Indian Wells: Sharapova d. Vinci
Maria Sharapova's 6-2, 6-1 win over the 29-year-old from Taranto was a work of art only in the sense that it provided deprived fans of Sharapova (she hasn't won a major title since February of 2008) with a utopian vision of their idol's game. It was almost like Vinci was the set-up guy, recruited to bring out all that is effective and impressive—while hiding all that is weak—in the game of the statuesque Russian.
You don't need to be a da Vinci to be familiar with the concept of contrast or, if you want to get all fancy, chiaroscuro. But the concept describes Sharapova's game neatly. When she gets a good look at a ball and doesn't have to move a lot, and when she can force an opponent back on her heels with her big serve, she looks like she ought to win three majors a year (rather than owning just three majors for her career).
However, when she's taken out of her comfort zone (see "A" for "Azarenka, Victoria"; or "S" for "Serena Williams"), Sharapova can appear wooden, overly effortful, and stone-handed. Now that's chiaroscuro, or contrast, and the odd thing about today's match was that Vinci is a player who is capable of tapping into the darker elements in Sharapova's game. She has a tricky, sliding sliced backhand, a solid volley, and good instincts for using the entire court.
But for some reason, Vinci tried to out-rally and out-hit Sharapova, a strategy that can bathe the No. 2 WTA player's game in a warm, bright glow.
Forgive me if I'm sounding a mite pretentious here. How about you try to get 600 or 700 words out of a match in which the loser won but one point on a second serve early on, and didn't win another until she was serving to stay in the match at 0-5 in the second set? Vinci ended up with a 4-for-24 conversion rate on second-serve points for the match; that's a paltry 17 percent.
Part of the problem, of course, is that Vinci's second serve is a puffball; she's in no danger of frying the speed gun with those 70 MPH offerings, but you have to wonder why she so often and effectively put them right into Sharapova's wheelhouse. She ought to have known by now that Sharapova loves teeing off on balls that are in her strike zone, and today she did it so aggressively that not long after the start you felt obliged to avert your eyes whenever Vinci had a second serve to hit.
And it wasn't like Vinci knew right from the get-go that she had no shot. The two games she managed in the first set were both Sharapova breaks, and they extended Sharapova's two-match inability to hold to four games. But Vinci helped Sharapova work her way into a confident frame of mind by offering her a regular and predictable diet of sliced backhands. That hasn't worked since the heyday of Steffi Graf, and it only worked then because of Graf's superior athleticism.
I suppose there was an outside chance that Sharapova might have had trouble handling the low bounce and lack of pace; it's not the worst calculation, given her history and well-documented love of pace. But if your efforts in that regard do little but get the ball shoved back down your throat, point after point, game after game, you need to think about a Plan B.
Vinci's reluctance to take chances hurt her as well. Desperate times call for desperate measures, so when you've got your feet planted and trading punches does nothing more than leave you woozy, you need to do something different. Vinci never got the memo.
So let's review the gory details. After breaking Sharapova twice, Vinci would not win another game until she held for the first time at the match, while trailing 2-6, 0-5.
Actually, let's forget the gory details, because they're redundant. This was an old-fashioned blow-out, and you just can't cast it in a more favorable light.