Starting at around this time last year, Maria Sharapova went back to the only school she's ever really known, the tennis court, for what you might call an advanced degree. Her specialty: Clay-court tennis. In the course of doing her research and homework, she made a discovery that a number of other big hitters whose movement is suspect stumbled upon over the years: The clay can be your friend, if only you allow it.
That was never more clear than in Sharapova's quarterfinal match on Court Philippe Chatrier against Estonia's Kaia Kanepi, whom the world No. 2 utterly dominated, 6-2, 6-3.
Sharapova has learned that the slowness of the clay gives a player who many not be a great mover that extra bit of time to tee up her shot. And tee it up she did today, blasting fierce forehands and backhands that left Kanepi, an attack-minded player herself, constantly on the defensive.
One point in particular struck me as emblematic of the insurmontable task facing Kanepi—it took place in the fourth game of the second set, right after Sharapova had broken to get back on serve at 1-2. The score in that fourth game was 15-30, with Kanepi clinging to her slim hope of somehow getting back into the match.
Sharpova hit a good serve, and the women began to take target practice at each other. At about the fourth swing from Sharapova, Kanepi was forced to shovel back a relatively neutral forehand. Sharapova took advantage of that ball to take control of the rally, and she soon won it when a stressed Kanepi mishandled a hot shot to her backhand. Pundits talk about the transition from defense to offense—Sharapova specializes in the transition from offense to more offense.
A forehand winner on the next point enabled Sharapova to level it at 2-2, and she immediately broke Kanepi to take a lead that would never be threatened the rest of the way.
It's often been observed that tennis is about match-ups (see: Federer v. Nadal at Roland Garros), and this was yet another good illustration of the idea. Unlike Roger and Rafa, Sharapova and Kanepi got into matches with similar intent, if not identical style. Their objective is to use a big serve and bold groundstrokes to overpower opponents.
This presents two problems for Kanepi: First, Sharapova simply does it better, if not always with the consistency of, say, a Steffi Graf. Second, Sharapova's greatest non-technical strength is her brave and determined spirit.
Kanepi started off poorly, serving up two double faults in the first game, which ended with a Sharapova inside-out forehand blast for the break. But Sharapova succumbed to early-match jitters herself, and was broken right back. Kanepi immediately upped the ante in the Battle of the heebee jeebees by falling behind 0-40 in her next game. But surprisingly, she pulled it together and got back to deuce.
That's as far as she got, though. Still struggling to find those all-important first serves, Kanepi delivered second balls off which she made a lob error, followed by a netted backhand off Sharapova's stinging cross-court backhand service return. It was the start of a long, long period in which Sharapova simply took time away and handcuffed Kanepi by hitting harder, deeper, better, and with greater consistency. Plus, Sharapova made 67 percent of her first serves on the day—12 percentage points better than Kanepi's mediocre stat.
With that break for 2-1, Sharapova was off and running. She scored another break for 5-2, taking the pressure off her next service game. And it was a good thing she had that insurance break, because Kanepi had a break point in that eighth game, but Sharapova gamely fought it off with an inside-out forehand that forced a forehand error. Three deuces followed, but Sharapova ended the drama—and set—with a service winner down the pipe.
After that point I described above (to level the second set at 2-2), Sharapova broke Kanepi for 3-2, held, and broke again to take a 5-2 lead. Although Sharapova was broken in the next game, she held the match game easily, ending it with yet another high-octane series of the groundstrokes that ultimately forced Kanepi to drill a backhand into the crowd.
I've never liked the awkward cliche, don't bring a water pistol to a gun fight. But that's just what Kanepi did today. The way Sharapova has been playing, Kanepi didn't have a chance.