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The rewards of not holding back

Maria Sharapova, savoring the spoils

Can ‘hit-or-miss’ tennis be as rewarding as the proverbial ‘making the opponent play one more shot’ formula? The question has dogged tennis players and coaches for decades, but every time we seem to be coming close to an answer, certain events occur which force us to go back to square one.  In recent times, the idea of putting the ball back in play has been widely celebrated, to the extent that it is now cited as the sole differentiating factor between a winner and a loser, between a good player and a great player. What does Rafael Nadal do to outlast his opponents? He coaxes errors out of them by prolonging rallies! What has helped Novak Djokovic dominate the tour so authoritatively over the last year and a half? Why he makes his opponents play the extra ball of course! What has been the secret to Victoria Azarenka‘s stunning success this year? You get the drill. But with the chaotic times that women’s tennis finds itself in these days, you can always count on a female player to come along and upset conventional wisdom like it is a walk in the park for her. In her semifinal match against Caroline Wozniacki at the Sony Ericsson Open yesterday, Maria Sharapova made as loud (literally AND figuratively) a statement in support of hit-or-miss tennis as you can possibly imagine.

The final score read 4-6, 6-2, 6-4 in favor of Sharapova, suggesting a close, hard-fought contest, but if you saw any part of the match, you’d know that the points so heavily revolved around Sharapova’s power that it almost seemed unfair. The Russian was absolutely crushing every short ball that came her way; at one point she was even hitting the cover off the ball on Wozniacki’s first serves. Dynamites seemed to be exploding all around Crandon Park as her missiles, accompanied as always by her ear-splitting shrieks, thudded across the court and hit the back walls. Every point seemed to end on a Sharapova winner or error, and not just any ordinary winner or error; these shots, even the ones that went flying wildly beyond the sidelines, seemed capable of burning holes through walls. She ended the match with an astronomical 46 unforced errors, and an even more astronomical 55 winners. There was just no holding back by the Russian, and it made for some unforgettably compelling viewing.

The aggressive Wozniacki that defeated Serena Williams 2 days ago was nowhere to be seen yesterday; the Dane insisted on rolling her shots with spin and angle instead of trading blows with Sharapova, perhaps more out of necessity than choice. On the few occasions that Wozniacki did try to force the issue, by hitting her forehand flat and down-the-line, she more often than not gave up the point through an error. And that serve of hers looked positively featherweight; to say that Sharapova viciously devoured the Wozniacki serve yesterday, only halting when she had to spit out the bones, would be an understatement. This never seemed like a battle between equals, and the fact that it ended up being a tight three-setter can only be attributed to Wozniacki’s remarkable retrieving skills. The fleet-footed former World No.1 just wouldn’t give up, scrambling to get every Sharapova blast back in play and wait for the error. Unfortunately for her, that wasn’t good enough against her rampaging opponent.

We should have been accustomed to seeing such displays by now – Sharapova has made a career for herself out of bashing the living daylights out of the ball. But for some reason, the sheer brutality of her strikes seemed magnified yesterday. Was it because her opponent was distinctly under-powered? Or was it because we couldn’t remember the last time she had played with such precise, redlined aggression? It’s been 4 years since Sharapova won a Slam, and there’s a reason for that. The relentless, controlled offense that defined Sharapova’s game in her pre-shoulder injury career simply didn’t seem to exist any more. In fact, as brilliant as Sharapova was for most parts of the match yesterday, the one set that she did lose was downright ugly, just like most of her recent losses have been. After getting off to a furious start, she seemed to have the set wrapped up at 4-1, but then, without warning, disaster struck. Her game came apart for no discernible reason, and suddenly she couldn’t find the court with her groundstrokes. The double faults duly made their presence too, and Wozniacki gobbled all the gifts up, winning 5 consecutive games to take the set. Sharapova’s game seemed to be afflicted with bipolar disorder, and to the dismay of her fans, the dark side of her game seemed strong enough to repeatedly, and emphatically, overwhelm the bright side.

That Sharapova managed to bring her game under control so quickly and decisively (she sprinted to a 4-0 lead in the second set) is down to her unmatched mental strength and intensity, which do make occasional appearances even in her subpar post-injury career. Yes, we’re all tired of hearing how unyielding a competitor Sharapova is. But there are moments in her matches when it is simply impossible to ignore that facet of her play. In the last two sets yesterday, she refused to take her foot off the pedal, continuing to go for her shots despite the hideously dispiriting end to the first set. And in the final game of the match, she even managed to turn her most widely-lambasted weakness into a strength. The score read 15-all, and having already had her serve broken once when serving for the match, Sharapova was faced with the prospect of a long-drawn struggle against a surging Wozniacki who seemed prepared to fight till her breath ran out. The tension was palpable, and you could almost see Sharapova’s shoulders sag under the weight of it. She then proceeded to miss 4 first serves in a row. For a player given to making double faults at the most inopportune moments, it would have been understandable for her to roll in safe, slow second serves in such an important game. But Sharapova chose, instead, to hit 4 highly risky, line-painting second serves that she used to set up those points to her advantage. When it came down to the wire, Sharapova’s ‘hit or miss’ brand of tennis was more hit than miss, and she has a place in the final of the tournament to show for it.

Women’s tennis being what it is, I wouldn’t be surprised if Sharapova went out in her next match and sprayed shots all over the place to lose in straight sets. But yesterday’s match was a fine reminder that when Sharapova can make her hit-or-miss game work, it is a sight to behold. And her victory also suggests that, conventional wisdom be darned, ultra-aggressive tennis can be rewarding too. Why would you want to make your opponent hit one more shot when you can finish the point on your terms, with a single, almighty, hugely satisfying swing?

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