Monday, September 06, 2010

US.8- The Successful Search for the Imperfect Blonde

On Day 8 of this U.S. Open, the summertime "Search for the Perfect Blonde" took another step toward its ultimate conclusion. At the end of the long holiday weekend, we hadn't collected enough evidence to declare top-seeded Caroline Wozniacki the epitome of immaculate championship righteousness... but we did have a pretty good idea about who the "more imperfect blonde" was.

All the ingredients were there for a Labor Day classic when Wozniacki faced off with '06 U.S. Open champ Maria Sharapova. One was trying to reclaim her past magic, while the other was seeking to firmly define her own. One was armed with a power game that sought to dazzle and dominate an opponent on the ground and through the air; while the other chose to employ a more tactical plan that centered around defense, surgical strikes and an attempt to exhaust an opponent by making her continually fire her weapons over and over and over again without fail... only to lose an important battle due to a single misfire. Both are considered on-court fashion plates, but while one has always appeared to be all-business on the court, the other is known for the deceiving "Princess of Charm" smile that usually accompanies her victories. One has proven through the years that it is possible to be a multimedia star AND a winning tennis champion, while the other is trying to further perfect the hybrid. It was a match virtually laboratory-made for television, bound to snare a few new sets of eyes who might not normally set down the remote when they came upon a Round of 16 women's match at Flushing Meadows. Even the weather was on this match's side, as a brilliant sunlight reflected rather brilliantly off their fair-haired noggins.

As I said, there was always the possibility of a great match lurking on the edges of this 4th Rounder, but it never really became a reality. The Big (Apple) Blonde Bang wasn't quite a Big Blonde Bust, but it never really "popped," either. And it was largely Sharapova's fault.

Actually, all the signs about where this match would ultimately go were present in its opening moments. In the first game, it was Wozniacki who put away the game with an ace, not Sharapova. In fact, it would take the Russian six service games -- and more than a set -- before she would notch HER first. In game #2, though Sharapova held, Wozniacki carved out an early break point. Two games later, Sharapova's big hitting gave her an advantage, but three consecutive double faults handed the Dane the first break of the match for a 3-1 lead.

Although the match was young, the pattern was set, and would rarely be altered. In the most important moments, the steady Wozniacki held firm, while Sharapova's inconsistencies tripped her up. The Russian's game wasn't all "there" on Day 8. She still managed to hang in the contest with her "B" game, but it wasn't enough to get inside Wozniacki's head.

In game #7, Wozniacki got in trouble on her serve. She found herself down 15/40, and while she ultimately DID get her serve broken, it took Sharapova SIX attempts to do it to cut C-Woz's advantage to 4-3. But the Russian's awakening didn't last long. The Dane has been a great player in tight match conditions on the North American hard courts this summer (see her win over Elena Dementieva in New Haven), while over the same span Sharapova has often found herself struggling to just close out matches in which she'd been dominating before it was time to finaly close the door (see her win over Marion Bartoli in Cincinnati).

Nothing changed today on Ashe.

As if to clarify that she wasn't suddenly going to crumble just because her serve had been broken, Wozniacki followed up her lost game by breaking Sharapova at love one game later. Serving at 5-3, Wozniacki saved a break point, then finally put away the set on her third set point when a Sharapova shot sailed past the baseline at the end of one of the long, furious rallies that came to be the norm in this contest.

In the 2nd set, the beat went on as Sharapova was never really able to settle her game long enough to grab any sort of advantage. The Russian saved two break points in the opening game, but also ran her double-fault total up to seven (vs. zero aces) while holding serve. Her first ace didn't come until she closed out game #3 with a one-timer to go up 2-1. But, giving as good as she took a few games later, a Sharapova double-fault (#9) broke her serve and handed Wozniacki back a 4-3 lead. After holding for 5-3, then briefly having a match point on Sharapova's serve (she saved it with a beautiful volley), the #1-seed served for the match at 5-4.

As has been her "usual" this summer, Wozniacki saved her best for last. She put away her first and only volley winner of the match to give herself a second match point, then finally pulled out a big serve in the moment of truth. A hard wide shot moved Sharapova to her right, producing a floating return up the middle of the court. Wozniacki put it away with an easy backhand and closed out a not-quite-as-routine-as-it-might-look, but-impressive-nonetheless 6-3/6-4 victory.

