January 20, 2013
During Roger Federer’s smooth beatdown of upstart Bernard Tomic in Melbourne Friday night, Patrick McEnroe said at one point, “Is Federer even breathing?” He then added, “I mean, heavily?”
He could have stopped at the first question. There has always been a curious otherness about Roger Federer, regardless of rankings or match results. When Federer’s on, he’s a whole other Matrix-level on, where bending a spoon with your mind seems less impressive than what Federer can do on the court.
On the trippy occasions when Federer is struggling, his bewilderment is palpable and infectious. It’s weird to watch him lose because he rarely looks like he’s doing anything wrong and he’s not used to doing anything wrong.
Prior to Federer’s third round match of the year’s opening major tournament, his 20-year-old Australian opponent was confident. Tomic had just won his first ATP title in front of a hometown crowd in Sydney, and he felt he had momentum coming into Melbourne. Tomic said that it was “the perfect time to play him,” in reference to Federer, the 17-time Grand Slam champion.
Tomic’s confidence proved to be false, however. All that Federer was, is and can be was on full display for the young player, who noted that the adulatory intro the Swiss slam champ got was enough to rattle him.
“You lose belief before you even get to the match,” said Tomic, after the match. “They mentioned all these Grand Slams leading up, Wimbledon champion six times, six time times US Open champion… and then I was just, aw crap, it’s Roger. I try to block out who’s on the other side of the net but I couldn’t quite do it after that announcement.”
Tomic’s facts might be off (Federer won Wimbledon seven times and the US Open five), but the effect is understood. Milos Raonic of Canada will have to keep that in mind while also shaking it free when he takes the court against Federer in Melbourne on Monday night for their fourth round match. Raonic is 22 and tall, known for his serve. He’s got swagger but doesn’t appear as brash as Tomic, who perhaps got a lesson in growth on and off the court from his straight set loss to the 31-year-old star, saying, “I learned a lot…He is the best player and greatest of all time, and I’m gonna continue to work hard and it’s just a matter of time before I get up to the big group of boys in the top ten, I’ve gotta believe.”
Raonic had his own version of big stage growing pains when he lost in straights to Andy Murray at the 2012 US Open. Raonic was a little dazed after that loss. “Not much I could do,” he said. “I tried everything. … When I did get far ahead on criticial moments and on quite a few moments, he just did something I really have no answer for, something I haven’t really experienced.”
Much ado is made over Federer’s age but he has exactly what Tomic and Raonic point out they are still acquiring – belief and experience.
Raonic and Federer have played each other three times but never in a Grand Slam. All three matches have gone three sets (ATP events are best of three) and have been close. Federer’s 4 and 0 result against Tomic was more lop-sided, with Tomic managing just one set in all of their meetings. When Raonic and Federer played back in March of 2012 in Indian Wells, another hard court tournament, Federer won, but lost the first set in a tiebreak. After the match, he described Raonic as someone who will, “install himself very easily and nicely in the top 30, and then make his move up the rankings.” Raonic’s progress has been fast; he’s seeded thirteenth in Australia, and is fifteen in the world.
Federer had similar musings on Tomic, who entered the tournament unseeded, “He knows I guess, I hope he knows, what he needs to do over the few weeks, months, and years ahead because this ain’t just a two months tour…but he seemed like a very good player today to me, so you would definitely expect him to rise in the rankings…get more consistent and confident.”
Federer, the man with the most weeks at number one, is practiced at making difficult things look easy, belief and confidence included. He rattles off lines of insight and analysis the same way he glides a backhand crosscourt winner into the corner. As he said in Indian Wells last year, “I guess my experience helped me to stay calm and just weather the storm. If that’s experience, I guess that’s what it is, you know… My confidence got me through as well… I think that was maybe the difference tonight.”
Raonic will have to hope that something else makes the difference this Monday night in Melbourne instead. Or, if he can, actually believe.
