Can Jimmy Connors and Maria Sharapova spark up a renaissance at the US Open?
By Chris Oddo
Connors-Sharapova (July 18, 2013) -- After parting ways with her coach of three years, Maria Sharapova shocked the tennis world when she announced that she'd hired eight-time Grand Slam champion Jimmy Connors to be her new coach on July 13. Connors, out of the game in most capacities since 2008, has made more news revealing lurid details of his past than he has as a tennis tactician of late.
His new tell-all memoir “The Outsider” hit bookstores in early May, but Connors apparently has the itch to do more than talk about his career. He's ready to get back into the game and pour every ounce of his being into helping Maria Sharapova achieve her goal of winning more Grand Slam titles.
So how can he help the world No. 2, a player who has already completed the career Grand Slam and held the No. 1 ranking? Many, it seems, think the relationship is doomed to fail, and that it won't last more than six months. But before we judge too quickly, let's look at a few misconceptions that have surfaced recently about the relationship.
Misconception 1: That Connors can't teach Sharapova anything on the court.
Most argue that Sharapova already has everything she needs to be her best, and there's really nothing that Connors can do to help her. In a technical sense, I tend to agree. Sharapova's groundstrokes are something to be gawked at, not deconstructed, but where Connors can help Sharapova is in tactical areas such as shot selection, spin deployment and variety. Far too often, Sharapova hits hard and harder, which allows her better opponents to get comfortable with her pace of shot. Perhaps Connors can get her to vary her pace and her patterns a bit. It might not seem important when she's reeling off bagels in the early rounds of Grand Slams, but when she runs into her arch nemesis Serena Williams, a little variation and the element of surprise could go a long way.
But, tactics aside, Connors' greatest effect will undoubtedly be his ability to inspire belief, confidence and swagger in Sharapova. She seems to have it in spades against everybody but Serena Williams and Victoria Azarenka, but against those two—that's where Connors will earn his paycheck.
For those of us who like to speculate on what Connors is and isn't capable of achieving as Sharapova's coach, keep in mind that the mind is a very powerful tool on a tennis court. Connors had one of the shrewdest, most opportunistic mentalities in the game when he played, and it will be up to him to instill that mindset in Sharapova.
Misconception 2: That Connors did a bad job coaching Andy Roddick.
Many people seemed to want to write off the whole Connors-Roddick pairing as a failed experiment, but in reality Connors had great success with Roddick in the early going. Roddick was on a downhill trend after the 2005 Wimbledon final, and he hadn't won a title in 10 months. When he signed on with Connors, the wins started coming. He won Cincinnati and rode a 12-match winning streak that took him all the way to the US Open final in 2006.
It wasn't Jimmy Connors that was bad for Andy Roddick in the ensuing months that saw Roddick drop five straight decisions to Roger Federer, including said US Open final in 2006. It was Roger Federer.
That Roddick caught fire the very moment he joined forces with Connors is certainly no coincidence. Whether it was tactical, emotional or just a short-lived halo effect, Connors helped Roddick elevate his game, and fast.
Misconception 3: That the relationship won't last long.
What's the over-under on how long Connors will actually coach Sharapova? Lots of people think that the pairing won't even last until next year's Australian Open, particularly if Sharapova falls flat in New York later this summer. But many felt the same way about Roddick and Connors. Even Roddick didn't know if they'd last a week, as he famously told reporters, “I was definitely anxious before we started working together, and I didn't know if it was going to last more than three days,” at the US Open in 2006.
That pairing lasted until early 2008. With Connors and Sharapova so eager to prove themselves, there is plenty of room for this pairing to last as long, even longer, especially if results come early.
Misconception 4: That it will take time and patience before results are garnered
See item No. 2. Connors has already proven that he knows how to come in and help a player engineer a revival at the drop of a hat. Sharapova has everything in place already, and so does Connors. Don't expect any significant changes, just a lot of confidence building and maybe some tinkering here and there. The fact of the matter is that Sharapova doesn't need much to get over the hump. She just needs a new perspective and a few solid ideas on how to approach the Serena-Vika mystery. Connors will surely give her that, both philosophically and tactically.
Misconception 5: That Connors can't help Sharapova improve her serve just because he himself didn't have a great serve.
Did Jim Courier do wonders for John Isner on clay without being a 6-foot-9 giant with a 145 mph serve? Did Uncle Toni ever play the French Open? So why does Jimmy Connors have to be a great server to help Maria Sharapova get more from her serve?
Tennis writer Peter Bodo argued that Connors' serve was a weakness and wondered how he could possibly help Sharapova with her serving woes in this wildly entertaining piece, but what gets overlooked by Bodo is the fact that Sharapova already has one of the best serves in the game, she just needs better tactical awareness of how to use the serve to better exploit her opponent's weaknesses and keep them off balance with variety.
Connors doesn't need to use his serving expertise to teach her that, he just needs to use his world-class tennis acumen, something that he has, as they say, coming out of his ears.