While the final scoreline WAS informative, it wasn't nearly as telling as one stat: while Wozniacki had just ten errors in the match, Sharapova racked up thirty-six. The Russian's aggressive game is designed to withstand high error totals, but she didn't come up with enough winners on the match's biggest points to smooth over those rough spots. This time around, the risk wasn't overridden by the reward. Throughout the match, Sharapova's driving groundstrokes kept Wozniacki pinned behind the baseline, but her tactics never really crimped the Dane's style. C-Woz's error-free consistency, combined with Sharapova's errors, led this match, blindfolded, to its ultimate fate.

Thing is, after being a bit more aggressive in her approach over this summer, Wozniacki looked more like her "old" self most of the time today. In this case, it was a gameplan for victory -- she didn't need to push the envelope to win this match, and attempting to do so would have simply been a big tactical mistake. She absorbed Sharapova's power barrage in multiple rallies, getting back as many shots as she could, giving her opponent's game just enough rope to hang itself. Wisely picking and choosing her spots to assert herself, as she did in the closing points in the final game of the match, was where the difference in this Wozniacki and the one who was fortunate enough to find herself in an "early" grand slam final in Flushing Meadows one year ago. If THIS C-Woz returns to the Women's final, though, she won't have any reason to have to apologize for it to anyone. Against a player known for her steadiness (at least in the past) in important match moments, Wozniacki was the better big point player today. The proof is in the proverbial pudding.

But does this mean that Wozniacki is the golden-tressed answer at the end of the "perfect blonde" search? Now, of course, we KNOW the Dane isn't PERFECT... her fall on her butt today while watching Sharapova unsuccessfully lob over her head proved that (though it WAS kind of endearing). But even without that, it'd still be impossible to tell.

While we definitely learned today that Sharapova is not yet in Supernovic form (barring an injury that would forestall her progress, might the E.T.A. be sometime in 2011?), we didn't really get any sort of "inside info" on Wozniacki. We found out that she can take punch, but we knew that. We found out that she's good in the clutch, but we knew that, too. But would the result of this match have been the same had Sharapova been in better command of her game? Would Wozniacki have been able to tactically outmaneuver her by upping her own aggression and beat Sharapova to the punch enough times to keep one step ahead, losing a few battles but winning the ultimate tennis war? If she were to face an experienced big hitter like Kim Clijsters in the final, did we learn anything in this match (or so far at this Open) that would give us any certainty that the result would be any different from the one that occurred in the '09 final? What about Venus? What happens if either of those vets were in fine form against the Dane, without the sort of stumbles that Sharapova inflicted on her own chances today holding them back? Would C-Woz still find a way to win?

I guess we'll cross that bridge when we come to it.

As it is, Wozniacki's current winning streak has now reached a "dirty dozen," the longest of her WTA career. Even while "answers" were short today, the Princess of Charm DID grow up a bit on Day 8, getting a big-time win against a big-time opponent on the biggest stage in tennis. One more step toward her ultimate goal has been successfully accomplished. She'll now face an unseeded opponent in the quarterfinals, and if she wins there will be the favorite in the SF, as well. She came to New York seven wins from her first slam title and the #1 ranking in the world. One week and four wins in, and those dual goals are still well within her grasp (and probably her sights, too).

But to become a full-fledged Princess of Harm, there is but one path that must be followed. Wozniacki still has big stage "growing up" to do, but it's looking like she might just get a chance to come of age in front of a few million souls this weekend. At barely 20 years old, that's the way it should be.

Thus, the search continues... but the answer is starting to become a little bit clearer.

...the biggest surprise result of the day probably came from Dominika Cibulkova (so what if she was a semifinalist at Roland Garros last year, that's a result that is VERY difficult to remember -- off the top of my head, I might have thought it was in '07 or '08), who knocked out Svetlana Kuznetsova in straight sets. Well, since the Kuznetsova we mostly got today was the same hangdog one we saw before her summer hard court resurgence, though, maybe it wasn't THAT big of a shock.

Cibulkova served at 7-5/5-3 and held two match points, but Kuznetsova managed to get a break. It was only a brief reprieve. In the 2nd set tie-berak, the Slovak won on her second attempt after getting to triple match point. Final score: 7-5/7-6. Wimbledon, Kaia Kanepi blew a 4-0 3rd set lead and five match points against Petra Kvitova in the Wimbledon QF. After she fell behind 6-0 and a break in the 2nd today against Yanina Wickmayer, it looked like she'd experience a different, but equally maddening, grand slam demise in New York. But... umm, nope. This time, it was the Belgian who crumbled as the Estonian advanced 0-6/7-6/6-1.

