War and War

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Maria Sharapova's thirst for three-set matches appears to be unquenchable. (Photo by Anita Aguilar)

NEW YORK—Alright, it’s time to play Tennis Jeopardy!

Answer: If I were a Russian novelist instead of a Russian tennis player, I would have written War and Peace.

Question: “Who is Maria Sharapova?”

Yes, nobody, but nobody, has mastered long-form tennis like Sharapova, who improved her record in her tour-leading 23 three-set matches this season to 17-6 with her latest triumph, a grinding, 4-6, 6-3, 6-2 win over Alexandra Dulgheru.

This wasn’t the most coveted match-up for Dulgheru, who underwent surgery on her right wrist in May 2013, and had played just one set in the past five weeks because of inflammation. She knew as well as anyone that putting Sharapova on a tennis court is a lot inviting someone you met backpacking to stay at your apartment in New York—chances are, she’s going to be there for a long, long time.

By the middle of the third set, as Sharapova finished with the preliminaries and began to wind down the show for her fans, Dulgheru was seeking medical help for her right wrist. As a trainer gently bent and twisted it this way and that, Dulgheru stared at it as if she wasn’t quite sure it belonged to her.

At least this time, Sharapova could rest assured that the medical injury timeout called by her opponent was legitimate. But if things keep going this way, tournament officials will have to have an EMS vehicle instead of a mere trainer parked court-side, ready to spring into action as Sharapova breaks down another rival.

So what is it with all of Sharapova’s three-set epics?

That’s a good question. Perhaps Sharapova, cognizant of her drawing power, has a signed a contract stipulating that, instead of collecting prize money, she’s going to get paid by the hour. Maybe she’s seen the classic movie, Rebel Without a Cause, and has developed an unhealthy fascination with the “chicken game.” It’s also possible that, like the thrill-seeker who wants to jump off the top of Mount Everest and glide to the bottom in nothing but a Rocky the Flying Squirrel suit, she’s simply interested in testing her limits.

“Sometimes it's good to kind of look back and think that in these types of situations, (under these) conditions, that it's really good to get through,” Sharapova admitted after her latest win. “You put yourself in a really tough position, but then you're able to find a way to get back and finish really strong.”

True enough. But do you really need to recover from a tough position day-in and day-out, week after week?

For those of you keeping score at home, Sharapova’s three-set piece d’resistance probably was her first-round win at Stuttgart over Lucie Safarova. All three sets ended in a tiebreaker, the first two 7-5 before Sharapova cleaned up the last one, 7-2. She went on to win the tournament. (The runner-up? Sharapova’s 6-3, 4-6, 10-8 second-round Australian Open win over Karin Knapp.)

Cincinnati, Sharapova’s final U.S. Open warm-up, was her most three-set rich tournament this year. She lost a three-set semifinal to Ana Ivanovic, but won two of her three previous matches in the maximum number of sets.

Sharapova’s most emphatic three-set win might have been her Roland Garros fourth-round win over former French Open finalist Sam Stosur—a 3-6, 6-4, 6-0 “blowout.” And I have to assume that the most disappointing of her three-set losses was the one inflicted on her by Angelique Kerber at Wimbledon, where the final score was 7-6 (4), 4-6, 6-4.

There’s another theory that may explain Sharapova’s devotion to three-set matches which bears examination. It’s the idea that she’s embraced a version of the religious practice known as the “mortification of the flesh.” That’s a fancy way of saying that she likes to punish herself. The practice refers to any number of masochistic and/or self-flagellating exercises common in religious mysticism. But the impulse isn’t strictly religious; it’s universal.

Let’s face it, nobody conveys the impression of suffering on a tennis court better than Sharapova; her shriek/scream is a clear and obvious tell. Sure it’s aggressive and perhaps intimidating, but it also can be heard as a protest. A cry. And you’re just as likely to cry out if the one whipping you is. . . you.

Let me ask you this: Does anyone, male or female, make tennis appear to be a more painful experience, or convey the impression that it isn’t merely a game, but a ruinous, desperate, existential struggle? When I watch Sharapova play, I feel like I’m watching someone fighting for her very life.

I don’t think “fun” is the word anyone would use to describe the experience of watching a Maria Sharapova match. Fascinating, maybe. Fun, no. The weird thing is that even when Sharapova is winning, it feels like she’s losing. She doesn’t just make tennis look like bitterly hard work, she makes it look like pain. You can even see it in her face. Nobody looks as troubled on a tennis court as Sharapova.

Look at it that way, and the way Sharapova screams does make a certain amount of sense. Oh, I know, it gets to be a drag, always talking about the screaming. And we’ve been exposed to Sharapova’s unique habit for a long time now; even those of us who complain about it have come to accept it.

But it’s really an amazing thing that she screams like that, even if we don’t take a position on whether it’s sporting or not. It’s nothing less than bizarre.

Forget about that, though. Sharapova is here to stay, and so is her shriek—and so are all those life-and-death three-set struggles that she has made her stock in trade.

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