Whistling Past the Graveyard

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PARIS—Whether she knows it or not, Maria Sharapova is the consummate mistress of mind games in tennis. It begins with the banshee shriek she discharges each time she hits the ball. It continues with the glacial pace she imposes on a match, as if to send the message that the court belongs to her—and by golly, you’ll play by her terms.

And then there are the little things, like the cold stare across the net at her opponent before she serves. What, like she doesn’t know exactly where that service line is?

Or the time she takes between points—interludes so lengthy that Rafael Nadal could tug at two stray locks, pluck at six different areas of his shirt, and rearrange a chorus line of liquid-filled bottles before she’s ready to hit a second ball.

Or her willingness to look right at her opponent right after she hits a winner and scream, “Come on!”

Strictly speaking, none of these things is a violation of the rules (except, occasionally, the time-violation rule). But none of them is without significance, either. Added together, they are a lethal accessory to Sharapova’s game and they help shed light on the extraordinary way Sharapova doesn’t just out-hit, out-think, or out-last opponents, but the way she mentally destroys them. It’s something close to a telepathic gift, and the day may not be too far off when she just stays in the player lounge, knits her brows and purses her lips and—presto!—the scoreboard gives her the win.

It sure would save us a great deal of time and anxiety.

Sharapova doesn’t merely beat her opponents; she leans hard on them, she smothers them. The latest young lady to learn that lesson the hard way is Spain’s gifted 20-year-old, Garbine Muguruzaconqueror of Serena Williams in the second round. Today, Sharapova overcame another slow start and mentally bent Muguruza into exactly the shape she wanted, winning 1-6, 7-5, 6-1.

There were numerous artfully played points and exciting games in this one over the final two sets. But there were just two significant turning points following the throwaway first set in which Muguruza roared through the flat-footed, error-prone No. 7 seed:

In the second set, after rebounding from 0-30, Muguruza held for 5-4. Sharapova was under enormous pressure to stave off a match-ending break. She hit four winners (against one) to reach 5-all. In that game, Muguruza led 30-0 when she produced a double fault. Sharapova took care of the rest with a winner and two unreturned balls to break, after which she served out the set.

“Thirty-love on serve when she's serving quite well, I'm sure she feels like she has a good chance of getting that game in the bag,” Sharapova reflected afterward. “And all of a sudden I'm serving for the set.”

Muguruza recognized the importance of that game, too, but she was too realistic to bemoan how she lost it.

“[Sharapova] was playing good there, at 5-4. And, yeah, then end of second set she played really good. I was happy, you know. I said, ‘Okay, you did what you could.’”

And in the third set, Sharapova broke for 2-1 and then was forced into a 10-minute game in which Muguruza held five break points. The youngster squandered three with errors, and Sharapova winners took care of the other two. Finally, Sharapova held, and with the 3-1 lead safely tucked away, she immediately added an insurance break, after which she was more or less home free.

This tournament started out as the graveyard of former French Open champions. Li Na and Francesca Schiavone lost in the first round; defending champion Serena fell in the second. Ana Ivanovic lasted slightly longer, losing in the third round to Lucie Safarova. Among the former champions here, Svetlana Kuznetsova is the only one besides Sharapova who is alive and kicking. She’ll be playing for her own berth in the semifinals tomorrow.

A few days ago, it seemed that Monsieur Grim Reaper might be coming for Sharapova, too, yet she went whistling past the graveyard, beating back the goblins with poise and sometimes unwarranted but genuine confidence. Credit her intensity; credit a pure, innate, competitive drive that has shaped her right down to the smallest of mannerisms. The other women accept this with equanimity; the more able among them somehow understanding that dealing with it—and even emulating it (the shriekers on tour are all her offspring)—is more productive than whining about it. Somehow, Sharapova doesn’t really seem like the kind of woman you’d go to for tea and sympathy.

As Muguruza said, “Maria Sharapova is an amazing player. She plays with a lot of intensity. It doesn't bother me, you know. I know her. I know her style. So I just try to focus on my game, and that's it.”

When Sharapova was asked the other day if she’s a merciless competitor, she replied: “I'm not sure. I love competing. That's one of the best parts of the sport. Gives me the greatest pleasure, and I don't think anything else in life can give me that. I'm using that to my advantage while I can.”

Sharapova will now play her fourth consecutive Roland Garros semifinal. The new and potentially unnerving challenge for her will come in the shape of Eugenie Bouchard, the Canadian who’s built along similar lines and blessed with a comparable zeal for competition. This could be unnerving for Sharapova, much the way Tracy Austin gave Chris Evert problems. But I doubt it.

As for Muguruza, she will leave Paris with her head held high. A girl of clear thoughts and few words, she said: “It was very close. It's tough now because I had the opportunity to win the match. But in my own words, I mean, I need more experience in these kind of matches. I think I played very good in three sets, but in the important moments I need to improve my mentality.”

Should she need guidance on how to accomplish that, I know just the person she might turn to.

Worst Peformance, Biggest Choke, Craziest Celebration, and more: Check out out mid-tournament awards at Tennis Tuesday.

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