There’s Only One Number One

Daniel Island, April 6, 2016 — Watching these players at Volvo Car Open you’d think they all could beat the best, be number one in the world.

They consistently serve at 100+ MPH. They smack deep forehands and backhands. Feather drop shots. Smash overheads that bounce over and out of the court. They time the ball within the millisecond. Run like the wind. Anticipate like a cat about to pounce on prey. And change the balls direction as if it were as easy as continuing a cross-court pattern. 

Kristina Kucova of Slovakia hits ground strokes with two hands on both sides. It gives her shots power, but can be exploited if she’s stretched wide. 

Today, on one of the side courts here, Kristina Kucova and Katerina Bondarenko played a wild second-round match. Both looked as if they could beat the best, you know … Serena Williams, or any top ten player. 

Kucova, a qualifier and ranked No. 142, hit with both hands off both sides, adding power and pace to her shots even though when stretched wide problems popped up … same when she reached for kick serves. She stretched, especially at five-foot-four, and lost valuable recovery time. 

Her opponent, Kateryna Bondarenko, was easily the favorite to win. Ranked No. 63, she has a career title and a Grand Slam doubles title to her credit. She won that alongside her sister, Alona, in 2008 at The Australian Open. Bondarenko also has banked over $3 million in prize money, but that hardly matters when they step on court. 

The first set was a blow out. Bondarenko hit more lines than miles painted on an interstate highway. There was nothing Kucova could do. She had to wait. Tolerate the pain. Exercise patience. 

Bondarenko closed it at 6-0. 

How discouraging would that be? A question fans might have asked themselves. But no. It wasn’t for the Slovakian. Win a point. Win a game. Soak up the confidence and hold on tight. Little by little the most important asset gets played … the mind. 

Bondarenko’s serve slipped right as the second set began. Kucova, like every other astute player, sensed the momentum shift or, at least, began to anticipate one. She broke to 3-2 and as quickly as she broke she lost ground, swinging back to 3-3. No pain, no gain. 

But the damage from the break crept to the surface for Bondarenko, even though she was in a position of dominance. She’d won the first set, after all. Yet she couldn’t maintain the edge and immediately dropped another game, finalizing her frustration with screams toward her coach. What could he do, her brain was fritzing. The set slipped away. 

The match evened out, Kucova taking the second set 6-3. 

The readiness with which the Ukranian hit lines in the first set receded. The comments toward her box were louder, extended and more frequent. Good thing the chair umpire didn’t understand the language, she might have been up to her eyes in penalty points. If she didn’t keep up with Kucova, Bondarenko’s route would definitely lead to the airport not the comfy confines of her hotel with hopes of elongating her stay in Charleston. 

This is when one-point-at-a-time clicks in, like a mantra. If she could settle the emotions, those sometimes pesky human conditions that can or cannot be contained at will, her chances of competing better improved. 

As the third set got underway it was obvious Bondarenko and Kucova knew each others weaknesses and strengths. Who, then, would either expose more weakness or roll over the other with their strengths, because the hammer was poised to come down. 

Little by little Kucova’s ground strokes increased in speed. They consistently landed deeper, some clipped lines. The tables seemed to have turned 180 degrees. Seemed to.

The breaks of serve came like players’ stutter steps, as they approach balls. First Kucova. Then Bondarenko. Kucova won that round, up 4-2. 

Then, a hint of trouble from Kucova. Her body stiffened. She stretched at the baseline between points. The air temperatures were too cool at 63 for cramps. Was she injured? On the next changeover she spread a towel, got down on her back and pulled on her hip. She’d done a lot of running, Bondarenko trying to exploit Kucova’s double-fisted style. But no. The stretches were precautionary only. She was warming up for an efficient finish, breaking to lead 5-3.

Facing the Slovakian was the most difficult of tasks for all pro-tour players … closing out the match. She had to be thinking of defending those quarterfinal points she earned last year here. She made the quarterfinals. But, beware. Think too much in that direction, about that point stuff and ranking business and boom … you might as well write your match obituary. 

Quite obviously Kucova did not let her mind stray. Well done. Well fought. She fell to the ground and cried, as if she’d won the entire tournament, which it probably felt like after fighting back from zero-six in the first set. Finally, glory belonged to her — 0-6, 6-3, 6-3. 

She ran across the court into the arms of two friends. Congratulations wrapped in hugs and smiles. Alive. Moving on. It never gets old. Even though she will be beaten someone in her future. Everyone is good and getting better. 




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