Sharapova's place among WTA elite; Stephens' growing pains

Publish date:
Sloane Stephens is 2-4 since her run to the Australian Open semifinals.

Sloane Stephens is 2-4 since her run to the Australian Open semifinals.

1. I've been watching the PowerShare Series (John McEnroe, Pete Sampras, Pat Rafter, etc.), and is it me or is Johnny Mac an annoying SOB? I mean, in several matches where he clearly was overmatched (against Rafter, Sampras, Jim Courier and Ivan Lendl), he smashed his rackets hard repeatedly. At his age and with the nature of their tour and the quality of his younger opponents, what is he trying to prove? Can't he relax and be thankful the younger greats (Sampras, Courier) are giving him some bones by not being too competitive against him?

2. Ranking system: It used to be that if a player beats a much higher-ranked player, bonus points were given. Why did that incentive stop? That would only encourage lower-ranked players to play lights out against top players.

3. Last week, one of your readers said Sharapova "stands no chance against Serena [Williams] (arguably the greatest) and [Victoria] Azarenka," and is the "David Ferrer of the WTA." But since losing to Azarenka at Indian Wells last year, Sharapova has won two of their four matches. So saying that Sharapova doesn't belong in a triumvirate with Williams and Azarenka is hardly accurate.-- Carlo, Chicago

? Three for the price of one. Here goes:

1) Some of you have suggested that it's a personal blind spot, but, on balance, I'm an unapologetic McEnroe fan. There's an authenticity there. When he erupts during a match, it's no shtick. He's genuinely upset. It drives me crazy when former players are indifferent and say things like, "I don't even like the sport anymore. I'd rather play golf, to be honest." If McEnroe is still invested so deeply in the quality of his game and shortcomings trigger the familiar temper tantrums, unlike him, I can't get too worked up.

2) Yes, but if you were a top player, would you vote for a rankings system that maximized the incentives for the guy on the other side of the net? I'm with you though. When Tobias Kamke beats Del Potro, should he not get a little extra for the effort? I'd vote "yes."

3) Here's the Sharapova-Azarenka head-to-head. Judge for yourselves.

GALLERY: Sharapova's cryptic signature move

I have to agree with your reader who questioned your canonization of Sharapova. She is a champion. But a champion by default. If Serena and Azarenka are healthy, Sharapova is not in their league. The same cannot be said of the top four men's players. As for her career Slam, other than Serena in 2005, Sharapova has been a beneficiary of extremely weak draws. -- David Gotlieb, New York

? I guess a career Slam doesn't mean what it used to. Win one Slam with an assist from the draw gods and we can talk. By the time you win four different Slams over the course of almost a decade and achieve No. 1, you've proved your bona fides.

I'm starting to worry about Sloane Stephens. I was so excited when she beat Serena Williams at the Australian Open and thought we had a real star on our hands. Since then, she has lost a lot of matches and doesn't seem like the same player. Then I saw your tweet about her comments after she lost in Miami. What's up with her? Should I be concerned? -- Matt McMahon, Brentwood, Calif.

? So here's the context. Stephens played Agnieszka Radwanska at the Sony Open on Monday. She won the first set by playing high-level tennis reminiscent of her performance in Australia. She then lost in three sets, running on nothing but fumes for the last several desultory games. Third-set score: 6-0.

This post-match exchange suggested that her attitude might be flagging:

Q. What's happening differently since Australia in these matches? You've lost five of seven. What's going on differently than what was happening at the Australian that was working so well?

A: I mean, just a rough time. I don't know. There's not ?? there's no specific thing that I'd say has happened or is not happening, but I don't think it really matters. I'm [No.]16 in the world. I can lose in the first round the next two months and I probably would still be top 30. I'm not really too concerned about winning or losing or any of that, I don't think.

My life has changed, yeah, but I wouldn't say I'm in a panic or anything.

Should you worry about Stephens? The short is answer is "no." She's still young. Give her space, Give her time.