Follow @lyrapappin for more Australian Open coverage.
August 8, 2012
August 7, 2012
TORONTO — Milos Raonic collected his first Canadian Masters 1000 win today in Toronto in an all-business straight set decision over Serbia’s Viktor Troicki. The lumbering, lanky Canadian looked calm and thoughtful in victory, coolly stating a bold ambition: “I hope I can be the best in the world.”
Raonic made it clear that he is looking to become the top player, not just a top player. Weight hangs in the air with that kind of statement, though not the dubious sort, it just took a moment to digest. Here is this 21-year-old tennis player, fresh off a loss at the Olympics, who has just two ATP titles in his young career, plainly professing that he wants to be the man at the top of the game. And it’s not far-fetched. Far from it actually.
Perhaps the Olympic glow is at play here, but Raonic articulating his goal to become the best in the world felt decidedly unCanadian, in the best possible sense. It’s the kind of ambition that is often sorely lacking in Canada, particularly in Toronto, where the city’s sports woes are well-documented. Framed by the Olympics, with a spotlight shining loudly on the continued underachievement in the category of unquestionable elite, there’s a haunting back-of-mind whisper that in Canada, we’re simply not accustomed to the number one status. The more familiar goals are those of “top 100”, “top 50”, “bronze” – all of which come with thrilled exaltations.
While Raonic has a lot to prove in terms of realizing his goal, the attitude is beyond refreshing – it’s contagious. The crowds are showing up for Raonic and so far, he is delivering. He’ll face an enormous test in his second round match if seeds hold up and Gold medalist Andy Murray comes through as his next opponent. Not that Raonic is too concerned, and with good reason; he beat Murray in straight sets earlier this year in Barcelona. Four months later, Raonic remains confident when assessing his chances against the Scot and said, “I know if I play well, I’ll have my opportunities.”
Raonic’s swagger isn’t aggressive, it’s seductive. He discussed his match with a measured intellectualism that bodes well for his game, discussing his appreciation for being “surrounded by so much greatness” during the Olympics, and his endeavours to find new ways to experience the world while travelling (holding baby tigers in Johannesburg was one). As on court, he doesn’t have a temper, even a thinly concealed one, and he isn’t offended that hallmarks of his game are becoming cliché descriptors. When asked if he wants to be known for something other than his serve, he remained pragmatic. “That’s definitely the plan. That’s what I am going to need to do if I am going to achieve the things I want to achieve. But no matter what, my serve is going to be my best part.”
There are always more stages of growth for any athlete, even when every goal has been achieved and every record seems surpassed – just ask Roger Federer. For Raonic, too, there is no end in sight, there will always be something more. So as Raonic continues to ascend the tennis rankings, fans not just in Canada, but everywhere, can count themselves lucky to be part of the climb, part of the evolution. Expect excellence and you might just get it.
For more Rogers Cup action, follow @lyrapappin on Twitter.
August 6, 2012
Look out Milos Raonic, here comes Vasek Pospisil. With an upset win over Italy’s Andreas Seppi, Pospisil could also be making a play at another upset: becoming the new fan favourite at Toronto’s Rogers Cup. After taking six match points to get to the second round of the Masters 1000 event, Pospisil thrilled hometown fans with a win, rather than how he rose to attention during last year’s event, which came strangely – in defeat. Ideally, careers aren’t defined by memorable losses, but last year in Montreal when Pospisil was able to push his childhood idol, Roger Federer, to 5-7 in the first set, the Canadian made waves as a legitimate up and comer. Federer ultimately went through, but as far as losses go, being taken out by a legend in competitive fashion ain’t bad at all.