Pam Shriver won't have to worry about publicly insulting the Belgian yet again this week, at least. the night session, Andrea Petkovic's big serve went on vacation on Ashe as the German's nerves led to tentative play that made it a pretty easy night for Vera Zvonareva. The Russian led 6-1/5-1 and had two match points before Petkovic finally managed to break her serve. It was at that point that all sorts of really bad thoughts went through my head. With this match coming on the one year anniversary of Zvonareva's failure to convert six match points in a Round of 16 loss against Flavia Pennetta, was it possible that the Tennis Gods would be oh so cruel as to put Vera in an even WORSE situation 365 days later?

Well, no. It turned out that they weren't. Zvonareva broke Petkovic in the next match to win 6-1/6-2. Whew! That wouldn't have been pretty.

...some Week 35 ITF and junior housekeeping from the weekend:

-- Noppawan Lertcheewakarn, 2008's #1-ranked junior, won a $25K challenger in Tsukuba, Japan. One result of note: in the 1st Round, 20-year old Nungnadda Wannasuk (THA) defeated her countrywoman, #1-seeded Tamarine Tanasugarn, by a 7-5/6-2 score. Yeah, I wasn't familiar with world #536 Wannasuk, either. But, come on, a player with a name like that really should be recognized, you know? (Insert your own joke here.)

-- elsewhere, Slovak Zuzana Zlochova won a $10K event in Brcko (BIH), notching her fourth challenger title of 2010. And Chile's Camila Silva won her second career event in a $10K in Sante Fe, Argentina. She also won the doubles crown.

-- in the Canadian Open Junior Championship, Karolina Pliskova (the US Open's #6 Girls seed) defeated Cristina Dinu 6-2/6-3 in the final. Ka-Plisk also got a win over (Open #9-seed) Gabriela Dabrowski. Meanwhile, Karolina's sister Kristyna (Open #7) lost in the 3rd Round to Japan's Rio Kitagawa. With her twin's help, though, Kristyna got some revenge, as the Pliskovas won the doubles by defeating a team which included Kitagawa in the final. junior action at the Open on Day 8, Boys #1-seed Juan Sebastian Gomez (COL) was upset by American Andrea Collarini 7-6/4-6/6-3. On the Girls side, Canadian Open RU Dinu knocked out #16-seed Maria-Teresa Torro-Flor (ESP), while American qualifier Robin Anderson upset #11-seeded Belgian An-Sophie Mestach.

...and, finally, a note to CBS' Dick Enberg. I realize that having "the search for the perfect blonde" play out on Ashe today is an exciting thing (with luck, I'm going to ride that little phrase all the way to Saturday night), but just because the match is taking place in front of you (and certainly not one 6-3 set and two games into the 2nd, when you actually made the "unbiased" observation) doesn't mean it's a "great" match, let alone the "best of the tournament," as you dubbed the Wozniacki/Sharapova match-up today two games into the 2nd set.

Just something to think about. That's all.

#1 Caroline Wozniacki/DEN vs. Dominika Cibulkova/SVK
#31 Kaia Kanepi/EST vs. #7 Vera Zvonareva/RUS
#6 Francesca Schiavone/ITA vs. #3 Venus Williams/USA
#5 Samantha Stosur/AUS vs. #2 Kim Clijsters/BEL

#1 Rafael Nadal/ESP vs. #23 Feliciano Lopez/ESP
#10 David Ferrer/ESP vs. #8 Fernando Verdasco/ESP
#25 Stanislas Wawrinka/SUI vs. #20 Sam Querrey/USA
#12 Mikhail Youzhny/RUS vs. Tommy Robredo/ESP
#17 Gael Monfils/FRA def. Richard Gasquet/FRA
#3 Novak Djokovic/SRB def. #19 Mardy Fish/USA
#5 Robin Soderling/SWE def. #21 Albert Montanes/ESP
#2 Roger Federer/SUI def. #13 Jurgen Melzer/AUT

#1 Dulko/Pennetta (ARG/ITA) vs. #6 King/Shvedova (USA/KAZ)
#14 Vesnina/Zvonareva (RUS/RUS) vs. #9 Black/An.Rodionova (ZIM/AUS)
#7 Chan/Zheng (TPE/CHN) vs. #15 Mattek-Sands/Shaughnessy (USA/USA)
#5 Raymond/Stubbs (USA/AUS) vs. #2 Huber/Petrova (USA/RUS)

