In place of a regularly scheduled column, I present “Backboard Banter,” a friendly debate with tennis writer Benjamin Snyder. Follow Ben on Twitter @WriterSnyder and leave your feedback; this might become a more regular occurrence.
Maria Sharapova won her second Indian Wells title on Sunday without the loss of a set, capping off the terrific fortnight with an emphatic victory over resurgent rival Caroline Wozniacki. A buzz began to develop around the Russian; more for the cryptic messages she would write on the camera lens post-victory (in lieu of the tradition signature) than even her impressive play. Coy requests to “Tweet me?” turned into warm wishes for “Sweet Dreams.” This week, Benjamin Snyder (a contributor to the New York Times’ Straight Sets blog and a past writer for Wimbledon and the US Open) joins me for a debate on Sharapova’s week, revamped image, and what those messages could possibly mean.
David Kane: For all her inconsistencies, this has to go down as one of the most business-like efforts from Maria Sharapova since her shoulder surgery. While it’s true that she had to play neither Serena Williams nor Victoria Azarenka, she did have to deal with crafty opponents and players who have beaten her in the past en route to the title. As impressive as her ball striking has been in the desert, I have to wonder what has caused this change. Her notoriously streaky play has been well documented, most recently at the Australian Open when she barreled into the semifinals only to suffer a letdown in the penultimate round.
But no letdown occurred this week, least of all in the final when she saved the only two break points she faced. Sharapova herself didn’t feel like she redlined her game to win the final, attributing her success to thoughtful aggression, “doing the right things and being patient enough and looking for the right shot of…when I wanted to move in a little bit.” I know you have a couple of interesting theories, Ben, so I’ll let you draw blood first.
Benjamin Snyder: Well, David, where to start? I think we’re seeing a second coming of sorts for Sharapova, personality-wise. We may never quite get the 14-year old Maria (the carefree, stamp-collecting, camera twirling one), but, I believe, we’re getting a quirky candy tycoon (maybe more of a silly sour than a plain old, purely saccharine silly) who’s trying to portray some semblance of her past.
Why? Because, quite simply, she’s afraid of being boring. Plus, she’s become bored. To combat the on-court intensity and the off-court poise that can come across as over-polished, and probably to also have fun, she’s penning cryptic on-camera messages to illustrate an enigmatic edge of attitude. As David so thoughtfully collected, the messages, beginning from round one to her win over Wozniacki, are as follows: “tweet me, who knows?, feeling silly?, just kidding, sweet dreams,” and “champion.”
Instead of an aimless attempt at interpreting each message, which would end up being more conjecture than substantive, let’s see what the Russian told reporters. “I got bored with the signatures, and actually I don’t even know why we ever do signatures,” she said. “I was just bored of signing my name and started doing something different.”
As you may have guessed, the key word here: bored.
But, before I go any further, David, take it away with the following in mind: Is this a new Maria, a revision of a former model, or neither?
Kane: The Sharapova we’ve seen this week is hardly one invented from scratch. After all, she who once expressed a passion for aromatherapy as a teenager still enjoys a good personalized candle from LeLabo. No, to explain this peak in personality, I’m going to draw a parallel to the men’s game (hope everyone’s buckled their seatbelts, this could get ugly). Once upon a time, Rafael Nadal was undefeated at the French Open. Beyond that, he owned Roger Federer, thought to be the only man who could end the Spaniard’s romp on the Parisian dirt. After losing three straight finals, and with all the attention on the King of Clay, Federer came into the 2009 French Open under the radar. Playing relaxed tennis, Federer played a first week’s full of entertaining matches before Nadal was shockingly bundled out of the tournament. Suddenly the favorite, Federer slipped into the role with relative ease and fulfilled his tennis destiny by completing the Career Slam.
To be sure, Sharapova’s win at Indian Wells lacks some (many) of my parallel’s epic qualities, but the mood was the same. With the focus on the undefeated Victoria Azarenka, Sharapova stopped worrying about her “boring” final finishes and relaxed. After all, we have the cheeky scribbles to prove it. That relaxation failed to loosen her permanently clenched fist, but it freed up her sometimes-shaky serve and streaky ground game beyond the point where she simply inherited the No. 2 ranking from injured Azarenka by reaching the final. Instead, she broke down the door by winning the title.
