Sharapova slips, then tumbles out of Wimbledon
WIMBLEDON, England -- Finally, the shrieks stopped.
Michelle Larcher de Brito reared back and fired a ball deep to the middle of the court. When Maria Sharapova netted the backhand -- her 18th unforced error of the afternoon -- and the second-round match ended Wednesday, the crowd cheered. It sounded like soft background music, compared to the audio assault that had occurred during the match. A Portuguese qualifier best known for the sounds emitted from her larynx, Larcher de Brito scored a career win against the third seed at Wimbledon, 6-3, 6-4. The upset was official. So was the craziest tennis day in recent memory.
Let's start with Sharapova. Before the tournament, she departed from her usual route on the high road and took a dig at Serena Williams. While the controversy, as it was, died down, there was unmistakable sense that the disruption bothered Sharapova throughout this week. She looked shaky and irritable in her first-round match against France's Kristina Mladenovic played on Court One on Monday. Wednesday, banished to Court Two, she -- like so many players on this day -- slipped and slid on the grass. She tweaked her knee, complained about the conditions, muttered between points and lost to an opponent ranked outside the top 100 for the first time since February 2012.
Here's the conspiracy theory: Though she is the most marketable female athlete in the world, Sharapova was forced to play on Court Two because she and Larcher de Brito make too much noise. But the noise pollution shouldn't detract from a courageous performance from the 20-year-old Portuguese qualifier. Though she stands only 5-foot-5, Larcher de Brito gave the best game she has against Sharapova, pinning her behind the baseline with depth and taking advantage of her opponent's shaky serving.
"I give [Larcher de Brito] a lot of credit, and I think she played extremely well today," Sharapova said. "She was really solid from the baseline. I don't feel like I was aggressive enough, that I hit the ball deep enough. I wasn't ready after the returns or the serves. She's someone that plays extremely aggressive. I just wasn't there."
The fact that Sharapova finished the match is a small consolation. Only a slip-and-fall lawyer could like a day marked by a slew of battlefield casualties. Before noon, John Isner injured his knee and retired two games into his match, dashing the the best hope for the United States on the men's side. Victoria Azarenka, the No. 2 seed and player most likely to challenge Serena Williams, decided against playing lest she aggravate the knee injury that triggered her blood-curdling scream in the first round. Fresh off his upset of Rafael Nadal (he of the injured knees), Steve Darcis, too, elected not to play, citing a shoulder injury. Owing to a knee injury, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga couldn't finish his match against Ernests Gulbis. Neither could Marin Cilic nor Radek Stepanek.
We can debate the causes here. Whether is was slippery grass -- as player after player suggested -- or the racket technology or the abrupt transition from clay to grass, tennis has a problem. For as many times as we hear that "the sport has never been more physical," neither administrators nor players have done much to address the effects in a meaningful way. Tennis dysfunction and conflict of interests at its worst.
Apart from wreaking havoc on draws, this injury-o-rama wreaks havoc on players' finances. Russell Westbrook and Derrick Rose and Rob Gronkowski can endure injuries and, while unfortunate and unpleasant, they still get paid. It's not the same way for tennis players, who eat what they kill. If they miss a tournament -- as so many of Wednesday's injured surely will -- there will be no check that week.
If you need a window into the brutal finances of a tennis player, consider Dustin Brown, an endearing Jamaican/German -- a cultural 7/10 split -- who impressed in defeating former champion Lleyton Hewitt. With his abundant braids trailing behind him, Brown served and volleyed (kids, ask your parents about this tactic) and was thoroughly comfortable on the grass. He won the first set with a diving volley that should be framed and displayed in a museum. He closed out the match with some of the best shotmaking -- and self-congratulatory reactions -- you'll ever see.
Brown leaked a few tears of joy after he left the court, and spent much of his press conference talking about the financial hardships he's endured. He traveled the European Challenger circuit in camper van. He's barely broken even this year traveling from event to event. In reaching the third round, he's guaranteed at least $100,000, almost double his total 2013 prize money to date.
"It's a pretty big paycheck up to now," he said, "[but] the tournament's not done yet."
No, it's not. Just stay healthy, pal. It's dangerous out there.