#1 Bryan/Bryan (USA/USA) vs. #9 Fyrstenberg/Matkowski (POL/POL)
#14 Aspelin/Hanley (SWE/AUS) vs. #12 Granollers/Robredo (ESP/ESP)
Gil/Gimeno-Traver (POR/ESP) vs. Schwank/Zeballos (ARG/ARG)
#10 Moodie/Norman (RSA/BEL) vs. #16 Bopanna/Qureshi (IND/PAK)

#1 Huber/B.Bryan (USA/USA) vs. #4 Mattek-Sands/Nestor (USA/CAN)
Peschke/Qureshi (CZE/PAK) vs. Groenefeld/Knowles (GER/BAH)

[by age]
30...Venus Williams, USA
30...Francesca Schiavone, ITA
27...Kim Clijsters, BEL
26...Samantha Stosur, AUS
26...Vera Zvonareva, RUS (26 on Tuesday)
25...Kaia Kanepi, EST
21...Dominika Cibukova, SVK
20...Caroline Wozniacki, DEN
[by career slam appearances]
51...Venus Williams
41...Francesca Schiavone
31...Vera Zvonareva
30...Kim Clijsters
30...Samantha Stosur
19...Kaia Kanepi
15...Caroline Wozniacki
13...Dominika Cibulkova
[by career slam QF]
33...Venus Williams
17...Kim Clijsters
5...Francesca Schiavone
4...Vera Zvonareva
3...Kaia Kanepi
3...Samantha Stosur
3...Caroline Wozniacki
2...Dominika Cibulkova
[by U.S. Open main draw record]
59-9...Venus Williams, USA
34-5...Kim Clijsters, BEL (18 consecutive US Open wins)
25-10...Francesca Schiavone, ITA
19-7...Vera Zvonareva, RUS
14-3...Caroline Wozniacki, DEN
7-2...Dominika Cibulkova, SVK
7-4...Kaia Kanepi, EST
6-6...Samantha Stosur, AUS

[2010, by player]
3...Serena Williams
2...Li Na
2...Nadia Petrova
1...10 players
[2010, by nation]
1...6 nations
[career total, active players]
31...Serena Williams
19...Justine Henin
13...Maria Sharapova
12...Elena Dementieva
11...Svetlana Kuznetsova
9...Nadia Petrova
7...Jelena Jankovic
7...Dinara Safina
7...Patty Schnyder

AO: Serena Williams, USA
RG: Samantha Stosur, AUS
WI: Petra Kvitova, CZE
US: Samantha Stosur, AUS
[US Open]
2008 Jelena Jankovic, SRB
2009 Flavia Pennetta, ITA
2010 Samantha Stosur, AUS

5...Madalina Gojnea, ROU
4...Anna Lapushchenkova, RUS
4...Patricia Mayr, AUT
4...Olivia Sanchez, FRA
4...Chanel Simmonds, RSA
4...Liana-Gabriela Ungur, ROU

[through 4th Rd]
9-11...United States
6-3...Slovak Republic
4-5...Germany (+ walkover W)
3-2...China (+ walkover L)
3-8...Czech Republic
1-2...Great Britain
0-1...South Africa

TOP QUALIFIER: Michelle Larcher de Brito/POR
TOP EARLY ROUND (1r-2r): #1 Caroline Wozniacki/DEN
TOP QUALIFYING MATCH: Q1: Laura Robson/GBR d. #2q Jelena Dokic/AUS 6-1/6-4
TOP EARLY RD. MATCH (1r-2r): 1st Rd. - #4 Jelena Jankovic/SRB def. Simona Halep/ROU 6-4/4-6/7-5
TOP NIGHT MATCH: [Nominee: 4th Rd. - #5 Stosur/AUS def. #12 Dementieva/RUS 6-3/2-6/7-6 (saved 4 MP)]
FIRST WINNER: #6 Francesca Schiavone/ITA (def. Ayumi Morita/JPN)
FIRST SEED OUT: #8 Li Na/CHN (lost to Kateryna Bondarenko/UKR)
UPSET QUEENS: The Taiwanese
REVELATION LADIES: The North Americans
LAST QUALIFIERS STANDING: Mandy Minella/LUX & Lourdes Dominguez-Lino/ESP (3rd Rd.)
IT GIRL: Beatrice Capra/USA
COMEBACK PLAYER: [Nominees: D.Cibulkova/SVK, & doubles players]
CRASH & BURN: #10 Victoria Azarenka/BLR (retired after collapsing in 2nd Rd. vs. Gisela Dulko/ARG)
ZOMBIE QUEEN: Samantha Stosur/AUS (down set and a break vs. Elena Vesnina/RUS in 1st Rd.; down 4 MP vs. Elena Dementieva/RUS in 4th Rd)
LADY OF THE EVENING: [Nominees: V.Williams/USA & S.Stosur/AUS]
BROADWAY-BOUND: [Nominees: V.Williams/USA for her fashion & dancing; F.Schiavone for her between-the-legs shot]

