It was a big TV night Sunday. We had the Oscars, of course—also known as the Super Bowl for Women—but I had trouble getting into it. I’d just seen my favorite character on television, a mainstay on The Wire, catch a bullet and die in a shockingly prosaic and ignominious fashion. I won’t tell you who it was (though I expect it could be leaked in the comments below), because I know people who are catching up with the show, or at least planning to start catching up one of these days. The Wire is a tough ramp-up, no doubt about it. And this particular death was tough to take, but it made sense in a Wire kind of way, and the Dennis Lehane-penned episode was the best of the season so far.
I’d spent the hour or so before that watching the less-dramatic but still highly instructive women’s final from Doha, in which Maria Sharapova won a roller coaster three-setter over fellow Russian (and veteran emotional roller-coaster-rider) Vera Zvonareva. The consensus on Sharapova seems to be that she’s not “fun to watch.” I’ve agreed with this at various points in her career. Her style is herky-jerky, to the point where I sometimes wonder how she hits her spots so consistently with the form she uses. But after watching her yesterday with the sound off, I found that I had no problem with her game. Grunts and screams muted, Sharapova has a style that I think any tennis fan—even the most demanding technique critic—can enjoy watching. It might even be called beautiful, as long as your concept of beauty includes doing the right things to win. I’ve always found that to be the most attractive trait in a tennis player.
This doesn’t mean Sharapova is smooth or classic or textbook or even explosively athletic—all the things that the tennis cognoscenti want to see. But she’s also no “mindless basher of the ball,” as Mats Wilander has called her. I’ve written about her strategic skills in the past, but this time I was also struck by her talent for measuring her pace and placement—she wasn’t aiming for the lines the way she often has in the past—and for that most old-school of skills: developing points. It isn’t just the relentless way she drives the ball up and the line, crosscourt, and then behind her opponent. It’s also the way she recovers just to the right of the hash mark and inside the baseline after cracking an inside-out forehand. From there, she’s two steps away from the likely defensive reply she'll get from her opponent, and which she invariably got from the slow-footed Zvonareva.
Sharapova is usually classified as a “fighter,” or someone who “wants to win every point.” But that only gets you so far in a sport that rewards the player who wins the right points. Her famous tenacity was on display Sunday in the final game of the second set, when she saved three set points from 2-5, 0-40. I was impressed by her ability in that situation not only to take one point at time, but one shot at a time. The normal reaction to being down that far in a set is either to give in entirely or to subconsciously give in by rushing one of your shots. Sharapova did the opposite and forced Zvonareva to work hard to finish off the set.
It would be unfair to think of Sharapova as merely as desperate street fighter who saves her best for when she’s behind. If that’s all you can do, you’re not going to put yourself in a position to win many matches. What's more important is how well she plays the crucial little points that crop up in each game. These are not dramatic moments that change the momentum, and they rarely make the highlight reel afterward. But taken together they determine the course of a match, and winning them regularly requires not just fighting ability, but intelligent point management, which may be Sharapova’s most underrated attribute.
A playing partner of mine and I like to say that 30-30 is the point that separates the men from the boys—or, more coldly, the winners from the losers. And it’s true—next time you come to a 30-30 point, see if you don’t just get a hair tighter than you do at other times. You have a little mental help on most other points: at 15-all, it's too early to get worried; 15-30 you’re in battle mode; 30-15 you’ve got a little wind at your back. Thirty-all? Call it the sudden death of tennis. I’ve always been amazed at how often, even in the pro game, the player who loses the 30-30 point ends up getting negative on the next one and subconsciously giving it away. (In the final in Doha, I counted only one game that went to 30-30 and then continued on to deuce; all the others ended on the next point. It seemed more likely that a game would go to deuce if the score had been 40-15 or 15-40 after the first four points.)
There were nine 30-30 points in the final in Doha. Sharapova won six of them. She won the three that cropped up in the first set, which she took 6-1. Zvonareva won three of the four in the second set, which she won 2-6. Sharapova then won the two 30-30 points in the third set and rolled 6-0. Clearly, these nine points set the tone for the entire match. So much so that as I was watching, I began to think that a tennis fan could just fast forward to the 30-30 points, the way NBA fans can find out all they need to know about a game in the last two minutes.
I’ll focus on three of these points. In the first set Sharapova was up a break at 2-0 when the score went to 30-30 on Zvonareva’s serve. Sharapova began by blocking her forehand return to the service line—an intelligent, neutral way to open up a point in which both players would be nervous. But she didn’t settle into a defensive mode and hope her opponent would miss. Sharapova looked to send Zvonareva wide and open up the point from there, which she did after three or four balls. She ended up hitting a winner crosscourt without putting the ball anywhere near the lines. Sharapova was up 3-0 and the set was over. When the experts say that good players play the big points well, they’re not referring to the incredible save they might make at 7-8 in the third-set tiebreaker. They’re talking about the kind of point Sharapova played at 2-0, 30-30.
It didn’t work out that way in the second set. Zvonareva served the first game, which went to 30-30. For some reason, Sharapova abandoned the safe block and went straight down the line with a full-swing forehand return, missing by inches. It was an all-or-nothing attempt, and it cost her. Having held, Zvonareva was relieved and rejuvenated, perhaps becasue she had finally won a point that some part of her recognized as crucial. Sharapova, meanwhile, seemed distracted by her missed opportunity. Seven games later she had lost the set and coach Michael Joyce was saying to her, “You let the first few games [of that set] bother you.”
I’m guessing Sharapova knew not just the game, but the point, he was talking about. In the first game of the third set, she won a long rally with a brilliant mix of scrambling defense and powerful offense. When her last forehand screamed past her opponent for a winner, Sharapova let loose with a spasmodic fist-pump. And why not: She’d just won the 30-all point. She wouldn’t lose another game.