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Jul 4th, 2007, 07:35 PM
Is This Crisis Point For Sharapova?

Photo Titled Sharapova Takes a Break
Sharapova Takes a Break
©ProSport / T.Hindley
Wednesday, 4 July, 2007

What is it with us? Those of us who watch tennis can’t seem to get the hang of the idea that it is never a good idea to overlook the name Williams when it appears in a Grand Slam draw.

Be honest. Had it occurred to you that Venus might beat Maria Sharapova today? The Russian, seeded two, had breezed through her three rounds before this, whereas Williams, seeded just 23, was hard pressed to avoid defeat in two of her three matches. Yet Venus crushed Sharapova 6-1, 6-3.

It seems odd to recall now that there was hardly any pre-match buzz about this charismatic fixture, even though it was lying in wait ever since the draw was made, just waiting for the seedings to pan out.

After this obliteration today, it seems reasonable to ask whether Sharapova’s game is in some kind of mini-crisis. After all, she has yet to win a title this year and she is carrying a chronic shoulder problem with her serving arm – a problem that is so severe she requires two-and-a-half hours’ treatment daily, whether she has played a match or not.

That is a great deal for a player two months past her 20th birthday. Moreover, she has not been able to build on the momentum of her US Open win last autumn. At the time it seemed significant – as if after a natural lull from her astonishing Wimbledon victory three years ago, this new achievement would be a springboard from which she could open the Slam floodgates.

But it simply hasn’t happened. She made the final in Australia, only to be trampled underfoot by Serena Williams. At Roland Garros, on the clay that does not suit her, she made “only” the semi-final, falling unexpectedly to Ana Ivanovic. Now today’s humiliation.

Right from the start today, her body language was oddly subdued. Usually her extraordinary inward-looking intensity is fascinating to watch, as if there are just three people present – herself, her opponent, and her father Yuri Sharapov, who is also her coach. Even in the ultimate arena of the Centre Court, the 14,000 spectators do not seem to exist for her.

Moreover, even when she is storming to victory, her face so often wears an expression like thunder. And why not, when this hugely competitive formula works so well for her?

Yet today there was something subtly different. It was as if she couldn’t quite (to use the word universally favoured by the sporting elite) focus as she wished. Sometimes when she is in the thick of a major contest and makes an error, she glares up at her father accusingly as if shouting: “You made me do it.” But today, even in the midst of a tussle which few had forecast, she seemed less cross during play than she often does on her way to simple victory.

Why? Something unusual was diverting her attention. Perhaps the chronic trouble she suffers with her right shoulder had flared up. Certainly her serve was not working, and her ball toss was all over the place. She was also overpowered from the baseline.

Maybe it was something else. Perhaps she was distracted by the fact that Williams’ mother and joint coach Oracene Price elected to sit directly behind Yuri Sharapov in the players’ box. Thus whenever Maria wanted to glance at her father, she was obliged to include a key Williams support member in her line of vision.

Not that Ms Price behaved with any impropriety – on the contrary, she is known for generously applauding her daughters’ opponents during their matches. Maybe that was indeed the problem, because after the nearly two-hour rain break that punctuated this match, Yuri Sharapov moved to another seat in the stands, out of the players’ box, meaning Ms Price was no longer in Sharapova’s eye-line.

Whatever it was, something about Sharapova’s demeanour was significantly less intense than usual today. Meanwhile, by contrast Venus was her usual self – unreadable by comparison with, for example, her sister Serena.

Ironic, that, because when it comes to body language Venus is the serene one; rarely fist-pumping or baying herself on, almost always wearing an expression of tranquil calm. The only time her expression broke today was in the moment of victory, and she had every right to do it.

Those who overlooked her had been proven wrong again. Who knows how far she might yet go?

Written by Kate Battersby

Jul 5th, 2007, 02:53 AM
Nice article.