It's time for Sharapova to prove she wants it
Jan. 29, 2008, 9:10PM
It's time for Sharapova to prove she wants it
By DALE ROBERTSON
Copyright 2008 Houston Chronicle
It's hard to be too critical of the pro tennis' ranking computers because they have served the game with reasonable accuracy for more than 30 years, but there are always those quirky interludes that make you go, "Huh?"
Take last year's and this year's Australian Open, for example. When Maria Sharapova suffered a 6-1, 6-2 beating from Serena Williams in the 2007 final, she was rewarded the next day with the No. 1 ranking.
Now, after two weeks of plowing through the Melbourne draw without dropping a set — and thumping the current No. 1, Justine Henin, 6-4, 6-0 en route — she remains ensconced at No. 5, exactly where she started the year. What's a girl to do?
Keep working, for starters. Sharapova's power on the tennis court has never been in dispute, nor has her solid-gold marketability off it. But her concentration, her fitness, her seriousness and her grasp of the game's strategic nuances have all been intermittently questioned since she unveiled her immense potential by winning Wimbledon at 17 in 2004. Over the subsequent three-plus years, she has failed to put together killer back-to-back Grand Slams, which is why, as she nears her 21st birthday, the Siberian-born slugger has only three majors to her name.
Despite that inadvertent ascension to the top spot 12 months ago, Sharapova's 2007 season turned into "a frustrating and difficult one," a borderline disaster bereft of any memorable Slam dances save for an unexpected semifinal appearance at the French Open, where the red clay is poorly suited for her flat strokes. She blamed shoulder and hamstring injuries, but others cited her stagnating growth as a tennis player.
But, after she had been written off for the season, something seemed to click in a grueling loss to Henin in the tour championship final in Madrid in November. While Sharapova didn't prevail, she didn't quit, either, battling the Belgian for three hotly contested sets.
"I was very close to just saying a few weeks before that, 'This is not my year,' " Sharapova said. "I thought of just going on vacation. But I kept going. I just kept working. I didn't give up.
"Sometimes when you're putting the work in it just seems so, so hard, and you never know when that work's going to pay off."
It payed off Down Under as she dispatched Henin, Jelena Jankovic and Ana Ivanovic — all ranked ahead of her — in succession, yielding just 16 games to them. Her focus was such that, after hearing Daniela Hantuchova complain about how Ivanovic's squeaky shoes had distracted her in their semifinal, Sharapova asked a hitting partner to put on a new pair and squeak to his heart's content. Noisy Ana would be no problem.
Although Henin figures to still be too stout an obstacle in Paris, where the Belgian has won four times in five years, the Sharapova on display at the Aussie Open would be the player to beat at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open.
Roger Federer's news-conference candor is a welcome relief in this sound-bite age, but he said something after winning the U.S. Open final last fall that came back to bite him in Melbourne.
By any measure, Novak Djokovic proved himself an eminently worthy Federer foil in New York. Had the young Serb truly believed he was ready to take down the Swiss, a couple of those seven set points he relinquished over the first two sets might have gone his way and then who knows what might have happened.
Still, Federer came off as a tad dismissive afterward, saying of the 20-year-old Djokovic: "If a rivalry between us comes along, great. But I still consider the one I have with (Rafael) Nadal much more serious."
He's probably not thinking that today. Truth to tell, there wasn't an appreciable aesthetic difference between the Open final and the semifinal so resoundingly won by Djokovic 7-5, 6-3, 7-6 (5) in Australia, depriving Federer of what would have been his 11th consecutive Slam final.
While the No. 2 Nadal remains his major clay-court nemesis until further notice — the Spaniard does have a gadzillion-match winning streak going on the dirt — it's Djokovic who most imperils Federer's bid to break Pete Sampras' Grand Slam record.
The odds still solidly favor Federer, who has a dozen, surpassing Sampras' 14, but the pace could slow to a crawl from here on with Djokovic capable of making an ongoing nuisance of himself in both of the hard-court Slams.
Nobody had beaten the man in straight sets in a Slam in more than four years. That got everyone's attention, Federer's included.