Comparisons are not perfect, but as the saying goes, “Don’t make the perfect the enemy of the good.” This is an apt way of entering into a discussion of the first Really Big Event (capital letters warranted) of the 2018 French Open: Maria Sharapova versus Serena Jameka Williams on Monday in Paris.
Sharapova popped Karolina Pliskova on Saturday at Roland Garros, and hours later, Serena jolted Julia Goerges with a clinical, crisp performance. It is true that nothing Serena does should ever surprise tennis observers too much. That said, the idea of Serena winning three matches without a lot of advance preparation or live action in the month of May was not easy to buy into.
The changes, disruptions and uncertainties of Serena’s life — as a tennis player and a mother — have been so profound this year that it made sense to take a wait-and-see approach to her Parisian campaign. The fact that Serena struggled on hardcourts in March — in Indian Wells and Miami — was not a surprise at all. Those results seemed like organic and natural responses to many months spent away from the WTA Tour. Something would have been wrong if Serena had mowed down everyone in her path a few months ago. Similarly, expecting a dominant French Open from Serena — a default setting for tennis pundits three years ago — could no longer be seen as instinctively rational. Her world just isn’t the same.
Neither is Maria Sharapova’s… and that forms the essential part of the backdrop to Monday’s showdown.
Since the last time these two players met in the 2016 Australian Open quarterfinals, so much about their lives — on and off the court — has changed. Body, mind and spirit; joy, suffering and introspection; birth, suspension and injury — so many transformations have greeted at least one of these two women in various ways. This raises the question which is central to Monday’s match and the path it travels: How much will 2.5 years change Serena-Pova, if it changes the matchup at all?
This is where one blockbuster sets up a comparison with another. The comparison isn’t perfect, but it certainly owns some strong common threads.
At the 2017 Australian Open, no one knew what to expect from Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. These two players both fit the “never count them out” identity which is rightly applied to Serena, but as much as any success should never be seen as “too surprising,” it still was hard to express certainty that Roger and Rafa would naturally make their way through the draw. They were both seeded outside the top eight. Federer was coming off an injury, while Nadal had just gone through his two toughest seasons in roughly a decade on tour. In a period of three years, they played only once — in Basel, indoors, in Federer’s back yard, not the context in which one could gauge the larger evolutionary status of their head-to-head matchup. When they locked horns in the 2017 Australian Open final, the natural assumption was that Nadal would find a way to win — he had not lost a best-of-five-set match to Federer since the 2007 Wimbledon final. Yet, that assumption was based in large part on the belief that after three years without meeting a major tournament, the dynamics of the head-to-head would remain the same. Chiefly, Nadal would own the biggest moments.
That scenario came very close to repeating itself, but in a span of roughly 20 minutes midway through the fifth set of that match, Federer cleared his head and pushed Nadal out of it. He played the ball and blocked out everything else. He played with an internal freedom which had been the central obstacle to his success against Rafa.
The three years removed from playing Nadal at major tournaments liberated Federer and changed the nature of the duel.
This is what Maria Sharapova is counting on and hoping for in her meeting with Serena on Monday. Two and a half years after her previous meeting against Serena, Sharapova is hoping to find a mental reset button against the opponent she has fundamentally failed to solve (and at a level far more severe than anything Federer experienced against Nadal — Roger has 15 wins against Rafa, Maria only two against Serena).
You don’t have to admire Sharapova — or view her comeback from a suspension as impressive — to appreciate the simple reality that she has restored a considerable degree of her clay-court game. Destroying Pliskova on Saturday in 59 minutes, even when absorbing the fact that Pliskova played poorly, rates as the kind of statement Sharapova made in her heyday. Sharapova treated Pliskova’s second serve with disdain. She owned the court with a familiar swagger. Unlike her first two rounds, she didn’t make a match unnecessarily complicated.
Does crushing Pliskova mean Sharapova is a fully restored player? One can debate that point. There were times over the past month in Madrid and Rome when it seemed reasonable to think that the Russian was about to reclaim the height of her powers, only for her to lose the next match she played. Yet, at the very least, Sharapova has firmly reinserted herself into the Roland Garros discussion. When she lost to Caroline Garcia in Stuttgart, it was an open question if Maria would enter that conversation at all.
Is she “back?” I don’t know… but I do know that if she beats Serena on Monday, she damn sure will be. Sharapova has, at least, given herself a chance to make a very loud and very satisfying personal statement. Merely having this proving ground against Serena is all she can ask for.
She hopes that with a new mind and a new perspective, she can make the kind of magic Federer created against Nadal in January of 2017.
One other aspect of this comparison with the 2017 Australian Open men’s final is particularly relevant: In Federer’s journey through the first week of that tournament, he rummaged through his toolbox and searched for his game in the first two rounds, but then clicked in round three against Tomas Berdych. At this Roland Garros tournament, both Serena and Sharapova noticeably improved in round three as well, delivering authoritative smackdowns to give credence to the idea that they can make a run.
For all the ways in which a Federer-Nadal Australia comparison is incomplete or imperfect when set against Monday’s Serena-Pova reunion in Paris, you have to admit there are more than a few striking connections between the matches.
As was the case roughly 16 months ago in Melbourne, it is up to one player to change the course of history.
Your move, Maria.
Image source – Jimmie 48
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…)