Pressure nothing new for Israeli's Peer
Upon her return to tennis, Martina Hingis would have been happy just to win a match at the Australian Open. Five months later, Hingis would have been disappointed if she didn't reach the quarterfinals of the French Open, writes Whit Sheppard.
PARIS -- When you've toted around an M-16 as part of the military training that is compulsory at 18 for nearly all able-bodied Israeli men and women, the specter of Martina Hingis on the other side of the net at the French Open just isn't that intimidating.
"It's a really nice experience," said 19-year-old Israeli Shahar Peer (pronounced "Pay-air") of the 2½ weeks of training she completed last November. "I mean, everybody has to do it, so why not do it and help the country?
"The girls, they don't do as much running as the boys. They make you be in certain places at certain times and you don't sleep too much. But, I mean, it's not hard. It's just [difficult] if you are not sport like me."
Normally, Hingis would hold a definite advantage over a teenager playing in only her second French Open. After all, she's got a history here as a two-time finalist and has won more Grand Slams, five, than any other woman left in the field besides No. 11 Venus Williams (who's also won five).
After losing to Hingis last week in the first round, American Lisa Raymond didn't give the younger players on tour much of a chance to threaten the Swiss' path through the draw.
"Henin-Hardenne and Mauresmo have the game to beat her, but as far as the young ones go, I think she's just too smart for them," Raymond said.
Raymond can't be faulted though for not having foreseen Peer's progression to the fourth round here, which included a surprising straight-sets win over No. 6 Elena Dementieva in the previous round.
Peer's flat-stroking baseline game is reminiscent of Dementieva's hard-hitting approach, and she used it today to keep her more-experienced opponent pinned behind the baseline for much of the match. Hingis was forced to improvise, something she does as well as any women's player, and made frequent use of drop shots in the final set, particularly off her backhand.
Said Peer of Hingis: "She's really changing the rhythm the whole time, coming to the net yesterday, drop shots today. She has good feeling, good hands. For the next time I will know better how to play [her]."
The match finally turned in Hingis' favor when she broke at-love at 2-all and then added another break to go up 5-2. Peer wasn't finished, though, smacking an inside-out forehand winner on her third break point to break Hingis in the following game.
"I've made a lot of improvements since Australia," said Hingis. "I was happy [then] to win the first round. Now I would be disappointed if I didn't make the quarters. I think that's the biggest difference.
"On clay it's also [to] my advantage because you have more time and you can play your game better. So we'll see. Just got to come up with the best."
Peer has leapt in the rankings from No. 183 at the end of 2004 to her current No. 26 and exhibits the sort of on-court calm and steely resilience that separates potential top-echelon players from the rest of the bunch.
Ironically, Peer faces the peculiar predicament of actually being barred from playing in the WTA event in Dubai. The emirate does not currently allow Israeli passport-holders within its borders.
"I know that the WTA, if I want to play the tournament, they would do everything, and I can go there," she said. "But, actually, my mom doesn't let me go. I mean, we don't have diplomatic [relations] with them."
Her two-year military commitment ends in late October 2007, but she's unlikely to be further liable for up to a month a year of reserve duty afterwards.
Though she travels up to 40 weeks a year outside of Israel to compete professionally, when at home Peer fulfills her patriotic obligations by performing administrative duties in the mornings and then hits the practice court in the afternoons.
There's no telling what she'll be able to do once she's able to focus 100 percent on her tennis without the added distraction of her military service.
"Even if I lost today, I played against a very good player," Peer said. "I just have to keep on, work hard, go step by step. Last year I started the year [at] 200 and I finished top 50. I'm not rushing."
Whit Sheppard is a Paris-based sportswriter who is covering the French Open and Wimbledon for ESPN.com. He can be e-mailed at email@example.com.
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