How to solve a problem with Maria

A Dream realised

That it was Maria Sharapova who stood with the Suzanne Lenglen trophy aloft at the end of the fortnight should come as no surprise; A relief as there have been a few too many surprises in the women’s game over the last 14 days, something which serves as a big problem to the game’s marketing machines. For all of the complaints about the almost-decade-long monopolisation from the Williams sisters, it was good for the sport. Ask people for the name of a top women’s tennis player or a Slam winner and they would invariably opt for one of the Compton girls. Behind them came the good looks of Maria which meant that for a long time the sport did not need to try with marketing and appeal. As the sisters head over the hill to retirement and new careers, where does the women’s game go now and, more importantly, who can it pin its hopes on to appeal to a larger audience?

Even the most devoted tennis fan would hesitate to name the winners of the last 8 slams before this year’s French Open. For what it is worth….Francesca Schiavone, Serena Williams, Kim Clijsters x2, Na Li, Petra Kvitova, Samantha Stosur and Victoria Azarenka. Are any of them equipped to carry the sport forward with mass appeal?

I think it is safe to suggest that Schiavone’s year in the Roland Garros sun is now firmly in the past. She did marvellously to reach the 2011 final in her title defence but now appears to have rediscovered what was her previous career level; a safe bet for the last 16 but not likely to trouble the second week too much. Her fall to Italian number 2 after Sara Errani’s terrific run seems to confirm that Schiavone’s star is descending.

Kim Clijsters recently announced that she will retire for a second time after this year’s US Open. Her return to the sport brought her three Grand Slams, a damning indictment of the women’s game as her heart never seemed fully in it.  Her dream is to win on the grass of the All England Club – this summer presents her with a double dose of opportunity but the smart money would be on the hectic schedule proving too demanding of the working mum.  The loss of her smile and on-court attitude will be another blow to the Tour.

Na Li’s victory at Porte d’Auteuil 12 months ago was heralded as a major breakthrough for Asian tennis. The first Slam winner from the world’s biggest continent won the hearts of tennis fans with her adventurous play and fun bickering with her husband, and her form in the first six months of last season suggested more was to come. Sadly, it hasn’t materialised with Li struggling to stay in the Top 10 and whilst one would not rule out another slam, major domination is unlikely.

There is more hope attached to the winners of the last three Slams.  Petra Kvitova heads into her Wimbledon defence with as good a chance as any of lifting the Venus Rosewater Dish. As she powered her way to victory last July, I was convinced that here was a young woman who could dominate at SW19 for years. I have not changed that opinion. Her game is perfectly suited to the slower grass courts and her power is breath-taking.  An improved showing at Roland Garros this year is good preparation for another assault, this time as defending champion. Can the game use her as a marketing tool? Unlikely.   Her sometimes sullen, sluggish movements are akin to Lindsay Davenport and whilst both have many admirers amongst tennis fans, you need more to lure outsiders; on-court grace, stunning beauty, bubbly personality or continued success in all slams. As harsh as it sounds, none of these are yet true of Petra.

Samantha Stosur’s forehand threatened to blow the women’s game away in the autumn of last year. Her straight sets destruction of Serena in the US Open Final demonstrated great play, as well as the ability to keep calm under pressure as Serena disgracefully lost her cool for a second successive year under the Flushing Meadows floodlights. The spotlight was firmly on Stosur in her home slam in January but she stuttered, she stuttered badly. Call it Mauresmo Syndrome if you wish, but Sam just could not cope with the sudden weight of national expectation on her shoulders, not helped by Lleyton Hewitt’s ageing legs shifting that expectation across the draws.  Her performance in Paris was more assured, less nervous.  After what is likely to be usually early exits on the grass courts of South-West London, Stosur will be a favourite to retain her title in New York. Her modest, shy attitude and her age, as well as the fact that she consistently struggles in two of the four Slams, mean that she is not the face the game needs to take it forward.

Victoria Azarenka’s all-encompassing start to 2012 was something expected, if a couple of years later than envisaged. Her three-month unbeaten streak laid down a marker that she was ready to dominate but her early defeat in Paris showed her frailties are still there.  Her off-court persona makes her a likeable character, but too often her on-court shrieks are open to ridicule. Her looks, tenacity, charm and good play give her a decent chance of being a major marketing force if the audience can get beyond the peacock-esque noise.

The WTA must be disappointed that Caroline Wozniacki lost her way when adapting her game in an attempt to become a major winner.  This was a young lady who had almost everything they wanted in a Number 1 – looks, charm, grace, star appeal, a willingness to fulfil a hectic schedule – but ultimately her game was found to be lacking and it now looks likely that she will never win a Slam as she slips down the rankings.   You sense with Caroline that there will always be somebody just too good for her in each tournament.

So it is to Maria Sharapova that we look once more.  The 17 year old who called home on her mobile phone from Wimbledon centre court to tell her mum she had won is now a 25 year old veteran whose constant will-to-win suggests that she is again ready to lead the sport in this period of transition.  Modelling contracts and sponsorship commitments have never been too far away for Maria, but she has managed to combine them with constantly improving her game like nobody else has managed in the past. The reconstruction of her game following the reconstruction of her shoulder has been a slow, but oh-so-sure one.  She, more than anybody, will know that with the sport being wide-open, she has the ability to add more majors to her collection. The fact that she is now only the sixth woman in the Open era to have won all four majors will only add to her confidence.  Her willingness to scrap until the very last point of every match belie her sweet demeanour and, deep down, that is why most tennis fans have at least begrudging respect for her. Yes, it is over to you Maria – the autumn of your career is charged with carrying the WTA through a period of transition. Your legend is secured, you can only add to it from here. I will be watching with close interest, but admittedly with the volume turned down.

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