It was match point against Maria Sharapova, and everyone knew what was going to happen. The service box is 21 feet deep, 13½ feet across, and there was no way she was going to get her serve over the net and into that big box. It must look like a postage stamp to her. After the first serve was out, Li Na could have walked off the court, shaken the chair umpire’s hand and sat down.
There was no way Sharapova would get that second serve in.
It happened, of course. Sharapova tried to put a little spin on the serve to control the ball, but she can’t do that. Instead, her arm slowed. . .way. . .down. . .mid-swing, and the ball went into the net. Li won 6-4, 7-5 Thursday to become the first Chinese woman to reach the French Open final. She’ll play defending champ Francesca Schiavone Saturday.
Sharapova hasn’t reached the final in her past 11 majors, since winning the 2008 Australian Open. She beat Ana Ivanovic that day, and women’s tennis had to be in heaven with a future looking bright and highly marketable. Since then, Sharapova and Ivanovic have totaled zero major finals, but countless swimsuit fashion shoots.
But this isn’t to rip into Sharapova.
In fact, it’s the opposite. I picked her to win the tournament. And while she probably should have won after reaching the semis, this still was her best finish in a major in 3½ years. She also figures to move to No. 7 in the world rankings.
Sharapova is not back. But she’s going in the right direction. And after all these years on tour, she is still just 24. Keep in mind, women’s tennis isn’t for teens anymore. Schiavone is 30 and Li 29.
“I’m quite proud of what I’ve achieved here,’’ Sharapova told reporters after the match. “I don’t have any doubt in the fact that I will be going out and working on some things and trying to improve, as always.’’
Let’s face it, it’s all about the serve. That’s the only thing holding her back now. Everything else is just as good as it was before. And you can’t blame her shoulder surgery any more. That was in 2009.
It is just such a puzzle how someone whose strength is tenacity and mental toughness can lose nerve on the serve. Big, powerful golfers lose nerve like that in putting, but that’s a touch shot. Sharapova blasts shots and should be able to blast serves.
She just can’t get past it. But if there is any way to get through the yips, I think Sharapova is dealing with it perfectly now.
“I was rushing more than I had to. . .” she said, “and maybe I was just trying to go for too big of second serves, especially.’’
She was hitting 100 mph on her second serve. And she had 10 double-faults. Three came in a crucial game late in the first set, and two in the final game. Basically, she double-faulted her way out of a major.
But I disagree that that was a problem. Sharapova’s serve motion, and toss, seem flawless now. But to risk getting technical, I think she’s just pushing the ball on contact instead of snapping her wrist. That makes it nearly impossible to get any spin.
And if you can’t spin your second serve in, and you’re standing there worried that you’re going to miss, what should you do?
Hit it 100 mph. Sharapova can hit her way out of her serve-nerves; it keeps her from decelerating on the swing and actually gives her a chance to accomplish something on the serve.
She can trick herself out of this mess. It has already been working. She beat No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki on the way to winning the tournament in Rome a few weeks ago, one level below a major. And now she reached the semis. She goes to Wimbledon as a favorite, maybe the favorite.
Other than serve, she seems to have almost no strategy, and just bangs away into open court from the baseline. But that’s what most of the women do, anyway. And her willingness to fight to the end, and not choke (other than on the serve) puts her above others.
Women’s tennis is in desperate need for her to be back in contention at majors. The game’s crossover marketing, outside of a loyal tennis audience, has little to sell, especially with Venus and Serena Williams off the tour for nearly a year with injuries and illness. Who knows what their future will be?
The beauty of tennis in a bad economy is that it’s an international game and can go to different places to search for revenue. The big push now is Asia, and this is the second major final in a row for Li. That might help to start up thing at the grass roots level in China, but it’s not going to produce immediate results.
She has five years to figure out that serve. Plenty of time. But she might be figuring this out. The game needs her now.