DANIELA HANTUCHOVA: "Wonder Girl." At first glance, this would seem to be a laudatory nickname. But it didn't start out that way. It was actually a sarcastic Backspin jab precipitated by the intense (and overdone) fawning over Hantuchova after she won a single title a few years ago. In the pre-Sharapova/post-Kournikova era of a few seasons ago, the WTA was openly desirous for a young "hotty" to take the Russian's place as the sex symbol of the tour... but, this time, the "it" girl was to be one who actually was able to win singles titles, as well. Hantuchova seemed the perfect fit, and she tried to fill Kournikova's large shoes. But the tour marketers' desperate act of propping up Hantuchova as the "new and improved Anna" was a bit hasty, for she was no superhero-like "Wonder Girl." She's still searching for her second career title, and has fought through weight (namely, a lack of it) and emotional issues, not to mention poor play. Only now is she making real strides toward reclaiming her former position near the top of the women's game and, as a result, her eye-rolling "Wonder Girl" moniker has softened a bit over time. It'll never completely lose the cynacism with which it was intitially imbued, but there's certainly more "winks and smiles" in play now when it's used in Backspin. In March 2007, Hantuchova seemed to shed ALL the cynacism of "Wonder Girl" when she won her second career title in Indian Wells, exactly five years after her first. I suppose one day "Wonder Girl" should become "Wonder Woman," but the correct moment for the transformation has yet to feel "right."
ASHLEY HARKLEROAD: "American Splendor." Just watching her play with joy in her heart, something which disappeared in 2004, makes this one self-explanatory. Currently, Harkleroad's on the comeback trail. When she announced in May 2008 that she'd posed nude for Playboy magazine, "American Splendor" took on a whole different meaning.
ANGELA HAYNES: "The Compton Sequel." Haynes earned this by making strides as the first professional player not named Williams to come from the rough L.A. area neighborhood. Haynes was re-christened "The Compton Comet" after her heroic, though ultimately star-crossed, battle against Serena Williams in the 1st Round at the 2005 Wimbledon.
JUSTINE HENIN: Henin has her fair share of nicknames in constant use in Backspin. "Queen Justine" was earned while moving to #1 and claiming three out of four slam titles in 2003-04. "Le Petit Taureau"/"The Little Bull" signifies that despite her small stature, JHH, the three-letter shorthand during her married days as "Henin-Hardenne," has made a name for herself by being at her most dangerous precisely when her opponents, and everyone watching, thinks she's finished. Instead, that's when she's only beginning to fight. In 2007, while "Le Petit Taureau" is actually gramatically correct, I pulled a "Douchevina to Dushevina" move and amended my favorite Backspin to be "La Petit Taureau" for aesthetic purposes. Plus, maybe an alteration was in order considering the "new" peaceful Justine that debuted during the season. Unfortunately, the "new" Justine didn't last long, as she retired in May 2008 while ranked #1 in the world at age 25. She returned to tennis in 2010.
THE HUNGARIANS: "The Mad Hungarians" were so dubbed for the knack Hungarian women have for pulling off "mad" upsets in the early rounds of grand slams. Some who have pulled whoppers in the past have been Petra Mandula, Rita Kuti Kis, Aniko Kapros and Melinda Czink. The "little Hungarian" to watch now might be teenager Agnes Szavay.
THE ITALIANS: "The Noodles" is the Italian cuisine-inspired collective name for the growing number of Italian (title-stingy) contenders on tour, from Francesca Schiavone and Flavia Pennetta, to Mara Santangelo and Maria Elena Camerin.
ANA IVANOVIC: "AnaIvo" feels almost too slight a nickname for the first Serbian woman to rise to #1 and win a grand slam singles title. Maybe her nickname will change in the future, but right now the sense of familiarity bred from using "AnaIvo" makes her one of Backspin's favorites.
JAMEA JACKSON: "The Georgia Peach," for her Atlanta, Georgia birthplace. Of some additional interest, Jackson's dad Ernest was an NFL corneback in the 1970s who played for the New Orleans Saints, Atlanta Falcons and Detroit Lions.
JELENA JANKOVIC: Once stuck with "The Other Jelena" moniker during the brief run near the top of women's tennis by former countrywoman Jelena Dokic, Jankovic came into her own in 2006-07, reaching the U.S. Open SF and claiming Tier I titles while rising into the Top 5 in the rankings. The only thing seemingly stopping her from even bigger things was her inability to defeat Justine Henin. With Henin serving as Moby Dick to Jankovic's peg-legged Captain Ahab, "Peggy" had to overcome the specter of her personal "white whale" in order to reach her full potential... but then Henin retired. Without Henin, Jankovic rose to #1 in the world in August '08 without having ever reached a slam final. Of course, her propensity to push her (oft-injured) body to the brink of exhaustion or worse leads one to believe that Jelena should just be called "Crazy" to cut right to the heart of the matter... but things are beginning to change. Thus, her oft-overly dramatic, always entertaining persona deserves a "more fun" nickname -- "The Whirling Dervish."
