Maria Sharapova is about to win Wimbledon again, and take over women’s tennis. I wish I felt comfortable with how confidently I just put that.
But every sport needs someone on the mountaintop, someone you would say is the best, someone everyone wants to beat. Women’s tennis has no leader, and that’s not just about whether Caroline Wozniacki, ranked No. 1, is a real and deserving champ (She’s not).
No, this about the game not having someone that everyone either loves or hates, pulls for or against. Someone with star power, who is noticed when she walks into a room. Women’s tennis is a mish-mash. But in four days, Sharapova will change that, becoming the game’s new leader. Or maybe its old leader, renewed.
That’s what the game needs, and is going to get. I’m sure of it. Mostly.
Sharapova beat Dominika Cibulkova 6-1, 6-1 in the quarterfinals Tuesday, and hasn’t lost a set yet. But Cibulkova played about as dumb as anyone possibly could, trying to outmuscle someone who is twice her size.
“Does Cibulkova have a Plan B, or anything else she can do other than hit with Sharapova?’’ John McEnroe asked, while calling the match on NBC. “Underhand slice serve? Go short?’’
It was not an endorsement for the women’s game to hear a legend so openly, so easily and so correctly, tear down a Wimbledon quarterfinalist.
Sharapova won Wimbledon when she was 17, coming out of nowhere to crush Serena Williams. In fact, back then, Sharapova was so unknown going into the tournament that I asked McEnroe what he thought of her and her amazingly loud grunting. He said he hadn’t seen her, but that her grunting couldn’t have been THAT loud.
He now has seen her.
And heard her. We all have.
She was supposed to win a bunch of Wimbledons from there. She instantly became the Credible Kournikova, with supermodel looks and major championships. She is a marketing dream for the game.
Seven years later, she hasn’t reached a Wimbledon final since, and has won just two more majors. She did have major shoulder surgery, but then lost her nerve on her serve. She has been slowly getting better and gotten back to No. 6 in the world. I thought she would win the U.S. Open last year, but she wasn’t quite ready. I picked her again to win the French Open this year, but she double-faulted her way out in the semis.
That’s why I’m a little nervous picking her to win now that Williams has lost. Sharapova is not trustworthy yet. But at Wimbledon, she hasn’t been double-faulting much, and the rest of her game is back.
She has the persona of a leader. She draws viewers, draws attention, gets noticed. As a champion again, she would be a huge boost to the tour.
The quality of play for the women at Wimbledon has been better than it was in the previous few majors. The tour showed something, too, in not allowing the Williams sisters, with little practice after longterm injuries, to just walk back in and win.
Wozniacki is still going to be No. 1, but hasn’t won a major, and is becoming pressured by all the questions: “I don’t care what people say or think or do,’’ she said after losing in the fourth round.
Her best is not the stuff of a champion, at least not yet. It’s the stuff of someone waiting for non-champions to fold.
Serena might still be able to dominate, if she stays healthy and becomes committed. Li Na, French Open champ, brought in plenty of eyeballs – and potential ticket-buyers – from Asia. But they’re both 29. Kim Clijsters sounds as if she’s almost ready to retire again.
After all these years, Sharapova, believe it or not, is still just 24. And the mark of this Wimbledon for the women’s game has been the young players. Before now, the 28-, 29-, 30-year olds were winning big matches with the tour talking about modern-day fitness and experience. The truth is, it said more about what the next generation was missing.
On Thursday, Victoria Azarenka will play Petra Kivitova in the semis. Sabine Lisicki will play Sharapova, who is the old lady here. The other three players are 21. But star power? Most people won’t remember the winner’s name, unless it’s Sharapova, half an hour after the match.
Is the next generation arriving? Maybe. But hold on. I’m not even sure these same women will be around at the end of the U.S. Open.
It has taken 10 different women to fill the 12 spots of the semifinals in this year’s first three majors. Only Li and Sharapova have gotten that far more than once.
It’s possible that young players are moving in. But I think, too, that modern players, the young women, have all been coached to play exactly the same style, bashing away from the baseline without touch or finesse. So there isn’t much variety, and most of the players on the top tier are somewhat even.
Parity doesn’t work. On court, Sharapova never gives up. That’s what has separated her as a player. That same relentlessness has also kept her fighting all these years despite a bad shoulder and problem serve, not to mention the financial security of an eight-year $70 million Nike contract.
She’s just about back. Two more matches, four more days, and women’s tennis has its new, old leader back. Or is she an old, new leader?