Saturday, March 30, 2013

Is Maria Ready for Serena? Sony Open Final Today

The BNP Paribas Open at Indian Wells was held March 4-17. After the U.S. Open, it is one of the more important tennis tourneys on U.S. soil, with a warm California setting and a $5M total purse that includes a $1M payout to the singles winners. 

I missed seeing any of the tourney on the telly this year. But just now, I finished watching a replay of Maria Sharapova's dissection of Caroline Wozniacki in the women's final. Maria totally kicked her ass. I mean, really dominated. I'm not sure I've ever seen her that strong.

Yes, Wozniacki is a vanilla player, but she is dogged and can volley all day. Still, Maria would not make mistakes and she was driving the ball ferociously to the corners. She even uncharacteristically came to the net once and caught up to a well-timed Wozniacki drop shot, then fired her return on a sharp angle for the point. Woz could only watch.

Despite her world acclaim as a tennis star, not to mention her imposing beauty, I never really followed Sharapova with any dedication until 2009, after learning about her physical problems. Namely, in August 2008, Sharapova withdrew from the Rogers Cup tournament following a shoulder injury. An MRI revealed that she had been suffering from a rotator cuff tear since April of that year, forcing her out of all tournaments for the rest of the season, including the Beijing Olympics and the U.S. Open. In October 2008, after a failed attempt to rehabilitate the shoulder naturally, Sharapova had surgery to repair the tear.

Hence, my interest in Sharapova has always been about seeing how she would respond, at the age of 21 and in her tennis prime, to an injury that might devastate her career. It's not that you can't function after rotator cuff surgery. It's: "Can you compete in international tennis against the likes of Serena Williams or Victoria Azarenka?"

Sharapova has made the return to form, for sure, has won one major (French 2012) and has competed quite well in other majors and minors. But she turns 26 on April 19, and that will make the Maria-Watch even more interesting, since—at an age when it might all be downhill from here—she seems to be, finally, at peak physical strength, in shape and fit, fully recovered from the shoulder problem, and ready to put it all together to win another major. 

Yet Serena—now 31, and still looking powerful as ever—continues to stand in the way of Maria's challenge to ladies tennis supremacy, and the two square off at 12 noon EST today in the final of the Sony Open in Miami. 

What to look for: Is Sharapova's power game now at a point where she can wear down the great Williams? Maria will also have to prove that her fit form means an improved ability to move toward the net as necessary. Serena proved in her semifinal victory over Agnieszka Radwanska that a drop shot is not outside of her
varied arsenal. 

Sharapova must also stay away from her occasional habit of

double-faulting—a holdover issue from her shoulder recovery. Based
on the Indian Wells results, it appears that Maria might be able
to simply outmuscle Serena—and that possibility is what makes
the match must viewing. 

CBS broadcasts the match live.