Sunday, August 09, 2009

How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria’s?

Okay, I have a passing interest in tennis. But I don’t really follow the sport. I have general knowledge about the big names, and sometimes have been known to drop what I’m doing and start to watch a match on TV, willing to settle in if the competition compels.

I am also not one of those guys who tends to glom onto sexy lady athletes just because they look incredibly attractive in a tennis skirt or golf togs. Like, when Anna Kournikova was all the rage—a fine piece of Russian jailbait in her time—I didn’t really care. She is a fetching lassie, but now 28, pretty much retired from the game, she’s pursuing grown-up life with her boyfriend-singer Enrique Iglesias. (I looked that up!)

I’ll be damned if I remember watching Anna actually play tennis. But Thursday night just past, I watched Maria Sharapova defeat Urszula Radwanska of Poland, 6-4, 7-5, in straight sets in a quarterfinal of the L.A. Women's Tennis Championships. Now I’m all abuzz.

Yes, Maria is beautiful. She’s a goddess, for chrissake. All of 22 years old, Maria’s been around, I guess, but, again, despite knowing of her, I don’t recall watching her play tennis. (I’ve caught the Williamses in recent years on the telly, but that’s about it.)

Maria hurt her rotator cuff last year and had to suspend her game, undergoing surgery and intense rehabilitation to put herself back on the road to competitive play. Now, I don’t know what she was like on the court beforehand—really good apparently, as a three-time Grand Slam champ—but I understand that her voluble grunting and howling was always a part of the drill. Okay, well, she still does that, with every serve and return: if there’s such a thing as a Russian banshee, then she is one.

But this was no simple, dominant performance by a fine athlete. It was instead practically a Greek epic, with the Medea figure struggling mightily with her demons, striving to put everything back to the way it used to be.

In besting her feisty, smaller opponent—at 5'9," the 18-year-old “ginger kid” Radwanska looks even more petite—the 6’2” Sharapova clearly put her tussle with the gods of corrective surgery on display.

Three successive times, Sharapova double-faulted. I don’t recall seeing even mediocre tennis players do that. She double-faulted numerous times more—13 times altogether—and clearly, as she works her way back into the tennis spotlight, she is struggling hugely with her serve. The speed is there—the radar clocked her at 107 MPH at one point—but Sharapova is so all over the place in this critical area of her game, that she seemed clearly relieved to turn the service over to Radwanska, knowing full well that the powerful Sharapova forehand made breaking service the more viable offensive strategy. (Try pulling that with Serena Williams and surviving.)

Sharapova’s on-court intensity is dramatic—some might say unnerving. Her long, lithe arms and legs splay this way and that as she moves about the court, almost spasmodic yet also controlled by a curious animal instinct that is distinctly her own. With her lovely blondeishness, her ponytail bobbing and swinging with every furious slash of her racquet, her stoical Cassandra-like facial expression unchanging, and her grim determination, Sharapova is a compelling court presence, exuding stardom even when she drives yet another errant serve into the net or out of bounds.

The serve is a big problem, something she hasn’t reclaimed with any consistency since the surgery. But she’s still a potent volleyer, gifted with Amazon athleticism and a powerful right arm still capable of vanquishing opponents.

Yet Saturday, Sharapova lost her semifinal match with Italy’s Flavia Pennetta, #14-ranked in the world currently. Sharapova began the day at #61, a long way from the rankings of headier days. She extended the match to three sets, losing 2-6, 6-4, 3-6, while registering 16 double-faults, even worse than Thursday.

I don’t know about you, but I adore giraffes. They are rare, wondrous creatures. And now, having watched this uniquely physical giraffe of a young woman, I’m a fan. But rehab’s a bitch, even at age 22, and Sharapova needs to go get that serve fixed. If not, well, she’ll still be incredibly beautiful, which is all well and good.

But now I wanna watch her play...again. Hope it’s not too late.

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