Former champions don’t always make good prognosticators, as Steffi Graf, Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova proved when they predicted Serena Williams would win the French Open. The legendary trio was no doubt surprised, perhaps even embarrassed, when 13-time Grand Slam champ Serena was upset by No. 111-ranked Virginie Razzano in the first round. These experts, along with virtually everyone else, also overlooked Sara Errani as a contender—despite her making the Australian Open quarterfinals and then winning three clay-court tournaments (Acapulco, Barcelona and Budapest) this spring.
It wasn’t the first time the 5′ 4 ½” Italian has been disregarded. After winning only her second WTA title at Potoroz in 2008, her sixth year as a pro, Errani said, “… I want to dedicate this victory to all the Italians that never believed in me as a tennis player, and always said I would never go anywhere.”
In an era of “Big Babe Tennis,” where six-footers like Maria Sharapova, Petra Kvitova and Victoria Azarenka and musclewomen Williams and Samantha Stosur crush the ball, Errani plays “small ball.” So small in fact, that entering the French Open she suffered a completely futile 0-28 career record against top-10 opponents.
All that changed on the salmon-hued Roland Garros clay. Our modern-day David slew not one but four Goliaths—former French champions Ana Ivanovic and Svetlana Kuznetsova, No. 10 Angelique Kerber and No. 6 Stosur. In the final, Errani could not defuse the unrelenting power of Sharapova, who blasted 37 winners, and succumbed 6-3, 6-2. Her breakthrough tournament in Paris catapulted her to No. 10 in the singles rankings, making her the only player—male or female—to rank in the top 10 in singles and doubles simultaneously.
Not surprisingly, the tennis player Errani admires most is David Ferrer, another undersized, tenacious counterpuncher. Her style, however, is more clever and nuanced. After Errani upset Stosur 7-5, 1-6, 6-3, ESPN analyst Darren Cahill noted: “You have to beat her. She doesn’t beat herself. She’s the Rubik’s Cube of the women’s game at the moment.”
What Makes Sara Errani So Effective?
Sports writer Paul Fein has listed the reasons why. Here they are…
Shot Selection — Errani rarely overhits or underhits. She plays “percentage tennis” as well as any short player since 5’2” giant-killer Amanda Coetzer in the 1990s. That keeps her unforced errors way down. She committed only 11 versus Sharapova’s 29, 21 versus Stosur’s 48, 17 versus Kuznetsova’s 38, and 14 versus Kerber’s 25.
Advantage Topspin — Errani, like Coetzer, understands that topspin is a must for the short player who hits a lot of medium-speed shots. Topspin provides safe net clearance and works well with gravity to keep her shots from flying beyond the baseline or into the alleys. Whenever Errani doesn’t have a clear opening on passing shots, she stymies volleyers with topspin shots that dip sharply at their feet.
Her lightweight serve, while vulnerable, has overspin to give it a decent kick and reduce her double faults (only 3 in the last three rounds). It also ensured she had an extremely high first-serve percentage (68% against Kuznetsova, 82% against Kerber, 86% against Stosur and 79% against Sharapova) which minimized the number of her weak, attackable second serves. That proved crucial against Stosur who won 11 of 13 points started by Errani’s second serve that averaged only 110 kmh (68 mph).
Fast Feet — “Errani has quick feet and a quick mind,” noted NBC analyst Mary Carillo. Whether it’s returning serve or exchanging groundstrokes, Errani’s feet are in perpetual motion, a la superstar Steffi Graf. That enables her to react with quickness, agility and balance, which is imperative against today’s power players. Light feet also make it easier to take the small steps necessary to align her body properly to hit the ball, and improvise even on wind-blown shots and bad bounces.
Where did Errani get her fancy footwork? She played football (soccer) as a kid. When the Women’s Tennis Association challenged players to display their football skills, she impressively produced 208 straight touches before the ball hit the ground.
Perfect Position — Unlike some counterpunchers and retrievers, Errani positions herself close to the baseline on serve returns and throughout rallies. She blocks big first serves with short backswings, and contacts kick serves before they bounce high and away from her. And like Agnieszka Radwanska and Caroline Wozniacki, she manages to absorb powerful groundstrokes simply by meeting the ball on the rise and returning it deep. By holding her ground, Errani can also construct points with two- and three-shot combinations, usually with deep crosscourt shots that create openings for her aggressive forehand.
Smart Tactics — Errani changes pace to disrupt her opponent’s timing. Stosur, in particular, erred by swinging too early when Errani slowed her shots or too late when Errani surprised her with more power. On match point, Errani attacked with a forehand and then belted a forehand winner. Her drop shots also kept opponents off balance.
Stosur has the weakest backhand among top 10 players. To exploit it, Errani explained, “I tried to move her to hit to her forehand and then hit to her backhand.” The only flaw in her strategy was not slicing backhands enough against the 6’2” Sharapova, who uses little topspin and might have had problems dealing with the low bounces.
Right Racket — To get out of the contract for a Wilson racket she no longer liked, Errani took the highly unusual step of paying the company $30,000. She then switched to a longer (27.5”) Babolat Pure Drive + racket to increase the power of her shots. “My arms wouldn’t get longer, so I got a longer racket,” she joked. Errani partly credits the new racket for her breakthrough season, pointing out that it’s added 10 kph (6.2 mph) to her serving speed.
The vast majority of tennis players strangely use 27”-long rackets, despite significant differences in their height, reach, strength, strings and playing styles. How ironic that a small player switches to a longer racket when bigger, stronger players should do that, just as they generally use bigger and heavier implements in other sports.
Mental Game — Errani revealed she’s learned to relax and now sleeps well before big matches. She also said she “had tension” against Stosur, especially in the last game, but she controlled her nerves. In fact, she grabbed 12 of the last 15 points of the match.
After Stosur overpowered her in the 6-1 second set, Errani kept her poise and never gave up. As Carillo said, “She’s a ferocious competitor.” She demonstrated her ability to handle pressure by helping Italy win the Fed Cup in 2009 and 2010, and she racked up a 6-4 singles and 6-2 doubles Cup record during 2008-2012.
Doubles Assets — Errani has blossomed in doubles this year, too, winning six of her career 14 doubles titles, including the French Open, while gaining the Australian Open and Miami finals, all with Roberta Vinci. She smartly transferred some of those doubles skills and tactics to her singles game.
Much like compatriot Francesca Schiavone, the 2010 champion and 2011 runner-up at Roland Garros, Errani capitalized on her aggressive approach shots and strong volleys. She won 56% (5 of 9) of her net approaches against Kuznetsova, 65% (15 of 23) against Kerber, 71% (12 of 17) against Stosur and 60% (6 of 10) against Sharapova. When Errani lofted a beautiful lob over Sharapova early in the second set, she instinctively sprinted to net where she put away an overhead. As Carillo pointed out when Sharapova led 6-3, 2-0, “Errani’s best shot is to challenge Sharapova with doubles tactics, but it’s so tough to do that against so much pace.”
Errani has yet another reason to continue playing doubles. “Playing doubles makes me better prepared for singles, physically,” she explains. Like 1980s superstar John McEnroe, she’d rather win major titles and lucrative prize money in doubles than endure sometimes tedious practice sessions for singles. It’s a winning formula for her fitness, too. McEnroe, an NBC analyst, said, “She’s a roadrunner. She’s obviously very fit. Look at those legs.”
Whether this fast roadrunner with the slowest serve in the top 100 can go any higher is uncertain. What is certain is that Sara Errani will never be underestimated again.