body seemed free to do what it had been trained to do. Meanwhile, Zvonareva seemed attached to what was at stake. Not that you can blame her, she had six chances to end the match and advance to the third grand-slam quarterfinal of her career. She played cautiously, limited by this new reality, hoping for the Pennetta mistake that never came.

The air became thick. Both players looked ornery, like starving predators after days without a kill. Each wore agonized expressions on their faces, as if they sensed that there was some clear and imminent danger ahead, that they were being led by their competitive spirits into some kind of burning cauldron that they would later regret visiting - but still they played remarkably, each stepping in and taking lustful swings at the ball with even more authority than they had when they had started the match fresh.

It is at times like this when tennis seems to separate itself from the other sports. Two women, completely alone, desperately fighting to maintain the kind of unnatural concentration that the sport demands from its competitors. No teammates. No coaches. No time limit. Just an abundance of pressure and an unyielding array of mental and physical challenges.

Pennetta's determination was unrelenting, but at first it didn't seem to phase Zvonareva. She was, after all, playing with gusto. But slowly, a tiny crack in her spirit started to spread. As hard as she tried and as well as she hit the ball, Pennetta found a way to stay alive. She wouldn't die. Suddenly, after four match points denied, the crack in Zvonareva's spirit was looking more like a chasm.

This match was a test of wills more than it was a test of talent. Talent gets you to the door in a Grand-Slam, but perseverance gets you into the kingdom of winning. Pennetta, after fighting off six match points in dramatic fashion, is through the door and into the quarterfinals. Zvonareva, after melting down and losing the connection with the focus and calm that made her so incredibly impressive for the first two sets, is left to contemplate how she let her anger and frustration with six lost points ruin her chances in the third set.

It didn't have to be this way. Pennetta could have gone away, but something inside of her made her impervious to the same pressure that was slowly destroying Zvonareva.

There is a fine line between grace under pressure and melting under pressure. Tennis players must walk this tightrope every day. Flavia Pennetta has a lot to be proud of. Vera Zvonareva has nothing to be ashamed of. Being a professional tennis player is not always easy. This was obvious to see tonight.

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