Channeling Arthur Ashe

By Jane Voigt

September 1, 2014 — This is Arthur Ashe’s wisdom: “Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.” 

The inaugural men’s champion at the first U.S. Open in 1968, when the game accepted professionalism and an era began — The Open Era, breathes life into all who come and play on his stadium, in his Open. 

We’ve seen the women’s draw shaken by qualifiers, teenagers, and those who confidently believe in themselves, don’t watch the score, and hit away and out until the last ball is struck and the last point tallied. They channel Arthur Ashe. 

Among those inspirations are 15-year-old Catherine Bellis, who continues her U.S. Open amongst the juniors; Mijriana Lucic-Baroni, 32-year-old qualifier who came to our attention in 1997 at the Open, suffered horrible indignities from an abusive father, and chose to persevere until yesterday when fatigue won out but not without a 3-set battle against Sara Errani (No. 13) in her 7th round of competition; Baroni had to qualify for the main draw.  And, finally, Aleksandra Krunic of Serbia, ranked No. 145 and about to face the 2013 U.S. Open runner-up Victoria Azarenka later today, hangs on after having defeated American Madison Keys (No. 27) and Petra Kvitova (No. 3), this year’s Wimbledon Ladies Champion.  

These are a few of the leading ladies of tennis for this Open, even though they have not written biographies and even though their stories will fad as tennis marches on in its relentless manner. 

Belinda Bencic and Shuai Peng are two more. 

Bencic at 17 is a wonder, a Swiss wonder. Asked why so many ‘elite' tennis players come from her home country, she told The New York Times, “Maybe it’s the chocolate or something.” 

Sharapova vs. Peng-17

Shuai Peng shows off her tennis talents at Roland Garros, 2012. Photo credit tennisclix.com

Shuai Peng is not a teenager, and has more titles in doubles than singles. 

Both have never played a quarterfinal at a major. Bencic lost in the quarterfinals of girls singles last year at the Open, so who knew she’d rise in the ranks so speedily and bump off three seeded players: Nara Kurumi (No. 31), Angelique Kerber (No. 6 and first top-10 win) and last night, Jelena Jankovic (No. 9) and second top-10 win. 

As Bencic giggled through her on-court interview late last night, she had the presence to thank Martina Hingis. She was in the player’s box with Bencic’s father Ivan. Hingis’s mother, Melanie Molitor, and Bencic’s coach since she was 4, wasn’t there; she doesn’t travel with the youngster, instead watches from afar.

It’s all nicely set among a series of firsts that read more like a narrative than history. Bencic replaced Hingis as the youngest quarterfinalist since 1997, with her win over Jankovic. That year Hingis won her third major title, defeating Venus Williams in her first U.S. Open appearance. 

“I definitely think she can be top five,” Hingis told the press. “She’s on the way to get there. How far? It’s up to her. Nobody can play the matches for her and win matches and tournaments. But, she showed that she can win a big match when she has to.”

Cepelova vs. Bencic Family Circle Cup 2014 04 05 LB 0149

Belinda Bencic stretches for a backhand in her semifinal loss at Family Circle Cup, Daniel Island, S.C., April, 2014. Photo credit tennisclix.com

Shuai Peng has done the same in her 10th appearance at the Open. Her quarterfinal success is the farthest she has ever gone in singles at a major. In doubles, though, she has seen the mountain tops. She and Su-Wei Hsieh won Wimbledon in 2013 and Roland Garros this year. Peng has also reached the quarterfinal or better at seven other major tournaments. 

Li Na is the top ranked woman from China, followed by Zhang Shuai and then Peng. With Li Na out of this year’s tournament with a knee injury, and Shuai gone in the first round, Peng has the attention of a billion Chinese fans.

Soft-spoken and quick to smile, Peng admits she gets nervous. But she put nerves aside, like a champion, against 4th-seeded Agnieszka Radwanska and scored her biggest career win in round two. The Pole is crafty, but Peng added speed and resiliency and power, hitting consistently and positively with both hands off both sides — her trademark. 

She defeated Roberta Vince (No. 28) next, then Lucie Safarova (No. 14). 

Like many, including Arthur Ashe, Peng attributed her motivation to, “All of my friends, coaches, and family,” the U.S. Open website reported. “This is the motivation.” A broad context the embraces all, not just Peng.

Bencic, at 17, and Peng, at 28, will present their best during their quarterfinal match tomorrow on the biggest stage in tennis, Arthur Ashe Stadium. Which one channels the grace, determination and skill of Mr. Ashe will surely prevail. His presence is always there for the choosing. 

© Jane Voigt Tennis 2013