The long answer? It's "no," as well. Her 2013 is typical, very much in keeping with the growth pattern of a young star. You have a breakout tournament and all is right with the world. Your world is redolent with the perfume of promise and hype. Then reality sets in. There are new financial pressures. ("If you switch rackets, we can redo your endorsement deal.") There are new media pressures. There are new logistical pressures. (I'm off to Doha and Dubai!) There are pressures to defend points and stay in the upper echelons. It's a lot for anyone, but especially for a teenager who has the self-awareness to know that she is from a country currently starved for young tennis talent.

We shouldn't term Stephens a disappointment. We shouldn't term her a future No. 1, either. Just give her some time to adjust to her new life, and eventually we'll have a better sense of her long-term future. In some cases (like with Melanie Oudin), the "breakthrough" star never again breaks through. In other cases (like with Venus Williams, a finalist at the 1997 U.S. Open who didn't reach another Slam final for nearly three years), the setbacks are temporary. Let's just be patient.

NGUYEN: What's next for struggling Stephens

I don't get how you can say that Roger Federer or any other players are underpaid at the Grand Slams. Last time I checked, the winners made more than a million bucks. Or is that not enough for two weeks of work?-- John, San Francisco

? The issue isn't whether $1 million is a lot of money in a vacuum. It's what the market dictates. In the case of Federer, he can command seven figures a night for an exhibition. At last year's U.S. Open, he played five times and made $237,500.

Simplified: For decades, the Slams got a deep discount on labor. They played the "absolute card" (should a first-round loser really earn more than $20,000? Should a winner make seven figures for seven matches?) and not the "relative card" (as a proportion of gross revenues, maybe the players DO deserve twice the wages). That blue-light special is now over.

It's 2003. You're looking through the ranks for the young guns, and it looks promising. There are two youngsters, Andy Roddick and Roger Federer, firmly enmeshed in the top five. And Lleyton Hewitt, the elder at 22, is there in the top 10. There's a teenager named Rafael Nadal in the top 50 who's generating a lot of buzz, but don't overlook Nikolay Davydenko, 21. Marat Safin, 22, is always dangerous, of course, and David Nalbandian, 20, looks like he could challenge for a Grand Slam title.

It's 2008. Nadal's just 22, and already one of the greats. Novak Djokovic, at 20, captured his first Grand Slam title. This Andy Murray guy, also 20, looks pretty good. There are a couple of other contenders, like Jo-Wilried Tsonga, who show flashes of brilliance. There's a teenager named Juan Martin del Potro who has people talking. (Ernests Gulbis, too ... that one may not pan out ... )

It's 2013 ... and ... sorry, anything to report? Milos Raonic is getting a lot of hype, but no one's exactly sure why. He does have a good serve. There's Bernard Tomic, but I'm not sure I'd be willing to put any more on his fighting spirit or mental clarity. That's about it, really, for the under-24 contingent.

We've been living in a tennis golden age. But should we be bracing for five years from now? Or will we be too busy feting 30-year-old Djokovic, who maintains his edge over Murray after Nadal retires, and thus wins multiple Grand Slams?-- Mike Wretzel

? Good question. Frist. I'll reinforce your point: There is not an abundance of prospects out there. Raonic is probably the leader in the clubhouse. He turns 23 this year and has never been to a Grand Slam semi. Tomic is still a wild card -- an undeniable talent with undeniable emotional immaturity. (His match against Murray on Saturday in Miami was not exactly product placement for "maximum effort.") Ryan Harrison appears to be a work in regress. Kei Nishikori is what he is, an undersized counterpuncher. Jerzy Janowicz is a force, but he's still outside the top 25. Grigor Dimitrov has game but still needs to make a deep Slam run.

I'm running out of names here. Rick Berankis is still outside the 50 -- and is 5-foot-9 and 150 pounds. Soaking wet. So, yes. If we're playing the futures market, it's unclear where we ought to invest.

Now to undercut Mike's point:

a) It's tautological. If we work on the assumption that it's this golden era -- that four guys are hogging all the glory -- it stands to reason that we're not going to witness a lot of success from other players. You can't have it both ways.

b) Tennis is aging before our eyes. This is Dorian Gray, as sport. The days of teenage phenoms are no longer. A 22-year-old -- once a veteran -- is just getting started.

c) The good thing about tennis: Someone has to win every tournament. When Federer and Nadal retire, it's not like the tents get packed up. A new cohort will compete, and someone will win seven rounds a the Slams. I guarantee it.