Whirling Dervish (wurl-ing dur-vish) n. 1. A mystical dancer who stands between the material and cosmic worlds, representing the earth revolving on its axis while orbiting the sun in a ritual ceremony. The purpose of the ritual whirling is for the dervish to be emptied of all distracting thoughts, then going into a trance. Released from the body, the dervish conquers dizziness. 2. A figure of speech used in reference to one who exhibits vigorous energy.
Close enough, I'd say.
Continuing to sprout new nicknames on a regular basis, Jankovic has since come to be known as "Queen Chaos," as well... for self-explanatory reasons. The "Jankobot-5200," or "J-bot," as well as "The Divine Miss J."
THE JAPANESE: "The Rising Daughters"... from the land of the rising sun. Or, the "Risings Sunners."
SESIL KARATANTCHEVA: The bubbly, talkative teenager from Bulgaria just positively begs for a good nickname. I've had a difficult time pinning one on her, though. Amongst the temporary tags have been "Miss Independent," "Bulgarian Bluster" (for her one-time threat to "kick the ass off" of Maria Sharapova on the court), "Miss Mouth," and "Little Big Mouth." Most recently, "Bulgarian Spice" captured the Backspin imagination once it was revealed that Karatantcheva learned English from listening to the music of the Spice Girls. She received a two-year drug suspension covering the 2006-07 seasons for failed tests during the summer of 2005, which she tried to explain away as being false because the then 15-year old was pregnant. She returned to tennis in 2008.
VANIA KING: "Your American Idol." The American teenager fashions herself a singer, and she even sang for the crowd at Arthur Ashe Stadium before a night session during the 2006 U.S. Open (just hours after losing in the 2nd Round to Justine Henin-Hardenne, by the way). In October '06, King won her first tour doubles title in Tokyo, then a week later swept the singles and doubles in Bangkok, becoming the first American 17-year old to win a tour singles crown since Serena Williams at the '99 U.S. Open.
MARIA KIRILENKO: Ironically, Kirilenko is actually a few months older than Maria Sharapova, but it seems she'll always be thought of as "the other Maria." Her Backspin nicknames have followed suit, from "Maria v2.0" to "The Supernovette."
KLARA KOUKALOVA (ZAKOPALOVA): "Kooky." It was just to easy too pass up. Koukalova changed her name to Zakopalova after getting married.
ANNA KOURNIKOVA: "The Ex-Mrs. Fedorov," for her brief "marriage" to long-time "friend," hockey star Sergei Fedorov. "The Reporter," for Anna's thankfully-even-more-brief stint as a TV reporter on American television during the U.S. Open... back when she announced her plans to foster a career as a television award presenter. In 2010, Kournikova was the inspiration for a "What If..." Backspin Special focusing on "Citizen Anna."
SVETLANA KUZNETSOVA: "The Contessova." The third Russian woman to win a slam in the 2004 season, U.S. Open champ Kuznetsova immediately took her place in the pantheon of Backspin's Russian nicknames. "The Supernova" and "The Czarina" were joined by another Horde member of royal extraction, as Kuznetsova's nickname came from taking "The Contessa" and giving it a Russian-sounding spin. Hence, "The Contessova" was born. Maybe the most talented of all the Russians, Kuznetsova's prospects led to both myself and Tennisrulz.com head honcho Pierre Cantin picking her to finish the 2005 season at #1... an occurrence which, of course, pretty much jinxed her chances of success for the year. After reports of a failed drug test greeted her at the Australian Open, she suffered through a less-than-compelling "year after," becoming the first defending U.S. Open champ to lose in the opening round, and finished the season at #18. Just call it "the Kuznetsova Curse."
EMMA LAINE: "Penny" is Backspin's pet name for Finland's Laine, as in the Beatles' classic "Penny Lane." I know the actual pronounciation of Laine isn't the same as Lane, but it still looks good.
MICHELLE LARCHER de BRITO: "The Kid." The Portugese teenager has the looks of a potential future star, but she's still just a... well, you know.
PETRA MANDULA: "Great Mandula's Ghost," for her 2001 upset of Jelena Dokic in the 3rd Round of the Roland Garros (in the Jelena Corner columns on JD.com). The haunting loss stands as a warning to any top player who overlooks a "lesser" early-round opponent. Now retired.
AMELIE MAURESMO: For quite a while, Mauresmo steadfastly fought against having a Backspin nickname. I tried to pin "Scream" (for the Eduard Munch painting) on her because of her frustrating inability to commandeer her immense talent long enough to grab a slam title, but the name just didn't prove to be habit-forming. Then, Kim Clijsters won the 2005 U.S. Open, removing the albatross from her career's shoulder... and leaving Mauresmo as the only women's #1 to have never won a grand slam. Thus, Amelie finally garnered a legit Backspin nickname -- "Albie." Of course, then Mauresmo won the Australian Open a few months later to become "nickname-less" all over again. She retired in 2009.
