“I kind of had a different idea about the match, or about at least how I was hitting. I didn’t feel like I was hitting rockets out there. I thought I was being aggressive, but I was doing the right things and being patient enough and looking for the right shot when I wanted to move in a little bit. . . Sometimes when you’re in the match you don’t really realize what’s going on. Obviously this sounds like the case here.”—Maria Sharapova, in the press conference following her runaway win over Caroline Wozniacki in the Indian Wells final, after her play was described as “super aggressive.”
When Sharapova backs off the idea that her success is rooted in a bold, take-no-prisoner’s style, it’s time to sit up and take note. She could, of course, be fooling herself (as she jokingly implies here), but the better interpretation, based on what we saw on Sunday, might be that she takes great pride and has great faith in her continuing development as a player.
In fact, Sharapova is similar to fellow 2013 Indian Wells champion Rafael Nadal in one critical and admirable way: She’s continued to improve long after establishing herself at the top with a distinct style.
In my Racquet Reaction to her win over Wozniacki, I singled out Sharapova’s suddenly steady—but still deadly—forehand and second-serve efficiency for praise. What I neglected to add was that her movement was also excellent. It isn’t so much that she was able to operate effectively in rallies with one of the premier retrievers in the game, but that she was able to force Wozniacki out of her comfort zone, wherein the Dane has time to play the shot she wants. As Sharapova herself said in the same presser, “She’s someone that if she has time she can make you hit so many balls, and that’s not really the way that I want to be and not the way I want to control the points. So it was really important to try to take away that time that she likes to have.”
The only way to take away that time from a quality defender is to play aggressively and move well. The key question: Did Sharapova just have a great day, or is this part of her evolution, the way Nadal’s mastery of the grass and hard-court games were part of his?
We’ll have a better idea about the answer to that in the weeks to come, starting in Miami. And that, of course, brings us to the “S” word: Serena. As in Serena Williams. She’s the top seed in Miami, where third-seeded but now second-ranked* Sharapova’s road to the title could be much more difficult than last week. Victoria Azarenka—should she play—is in Sharapova’s half of the draw, and back in action is the woman who bounced the Russian from the Australian Open, the newly resurgent but recently MIA Li Na.
(*Sharapova didn’t hit No. 2 until this week, hence her No. 3 seeding in Miami.)
It would be an insult to write off that win by Li Down Under as a failure by Sharapova, who had looked so formidable in her earlier victories (she lost only nine games through the quarterfinal round). So while Sharapova had failed to win a title since she bagged her career Grand Slam last year at the French Open, her overall consistency continues to be outstanding.
Of course, there’s room for some skepticism here. Sharapova has been an on-and-off player through much of her career, and that’s partly a function of her high-risk game. Her serving adventures also have hurt her cause. But let’s get back to that loose Nadal comparison for a moment.
While Nadal’s game matured in a faster, more predictable way, Sharapova’s development was dealt a serious blow in the summer of 2008. The cause was a bum shoulder that required surgery, which kept her out of singles tournaments for nearly 10 months Her ranking bottomed out at No. 126. She was 21 when those trials and tribulations began; she’s still just 25 (Azarenka, by the way, is already 23).
If you do the math and factor in Sharapova’s work ethic, her competitive zeal, and the time it takes to overcome the effects of surgery and long layoff, you can see how her best days may still be ahead of her.
Age is an interesting factor in this equation, partly because Serena remains Sharapova’s greatest obstacle. Williams has won every match the women have played since she outlasted Sharapova, 8-6 in the third, in the semis of the 2005 Australian Open. Williams’ head-to-head lead is 11-2, and the last six meetings have ended in straight sets, some of them shocking blowouts—including a 6-0, 6-1 wipeout in last year’s gold-medal match at the Olympics. If anything, Williams has widened the gap between them.
But Serena is 31 now, and is in the midst of a running skirmish with injuries. Although her game matches up favorably with Sharapova’s, the age difference is bound to play an increasingly significant role in their matches. Time is certainly on Sharapova’s side.
That may also be true when it comes to Li, who’s also 31. She’s freshly motivated by her partnership with Carlos Rodriguez, Justine Henin’s former coach, but Li has a history rich with peaks and valleys. Then there’s the current queen bee, Azarenka. She’s up 7-5 on Sharapova, but the current WTA No. 3 can’t dominate her the way Williams can. Nobody else on the scene right now can push Sharapova around, either.
It may seem like Sharapova has been amongst us for a long time, and that helps shape how we see her potential and future. Reflecting back on the long seven years since she first lifted the Indian Wells trophy, she mused: “I don’t think I have gray hairs yet, but as the years go by I (feel) very lucky that I’m here and that I’m still doing it and that I still love it and have the passion to do it. I feel like I’m a different player. I’m a much more experienced player. I have learned so much over the years.”
Last week, it seemed like that learning process has continued, and is paying off like never before.