- Ravi Ubha, Tennis
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In an era in which more and more coaches seem to coddle standout athletes, Nick Bollettieri didn't hold back when discussing Nicole Vaidisova.
Vaidisova, with looks to match Maria Sharapova and a game some say is better, appeared to make progress this year, reaching a Grand Slam semifinal and two quarterfinals, even though she was hampered by a wrist injury and suffered a bout of mononucleosis. For Bollettieri, it seems, the glass was half empty.
"She's only 18, and a lot's been expected of her," said Bollettieri, still spotting and nurturing talent at the age of 76. "However, she doesn't want to throw away opportunities, and a few opportunities have been thrown away. Not because of striking a ball, but I believe the focus, and knowing that you're a winner, not thinking it."
Vaidisova has won plenty since she joined Bollettieri's Florida academy eight years ago, traveling from Eastern Europe in what's becoming a more common journey in tennis nowadays. She emulated child prodigies Jennifer Capriati and Martina Hingis by winning top-tier matches as a 14-year-old -- a 6-foot tall 14-year-old -- then claimed two titles when she was 15.
Two years ago the feats continued as the Czech became the first women's player since Lindsay Davenport -- Vaidisova and Grand Slam champions popping up in the same sentence is a theme -- to claim three events in as many weeks, and strung together an 18-match winning streak eventually halted by Amelie Mauresmo.
But like the young Roger Federer, who flung his racket and berated himself even when he won points, Vaidisova struggles with her emotions. More than a few of her own rackets have been pulverized, and those glares between points to her stepfather who doubles as her coach, Alex Kodat, seem almost ritualistic.
Federer overcame his foibles, of course, and has 12 majors to show for it.
"If you don't control the emotions it's very seldom you'll reach a level of excellence," Bollettieri said. "She needs probably to sit down and say, hey young lady, this is it, this is a business, you got to get a hold of yourself and go for broke [in 2008]."
Two high-profile examples of Vaidisova's temper have come in New York, which she calls her favorite city. Vaidisova tossed a water bottle on court and smashed a ball into the crowd during a fourth-round defeat to Nadia Petrova at the U.S. Open in 2005, drawing jeers from the notoriously feisty Big Apple fans.
This year at Flushing Meadows, her preparations wiped out by the mono that surfaced the second week of Wimbledon, Vaidisova pummeled her Yonex against her chair upon squandering match points against Flavia Pennetta in the second set, seemingly forgetting she was in the lead, before wrapping up the second-round encounter in a tiebreak a few minutes later. She's currently testing out some different Yonex models, by the way, and will have a new one by the time 2008 begins.
The glares came to the fore in the Wimbledon quarterfinals, when Vaidisova blew three match points and this time couldn't recover against Serbian starlet Ana Ivanovic, one match after dethroning Mauresmo, the defending champion.
Former U.S. Open champion Tracy Austin suggested at the time Vaidisova travel without a coach during the U.S. Open Series, which turned out to be a moot point due to the mono.
"She's got to trust herself," said commentator Mary Carillo, a former French Open mixed-doubles champ. "It's the question of taking charge of your game and not relying on someone to calm you down. It would make a world of difference."
Bollettieri predicts progress by the time the Australian Open starts in January, with Vaidisova's agent adding changes for the good have already been made.
"I think this is already showing in the way she played the last tournaments of this year," said Olivier Van Lindonk, who saw another of his tennis clients, Mario Ancic, get stricken with mono this year. "With experience she will only get tougher, and we feel the end of the 2007 season is a great springboard for 2008."
Vaidisova herself now says she has ample "motivation" to control her emotions. It was a gradual metamorphosis, rather than a single match, that instigated the process.
"I know until the rest of my career I'll always be an emotional player," she said. "It's just me. I'll always have my emotions on court, but of course there's a limit to it. I'll try to do better on that next year."
Injuries and illness aside, tempering those emotions might just put her over the hump.
Vaidisova didn't suffer many upset losses in 2007. Apart from retiring against Renata Voracova in her final tournament, Quebec City, because the wrist was acting up and losing to a disproportionately-ranked Serena Williams in the Australian Open semifinals, she only got beat by two players outside the top 30 -- Lucie Safarova and Michaella Krajicek, both of whom can hardly be considered journeywomen.
Of her other 10 defeats, six went to three sets and only one, against the Federer-esque Justine Henin at a Wimbledon warm-up, could be classified as lopsided. Vaidisova, armed with a big first serve, came close to toppling Henin in the Zurich Open semifinals last month, falling 7-5 in the third set.
It was only the second time post-Wimbledon that Henin dropped a set and was arguably the world No. 1's closest match since.
"I really like her strokes," Carillo said. "They're well crafted. I think she does a lot of things well. She's got tremendous natural power, and she's got a lot of what she needs. What I would love to see more from her now is the confidence to know what to do at the big moments."
Ravi Ubha is a London-based freelance journalist.