Fortunately for Pospisil, this year he’s grabbing the spotlight with a statement win, beating Seppi, 4-6, 6-4, 7-6 in his opening round match for the hometown crowd. The 22-year-old Canadian, ranked 104th, rose above the gap between their rankings, as the world 26 Seppi, dropped his level under pressure from Pospisil’s powerful game and mental grit. Pospisil also credited the crowd to helping him push through, saying, “It’s my third top 30 win… to do it here in Toronto, for a hometown crowd… it’s pretty awesome.” Awesome for Pospisil, but a big loss for the Italian, who had been enjoying a solid season and was riding a touch of notoriety after forcing five sets in a first round match against Novak Djokovic at the 2012 French Open.
Pospisil’s win softened the blow for what was a tough loss earlier in the day for Canadians, as Thornhill’s Peter Polanksy somehow managed to lose a match that he kicked off with a first set 6-0 win. After a commanding start, Polansky lost the next two sets to Australia’s Matthew Ebden 4-6, 3-6. “You can call it a disaster, I guess,” Polanksy said after the match. “It wasn’t a very good performance… but you got to move on and hopefully learn from this.”
Around the courts, Milos Raonic continued to draw bigger crowds to his practice sessions than most of the tournament matches. The freshly christened “Milos Raonic Grandstand Court” accompanied by masses of fans that gather, gawk and grab autographs, the 21-year-old is facing a vibrating hype and hunger that is only increasing in intensity. The frenzy will reach new heights if seeds hold up and a third round match with Gold medalist Andy Murray comes to a head. It’ll be interesting to see how the lanky Lacoste-wearer adjusts to his star status. So far, it seems to suit him just fine. He hung around signing autographs and entertaining fans after some practice play with Serbian Janko Tipsarevic.
The final Canadian in the singles mix is wildcard Frank Dancevic of Niagara Falls, currently ranked 123 after falling from his career-high of 65 in 2007. Hometown advantage will have to count for a lot to help the Davis Cup team member make waves beyond the opening round, where he’ll face a tough opponent in Mikhail Kukushkin.
Pospisil is also back in action Tuesday, playing Argentina’s Juan Monaco prior to Raonic’s opening match against Serbia’s number three player, Viktor Troicki.
For more Rogers Cup action, follow @lyrapappin on Twitter.
August 2, 2012
by: Lyra Pappin
Last time Andy Murray played at Wimbledon the montage to open his match told us that the Scot “toiled under the weight of Great Britain’s collective desire”. American television isn’t exactly known for its subtlety, but the London 2012 games have shown that the Brits aren’t interested in understatement either. While drama and tension are prime goals for the games, the UK is safely on board with 15 medals, so perhaps the “collective desire” has been slightly alleviated. Of course there’s still the personal desire of Murray, which should be raging on into his semi-final match against world number two, Novak Djokovic.
While a win for Murray would be terrific, if not surprising, how much will it mean for his legacy as a tennis player? Not enough, I’d argue. If Murray gets past Djokovic, he gives himself a shot at a gold medal, a shot that’s long at best. Plus, regardless of the outcome at the Olympics, the reality is that until Murray wins a major, there will always be an asterisk beside his name, even if he wins in London. Taking Olympic gold is a real feather in your cap, sure, but it would be endlessly noted that his path there was built on best of three matches, rather than best of five. The final is played as a best of five, but every betting man puts Roger Federer in that match, the “Greatest of All Time”, who is especially bent on proving his ongoing greatness these days, and not having much trouble doing it. With Olympic gold being the only remaining empty spot in the litany of achievements in Federer’s career, it seems like Murray would have to pry gold out of the Swiss champion’s dead cold hands before he gets to have his moment under the British sun.
Another intangible to consider: is it worse for Murray to lose back-to-back finals against Federer or for him to lose in the semi-final to Djokovic? Putting silver or bronze aside, the ongoing midgame that is men’s tennis puts me more in the camp that Murray thinking he can’t beat Federer when it counts is an enormous problem. The silver lining of not being the silver medalist might be that Murray wouldn’t face Federer in a heavy match again until the US Open, a tournament the Scot loves and one that suits his game.
