Sinai Says: Happier off the court, Pe’er back to making Israel happy on it

If one ever needed any proof that tennis is a game mainly played between the ears, such evidence was provided by Shahar Pe’er in recent weeks.

Shahar Pe'er 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Shahar Pe'er 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
If one ever needed any proof that tennis is a game mainly played between the ears, such evidence was provided by Shahar Pe’er in recent weeks.
Mental fortitude had always been the key component behind Pe’er’s success, but in the past two years it became the primary source of her downfall.
After ending a four-year title drought in Suzhou, China, over the weekend, the 26-year-old revealed how difficult the tennis life had become for her, admitting that she considered retiring several times in recent months.
“I was in a very low place as recently as a couple of weeks ago,” said Pe’er. “I felt like I couldn’t deal with the tennis life anymore. I told myself that I had a great career, but I’ve had enough and I’ve got more important things to do. I couldn’t see how I could live a happy life while playing tennis. It took a lot of psychological work to overcome this.”
Coming under scrutiny on a weekly basis took its toll on Pe’er, especially as the defeats began to pile-up and her slide down the rankings gathered pace.
From a career-high of No. 11 in the world in April 2011, Pe’er plummeted all the way down to No. 179 in late June of this year.
It wasn’t just that Pe’er was losing.
It was also the players she was losing to.
Throughout her career Pe’er has remained a model of consistency, but while in the past that was a testament of her excellence, in the last couple of years it was proof of how severe her struggles had become.
After only twice progressing past a second round in her final 11 tournaments of 2011, Pe’er went a career-worse 15-23 in 2012, winning consecutive matches in only two of 23 events.
She ended last year at No. 74 in the WTA rankings, which seemed bad at the time, but was soon made to look quite impressive.
Her renewed partnership with coach Pablo Giacopelli, who had helped Pe’er play some of the best tennis of her life in 2010, gave real reason for optimism ahead of 2013.
Giacopelli preached for patience, saying at the time that “I hope nobody expects miracles because this is going to be a long journey.”
He couldn’t have been more correct, but he surely didn’t expect that he too would pay the price along the way.
Only once in her first 17 tournaments of the year did Pe’er manage to advance past a main draw second round, losing 12 times to players ranked 100 or lower.
It was only natural that such a string of defeats would result in her dropping out of the top 100 for the first time since she made her initial breakthrough in 2005, while also losing her status as the Israel No. 1 for the first time since 2006, being leapfrogged by Julia Glushko.
Pe’er and Giacopelli went their separate ways once more after she failed to qualify for Wimbledon in late June, missing her first major since the 2009 French Open, which she sat out due to injury.
The split-up with Giacopelli didn’t bode well for the future, but it was preceisely when she was forced to play without anyone in support that Pe’er finally found her way.
First she reached the quarterfinals in Budapest before advancing to her first tour final since July 2011, ultimately losing to Elina Svitolina in the title match in Baku, Azerbaijan.
However, in her next tournament Pe’er would lift her first piece of silverware since winning the title in Tashkent, Uzbekistan in September 2009, beating Zheng Saisai of China, 6-2, 2-6, 6-3 in the final in Suzhou on Saturday.
As a result, Shahar jumped 30 places to No. 83 in the world on Monday, her highest ranking since January.
She will still have to qualify for the US Open later this month as she was not ranked high enough at the cut-off date last month.
But all of the sudden the future is looking bright.
Pe’er may have beaten only two top-100 players during her recent run, but considering her previous form, nothing can be taken for granted.
She may have come close, but Pe’er didn’t despair when there seemed to be no light at the end of the tunnel before ultimately reaping the rewards.
Following her failure at Wimbledon, Shahar’s agent Amit Naor told her that she could quit if she wanted to, but that she should do so on her terms and not because of frustrating results.
Pe’er never stopped loving the game, but she has finally come to understand that “tennis is my job, but it isn’t what I’m about.”
Far tougher tests await Pe’er and it remains to be seen if she can overcome them.
With no ranking points to defend until the end of the season after finishing last year prematurely following five straight first-round exits, the last of which came at the US Open, Pe’er is ideally placed to continue her climb up the rankings.
Any notion that Pe’er no longer had the heart required to succeed at the top level was dispelled in the final in Suzhou, with the Israeli battling Saisai for over two-and-a-half hours in 40-degree heat and high humidity, conditions Shahar described as the toughest she had ever played in.
There’s no telling where Pe’er’s career goes from here. However, now that she has finally attained peace of mind and has come to understand the place of tennis in her life, she has all she needs to achieve happiness.
Some things are even more important than tennis.
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