Tuesday May 11th, 2010

I just cleared some space in my tennis video library for a Spanish woman named Maria Jose Martínez Sánchez. She has enough names for two people, and more imagination than anyone. She deserves a worldwide toast for winning the Italian Open on the storied clay courts of Foro Italico, and not merely because it's the first significant singles title of her career. Her performance sent a message to every young girl trying to learn the game.

Few will take heed. Even if budding players became fascinated by Martínez Sánchez' wildly creative mixture of slices, drop shots and angles, their coaches probably turned off the television within a rally or two. Variety? Ingenuity? Something other than a punishing groundstroke from the baseline every single time? Scandalous. Pay no attention to this strange and annoying spectacle.

In truth, there is much to distrust in Martinez Sánchez's left-handed game. Her two-handed backhand is little more than a stab, with only a hint of backswing or follow-through. Her forehand, strictly critiqued, lacks authority. For a player who specializes in doubles (quarterfinal appearances in all four majors over the years), she has little rhythm or power behind her overhead, basically pushing the ball to the desired location.

However.

What Martínez Sánchez unveiled in the final, a 7-6, 7-5 victory over Jelena Jankovic, was nothing short of breathtaking. She was hitting delicate drop shots from four feet behind the baseline. She was returning second serves with that shot -- successfully. Here comes a forehand slice, then topspin. A bit of aggression, then exquisite finesse. Successful forays to the net behind a clever first serve. A marvelous ebb and flow of pace and strategy. My goodness, you found yourself thinking along with her. How often does that ever happen -- I mean, besides, "Do you think she'll go cross-court or down the line?"

It's probably a good thing that the tour isn't entirely populated by four-named eccentrics who defy every coaching tenet from Moscow to Fort Lauderdale. But how wonderful to see such ingenuity even once -- and her performance was a week-long masterpiece.

This had been a crazy tournament from the time the draw got serious. Jankovic absolutely destroyed Venus Williams (6-0, 6-1) in the quarterfinals, making people wonder if Venus has reached the end (they'll probably be wrong, again). Ana Ivanovic, believed to have joined the ranks of the irrelevant, came up with big wins against Victoria Azarenka, Elena Dementieva and Nadia Petrova before her numbing monotone became so badly exposed by Martínez Sánchez' flamenco, 6-4, 6-2.

Serena Williams, charging through the draw as if she hadn't missed more than a week of action (instead of three-plus months), had a match point against Jankovic in the third set of the semifinals. Serving at 5-4 and 40-30, she hit a blistering first serve that Jankovic barely returned with a lucky, looping forehand that landed just inside the baseline.

"I was just saying, 'Please get in the court,'" Jankovic said later. "I can't even remember what happened, but I did win the point, and it was amazing." As Serena described it, "I was looking at that serve and thinking, 'Man, that's great!' She played an incredibly lucky shot, a framer. But I don't want to be a person that dwells."

That was the first of two occasions on which Serena failed to serve out the match. "I completely choked," she said. "I wasn't unlucky; it was all on me. I think I had an apple in my throat."

There was a touchy moment in the third-set tiebreaker when Serena served an ace, to go up 3-0, and Jankovic claimed she hadn't been ready to receive. Because she hadn't given a hand signal to the chair umpire, her protest was disallowed. Later on, with Jankovic serving, a point was disallowed because Serena had raised her hand before Jankovic's delivery. That explains the rather bizarre post-match exchange at the net, when Serena told Jankovic, "Don't think that I would ever treat you like that. Don't think I would do that. I'm not Justine."

Oh, for God's sake. That again? When was it, 78 years ago? I thought we'd heard quite enough of the Williams-Henin French Open semifinal in 2003. But since Serena brought it up: With the Roland Garros crowd in an uproar over a call that had gone Serena's way, Henin raised her hand just before the next serve. Serena didn't see the gesture, nor did chair umpire Jorge Dias, and Williams served a fault, with Henin seeming to pretend that she hadn't asked for time at all. Williams won the point when Henin hit a forehand long, but as the pro-Henin crowd noise grew louder and nastier, Serena lost the next four points, and eventually the match.

Back to the present: Jankovic looked puzzled for a second or two, as if to ponder Serena's words, then joyfully pranced toward the enter of the court to celebrate a most remarkable achivement: joining that highly distinguished list of players -- Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario, Steffi Graf, Martina Hingis, Kim Clijsters (twice), Lindsay Davenport and Henin -- who have defeated both Williams sisters in a tournament, and it was the first-ever such conquest on clay.

If Serena had finished off Jankovic, we would have taken yet another trip back in controversial time. In the third round of last year's French Open, with Martínez Sánchez approaching the net, Serena unleashed a powerful backhand that appeared to bounce off Sánchez' right arm -- not her racket -- and landed on Williams' side of the net. The chair umpire didn't notice the violation, and when Sanchez didn't concede the point -- the honorable thing to do -- Serena was furious.

When it comes to Serena's temper -- generally held in check behind a very genuine foundation of sportsmanship -- this incident became a prelude to her notorious outburst at last year's U.S. Open. As the television cameras zeroed in on Williams during a changeover, she very clearly said, "I'm going to get you (Martínez Sanchez) in the locker room for that. You don't know me."

The crucial thing to remember is that Serena was looking straight ahead, essentially talking to herself, with Martínez Sánchez unaware. But it was a distinct bit of fury from Serena, who later claimed in her press conference that Martínez Sánchez was a "cheat."

OK, are we leaving Club Catty? Let's get back to the canvas, made of clay, where Martínez Sánchez so brilliantly dispatched Jankovic. At the age of 27, Martínez Sánchez has elevated her ranking to a career-best No. 19, while making major news in her homeland. You wouldn't be surprised to see four Spaniards contest the semifinals at any men's event on clay, but this was the first notable singles win by a Spanish woman since Conchita Martinez won at Berlin in 2000.

Martínez Sánchez carved it out in a swirl of suspense: drop volleys, half-volleys, cross-court winners punched from severely restrictive angles. Her backhand drop shot is a study in deception: the racket brought back quickly, as if to crush a groundstroke, only to dissolve into a feathery little snowflake, often coming to rest just inches beyond the net. Jankovic managed to return a few of these, but just as many found her flailing, and they all made her run like mad.

"It was really difficult," Jankovic admitted. "She plays very differently than most girls, and she's left-handed. She mixes up her game, doesn't have just one weapon. She's tricky with all these things she does."

True to her nature, Martínez Sánchez mixed some surprises into her post-match speech to the crowd, whimsically drifting between English, Italian (earnest applause) and her native Spanish. Later, in the interview room, she said a most important thing: "When I was small, Martina Navratilova was still on the TV, and since I was young, I have always liked coming to the net. When I was seven or eight, I always hit the ball, then went straight to the net."

Marvelous. And so rare. As her career skyrocketed into the realm of legend, Martina said she couldn't figure out why the next generation -- and all of those to come -- ignored her style. What's with the mindless baseliners? Doesn't anyone fancy the all-court game?

It turns out there was one young girl, in Spain, who was entranced. She's now at the peak of her game, a champion of radical thought. I'm sure I won't watch the Martínez Sánchez-Jankovic tape as often as say, Billie Jean King-Evonne Goolagong, but it's in the library all the same. Long live the unconventional.

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