twenty three years

MARIA WHO? CAN WIMBLEDON RESURRECT THE RUSSIAN?

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?

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FEDERER NEARS EDBERG RECORD; KUBOT SHINES BRIGHT FOR POLAND

* October 13, 1986 – this is the date when Wojtek Fibak, the best player in history of Polish tennis, was a top 100 player for the last time in his long career. Twenty-three years later, on Nov. 16, 2009, Lukasz Kubot became the second player from Poland to rank in the top 100 in the ATP rankings. In the third round at the Australian Open 2010, a doubles specialist Kubot, got a walkover from Mikhail Youzhny (right wrist) and advanced to his first-ever “sweet sixteen” singles appearance at a major. It’s the best result for a Polish player ever in Melbourne. Fibak, a four-time major quarterfinalist, played only once Down Under, reaching the third round in 1978. Kubot, ranked No 86, is the lowest ranked player in the last 16 this year, with Ivo Karlovic being the second-lowest at No. 39. Kubot will play Novak Djokovic Monday.

* “I started to feel it against [first-round opponent] Gasquet in the last set a little bit,” Youzhny said. “The next day was worse and worse little bit,” said Youzhny of his wrist injury. The Russian wasn’t the only player who did not advance due to injury or illness in the third round. Marcos Baghdatis and Stefan Koubek each retired in their matches after the first set. Koubek because of illness (against Fernando Verdasco), Baghdatis due to right shoulder (against Lleyton Hewitt). It was very tough especially for the Cypriot because he had been in great form winning 17 of last 18 matches. For the first time in tournament’s history three players defaulted in the last 32.

* Roger Federer overcoming Albert Montanes 6-3 6-4 6-4 won his 50th match at the Australian Open. In the history of the tournament only two-time champion Stefan Edberg won more matches – 56. But given the precentage, Federer is better – 50 wins, 7 losses (87%), Edberg 56/11 (83%).

* The two tallest guys on the tour (Ivo Karlovic and John Isner) advanced to the fourth round after thrilling four-setters, and lead in the ace department. The Croatian has already served 93 aces (34, 26, 33 respectively), the American 81 (34, 21, 26). Record holder, Joachim “Pim Pim” Johansson served 126 aces in four rounds five years ago.

* Jarkko Nieminen, the greatest player to ever come out of Finland, lost a heart-breaking second-round match, falling to Florent Serra, 6-3, 4-6, 7-5, 6-7, 5-7. The Finn had two match points in the fourth set, but was unable to convert. Serra’s win was his fifth in a row over Nieminen. The Frenchman reached the third round at the Australian Open for the first time in his sixth attempt, but lost handily to Andy Murray.

* Among the five qualifiers who had played in the second round, only the veteran Stefan Koubek (quarterfinalist in 2002) advanced to the last 32 after beating the other qualifier, Ivan Dodig of Croatia. According to THE BUD COLLINS HISTORY OF TENNIS, the farthest a qualifier has advanced in the Australian Open was the semifinals, Bob Giltinan turning the trick in the (December) 1977 Australian Open. After Koubek’s loss to Verdasco, Giltinan remains in the record book.

* James Blake lost his five-set match to Juan Martin del Potro in the second round despite being a break up at the beginning of the final set. The American’s five-set record has slipped 4-13 in his career, with only Ivo Karlovic holding a worse five-set record among active players. The 30-year-old Blake hasn’t yet won in his career in a match that goes beyond 6-6 in the final set, losing on all five occasions, as outlined below.

4-6 7-5 8-10  to Yaoki Ishii – Australian Open 2000, 2nd rd, qualifying match;
3-6 4-6 6-3 6-4 9-11  to Richard Krajicek – Wimbledon 2002, 2nd rd;
7-6(5) 6-0 6-7(2) 4-6 8-10 to Fernando Gonzalez – Davis Cup 2006, QF;
6-4 5-7 9-11 again (!) to Fernando Gonzalez – Beijing 2008, SF;
4-6 7-6(3) 7-5 3-6 8-10 to Del Potro – Australian Open 2010, 2nd rd

* American Robby Ginepri posted a revealing blog on the USTA’s website – www.usta.com. We encourage you to read the entire blog from Ginepri and other Americans, but here is some of what he said; “It’s been almost five years since I reached the US Open semifinals. It looks like maybe I peaked then. I hate to think that, but at some point you have to be realistic. I have to find a way to enjoy my career again. I ‘m not enjoying the travel grind and living out of suitcases as much any more, and it’s getting to me a little. I spent five weeks in Asia and Russia at the end of the fall, and at the beginning of this year I went to India, which was a very long trip, and then took another long trip to Australia, and I regret doing that. I’ve got to take it one day at a time and see if I can get this thing figured out. Playing healthy is the main thing, as it’s no fun to practice and play matches in pain. I’m a young guy at 27, and I stay fit and do the right things, and if things still aren’t working out, it takes a lot of wind out of your sail.”