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The Flappable Flapper Posted 06/07/2007 @ 4 :09 PM
Going into today's semifinal match between Ana Ivanovic and Maria Sharapova, I thought there were two key element to watch: how well would Ivanoviwould bear up under the pressure of her first Grand Slam final, and how well could she stand her ground and exchange the tennis equivalent of roundhouse punches with a woman who lives by them.

This may seem an unkind way to put it, but Sharapova, for all her weaknesses, has formidable strengths that make her the ultimate predator on the women's tour - don't let that flapper costume she's wearing these days fool you. She is, most of the time, an unflappable, dominant opponent - always in your face with that serve and flat-trajectory backhand. She also has a great nose for fear; she can smell it from a mile away, and until they make a court that long, her forehands will be prone to fly outside the lines when her prey shows no fear, when she essentially says: You want to trade big swings and line-clearing groundies, bring it on!

Yesterday, Ivanovic showed no fear. She met Sharapova on the red clay and agreed to play her game the way Sharapova liked it. What she radiated was not fear, but a sense of bare-knuckled purpose and a willingness to take her chances. It paid off in a crisp, 6-2,6-1 win that exposed Sharapova's weaknesses. To my mind, this underscored the extent to which Ivanovic may be the new Jennifer Capriati, albeit with some noteworthy if subtle improvments: Ivanovic seems quicker, more sure of foot, more deft in the mid-and-forecourt, and armed with better touch and greater versatility. Whatever might keep this woman from having a comparably distinguished career, it won't have anything to do with her ball-striking or movement, the twin pillars of great tennis.

The earmarks of Ana's game today were noteworthy. She forced Sharapova, who usually goes for a lot (it keeps her from being outmaneuvered), to go for too much, and she demonstrated a terrific ability to employ her wrist to direct the ball not-quite-where-you-expect at the moment of contact. She unvelied a killer forehand service return, and maintained an aggressive frame of mind. She was willing to step into the court, and take the ball on the rise. She put Sharapova under pressure, especially on her serve, and she showed a great propensity for turning nominally defensive replies to offensive probes into attacking shots. And her composure and focus were superb.

Alright, Ivanovic isn't necessarily the Second Coming of Capriati or anyone else. Sharapova did not play a great match, but I felt that was because Ivanovic wouldn't let her. If I'm right, Ivanovic created the perfect, universal template for beating a fine, tough player who is vulnerable when she is prevented from banging out trademark winners in direct proportion to the degree that she must run and rally.

In other words, Ana took the game to the woman who most conspicuously takes the game to her opponents. It was a command performance.

I asked the first question in Ana's presser: "Some people might say she didn't play well; others will say you didn't allow her to play well. Where does the truth lie for you? "

I think I played pretty good match. She's a tough player, and I was expecting very tough match. But I knew I had to be aggressive from the beginning. And that's what I tried to do, and it worked well for me. I didn't make many unforced errors and trying to put more pressure on her. And my serve worked well. So I was really happy to get through. . .And as I said before, she's aggressive player and she likes to dominate. And I knew she was not a great mover on the clay, so I tried to play more, yeah, just deep balls and put her under pressure and move her little bit more. And yeah, sometimes I think she was going for some bigger shots, but, yeah, I was there, so it worked well for me.

Sharapova had this assessment:

LondonI think when you give a girl who hits a pretty big ball and deep ball, and who likes to hit off a good strike zone, it's very important to keep her off balance. And I was always the one that let her control the point from the beginning, from the beginning of the point. And like I said, every time I did feel like I had my chances, I was making unforced errors. And once you start off slow, and I started off slow in the beginning of the first set, and the second set, I mean, the train's already in London. I mean, it's gone.

Given some of the discussion in recent posts, I want to preface my final comment with a disclaimer of sorts. You and i both know that the way a player engages the press doesn't amount to a hill of beans, especially when it comes to taking the truest and deepest measure of a person's character. You can say that a player's bedside manner with the press is nothing more than a reflection of his or her sense of public relations; her comfort with strangers (and critical ones at that); her skills at finding words to express what she's thinking or feeling. These are merely elements of personality, not character.

The inescapable fact is that as much as we love or loathe a player, who don't know jack about the substance of his or her character, and likely never will (although knowing that Andy Roddick went back into a burning hotel a few years ago in Rome to help his trapped, fellow players remains a pretty good reason to like Roddick). For tennis is fun and games, a test of character only in the most narrow, sports-related sense. It's dodgy to read too much into what happens on the court, or in the immediate vicinity, in any broader sense.

With that in mind, I still have to say I admired the way Sharapova handled her press conference. She'd been roughed up and left for dead; the beating was comprehensive and, even if the girls were pretty, their handiwork (or Ivanovic's, at any rate,) was not. Maria showed a lot of class and poise in defeat; she analyzed the match openly and fairly, although we could tell from her subdued mood , and the eagerness with which she looked forward to getting onto a faster surface in London, that this one hurt. I respect her for not showing it - or denying it, implicitly or overtly.

If that's merely a sign of a good sense of public image, I'll take it. If it's more than, that's okay with me, too, although I can't say to know for sure.
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