By Maud Watson
Maria Sharapova quieted the naysayers for now with her win in Stuttgart. After failing to find her best in recent finals, there was some doubt as to whether or not Sharapova, one of the sport’s most prolific fighters, still had what it took to cross the finish line. She answered that question last weekend, beating the last three Grand Slam champions en route to victory. From her groundies and serve, to her scrambling and shrieking, she outdid Azarenka in every department. And while Azarenka’s injury inhibited her ability to play at her best, there’s no denying that this was one of the cleanest and most consistently aggressive matches the Russian has played in some time. But greater recognition should go to her wins in the quarters and semis over Stosur and Kvitova respectively. By all rights, Stosur should have had Sharapova done and dusted, but Sharapova refused to roll over, Stosur got tight, and Sharapova stole the win. Then in the semis, perhaps thanks in large part to the number of break points Sharapova had already saved, Kvitova missed a sitter of a short forehand that would have taken the match to a third. And even though Kvitova ultimately did find a way to break and force a second set tiebreak, Sharapova stayed the course to win in straights. Her victory certainly puts her in the conversation as one of the favorites at this year’s Roland Garros, though we’ve yet to see how she’ll perform on the outdoor clay. If she brings this game with her, however, you have to like her chances to go far.
Lucky Number 7
Rafael Nadal continued his love affair with clay by cementing his seventh straight tournament victory in Barcelona with his win over compatriot David Ferrer. In doing so, he became the first player to secure two different tournaments at least seven consecutive times. It was a stunning display by the Spaniard, whose only real test came in the final. Having to save five set points in the first and coming up with something special to fend off a determined Ferrer in the second, it was a great effort by the World No. 2. The last couple of weeks should be a shot of confidence in the arm for Nadal as he heads into Madrid. And even though the new clay in the Spanish capital has Nadal grumbling, there’s little doubt he’s the top favorite to win the tournament and wrestle back the title he lost in 2011.
Singin’ the Blues
There’s a lot of buzz regarding the upcoming Madrid tournament, and it has little to do with the competition that’s set to unfold. Instead, it’s focused on the blue clay, the reviews for which range from finding it unique, to hating it, to everything in between. Personally, I’m with the tournament organizers in appreciating that they’re trying to be innovative and want the players to keep an open mind before passing final judgment. It will most likely make the ball easier to see for TV purposes, and it’s not like we’re talking about changing the red brick clay of a tournament steeped in tradition the way Roland Garros is, or even Rome. And while recognizing that the blue clay will play differently than the red, it’s not as though this is the last warm-up for the French. Besides, in general, the cream always rises to the top. In short, let’s not declare Madrid a mitigated disaster before it’s even begun and see what happens. With the stellar field that will be playing there, it’s bound to be entertaining.
Another recent unpopular change to hit the news was the ITF’s announcement that players will now be required to play four Davis or Fed Cup ties for their nation if they wish to represent them at the Olympics. Not surprisingly, players, like Maria Sharapova, were unhappy with the change. It’s understandable why the ITF would adjust the rules, as they recognize the need to entice the game’s top stars to play Davis and Fed Cup. It’s also legit to expect those players who really care about representing their countries, as opposed to say just their own personal glory, to do so through the Davis and Fed Cup, with a spot on the Olympic roster being their reward. The only way this works though, is if the ITF keeps the loopholes down to a minimum. Unless they do that, then we just end up with the same farce we do every four years, and its’ getting old.
The AEGON Championships at the Queen’s Club were undoubtedly sorry to see Rafael Nadal change his Wimbledon warm-up routine by playing Halle instead of the grass court tune-up in London. The Spaniard had cited British tax laws as his reasoning (the larger appearance fee he’s getting from Halle probably helped his decision as well), but it appears the British tax laws aren’t deterring a slew of other top players from heading to the British capital ahead of the third Grand Slam event of the year. Top Brit Andy Murray will be there, as well as Tsonga, Del Potro, Tipsarevic, Fish, Roddick, and Simon, along with a number of other top talents. With a lineup like that, it’s hard to not already begin looking forward to the all-too-short grass court swing of 2012.