Sometimes a young player will catch your eye with a gorgeous stroke. You feel like that’s a world-class shot, something that’s destined for greatness. Sometimes it’s more than one shot, in which case the alarm bells start going off: you might be seeing a future star in the making.
But sometimes a young player will stand out because of how hard they compete through all kinds of adversity. This is what happened to me yesterday as I watched Jamie Hampton manufacture an upset win over Caroline Wozniacki that did not seem at all likely during various stretches of the match.
Of course, I do remember being very impressed by Hampton’s performance at this year’s Australian Open, where she gave eventual winner Victoria Azarenka all she could handle, even though the 23 year old’s back was acting up on her. I thought it was a gutsy performance, and there was plenty to like about Hampton’s game, too.
The woman from Alabama, as we know, has seen her career derailed by injuries over and over again. At age 23 she might not seem like a prospect, but the reality is that she just hasn’t played a whole lot of WTA-level tennis. If I’m reading tennisabstract.com correctly (and I might not, so corrections are more than welcome), she’s only played 67 matches at the highest level of women’s tennis (small aside: the WTA does not follow the ATP’s criteria for official wins – they count ITFs, qualifying matches and all sorts of other things). It seems like her body is finally letting her go through a full tennis season, and her run to the Eastbourne final after yesterday’s win over former World Number 1 Caroline Wozniacki marks the first time she reaches the deciding match of a WTA event. Even better, Eastbourne is a Premier event, and Hampton had to go through qualifying just to make the main draw.
I decided to log all the Key Points (Break Points, Game Points, Set Points, Match Points) in yesterday’s semifinal, and found myself having to adjust my Excel template just to capture all those instances that popped up during the match. For one, I had never logged a match with this many Key Points: the two women combined to play 82 of them, with the American winning 4 more than the Dane (43 to 39). But as the match wore on, some familiar patterns started to unfold, particularly in Wozniacki’s numbers. Here, see for yourself:
That says it all, no? Nearly 8 of every 10 Key Points won by Jamie Hampton were won by Point-Ending Shots (Winners, Aces or Forced Errors). Wozniacki, true to her nature, only gifted Hampton 9 Key Points through unforced errors.
On the other hand, Caroline Wozniacki only managed to win 56% of her Key Points through aggressive shots of her own. Naturally, thousands upon thousands of words have been written about how Wozniacki’s tendency to wait out for her opponent’s errors for large stretches of matches has been to blame for her lack of success at the Slams (personally, I think it’s more about her forehand and her second serve). However, it is striking to see such a discrepancy in the way each woman approached the Key Points of yesterday’s semifinal.
In terms of the match, it certainly was a rather bizarre encounter, though highly entertaining. First of all, the wind wreaked havoc with most of the first set, and parts of the remaining two sets. As the commentator kept saying, it was far from a constant breeze: gusts would come without a moment’s notice and play the most mischievous tricks with the ball.
Second, Jamie Hampton should have won the first set. She should have done it at 5-3, when she had 3 set points on her own serve. She could have done it at 6-5, though she didn’t get a chance to see a set point in that game, even though she served for it once again. Finally, Hampton should have at least taken the set in the tiebreaker, where she had two more set points, the last of which went begging after the American badly botched a simple volley at 7-6.
Of the 5 Set Points that Jamie Hampton had in the first set, 4 were handed over via unforced errors. All four were played on her own serve, too.
To make matters worse, Hampton got broken to start the second set. There she was: just in her second WTA semifinal, straight out of qualifying…and down a set and a break to a woman who’s made quite a comfortable living out of winning matches like these. Minutes later, Jamie Hampton was down 2-4, and 0-40. The adversity seemed just too much to take.
But then, the match turned.
The two women ended up playing 8 Key Points in that 2-4 game. Caroline Wozniacki had 5 break points, any one of which would have allowed her to serve for the match with a two break cushion. Jamie Hampton fended all of those off, though she had to wait until her third Game Point to finally hold. But look at this trend:
Of those 8 points, only 2 were handed over via unforced errors. Both were committed by Hampton, and both were on Game Points. But everything else was won via a Point-Ending Shot (Winners, Aces, Service Winners and Forced Errors).
