If at first blast you don’t succeed, blast, blast again. I don’t know exactly what Maria Sharapova’s coach, Thomas Hogstedt, was telling her when he was leaning over and lecturing her like an angry fifth-grade teacher on changeovers this week in Rome, but it might as well as have been that and that alone. Sharapova had the breakout tournament that her fans have been, at various times, hoping for, expecting, and writing off, for the better part of two years, and she did it because the baseline bombs that she had been missing during that time were detonating just inside the lines again.
On Sunday, Sharapova beat Sam Stosur in fairly routine fashion in the final, though that match was as much about Stosur’s inconsistency, shaky backhand, and inability to rise to the big-match occasion. The bigger bang for Sharapova came in the semifinal, where she beat No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki and reversed two straight ugly defeats. The uglier of those came at Indian Wells this spring; in that match, a 6-1, 6-2, loss, Sharapova was able to set up a winning pattern—two forehands crosscourt, one down the line—but she couldn’t connect on the winner itself. She got wilder as the match wore on. On Saturday in Rome, Sharapova set up those same winning patterns, but this time she was able to move Wozniacki farther off the court by putting a little more topspin under her crosscourt forehand, and this time she connected. Her blitzed, seemingly blind backhands had my mind wandering back seven years to her win over Serena in the Wimbledon final. And this time Maria got better as the match wore on. She won the last five games from 1-3 down in the second set.
Sharapova was a self-described “cow on ice” on clay at one time, but she says her legs are stronger and her ability to recover has improved. She defended surprisingly well against Stosur, and once again dictated by setting up the right ground-stroke patterns—that forehand cross could be the key shot of the French Open. What’s not to like? The serve, of course. While it held steadier than it has lately, there’s still Sharapova’s unpredictably herky-jerky start to her motion, and her penchant for double faults that foreshadow an immediate drop in play—she threw in two in the second set that led to her being broken.
What’s to like? The WTA has been looking for a queen this year. Kim Clijsters doesn’t want the title or the role, so we’ve watched and wondered whether, in turn, Wozniacki, Azarenka, Goerges, and Kvitova might be the woman to slide all the way to Paris with it. The latest to join that parade might be the most promising. Sharapova, unlike the others, already is a queen. All she needs is for bombs to find the lines and her serves to find the box. We already know she has the regal strut, and the guts to back it up.
I thought it still looked good for Rafa today, based on the way he started the match. In place of the grinding topspin forehand crosscourt, there was a willingness to stand in and change the direction of the ball. He sent both strokes up the line at will and kept Djokovic guessing on his serve much better than he had last week in Madrid. The Serb’s shots were crisp, but he wasn’t able to set up the pattern that had been so devastating for him—backhand crosscourt, backhand down the line—with the same ease that he had in Spain. It seemed that Nadal had learned his lessons from that match, and that he was going to be all business for this one.
And he was. More than all-business. By the second set, Nadal was playing with an outward, overt passion that I hadn’t seen from him all year, even in his most impressive victories—it reminded me a little of the headlong, scrap-the-rituals, let’s-play-it-fast-and-loose way he had come back from two sets down to beat Ivan Ljubicic in the final of the Madrid indoor event in 2005, when he was 19. Nadal went to the Djokovic forehand, he stretched him on the backhand, he served big on big points, he moved into the court.
And he still lost. 4 and 4. It was a chillier handshake than normal between the two this time, and you can see why from Rafa’s side—his old buddy has surpassed him. It turns out Djokovic can win without his trusty backhand patterns. He can win without pulling the trigger early. He can win without decimating Nadal with his return—though, perhaps even more devastatingly, he won by missing very few returns. He can win even if his forehand begins to spray a bit, and even if he throws in a few tired shots. He can win because, at this moment, he's the superior player.
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What about Nadal? Aside from Djokovic’s absurd mobility, what sunk him Sunday was his own backhand. It’s not in the same league with Djokovic’s. Nadal came out cracking it, but he has trouble keeping that up for an entire match. Instead, when he was pushed, he resorted to a little flip moonball to give him time to recover. It was a disaster—Djokovic ate it up with his own backhand. That’s an advantage of Nole's, and always will be, but what about the slice from Nadal? He can hit it, and maybe he should more often. It has to be better than the flippy thing he’s trying.
We’ll see what adjustments are made, by Nadal and everyone else, to stop Loco Djoko—he’s a train during matches, and a crazy person after them—in Paris next week. The pressure will be immense. But it’s been fun to watch him put it on his own shoulders. The final was well played and much more exciting than the scores would lead you to believe, but the highlight was Djokovic’s semifinal against Murray. There was the tennis, to be sure, some of the most brutal (in a good way) I’ve ever seen. More than that, there was Djokovic, who, when he was down 4-5 in the third and looking utterly punch-drunk, could have gone down swinging with honor and headed for Roland Garros with a little less weight on his back. He didn’t do that. He did the even more honorable thing by ignoring his body, his opponent, and the inevitable end to his streak and winning instead. He doesn't know how to do anything else.
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