by Kim Zigfeld (a/k/a La Russophobe)
You may not be a tennis fan, but even if you are not you may recall so-called "Russian" Maria Sharpova's pledge not to be "another Kournikova" selling her body for soft porn profit while her game, and the game's reputation, goes into the tank. From the photos to follow you can see how reliable this Russian's word is...
Russian female tennis players had an impressive year in 2004. Five of the eight slots in grand slam event finals were filled by Russians, and three of the four slams were won by Russians. In addition to Wimbledon, Russia's Maria Sharapova also won the season-ending WTA Tour Championship title, making 2004 the best year by far for Russian tennis and Sharapova Russia's apparent golden girl.
But if we look below the surface, we see a different picture entirely, especially as far as Sharapova is concerned. In 2005 and so far in 2006, no Russian has even reached a grand slam final, much less prevailed there, making 2004 seem very much like the fluke some commentators saw it as at the time.
As for Sharapova, first of all, it is questionable whether it is even appropriate to refer to her as "Russian." She left the country as a small child, speaks English on the court, lives in Florida, spends virtually no time in Russia, has consistently refused to play for the national team and donates almost none of her vast fortune to the relief of Russian poverty.
Sharapova has claimed that she "needs" to live in the USA for her tennis, but that is an absurd fantasy. Svetlana Kuznetsova lives in St. Petersburg, and won the U.S. Open (and she recently thrashed Sharapova handily in a major tournament). Anastasia Myskina lives in Moscow, and won the French Open. Elena Dementieva lives in Moscow, and was a finalist in 2004 at both the French and U.S. Opens. What Sharapova "needs" is the glamour and money found in the American market place.
The next factor to be considered is luck. The only reason, for instance, that Sharapova reached the finals at Wimbledon in 2004 is that a sudden downpour interrupted her semi-finals match with Lindsey Davenport, not once but several times, while Davenport was in the midst of pulverizing Sharapova, who'd barely managed to win a single game. After the sequence of rain delays, the aging Davenport lost focus and physical edge while the youthful Sharapova rebounded. Wimbledon is planning to erect a roofed stadium to avoid problems like this in the future.
Indeed, Sharapova seems to lead a charmed existence. How else to explain her miraculous ability to travel from Siberia to the world renown Bolletari tennis academy in Florida, while so many wait so long for U.S. visas, where she was able to study tennis at the highest level for free. Reviewing Sharapova's tournament victories, it's amazing how often she has been able to reach and win a final without having had to play a top-five opponent, as was the case in her most recent tournament victory, the Pacific Life Open at Indian Wells, California. In 2005, she was 3-3 against top five opponents, winning just three tournaments in 15 tries, and in only one of those three wins did she have to face a top-five player; in one of her other three tournaments wins, she did not even have to face a player in the world's top fifteen.
Then, quality of play must be considered. A person even casually familiar with tennis who compares the 2005 Wimbledon final between Davenport and Venus Williams, to the 2004 final where Sharapova prevailed against the other Williams sister, Serena, cannot but be struck by the dramatic difference in the quality of play and watchability of the two matches, one scintillating and the other a yawner. A serious fan would be very hard-pressed to name a single match where Sharapova produced truly compelling, championship-caliber tennis against a highly-ranked opponent. For every significant win against a credible opponent, there are two calamitous disasters against also-rans. Maria plays with an entirely one-dimensional baseline power game bereft of shotmaking, and her unforced errors are regularly twice as many as her winners. In other words, she's Ivan Lendl light.
Finally, there is the character issue. When she broke onto the tour, Sharapova promised that she would not be "another Kournikova" and would focus on only tennis, not soft porn. So it was rather surprising to see Maria appear in a cheesecake spread in the most recent Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue. Time and again, Sharapova has proved unable to handle long, demanding three-set matches, and she has repeatedly been blown off the court by higher-ranked opponents, several times registering the infamous "bagel" or "double bagel" in which she wins not a single game. One might attribute this to Sharapova's youth, expecting her to improve with age like a fine wine, but there is no evidence of that so far and she has repeatedly implied she may not be in it for the long haul anyway; apparently, Sharapova thinks there's much more to her than tennis (which wouldn't be hard to believe).
But the most damning evidence of Maria's flawed character came at her most recent tournament, the so-called "fifth major" at the Nasdaq-100 event in Miami. In her semi-final match with fellow Russian expatriate Tatiana Golovin, Sharapova had a dominant position against the much lower ranked player in the second set after winning the first, and then once again imploded. Golovin reeled off game after game and denied Sharapova four match points whereupon, as Golovin stood to serve out the set, Sharapova suddenly decided she needed a bathroom break, unheard of in tennis etiquette on an opponent's serve. Despite her pathetic gamesmanship, which drew caustic boos from the audience, Golovin closed Sharapova out in the second set.
But the worst was yet to come. In the tightly fought third set, Golovin sustained a horrific injury to her ankle that ultimately forced her to withdraw. As she stood on the court writhing in pain with tears of agony flowing from her eyes, Sharapova stood callously at the other end of the court taking no notice. Later, Sharapova would claim, bizarrely, that she had no idea Golovin had been injured, eerily reminiscent of Bill Clinton's claim that, while he smoked marijuana, he did not inhale. The audience was not fooled, and booed Sharapova off the court after her "victory" when Golovin resigned. When questioned about the disapproval from the crowd, Sharapova said she had no idea why they were booing her.
It seemed, though, that the world was on to Sharapova's weak game long before the match started, since the Miami centercourt stadium was half empty despite Sharapova's alleged sex appeal and drawing power. With so many flaws in her game, real tennis fans realized long ago that she's simply not worth watching, incapable of producing the thrilling pyrotechnics of a true champion.
In other words, eerily like Russia itself, Sharapova is a triumph of form over substance, a grand illusion. Just as Russia hides behind its oil and gas revenues, Sharapova hides behind her looks, which are ordinary by model standards but superlative by professional athletic standards. Behind these facades, though, there is a crumbling edifice built on shifting, uncertain foundations that will not endure the test of time. Just like the former USSR, when faced with unpleasant reality Sharapova chooses to stick her pretty head into the sand and deny everything. And we all know how far the USSR got with that attitude.