Wednesday, June 24, 2009

W.3- Most Definitely NOT Your Supernova's Mother's Same Old Maria

You just knew it was going to happen. You just knew she wouldn't be able to keep it up.

No matter who had won the 2nd Round match between Maria Sharapova and Gisela Dulko on Day 3, those words would have been appropriate. As it is, the Argentine emerged with the victory as the first big cleaver of this Wimbledon came down on the head of the Supernova.

Finally, we can say that this tournament has officially begun.


Truthfully, even Sharapova admitted before this tournament began that she didn't think she was a TRUE contender to win it. As noted in this space before, much of the Sharapova "threat" at SW19 is based on hope and a single result from five years ago. Never a great mover around the court, a necessity for a true grass court stylist, Sharapova still isn't and never will be anything resembling a pre-Mexico Jelena Jankovic. Back from her shoulder surgery and nearly ten months off tour, her ever-important serve is not what it once was, either. She knows it, too. And when even a three-time slam champion doesn't have confidence in what used to be her best weapon, all sorts of bad things can happen on game day, as things are just a hop, skip and jump away from NO shot being dependable in the most crucial moments of a contest.

Watching Sharapova today, it was obvious that while she remembered how things were SUPPOSED to go, and DID for a while, her ability to convert opportunities simply by muscle and mental memory was severely cramped. Even though this match was her fifteenth since her return to action, most of her wins have been of the seat-of-her-pants (back-of-her-dress?) variety where she's often looked very bad at times, only to dig deep to find her champion's spirit and eventually emerge with the victory. During her surprise QF run in Paris, Sharapova often did just enough to get by. Just barely. That's what happened in her 1st Round match against qualifier Victoriya Kutuzova, too, and it appeared as if it was going to once again against Dulko.

But it didn't. No, this is most definitely NOT your Supernova's mother's same old Maria. Not yet.

Of course, Dulko is often an entirely different player every few minutes in a match. Blessed with a diverse game that works on all surfaces, the Argentine has often shown an ability to defeat top players (she's knocked off both Jelena Jankovic and Victoria Azarenka this year). But she's won only three career titles, has only reached a ranking as high as #26 and usually is flirting with falling out of the Top 50. Today, all of Dulko's sides were on display.

Dulko was in control of the match... until she was in control of the match.

Early on, she was confident and nearly flawless. She won the 1st set 6-2 and took a 3-0 lead in the 2nd. Sharapova was as good as gone. But that's when Dulko lost her edge. Her shots were tentative and her nerves were apparent. After giving back a break, she soon double-faulted on break point and gave Sharapova a 4-3 lead. Sharapova ran off a total of seven consecutive games, winning the 2nd set at 6-3, and had points for an eighth straight game after taking a 1-0 lead in the 3rd.

Normally, this would be where you'd expect Sharapova to seize control of things and run a wobbly Dulko off the court by shear will. But that's not what happened. The Sharapova who could have done that wasn't on Centre Court on Day 3.

Dulko went up a break at 2-1, but was immediately broken back the next game. She failed to take advantage of Sharapova's ailing serve a few games later when the Russian opened a game with two double-faults and was down two break points, but it was Sharapova who couldn't get it done in the big moments down the stretch.

Well, there WERE a few vestiges of the old Supernova. She saved four match points, forcing a semi-shaky Dulko into baseline errors, crushing a second serve return in the corner and employing a successful drop shot to at least give herself a chance to not allow her comeback in this match to have been in vain.

But is was. Sharapova had a chance on a break point that would have knotted the 3rd set at 5-5, but she missed her shot. Soon after, Dulko's fifth MP went in the Argentine's favor when the Russian made an error on another big point. Dulko won 6-2/3-6/6-4, and can say that she's defeated both Sharapova and Martina Navratilova at Wimbledon (when she made a name for herself in 2004 by knocking off the all-time great at both Roland Garros and SW19 when she made a brief singles comeback in her mid-40's) during her career.

