Exponents of Big Babe Tennis set to meet for Wimbledon women's title

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WIMBLEDON, England -- Bets are now being taken as to who strikes the first volley. Nothing capsulizes "Big Babe Tennis," as NBC tennis analyst Mary Carillo describes the modern era, as well as Saturday's Wimbledon women's final between Maria Sharapova and Petra Kvitova.

They have arrived at the summit with a fearless, single-minded approach, dismissive of failure. There are times when Kvitova's searing groundstrokes go awry -- the second set of her semifinal against Victoria Azarenka, for example -- but not to worry; Kvitova refuses to believe any transgression will last for long. She just keeps crushing the ball until the onset of better times.

At this stage of her comeback, nearly three years after her shoulder surgery, there's really no excuse for Sharapova to be double-faulting 13 times in nine service games, as she did in her semis win over Sabine Lisicki. That should be an outright ticket to elimination. But today's tennis is not about strategy, ingenuity or a radical change of plan. It's more about confidence and will power. In that sense, today's matchup is of the highest caliber.

Have you ever watched videos or DVDs of classic women's matches? Say, Billie Jean King-Evonne Goolagong or Chris Evert-Martina Navratilova? Wielding wooden rackets, or the early versions of the new technology, they weren't able to generate the blistering pace we see today. But in crucial moments, these women exercised a measure of caution. Down a match point, or struggling to keep a set from slipping away, they were mostly concerned with getting the ball in.

Today? Take a full cut, just as hard as you possibly can, and aim for the lines. That's what impresses Navratilova the most about Big Babe Tennis. "There's such a good batch of players now," she said at Wimbledon on Thursday. "They're good athletes. They're strong and healthy and hungry. They're very positive -- I love the attitude. They never hold back at any time."

It would be unfair to suggest that strategy has completely fled the scene. Francesca Schiavone plays a marvelous brand of old-school tennis, and until she lost to Sharapova, Lisicki revealed a sweet blend of world-class power and drop-shot touch. I wouldn't expect to see much of that on Saturday, even though both Sharapova and Kvitova are vulnerable to surprise; as well as they hit the ball, neither is among the best movers on tour.

What's at stake? For the 21-year-old Kvitova, in her first Grand Slam final, there's really not much to lose. This continues her rapid progression through the ranks, and she'd have to be satisfied with a Wimbledon final after surprising everyone by reaching last year's semifinals.

Sharapova needs this win, desperately. As her comeback plodded along, always featuring some horrific serving episodes, a number of tour insiders, including Navratilova and Pam Shriver, completely wrote her off as a future Grand Slam winner. It would all be in the past for Sharapova: the titles at the 2004 Wimbledon, 2006 U.S. Open and 2008 Australian.

How did she manage to reach this point? "I had my doubts," she admitted this week. "I had so many expectations when I'd come back, and I set myself certain goals. I never really met any of them, to be honest. When you go through something like that, knowing that not too many players have recovered from (shoulder surgery), it's normal to feel frustrated."

Then came the key comment: "I'm not really the type of person that ever gives up."

That goes for her comeback, her life in general, and as it relates to Saturday's final, a 1-4 deficit after losing the first set. Kvitova would not be home free if it reached that stage. That's when Sharapova fights harder than ever, drilling every shot to its desired location. Should Kvitova prevail -- and I'm with Navratilova in picking her to win -- she'll know she got past one of the fiercest competitors in any sport.

So who does hit the first volley? Kvitova, most likely, because unlike the baseline-riveted Sharapova, she actually likes net play. "I worked on it with my father when I was young," she said. "I always liked to volley." Navratilova predicted that an occasional net rush could be a factor, because "she likes to come in, if she can. I've seen her hit a lot of nice forehand volleys."

In the ghastly and annoying realm of shrieking, this is quite a doubleheader for Kvitova: first Azarenka, with her pathetically extended howls, and now Sharapova, who emerges from a quiet warmup to shriek on every stroke. "Doesn't bother me at all," said Kvitova. "It's not something I think about."

She actually has an odd response of her own, unleashed only after a particularly significant shot. "She plays tennis noiselessly," wrote Brian Viner in the Independent, "with the notable exception of a loud, sudden squawk, as if somebody has inadvertently stepped on a chicken."

Kvitova will try to become the first left-handed woman to win Wimbledon since Navratilova in 1990, prompting a bit of research from Martina. In talking with friends, she said, "We've been trying to figure out the fourth best lefty that ever played the game. There's Monica Seles, myself, and Ann Jones (who won the 1969 Wimbledon). After that, we couldn't really come up with one. I'm thinking Kvitova, a potential winner here, could be the fourth."

As for the women's game in general, it's impossible to find patterns or trends of any kind. Even with so many players injured or inconsistent, some terrific stories have unfolded: Schiavone at last year's French Open, Li Na at Roland Garros this year, and the arrival of such bold young talents as Kvitova, Julia Goerges, Dominika Cibulkova and Andrea Petkovic.

You want strange? Sharapova was the youngest semifinalist at the French this year; at Wimbledon, she's the oldest. And yet, she's trying to become the youngest Wimbledon champion, at 24, since herself (at 17, in 2004). Nobody under the age of 25 has won this tournament since then.

So grab your ear muffs, or the mute button, and once you've sorted out the numbers, settle back for some Big Babe Tennis of the highest order. It's revolutionary, and it's about as subtle as a sonic boom.