All for Day 8. More tomorrow.


Blogger Diane said...

Over time, the press conferences have left little doubt as to who the "grownup" is. And they also reveal that insisting you are not insecure is a dead giveaway that you are. I don't know what's going on with Wozniacki and a one or two Russians, but "let the racquet do the talking" is a good rule.

(You might tell Enberg to stop "singing," too....)

Tue Sep 07, 10:47:00 AM EDT  
Blogger Eric said...

Todd, just got back from the open...where I saw the stosur/dementieva match and the sharapova/woz match (got lucky -- 2 ppl leaving the USTABJKNTC gave us tickets to friend and I thought we were dreaming)...anyway, just have to say that Woz was hitting harder than Sharapova yesterday...and with less margin with her shots...And sharapova seemed adamant about not coming in until late in the 2nd set...anyway, felt really bad for her and Dementieva...

but had a great first US Open exp!!

and now off to read the pressers and see what Diane is referring to


Thanks for the coverage!

Tue Sep 07, 11:29:00 AM EDT  
Blogger Eric said...

oh...right, not normally a sharapova fan...but, i just can't believe that she hasn't been past the 4th round of a major since Aus Open 2008. She's too good for that...

And, watching live tennis is great if you have an electric environment...but if not...i was left constantly thinking that watching on TV would be better...cheaper and no blaring sun and sweaty legs on plastic chairs...

Tue Sep 07, 11:31:00 AM EDT  
Blogger Kumar said...

"Against a player known for her steadiness (at least in the past) in important match moments..."

You know, I was trying to think of why exactly Sharapova has become renowned for mental toughness. Yes, she looks like she is always competing hard, pumping her fist and maintaining a steely demeanour, but what were the famous mental battles she has actually won on court? Against the elite players, on big stages, that is.

It might just be that she had so much big-time success as a teenager, that it was automatically assumed she had the mental edge over her opposition, when it was just that her game was firing at the moment.

Seriously, it is hard to take her chances seriously any more when she seems incapable of making adjustments in similar matches a year apart. Oudin and Wozniacki, while a class apart, more or less took her game apart the same way, and she was helpless to respond. Double faulting on breakpoints is a poor indicator of toughness, no matter how bad your serve.

It was a masterful tactical match by Wozniacki though. She hit a great length, applied pressure on Sharapova with her movement and defense and better serve(!), and was able to take advantage of short balls. Ultimately, she exposed all of Sharapova's weaknesses one by one (there is really a very limited region of the court both width-wise and height-wise, that Maria really uses), while showing herself to be vulnerable to changes in depth herself i.e. volleying short, good angles etc, all of which Maria failed to seize on except for a point or two.

I hope Caroline goes all the way. It will be a great boost to the tour and hopefully will inspire her to add newer dimensions to her game, as well.

Tue Sep 07, 11:46:00 AM EDT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I quite agree in what you say about Wozniacki, but there is a dimension you forget, and it was reviealed in the interview after the game - allow me:

Q. She had like 36 unforced errors to your 10, 9 double faults. Do you think she kind of gave a lot of the match to you, it would have been a tougher match if she didn't make all those errors?

CAROLINE WOZNIACKI: Uhm, no. I felt like, you know, I was playing good tennis. I felt like, you know, I was playing well out there. I made her do those errors, and I'm really happy to be through and that I won this match.

"I made her do those errors" - strong words from a 20 year old, and that's what Woz is doing at the moment with all her oponents sort of chess like.

Tue Sep 07, 12:15:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Diane said...

