The Hottie Bowl
I gauge the mass appeal of most tennis events by the way they're treated on ESPN’s Pardon the Interruption. This may not appear to be a logical approach at first glance, since Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon are typical of the aging sportswriters who think tennis died the day Bjorn Borg hung up his headband, and they're basically know-nothings about the current game. Yesterday Wilbon picked Tsonga to beat Federer in the men's final because he had just beaten Nadal, and Nadal has beaten Federer in the past. The guy clearly doesn’t know his Plexicushion from his crushed brick.
K and W aren’t just typical of aging sportswriters, but the American sporting public in general. Still, maybe I’m naïve, but I was surprised that they were so excited to see tonight’s final Down Under between Maria Sharapova and Ana Ivanovic. It was one of their lead headlines, right up there with the up-to-the-second whereabouts of Tom Brady. Is it depressing that Wilbon tried to justify the fact that he was only watching because the two finalists were attractive? I guess in the end the fact that you know a lot of people are watching a certain sporting event makes it a little more exciting to watch it yourself, no matter what the reason. So, just so you know, there will be more men in the U.S. watching this match than there have been for other recent women’s Slam finals. Doesn’t that make you feel better?
What’s exciting about any major final is that there's always something big on the line for each player. These things can be career launchers—like, say, Martina Hingis winning in her first try, in 1996 in Melbourne—or crushers, like the 6-0, 6-0 drubbing Natasha Zvereva took at the hands of Steffi Graf in Paris in 1988. Tonight’s final almost certainly won’t be that decisive, but it’s an important test for both 20-year-olds.
As Mary Carillo pointed during Sharapova's semi against Jelena Jankovic, she doesn’t fare all that well when she’s the favorite. In her three Slam finals, Sharapova has won when she came in as the underdog (against Serena Williams at Wimbledon in 2004 and Justine Henin at the U.S. Open in 2006), and been crushed when she was No. 1 in the world (against Serena here last year). Is she the favorite tonight? Based on her current outstanding form and lifetime record in Slams, Sharapova should win, but she’s actually ranked below Ivanovic (who will be No. 2 after this weekend). Either way, I doubt she’ll be able to convince herself she’s the underdog, which means she’ll have to deal with the pressure of expectations. In that sense, this match is a crossroads for Sharapova: The all-time champions and true No. 1s win when they’re expected to win.
For Ivanovic, there will be more pressure at the start, but probably less as the games go by. This is her second major final, and all eyes will be on her to see if she can avoid a repeat of what happened to her the first time around, at Roland Garros last spring. There Ivanovic was admittedly “overwhelmed” by the thought of winning a Slam and could barely get her service toss above her head. She also started very nervously and poorly in the semis here against Daniela Hanuchova. I’m sure I won’t envy Ivanovic as she serves for the first time tonight; here’s hoping she keeps it under control and doesn’t make the meltdowns a habit. The women’s game needs a new success story (and not just because she’ll get more men to watch).
A fast start for Sharapova seems likely, but if Ivanovic can ride out her nerves, the tables could turn. Sharapova got a little shaky at the end of the first set against Jankovic, before the Serb was slowed by an injury in the second. Ivanovic is a smoother player and better ball-striker; she’s also lost weight, improved her backhand, and is coming off a breakthrough win over Venus Williams, her first. The surface may also favor her slightly. Ivanovic and Sharapova have split their last two matches, with the Serb winning easily on slow red clay in Paris and Sharapova turning the tables last fall on carpet.
Still, I think Sharapova’s willpower will carry her in the end. Her father, Yuri, has always cultivated an us-against-the-world attitude for the two of them, which may help explain why his daughter is not as good when she has nothing to prove. For now, though, she’s still in the process of proving herself to the tennis world again.
Sharapova: 6-2, 4-6, 6-1