Saturday, November 21, 2009

The Decade's Best: Player #3- "Supernovic Aspirations"

Backspin's "Decade's Best" countdown of the final five of the Top 25 players of the 2000's continues today with #3, a player whose career both represents (and maybe surpasses) the most far-reaching development on tour over the past ten years -- the Russian Revolution.

Even while considering the unexpected rise of the two-headed Belgian force of Justine Henin and Kim Clijsters, and the game-altering mechanics of the story of Venus and Serena Williams, the full-force infiltration of the tour by the Russians changed the landscape of the sport more than anything this decade. While Justine Henin was the top Waffle, and Serena the leading Sister, it's pretty clear that Player #3 had led the charge for the Hordettes. She's the best Russian player ever, and that's saying something after the decade of accomplishment we've just seen. Her symbolic importance, template-changing qualities, arguable role as the most famous face in the women's game, and hardly-to-be-overlooked career accomplishments served her well enough to be placed on this list ahead of her likely more versatile and long-standing opponents Venus and Clijsters. It wasn't an easy choice.

Could a case be made for any of the three to rank just outside the "Big Two" for the 2000's? Sure. It'd be crazy to say that their 3-4-5 ranking here is written in anything resembling stone. It isn't. It's just a matter of what, in the end, is judged more important in the eyes of history... according to your friendly neighborhood Backspinner, that is. Take it for what you will.

Thus, #3:

#3 - Maria Sharapova, RUS

su*per*no*va* (soo'puhr-NOH-vuh) n. A rare celestial phenomenon in which a star explodes, resulting in an extremely bright, short-lived object.

Maria Sharapova changed the game, at once expanding its fan base as well as broadening the scope of what was possible for a female tennis player. While her fellow Russian Anna Kournikova created the WTA tour role of the internet age "It Girl" who could theoretically lift all boats with an off-court focus that served to make her's a household name, even in non-tennis households, it was Sharapova who put the appropriate athletic spin on the formula and opened doors to respectability that had been long closed to her predecessor.

While Kournikova was talented, and a former doubles #1, she was never built to become a "true champion" in the sport, nor did she have the commitment to do all it took to escape the sportsworld-wide condescencion directed her way for having "never won anything." She just didn't have the on-court intestinal fortitude for it, and instead chose the path of least resistence when all was said and done. Heart-fueled champions aren't built, they're born, after all. When Sharapova was first gaining notice as the latest hard-hitting teenager to emerge from the Nick Bollettieri Academy at the start of this decade, there was the more-than-lingering thought that she, too, might turn out to be more hype than heroine.

But Sharapova changed all that in one fell swoop in 2004.

When Sharapova "went supernova" by winning Wimbledon as a 17-year old that year, she created an entirely new template for the sport. One of a tour-endorsed potential cover model/superstar/champion all rolled up in one package (Serena Williams came to fit the bill, as well, but she's usually had to create her own press rather than have the higher-ups do the early groundwork work for her, likely because the people that make these decisions somehow probably thought she presented "too strong" a physical presence... a notion just as ridiculous as the one that prevented Martina Navratilova from starring in a major American television commercial for over twenty years because she was gay). A player who could be the subject of a photoshoot one day, in a business meeting with high-paying sponsors the next, and then go out and win a major title the following weekend. It's a presence worth it's weight in gold for the WTA tour, and the powers-that-be are always trying to hype the next "one," sometimes to both the detriment of the player and, at times, even the tour's own reputation as an ATHLETIC organization. But, with Sharapova, the line never seemed to be crossed into exploitation... and that's because the "Supernova" in her never allowed it to be the case. With her, image wasn't the only thing, it was simply one of many. She stated emphatically at the start that she didn't want to be a "tennis babe," but had her sights set on being a winner. And unlike many who've come before and after her, she recognized the pitfalls and was ready for them all from Day One. It's a trait not to be undersold.

But everything discussed here so far has just been surface niceties. It's Sharapova's actual tennis career that has given all the off-the-court extracurriculars -- from ever-present commercials to glamour shots to media-friendly promotional appearances -- added cultural weight, serving to give her a personal "importance" within-and-outside the sport that allows her standing to arguably rise above players with perhaps a few additional major titles and longer careers to date. And as far as that career goes, it didn't take long to learn everything we needed to know about the seriousness of her desire to be more than a multimedia star.

