Maria Sharapova

Wimbledon 2011 may be remembered as the shutting of the early grand slam window for some of the younger stars on the WTA tour.
It is entirely possible that world number 1 Caroline Wozniacki, number 4 Vika Azarekna, and the rest of the WTA young guns continue to develop their games and become great champions with multiple majors. But it is also possible that they continue to dilly dally through grand slams, busting out in rounds of 16 or later to various opponents who were better on that day.

Photo by Clive Brunskill / Getty Images via
Azarenka (L) and Wozniacki (R) might be discussing which player will win a single grand slam now.

The possibility of the latter is looking a lot greater after Wimbledon 2011 because of what the Woz-arenkas of the world may confuse for the WTA’s Dark Triad: the return of a physical superstar, the health of a lioness in her prime, and the rapid ascent of a huge hitter proving to be the real gem of her age group.

Indeed, it will be the 24 year-old Maria Sharapova who will go for her second Wimbledon title and fourth grand slam overall.  The Siberian-born former number one has publicly stated her intention to return to the top, and Saturday marks her first chance to reestablish herself as a potential favorite at every tournament.
Of course, there was a true “comeback” at Wimbledon, as Serena Williams played her first major in twelve months.  While she lost in the round of 16, I don’t think anyone should come away from this tournament thinking that Serena is anything less than a favorite against any of those in the Wozarenka class.
But perhaps it is Sharapova’s next opponent, Petra Kvitova, who will be the biggest antagonist of the Wozarenkas’ attempt to win major titles in the years to come. The Czech Republic native has progressed to her first major final now, and has shown steady nerves to add to her already overpowering game. It was a lethal combination today for Azarenka, who is used to being the more athletic and powerful player. During her semifinal against Kvitova, you could see Azarenka trying desperately to figure out how to win a different way. It is difficult for the bully to deal with being bullied, and Azerenka simply ran out of time to figure it out in her three-set loss to the bigger Kvitova. One could also point out that to double fault to lose the match is especially indicative of mental weakness, but I’ll grant Vika a pass due to the mental fatigue that she must have endured in getting pushed around the way she usually does to her own opponents.
The trio of Kvitova, 21, Sharapova, 24, and Williams, 29, may dominate the WTA for a while.

While the Williams sisters and their fellow elder statesmen Kim Clijsters, Li Na, and even Francesca Schiavone appear to be title contenders for a while longer, the general consensus was that this young class of players would eventually emerge to dominate the sport for a while. Although Wozniacki has taken a lot of flack for failing to yet win a major, the pressure hasn’t gotten too amped up yet because most people figure that it is a matter of eventuality.
But while Wozniacki, Azarenka and Kvitova are all within a year of each other age-wise, there is no doubt as to which one of them has the greatest potential. Kvitova, who just turned 21, is built like a brick shithouse. While fitness, speed and defense have become all the rage in men’s tennis (for one example, see Andy Roddick in 2007 v. Andy Roddick today), there is still no denying the fact that the women’s game is dominated by the biggest hitters. It’s why Serena has dominated the game for so long, and why Sharapova and Venus have gotten theirs over the years. Sure, the smaller-hitting, athletic defender can win any grand slam tournament, but the room for domination is not there like it is for the powerhouse who can determine when she wins and when she loses. Serena has that power. Maria, despite her seemingly lanky frame, has had that power her whole career, and she’s only growing stronger. And now it has become obvious that Kvitova also has that power. Regardless of what we decide to call these three bashers — the WTA Dark Triad, the Triforce, or any other pop culture reference to the number three — it’s clear that these three players most easily determine who wins and who loses. This extra gear of offense is a tool that Wozniacki and Azarenka lack at this time when it comes to facing either of these three superior offensive players, and it may turn out to cost them as time adds up and the grand slams do not.

Photo by Graham Denholm / Getty Images via
The Belarusian Beauty missed an opportunity today, but in reality it was never up to her.