Video: Radwanska hits shot of the year

What is your take on the congratulatory texts that both Serena Williams and Victoria Azarenka sent to Maria Sharapova saying, "You're welcome" after she won Indian Wells and moved up to No. 2 in the rankings? -- Alicia, Battle Creek, Mich.

? Alicia, of course, is being sarcastic about the texts. Again, you can only beat the opponents before you. What's Sharapova supposed to do? Withdraw because the two players ahead of her were no longer in the field?

This thought left me with a bad taste in my mouth: Lleyton Hewitt is a two-time Grand Slam champion and ex-No. 1 who will definitely get into the Hall of Fame. David Ferrer is a one-time Masters Series champion who will probably not even get an honorable mention. The difference between the two: (lack of) competition. Which brings me to my favorite hypothetical for this week: If the prime oftheir careers would have coincided, who would have been the better player, especially on hard courts?-- Steve Philips, Brussels, Belgium

? This is the nature of life. If that pesky Mozart hadn't come along, we'd all have Salieri on our iPod playlists. If Michael Jordan had gone into a different field, Clyde Drexler could have been the iconic shooting guard of the 1980s and 1990s. No Federer or Nadal, and Roddick wins multiple Slams.

Anyway, head to head on hard courts, both in their primes, who wins between Ferrer and Hewitt? That's a trick question, right? It unanswerable because they'd still be out there competing.

What's up with Kirsten Flipkens? After years of being the other other other Belgian woman, she is showing real signs of life this year. I remember a time when she couldn't help Justine Henin out with a single win during a Fed Cup loss. She seems to have found her game after 10 years on tour, into the final eight in Miami. Late bloomer?-- Shaun, Boston

? Last September, ranked No. 133, she had to qualify to get into the U.S. Open main draw. Since then, Flipkens won the Quebec City event (her first WTA title), reached the fourth round of the Australian Open, took a set off Azarenka in the third round of Indian Wells and lost a three-setter to Radwanska in the Miami quarterfinals. She'll be top 25 when the new rankings are released on Monday.

She's 27, and no one is predicting she'll win majors quite yet. But she has a fun, compact, flair-filled game. She's having a career year. (And she's a great Twitter follow.) A Belgian Petkovic, if you will. (And I hope you will.) Nice to have her in the cast.

Video: Querrey breaks racket in 51-minute loss

Shots, Miscellany

? Yes, I do some work for Tennis Channel. With that disclosure out of the way, can we agree that it's been a godsend for the Indian Wells and Miami coverage, the antidote to all the tape delay and limited regional coverage we had to deal with in the past?

? We eagerly await:

a) The forthcoming Jimmy Connors autobiography.

b) the forthcoming BBC documentary on Andy Murray.

? Beach tennis will be featured in the 2015 Pan American Games. Big tournament April 19-21 in Fort Myers, Fla.

? Stanley of New York: "A Nobel laureate's take on Federer."

? Not to be outdone, Dave E. of Brooklyn, N.Y., notes: "Maybe the greatest Federer reference ever, 30 seconds in here."

? Thanks to many of you for the kind words on my story about former University of Houston basketball player Benny Anders in last week's Sports Illustrated. Walker Arenson of Austin, Texas, was kind enough to include this.

? Nice shot, Steffi.

? Mike Romeling of East Nassau, N.Y.: "Good grief, if we must bring the of UFC into this, then I insist we also compare the stellar Canadian Jennifer Jones -- from curling -- to Maria Sharapova. Jones is also blond, very cute and has won several Slams."

? New Yorkers, note this gushing review for Melissa Errico (Ms. Patrick McEnroe).

? Congrats to Justine Henin.

? John Gordon of Toronto Canada has separated at birth -- Sorana Cirstea and figure skater Kristi Yamaguchi.

? Finally, Glen of Miami takes us out with this separated at birth.

Have a good week, everyone. Especially you, Jamayan Watkins of Charlotte.

NGUYEN: Haas turns back the clock, stuns Djokovic