In 2003, in her first full season on tour, Sharapova finished in the Top 50 and won the first two titles of her career as a 16-year old. By the middle of the following season, she arrived at Wimbledon with her name flagged in the draw as one to watch. She'd just won a small grass event in Birmingham, and the buzz about her was starting to hit the mainstream. Few expected her to explode on to the scene at the All-England Club that summer, though. I was lucky enough to actually pick the #15 seed to reach the final before the tournament began, but I surely didn't think my "wild card" selection might actually SURPASS my surprise prediction. But that's just what she did.

Down 6-2/3-1 in the semifinals against Lindsay Davenport, Sharapova first showed the fire that has since become commonplace in her career. She won to advance to the final to face the two-time defending champ in the form of Serena Williams, who came in having won five of the previous seven slams she played. But while most expected an easy Williams victory, the Russian displayed no fear of the moment. Going at Serena with penetrating groundstrokes that pinned the champ at the baseline, Sharapova beat the flummoxed Williams at her own aggressive game and never allowed her to get a foothold in the match. She won 6-1/6-4, becoming the fourth youngest slam champ in the Open era (behind Tracy Austin, Monica Seles and Martina Hingis). Then, quickly seeking to prove her SW19 arrival was no fluke, she backed up her result by once again defeating Serena in the final of the Season-Ending Championships, coming back from a 0-4 deficit in the 3rd set against an injured-but-desperate Williams who was putting everything she had into nearly every shot in an attempt to drag herself over the finish line with a flourish before she could physically go no further. She almost did it, too. But Sharapova gathered herself, didn't succumb to the pressure of the moment and an injured-but-still-lethal opponent and claimed the final six games of the match.

In August 2005, she became the first Russian woman to grab the #1 ranking, and the fifth-youngest (18 years, 4 months) to do so in WTA history. A year later, she stepped into the spotlight seemingly made for her at the U.S. Open. Sporting what many dubbed her "little black dress" tennis outfit, she was "Exquisite in the City" in a way that only the Supernova could be, ruling the nighttime in round after round as la belle dame sans merci. After defeating world #1 Amelie Mauresmo in the SF (her first victory over the Frenchwoman), she ended a personal four-match losing streak against Justine Henin in the final, winning in straight sets 6-4/6-4.

Sharapova narrowly missed claiming the year-end #1 ranking for '06, coming in second (behind Henin, ahead of two-time slam winner Mauresmo) in a three-way battle for the spot at the SEC that November. Nevertheless, she again rose into the #1 position the following January. Then, one year later, she climbed yet another career mountain.

In Melbourne in '08, Sharapova won her first Australian Open championship in dominating fashion, not dropping a set and handily knocking off Ana Ivanovic in the final. In winning her third different slam of the 2000's, she joined only Serena and Henin in accomplishing the feat during the decade (actually, from the starting point of Sharapova's Wimbledon title in '04, only she and Williams claimed three different slam titles in the five-and-a-half year span from then until the end of '09). Additionally, her 3-1 career mark (a .750 pct.) is behind only Serena (.786) amongst active players with multiple slam finals as the decade comes to a close. With her game looking better than ever, the "Sharapova Scenario" that I once theorized about seemed a potential reality. She began the year on a 27-2 tear, and when Henin made her surprise retirement announcement in the spring it was Sharapova who inherited her #1 ranking. The Russian seemed a natural fit to fill what would later be called the "power vacuum" at the top of the Henin-less game. 2008 might have been the year of Sharapova's dreams.

But her shoulder betrayed her (or, maybe, I should say that the doctors who misdiagnosed her rotator cuff tear for months on end did), and Sharapova's story has been one of an attempted reclamation ever since. Out of the game for nearly ten months after having shoulder surgery, Sharapova returned with a new service motion that protected her body but messed with her head. Double-faults often came in double-digit bunches, but she miraculously still managed to show a great deal of the old Supernovic spirit even though she was but a shadow of her old Supernova self. Her Roland Garros QF run, just one round off her career best ('07 SF), showed that the heart and know-how were still there. Her season-ending title in Tokyo, which extended her tour-leading string of consecutive seasons with a title to seven as the decade's play ended, seemed to signal something of a rebirth, as her service troubles seemed mostly conquered, allowing her big match attributes to shine through. The win propelled her back into the Top 20, and that the title came in the same city in which she'd won her maiden tour crown in 2003, too, surely would seem to spookily hint at a potential return to the pre-shoulder surgery Sharapova in the upcoming season.