It’s also a rather big assumption that Murray has an edge on Djokovic, going into this semi-final and their first meeting on grass. Djokovic has something to prove at Wimbledon, after he was prevented from defending his title a few weeks ago, being taken out by Federer. Djokovic’s remarkable consistency in 2011 has been MIA in 2012 and going all the way at the Olympics would deliver a much needed confidence boost. The chances of Djokovic beating Federer are greater than Murray beating Federer, as the Serbian is exceptionally motivated by playing for his country, as evidenced by his strong Davis Cup play, and the pride he took in winning with his compatriots last year.
Federer’s semi-final opponent Juan Martin Del Potro has not been mentioned; sometimes you say more by saying nothing at all, you know?
- Federer d. Del Potro in two (Confidence: 100%)
- Murray d. Djokovic in three (Confidence: 65%)
- Final: Federer d. Murray in three (Confidence 85%)
For more tennis talk, follow Lyra Pappin on Twitter at @lyrapappin.
July 6, 2012
by: Lyra Pappin
The story didn’t have to go this way. It didn’t have to be that Roger Federer is entering his eighth Wimbledon final and landing a chance to become world number one. There could have been an upset. He could have lost in the second round, like long-time rival and French Open champion, Rafael Nadal. He could have pulled out with an injury; he is turning 31 soon and his body simply can’t take it. He could have lost in the semi-final to world number one Novak Djokovic. He’d never done that before, he had never lost in a Wimbledon semi-final, so it would have been perfectly acceptable. His game is on the decline, his age is a hindrance and his will is worn.
Except, it isn’t.
Against the odds and one year shy of the 10th anniversary of his first major win, his first Wimbledon title, Roger Federer will again appear on centre court on Sunday afternoon in England where he could win his seventh Wimbledon title and a record 17th major.
Entering the tournament, Federer didn’t bother with humble predictions or false modesty. Telling reporters, “It’s my time of year now,” at the onset of the fortnight, Federer made his intentions clear. He followed suit on court, moving with typical ease and grace through opponents. A brief hitch by way of Frenchman Julien Benneteau saw Federer make an uncharacteristic dig into a five set match, proving further that he was not interested in taking a spectator’s view of the trophy ceremonies. He wasn’t sweating it, either. “It was like he’s still such a long a way from the finish line,” Federer said of Benneteau’s two-set lead. “There is no reason right now to go crazy about it. Let’s see how the third starts and then we’ll take it from there. Like I said, I have been there so many times that I also know how to handle the situation.”
Frightening news for his opponents: confidence drawn from the domination of his winning record has been bolstered by experience with losing. In direct contrast to Federer’s disdain with what he deemed a “lucky shot” from Djokovic on match point during the 2011 US Open semi-final, he is embracing a looseness that results in a tighter stranglehold for those facing him. “I’m pretty relaxed, you know… Maybe I am the way I am today because I used to be completely nuts on the tennis court before. So I was able to turn that around and now, yeah, I know it’s just a tennis match.”
Whatever he says, anyone who sees Federer play finds it hard to describe what he does on the courts as “just a tennis match”. During the surprisingly efficient handling of Djokovic in the 2012 Wimbledon semi-final, Federer did everything right. He served with precision, exercised control in his shot selection and moved through the court with speed and vigour. Djokovic looked flustered, unprepared and bewildered. At times, he looked resigned. It would be a mistake to chalk this up to a bad day for the world number one. Djokovic is fit, dangerous and skilled. Questions as to whether he could surpass Federer in records, titles and perhaps take a run at the Greatest Of All Time moniker were asked with legitimacy during his superlative 2011 rise to number one. Djokovic looked bad on the court during that semi-final in London on Friday because Federer made him look bad; he took a page from the Serb’s will to succeed and set his mind to it, a novel approach for the Swiss champion. Federer, for all his talent, is stubborn. He expects to win and he expects his opponents to comply. During this Wimbledon semi-final, he set that attitude aside and took to defeating Djokovic with hungry determination. For Federer, the relentlessness paid off.
