PostHeaderIcon Our Unhealthy Obsession with the Next Serena

Madison Keys image

Madison Keys lost in straight sets in the second round at Stanford. Vera Dushevina, the Russian qualifier who beat her, is a solid but unheralded player who hadn’t won a main draw match in 2013 until this week. The 7-6(0) 6-2 score fails to adequately convey just how disappointing this loss was for this highly-touted American, who struggled in every aspect of her game.

“My timing was off, everything was off”, Madison said afterward. To be fair, she deserves a ton of credit for owning up to the obvious (which many players don’t). She dumped forehands into the net. She dumped backhands into the net. She didn’t serve particularly well, and more critically, she failed to move her serve around the box enough to keep Dushevina off balance.

Worst of all, she looked at a loss as to how she could remedy the situation or change the inevitable outcome. “It just wasn’t my night, and it was frustrating. But obviously, she played really well. All the credit to her.”

It was tough match to watch from a player who many have picked as a future Slam winner. But perhaps the problem with Madison’s loss lies more with our expectations than with her level of play.

Terms such as “highly-touted” and “future Slam winner” have unfairly become synonymous with young players who possess one or two big weapons, but not much else at this juncture in their development. The US has become so eager to find replacements for our aging stars that players like Madison are set up to fail before they can grow into their games for a realistic assessment of their potential.

I had the same feeling of at last year’s Bank of the West with regards to Sloane Stephens. She came into the tournament with virtually the same kind of buzz as Madison is currently experiencing. Comments of “She’s the next big star” and multiple comparisons to Serena were flying all around. Sadly, it all fell flat in her first and only match of the tournament.

Sloane was sent packing by Heather Watson in an inexplicable 3-set loss that saw her completely forget how to hit a backhand, or formulate a strategy to work her way back into a losing set. She was agitated, barking at her box, and even received a code violation. Buzz or no buzz, Sloane was (and is) a talented player; but she’s far from being the next Serena.

There’s an undeniable racial component to some of these expectations, particularly when comparisons are made based on ethnicity/skin color. While watching Madison practice a few days ago, a well-meaning older gentleman came up to me to ask about Madison and her prospects for success. He mentioned how much she reminded him of a young Althea Gibson.

I didn’t say it at the time out of my sense of politeness, but I wanted to tell him “No, she reminds me of Madison Keys.” I understood his point of reference, but was undeniably put off by a lack of appreciation for her unique skills apart from her bearing and her looks. Madison is Madison, not Althea. Similarly, Sloane is Sloane, not Serena.

For the record, this is NOT about race, and it’s not my intention to single out Madison and Sloane. There are many young players of all races who’ve suffered under the label of “The Next (fill in the blank)”, only to crash and burn when the limitations of their games became apparent. Melanie Oudin is perhaps the poster child of this unrealistic push to greatness, but Christina McHale also carried the burden for a brief period prior to Sloane’s arrival.

Sometimes the buzz around a talented youngster is warranted. The buzz surrounding Venus and Serena turned out to be correct in every way. (Remember when Richard told us that Serena would be better than her sister?) The buzz about the kid from Mallorca, Rafa Nadal, had turned into a roar long before his first match at Roland Garros.

Buzz isn’t always bad, but these cases represent exceptions to the rule in the cases of players with Hall of Fame careers. The fact of the matter is that reaching the top of any sport is a long way off from the initial buzz surrounding any young athlete. If it were otherwise, struggling players like Donald Young and Ryan Harrison would have big titles under their belts by now.

Other countries deal with this issue as well. Remember when the young Frenchwoman, Caroline Garcia, hit the harsh glare of the expectation spotlight? In 2011 (and at the age of 17), Andy Murray touted her as a future #1 in an infamous tweet that hung like an anchor around her neck for the rest of the season. And one can only imagine what the pressure’s been like for young German women to become the next Steffi! With his win at Wimbledon, Andy Murray finally quieted the Fred Perry talk.  Laura Robson, on the other hand, has a much longer way to go for Virginia Wade status.

The road to #1 (or Slam success) is tricky…and fickle. The best we can do for these young players is to acknowledge their strengths, forgive them their initial weaknesses, and let them develop to the level that can be supported by their talent. After all, there is only one Serena.

One Response to “Our Unhealthy Obsession with the Next Serena”

  • David says:

    Great article Kevin. Very well thought out. Venus and Serena lived up to the hype very early on. So did Hingis, but it’s a new world where players peak later, whereas our expectations are still placed on them at an early age as they were before. In the end we’re the ones out of step with the modern game. The players suffer for it. Great topic!

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