At the same time, both Federer and Sharapova illustrate the important difference between “relaxed” and “resigned,” for when the moment called, they answered with equal gusto.
The question for Sharapova, then, is whether there are enough scented candles in the world to maintain this level of giddy zen in fields complete with Serena Williams and a healthy Azarenka. What say you, Snyder?
Snyder: Point well taken with the comparison of Sharapova to Federer’s dominating performance.
Now, when we’re talking Sharapova in the same sentence as Serena and Azarenka, there are a plethora of questions with which to contend: Can she snap the losing streak to the American? And can she continue to out-grunt the scream queen and Redfoo-loving Belarusian in the heat of battle? Look no further than her head-to-heads with both and the answer appears to be a resounding no versus Serena (2-11) and pretty even against Azarenka (5-7).
To talk branding though, I’d argue Sharapova’s competition is essentially non-existent (although Li Na’s endorsement deals in Asia may soundly reject that notion). But in terms of popularity in the United States and Europe, she’s sugarcoated royalty on a WTA Tour of Sour Patch Kids (to keep the cornucopia of candy references coming). The Russian has the compelling rags-to-riches storyline, the comeback from injury to eventually take the Roland Garros title – think: transformation from “cow on ice” to antelope on clay – and the press conference presence a PR maven could only dream of for his or her clients.
While Serena has a love-hate relationship with fans and Azarenka, well, tends to hold a mostly hate-hate relationship at the moment, there’s something to be said about Maria’s charm, poise and mostly unwavering appeal (at least once she’s off-court and keeping the decibel levels down). If the Siberia native finds herself feeling a little bored these days and wants to spice things up, there’s no reason that these cryptic camera messages can’t also strike a positive chord – on-court screeching aside — with her fans.
So, David, maybe Sharapova is truly just “feeling silly” and maybe she’s “just kidding” about being bored. Regardless, there’s nothing more concrete right now that she’s the 2013 Indian Wells “champion.”
For any more analysis on the matter, Sharapova wrote it best: “Who knows?”
James Crabtree is currently in Melbourne Park covering the Australian Open for Tennis Grandstand and is giving you all the scoop directly from the grounds.
By James Crabtree
As tough as Federer’s draw has been on paper this was his first real test.
Jo- WilfredTsonga is a big, fast and intimidating player who knows what it feels like to beat his rival in five sets.
Add to that Tsonga’s assorted collection of thunderous ground shots, booming serves, tantalizing volleys and a crowd he keeps enchanted, Federer had a problem.
Most people attending, aside from those who had national pride or an unhealthy devotion at stake, were happy to see either man win.
The first four sets were shared evenly and at that point both players deserved to win. Consistency, fitness and strategy were comparable, although Tsonga’s style was generally more flamboyant. By this point people watching were thinking up elaborate excuses why they wouldn’t be into work tomorrow morning, in anticipation of a Wawrinka Djokovic battle royale.
“Jo was really pressing forward today, playing aggressive, pushing me to come up with the plays and get one more extra ball back. I think I did well. I’ve been moving well all week, or the last couple weeks. You know, I guess also not having played any tournaments leading in, today was tricky because I haven’t been in a match like this for some time, and I’m happy I came through.” said a relieved and happy Federer who added to his own history books with his 10th straight Australian Open semi-final.
Jo-Wilfred Tsonga went toe to toe with Federer but failed to deliver when it really mattered most, losing 7-6 (7-4) 4-6 7-6 (7-4) 3-6 6-3. Tsonga was bidding to deny Federer any more statistical achievements and his 10th consecutive Australian Open semi-final.
The Frenchman had taken the fourth set brilliantly seizing the opportunities when they presented themselves. Sadly he started the fifth without the desperation needed to outlast the most successful player of all time. Something was missing and with it Federer’s confidence multiplied.
But luck was on Federer’s side during this kind spirited affair. Even whilst a break up he was the fortunate recipient of a net cord that dribbled over the net, with Tsonga fruitlessly running all the way past the net and into Federer’s court to which Tsonga, with a wry smile, could only mock hit a ball at the Swiss master.
Tsonga’s downcast expression following his defeat was more striking than the words he used afterwards when speaking to the press.
“You know, I’m a bit in the bad mood because I lost it. But, you know, in other way I played a good match. I was solid. I was there every time. I keep my level of concentration, you know, really high all times. You know, I just gave my best today, so I’m proud of that. But, you know, I’m not happy to lose, and I already look forward for the next tournament, the next Grand Slam, to try another time.”