Eric, you would have to go back over time. It started about a year ago, with a snide (and probably deserved, but not necessary in public) reference to Kournikova, and has now come full circle in an odd way--with CW making a point that it's Kournikova who is her celebrity role model--not Maria.

I had to look the first one up, in fact, to make sure I was remembering correctly. CW seems to be going out of her way to make little verbal jabs at Maria; I'm not sure why.

I did notice that Tennis X picked up on the "I made her do those errors" remark yesterday. Really--a lot of them--she didn't. No matter--Wozniacki played extremely well and got a great win over a former champion. I just get the feeling that her "confidence" is not what she says it is.

Tue Sep 07, 12:22:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Todd Spiker said...

I think your "insecurity rule" probably carries across the lines of tennis and into all sports. Heck... into "regular" life, too, I'd say. :)

Good for you! Although, I can remember the time I nearly threw up from heat sickness during a Becker/Gilbert match... so I understand the "other issues. I went to a lot a Redskins games many years ago, too... but I don't think I'd even entertain the thought of going to a stadium now. It's just too comfortable to watch at home.

Eric (#2)-
Shoulder injuries can wreak havoc with a career. She just may never be the same. On Tennis Channel, Jimmy Connors just made a passing reference a little while ago about Sharapova "feeling" something with her injury. I don't know what he was referring to, or if she said something about that yesterday or not. If so, that's not good nearly two years after surgery.

Hmmm, I'd have to go back to get specifics. Maybe it IS just one of those notions that are accepted "on faith" without any true reason to do so ('04 Wimbledon will always be the strongest memory anyone has of her career, and that might be the root cause). What I do know about Sharapova, though, is that when she's been truly "on" in a slam from the start, that's when she's won titles. Well, at least the OPPOSITE of that has always been true -- if she's struggled early in a slam, she DID NOT win it. The Williams Sisters can work their way into form at a slam, but Sharapova has always had to be in tip-top form from the start to be a real contender.

I've got a list for the next post with the longest match-winning streaks in the past five years, and Sharapova's name appears multiple times at the top of the list. At her best, she can run off strings of wins like almost no player on tour.

Those days may never come again, though.

I think Wozniacki's heard all those comments from people questioning her worthiness, so I can understand her feeling the need to defend herself and not want to think that her opponent lost the match more than she won it. Plus, forcing errors IS sort of at the heart of her typical gameplan... so she has a point.

Diane (#2)-
You know, I wonder how much Sharapova might be whispered about and maybe even "resented" behind the scenes right now. I remember years ago there were some issues -- and not just with the other Russians, for instance, concerning her Fed Cup availability and how it tied in with her Olympic eligibility, etc. -- with some players about her being somewhat distant with the other women on tour. At the time, she was winning slams and in the Top 10. Now, she's not... yet she's still treated as if she is, from schedules, court assignments, endorsements, etc. on down. Maybe if C-Woz is intentionally-or-not inserting some opinions between the lines of her comments, it's happening because it's a common feeling in the lockerroom? Just a thought.

Tue Sep 07, 03:54:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Diane said...

Yes, that's a good possibility, but I prefer sniping that's a bit more direct. I wish young players would take Grace Min's example and actually start speaking out about the systemic issues. No one is more suspect and critical of the WTA's "star system" than I am, but I also don't see any reason to start in on 'Pova. Especially if you are giving every indication that you want to be 'Pova.

This U.S. Open is taking strange twists and turns (on the men's side, too), and some of them are subtle. It seems like so long ago that Azarenka fell over, doesn't it?

Tue Sep 07, 04:45:00 PM EDT  
Blogger TennisAce said...

If everyone goes back and reads the press conferences from say about Wimbledon, you will get the gist of why the players are a bit sick and tired of the Sharapova comparisons etc.

In every press conference that I read during Wimbledon, there was someone there who kept asking every player about Sharapova, her injuries, her game, her media personality, her endorsements etc. I thought it was disrespectful to the other players and perhaps that is the reason why there is beginning to be a bit of a push back.

Matt Cronin is one of the chief instigators of this as he is of the view that there is no better player in tennis than Sharapova. I also agree that Sharapova's alleged mental toughness was seen in Wimbledon 2004 when she took down Serena and since then everyone has her labelled as mentally tough. She is even being compared to Serena and some would say even tougher.

