It was great to see Maria Sharapova reach the final in Miami, before losing to
Victoria Azarenka in quite comfortable straight sets.
I went to watch Sharapova play recently
in Indian Wells, when she thrashed Aravane Rezai 6-2 6-2, and was struck by two
things: how electrifyingly she was beating people in the early rounds, but also
the relative weakness of her game.
She's still young but after suffering
from lots of injuries, including undergoing right shoulder surgery, she doesn't
give me the impression that she still makes tennis a top priority.
It may sound weird to talk about the
weakness of a player who is reaching finals in a top event like Miami but I am certain
Maria Sharapova is far from having her A-game back.
She built her strength around several
main weapons: a big serve, being efficient on her first shot after the serve
and putting a lot of intensity into her returns, which kept her opponent under
Even if the last shot is still efficient,
despite her coach reminding her throughout matches to be aggressive on the
second serve, her serve is barely a shadow of what it used to be.
Her first serve has lot a lot of its
crushing ability, the stats confirm it, and her second serve is not amazingly
reliable. It's not a safe shot for her.
All this results in a huge number of double
faults; leading, of course, to a large number of breaks of serve.
She does still display an aggressive game
but she has lost a bit of power and explosiveness in her movement. Now she is
making just as many unforced errors as she used to but at the same time managing
far fewer winners.
Most important of all though is that she
has becomes a beatable player as long as you know the strategy to play against
She remains dangerous if you give her
angles and she likes to be moved around the court in order to use those angles
to fire some great shots.
In women's tennis numerous girls are
playing from right to left with reasonable pace and the Russian enjoys playing against
But if an opponent sends deep balls back
down the middle of the court, Sharapova doesn't know what how to strike back. Then
the mistakes follow and the opponent is able to counter-punch.
After all this criticism it is possible
to wonder how she is still winning matches.
Firstly her efficiency is tied in with
the fact that most of her opponents play a game that completely suits her. When
that's the case, she remains one of the best in the world on the return of
serve, so she's putting a lot of pressure on her opponents. Also when she is
not deep in a double-fault crisis she can focus on her opponent's serve.
She's also a huge competitor still; she is
a really tough on the key points, a player who rarely chokes when it is time to
end a match and a player who is going to take her chance no matter what from
the first to the last point.
She still fights like her lift is at
stake and because of that she is able to get back in the world's top 10 and
reach a final like Miami.
It is also thrilling to watch Maria just
being in the spotlight again. Her charisma, the feeling she gives people
watching her play, is just unique.
She's displays great inner strength, she
makes people dream and love the sport. Like Venus or Serena, she is simply in
another dimension. They all make people love them, admire them or hate them. They
give a soul to the game because people always have an opinion out them one way
And this is the major issue in the women's
game today: the stars with charisma and the players who make people dream are
no longer at the top of the game.
Sharapova, Venus and Serena are
extraordinary players, true tennis ambassadors, and when they were reigning
women's tennis was at its best.
Now they've turned their back on the sport
slightly in order to pick up a more glamorous life. Venus isn't shining in
Grand Slams anymore, her sister hasn't played in nine months and even before
that she wasn't really playing or winning anything outside the Grand Slams.
What would the men's game be if Rafael
Nadal, Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic were ranked between 15th and 30th? What
if they never played each other in the last four of the major events? What if
they only played 15 tournaments a year? The sport was turn slightly dull and
would lose its audience.
The ATP tour has had ten amazing years
because the Pete Sampras-Andre Agassi duet has been replaced by the
What allows Nadal and Federer to achieve
so much is their love of the game and their dedication to it. They still have
the flame so they can go on training and searching to be better in order to
win. The still want to win and the deeply respect the sport, its history and culture.
Celebrity, glamour and sponsorship
contracts now take too much of a place in the women's game and it takes away
the stars of a sport that brought them to the top.
They are losing their focus and the level
of their game is becoming unpredictable so they are prevented from shining in
the big events.
The absence of giant rivalries is what is
slowly killing the women's game.