Everybody is so quick to comment on Federer’s age, almost without realisation how old everybody else is getting. Tsonga and Berdych are both 27, David Ferrer is 30. Their athletic biological clock is ticking by too and all three need to renounce their membership from the illustrious ‘nearly men’ group.
A subdued Tsonga reflected afterwards of the Federer he lost to today but beaten at Wimbledon two years ago. “In 2011 I think it was not a really good year for him, and I’m sure he’s more in a good shape. He was in a good shape last year and he’s in a good shape at the beginning of this year, so I think it’s a different player.”
A different player Andy Murray, Federer’s next opponent, should be wary of.
By Melissa Boyd
Dec. 3, 2012 — Eugenie Bouchard has been on the Canadian tennis radar for almost as long as she has been swinging a racquet. Labeled early on as the potential ‘next one’ to follow in the footsteps of Carling Bassett-Seguso, Helen Kelesi, and Aleksandra Wozniak, Bouchard has begun carving her own path to greatness thanks to a breakout season in 2012.
The 18-year-old native of Montreal made history in July when she was crowned girls’ singles and doubles champion at Wimbledon, becoming the first Canadian ever to win a Grand Slam singles title. Bouchard actually won 19 consecutive matches this summer with her Wimbledon triumph sandwiched between titles at the ITF junior event in Roehampton and the $25,000 pro Challenger in Granby.
“Winning Wimbledon was a really tough tourney. It was a junior (event). I had the pressure all week. People expected me to win because I was playing women younger than me. So it was a big mental test and I was really proud that I was able to come through,” said Bouchard in an interview last week with a select group of reporters.
Many in attendance on Court 1 at SW19 were impressed with Bouchard’s poise and maturity in posting a convincing win over Elina Svitolina in the Wimbledon girls’ singles final on one of the biggest stages in tennis. She put her mental toughness on display at the Rogers Cup in Montreal when she out-toughed Shahar Peer, one of the best competitors in the women’s game, to earn her first Top 50 victory.
Perhaps the most impressive stretch of Bouchard’s year came during the Fall indoor season when she put her aggressive style of play on full display, reaching the final at the Saguneay Challenger and the following week winning her first $50,000 Challenger in Toronto. Bouchard suffocated her opponents with her offense-first mentality, losing just a handful of games en route to the title in Toronto and dominating Melanie Oudin in the Saguenay semifinals. The run secured her place in the Australian Open qualifying draw which will be her first Grand Slam as a pro.
“I had great coaches when I was young and they taught me to take the ball on the rise. I think that’s it really important in the women’s game,” said Bouchard. “Of course you want to hit fast, but you want to hit it early as well … Hitting it fast takes time away from your opponent.”
With 2012 now in her rear view mirror and the tennis world at her fingertips, Bouchard is ready to make the transition to becoming a full-time WTA pro in 2013. She is fully aware of the challenges awaiting her if she wants to prove that her 2012 campaign was no fluke.
“The top players in the world have a little something extra,” said Bouchard. “They don’t make mistakes and they don’t give you any free points, you have to earn them.”
Even though her career is just getting started, Bouchard is already turning heads off the court as much as she is impressing on it. Their obvious physical likeness and similar game styles have people drawing comparisons between the Canadian and her idol Maria Sharapova. Not to mention that Bouchard was recently chosen by Sharapova to wear her line of Nike tennis clothing. She is the whole package and her bubbly personality is a hit with fans. Even though it’s early, it’s hard not to get wrapped up in the excitement surrounding Bouchard and she knows that the onus is now on her to deliver on those expectations and send a message that the future is now.
“There is pressure from everyone around me, but I already put a lot of pressure on myself,” said Bouchard. “It’s nice to know that people think I am going to be good because that’s what I believe too, but I have to focus on what I have to do to become that player.”
By Melissa Boyd
Four years ago many wondered if she would ever play again and when she did, next to no one believed she could taste the sweetest victory of her career, the one that she earned on the famed red clay courts at Roland-Garros. In the space of three days, Maria Sharapova became World No. 1, captured her first French Open title, completed the career Grand Slam and wrote another page in the tennis history books.
