We had seen a lot of celebrations from Maria Sharapova over the last 12 months, a lot of fists clenched, hands thrust high in the air, and kisses blown to the audience. But we hadn’t seen her look the way she looked after beating Victoria Azarenka 6-1, 6-4 in Stuttgart yesterday. This time Sharapova ended up doing something simpler yet more expressive: She smiled. It was a smile of relief and plain happiness, and, for a woman who projects an image of rigid and intimidating self-control, a surprisingly spontaneous moment.
Well, not that surprising when you think about it. This was a win that Maria had been waiting for, and a breakthrough on two fronts. After lopsided losses to Azarenka in the finals of the Aussie Open and Indian Wells, she had shown that wasn't going to play second-fiddle to Vika forever. Just as important, after suffering final-round defeats at last year’s Wimbledon and in her first three events of 2012, Sharapova had finished the job and ended the week on a winning note.
“I had lost the last few previous encounters with Victoria,” Sharapova said afterward, having regained her usual rigid verbal self-control, “so I was extremely motivated today.”
Even those words felt like an understatement. Sharapova was literally not stopping for anything on this day, including her opponent. In a reprise of the famous sideline “Bump” between Venus Williams and Irina Spirlea at the 1997 U.S. Open, Maria and Vika gave us the “Brush.” Walking to the sideline on a changeover, their eyes firmly planted on the court in front of them, the two top seeds barely avoided flattening each other.
In the end, it was Azarenka who seemed bothered by her opponent, despite those recent wins over her. More significantly, Vika was bothered by a wrist injury that required a mid-match tape job. Whatever the reason, she hit half as many winners as Sharapova and left her serve hanging, ready to be smacked. Sharapova smacked it repeatedly to the corners with her backhand, just as she had in her semifinal win over Petra Kvitova. The one question mark in Azarenka’s game over the last year had been her serve, and it looked especially vulnerable on Sunday. Sore wrist or not, she’ll have to do more with it if and when she runs into Kvitova or Serena Williams, neither of whom she’s played this season.
But this final was more about Maria than it was Vika. As it was winding up, Tennis Channel commentator Lindsay Davenport declared it the best match she’d seen Sharapova play since she had shoulder surgery all the way back in 2008. It’s hard to argue with that assessment. This looked like the old Maria, and it looked like the old Maria’s serve. She hit it with conviction and confidence to the corners; even her other, less-famous shoulder appeared to be rising higher than normal on her toss, allowing her to extend farther upward. Sharapova had five aces in the first set. In the semis, she used her serve to save 10 break points against Kvitova, and she saved an important one at 0-1 in the second set yesterday, when the momentum appeared ready to turn against her. Serving at 5-4 in the second, she had no trouble closing it out. She laced two backhands past Azarenka, hit an inspired lunging forehand volley, and finished with a service winner.
Sharapova has worked hard to shed her "cow on ice" image on clay, and this match showed the dividends. While she’s not going to win a Rafael Nadal impersonation contest, she slid well, particularly to her backhand side. She was the one pushing Azarenka back and controlling the middle of the court, rather than the other way around. Sharapova credited her patience from the baseline. “I knew I had to change a few things,” she said. “Before I was maybe a little bit impatient and went for it a bit too much sometimes, but this time I was really patient. I was aggressive but consistent when I had to be against her.”
The match was an echo of the Nadal-Novak Djokovic final in Monte Carlo. While there were extenuating circumstances in both, what’s important going forward is that both Rafa and Maria ended painful losing streaks—they have that winning feeling against their nemeses again.
Sharapova, who toughed out close wins over the highly ranked Kvitova and Sam Stosur to reach the final, certainly seemed to savor that feeling. As she walked to the other side of the court to give a hug to her coach, Thomas Hogstedt, and her hitting partner, Cecil Mamiit, I thought about her old entourage and how she had moved on over the years. In the past it had been her father, Yuri, and coach, Michael Joyce, who had formed an us-against-the-world support group. This crew is friendlier, but Maria hasn’t changed all that much.
The woman who could have been all about image and glamour and selling and branding, who could have taken the money and run, is still hungry to win and willing to take the hard road to do it. Sharapova could have stayed home until the mandatory event in Madrid, but she came over early for en extra clay tune-up. It might end up being the most important tournament of the season for her. And she closed it with her prettiest image: A smile.
“It’s almost unimaginable to win here seven times,” Rafael Nadal said yesterday. The key word there is "almost," because a few minutes earlier Nadal had done the unimaginable and won his seventh title in Barcelona. Nadal finds himself saying this kind of thing a lot at this time of year. For a good reason: With his win, he became the only man to have won two different tournaments—Barcelona and Monte Carlo—at least seven times. By the time the 2012 clay season is over, he might add a third event, Roland Garros, to that list. It really is unimaginable; who, as a kid, would dream of doing that. With Nadal on clay, truth is stranger than the imagination.
For the fourth time at this tournament, Rafa beat his countryman David Ferrer in the final. It wasn’t easy this time—as Nadal said, and as the 7-6 (1), 7-5 scoreline indicated, “it was a very equal match.” Ferrer may even have been the better player for most of it. He pressed Nadal with his backhand, a shot that had been clicking for him all week. And Rafa was off with his bread-and-butter forehand for much of the first set. I had written earlier in the week that Ferrer didn’t have an extra gear to shift into when he played the top guys, but he seemed ready to prove me wrong. He had five set points in the first set, and he served for the second at 5-4. Yet Ferrer still lost them both.
“I had chances in both sets,” Ferrer said, “but he played better in the important moments. It came down to small details. . . . I played a bit too conservatively on the set points in the first set.”
Yes, it’s true that Ferrer lost it, and that he did get a little tentative when he had those set points. On one of them, he pushed his backhand, his go-to shot, lamely into the net after a long rally. But it’s also true that Nadal won those points. Last week I talked about how Rafa's forehand separates him from other players, because it’s a shot that he can swing out on, with little fear that it will misfire. On important points, he hits bigger rather than safer—with his spin, the more racquet-head speed he gets, the safer his shot becomes. On the first set point, he uncorked a forehand winner down the line. On the second, he won it with a forcing inside-out forehand. On the fourth, he shanked one forehand that luckily landed in, then took over the rally with a series of forehands. Only on the fifth and final set point was his forehand not a factor—he hit an ace instead.
We tend to take Nadal’s wins on clay for granted, as if it’s automatic for him. And we can probably forgive ourselves for doing this when a guy makes it feel so automatic. On closer inspection, though, his win over Ferrer is a reminder that it isn’t, even for him. Rafa’s forehand can still go off, his serve is up and down from one week to the next, and he can get pushed around and even made uncomfortable on clay. “He didn’t let me play my best level in the first set,” Nadal said of Ferrer, who took a page from the Djokovic playbook by pushing Nadal into his backhand corner and taking his own backhand on the rise for crosscourt winners. Yet Nadal won again.
Ferrer did the normal thing; he hit the ball freely and well until the crucial moments. Then he didn’t hit it as freely or as well. Nadal went in the opposite direction. He hit his forehand poorly until the crucial moments. Then he made it work. That’s abnormal, but so is winning a tournament for the seventh time.
Nadal has now won 21 straight matches on clay and is 34 for 38 in finals on the surface. He has 14 clay titles in the month of April alone. And like his fellow traveler in persistence, Maria Sharapova, he’s as hungry for trophies to bite as ever—maybe the best thing about his Barcelona record is that he doesn’t even have to play this tournament. It would all be hard to imagine in the mind, if Nadal wasn’t doing it before our eyes.