"That’s what champions do": Of all the clichés associated with tennis, this one might be the most painful on the ears. Sometimes I feel like I will, literally, weep with gratitude when a commentator doesn't say these words after a great player makes a clutch shot.
So I was happy that, even as Maria Sharapova was pulling out a Houdini-esque, 6-1, 4-6, 7-5 comeback win over Alexandra Panova last night, I didn’t hear the commentators from Australia go to that particular well in the closing games. They must have been tempted: Sharapova is nothing if not a champion, and she won a match in a way that we associate with the game’s grittiest competitors: without her best stuff. (That’s another cliché, of course, but I guess you can only avoid one at a time.)
What Sharapova showed is that the phrase should really be "that’s what champions do—except when they don’t." Even the most invincible players lose on a regular basis; Maria has done it 135 times in her 13 years on tour. Whatever champions do, she didn’t do it on those occasions. And yesterday, even as she was clambering back from 1-4 down in the third set to a player ranked No. 150 in the world, Sharapova made a lot of questionable choices and did a lot of things that, coming from anyone else, would have been flat-out wrong.
With Panova serving at 4-3 in the third, looking visibly nervous and having lost two games in a row, the smart play from Sharapova would have been to keep the ball in the court. Instead, she rushed on a forehand, went for too much, and hit it long. Two points later, she rushed on a backhand, went for too much, and hit it wide. Panova, thankful for the gifts, held. Maria, rather than upping her game at the crucial time, appeared to let nerves get the better of her.
Two games later, at 5-4, with Panova serving for the biggest win of her career and even more visibly nervous, Sharapova did the same thing. She went for broke on a return and missed. She went for the lines on two straight forehands and missed them both. Why wouldn’t she make Panova, who was struggling just to toss the ball in the right place and swing her arm through on her serve, hit a few balls?
Down double match point, having made close to 50 errors and, as she would say later, feeling “pretty negative,” Sharapova went for everything on her return one more time—this time it went for winner. Down match point again, having pulled the trigger on her forehand and missed twice in that game, Sharapova pulled the trigger a third time—and put the ball just inside the sideline for a winner. Two points later, she put another forehand on the sideline to break for 5-5. With that she had also broken Panova’s heart.
What was going through Sharapova’s mind on those match points? Why did she hit the ball in, when she had hit it out before? The only difference I could see was that her swing itself was a little smoother and calmer in those moments than it had been earlier, when she was jerking the ball all over the stadium.
In her presser, Sharapova at first made it sound like her clutch play was the natural, involuntary reaction of a person who is used to winning:
"Of course, based on experience, you lift yourself up both mentally and physically," she said of her mindset on the match points.
A little later, she went into more detail:
"I was thinking about it too much," Sharapova said, "Instead of just like being in the present, saying, 'Hey, go up the line, do what you do, do what you’ve done thousands of times.' I’m good at that and I’ll continue to be good at that."
"Do you what you've done a thousand times." "I'm good at that and I'll continue to be good at that." No matter how many times she missed, Sharapova knew she would eventually stop missing. With Sharapova's 135 losses have come 563 victories; where Panova had to try to believe she could win, Maria knew from experience that she could. That knowledge is often the only thing that separates a second-round disaster from a second-round Houdini act. Or more: Last year in Melbourne, Li Na saved a match point in the third round against Lucie Safarova and went on to win the tournament.
How about the woman who didn’t win this match? I thought Panova’s performance disproved another common tennis cliché: That an underdog "can go out there with nothing to lose." Panova is a 25-year-old Russian whose court mannerisms—the string gazing before serves, the shadow swings before returns—eerily echo Sharapova’s. Through the second and most of the third sets, she swung away and out-did Maria at her own game.
But all of that changed when Panova reached 4-1 in the third. At this stage, she knew that to lose the match she would have to choke it away. It's a terrible realization; losing may not be the worst thing in the world, but choking and losing is. When Panova came out to serve at 4-1, up two breaks, it was as if an invisible wall was suddenly thrown up in front of her, something that hindered all of her movements. She had something to lose, and she lost it.
As for the woman who won it, the best summation of Sharapova’s comeback came from the man who restrained himself from saying "that’s what the great ones do" too many times last night, Aussie commentator Fred Stolle.
"If she’s going to lose, she’s going to lose her way," Fiery Fred said as Maria drilled another ball long.
This is Sharapova’s strength and her flaw: She goes for it, even when, to the rest of us, going for it doesn't look like the right choice. But that's the thing: Champions aren't like the rest of us. They bring their flaws with them and—five times out of six—they win anyway.