People may have doubted Sharapova’s ability to win a Grand Slam after suffering a potentially career threatening shoulder injury in 2008, but Sharapova herself never stopped believing through all of the trials and tribulations of her comeback. It all came together for her on the clay in 2012, a surface on which she once famously described herself as being a “cow on ice”. Remarkably, Sharapova went undefeated on red clay this year, a streak which culminated with her fourth Grand Slam title in Paris following a 6-3, 6-2 over first time Major finalist Sara Errani of Italy.
“I had so many outs in my career. I could have said, I don’t need this. I have money; I have fame; I have victories; I have Grand Slams,” Sharapova said. “But, when your love for something is bigger than all those things, you continue to keep getting up in the morning when it’s freezing outside, when you know that it can be the most difficult day, when nothing is working, when you feel like the belief sometimes isn’t there from the outside world, and you seem so small.”
The 25-year-old Russian is the tenth woman to complete the career Grand Slam joining the esteemed ranks of Maureen Connolly, Margaret Court, Chris Evert, Shirley Fry, Steffi Graf, Doris Hart, Billie Jean King, Martina Navratilova, and Serena Williams. She is the first player to accomplish the feat having won only one title at each of the four events. Sharapova’s performance at Roland-Garros will propel her to a whole new category of greatness, the one that is reserved for the best players of all-time.
Beyond the numbers and the significance of such a monumental triumph, it’s how Sharapova found her way back to the pinnacle of her sport that is perhaps most impressive. She overcame bad losses, poor form and a less than reliable serve. She has since improved her movement, rediscovered her lethal groundstrokes and most importantly, found her confidence. The Sharapova that won her first French Open title is a better player than the Sharapova who won her first three Grand Slam crowns.
Beneath Sharapova’s fame, fortune and steely exterior, lies the heart of a true champion and the exuberance of a young woman who is realizing her dreams. She is a fierce competitor who takes her tennis very seriously and when she fell to her knees and cried tears of joys into the French ‘terre battue’ after Errani’s shot went into the net on match point, she showed the world just how much the greatest moment of her tennis life meant to her.
“It’s the most incredible feeling. I don’t know what to say. I’m so happy. I’ve worked so hard for this,” Sharapova said. “It took a lot to get to this stage and even more to win it. There are so many tough days where you feel like giving up, but you don’t. It’s been such a journey to get to this stage again.”
For what seems like years, fans of women’s tennis have been looking for a legitimate rivalry at the top of the game. They may finally get their wish with the compelling rivalry emerging between the top two players in the world, Victoria Azarenka and Maria Sharapova.
It was difficult to label head-to-head a rivalry given Azarenka’s dominance of Sharapova this season. However, the Russian finally turned the tables this weekend , for one match at least, in the final at Stuttgart to capture her 25th career title to match the birthday she celebrated a few weeks ago. The two had met twice already in championship matches this year and at least one of them has played for the title at all of the major tournament thus far in 2012.
Sharapova’s run to the Stuttgart crown was rather impressive, particularly on clay. She defeated Samantha Stosur, Petra Kvitova and Azarenka in consecutive matches, including a dominant 6-1, 6-4 victory over the World No. 1.
“I had lost the last few previous encounters with Victoria, so I was extremely motivated today,” Sharapova said. “When I got the chance to go out and play her again I knew I had to change a few things. Before I was maybe a little bit impatient and went for a bit too much sometimes, but this time I was really patient. I was aggressive but consistent when I had to be against her. “
If Sharapova can continue to keep up her end of the bargain, women’s tennis could have its version of the ATP’s Djokovic-Nadal rivalry. The potential is certainly there for many reasons. One of which is their match ups have risen in intensity. They brushed shoulders while crossing the net during a changeover in the Stuttgart final, drawing a small reaction from both, but exchanged a civil handshake at the match’s conclusion. Both are fierce competitors and currently at the top of their game which are important ingredients in any rivalry. They also have players like Kvitova, Agnieszka Radwanska and Serena Williams pushing them to be better.
Azarenka is the emerging star while Sharapova is a legend of her sport, both on and off the court. Azarenka wins matches with her natural athletic ability while Sharapova uses exquisite ball striking and a burning competitive desire to will herself to victory. The contrasts and similarities are there, so is the motivation and after Sunday’s somewhat unexpected result, anticipation is building already for their next encounter and the numerous one that are sure to follow.