SANIA MIRZA: "The (Indian) Princess"/"Princess Sania." Many of Backspin's favorites are rewarded with royal monikers, and India's Mirza is no exception. The teenager, breaking down barriers back home for young girls, won her first WTA title in her hometown of Hyderabad in early '05, and has only shown more and more promise ever since. Beautiful as well as talented, Mirza rivals Sharapova in endorsement deals back home, and sometimes is even referred to in Backspin as "The Indian Supernova."
ALICIA MOLIK: "The Aussie Steamer." Molik's crowd-pleasing run at the 2005 Australian Open begged for a nickname. Watching her glide around the court in some form of locomotive-like athletic bliss, "The Steamer" just worked for Molik.
ANASTASIA MYSKINA: While struggling to reach her potential in 2003, Myskina was dubbed "Anastasia the (Near) Great." Once she claimed the Roland Garros title in 2004, though, she took her place on the throne as the Russian "Czarina," a perfect fit for a player who was always generally looked upon as the leader of the Horde contingent that emerged from Moscow's Spartak Club. In 2010, another Anastasia (Pavlyuchenkova), assumed the "Czarina" nickname as the leader of the second wave of Hordettes in the post-Anna era.
MARTINA NAVRATILOVA: "Methuselah"/"The Legend"/"Mother Time." Pushing 50 (the big day was October 18, 2006), the greatest female player in tennis history continued to press on as an active competitor on the tour. Still, nickname or no nickname, and no offense to Miss Hingis, but all you have to say is "Martina" and everyone knows who you're talking about. True to form, Navratilova closed out her career at the '06 U.S. Open by winning the Mixed Doubles title with Bob Bryan.
MELANIE OUDIN: "Little MO/Little O." The American, with "Believe" on the sides of her shoes, made a spectacular run to the U.S. Open QF as a 17-year old in 2009.
ANASTASIA PAVLYUCHENKOVA: "The Czarina." Or, to be specific, the NEW Czarina. Pavlyuchenkova finally earned a nickname as it became apparent that she was on the leading edge of the second wave of Hordette stars in the post-Anna era. The original "Czarina," by the way, was fittingly also named Anastasia... as in Myskina, the first Russian woman to win a slam singles title.
SHAHAR PEER: "The Corporal." Peer is a Corporal in the Israeli army. Voila!
FLAVIA PENNETTA: "Madame Butterfly." It took quite a while, but the Italian veteran Pennetta finally had a nickname bestowed upon her in 2010. Largely because of her "rough-and-tumble grace" -- in other words, she often looks smooth during play, but can break out a curse word or obscene gesture when the moods fits -- she was named for the classic Italian opera that has been adapted over the years into movie and ballet forms inspired by the original story. Pennetta herself might not resemble anything in the story but, at least on the surface, referring to her by the title "Madame Butterfly" has a nice ring to it.
NADIA PETROVA: "Scarlett"/"The (Scarlett) Empress." Another Russian, another royal nickname. This one, though, has a convoluted background. "The Scarlet Empress" -- one "t" -- refers to Russian czarina Catherine the Great. In her WTA bio, Petrova says that Gone With the Wind is her favorite novel (it's a "great history of a woman and what she went through and how hard she fought," says Nadia). So, with a nod to Scarlett O'Hara, Petrova is officially nicknamed "The Scarlett Empress" -- with two "t's," though the singular "Scarlett" and "The Empress" will often do in a pinch.
MARY PIERCE: "Prideful Mary." Kind of an obvious one with a musical heritage... but with a slight twist that prevents the too-cliched "Proud Mary" from being the nickname of choice.
THE RADWANSKAS: "A-Rad" & "U-Rad." The Polish sister team of Agnieszka and Urszula Radwanska were in dire need of a shorthand way to refer to them. So, taking a cue from the prevalent act of using a player's first initial and first three letters of their surname (Alex Rodriguez is "A-Rod,", while Ivan Rodriguez is "I-Rod"), two very easy nicknames were born.
ARAVANE REZAI: "The Opinionated Pastry." Rezai got this one almost by accident, as I once referred to her as this after another of her more opinionated/controversial comments about something or other.
THE ROMANIANS: The gathering storm of young Romanian players is currently being referred to as "The Swarm."
THE RUSSIANS: "The Horde." The Russian Horde of female stars arrived as an international force in the early 2000s, in the wake of Kournikova's rise in the 1990s, and have proceeded (often successfully) to attempt to "overwhelm" the tour. Years later, the waves of Hordettes are still arriving season after season.