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?”