I am not saying that I think either Wozniacki or Azarenka will go through their careers major-less.  I’m simply saying that if they do, look to Wimbledon 2011 as the beginning of the end of the short era in which the grand slam window was wide open.
Another day, another betting line favorite ousted on the women’s side of the French Open.  With the top three seeds already gone from the tournament, #4 Victoria Azarenka became the bookies’ favorite to win the championship at Roland Garros.  But her hopes were dashed again by Na Li, the 6th-ranked, 2011 Australian Open finalist from China.  Li ran her record to 4-1 lifetime against Azarenka, while the Belarusian beauty failed to breakthrough to her first career grand slam semifinal.  Azarenka is now 0-4 in the quarterfinal round.  This disappointing yet foreseeable loss comes just one day after Aza and partner Maria Kirilenko busted out in doubles in three sets.  Li defeated Azarenka 7-5, 6-2.

It was one of those days for Victoria Azarenka, who is now 1-4 against Na Li, and 0-4 in grand slam quarterfinals.

The other quarterfinal was another drubbing by the hottest player on tour, #7 Maria Sharapova.  The Russian has stated her intention to regain the world’s #1 ranking, and it certainly wasn’t going to be #15 Andrea Petkovic that derailed Sharapova’s dream.  Ever since Petkovic eliminated Sharapova from this year’s Aussie Open, and followed the win with her patented show-offy dance around the court, the four-time #1 has annihilated the dancing queen.  On the hard courts of Miami this spring, Petkovic was able to grab a 6-3 opening set on Sharapova.  Since then, Maria has allowed Petko to win exactly five games in four sets, including two bagels.  After the win in Miami, Sharapova questioned whether Petkovic was dancing after blowing the one set lead.  It was Maria’s veteran way of saying, “Hey assh*le, don’t ever do that on my court again.”  The Siberian force only furthered her point by crushing Petkovic in the French Open quarters today by a score of 6-0, 6-3.  And if anyone has a right to tell an opponent not to boast, it’s Sharapova.  Maria defeated Serena Williams in the 2004 Wimbledon final when the Russian was only 17 years old.  There was no dancing then, and there certainly isn’t any now.  Furthermore, it’s not like Petkovic can play the “youth card,” because while she’s just now becoming a popular player on the tour, the German is less than five months younger than the three-time grand slam champion Sharapova, who has never been accused of rubbing anyone’s nose in their own loss.

Petkovic couldn’t touch Sharapova today… until the post-match handshake of course.  There have been no reports of the red clay subbing as a dance floor.

Sharapova and Li will lead off the semifinal action on Thursday.  Maria is 5-2 against Li, but those two losses have been the most recent matches that the two players have played.  Both were on grass at Birmingham, in 2009 and 2010.  Both were straight sets victories for Li, but remember that Sharapova had not been very good during those years following injuries.  In fact, most people hadn’t counted Sharapova as “back” until she won Rome just a couple weeks ago.

The other semifinal is #11 Marion Bartoli of France against the defending champion, #5 Francesca Schiavone of Italy.  Schia is 4-1 against Bartoli, despite being ranked substantially lower than the Frenchwoman the last four times they have played.  This time, it is Schiavone who is favored to get back to the finals.  Surprisingly, this is only the second career semifinal at a major for either of these women.  Bartoli lost the 2007 Wimbledon final to Venus Williams, while Schiavone of course won the 2010 French Open.

Both semifinals are Thursday.
There are always a lot of assumptions made in tennis tournaments, but two of the most common ones over the last week and a half have been that #4 Victoria Azarenka and #7 Maria Sharapova would meet in the semifinals, and that the winner should win the tournament.  I personally would love to see a match between these two giants of the game that seem like they could be sisters — what with their tall, thin frames, long blonde hair, power games, eastern european descent and tendencies to shriek on court.

