Picked Up and Dusted Off

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PARIS—It’s a pretty harsh world that Maria Sharapova inhabits, her existence defined by ancient codes that a few millennia of civilization has resolutely wiped out in society at large. It’s a kill-or-be-killed world, a dog-eat-dog world, and let’s give thanks that we’re talking about her career here rather than her life in general.

Is there a player who lives more fully, week-to-week on the tennis court, by that old Biblical proverb, “live by the sword, die by the sword?” And the odd thing is that on any given day she might do both.

Today was any given day.

Sharapova, the No. 2 seed and defending champion here at Roland Garros, survived a strong fight by No. 3 Victoria Azarenka to win 6-1, 2-6, 6-4 and reach Saturday’s final. She prevailed with a great display of nerve and verve, relying on her trademark ability to block out all that had come before and hold nothing back, playing every blessed point as if it were the first one. Of her life.

That was never more apparent than in the final games of match. Sharapova wasted four match points serving at 5-2, and after fending off two break points and enduring five deuces, she finally surrendered the game with a pair of double faults—enough to break the spirit of even the most enthusiastic competitor. She was distracted by her failure enough that she gave up the next game to Azarenka with four quick errors.

But Sharapova responds to adversity better than anyone save her nemesis, Serena Williams. She picked herself up, dusted herself off, and walloped a forehand winner to start that 5-4 game, going on to close it out in four straight points, the last an ace.

Irony, anyone? But that’s Sharapova—ever able to hit the reset button, always ready to start over no matter how puzzling or cringe-worthy her most recent transgression.

The match started on a bright but humid afternoon with Sharapova broken at love, partly because of two double faults. But she ripped right into Azarenka’s next service game, broke her, and ultimately ran away with the set. She hit 11 winners to four by Azarenka, and did an excellent job taking time away from her overwhelmed, rushed rival. But even in that lopsided first set the rallies were savage; the piercing shrieks of the two greatest screamers on the WTA rented the air and added to the intensity of the tableau. Even the pigeons stopped flying and perched on the scoreboard, seeming to watch.

Sharapova’s form declined slightly at the start of the second set, and Azarenka took full advantage of it. Later, Azarenka would say, “So I felt second set I was starting to play much better, really going for my shots. In the first and little bit beginning of the second it was me just trying to find time or, you know, being too passive. Maria is one of the players who will always take opportunity from that.”

Once Azarenka dug in her heels and began to push back, the games were much closer even if the rallies were no less intense. Azarenka broke serve for 4-2, and broke again in the eighth game—thanks to another Sharapova double fault—to win the set. A cloudburst provided a half-hour intermission, and wiped the slate clean for a best-of-one showdown.

Where all this would end was anyone’s guess, because it seemed that with these two exceptional ball strikers, you can almost throw a “game plan,” as we generally mean the term, out the window.

“It looks like that because we both trying to be aggressive on the first ball, so whoever starts the points start the rhythm,” Azarenka said. “And you cannot change the rhythm after somebody starts it. You just have to keep up and try to do whatever maneuver or, you know, be more aggressive, more accurate. Try to place better. But if somebody hits the ball at you, there is nothing else you can do besides hitting it back. I think that is not a strategy, it’s just a different game plan.”

Oddly, Sharapova herself took umbrage at the same line of questioning, interpreting it as a snide suggestion that both players are “one-dimensional.” She sniffed, “I think it doesn’t just take big ball striking to get to a final of a Grand Slam. It takes a lot more than that. Believe it or not, there is a lot that goes into it, and it’s not just that.”

Well, fine—I just hope for Sharapova’s sake that she doesn’t take a notion to drop “big ball striking” out of her repertoire in favor of greater variety, or even that dull drill commonly known as “point construction.” I just don’t see how it’s going to be a useful approach against her next opponent, Serena.

Anyway, the third set produced even more outstanding rallies and a few critical shifts of momentum, not just in the set but within at least one of its most important games. Azarenka was broken for 1-2 , but she attacked Sharapova’s next service game and backed her to 30-40, thanks mainly to two double faults and an unreturnable forehand. Sharapova then belted two aces, but threw in another double-fault, and eventually dropped her serve for 2-2. Those were enough turning points to decide a match, never mind a single game.

It may seem bizarre, but those double faults of Sharapova’s probably pay an unseen if modest dividend, keeping an opponent guessing and wondering what lay in store. As Azarenka said, “You just have to focus on the return, but the serve is definitely something that you never know what to expect. So you just have to stay focused on your return, and I felt that sometimes I was just not committing enough.”

That break-back by Azarenka ought to have given her new impetus, but she went on to play a terrible game that resulted in a swift break—the third in a row, and the one that finally turned the tide in Sharapova’s favor.

The break changed the momentum, for sure,” Azarenka admitted. “When I broke back, I didn’t start the same way I was playing in the second set. I was just trying to make things happen too quick, and started missing the ball. I was a little bit unfortunate and inconsistent in that particular moment.”

That’s certainly true, but Azarenka will leave Roland Garros justifiably proud of the progress she’s made on clay this year. Once again, though, the striking fact is that Sharapova was inconsistent, too. And once again she managed to survive and triumph. It appears to be a unique talent, and I wondered if years and years of attacking the ball, taking it early, and going for broke—even if she’d just clubbed, say, two double faults and shanked a forehand—has become second nature, thus insulating her from the utterly understandable panic such lapses tend to set off in others.

“I have never really thought about going out on the court and just trying to be consistent, not playing my game and just getting the ball back,” she said. “That hasn’t really ever been my philosophy, because the way that I win matches is by being aggressive, by using my power, by looking to move forward and playing that aggressive game. I don’t know if that’s something that’s gotten better over the years, but obviously the more consistent that you get at doing what you do best, the better you are.”

Sharapova will have to be plenty good come Saturday, because Williams was on fire in the other semifinal today, dismissing last year’s beaten finalist Sara Errani in 46 minutes, 6-0, 6-1. Williams hit winners on 40 of the 52 points she won, and on 58 percent of the match’s 68 total points. That’s serious knockdown power, and if she plays like that on Saturday, even Sharapova might find it hard to pick up and dust off.

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