Through her partial decade of action, Sharapova maintained a year-end Top 5 ranking for four consecutive seasons from 2004-07, tying her with Mauresmo ('03-'06) for the tour's longest such streak during the 2000's. She's spent seventeen weeks at #1, and her twenty career titles are the most by any Russian woman, as are her three slam singles championships in a decade which has seen the Hordettes maintain the deepest, most impressive field of contenders on tour.

Oddly enough, though, Sharapova has had to battle to maintain a position within the clubby group of her countrywomen, many of whom grew up training together in Russia while Sharapova was in Florida from the age of 9. In recent years, being of Siberian birth, she's been busy trying to make commitments to her family heritage, trying to better "fit in" with her fellow Russians by becoming a member of the Russian Fed Cup team and such (though her shoulder injury prevented her from participating in the '08 Olympics, where the Hordettes swept the Medal stand). Of course, while her split Russian/American upbringing (I noted that she was something of an "AmerRussian" years ago) might have caused some tension within Russian circles at times, it's also her biggest advantage when it's come to all the off-the-court "extras." Through all the WTA and television's efforts to create a "universal" star, Sharapova is the one European-born tennis female who's managed to be a world wide crossover phenom, from Europe to North America to Asia. In the U.S., she's the only foreign WTA player that the television networks treat with coverage usually befitting only an American-born player. When she's on court, she's not "Russian"... she's Maria Sharapova. It should ALWAYS be that way with a top player, but the American television networks that cover tennis have a hard time breaking down and admitting that U.S. tennis fans might actually recognize a player from a different country. The force of Sharapova's presence and personality, though, has made it easy in her case. When it comes to her, there is no "invisible barrier" that has to be overcome. As much as I've rooted for the likes of Justine Henin to succeed in recent seasons, the best thing for the game on American television, when it comes to the attention sometimes grudgingly given the women's game, is to have the Williams sisters and Sharapova involved in as many huge matches as possible. Partially because of the situation of TV's own making, they're really the only women's players that EVERYONE is expected to recognize.

Which brings us back to where we started.

While Kournikova's stardom inspired a whole slew of young girls, especially in Russia, to play tennis, Sharapova can make them aspire to be a star AND a champion... and she can do it in Russia, the U.S., Canada, Britain, Japan, Australia, etc. "Anna's Army" has provided an opportunity for a future full of "Sharapova's Supersoldiers," and that's a legacy that we'll only see play out by the end of the next decade. Thus far, the "Supernova template" has been a difficult one to copy, though. Many have come in the wake of Maria's success, trying to balance a champion's heart with a star's sensibilities. Nicole Vaidisova, thus far, has failed miserably after a promising start. Olga Puchkova was but a dream in her own mind's eye. Ana Ivanovic nearly pulled it off, but the fragility she showed in the spotlight once she stepped into it was a trait that never seemed to exist in Sharapova's make-up.

When some think of Sharapova, the grunts and camera ads with that fabulous dog might initially come to mind. But any player with good genes and a healthy set of lungs can pull off that two-fer. It takes a different brand of athlete to be able to be all things to all people, backing up the multitude of attention with accomplishments that almost make the off-the-court activities seem silly. Being a star is one thing, but simultaneously maintaining the foundation of a champion is another.

So far, Sharapova has played the game as well as anyone ever has.

I dubbed Sharapova the "Supernova" back in '04 because of the brilliance of her introduction. But despite the actual meaning of the world, which also notes the short-lived nature of such a phenomenon, there is no need for THIS Supernova to burn out as quickly as she arrived. The shoulder injury was a worry, but assuming the best there, she's still just 22 and the fifth youngest player in the Top 20, even though 2009 was her sixth straight season with such a ranking. There is a great deal left to accomplish, and much time to do it.

Sharapova's career has already been about re-writing tennis templates, so she's likely to amend her Backspin nickname's celestial origins, as well. If so, the "second coming" should be a sight to behold.

