By Peter Nez
Sitting with some friends at a coastal tavern, throwing back some vodka cranberries (just barely a splash) made by a bartending staff that was made to pour the perfect liquid delight for squeezing every last drop of tension out of the five senses, the discussion turned over to a forgotten champion, a forgotten giant amongst women: Maria Sharapova. “You know what I love about her?” said my cohort, in a solemn tone, “the way she walks. She has one of the most regal walks out of any of the women on tour. She walks like she isn’t fazed by anything, like she owns the world.”
I always liked Maria, Masha as I like to call her. She possesses the perfect mixture of charm, fight, tenacity, elegance, and charisma out of any of the WTA contenders, and has a mental agility that can be on par with the likes of Nadal, outlasting her opponents with sheer will, and brushing off squandered opportunities without the slightest hint of hesitation. Rarely do you see Sharapova hang her head in resignation or “walk” to the chair on a changeover after she had just been broken with the plod of the dismayed. She has an uncanny elevation of spirit and marked maturity for someone only twenty three years of living. And yes, most of that living has taken place in the world of money, contracts, planes, cars, fame, and hoopla galore, and yet there is a residue of innocence in all she engages in; a quiet gratitude that resides in all her activities and interviews that are a testament to her character which is as rich as they come. Yes, she is beautiful, and yes, she has all the makings of a diva snob, but there is something more to her than that, something brimming under the surface.
After winning her first major in 2004 at Wimbledon, at the tender age of 17, beating the likes of Serena, there were little doubts as to where the Siberian Siren was headed. But being active during the reign of the Williams sisters, who are touted as two of the best players of all time, and plagued by injuries, especially in the last two years, which seemed to come and go ever so often sidelining her on many occasions, missing slams, the doubts began to build and build. In 2008, Sharapova started off the year desecrating the competition at the first slam of the year, the Australian Open, slaughtering tennis sovereigns Lindsey Davenport and Justine Henin along the way, showing the world once again that the Russian dawn was upon us once more. The blistering forehands, the baseline fury, and the romping serve were in full fledged doomsday mode. She was back. She was confident. She had the world in her palm. Unlike other Russian starlets, and most other Tennis babes, Sharapova wanted to be known as a champion, and transcended the label of diva beauty queen with ephemeral results, matching her passionate looks with passionate competitiveness, working harder and harder at improving her game and her ranking. After the AUS Open in 2008, nothing looked to be a huge obstacle in attaining her rights amongst the greatest. Then it happened. A brutal injury to her serving shoulder sent her to the disabled list for almost a year and a half, squelching all the momentum she had built and provoking her to change her game entirely, more specifically her serve – that same serve that pounced opponents into submission time and time again, producing win after win, and essentially the key to her success.
After losing in the first round at the 2010 Australian Open, Sharapova became a ghost in the conversation surrounding the women’s game. She lost to Henin in the third round at the French, and many dismissed her having a chance at ever winning another slam. With the likes of Sam Stosur and Francesca Schiavone plastered across headlines around the globe, setting off atom bombs in the women’s game, and new faces such as Caroline Wozniacki emerging, creating major cause for concern to reigning dominators Serena Williams, and her sister Venus, Masha loomed nowhere. Let’s not forget the return of Justine Henin which I am sure caused a stamp on the ground, or at least a mild hot flash by Serena when hearing of that bit of news. But grass has replaced clay, and the shift may be the perfect transition for the statuesque Russian.
Maria entered the AEGON Championships, the first grass court event leading up to Wimbledon, as the 17th seed, and nobody gave her a big shot at winning. But grass suits the long limbed Sharapova’s game, and she reached the final, losing only to Chinese top seed Na Li. Nothing builds confidence like winning a tournament before a major, but reaching a final and losing to a worthy opponent is a close second. With all the talk and expectations falling on other women during the Wimbledon Championships, Maria may be able to squeak by if she can retain her old grit and power packed serve. I wouldn’t count her out on grass. I know she wouldn’t. And with the surprise at the French Open and the overall schizophrenia that seems to constantly hover over the women’s game, anything is possible. We may see that prowl all over the lawns of London come final Saturday. Since 2004 Sharapova has won a slam ever two years: 2004 – Wimbledon; 2006- US Open; 2008- Australian Open. 2010- Wimbledon?