In his post-match interview, there was no trace of coldness and Federer looked a decade younger, his eyes teary with a raw gratefulness not often seen from the most famous man in tennis. For so long, Federer was used to getting what he wanted. Winning is a reward that became harder to hold and as the trophies and finals began to elude him consistently, he was transported back in time, back 10 years when he was climbing the rope to number one, two steps forward, one step back. Talent never questioned, but results never guaranteed. Finally, he’s reached a point where the goal is again in sight: a Wimbledon title, and with it, a second chance at a number one. Or as Roger puts it, just another tennis match.
For more on Wimbledon, follow Lyra Pappin on Twitter at @lyrapappin.
July 4, 2012
Andy Murray can win Wimbledon if Andy Murray wins Wimbledon.
Murray needs to win to have the confidence to win. A catch-22, if you will. Often criticized for not having the head for the game, Murray’s constantly relegated to the role of perpetual runner up, increasingly in danger of becoming a never-was, as far as slams go. There’s also the added bonus of the cynical pressure from British media swirling around him, so thirsty for a UK winner after a 76-year drought from the Wimbledon trophy ceremony that the Murray mirage is making them delirious with expectations.
But can Murray close it out? Is it actually all in his head?
The confounding lack of success from Murray is the fact that his “lack of success” is pretty damn good. Last year, he became one of only seven players to make it to the semifinals of every slam in a year, he’s been in a few finals, and he’s won 22 ATP titles. He’s beaten Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, and passes through weaker opponents easily, with few upsets marring his consistency, particularly on the hard courts he prefers. In spite of all of this, in spite of obvious, and well-respected talent, he’s not feared. He just doesn’t have the ability to get inside an opponent’s head, to beat players in the change room, as John McEnroe famously said of Federer in the heyday of his dominance. But what’s a guy to do? Unless you’re an up and coming hip hop artist, it’s hard to have swagger of a big shot when you simply aren’t a big shot.
In short: what Murray is missing is the threat factor. The Scot hasn’t won a slam, so how is he supposed to intimidate the top guys? He should ask Djokovic. In fact, Djokovic appeared to will his way to number one, with a superhuman Gumby-esque force, determined to prove his superiority on the courts not just to himself, but everyone. Tired of being the wallflower at the big dance Federer and Nadal were hosting year after year, slam after slam, Djoker decided to kick the door down and take the competition over, Pulp Fiction style.
Whether Murray’s got that in him is a terrific conundrum. There’s an irony to his plight, and to the criticism about his mental strength being the factor that holds him back; Murray’s not a stupid player, nor does he seem to lose focus or determination throughout the course of a match or a tournament. This, too, adds to the frustration of his unsatisfying finishes, as he doesn’t carry the calling cards of the typical loser. Where guys like Tomas Berdych and Juan Martin Del Potro seem to rely on strength and power and forego the whole tactics thing, Murray’s problem becomes overthinking, most notably, when he gets behind. He wears his frustrations openly and it became almost clinically crazy during the 2011 US Open, where you could hear more of Murray’s inner monologue berating the hell out of himself than the announcers trying to cut in with some play-by-play.
In fact, with all the pressures, criticisms, expectations and, frankly, bad luck, piled against him, it’s actually a testament to his talent that Murray’s been able to hang in the top four as long as he has. Murray didn’t have the luxury of cruising to the top of the rankings in a transitional period, as say when Andy Roddick rode his serve and little else to number one. Murray’s also had some extraordinarily challenging draws in every slam over the past year, his only break coming this year at Wimbledon, with Nadal’s early exit, an upset that will likely stand as the biggest of the season. And even with this so-called opportunity, take a look at the 2012 quarterfinals: Murray’s the only one playing anyone inside the top ten. Where Roger Federer gets 26-seed Mikhail Youzhny, Djokovic meets 31-seed Florian Mayer and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga faces 27 Phillipp Kohlschreiber, Murray’s taking on, David Ferrer, the seven seed, who just beat him in the French Open quarterfinals.
