The Last Word: Don't expect the world from Pe'er

The Last Word Dont exp

It's amazing how quickly Shahar Pe'er metamorphosed from the next great hope into the forgotten woman of Israeli sports. A year and a half ago the young woman from Maccabim was on top of her game and flying towards the upper echelons of the WTA rankings. But within a few months her career took a downward turn as she began losing to lower ranked players. So where did it all go wrong, and does her recent upturn in form signal a return to the good old days? Last weekend Pe'er shot back up the world rankings to number 34 after winning the Tashkent Open, her second straight WTA Tour tournament win. However, a closer look at Pe'er's play and attitude in recent months reveals a worrying trend. The 22-year-old may be riding a new wave of success but it's unlikely she will ever get back to the position she held in December 2007 when she was overwhelmingly voted the Israeli Sports Personality of the Year by readers of The Jerusalem Post, trouncing the opposition which included then-Chelsea manager Avraham Grant and Liverpool midfielder Yossi Benayoun. Pe'er ended that year ranked a career-high 17th in the world and began 2008 well, defeating then-future world number one Dinara Safina in the Gold Coast tournament in January and in Israel's Fed Cup defeat to Russia a month later. As Pe'er rode the rollercoaster ride of success her every move was intensely followed by an increasingly interested Israeli sports media. In February 2008 she became the first Israeli tennis player to take part in a tournament in a Gulf State when she played in the Qatar tournament, reaching the third round. Although Pe'er attempted to display an attitude of nonchalance towards the international focus it was clearly getting to her. And it began to show in April when she failed to win either of her singles matches as Israel's Fed Cup team was defeated at home by the Czech Republic in a World Group playoff tie. In retrospect, that low point can be seen as the start of all her problems. For the next 12 months there were some highs, including reaching the fourth round at Wimbledon, but in general Pe'er's career went on a downward slide. Just six weeks ago Pe'er was ranked a lowly 68th in the world, but she finally got the boost she had been searching for with tournament wins in China and Uzbekhistan. Unfortunately the excitement is likely to be short-lived. While Pe'er often portrays an outward image of drive and belief, it became clear last week that she doesn't have what it takes to compete regularly with the top players in the world. First, she has never proved herself among the best aside from a few one offs. Pe'er may have won in Guangzhou and Tashkent without losing a set, but she was playing in a second tier "International" tournament against players ranked outside the top 30. Second, her maturity has to be called into question, and maturity is one of the most crucial elements for a tennis player, an athlete who has no teammates to rely on in times of weakness. The most telling moment came on Saturday morning between the first and second set of Pe'er's semifinal win over Belarus's 68th-ranked Olga Govortsova. The player looked nervous as she battled to take the first set tie break and immediately asked the umpire to allow her to have a short chat with her coach as she sat in the Uzbekhistan sun. She may have won the set but Pe'er's body language told a different story as she slumped in her chair with a look of despair on her face. Television cameras were given permission to broadcast the conversation between Pe'er and coach Pablo Giacopelli and revealed a fascinating insight into her approach. The Israeli mumbled and bumbled her way through the three minute discussion, appearing completely unsure of herself and constantly questioning her own ability. Giacopelli did his best to push Pe'er in the right direction, telling her, "Forget the negativity, it doesn't work. Get rid of it." "I want to hear more positive things you've done in this last set. I haven't heard one good thing...," Giacopelli said. "You are not building a house, you are playing a tennis match. Focus on the positive. Don't keep focusing on what you didn't do." Surprisingly Pe'er got herself up from her chair and immediately broke Govortsova's serve in the first game of the second set, going on to win the match 7-6, 6-2, and then beat Akgul Amanmuradova in the final the next day. However, her opponent on Sunday was ranked only 113 in the world and Pe'er won't find it anywhere near as easy when she plays with the big girls at the China Open in Beijing starting late last night. The quizzical look on Pe'er's face on Saturday spoke volumes about her lack of mental strength. Shahar Pe'er is not a great tennis player, she is a good player who managed to pull herself up towards the top with a mental toughness. Unless she can find a way to focus correctly Pe'er will never be able to beat the world's best and will be destined to always be a has been, rather than the Israeli legend we hoped she would turn into.