Maria's fight has left her. I have seen it in all the majors this year. When the going gets tough, she gets going. Against Clijsters at Cincy, against Vika at Stanford, against Justine at FO, against Serena at Wimby. The focus leaves her. Each time that she plays a match where on court coaching is allowed she gets down on herself and seems too tired to even continue.

I have no idea whether she is injured again or is again having shoulder issues, but I can bet you that before this USO is complete we will hear that she aggravated her injury. This after putting on a 0 and 0 beatdown against her previous opponent.

Wed Sep 08, 08:43:00 AM EDT  
Blogger Diane said...

A good role model for Sharapova (who used to be very mentally tough) would be Flavia Pennetta. After she returned from her significant injury time-out, she said she just could not get her confidence back. She smartly played challengers in order to get some wins. But also, fortune smiled on her in an odd way: She made an unexpected trip to her apartment, and found her partner there with another woman.

Playng the challengers helped a lot, but Pennetta also fed off of her rage. She realized she was in charge of herself in all matters, and it was then that she elevated her game to a higher level than it had ever gone. She gained a new understanding of self-reliance, and that made her free in a way she hadn't been before.

Wed Sep 08, 10:29:00 AM EDT  
Blogger TennisAce said...

Diane, very good story there on Flavia. I had no idea she had caught Carlos in bed with another woman. Wow. Funny how some women work through things. She used rage to play the best tennis of her life, some women would have curled up in a corner and died, especially when they are such public figures.

I honestly think that while Sharapova says all the right things, I just do not see her having that much focus and intensity in tennis any more. The more the losses come, the more the lack of belief will come. The more majors that pass where she can hardly make it to the second week, and the more the injuries pile up is the more disenchanted she will become with tennis.

Maria did not play tennis because of her love for the sport. It was a way for her and her family to escape poverty. I do not think I have ever read an interview where she expresses love for the sport and the fact that her father no longer travels with her, or indeed spends much time even coaching her, tells me that the interest is just not there anymore. Just going through the motions now.

Wed Sep 08, 11:55:00 AM EDT  
Blogger Todd Spiker said...

Yeah, I think so much of what ails Sharapova stems from that "C" word. The loss of confidence in her ability to use her serve to pull her through tight spots isn't there, and it so often acts as the most important load-bearing point in her house of cards.

Before the injury, she was roaring and maybe playing better than ever. Her AO '08 championship was a dominant performance. At times this summer, she's seemed CLOSE to resembling the player she was then, but it just hasn't happened. In the past, while it might be difficult to easily pick out a handful of close matches where she went toe-to-toe with someone, trading match points and winning in the clutch, there aren't really any big chokes that come to mind, either. She's usually either played great and won (3-1 in slam finals), or didn't and didn't (that destruction by Serena in Melbourne being the most notable loss).

She's never had a varied game, so her Plan B options are limited. She's always just pounded groundstrokes and serves, like so many of the players of her generation who could physically get away with it. Her movement has improved over the years, but she'll never be considered especially athletic. She's never been as comfortable as say, Venus, in charging the net, either. Not even close. Without her serve/crutch, it's almost as if she's naked out there.

She still means a lot to the sport, though, and having her back as a semifinal presence in the slams would be something worth rooting for. Shoulder injuries are difficult to get over, physically and mentally (and technically, too, if her mechanics need to be tinkered with again), and can take more time, though. I think it's too early to say she's finished as an important player.

But if we're still talking about her like this at NEXT year's U.S. Open, then I agree that that "disenchantment" might grow to a point where it changes her outlook on things permanently. At this point, she doesn't NEED to play. If she can't bear the thought of doing so as only a shadow of her former self, then she'll have a big decision to make.

Wed Sep 08, 04:44:00 PM EDT  
Blogger jo shum said...

the question really is, can she bounce back? i am bit disappointed with pova, thought at least she would make an 'appearance' fighting on court. todd, when you said she had made unbelievable impact in 2004 when she was just a teenager. i just got an image of hingis in my mind. that if pova has already peaked in her prime during the teeager period till 2008 AO (she was 20/21 then?) during her injury time out, the women's game change only slightly a bit with more players hitting harder and going for less margin of errors. but it hasn't changed that much, but pova just seems to be left a step behind. and so now with USO nearly finishes, the lucky even year charm didn't work out for her as in 2004, 2006 and 2008.

i do remember though during one of the interviews this year (AO?), that she playes tennis for the love of sport.

Wed Sep 08, 11:38:00 PM EDT  

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