Raymond and Kendrick: the underdog’s lament

How tough is it for a low ranked player to beat a tennis champion? Very tough. You can stomp on them, keep them down and beat on them repeatedly, but if you let your foot up for just a second, it’s all over, the champion jumps up and takes over. Here are two examples from today’s second round matches at Wimbledon.

Lisa Raymond is the quintessential old school player. If you filmed her then removed the color so that you were left with black and white footage, you’d think you were watching Wimbledon 1946, not 2006. If she has a topspin backhand, I didn’t see it. She goes exclusively with the slice backhand and attacks with the chip and charge since she is, gasp!, a serve and volleyer. She’s one of the few players not afraid to stand at the net while Venus Williams, her opponent today, whacks away at the ball. Then again, there are few players in the WTA today who stand at the net against any player.

…his father bounced the ball off his head to show him that getting hit wouldn’t hurt. Maybe we should line up the WTA players, load up a ball machine and give it a try.

When former Boston Red Sox outfielder Fred Lynn was learning the game of baseball as a young boy, his father bounced the ball off his head to show him that getting hit wouldn’t hurt. Maybe we should line up the WTA players, load up a ball machine and give it a try.

Venus looked resplendent as usual. She had a cluster of silver sparklies glued to the inside of her right shoulder. Interesting choice. I would have preferred her belly button but it wasn’t showing. Meanwhile Raymond was wearing two sponsor labels that looked like they were attached with safety pins. Better than piercings with safety pins I suppose.

Raymond and Venus played exceptionally high quality tennis in the first set. They both had more winners than errors and their first serve percentage was over 70%. Raymond served well and was playing a tactically intelligent game by keeping the ball in the middle of the court and hitting to Venus’ forehand, her weaker side.

Up 3-2 in the tiebreak, Raymond served and volleyed and hit a stretch volley. Maybe Venus is rusty because she didn’t play any grass court tuneups or maybe it’s just that she seldom sees volleys because she hit the ball right back at Raymond who then hit it over Venus’ head to go up 4-2.

Up 5-4, Raymond came to the net again and hit a beautiful inside out slice volley for set point and took the tiebreak 7-4. Raymond beat Venus at the Australian Open, but that was in 2004, and she’s been ranked as high as number 15 in singles, but that was in 1997. This wasn’t supposed to happen.

In the second set, Raymond served even better and kept attacking till she found herself up 5-2. This definitely was not supposed to happen. Except for 2004, Venus has been in every Wimbledon final this century. Venus won her service game to get to 3-5 and it was time to see if Raymond could close out this improbable victory.

On the first point of the game, Raymond didn’t serve and volley. Not a good sign, but it was o.k. because Venus hit the ball out. Two points later, Raymond hit a service winner and she was two points away. Now Raymond couldn’t get a first serve in and she hit the ball twice in a row to Venus’ backhand resulting in two backhand winners and Raymond now faced a break point. A forehand error into the net by Raymond and the moment was over. She had let Venus escape.

Venus won the next game at love to get to 5-5 and Raymond couldn’t close the floodgates. Venus hit a gorgeous one handed backhand return down the line then an inside out forehand for a winner. Raymond’s serve continued to go downhill and Venus broke her easily to go up 6-5.

Raymond sat in her chair and shook her head. She’d lost a golden opportunity. What had happened? She’d missed a few first serves then forgot her strategy. What had been a very close, well played game turned into a steamroller f0r Venus.

By the time Venus had broken Raymond twice in the third set to go up 3-0, Raymond had won one point in the set. She raised her hands in triumph when she finally won a game, completely defeated. The final score was 7-6(4), 7-5, 6-2.

I have Nadal on my fantasy team this week but it would have been worth losing him to see Kendrick pull this off

Robert Kendrick, a twenty-six year old career minor league, had a similar situation in his match with Rafael Nadal. The American qualifier had the perfect strategy too: serve well and come to the net. It was working, he was up two sets to none. Not only that, he hit a second serve to even the third set at 3-3 that knocked Nadal down. Kendrick hit it right at Nadal’s body but all Nadal could do was swipe the ball away defensively as he fell to the grass. Nadal got up shaking his head and talking to himself.

I was a little nervous because I have Nadal on my fantasy team this week but it would have been worth losing him to see Kendrick pull this off.

Kendrick faced a bunch of break points at 5-6 but he pulled it out winning the last point on a diving backhand volley that left him sprawling on the grass. At 1-1 in the tiebreak, Nadal hit a passing shot that stayed up and Kendrick babied it too much and put it in the net. That’s what I was talking about – letting your foot up for just a second. Nadal then won both points on his serve and flicked a running forehand past Kendrick to go up 5-1. Now the floodgates opened for Nadal and he won the tiebreak 7-2.

Kendrick didn’t fold like Raymond – Nadal got one break each in the last two sets to take the match 6-7(4), 3-6, 7-6(2), 7-5, 6-4 – but it’s very rare that a much lower ranked players regains the momentum after giving it away. The only person I remember doing it was Joachim Johansson during the quarterfinals of the 2004 US Open. Roddick finally made his way back into the match after losing the first two sets then Johansson got the momentun back in the fifth set to win it 6-4.

That’s how hard it is mentally when you know you’re the underdog. Raymond explained the phenomenon pretty well:

Then I guess it’s just natural. You’re about to serve for the match against the defending champion and you start rushing. I did and it cost me.

Your mind isn’t quite convinced you can win the match and, eventually, gives way to the inevitable: the underdog’s lament.