But in order to get through Wednesday’s quarterfinals, a lot will have to go right.  For Sharapova, she takes on an opponent in #15 Andrea Petkovic that knocked her out of the 2011 Aussie Open in blowout fashion.  Maria got some revenge in Miami, but only after dropping the first set.  Sharapova seemed to get very annoyed with Petkovic doing her signature dancing around the court, and Maria proceeded to annihilate Petko over the final two sets, dropping only two games.  The two have never met on clay, and Sharapova is 2-1 lifetime against Petkovic, taking 2010’s Masters series tournament in Cincinnati.

While Sharapova has a tough match against an aggressive player, Vika Azarenka has a match against a woman who actually owns her.  Aza and Na Li have only ever played on hard court, but Li is 3-1 against Vika, including the last matchup, which was also at this year’s Australian Open, and was also in straight sets.  And as far as previous major accomplishments go, Li is the one who has made a grand slam final, which she dropped in three sets to Kim Clijsters (2011 Australian Open).  Azarenka, meanwhile, has never made it past the quarterfinal round of any grand slam tournament.  So while everyone keeps repeating that Vika Azarenka is the player to beat at this tournament, history would actually argue otherwise.  While I do like Na Li, and she was 1/2 of my biggest tennis parlay hit of my life, I hope that Azarenka can play her game and hopefully that clay somehow benefits her in the results column.  We hockey fans gotta stick together.

The top half of the women’s semis have already been set.  #11 Marion Bartoli of France will take on defending champion and #5 seed Francesca Schiavone for the right to go to the finals.

*** One quick note, because it was not worth an entire blog post. ***

The Atlanta Thrashers are now officially moving to Winnipeg, and tomorrow I will give my thoughts on why I think there were some shady means to the correct end.  I’m glad for Winnipeg and Canada in general, but this whole thing could have been done a little more honestly, in my opinion.  That comes tomorrow, and then will not be addressed again, because it will be time for the Stanley Cup Finals.

Upon researching the remaining round of 16 matches in the women’s draw at Roland Garros, I found some encouraging trends, as well as a disappointing one.  Some good news, and some bad news.  Let’s give the bad news first.

At the very bottom of the bottom half of the bracket sits #25 Maria Kirilenko, who will take on #15 Andrea Petkovic tomorrow.  I make no apologies for the ladies I root for, and in this match I will without question root for one of my favorites, Ms. Kirilenko.  But the outlook for Maria to make the quarterfinals is bleak.  These two players have only ever played twice, and both times were in 2011 and on clay.  Petkovic took both matches in straight sets.  There is always hope, but it doesn’t seem like Kirilenko matches up well with Petkovic, who has shot up the rankings of both the tour and popularity this season.  Petkovic has the advantage in height and weight, as well as form, as she is 32-9 this season, compared to Kirilenko’s 10-10.  I’d have to say Maria is a longshot to beat Petko tomorrow, but it can be done.

Maria Kirilenko looks like that while she’s playing tennis.

The not-so-bad news comes in looking at #4 Vika Azarenka’s matchup with the barely unseeded (world #33) Ekaterina Makarova.  Azarenka is 2-1 against Makarova, with both wins coming this year.  But both were on hard court, and one was a three setter, so there is definitely the possibility of the highest remaining seed getting bounced.  But Aza has been playing probably the best tennis of anyone in the field this week, and it should be her match to lose.  This is Azarenka’s best chance to grab that first major and the hottie belt, right as Caroline Wozniacki has surrendered both.  People jumped on the Vika bandwagon when she was very young, and then couldn’t dive off fast enough after she imploded in a couple grand slams due to illnesses, both physical and emotional.  But it looks like now might be the time to buy Azarenka, because there is a clear possibility that she wins this tournament, and is a contender on all surfaces, whether Serena Williams is injured or not.

As the top seed remaining, Vika Azarenka has her chance to grab a grand slam and the best pretty player title in the next six days.

