To borrow a familiar phrase, Maria Sharapova made her money the old-fashioned way last week in Stuttgart: She earned it. While she only needed to win four matches to secure the Premier-level title (as the top seed, Sharapova received one of the four byes), she had to fight tooth-and-claw through the three that preceded the final.
Sharapova is now a perfect 8-0 over the past two years in Stuttgart; her victims include Australian Open champion Victoria Azarenka (back when she was No. 1), former Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova, former U.S. Open champion Samantha Stosur, and former French Open champion Li Na.
That’s a Rival Slam, and it’s a fitting comment on how far Sharapova has come as a clay-court player—even if the indoor environment in Stuttgart gives an advantage to a precise game like hers.
Is this the same Sharapova who won Wimbledon at age 17 in 2004, but lost in her first two Italian Opens to Silvia Farina Elia and Patty Schnyder? The same player who had been to the semifinals of the French Open just twice in nine tries before she won the tournament last year? The answer to this clearly is “yes”—and “no.”
One of the more intriguing stories churned out by the WTA over the past few years is how Sharapova has morphed into perhaps the best clay-court player afoot, a transformation even more intriguing when you examine it in light of her record at Wimbledon.
In the past five years, Sharapova survived the fourth round at Wimbledon just once, in 2011, when she lost the final to Kvitova. So right now, the evidence fairly shouts that Sharapova is a better player on clay than on the grass she professes to love. As an aside, I’d add that Sharapova’s best chance—by far—of earning a much-needed win over Serena Williams at a major has for some years now been in Paris. Don’t for a moment think that hasn’t occurred to Sharapova, if not Williams.
A number of elements probably are at work in this radical makeover, starting with one that may not be so obvious. Sharapova was obliged to undergo shoulder surgery and miss ten months ending in May 2009. She has four major titles, but the only one she’s won since that lengthy hiatus was the French Open, in 2012.
I get the feeling that Sharapova consciously or unwittingly hit the “reset” button on her career during all that time off. She certainly returned to tennis with (quite naturally) greater maturity, an undiminished work ethic, a measure of doubt and anxiety that must have enhanced her determination, and perhaps even a new appreciation for chance to play professional tennis. All this suggests that she’s learned a thing or two about patience—and is there a greater virtue when it comes to doing the dirty work than getting good on clay?
Maturity is a complex issue and has many facets—not all of which are necessarily good. Tennis history is littered with players who just couldn’t sustain their youthful mastery as adult pros, either physically/technically (Donald Young) or mentally and emotionally (Andrea Jaeger or even Jennifer Capriati).
When it comes to her game, Sharapova has crossed the threshold to adulthood beautifully. But her body is different; she’s filled out and has greater strength, and that’s bound to have an effect. The Sharapova who won Wimbledon was a stick figure with excellent power, reach, and youthful flexibility. It might have been easier for her to win on grass back than it is now, now that she’s a 6’2” adult who’s wider at the hips and whose “official” weight in the WTA media guide is 130 lbs. (no comment).
This leads to that subtle conversation about the difference between fast and slow courts in tennis, and how surface speed works for or against different kinds of players. The discussion has changed somewhat in recent years, owing to the increasing paucity of surfaces that can be called anywhere even near “fast.” And one of the more significant changes on that front was the eradication of some of the properties of traditional (pre-millennial) grass courts.
Sharapova won her title at Wimbledon at a time when the courts were already “slower”—really, though, it was less about the speed of the ball off the surface than the height of the bounce. But the ball still comes off the turf quickly, and players are still subject to bad bounces (most of them undetectable to the spectator on hand, or at home). And that demands adjustments that not all players can make.
One of the big misapprehensions about Wimbledon is that it was always inordinately tilted toward “attacking” or, way back, “serve-and-volley” players. But that isn’t really true. What the tournament favored all along, and still does, is the mobile, flexible, quick athlete.
I don’t think anyone would suggest that Sharapova, whose mobility has always been mediocre, is quicker these days. Forcing her to hit while she’s rushed, or on the move, is still a good play against her. But the clay helps her in that regard. She’s one of the players who really benefits from the extra time a clay court gives to prepare and execute—even against an effective counter-puncher like Agnieszka Radwanska (Sharapova is 2-0 against the Polish baseliner on clay). At her best, when she can rip the ball into the corners or at extreme angles, Sharapova is afforded the time to take offensive and fully exploit her ability put the ball away on the red surface.
And finally, Sharapova has really shown tremendous discipline in having the guts to really go for her shots, something clay doesn’t invite you to do. Sure, it can be a cop-out to take a big cut and hope for a winner, but that’s not Sharapova. She builds a game plan around fearless ball striking, and half her energy seems to be spent resisting the pressure that constantly tempts a player to play it safe, to take a little off, instead of putting a little more on.
To win that internal battle is a feat in and of itself, but it’s not the first—nor is it likely to be the last—battle that this Spartan competitor Sharapova will find a way to win.