Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Sharapova, Errani, and the French Open

By Brad Oremland

Maria Sharapova completed a career Grand Slam on Saturday. Two or three years ago, I never would have believed it.

Sharapova won Wimbledon in 2004 and finished that year ranked in the top 10. She eventually assumed the number one ranking, added wins in the Australian Open and US Open, and remained in the top 10 through 2008. But then her career faltered. Tennis players tend to peak early anyway, plus Sharapova had some injury problems, and with the constantly changing nature of the game, it seemed to pass her by. Anyway, if she ever won another Slam, it would obviously come on hard courts or grass. At Roland Garros, she had never advanced beyond the semifinals.

Sharapova finished 2010 ranked 18th, still a good player, but no longer really a force, certainly not on clay. But she rebounded to end 2011 back in the top five, and worked hard to improve her clay skills specifically. A friendly draw and a couple of upsets meant that at Roland Garros, she only faced two top-20 opponents, and only one (Petra Kvitova) in the top 10. In the finals, Sharapova found herself facing a 24th-ranked player who had never before reached even the semifinals of a Grand Slam, and whose weaknesses played into Sharapova's strengths. She won in straight sets, completing a remarkable comeback and doing wonders for her own legacy in the sport.

Sharapova and Serena Williams are the only women in the last 20 years to complete a career Grand Slam (Steffi Graf, 1988). Martina Hingis and Lindsay Davenport never won at Roland Garros. Monica Seles and Justine Henin never won Wimbledon. Venus Williams never won the Australian Open or the French.

If she can stay healthy, there's no reason Maria can't continue to be a major presence in the WTA for years to come. As my colleague Mert Ertunga and others have pointed out, age has been less of a barrier to success in recent years. Sharapova is almost six years younger than Serena Williams, and Serena's still a threat to anyone when she brings her A-game. If Maria can dominate on clay, she certainly can compete for Slams on hard courts and grass.

As significant as Sharapova's achievement was, the bigger story last weekend arguably was her opponent. Sara Errani did not come out of nowhere. But her dramatic run at Roland Garros was the story of the tournament. Generously listed at 5'4½", the Italian's improbable fortnight included four wins over top-20 opponents, an appearance in the singles final, and winning the women's doubles title.

Errani is the same age (25) as Sharapova — they are only 10 days apart. But whereas Sharapova won Wimbledon eight years ago and on Monday will take over the world number one ranking for the fifth time, Errani's success has all been more recent. When Maria won Wimbledon, Errani was ranked about 500th. Errani won her first singles title, a Tier IV, just a few months before Sharapova won her third Grand Slam. From 2008-11, Errani finished every year ranked in the 40s. It seemed she had settled in as a mid-level player who would never contend at the highest level.

This year has been different. Not a lot different, but there were signs Errani was emerging as something more than a journeyman. At the beginning of the year, Errani changed rackets, returning a $30,000 endorsement fee but adding some power to her unimposing serve. She won three tournaments, all on clay, and in Australia reached the quarter-finals of a Grand Slam for the first time. She began the French Open ranked 23rd in singles. As viewers were reminded often in the closing days of the tournament, Errani has won more matches on clay this year than anyone else on the WTA tour. So no, Sara Errani did not come out of nowhere.

A top-25 player, showing the best tennis of her career and playing on her favorite surface, should be expected to perform well at Roland Garros. But Errani exceeded all expectations, with a two-week whirlwind of success. She defeated former French Open champions Ana Ivanovic and Svetlana Kuznetsova, 10th-ranked Angelique Kerber, and world number six Samantha Stosur. She was no less successful in doubles, winning the French with her partner Roberta Vinci.

The feeling around tennis seems to be that Errani's run at Roland Garros was a fluke. Her height and her weak serve certainly support that idea. But this is not just a player whom Fate has smiled upon for two weeks. Errani has improved noticeably and dramatically this year. Her performance at the French Open has moved her into the WTA top 10, a remarkable achievement considering that two weeks ago she had never beaten a top-10 opponent. Although few clay tournaments remain on the calendar, there's every reason to believe Errani will improve upon her performances from late 2011, and I guess she will finish this year ranked higher than 10th. I'd also take bets that she and Vinci win at least one more doubles title before the year is out.

Errani's underdog story certainly captured the hearts of the French fans, who cheered her enthusiastically during Saturday's final. Of course, tennis crowds tend to cheer the underdog, as their reward is longer sets and more tennis, but I think Errani brought a special appeal, as a player so clearly punching above her weight. Her journey through the draw obviously didn't melt every heart, though.

John McEnroe is often a very good commentator, but his work in the final was hard to listen to at times. McEnroe was so effusive in his praise of Sharapova, and so dismissive of Errani, that it was distasteful, especially coming from a neutral commentator. McEnroe wasn't wrong — the match played out almost exactly as he expected and described — but I hope he might dial that sort of thing back in the future. It came across, to me anyway, as unprofessionally gushy towards Sharapova, and disrespectful of Errani.

As I write this, the men's final has been postponed by rain. Rafael Nadal has already established himself as a player of historical stature, and his opponent Novak Djokovic is well on his way to a similar legacy. On Monday, one of them will (or already has, by the time you read this) add to an already glowing résumé. But between Sharapova's improbable win on clay, and Errani's equally unforeseen brilliance in both singles and doubles, the women captured the spotlight at this year's French Open.

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