Nobody’s interested in throwing the Scot a pity party; if he wants to win, he’s got to win. Djokovic found a way to make it happen and if Murray could translate his talent into a Wimbledon title, it would be spectacular, dare we say, inspiring. Murray’s in a unique position: he’s got the most to win, whereas Djokovic and Federer are dealing with what they have to lose, not just ATP points either, but a siphoning of the unbeatable air of a proven champion. A win at Wimbledon would be the ultimate non-choke and it would change Murray, and his future, forever. It’s a lot to ask for, to have this moment come at Wimbledon, under a suffocating storm that’s cracking with nerves and demands from an entire nation, but he’s got to know that if he can win a slam, any slam, he’ll surely win more. If he can’t, well, does anyone really care what the rest of his story is?
For more on Wimbledon, follow Lyra Pappin on Twitter at @lyrapappin.
June 24, 2012
by: Lyra Pappin
Wimbledon is the oldest tennis tournament in the world. Truth. It’s really old and it’s still really fascinating. How has Wimbledon not become boring? How does it maintain its appeal, its prestige, its pull over players, fans and the media? Upon reflection, it seems that Wimbledon is a lot like one of its most successful champions himself, Roger Federer. Somehow, Federer always managed to have everyone on his side, even when he was at his most dominant and it could have become tiresome. How’d he do it? Well, at his worst, he’s excellent and at his best, he’s dominant in a fashion that screws with physics and fries our brains until all we can really do is marvel at his moves. And maybe throw out some baffled, holy language in admiration. Wimbledon’s like that. Drama unfolds day after day, with moments that seem too surreal to be… real. There’s no need to hope that 2012 Wimbledon is going to fuel its storied history, as much like Federer, its oxymoronic consistent novelty keeps us hooked for more.
So, who do we want more from in the opening round?
The Young and The Youngest
David Goffin, the Alex P. Keaton of the ATP, and the guy who shocked his idol, Federer, by taking a set from him during the French Open, will make his second appearance at Wimbledon. The spry Belgian is taking on the young Australian, Bernard Tomic, in a first round match that will likely end with a win for Tomic, but will be a real thrill to watch, and terrific fun if Goffin can pull off the upset.
David Nalbandian and Janko Tipsarevic face off in a match that will get a whole lot more attention as a result of Nalbandian’s accidental Good Fellas moment a few weeks ago, when he kicked an umpire instead of a chair, and drew some serious blood. I do not think There Will Be Blood is an apt title for this match up, but There Will Be A Lack of Focus, could come into play.
The two hatted fellows, Andy Murray and Nicolai Davydenko will face off in round one. Murray has a tough draw, as usual, but this match should be a great barometer for the Scot. If he’s moving well and takes care of Davydenko easily, that could be enough to boost him through to the semis. Plus, if Jo-Wilfried Tsonga can do him a solid and knock off Rafael Nadal, Murray could be looking at his best chance for a slam yet, as it’d be tough for Tsonga to pull off two consecutive big wins. Having said that, it’s pretty guaranteed that chance would come against Novak Djokovic or Roger Federer, and I would not put my money on Murray in either scenario. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves…
Sprechen sie Deutsch?
On the heels of his big upset victory over Federer in Halle last week, Tommy Haas will be feeling pretty good rolling into the match against compatriot Phillipp Kohlschreiber. Whether the 34 year old has the firepower to take out 28 year old and 27 seed Kohlschreiber is suddenly less questionable, though it’d still be a fair upset. Lightning doesn’t strike twice, right?
The War of 1812!
