LONDON—The prancing, pitter-patter steps. The back to the opponent, like a madman relief pitcher getting ready to storm the mound. The string-gazing and the hair flip and the world-famous Shriek. The spastic “Come on!” and the ever-present clenched fist. And now the latest addition, the hyped-up fiancée who sits at attention and fist-pumps in her direction even when she’s not looking at him. Yes, certain things about Maria Sharapova can seem designed to bug the old-fashioned tennis fan.
I’ve been thinking about that over the last six weeks, as I’ve heard and read the many jokes and complaints about Sharapova’s shrieking, in both Paris and London. You might think she would temper the noise, or, after of all these years on tour, ease up on the between-points rituals. Or at least unclench the fist. But Sharapova, like the Queen, or the All England Club, or an experimental jazz band, alters nothing to suit popular opinion. Sitting in Centre Court today and listening to the crowd titter away at her louder efforts, I wondered what, at this point, fans would do if she didn’t do the Shriek? Would they be just a little disappointed? It’s not a pretty noise, and there should probably be a rule against it, but for now it’s part of the performance.
It’s that ability to stay in her bubble, to ignore, that makes Sharapova a special competitor. She can ignore the laughs and jibes and keep right on grunting. She can ignore a long period of injury, frustration and lack of success at this, her favorite tournament—it might not feel like it, but it’s been seven years since she won the title here at 17. And, as she showed again today in the semifinals against Sabine Lisicki, Sharapova is very good at ignoring the score. In a matter of minutes, she was down 0-3. Lisicki was the rookie out there—this was the German’s first Slam semi—but it was Sharapova who was battling her nerves to start.
Which brings me to another question: We talk all the time about “winning the big points,” but this presupposes that we know when a big point is happening. Sometimes, though, we only recognize the most crucial moment in a match when it’s far back in the rearview mirror. Then we think—“Why didn’t I just win that one point? Everything would have been totally different.”
Today that point came with Sharapova serving at 0-3 and down break point. She double-faulted in that game and still seemed to be trying to find her legs, her movement, her range, her game. She needed to hold just to settle herself. Lisicki appeared to be picking up where she had left off in her previous matches, dominating rallies and serving big. With a break point for 4-0, Lisicki tried a drop shot and missed. It seemed like an innocent mistake at the time, but Sharapova went on to hold, and in the next game she turned into a completely different player. She won one point with a full-blooded crosscourt forehand, and two more with a play that worked well for her the rest of the way, a hard return of serve down the middle and near the baseline. It was a play that helped get that break of serve, and an even more crucial one to make it 5-4. No one knew it then, but the match was over.
Asked afterward how she turned it around, Sharapova started with a garden-variety comment. “I told myself to take it one point at a time and really focus.” But what seemed clichéd at first turned into a simple but important insight into how Sharapova operates. “I felt like I just kind of got into my zone,” she said. She found her space, the place where she could block everything out, including, and most important, her own bad play.
Living within her limits on court is something that Sharapova has learned to do since having shoulder surgery. Despite winning in seemingly routine fashion, the double fault haunted her, just as it had in her semifinal loss in Paris. She committed 13 today.
“Coming from the indoor match a couple days ago,” she said, referring to the comparatively windy conditions on Centre Court this afternoon, “I felt like my toss was all over the place today.” But Sharapova also said that she knew she couldn’t panic over the double faults, that she had to work around them. And even when they started to come more frequently in the second set, she still found her serve when she needed it. The key moment came in the second game of the second set. Sharapova had broken a despondent Lisicki in the first game and then taken a 40-15 lead. Suddenly her toss went wayward and she double-faulted twice. This was the moment of truth; was her serve going to betray her after all? But she got it in on the next two points, and got Lisicki to send two balls long. Nothing about the moment was pretty, but Sharapova had manufactured a game and kept her momentum intact. The danger had passed. Not long after, she would be up 5-1.
Of course, Maria had some help. After blowing that 3-0 lead and losing the first set 6-4, Lisicki appeared to have nothing left mentally at the start of the second. Forehands that had gone for winners for two weeks now sailed well out. Drop shots that had kept her opponents guessing now spun feebly into the net. Her own serve, perhaps the best single shot of the women’s tournament, followed Sharapova’s south. Down 2-0, Lisicki made an even bigger mistake. With a light mist falling and seemingly more rain on the way any minute—the sky was piled with thick, dark clouds—she petitioned chair umpire Louise Engzell to stop play. Engzell didn’t stop it. Lisicki, distracted, was broken again. And despite the best attempts of Sharapova’s serve to get her back in the match, Lisicki couldn’t take advantage. She seemed gutted by the first set defeat; the purposeful calm she had shown all fortnight had descended into forlorn confusion.
Which was a shame. The breakout story of the women’s tournament dissolved in the pale, dreary light and swirling breeze on Centre Court. It felt a long way from the place where Lisicki had recorded her two emotional three-set wins under the roof, against Li Na and Marion Bartoli. She wasn’t the same self-assured ball-belter that she had been in those controlled conditions. And she wasn’t the same when faced with Sharapova’s flat ground stroke rockets. The hitter was outhit.
But this is a run to build on. Lisicki came in as a wild card and left us with at least one indelible moment, her tearful burst of joy after beating Li, and her shouted answer to a question from the BBC a few minutes later:
“Sabine, can you put your emotions into words?”
Lisicki wiped away a tear and said, simply, with a smile, “No!”
With her walloped, noiseless strokes and winningly even-keel demeanor, the German is a woman to hope for.
The player who vanquished her is a woman to watch once again. This will be Sharapova’s first Slam final appearance since she won the Australian Open in 2008.
We probably won’t have to worry about her being distracted by the moment. Today, after she’d won, Sharapova looked briefly toward her box, and her fiancé, Sasha Vujacic. He, naturally, pumped his first in her direction, and then put his fingers to his temples, as if to say, “Up here, you did it up here, with your mind.” It was the right message, I suppose, but it never got through. Sharapova, sticking to her well-worn victory ritual, had turned away to blow a kiss to the crowd on the other side of the stadium. She was ignoring him.