How Far Will Maria's World Expand? ('04 Intriguing Questions)
The Passion of the Supernova (Wimbledon 2004)
Oh, to be 17 (Ms. Backspin '04)
Can Maria Sharapova Survive What the Supernova Has Wrought? ('05 Intriguing Questions)
Exquisite in the City (U.S. Open 2006)
Day of the Supernova (Australian Open 2008)

NEXT: Two for the Ages

3. Maria Sharapova, RUS
4. Venus Williams, USA
5. Kim Clijsters, BEL
6. Jennifer Capriati, USA
7. Lindsay Davenport, USA
8. Amelie Mauresmo, FRA
9. Svetlana Kuznetsova, RUS
10. Cara Black, ZIM
11. Lisa Raymond, USA
12t. Virginia Ruano Pascual, ESP
12t. Paola Suarez, ARG
14. Rennae Stubbs, AUS
15. Elena Dementieva, RUS
16. Martina Hingis, SUI
17. Liezel Huber, RSA/USA
18. Mary Pierce, FRA
19. Dinara Safina, RUS
20. Daniela Hantuchova, SVK
21. Ana Ivanovic, SRB
22. Jelena Jankovic, SRB
23. Ai Sugiyama, JPN
24. Anastasia Myskina, RUS
25. Patty Schnyder, SUI
HONORABLE MENTION- Martina Navratilova, USA

Here are the remaining 2 players on the countdown list:

Justine Henin
Serena Williams

*BACKSPIN'S 2000-09 HONOR ROLL, #27-116*
Nicole Arendt
Shinobu Asagoe
Victoria Azarenka
Sybille Bammer
Marion Bartoli
Daja Bedanova
Alona Bondarenko
Kateryna Bondarenko
Kristie Boogert
Elena Bovina
Severine Bremond-Beltrame
Els Callens
Anna Chakvetadze
Chan Yung-Jan
Chuang Chia-Jung
Dominika Cibulkova
Sorana Cirstea
Amanda Coetzer
Eleni Daniilidou
Nathalie Dechy
Casey Dellacqua
Mariaan de Swardt
Jelena Dokic
Silvia Farina Elia
Clarisa Fernandez
Tatiana Golovin
Anna-Lena Groenefeld
Carly Gullickson
Julie Halard-Decugis
Hsieh Su-Wei
Anke Huber
Janette Husarova
Kaia Kanepi
Sesil Karatantcheva
Vania King
Anna Kournikova
Michaella Krajicek
Lina Krasnoroutskaya
Li Na
Li Ting
Elena Likhovtseva
Sabine Lisicki
Nuria Llagostera-Vives
Petra Mandula
Marta Marrero
Conchita Martinez
Maria Jose Martinez-Sanchez
Anabel Medina-Garrigues
Sania Mirza
Alicia Molik
Corina Morariu
Miriam Oremans
Melanie Oudin
Shahar Peer
Flavia Pennetta
Tatiana Perebiynis
Kveta Peschke
Nadia Petrova
Kimberly Po-Messerli
Agnieszka Radwanska
Anastasia Rodionova
Chanda Rubin
Lucie Safarova
Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario
Mara Santangelo
Barbara Schett
Francesca Schiavone
Monica Seles
Magui Serna
Antonella Serra-Zanetti
Meghann Shaughnessy
Anna Smashnova
Karolina Sprem
Katarina Srebnotnik
Samantha Stosur
Carla Suarez-Navarro
Sun Tiantian
Agnes Szavay
Tamarine Tanasugarn
Patricia Tarabini
Nathalie Tauziat
Nicole Vaidisova
Dominique van Roost
Elena Vesnina
Yanina Wickmayer
Caroline Wozniacki
Yan Zi
Zheng Jie
Fabiola Zuluaga
Vera Zvonareva

All for now.

...Players of the 2000's: Nomination List, Australian Open 2000-09, Roland Garros 2000-09, Wimbledon 2000-09, U.S. Open 2000-09, Players #21-25, Players #16-20, Players #11-15, Players #6-10, Decade's Best: Player #5- "Splitting Hairs", Decade's Best: Player #4- "LeaVes of Grass"


Anonymous Anonymous said...

wow she's a excellent sportsgirl I remember once when I was in a match of her and a guy told me he was selling generic viagra and I was like WTF! in a tennis match, anyway this girl won the match and was very nice.

Mon Jan 03, 04:05:00 PM EST  

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