USA versus Canada! Patriots, show your flags! I guess Sam Querrey isn’t really looking to annex Vasek Pospisil, but that’s no reason to leave Niagara Falls unmanned and defenseless. The Wimbledon grass will have to stand in for this 19th century conflict as Pospisil looks to take out Querrey, who’s actually in a similar position to Pospisil: fair bit of hype and expectations, though overshadowed (literally) by his American friend, John Isner. Pospisil has his own giant frenemy, Milos Raonic, who he’d be likely to play should he take out Querrey.
Pick: Querrey (It’s okay, Canada will seek vengeance and ensure historical accuracy when he meets Raonic in round two.)
Speaking of the tall American, incredibly, Isner could meet Nicolas Mahut for the third consecutive year in the second round. We hope one of them has learned how to break serve by now. Another interesting potential round two matchup is Nadal versus Ivan Dodig, who is most memorable for ousting the Spaniard in the second round of the 2011 Rogers Cup.
Returning to the player-as-tournament thought about Federer being Wimbledon-esque, here’s a quick take on the other three slams:
Australia – flashy and youthful, but doesn’t seem too serious: Gael Monfils
French – I love it at the start but want to rip my eyes out by the increasingly obvious inevitability of the results: Murray
US Open – hard, fast, nightlife loving: Tsonga
Follow Lyra Pappin on Twitter @lyrapappin
June 9, 2012
by: Lyra Pappin
Does a dream fade when you’ve achieved it a few times over? If Maria Sharapova’s reaction to becoming world number one for the fifth time in her career is any indication – no. Celebrating her straight sets semi-final victory over Petra Kvitova, Sharapova threw her arms straight into the air, yanked them down with her patented fist clench, and bopped her head with a giddy, nerdy smile.
Sure, she looked thrilled to win. She also looked like a girl whose dad just told her she’s getting that pony after all.
The dichotomy between Sharapova’s results as a tested champion and her image as a perfectionist princess makes it hard to get behind the Russian twenty-five year old, whose material success hasn’t always hinged on her court play, though she could also never be mistaken for a girl looking for an easy pass. In fact, for all her inconsistent play, idiosyncratic quirks, (and trying not to mention, the shrieks), Sharapova might be the only woman around who can re-establish the relevance of women’s tennis.
After being relegated to the 129 seed in 2009 after growth spurts and surgeries set her back, Sharapova’s determination to return to the top is a welcome reprieve in this lackluster era of women’s tennis, which has been harshly criticized, with not just good, but endless reason. There are no rivalries, no consistent results, and when the next biggest name in women’s tennis, Serena Williams, coldly states that she “never really liked sports”, not much hope either.
Sharapova, to her credit, is less interested in proving her femininity and more compelled to fight claims that she’s just the hot blonde chick with a penchant for short skirts. When Sharapova first began attracting attention as the latest lanky “ova” out of Russia, the comparisons to compatriot Anna Kournikova were unavoidable. Sixteen-year-old Sharapova’s response? “Thanks, but no. I want to be a winner.”
It’s the kind of bold answer a teenager can easily give, but what’s proven to be more impressive is not Sharapova’s cockiness, but her sustained desire to win and make good on her cool confidence; she wants to excel and is audaciously unapologetic for it. Unlike a fellow top endorsement earner LeBron James, she’s no fourth quarter ghost who shies away from buzzer beating moments, instead, she embraces them.
Also unlike LeBron, what’s holding Sharapova back isn’t the gritty gut of a champion, it’s been injuries and limitations of talent. She’s gifted, but she doesn’t have the same court coverage as Kim Clijsters or Martina Hingis, or the complete game physicality of the Williams’ sisters. But whatever she lacks in pure athleticism, there’s no substitute for her will.
Saturday`s final against unlikely opponent Sara Errani of Italy gives Sharapova a chance to consolidate her break back into the tennis elite. With a win, Sharapova could also solidify her place in history among the best of all time, becoming only the 10th woman to achieve the Career Grand Slam, winning each major title at least once during her career.