I think this is remarkable, since it shows a lot of poise and conviction on the part of someone who is far less experienced than a former World Number 1. Hampton kept playing her game, and kept playing to win. She came to net when she needed to, she used her cross-court forehand to great effect, as well as her great cross-court backhand. I was also impressed with how well she can get that one-handed backhand slice to stay very low and force Wozniacki to hit a slice herself instead of her world-class two-hander.
Still, even though Hampton went on to break Caroline’s serve and tie the match at 4-all, she got broken once again, and the one time US Open runner-up had a chance to serve for the match. Which she failed to do, as Hampton drilled a backhand down the line winner to break at 30.
The next big plot point of the match came in the following game. As in that 2-4 game, Hampton found herself down 0-40. Here is what transpired:
Once again, Hampton is the one winning Key Points via Point-Ending Shots, or losing them via unforced errors. Caroline Wozniacki just couldn’t have her say in any of these 13 Key Points I’ve highlighted with these screencaps (from the 2-4 game and the 5-all game). She only won 3 of them, and all came via Hampton unforced errors.
Ironically, when Hampton had a third set point on Wozniacki’s serve at 6-5 in the second set, it was the Dane who handed over the set via a tame unforced error.
In the third set, Wozniacki and Hampton exchanged breaks at love early on in the deciding set, and neither saw a break point until 3-4, when Hampton went up 0-40 on Wozniacki’s serve. Caroline saved the first, but handed over what ended up being the pivotal break via another unforced error. Fittingly, Jamie Hampton clinched her first ever WTA final berth with a classy volley that barely caught the baseline.
The Alabama woman’s comeback was complete: not only did she recover from losing a set she had no business dropping, but she was down a break multiple times in the second set and once again in the decider. That resolve to keep fighting, that quiet confidence in her own game is what makes me believe that Jamie Hampton will be a very good pro in the coming years. Flashy players come and go, but great competitors always find a way to stay in the conversation.
Plus, it’s not like Hampton’s game is without flair: I love her compact backhand stroke, and her backhand slice seems like a comfortable shot for her. Her forehand can be predictable; Jamie does love to go cross-court with it, and the down-the-line and inside-out variations don’t have the punch of her preferred forehand. I really liked Hampton’s transition game, too: even though she murdered two key volleys in the first set breaker, I thought she had pretty good instincts in terms of recognizing when to come in, and above-average touch once she found herself in the forecourt. Yes, the serve could use some more pop and better placement, but that’s not an uncommon problem in the WTA. And Hampton does give away too many points off makeable returns of serve.
Regardless, the 23 year-old will have a glorious chance at nabbing her first WTA title today, as she’ll face experienced WTA runner-up Elena Vesnina (though the Russian did win her maiden title earlier this year at Hobart). Hampton will be tired, given that she not only escaped Wozniacki, but Safarova in the quarters. Vesnina is very consistent, yet volatile. She has historically fared badly when faced with adversity.
Based on what has happened in the past two days at Eastbourne, you can’t say the same about Jamie Hampton.
– I find this hilarious:
Yep: Wozniacki won more Key Points via Point-Ending Shots in the two sets she lost than in the one she actually managed to win. I guess this is the paradox of Caroline Wozniacki: she’s clearly at home (and has been wildly successful) driving her opponents crazy with her above-average consistency. Yet when her opponents stop missing, she feels like she has to force the action more…but can’t match her foes’ aggression.
– I also find this amusing:
Normally, it’s not a good thing when there’s a 10 point differential in Key Points played on either player’s serve. In this case, it means Wozniacki was being far more successful than Hampton at putting pressure with her return of serve (not a surprise, given Wozniacki is a very good returner, and Hampton…isn’t). Yet it’s noteworthy that Wozniacki couldn’t find a way to make this clear edge count for anything.
– Here’s something Caroline (and Piotr) won’t like to hear: of the 9 Key Points handed out by Karolina via unforced errors, 6 came from her best shot: the cross-court backhand.
– I loved Jamie’s reaction after her match point volley landed in: