COUNTDOWN TO FRENCH OPEN (3 DAYS): Maria Sharapova About to be Relevant Again

Maria Sharapova wins in Rome

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. . .

Maria Sharapova.

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.

About gregcouch

I can talk tennis all day long, and often do. And yet some of the people I talk to about it might rather I talk about something else. Or with someone else. That’s how it is with tennis, right? Sort of an addiction. Sort of a high. I am a national columnist at FoxSports.com and a FoxSports1 TV insider, and have been a columnist at the Chicago Sun-Times. In 2010, I was the only American sports writer to cover the full two weeks of all four majors, and also to cover each of the U.S. Masters series events. I’ve seen a lot of tennis, talked with a lot of players, coaches, agents. I watched from a few rows behind the line judge as Serena rolled her foot onto the baseline for the footfault, a good call, at the 2009 U.S. Open. I sat forever watching a John Isner marathon, leaving for Wimbledon village to watch an England World Cup soccer game at a pub and then returning for hours of Isner, sitting a few feet from his wrecked coach. I got to see Novak Djokovic and Robin Soderling joke around on a practice court on the middle Sunday at Wimbledon, placing a small wager on a tiebreaker. Djokovic won, and Soderling pulled a bill out of his wallet, crumpled it into his fist and threw it at Djokovic, who unwadded it, kissed it, and told me, “My work is done here.’’ And when Rafael Nadal won the French Open in 2010, I finished my column, walked back out onto the court, and filled an empty tic tac container with the red clay. I’m looking at it right now. Well, I don’t always see the game the same way others do. I can be hard on tennis, particularly on the characters in suits running it. Tennis has no less scandal and dirt than any other game. Yet somehow, it seems to be covered up, usually from an incredible web of conflicts of interest. I promise to always tell the truth as I see it. Of course, I would appreciate it if you’d let me know when I’m wrong. I love sports arguments and hope to be in a few of them with you here. Personal info: One-handed backhand, serve-and-volleyer. View all posts by gregcouch

3 responses to “COUNTDOWN TO FRENCH OPEN (3 DAYS): Maria Sharapova About to be Relevant Again

  • John JM

    Uncanny (for me) that you should write an article about Sharapova: I just started getting excited about her again after seeing that match with Wozniacki. And yeah, she’s barely 24, even though it seems like she’s been around forever. I always felt like she’d be back eventually. Early twenties is too young to be washed up.
    A question, though: Why is it that her serve is still not what it was? Is it fear, or physical? I’d love to see her completely back and get a career slam by winning the French.

    And btw: I have no confidence whatsoever that Schiavone will win the French again. Too many stars had to align for that to happen last year: Stosur had to take out the #1 player on clay (Henin), and then take out the #1 player, period (Serena). A shame that she then went on to lose to a journeywoman (Schiavone). But hey, good for her. I was happy that an underdog won it.

  • John

    After not cheering for Maria for most of her career over the last few years I have come to be quite a fan. So after not wanting her to win Slams at the expense of whoever I was cheering for at the time, and certainly not wanting her to complete the career slam, I now find I would love for her to win this French Open.

    But from memory I do not think the champion in Rome goes on to win the French Open in women’s tennis very often. And I have memories of players over the years saying that the clay at Rome was faster then at Roland Garros (not 100% without going through old tennis magazines however).
    Henin rarely, if ever played Rome.
    Graf didnt play Rome during the latter half of her career (though this may not be due to any surface reason as I remember an article in an old tennis magazine from the 91 or 92 kind of era reporting on some kind of issue with fans, I think. Again would have to look it up to say with total confidence and its 4am so am too tired🙂 )
    Seles played Rome, winning in 1990 but not in 91/92.
    The two women who won the most at Roland Garros since 1988 opted not to play in Rome. I have assumed it to be partly due to the surface being different and am not sure if the a win at Rome is as much of a ‘clay victory’ as it would be in Paris.
    I dont barrack for Wozniacki at all ( i seem to rebel against liking the players who are heavily promoted by the tour as a sexy superstar) but on the Paris clay I would expect her to paste Sharapova, especially if it was anything but an unusually hot day. If its cold and wet and the clay therefore slower Maria would need to be superb to beat Wozniacki, possibly even any true dirtballer types.
    I look forward to watching it all unfold!
    French Open tommorrow! WOOT WOOT!!!!!

  • Stan Wood

    Sharapova’s win against Garcia yesterday illustrated your point about her nerves well. She was two breaks down in the second after losing the first set. At that moment I thought “if anyone can pull out of this, it’ll be Maria.” I’d have given up on Caroline/Kim/Vera by that point.

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