Okay, everyone: Here’s a pop quiz as the WTA clay-court season begins to pick up steam. Who among active players has the best clay-court winning percentage on tour?
1. Maria Sharapova
2. Sara Errani
3. Serena Williams
4. Francesca Schiavone
Try not to read beyond HERE until you make a choice, or next time I’ll be like one of those magazine writers and make you read to the end of this post and then turn your monitor upside-down to see the correct answer.
The honor goes to the winner of Stuttgart last week, Sharapova. Counting that victory—her third in a row at the tournament—she’s now won six of her last eight titles on clay. Let’s leave the cows and ice out of it for once and just acknowledge that hers has been a remarkable transformation.
Sharapova already was the clay-court winning percentage leader even before she bagged this most recent Stuttgart title. Her mark of .818 led (if barely) Serena, who posted an .809; no other women could boast an 80 percent or better success rate. (The three next-best performers before last week were Venus Williams at .763, Jelena Jankovic with .704, and Svetlana Kuznetsova and Li Na, tied with an identical .703.)
Conspicuous by her absence: Schiavone.
This wasn’t a trick question, either. With eight clay-court titles, Sharapova is fourth on the list of active players, although the leader in that category would certainly make for a great trick question—or at least half of a trick question. Anabel Medina Garrigues and Serena are tied for the most clay-court titles with 10, although I expect AMG wouldn’t mind trading her silverware for Williams’. Still, it’s clear that Rafael Nadal isn’t the only Spaniard who knows his way around a clay court.
A fair amount has been written about Sharapova’s newfound prowess on clay, and that’s no surprise. She didn’t win a tournament on the surface until 2008, by which time she had won three of her four Grand Slam championships. She earned that first clay title on relatively fast green clay in Amelia Island. That was just months before she was forced to leave the tour due to a rotator cuff tear in her shoulder. She would be out from August until the following March.
Things didn’t look much better as Sharapova struggled to recover her form through most of the next two years. But the tide began to turn in 2011. Seeded seventh at the French Open, she survived a second-round scare from unrealized talent Caroline Garcia. In a script that might sound familiar by now, Sharapova recovered from a 3-6, 1-4 deficit to win 11 straight games and the match.
Sharapova would go on to lose in the semifinals to eventual champ Li, but it was the best Grand Slam result of Sharapova’s ongoing comeback. Her record on clay that year was an outstanding 12-2 and she would only get better, as she demonstrated when she won Roland Garros to complete her career Grand Slam in 2012.
It’s easy to underestimate the difficulty of what Sharapova accomplished on clay. It’s one thing to win tournaments that most people thought were beyond your reach. It’s quite another to master a surface that once baffled you, and to which your game once seemed unsuited.
Just how Sharapova became a force on clay is an intriguing question to which the answers aren’t entirely conventional. It isn’t that she found some magic bullet—a consistently punishing serve, or a re-tooled backhand. The most important factor appears to be a general maturity—a gradual coming together of a number of factors that animated her game. One proof of that: While it took Sharapova some time to solve the riddle of the red, she was still just 21 when that process began to accelerate.
Maturity, or experience, if you prefer, is also a great aid in developing strategy and tactics. I’m not one of those people who thinks that tennis is like chess. Frankly, it’s more like checkers played with a gun to your head. “Constructing a point,” to use the patois, is less like building a ship in a bottle than assembling a lamp from Ikea.
But in order to maximize her game, Sharapova had to reach a superior level of consistency. She was already on that plane with her shot technique, but she had yet to hit the required plateau with her footwork. She isn’t the only player to have learned that the root of success in tennis isn’t in the arm—any diligent person can groove a swing, given enough time—it’s in the feet.
This once was problematic for Sharapova, because she isn’t a great mover, nor does she have lightning swift reactions or reflexes. And that’s where clay came to her rescue. One of Sharapova’s great strengths is that she knows she’s playing checkers, not chess. She even seems to prefer it. Sharapova needs one thing and one thing only in order to truly punish any opponent, and that’s time. That’s why a big hitter like Serena is such a formidable problem for her, while even the most crafty and creative puff-baller—Agniezska Radwanska comes to mind—is a solvable challenge.
Clay gives Sharapova that much more time to get to the ball, and that much more time to make her shot. That’s especially important at a time when both men and woman are playing a bigger game. Life has gotten harder and harder for the true counter-puncher on clay, because it gets harder and harder to get a puncher out of position, or to take away her time. And nobody ever mistook Sharapova for a counter-puncher.
Lastly, you just can’t underestimate Sharapova’s fighting spirit. Her opponents surely know that no lead is safe against her, and that’s become obvious on clay. Equally obvious but perhaps more useful to Sharapova is her facility for simply sloughing off errors or even significant periods of poor—sometimes avert-your-eyes poor—play. Nobody in tennis can match Sharapova’s refusal to throw in the towel, mentally or emotionally. Nobody is more immune to bad news, especially the self-inflicted kind.
You have to try to play big against Sharapova; if you don’t, she smells blood in the water. And playing big, over an extended period of time, is a daunting task. Like Nadal, albeit in an utterly different way, she sends the signal that if you want to beat her you have to be prepared to be out there for a long time, and to keep up your guard every minute of that time, because she’ll be bringing pressure to bear with those savage but relatively simple punch combinations.
Sharapova illustrates that at almost every tournament. How often has she come back from a near-loss, often a baffling one, to go on to win it all? In the first round of Stuttgart, Sharapova was forced to three tiebreak sets by Lucie Safarova. Having not played a competitive match since her loss in the semis of Miami, Sharapova clearly was vulnerable. But she was prepared to stick it out, to play big and to demand that her opponent prove it wasn’t big enough.
Very few players these days can satisfy that demand, which is why none of her rivals ought to rest easy during the upcoming clay tournaments.