The match I don’t care so much about pits #6 Na Li against #9 Petra Kvitova.  I’m something of a fan of Li, as she seems funny and kind of small, and also because she seems to have taken a few steps professionally at an older age than most.  But she is 0-1 against Kvitova, who won their only match just this spring in Madrid, which is of course a clay tournament.  The big left hander from the Czech Republic won 6-3, 6-1, and boasts an impressive 32-6 record in 2011, which has landed her three singles titles.  The steady woman from Wuhan, China has gone 22-8 this year, but will need to change something from Madrid if she is to advance to the French quarterfinals.  I would have to assume a Kvitova win.

Of the four matches Monday, the one with the most sure track record is the only pitting #7 Maria Sharapova against #12 Agnieszka Radwanska.  Maria is 6-1 against Aggie, and has won the last five matchups, which have all been on hard court.  The only time they faced each other on clay was in 2007, which went to Sharapova in three sets.  But both players are better now than they were then, and Maria has seen a return to longer glimpses of dominant form.  She has become a clay court favorite after winning the Italian Open a couple of weeks ago, and given her stature and game, has to be considered the one who will decide the outcome of this match.  I think Radwanska is a really good player who could totally grab a major anytime, but given the history and the current trending, I would say Maria Sharapova will probably survive this match and take on the winner of the Petkovic / Kirilenko match.

Maria Sharapova stated recently that she will regain the world #1 ranking.  In doing so, Masha implicitly guaranteed that she will win back the hottie belt for the third time.

So while in a perfect world we would see Kirilenko and Sharapova go at it for the right to take on Azarenka for the hottie title belt, the likely winning four-lady parlay tomorrow is Petkovic-Azarenka-Kvitova-Sharapova.  And as Jack Nicholson said in “Mars Attacks,” “I want the people to know that they still have two out of three [beautiful players] working for them, and that ain’t bad.”
Yet again, Caroline Wozniacki has made me look bad.  This time it comes in the form of a 6-1, 6-3 loss to #28 Daniela Hantuchova, who I said yesterday “had no ability to finish” big matches.  What I forgot was that #1 Wozniacki has had a very limited ability to finish her own difficult matches this year.  Her loss “opens up” the top half of the bracket to some degree, although I’m not sure playing Wozniacki would have been viewed as any more difficult that playing Hantuchova.

At any rate, most of the intrigue of the women’s bracket, from a male perspective, has to be on the bottom half, where it is still possible to have #7 Maria Sharapova, #4 Victoria Azarenka and Sorana Cirstea each make it to the quarterfinals, where they could be joined by the winner of tomorrow’s match between Arantxa Rus and #25 Maria Kirilenko.

4th-seeded Victoria Azarenka of Belarus has her best shot yet at the Hottie Belt

World No. 99 Sorana Cirstea of Romania had a disappointing 2010, but was a quarterfinalist at the 2009 French Open, where she first threw her hat into the ring.

*** Match of the Day ***
The beautiful Maria Kirilenko (left) will try to knock off Thursday’s stunner Arantxa Rus (right) in Round 3 on Saturday. 

#25 seed Maria Kirilenko of Moscow, Russia
World No. 114 Arantxa Rus of Monster, South Holland

Maria Sharapova seeks to complete her career grand slam and take back the Hottie Belt in unanimous fashion.

I wonder if the television ratings would be higher than usual if four of these five ladies staged their own “conference final four” on the bottom half of the draw.  In related news, Azarenka and Kirilenko are playing doubles together, and are through to the round of 16.  The duo is seeded fifth.

On the men’s side, #3 Roger Federer looked very sharp in smoking #29 Janko Tipsarevic in three sets.  #7 David Ferrer dominated #31 Sergiy Stakhovsky, dropping only five games.  I predicted a 5-set win for Ferrer; off by just a tad.  As I write this, #14 Stan Wawrinka has just come back from two sets down to defeat #17 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in front of his home crowd.  Djokovic holds a one-set lead over del Potro.

Once the field gets down to 16, I will post my bracket that predicts the final four rounds of each field.  Feel free to bet against it to make some easy money.

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