It’s a nice story, that Maria Sharapova is back in the final at Wimbledon. It’s about courage and patience and stick-to-itiveness. It’s great for women’s tennis, which gets the star power it needs in its biggest moment.
But I’ve already talked about that stuff. And after watching her semifinal match, I would like to talk about what stood out most: Sharapova’s serve. What does it say about women’s tennis that someone who can’t serve might win Wimbledon? And what does it say about Sharapova that she can compartmentalize so well that she’s a nervous wreck on the most important shot in tennis, yet a killer everywhere else?
At some point, quality of play has to sell the sport beyond Sharapova’s looks. Her 6-4, 6-3 win Thursday against Sabine Lisicki was awful. It’s nice to think of Lisicki as a rising star, just 21. Good for her. But in the big moment, she lost her serve, too.
It’s fun to see Sharapova back to the top, and her mental toughness on all but one part of her game. But while it’s impressive that she can do this with one hand tied behind her back – her serve hand – it’s not encouraging that no one is making her pay for that. The other semifinal saw Petra Kvitova beat Victoria Azarenka 6-1, 3-6, 6-2. In that one, Kvitova was great, then bad, then great again. She likes to crush the ball, and it goes in more often than it doesn’t.
So that sets up Saturday’s final between Sharapova and Kvitova. I’ll go with Sharapova, simply because she has been here before, even if it was 2004.
That’s what got her through on Thursday. At first, she couldn’t keep anything on the court, and Lisicki was strangely comfortable. But that can happen. The moment actually grows throughout a match.
And one point from going down 4-0, Sharapova survived for a few more minutes. Lisicki missed a dropshot, Sharapova held serve and then took off while Lisicki fell apart until the final few games, when it was too late.
We’ve seen a lot of players, usually women, get the yips on their serve. I remember asking Ana Ivanovic once about why a toss is so hard? You just lay the ball up there. She said she didn’t know. But she couldn’t do it anymore. Elena Dementieva was the best player in the world for a while. . .after her toss.
These things just get in your head, disrupt the rhythm of your thoughts. Remember when baseball player Steve Sax couldn’t throw the ball to first base anymore?
At some point, you’d think a mental block on one thing would spread like cancer to other parts of your psyche.
I liked what she was doing at the French Open, when she went for too much on her second serves. There is no point to standing there, panicking about missing a second serve, and the tentatively dumping it into the net. You couldn’t have accomplished anything with the dink serve, anyway. And it forced her to be aggressive on her most timid shot.
But on Thursday, she double-faulted 13 times in 66 serve points. That’s nearly one double fault for every five points. She got only 48 percent of her first serves in. And only 21 of 34 second serves.
She can’t even get two of every three second-serves in, but she’s about to win Wimbledon.
On Thursday, experience kept her from panicking. It was her mental toughness on groundstrokes. It was her never-ending fight. That’s what separates her from the other players on tour.
It’s what got her all the way back to the Wimbledon final after seven years, after shoulder surgery, after, and during, the yips. She could have reached the French Open final a few weeks ago, but double-faulted that away.
So she had to pay for that then. But she has been climbing the rankings, and is now No. 6, without a serve. I thought it would be a bad sign for the women’s tour if the Williams sisters were able to just walk in after half a year (Venus) or a year (Serena) with injuries and little practice, and win Wimbledon. Both lost in the fourth round.
But that Sharapova serve is just so awful that you’d think talented opponents wouldn’t let her get away with it. Novak Djokovic had the yips on his serve for a while, too. But he couldn’t win a major again until he got past it.
No one makes Sharapova pay. Amazingly enough, she is finding a way not to make herself pay for it, either. Can you really win Wimbledon with one hand tied behind your back?