NEW YORK -- Like most top players, Maria Sharapova was here well in advance of her first match at the U.S. Open. Sure, she showed up to practice and get a feel for the courts, especially because she hardly played in the weeks after the London Olympics.
But she was also here, well, to be Maria Sharapova. She promoted her new brand of candy -- the name of which we can't bring ourselves to dignify -- and made her various sponsor appearances. She has won more than $20 million in career prize money, but her empire has been built mostly on endorsement income from upscale brands on the order of Land Rover, Cole Haan, Tiffany and Evian. Sharapova is, of course, a marketer's dream -- blonde, tall, international and an exponent of grace and up-market elegance.
But here's the great Sharapova Irony: Her tennis game -- the foundation for these riches -- is ugly. She once endorsed Canon cameras with the slogan "Make every shot a power shot," and it applies to her tennis. Sharapova blasts away, punctuating each shot with that hideous EEE-AAAhhhhh that, suffice to say, she is not asked to replicate for her corporate clients. She doesn't have much touch. And she isn't afraid to dirty her hands.
In the fourth round on Sunday, Sharapova got down 0-2 in the third set against Nadia Petrova when the rains came. Sharapova regrouped under cover. When she emerged about an hour later, she took six of the last eight games to win 6-1, 4-6, 6-4. Afterward, Petrova asserted that luck was on the other side of the net. Sharapova's response? "Great. I'm the winner so whatever she wants to call it is fine with me."
On Wednesday, we got still more street fighting from Sharapova. She came out trailing Marion Bartoli 0-4 in their rain-delayed quarterfinal and lost the first set. Which meant Sharapova had her just where she wanted her. She rallied to win the second. And it wasn't because Bartoli's level dropped. Sharapova simply did what she usually does: dialed in her serve, clubbed her down-the-line forehand, came up with the shots when the situation called for it.
Which she did in the third set as well. Most games went to deuce. Sharapova won six out of 10 including, most importantly, the last two. Again, Bartoli didn't choke. Not hardly. Sharapova was simply a superior fighter as she came away with a 3-6, 6-3, 6-4 victory to improve to 12-0 this year in three-set matches.
"It's a great statistic," Sharapova said. "It shows that I enjoy the battle no matter what the score is. The third set, it's the last set out there, and there's no reason why you shouldn't put everything out there. That's kind of how I treat those situations."
Here's another irony: For all of Sharapova's pugnacious instincts and love of combat, there are some days she doesn't answer the bell. Her record against Serena Williams doesn't speak for itself. It groans. In the Australian Open final, Sharapova mustered three games against Victoria Azarenka. She has a chance to avenge that one in the semifinals on Friday. She may win and she not. But she's survived her last two rounds with some down-and-dirty fighting. You have to think she won't go glamorous on us now.
? No. There's a lot about a tennis draw that isn't fair. Why is it that the top seed may have played a first-round match against No. 33, but a qualifier can play a qualifier? Why is it that, last year, then-tournament director Jim Curley cited Mardy Fish's preference for playing during the day, implying that player likes and dislikes factor into scheduling? (You can envision 110 players saying, "Wait, no one asked me about my optimal time of day!") Why is that one Australian Open semifinal is played Thursday but the other on Friday? But, hey, life's not always fair. If you're really a pro, you try to float above it all.
There's no question you'd rather be in the top half of the draw (see: Roger Federer) than the bottom half. By early Monday, Federer was in the quarters after Fish's withdrawal. By late Wednesday, Andy Roddick was a set into his fourth-round match. But the real injustice is Super Saturday. It simply doesn't work. We all have fond memories -- fading as they may be -- of 1984. But today, the sport is too physical for back-to-back days of best-of-five matches. A long match Saturday drains for the Sunday final. Because of the roof debacle, the organizers have skated by here. But to me, this is just as crucial -- and more of a fairness concern -- than no covered stadium.
? I'm thinking that in the middle of a match, the TV exposure of the ballkids is not top of mind for most players.
? I worry about the lack of a "kill shot." But when Ferrer played Lleyton Hewitt the other day, I recall thinking to myself, "When Hewitt was in his prime, was he really better than this guys is now?" Similarly, Ferrer versus Juan Carlos Ferrero? Ferrero versus Al Costa? Thomas Johansson? Sergi Bruguera? Yes, yes, yes ...
? Sometimes a simple statement can be profound. Earlier this year, Martina Navratilova remarked that Kvitova "needed to clean up her game." That's perfect. Kvitova has a ton of talent, and on talent alone she can reside in the top 10 for the next decade. But if she wants to max out her potential, she needs to buff and polish her game. Her tactics and focus can go to pieces. Her serve can let her down. She's not in the greatest shape. I got to sit down with her a few days ago and she is a lovely, grounded woman. At some point, I suspect she'll say to herself: "Enough of this 4-8 range. Time to make a full commitment and see what I can really wring out of myself."
? If I were the opponent, that would bother me more than any shrieking. On the other hand, it's so wonderfully wacky and uninhibited that I'm having a hard time summoning much outrage. So are others. Remember this?
? Nah, not really. Venus did enough winning in her own right. I think the issue is Venus' health and age. For so many brands, it's about finding the next big thing. They'd rather spend their money taking a gamble on a prospect they can brand than on an established winner.
? And let us all say: Amen.