I am done trying to figure out player withdrawals! If I were an aging, not-so-good-on-any-other-day tennis player like Steve Darcis, taking down a GOAT candidate in a major, I would have to be hooked up to a life support machine before I would withdraw. He's hardly the equivalent of Azarenka on the women's side. In his quarter, he could have advanced another round or two (and collected the prize money) playing only half as well as he played against Nadal. Don't run-of-the-mill veterans like him have ATP advisers or family members who could (should) give them a dose of reality? Something like, "Look, nice win, great effort, but this hardly makes you a world beater. You caught lightning in a bottle and your opponent on a bad day. You're not nearly as good as this one result, so don't let it go to your head. Your best bet is to get back out their and make the most of a wide(r)-open draw. Don't go saving yourself for the next big event, because more likely than not, you'll flame out in the first round."
-- J. Butt, St. John's, NL, Canada
• You should have stopped after the first line. Quick story: When I was in college (cough-cough years ago), Rick Leach retired with food poisoning before the U.S. Open double final. "It's a Grand Slam and you're not playing because of a stomach ache?!" I thought, naively. Predictably, a few weeks later, I got food poisoning. The trip from the bed to the bathroom was like running a marathon. "Oh, that's why he couldn't play."
Second-guessing anyone's injury is a dangerous game. I have to believe that if there were any possible way for Darcis to play, he would have. The real issue: Why has tennis gotten so hazardous to players' health? And why is little being done to address what I would contend is a real crisis?
I'm surprised that Monica Puig is described as a little-known teenager. She was BOTH the junior French Open and junior Australian Open FINALIST in 2011. She is very good. Powerful and nimble for a girl who is not Sharapova-thin. A great fighter with no visible, detrimental psychological issues, she will be a factor soon enough.
-- Ash, Torrance, Calif.
• She's not even the biggest Puig these days. But you're right. She's a great player, and if Gigi Fernandez can win medals for the U.S., well, you see where I'm going here ...
Nadia Petrova continued her streak of Slam first-round exits. Has there ever been a top-20 player who lost in the first round of three consecutive Slams?
-- Karl Miller, Phoenixville, Pa.
• Good question, I'll do some research on it. What's weird is that Petrova is usually a good big-match player, having reached the quarters of every major.
I don't understand the argument of "How can Federer be the GOAT if he wasn't the greatest of his era?" This comment has become really tiresome from TV commentators who should really understand the game better. Nadal clearly was just a bad matchup for Federer. The head-to-head will continue to get more lopsided as Fed gets older. One could argue Fed's best surface was the U.S. Open, which Nadal struggled at. I have no horse in the race and it's obvious Federer has had a much more dominant career. Maybe commentators just need something to fill the airtime?
-- George, New York
• I don't disagree.
Kudos to James Blake on a convincing first-round win, but what goals do you think he holds at this point when he steps out on the court? To win Wimbledon?
-- Ken Schneck, Brattleboro, Vt.
• He's spoken at length about this. Clearly he's not winning majors. But he still does something better than all but 50 or so other people in the world. I wouldn't give that up to trade bonds either.
I appreciate that you mentioned the 25th anniversary of Steffi Graf's Grand Slam -- Golden Slam, I suppose -- which was and remains a remarkable achievement. I disagree, however, with the commenter's assertion that "just being on court" is giving back to the game. If that's the case, all players need to do is play. Federer, Nadal and Novak Djokovic have all been leaders on the players council, just as Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova worked as presidents of the WTA. Graf was a fantastic tennis player, but her contributions to the game off the court were next to nil.
-- Robert Webb, Dalton, Ga.
• I wouldn't say they were nil, and I would contend unfettered excellence is an off-court contribution, in a way. I would say that her contribution came by omission (no drama, no arrests, no bad acts, unsocial, but not anti-social). I would also say that, along with her husband, she has done plenty post-career.
From the anthology of "It is tough to be a sports commentator," a well-known tennis commentator made the assertion before Wimbledon that Rafael Nadal will do better than last year.
-- Marcos Nowosad, San Jose, Calif.
• There is no anthology of "It is tough to be a sports commentator." Nor should there be. But, yes, sports prognostication is a fool's errand.
• Jim Courier and Monica Seles hit the streets of Manhattan.
• Let's add A Terrible Splendor to our list of recommended tennis books.
• Anthony of Ridgefield: "Ivan Lendl is now a lefty."