While Dulko moves on, so does Sharapova for the second straight year after having played just two matches at the All-England Club. On to the North American hard courts where her lack of movement won't be as much of a detriment, and where she can begin to repair the confidence lost during her long stretch of inactivity and barely-surviving-even-when-she-wins series of efforts in her comeback. But how difficult is that going to be if the serve that made her a superstar ON the court refuses to cooperate? Quite possibly very.

On ESPN today, Brad Gilbert suggested going back to her old service motion once she's physically able to do so. Maybe she should, but who knows what that might do to that already-questionable shoulder and her career as a whole. One never knows. We may never see the Supernova of old again. But Sharapova certainly isn't going to give up trying to find that creature, and we'll all be wondering if she'll reappear in New York in a few months.

And that's a good thing for tennis, and us. Even with a "lesser" Sharapova around than the one we've been used to seeing for so long, the tour is a far more interesting place to visit.

...while Sharapova is gone, the buzz has already started about a potential Serena Williams/Victoria Azarenka QF match. Serena breezed through Jarmila Groth today, while Azarenka totally dismantled Raluca Olaru 6-0/6-0.

While Nadia Petrova is still lurking, and might get past Dulko in the 3rd Round now that her career-long nemesis Sharapova is out of the way, I'm going to keep with the recent Backspin tradition of letting Nadia be Nadia and hoping for the best... and talking about a possible Williams/Azarenka matchup rather than something more "exotic."

...QUALIFIERS UPDATE: Regina Kulikova knocked off Alisa Kleybanova 0-6/6-4/6-1 to put her name in the mix for Last Qualifier Standing.

...and, finally, as expected, the talk on ESPN and elsewhere today was filled with a bunch of whining and complaining about Michelle Larcher de Brito's grunting/shrieking/whatever you want to call it. Oh, boo-hoo. Booo-hooo. I guess they're happy now, as the Portugese teen was beaten today by Francesca Schiavone 7-6/7-6. Of course, now what will they complain about?

A few bravos should go out before Larcher de Brito leaves town, though:

1) to The Kid for being unapologetic, and saying that if people don't like how she sounds they don't have to show up to watch her play

2) to Azarenka, for standing up for her brethren.

3) and to Darren Cahill, who successfully was able to change the overhyped-and-overheated conversation on ESPN this morning about on-court sounds by simply saying, "I could care less about the grunting," and immediately launchng into a complaint about players taking an excessively long time between points.

While I can understand opposing players being a little unhinged by the "noise" -- I know when I play I get ticked off by someone walking silently along the road fifty yards away -- I still don't get why "fans," including those who aren't in the stadiums and arenas, twist themselves into a knot about this issue. I don't even notice the "grunting" anymore. As Azarenka says, 70% of the players do it, so to try to cause an uproar over something that's been a part of the game since Monica Seles emerged in the early 1990's seems more-than-silly "fake outrage."

Are we sure Governor Palin doesn't have something to do with this?

[by nation]
5...Russia (Dementieva/Kulikova/Petrova/Vesnina/Zvonareva)
2...France (Bartoli/Razzano)
2...Italy (Schiavone/Vinci)
2...Slovak Republic (Cibulkova/Hantuchova)
1...Argentina (Dulko)
1...Belarus (Azarenka)
1...Japan (Sugiyama)
1...Romania (Cirstea)
1...United States (S.Williams)

TOP QUALIFIER: #1q Victoriya Kutuzova/UKR
TOP EARLY ROUND (1r-2r): xxx
TOP QUALIFYING MATCH: Q1: Vesna Manasieva/RUS d. Noppawan Lertcheewakarn/THA 6-7/6-4/6-1
TOP EARLY RD. MATCH (1r-2r): xxx
FIRST SEED OUT: #23 Aleksandra Wozniak/CAN (1st Rd.-Schiavone/ITA)
IT GIRL: xxx
CRASH & BURN: (Temporary: Maria Sharapova/RUS - lost to Gisela Dulko/ARG in 2nd Rd.)
ZOMBIE QUEEN: (Temporary: Ana Ivanovic/SRB - saved two MP vs. Lucie Hradecka/CZE in 1st Rd.)
LAST BRIT STANDING: Elena Baltacha/GBR (xx)

All for Day 3. More tomorrow.


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