No one should feel sorry for Maria Sharapova. She’s done it all: Won gobs of prize money, millions in endorsements, five Grand Slam titles, as well as serving time for a doping suspension. But when asked Wednesday to win her quarterfinal match against Garbine Muguruza, the Russian came up empty. The loss was her worst in six years at a major.
“I guess, you know, on paper it’s a step in the right direction,” Sharapova told the press.
Sharapova couldn’t serve well enough. She couldn’t run fast enough or dominate rallies without errors piling up. Were all those missteps her fault? Not entirely. Muguruza’s no-nonsense stance hit the “brutal zone” early. She didn’t relent. She hammered away, a stalwart express train to the finish: 6-2, 6-1.
“Being aggressive is, I think, you know, it’s part of the game,” Muguruza said. “And when you’re facing somebody that also has an aggressive style of game, it’s about who take the command, who takes the first opportunity. I was just thinking about not dropping my level, not giving her a single point.”
“When she [Garbine] finds that gear and when her team can get her in that position, I’m not sure any one can beat her,” former player Lindsay Davenport said about Muguruza, as she called the match for Tennis Channel.
The Spaniard, who was born in Venezuela, is not new to this red-dirt rodeo.
Muguruza won Roland Garros in 2016, defeating the world’s unquestionable champion, Serena Williams. Determined and unfettered by the legend, she made history, becoming the first Spanish woman to win the title since Arantxa Sanchez Vicario in 1998.
But Muguruza’s prowess in Paris first emerged in 2014 when she stunned Serena in a second-round scolding, leaving fans and pundits convinced they would hear more from this blossoming star. She advanced to the quarterfinal that year, losing to none other than Sharapova, who went on the hoist the Coupe Suzanne Lenglen.
“I mean, four years ago, my experience was different,” Muguruza said. “I think I did a good performance today, very serious, solid match. I’m happy with that.”
In 2017, Muguruza completed her dominance over the Williams sisters, defeating 5-time Wimbledon champion Venus in the final at The All England Club. Muguruza’s aggression that Saturday was palpable. She knew who stood tall across the net yet took a little over an hour to demolish Venus, 7-5, 6-0.
“The 14th-seeded Muguruza, as it turns out, is the only player to earn a Grand Slam title at the expense of both siblings,” USA Today wrote.
Dominance of this caliber normally is followed by this reality: She’s a big-stage player. She shines at the big ones. She’s a champion on big stages.
These statements are all true about Muguruza, which isn’t a bad thing. She owns a 57-19 win-loss record across all majors, including this French Open. And she’s 2-1 in Grand Slam finals, losing to Serena at Wimbledon in 2015. She also holds a 6-4 career record in finals overall. This all points to a championship mindset.
“I wasn’t thinking really about it [scoreline],” Muguruza said Wednesday. “I was focusing on winning every point, every game, and the score didn’t matter.”
A former number one, she can end this fortnight at the top once again, depending on where No. 1 seed Simona Halep lands. Wednesday, though, the Romanian battled back against a fierce Angelique Kerber to win that quarterfinal, 6-7(2), 6-3, 6-2.
Muguruza’s semifinal berth is even more improbable, knowing that her back was a problem in Stuttgart where she retired against Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova after the first set this spring.
Wednesday, Muguruza camped along the baseline, an aggressive place on red clay and especially against Sharapova, who normally hits bigger and flatter, and screams louder, too. But Muguruza’s confidence and determination locked in. She pressured Sharapova every inch of the match, forcing her to come up with something she couldn’t, especially consistency on serve.
“She did a lot of things better than I did,” Sharapova admitted. “She was the aggressive one. She had a lot more depth in the ball. She served a lot better than I did.”
As a result of missed first-serve opportunities from Sharapova, Muguruza stood in wait inside the baseline for second serves like a cat ready to pounce. She won 46 percent of those points compared to 19 percent for her opponent.
Sharapova pulled out the drop shot, an asset for her on clay, attempting to unbalance Muguruza. But Maria made rookie errors. Once she didn’t follow a perfect dropper to the net, but stood in the back court seemingly in hopes that Muguruza wouldn’t get it. Hoping for an opponent of Muguruza’s stature to miss a shot is not an effective strategy, but a reflection of a game gone awry, which sums up Sharapova’s play on Wednesday.
Victoria Azarenka was the one who handed Sharapova her worst loss six years ago at the Australian Open, 6-3, 6-0… but don’t feel sorry for Maria. The disappointment will dissolve. She’ll leave Paris with a quarterfinal result after a two-year absence. In fact, Maria will leave pumped, prepped and primed for the green grass of The All England Club.
Why not? That’s the place where she won her first major, beating Serena Williams in the final.
“I think my body will need a rest,” Sharapova began. “But, yeah, mentally I’m ready to go.”
NADAL’S OWN NOVELTY
The biggest upset at the 2018 men’s Roland Garros tournament was not Marco Cecchinato over Novak Djokovic. It was something much bigger: Through the first six rounds of play, the men produced a better, more interesting, more compelling tournament than the women. That hadn’t happened in a few years. The 2017 Australian Open was great on both the men’s and women’s sides. The last time the men were unambiguously better than the women? If you have a clear answer, good for you, but it won’t come from the past three years. The men have occasionally matched the women and usually fallen short.
At Roland Garros in 2018, the men were better. (more…)
WOMEN’S TENNIS: THIS KIND OF SOCIALISM WORKS
Socialism sounds good in theory but never ends up well in practice, they say.
“They” obviously aren’t watching women’s professional tennis these days.
