WIMBLEDON: Desperate for a Leader, Women’s Tennis Getting Old, New Champion in Maria Sharapova

Maria Sharapova

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.

It has been a good Wimbledon for women’s tennis, but not a great one. The game is thirsting for greatness, craving it. Missing it.

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.

Maria Sharapova won Wimbledon in 2004

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?

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

5 responses to “WIMBLEDON: Desperate for a Leader, Women’s Tennis Getting Old, New Champion in Maria Sharapova

  • lita

    As long as her serve holds up, she’ll win Wimbledon. Personally, I’m thinking Sabine Lisicki or Petra Kitivova will win. What do I know, I’m still thinking Serena Williams will make her mark before she retires.

    This all remains to be seen….I’ll stay tuned.

  • John JM

    Why is that about the young women players? Why are they coached to have a one-dimensional game based on power? Clijsters would have lost the Australian Open to Li Na if all she did was bash away. Instead, she changed paces and turned the match around after losing the 1st set. Coaches should rewatch that final.

    • lita

      The game is far different now, and you have to have power. Look at the trouble Caro is having. She’s being blown off the courts even though she is #1. She better add some power to her game, or risk being a slamless #1. I like Caro and would hate for that to happen to her. I also think Serena will have a final say before she’s done. Not so sure about Venus. Her game is going down a bit, and she is stubborn and won’t change what needs changing anyway. Not sure about Kim, because she said this is her last hurrah–2011, then off to have another baby or adopt one. Hope all the olde ladies–especially Serena–have one last and successful good-bye the next 2-3 years or so.

  • Zech

    I think its interesting to note that should Sharapova win it will mark a digression in women’s tennis. Say what you will about the Williamses but the level they brought to women’s tennis from the mindset, serve, power, and movement has yet to be repeated. Sharapova can only mimick the mindset and power; the serve to an extent. Heck the Williamses can volley the traditional manner when they’re up at net. She doesn’t have the raw athleticism or the touch around the court. But she’s the only remaining champion in the draw. No offense to Maria, but I hope Kvitova takes it because she has a bigger prospect and has the all around game that breeds champions…the weapons as a Serena, Venus or Kim. Not some one dimensional game, though she play as such sometimes.

  • lita

    I know it’s a bit LATE Zech, but we got our wish.

    Petra won Wimbledon, and in convincing fashion 🙂

    SO much for Maria being the NEXT big thing AGAIN.


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