Uncomfortable Questions: Second-Place Sharapova?

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Today, we’ll take a look at the top women’s contenders at Wimbledon in our “uncomfortable questions” series. Think of these daily posts as posing questions that nobody wants?or thinks?to ask in the midst of all those animated conversations about the favorite sons and daughters as Wimbledon approaches. Today, I’ll ask:

If a giant meteorite hits the hotel where Serena Williams is staying in London and causes her to be defaulted for missing her start time, will Maria Sharapova win the tournament?

In all seriousness, that may not be quite the given it may appear, despite recent history. Sure, Sharapova and Williams have dominated the game since Victoria Azarenka won the Australian Open. And sure, Sharapova loves Wimbledon, which she’s won and told us many times. But consider this: Since 2006, Sharapova has made it out of the round of 16 at Wimbledon just once?in 2011, when she lost the title to rookie finalist Petra Kvitova.

Granted, Sharapova’s off-and-on struggle with a shoulder injury played a role in some of those losses. But it also appears that just as the WTA No. 3 has transformed herself into a formidable force on clay?she won the 2012 French Open and made the final there this year?her grass-court game has either slipped, or, more likely, hasn’t evolved quite as effectively.

Sharapova was just 16 when she belted her way to the fourth round in her very first Wimbledon. She won the whole shooting match the next year with a stunning 6-1, 6-4 triumph over Serena?a win that Williams, who was seeded just No. 10 at the time, still hasn’t forgiven Sharapova for. But Sharapova hasn’t won Wimbledon since. The defending champion in 2005, she was ranked No. 2 but lost a Williams family grudge match to Venus, 7-6 (2), 6-1. The following year, Sharapova lost in the semis to eventual champ Amelie Mauresmo.

Since the 2004 Wimbledon tournament, one or the other Williams sister has won six of the eight tournaments, and the two titles they didn’t claim went to Mauresmo (2006) and Kvitova (2011). Sharapova has been left out in the cold, even though she’s won far more matches than anyone not named Williams at the All England Club.

The best all-time Wimbledon winning percentage among this year’s contenders belongs to...Serena, who is 67-8 (89%). Venus, who pulled out yesterday, is 71-11 (86.5%). Sharapova is a distant third, with a 37-9 record for 80.4%. Interestingly, a number of the other contenders are closer to Sharapova than she is to Serena or Venus. Azarenka is 20-7 (74%), while Agnieszka Radwanska, last year’s runner-up, is 23-7, for 76%. Kvitova is 16-4 for 70%. The women below the Williams sisters are pretty well bunched up, so statistically it’s impossible to give Sharapova a ringing endorsement.

There are a few factors at work in Sharapova’s continuing frustration on grass. She isn’t a great mover; how else can you explain how, despite her great serve (when she hit it in) and stinging return, her Wimbledon winning percentage isn’t very much better than that of the ultimate puffballer, Radwanska? The sometimes low and uneven bounces on the grass also make life more difficult for Sharapova because she’s a straight-up type of player. Indeed, it seems that as her clay-court game has improved, thanks to better footwork and more grooved, confident shotmaking, her grass-court skills have declined.

Grass demands some improvisational skills, and offers opportunities for the quick, precise counter-puncher. It also favors players who have fairly compact strokes. On clay, Sharapova can set up and take big cuts. In fact, she may have gotten so accustomed to that luxury that not having sufficient time could be a source of frustration for her. Serena showed a few weeks ago that one key to beating Sharapova is being able to take time away from her. With her power and anticipation, Serena can do that, even on clay. On grass, more women will be able to rush Sharapova and force her into making errors, or use their own power to offset hers.

Case in point: Sabine Lisicki, another big hitter, split her last two meetings with Sharapova, avenging a 2011 Wimbledon semifinal loss with a win in the fourth round last year. And she’s not the only potential landmine that might be planted in Sharapova’s path on those pretty green lawns starting Monday.

Writing at ESPN, my pal Howard Bryant wrote the other day: “A tone-deaf hype machine nevertheless continues to try to sell a rivalry between two players in which one has traditionally been the hammer and the other the nail. (Serena) Williams is so obviously peerless that the real rivalry in the women’s game isn’t a battle for No. 1 but rather is between No. 2 Victoria Azarenka and No. 3 Sharapova.”

That’s seems accurate to me, and the part that ought to concern Sharapova is that for the past two years at Wimbledon, Azarenka lost in the semis to the eventual champ. In fact, she played Serena closer in 2012 than Sharapova has in a long time.

While Sharapova and Azarenka have never met on clay, Azarenka leads their head-to-head 7-6, and neither woman has been able to string together more than two straight wins over the other. In the nitty-gritty of the match-up, Azarenka’s superb return and her edge in mobility compensate adequately for the comparative shortcomings of her own serve.

Kvitova, who’s been unable to pull herself out of the swoon she went into after she won Wimbledon, is also a dangerous rival for Sharapova. The Czech is a lefthander who can power through her own service games on grass and hit stone-cold winners if she gets on a hot streak (Sharapova is 4-2 against Kvitova).

Don’t discount No. 7 Angelique Kerber, either. Sharapova is 4-1 against the German, and while Kerber’s second serve is an enormous liability, she has terrific groundstrokes and defends extremely well. She’s capable of finding the holes in Sharapova’s offense, provided the Russian is unable to perform her due diligence with her big serve and first strike off the return.

Serena and Sharapova have pretty much cut the tennis pie into two giant halves recently, but the idea that in Williams' absence Maria would become nearly as prohibitive a favorite is a dangerous one.

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