Fool Me Twice

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I have a funny feeling that I know just what Thomas Hogstedt is not wanting to think, but thinking nonetheless, right now: “Okay, we’ve got her right where we want her!”

The “we” would be coach Hogstedt and his protégé, Maria Sharapova.

The “her” would be Serena Williams, who will play Sharapova in tomorrow’s women’s final in Madrid—with the No. 1 ranking on the line.

Hogstedt has good reason to feel cautiously optimistic, or to allow himself some wishful thinking. It wasn’t so long ago that Sharapova described herself as a “cow on ice” trying to play on the red clay. But over the past year-plus, Sharapova underwent a remarkable transformation. She’s taken disparate and once ill-fitting parts and cobbled together a clay-court game that is not merely serviceable (all she hoped for at one time) but nearly unbeatable. Including her 6-4, 6-3 win in the semis of Madrid today over Ana Ivanovic, Sharapova has won 17 straight matches on clay, and she’s 23 of 24 in her last two dozen.

But Willliams fans are already shouting from the rooftops, “So what? Serena is 12-2 against Maria. She’s clearly in Maria’s head. You have to blow the dust off the cover of the history book to find the last of those two measly Sharapova wins (it was in 2004).”

All true. And the only real retort to that may be that while Sharapova has been learning to master the dirt, Serena has been struggling to stay off the ice. True, she won Madrid last year—but that was on the experimental “Smurf clay,” the slippery, hard, blue stuff that caused such an outcry on the ATP side of the yard. Madrid is back on the slower red clay now and, believe it or not, it’s Williams’ first red-clay final since 2002—and just the fourth of her career.

Moreover, while Sharapova won the French Open last year on this same surface, Williams’ trip to Paris turned into a nightmare. She suffered the worst loss of her career, a first-round upset inflicted by French journeywoman Virginie Razzano. Williams has one French Open title to her name, the same number as Sharapova, but she hasn’t been past the quarterfinals in Paris since 2003.

Rome and Madrid are the two most prestigious clay-court tournaments after Roland Garros in the women’s game. Sharapova is trying for a three-peat in the Eternal City this year, and she hasn’t lost before the semis since her first try, in 2004. By contrast, Williams gave Li Na a walkover in last year’s Rome semis and lost at the same stage in 2010 to Jelena Jankovic. She’s never cleared the bar she set when she toppled red-clay icon Justine Henin in the 2002 final.

Suttgart? Where Sharapova won last weekend? The last time Williams even played it was in 2008, when she lost to Li in the second round. Her record in the German city is 4-4.

And the kicker: Sharapova is 26, Serena is 31.

Now, if you know anything at all about Serena Williams, or this rivalry, you can throw that record book and all these tale-of-the-tape facts right into the trash bin. After all, Williams knocked Sharapova silly on the blue Madrid clay last year (6-1, 6-3) and laid an even more painful beating on her at the London Olympics not much later, giving up a mere game. The bottom line is that Sharapova has looked like a real threat to Williams on various occasions (Stanford, 2011, anyone?) and various surfaces over the past few years—and each time the result was her humiliation. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice. .  .

But you know how it is in tennis; Every day is a new day, and some day David Ferrer is going to beat Rafael Nadal, just like one day Andy Roddick beat Roger Federer. Can that day for Sharapova be tomorrow?

The evidence offered in the semifinals was not convincing either way. Sharapova had the easier match, with No. 14 seed Ana Ivanovic. The diligent and earnest Serbian lass was really no match for the tough and icy WTA No. 2. Among all the players who have won a major or been ranked No. 1, Ivanovic is—by far—the “softest.”

She showed that again today, despite going into the match playing some of her best tennis in recent years. When Sharapova, up a break, closed on winning the first set, Ivanovic was visibly disappointed. She’s susceptible to self-pity, and that’s one thing of which you can’t ever accuse Sharapova. In fact, on the changeover at 4-6, before Sharapova served for the match, Ivanovic’s coach Nigel Sears felt obliged to give his charge a pep talk, encouraging her to fight off her frustration.

Ivanovic, it turned out, wasn’t able to do that any more effectively than she was able to keep her generally useful forehand in the court. Sharapova won going away, but you couldn’t really describe it as a tour de force. For one thing, she was broken for 0-2 in the second set thanks to one of her six double faults. That kind of a goof against a player like Williams can be suicidal.

Sharapova’s winner-to-error ratio was an acceptable +4 (23 to 19) and her performance on break points was excellent; she converted five of the six she faced. The most accurate word to describe her match is “solid.”

Williams, by contrast, had the tougher semifinal opponent—Sharapova’s victim in last year’s Roland Garros final, Sara Errani. And that assignment was on the heels of a narrow escape against Anabel Medina Garrigues the previous day, when Williams lost the second set at love and was down 2-4 in the third. Williams later described her showing as “solid.”

So whose “solid” is more solid?

I’d have to go with Williams. A narrow escape against a legitimate clay-court threat like Garrigues followed by a relatively straightforward, 7-5, 6-2 triumph over one of the toughest clay-courters in the WTA is pretty good preparation for Sharapova. And should Williams need additional incentive, this match will be for the No. 1 ranking—Williams will have to hand it over to Sharapova should she lose the match.

“I look forward to it,” Williams said. “I feel like this whole tournament I’ve only played clay-court players from my first round to now, and everyone was also smaller than me. So I think tomorrow will be a really good match—a different game, more power obviously, but still a lot of the consistency. So I’m looking forward to it.”

Hogstedt and Sharapova may have Williams right where they want her but, as we’ve seen time again, that can turn out to be the worst place on earth.

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