Remember when Serena Williams continued and extended her control over the WTA Tour at the 2017 Australian Open, following a 2016 run in which she made three major finals and a fourth semifinal? That 2016 season was also a campaign in which Angelique Kerber reached three major finals and won two. Not a lot of sharing happened on the WTA Tour, and when Serena lifted her 23rd major crown in Melbourne, it seemed that women’s tennis would remain a monarchy run by Serena, not a democracy in which various players had an equal say in the year’s most important tournaments.
Then came Serena’s pregnancy, and in a heartbeat, the WTA became a vast expanse of questions and uncertainties.
We have seen on the ATP Tour how the injury-based absences of top players have created voids — not only in terms of consistent results at majors, but also the overall quality of play. This just-concluded French Open was one of the ATP’s better majors in a while, but over the past two years, men’s tennis at the Grand Slam tournaments has been largely dreary and uninspiring. Most finals have been numbingly predictable snoozefests, and without proven players to take charge in halves or quarters of draws, many random results — “someone will win because someone has to, not because someone is transcendent or special” — have proliferated. The 2017 Roland Garros tournament was like this. The 2017 Wimbledon tournament offered glimpses of such an identity. 2017 U.S. Open was the ultimate representation of this dynamic over the past 18 months. The 2018 Australian Open largely fit this description as well.
Missing the top stars the past 18 to 24 months has noticeably hurt the quality of the ATP Tour, so when Serena had to tend to the task of childbirth, everyone naturally wondered how women’s tennis would respond.
The results have been unpredictable, just as they have been with the men (hello, Sam Querrey making a Wimbledon semifinal; Kevin Anderson playing Pablo Carreno Busta in a U.S. Open semifinal; Hyeon Chung and Kyle Edmund making Australian Open semis; Marco Cecchinato making these just-concluded Roland Garros semis). However, women’s tennis has produced the compelling major finals men’s tennis has failed to deliver. Just compare the two Roland Garros finals we witnessed over the weekend.
More than that, women’s tennis is crowning the new champions men’s tennis is failing to produce.
Since the start of 2010, men’s tennis has created only three first-time major champions: Andy Murray at the 2012 U.S. Open, Stan Wawrinka at the 2014 Australian Open, and Marin Cilic at the 2014 U.S. Open.
Ever since Serena stepped away from the sport in early 2017, the WTA — in a span of five major tournaments — has exceeded the men’s total of first-time major winners this decade.
Jelena Ostapenko last year at Roland Garros; Sloane Stephens at the U.S. Open; Caroline Wozniacki in Australia; and Simona Halep this past Saturday in Paris have all crossed the threshold. If the men — #ATPLostBoys — can’t pass the baton to younger generations just yet, the WTA is doing exactly that, and in supremely entertaining fashion. What is even more noteworthy: The players at the center of the WTA’s balanced distribution of signature championships are removing significant what-if burdens from the sport.
Ostapenko is the outlier in the group, but Stephens has answered questions about who will be the next American player to follow in Serena’s footsteps — not to the same extent, of course, but certainly in terms of being a constant threat to do well at the biggest events in the sport.
In 2018, Wozniacki and Halep have both removed the eight most oppressive words in tennis or golf from their necks: “Best player never to have won a major.” The unpredictability we all expected in women’s tennis once Serena stepped away has been the happiest, most productive unpredictability one could imagine. The combination of entertainment value and redemptive stories has been off the charts.
The flow of life on the WTA Tour has been so cathartic and inspiring that after Wozniacki and Halep removed burdensome labels from their careers, there’s no similarly acute example remaining of a player currently in contention at majors who is trying to banish her demons. Karolina Pliskova, at 26, is the oldest player without a major in the current WTA top 10. As she gets to age 28 or 29, her story might become more poignant, but as someone who has made only two major semifinals and only one major final, Pliskova doesn’t have the accumulation of memorably painful defeats both Wozniacki and Halep absorbed before those two finally broke through. Wozniacki’s and Halep’s respective triumphs this year carried so much impact because the tennis world was aware how often they had climbed the hill, only to be knocked down to the valleys below. Pliskova’s story doesn’t carry the same weight — not yet. The WTA has written the two foremost feel-good stories it possibly could have authored in 2018.
The one still-active player on the WTA Tour who can legitimately claim to be the “Best Player Never To Have Won A Major” is Agnieszka Radwanska, now 29 years old. However, she is outside the top 25 and hasn’t been a top threat at the majors for roughly two years. (She lost to Serena in the 2016 Australian Open semifinals.) Among active players in contention at the year’s biggest tournaments, no first-time major hopefuls carry the promise of hope or the weight of longing to the degree Wozniacki and Halep offered.
In an age when so many sports teams — internationally and in America — are winning their first huge championships in their respective realms of competition, the WTA is in step with the times. That the WTA’s evolution has coexisted with a high quality of play and gripping major finals shows that this version of socialism — wide and relatively even distribution of resources — works in practice, not just in theory.
We will see at Wimbledon if it continues.
Testigos de la grandeza
Mientras veía a Rafael Nadal intentar completar el tercer set de la final masculina de Roland Garros a la vez que resistía un calambre en su mano izquierda, de repente, comprendí algo que me impactó: cada pequeño detalle debe darse para que un jugador encuentre el santo grial del tenis, también conocido como ganar un gran título de grand slam. No puede haber ningún accidente.
Ningún conductor ebrio, como el que frenó a Thomas Muster, ni un fanático desequilibrado, como el que interrumpió el curso de la vida de Mónica Seles. No puede haber ninguna lesión, como las muñecas vulnerables de Juan Martín Del Potro o ninguna distracción que pueda causar algún problema personal. Ni siquiera se puede sufrir un lapsus de concentración porque eso le abre la puerta a rivales hambrientos que siempre están trabajando para mejorar. (more…)