I can finally see how this might work. Women’s tennis might not be about to die, afterall. It has been clinging to the aging bodies and fading interest of the Williams sisters, the hopeless prayer that Kim Clijsters will just keep extending her comeback, and of course the thrill of the return of Justine He…Oops, Henin is already gone again.
No. 1, Caroline Wozniacki just doesn’t play like, or seem like, a champion. Not yet anyway. Besides that, she hasn’t won a major. Now, in waiting for a new star to emerge, along comes. . .
Day saved? Maybe.
You need a real champion. You need a rivalry. You need marketability. You need breakthrough appeal. Check. Check. Check. Check. And it’s not just Sharapova, either, but also what she can do to put a check mark next to Wozniacki for all of those things.
We go into the French Open Sunday, and women’s tennis is on the verge of being supercharged with a new, unexpected potential rivalry: Sharapova-Wozniacki.
Too many people gave up too fast on Sharapova after her shoulder became a mess and then her mind fell apart on her serve. Despite being around for so many years, she is still just 24. And it’s not as if the women’s game is leaving her behind or progessing one inch. In fact, I picked her to win the U.S. Open last year. Then, she got jittery and lost to Wozniacki.
I’ll never make that mistake again, I thought.
I’m making it again. My pick for the French: Sharapova. It is the softest, weakest, most unstable pick anyone has ever made. I actually would have picked Serena, even though it’s her worst major. But she’s still out while recovering from blood clots in her lungs. Clijsters, who has won the past two majors, tore up her ankle when she fell off high heels dancing recently. She’s going to try to play the French with heavily taped ankles. Wozniacki? Well, this would seem to be her moment, but she just lost to Sharapova in Rome. Maybe Francesca Schiavone can repeat, but I think her moment last year was a one-time, beautiful, face-in-the-clay thing.
No, Sharapova is the one. I’m sure of it (Hah!).
But even if this isn’t it for her, she continues to show that she’s getting better, inching along. She is now ranked No. 7. Her serve is no longer the weapon it was early in her career when she became so easy to market: a supermodel who wins Wimbledon. But it is not the disaster it has been for the past few years, either. It’s mediocre. That’s probably good enough.
Though I didn’t figure Sharapova was done, until seeing her on the court with Wozniacki in Rome, I never really thought about the dynamic of the two of them together.
I mean, Sharapova-Serena Williams has been, and would be, a better rivalry. But that one hasn’t mattered in a while since Sharapova lost her relevance and then Williams got hurt/lost interest. Williams might still have plenty of greatness left, but, after nearly a year away from the tour, it is impossible to rely on her anymore.
Wozniacki plays too defensively to equate her with our image of a champion. More importantly, if a good player having a good day shows up – as happens late in majors – Wozniacki loses.
This is where Sharapova fits in. Think of the rivalry: Defensive Wozniacki vs. Killer Barbie. Both have marketable looks. If Wozniacki beats Sharapova in major finals, she gets credibility.
What makes me think Sharapova can get all the way back to the top? Well, why not? Women’s tennis is filled mostly with players doing the exact. . .same. . .thing. Just bashing everything from the baseline. Sharapova is doing it, too, only with more nerve.
Wozniacki’s game works because she keeps the ball in play and forces her opponents to blast several more shots in a row than they are used to. Anyone who finds nerve to do that has a shot.
The women’s game is seriously lacking in nerve. But I think Sharapova, outside of her serve, can out-tough most everyone. And if her serve stays at its new, adequate level, that’s probably good enough. It was enough to beat Wozniacki and win the tournament in Rome.
Suddenly, the women’s tour might have something at the top again, and it comes at the same time it starts a fantastic new ad campaign called Strong is Beautiful: In all the right amounts it pushes toughness, tennis and sex appeal.
For a minute, hope was on young Julia Goerges, who beat Wozniacki a few times. That’s great, keep her in the wings. Keep Sam Stosur there, too. See what Victoria Azarenka has to give and get as much out of the Williams sisters and Clijsters as they’re willing to give.
Sharapova is just about relevant again. This just might work.