Dialing It Back One Time

by: Steve Tignor | March 12, 2010

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Ms I’d planned to ease into this tournament, to get here before the serious tennis began, stroll around in the sun, watch a practice, watch an exhibition, and get some sleep so I’d be ready for my first hockey-puck sausage in the Holiday Inn breakfast room tomorrow morning.

That’s the way it’s supposed to work out here in the desert. You can tell that Indian Wells is a favorite of the players just by how relaxed—“calm, yes?” in Rafael Nadal-speak—they appear to be in their pre-event press conferences. On Friday Roger Federer was at his ease when he faced the flashbulbs in the interview room. He even took the time to sit back and spend a few paragraphs analyzing his history with the media and how he feels he’s been treated. What was his conclusion? We've gotten better with him the more we’ve gotten to know him.

But as I walked to my desk this afternoon, I could sense that there had been an early disturbance in the force, an early wake up call to fans and writers. I guess it was the word I kept hearing as I walked down the press room aisle: "Justine." But it was more than just Henin's upset; the aftershocks from her loss were being felt on Stadium 2, where Maria Sharapova was sleepwalking, slumped and silent, toward a sure loss to Vera Dushevina. Having missed every point of Henin, I made a stab at catching some of Maria before she hightailed out of the tournament and back to L.A. for the second half of the Lakers game.

This had been billed as a night of entertainment for a good cause, but there were no positive vibes to be seen or heard out on Stadium 2. The sun had been reduced to a tiny, distant glint, and a chilly wind snapped the flags that circle the top of the arena. It was just as desolate on the court, where Sharapova looked, for lack of a more original word, awful. Her timing was off, her movement was sluggish, and she couldn’t come up with two quality shots in a row. After a winning inside-out forehand, she’d try it again and send it five feet wide. Ditto for the backhand down the line. Her serve, at times, was worse. A few of them ended up wide of the doubles alley. Couple this with the fact that Dushevina wasn’t doing much with the ball other than float it back over the net—afterward Sharapova said she was “basically giving her the match”—and you had the makings of a very bad night for the women’s side at Indian Wells. The new-old order was failing to fall into place.

The match turned on two plays, one of them an intelligent one by Sharapova and the other an unintelligent one by Dushevina. Serving for the match at 5-3, Dushevina kept going for her first serve and kept missing it, even though the only points Sharapova had been winning against her came on her feeble second delivery. She kept missing, she kept hitting weak second serves, and she was broken. In the next game, at 30-15, Sharapova took the opposite approach. For one of the few times all day, she kicked her first serve in rather than risking a second ball. Surprised at the change of pace, Dushevina was out in front of her return and netted it.

It’s a lesson that Henin might want to consider in the future. From all reports, she continued to press the issue today despite being completely off, much the way she did in the first set of the Australian Open final. Afterward, Henin said she was “never really in the good rhythm.” But rather than stepping back and trying to find that rhythm, she pushed ahead. 

There are times when the women are criticized too severely for less-than-spectacular play, simply because they can always be compared unfavorably with the men, and what the men can do on a court. But you are allowed to wonder about the blind devotion of many of the top women to aggressiveness, especially Henin's devotion—she's one player who can win without having to play high risk. Still, I liked her immediate reaction in her presser. “[This match] proves that I have a lot of things to work on," she said. "That’s what I’m going to do.” It sounded like she’s been wanting some outward confirmation of what she knows inside—that she’s not all she can be just yet, not all the way back. 

Henin spoke these words at just about the same time that Sharapova was kicking in that first serve and taking that crucial point. Henin refused to back off and lost her match. Sharapova, by dialing it back for a single point, won hers.

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