Maria Sharapova, and the Will to Win “Ugly”

After weathering a first set meltdown and close second set tiebreak, Maria Sharapova notched her second title of the year on Sunday by defeating Jelena Jankovic 4-6, 7-6 (3), 6-3 in the finals of the Western & Southern Open. It was the year’s longest match on the WTA tour.
It was also an exquisitely ugly affair from the first set to the last set.

Brad Gilbert would have been proud of this final. Or at least he would have been proud at how Maria managed to pull out the win. Brad’s book “Winning Ugly: Mental Warfare in Tennis–Lessons from a Master” has become the standard in referencing how to craft a match victory with what may not be your best or prettiest tennis, but still ends with a match victory. When all is said and done, the only thing that will matter from this final for Maria is the win.

The rest of us, however, can’t turn our backs on the significant amount of ugly tennis that was on display. How ugly did it get? Pretty ugly! Let’s start with serve stats. Both women struggled to hold serve in almost every game. There were 16 breaks of serve in the match, an incredible (as in the awful kind) statistic given that there were only 31 service games in the match. Translation: Maria and Jelena combined to be broken in half of the total service games, and each woman was broken 8 times.

Odds were 50/50 that either player would hold serve as they stepped up to the baseline. I wouldn’t take those odds even if I were a betting man.

The breakdown was surprising given how well the match started for Maria. She went up 4-1 in the first set with good serving and groundstrokes. Then the wheels not only fell off, they went shooting off in all directions and exploded on impact. Maria ended the set serving at 58% with 5 double faults, and was broken Jelena 3 times to lose it 6-4.

It would be great to say that this was because of Jelena’s great play, but I can’t. It’s true that she displayed some of her remarkable (trademark) defense. Maria had to hit up to 5 or 6 winners after getting into the rally in order to win points. That type of test for one’s patience would make it tough for any of the big hitters: Serena, Venus, Vika included. Each point was a battle of controlled aggression, and more often than not Maria couldn’t control it.

Jelena never stepped up to dictate when given the opportunity, however, so the win (or loss) was always going to be on Maria’s racquet. Pam Shriver mentioned in her courtside commentary that this was not Grand Slam winning tennis. She was correct. Jelena has done a good job of getting back into the mix after floundering since her high point of making it to the US Open finals (losing to Serena). But the passivity in her play was reminiscent of Caroline Wozniacki’s struggles at the top. Big matches generally aren’t won with brilliant defense. Sunday’s match was a case in point.

Big matches are also generally not won with the kind of sputtering offense that was on display either. The unforced error total was “off the charts” on both sides of the stat sheet. In the second set alone Maria had 27 and Jelena had 21. That is twelve games… two sets of tennis. The final total of unforced errors in the match was a staggering 113: 64 for Maria and 49 for Jelena.

The other notable element of Sunday’s final was the frequent changes in momentum from one player to the either. Neither could get an advantage and then capitalize. Maria even said it herself: “We kept breaking each other in the beginning. It felt like one of us played a few good points and than the other one and the levels were up and down throughout the match.”

“So, I’m just fortunate that at the end of the day I’m the winner.” And that’s pretty much all that is important to Maria these days.

Since returning from her shoulder surgery a few years back, Maria has come to terms with the fact that her service motion will always give her issues in matches. And by issues I mean “double-fault-itis”. It is no longer the “go to” shot it once was. She can still hit the occasional ace. But more often than not her stat sheet will be littered with double faults, many of them at crucial moments in her matches when her nerves betray her mechanics.

As goes the serve, the groundstrokes are sure to follow. Maria’s confidence in her bread and butter shots can melt away quickly when her serve begins to let her down. She starts feeling pressure to go for more and can lose range on her ground game. It can be difficult to watch when it goes off the rails this badly… as it has done so many times this year.

Her saving grace is her resolve and competitive fight. She was not willing to be beaten by the letdown of her game. You could see it in her eyes (and unfortunately hear it in her screams too…but I’ve already covered that one). In Jelena’s eyes all that I could see was the hope to hang on for the win. On this particular day, that was not enough.

After a year of decent results, Maria should be pleased. She is again firmly in the mix for potential Slam contenders. With Kim Clijsters withdrawal, there is a good chance for her in New York for the Open. Her ranking is back up to #4, and she has posted good wins over many of the other contenders. Now she needs to figure out “The Serena Question” if she wants to come away with the Open title. Serena will not be hoping to hang on for a victory, and will most assuredly know that she will hold serve every time she steps up to the baseline.

If their Stanford quarterfinal was a precursor to an Open title match, Maria still has a long way to go. I hope she gets there though. We need more resolve like hers at the top of the women’s game. If we had resolve AND fewer double faults and unforced errors, even better!

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