Two rather large things happened this past weekend at the Italian Open.
The first is that Novak Djokovic defeated Rafael Nadal in the final, on clay, again. The Djoker’s record this season is 37-0, including four wins over Nadal. The last two of those have come on clay, in the finals of both Madrid and Rome, which are Masters series tournament. To put that in terms that might be somewhat more understandable, Masters series tournaments are the biggest, most prestigious tournaments in tennis besides the four grand slam events. Everyone tends to play them, and thus, these two wins for Djokovic are worth noting, because the French Open starts in less than a week, on Sunday, May 22. Both of Djokovic’s clay court wins over Nadal this spring have been in straight sets.
I have never been a big fan of Djokovic due to his over-the-top arrogance, but he seems to have channeled some of that energy into his tennis game, instead of trying to convince everybody else how cool he is. It seems to be working for him. For those wondering, the longest unbeaten streak to start a season belongs to John McEnroe, who started 1984 off at 42-0.
Another thing I find useless is the ranking system. When a guy comes into a season ranked #2 and starts the year 37-0 including a 4-0 record against #1, that guy is no longer #2. But because the system is so goofy, it takes a long time for anything to change and so much of a player’s ranking is based on how they did at the same tournament the year before. All I know is, any logical ranking system in the universe has Djokovic #1 right now. I mean, if we are ranking based on results and play, which if we’re not, why bother ranking?
The second huge thing that happened in Rome was that Maria Sharapova won a big tournament. She defeated Sam Stosur, a player who figures to be in the mix at Roland Garros next week, in the final. But perhaps more importantly, Sharapova got a big monkey off her back in the semifinals when she defeated #1 Caroline Wozniacki for the first time since this same tournament in 2008, when Wozniacki was just 17 years old. Since then, the two players had gone in opposite directions. Sharapova had already won her three grand slams by May ’08, and has spent much of the last couple years fighting through and back from injuries. Her serve seemed to be the last thing to come back, but at least last week, it served her just fine. Wozniacki, meanwhile, has been tearing up the tour en route to the #1 ranking. The Great Dane has won 15 WTA tournaments, and will likely go over $10 million in career prize money at next week’s French Open, and she still won’t be able to legally drink in the U.S. for over a month.
I feel there are more dynamics at play here. For one, I think there is the WTA tour, and then there is the game within the game to be the best “pretty player,” not only for rankings and endorsements, but also for some sort of unspoken bragging rights. I’m sure this is made up in my head, but I’d like to believe that the good-looking women on tour are all competing for my support by trying to show that they are the best on the court.
Of course, I know this isn’t true, but what I’m getting at is that there is a lot at stake here in terms of who will become the face of the tour. Sharapova has already had her time, but she is still just 24 years old, and newly-engaged, and looks and sounds like a woman who will stop nowhere short of regaining the world #1 ranking and winning more grand slams. Wozniacki, on the other hand, is only 20 years old, but may have missed the window to collect grand slams while she was busy winning 15 other tournaments. Sharapova seems to be back, and I’m sure Serena Williams isn’t too far behind. Kim Clijsters has already said she will play the French Open with her ankle taped, so that is one more player in the grand slam field that Wozniacki has shown an inability to beat.
Another dynamic in play at the French Open involving these two players is Wozniacki’s quest to silence her critics and score her first grand slam, versus Sharapova’s annual crack at the career grand slam. To me, Sharapova’s story is the far more intriguing one, because 1) she must win the French, which only comes around once a year, and 2) a career grand slam is such a bigger accomplishment than a first career major. It could be possible that by age 24, Wozniacki will already have a career grand slam, but I highly doubt it. Sharapova has a chance at a rare renaissance, where a player has two distinct time periods of being on the top of his or her field. Maria is still ranked just 7th, but I’m not sure she’d be a betting underdog against any player in the tournament, assuming Clijsters is not fully healthy. Sharapova has the power and experience to blow any player off the court when she is in form, and it will be interesting to see if she can navigate through to the major clay final for the first time.
If nothing else, Sharapova has firmly declared herself as the #1 contender for Wozniacki’s hottie belt, something that seemed unlikely when Wozniacki planted Sharapova in the 2010 U.S. Open round of 16 in straight sets.
Caroline Wozniacki Maria Sharapova
The Best Pretty Player Title Belt Holder vs. The Former Champ and New #1 Contender