By David Kane
When marketing tennis, it’s rarely about how well the game is played. To appeal to an audience broader than diehards, the question of “who’s playing” can be equally if not more important. Notorious for its shocking upsets and unheralded finalists, the WTA has struggled to corral its biggest names onto the back ends of its best tournaments. With the tour’s stars going through injuries and inconsistency (even unretirements), tournaments instead began relying on “matches worthy of a final” that in reality occurred days, sometimes weeks before the championship match.
Venus/Clijsters. Henin/Sharapova. Azarenka/Serena. All are marquee match-ups that took place before a Slam’s prestigious second week.
Of late, the women’s side has formed its own “Big Four,” but those cracking early match-ups still exist thanks to a most uncommon denominator in Venus Williams, who could play No. 2 seed (and kindred spirit) Maria Sharapova should both reach the third round.
The American has inspired many in how she has balanced a pro career with the energy-sapping Sjogren’s Syndrome. Battling through the ups and downs of a chronic illness, she achieved her goal of making the Olympic team and won another gold medal with her sister. Finishing 2012 with a title in Luxembourg, the veteran started the new season undefeated in Hopman Cup.
Sharapova has faced tough times as well; taken out of the game with a shoulder injury, the Russian spent years struggling to regain the form that took her to multiple major championships. Her Roland Garros victory was not only a fulfillment of the Career Grand Slam, but also an emphatic triumph over adversity.
However, triumph over adversity is not necessarily “elimination of.”
Venus has worked hard to mitigate the effects of Sjogren’s, including a change in diet and selective scheduling. But the very nature of the disease is its unpredictability; for as many days as Venus may feel great, there have been (and will be) days where she pulls up lame, as she did in the first round of Wimbledon.
Drawing Galina Voskoboeva in the first round looked to be a bad omen for the American. The tall Kazakh mixes raw power with quirky finesse not unlike Tsvetana Pironkova, a player who has owned Venus, particularly at Slams. How would she hold up under Voskoboeva’s undoubtedly relentless assault of slices and dropshots?
While her ranking no longer shows it, Sharapova too has dealt with the residual effects of shoulder surgery. Though ostensibly healed, the constant tweaking with her service motion left her with a perennially shaky delivery that can produce a string of double faults out of nowhere. An ugly serving day can lead to some ugly losses, as her big game can crumble when the confidence in her serve disappears.
The collarbone injury that took Sharapova out of Brisbane was worrisome only in the notion that the Russian would come to Melbourne rusty, which could trigger one of those “no good, very bad days” on serve and on the court. Who was to say that, despite facing a less intimidating foe in Olga Puchkova, Sharapova wouldn’t hit herself off the court?
Taking the court in one of her EleVen creations, Venus silenced those buzzing around Hisense Arena predicting an upset with startling efficiency, dropping only one game to her talented opponent. Looking more like a young upstart with streaks of blue hair rather than a hobbled veteran, the American was always the aggressor and never allowed Voskoboeva to wrest control. By the end, Venus was twirling her way into the second round, erasing many doubts in the process.
As Venus was making mincemeat of one opponent, Sharapova was grounding out another. After struggling through two long games to begin the match, the No. 2 seed clicked into form in a manner that should put fear into her opposition. Exposing Puchkova’s poor movement and poorer forehand, Sharapova double-bageled her compatriot, romping through a second set where she hit only three unforced errors. Three-quarters of the way to a Career Slam Double Bagel (Sharapova has pitched no hitters at the French and US Open), the Russian looked equally dominant to start her Australian campaign.
Chaos may no longer reign in women’s tennis, but depth is here to stay. With intriguing matches to be found throughout the fortnight, the WTA may have found the best of both worlds with a meatier and – dare I say it? – more marketable product.