Out of all the women who have come and gone through the Roland-Garros grind over the past two weeks, it’s ironic that Sharapova, the one with the least to gain, is also the one who wants it the most.
On Saturday afternoon in Paris as she looks to make history and become the first Russian woman to win all four slams, if there’s any doubt in anyone’s mind why she’s there or what it means to her, forget it. Don’t expect Sharapova to be content with a ranking in number only; she’s no Wozniacki, Safina or Jankovic, she’s Maria Sharapova and she doesn’t just want to win, she needs to win.
And now, in the unlikeliest of all places, it’s on the unpredictable, unforgiving Roland-Garros clay where Sharapova will have to prove that she has tempered the swagger of her youth and transformed herself into a number one that tennis can be proud of – a number one who might actually be here to stay.
Follow Lyra Pappin on Twitter @lyrapappin
June 5, 2012
With a roar and a whimper, so went the conclusions of the two superlative matches of the 2012 French Open thus far. An unfolding fury of quarterfinal fire, the world number one Novak Djokovic took on the punchy five seed, and hometown favourite, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga while the needs-no-intro Roger Federer faced off against the loping, looming nine seed from Argentina, Juan Martin Del Potro.
In the end, the top seeds held their ground, but not before some dark alley threats were played out on the shifty red clay. Both matches went five sets and both teased out their own sneaking suspicions about two of the best players in men’s tennis today – are these guys as good as we think?
Djokovic had a jaunt of a start, plucking a 6-1 lead in the first set from Tsonga, before letting the Frenchman through the cracks with two 7-5 set wins. Closing out the fourth set with a tension-filled tiebreaker, Djokovic settled back into commanding mode with that unmistakable look of an inevitable winner, hell-bent on trotting his way to a 6-1 finish. Tsonga, on the other hand, well, Tsonga looked sad.
Across the grounds, Federer found himself in familiar territory, making a record 32nd grand slam quarter final, though on the less familiar ground of the smaller, non-marquee court. Federer’s not exactly cruising through these Roland-Garros courts, but he’s there nonetheless, continuing to make history with each step and slide. The number three seed, and world number two, toasted his record-making occasion by burning himself with a quick two set deficit against Del Potro, who had previously failed to take a set in their last five meetings. It was a baffling display, made even more baffling by the eventual outcome, which was so one-sided in its 6-2, 6-0, 6-3 completion that it’d be fair to wonder if Del Potro realized the match was best of five.
Tennis is a sport that requires closing. The ability to slam the door in the face of someone who is likely just marginally less talented physically, but more importantly, less capable mentally. In both quarterfinals, the matches were determined by a span of points that become handfuls when measured out in games – Djokovic recorded 176 to Tsonga’s 149 and Federer needed 149 to get past Del Potro, who stalled at 124. In the Djokovic and Tsonga match, Djokovic had only four more winners than Tsonga’s 40. Federer eventually schooled Del Potro, with his 59 winners nearly doubling Del Potro’s 33. Key differences, yes, but knowing how to employ them is what separates an eventual champion from a deer in the headlights.
Whether Djokovic and Federer will bring these testaments of will to their semi-final matchup is not a question, it’s a guarantee, and the stage for this year’s meeting couldn’t be more primed for drama. In the 2011 French Open semi-final, Federer put an end to Djokovic’s incredible 43-match winning streak by shocking the Serb with a clean cut victory. It seemed like a return to old times, with Rafael Nadal and Federer heading to the final and Djokovic accepting the superiority of the Swiss ways; though the good will might have lasted exactly as long as Federer’s celebratory number one finger wave.
The difference between these two champions and competitors lies in the extraordinarily tight margins that are drawing tighter with each meeting. The growing dominance of Djokovic and the lasting endurance of Federer will hinge on one of their few shared traits: the sustained belief in an ability and desire to win. Actually, it’s not even a desire to win – it’s an intolerance of losing.
Winning? Winning’s just a bonus.
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