Sharapova is more fighter than glamor, as shown at French Open

Wednesday June 5th, 2013

Maria Sharapova will cede her No. 2 ranking to Victoria Azarenka unless she defends her title.
Christophe Ena/AP

How could anyone watch the Serena Williams-Svetlana Kuznetsova match and not think, "That Sveta has simply underachieved?" In a perverse way, it makes me respect even more what Maria Sharapova has managed to achieve, given how few clubs she has in her bag.
-- Dale Stafford, Washington, D.C.

• Not only do I agree, but we were also talking about this earlier this week. Despite the perception that Serena is romping during a compromised era, there are numerous and sundry talented players. Not least Kuznetsova, a two-time major winner who, for an hour Tuesday, went blow-for-blow with Williams in Serena's 6-1, 3-6, 6-3 victory in the French Open quarterfinals.

The problem is consistency. So many players sail for an hour before returning to terra firma. So many players can get hot for an event (see: Kvitova, Petra) but lack the staying power. So many players play confident tennis for a season but then doubt themselves (Wozniacki, Caroline), and their rankings go down the mineshaft.

Which brings us to Sharapova, who won a 0-6, 6-4, 6-3 alley fight (and an allez fight, for that matter) against Jelena Jankovic in the quarterfinals Wednesday. She'll face No. 3 Victoria Azarenka in the semifinals, with the winner likely getting Williams in the final.

"[Azarenka and I] have played each other so many times there are really no secrets between each other in terms of our game styles and what we do well and not," said Sharapova, who is 5-7 against Azarenka, though they haven't played this year.

Sharapova won Wimbledon in 2004. Almost a decade later, she is still consistently reaching the latter rounds of Slams. Lord knows money isn't the motivation. She doesn't have to be doing this to pay bills. Lord knows there are more talented players. Lord knows there are more graceful and fluid movers. (Notice her side of the court on clay. She still hasn't figured out how to slide.) Yet she has put herself in position to defend her title.

I know she polarizes many of you. I know you dislike her screaming and her unimaginative play and her relentless endorsing. And, yes, her record against Williams inspires cringes. But here's an athlete who cuts no corners. Who grinds on the practice courts. Who plays all over the world because she loves competing and devoting herself to her craft. A pro's pro.

We got another example Wednesday. Sharapova was blanked in the first set. We see plenty of players -- male and female, old and young -- pack it in at this stage. Not my day. The opponent was too good. Sharapova, though, embraces the fray.

"She was a bit in cruise control," Sharapova said. "No matter how many errors I made or how disappointed I was with the way I started the match, I knew that I still could try to create chances out there."

Sharapova had to grind out the second set. At 3-3 in the third, she simply fired without inhibition and won the next three games to finish it out. We'll say it again: Her sensibilities are at odds with her image. Sorry, sponsors, but she's a street fighter at heart.

"I do find it meaningful when I have to dig deep in order to find the bonuses out of the match," Sharapova said. "Sometimes you just have to get the job done, and I did today."

Tennis -- like most sports -- has a way of hyping athletes in a way that isn't always commensurate with achievement. That's not the case with Sharapova. Never mind the records, the career Slam, the weeks at No. 1, the 29 WTA titles. Just watch her play and then consider how much she does with so little. Early in her career, she may have drawn inevitable comparisons to Anna Kournikova. Now a more apt comparison might be David Ferrer.

Roger Federer: Time for "the king is dead, long live the king?" Anyway, it's been incredible fun. After Michael Jordan and Ed Moses, no one else did this for me.
-- Shyam, Dharmashala, India

• I loved Edwin Moses, too. Very underrated. As for Federer, realistically, this surface demands too much of him, especially after he played a five-setter in the fourth round against Gilles Simon. It would have been nice if he had offered more resistance but, really, losing to Jo-Wilfried Tsonga is no shame. Let's wait for the grass results before quoting French history.

I want to make sure the vocal minorities on both extremes -- and we've heard from both -- don't hijack this from the voices of reason in the middle 80 percent. Federer is not immune to time, and it's reasonable to assert that he's not the player he was in, say, 2007. He's a step slower. He needs more time to recover. His margin for error is less than it once was. The results don't lie.

On the other hand, I can't understand the rush to send him into retirement. He's still a top-three player. He is the defending Wimbledon champ. He still plays deep into majors. A lot has to go right for him to win seven straight matches. But less than a year ago, we got an example of it happening. Either enjoy the last few remaining years or don't. But I don't get the glee over his decline or the rush to send him off into retirement.

I just read the question about Victoria Azarenka and shrieking -- yes, some men might very well grunt louder, but it always seems to be because of the effort put into the shot, not so with Azarenka and Maria Sharapova. I cannot watch their matches. The screaming, which reader Jay Clement rightly said comes after the ball has been hit, is ear-splitting and drives me up the wall. There might be a correlation to the other question about the empty stands during women's matches and full during men's, no?
-- Helle Hansen, Zurich

• I'm sure if the WTA thought that grunting was offending the fans and hurting business, the courageous administrators would stand up to the players -- even if the top players were some of the most grievous offenders -- and demand change.

You didn't really answer Mr. Clement's question. Regardless of whether the grunter is male or female, couldn't the hindrance rule be invoked if the grunt lasts long enough that it is still going on when the opponent is hitting? Kind of like when Serena Williams screamed, "Come on!" while Sam Stosur was hitting at the U.S. Open? Victoria Azarenka, and others male and female, continue their grunts long enough that it seems like the same thing. Beyond the annoying noise, which is bothersome to many, this seems a step further and actually unfair to me. Also, watching warm-ups at the U.S. Open, Azarenka didn't make a sound, so I don't think that she can claim that it is integral to her shot.
-- Scott, Salt Lake City

• Yes, other players caterwaul long and loud, sometimes protracting their yell while the ball crosses the net. As for the WTA's assertion that this doesn't bother both players, here's what Annabel Medina Garrigues said last week.

Please explain the controversy over erasing marks. If you hit the ball near the line, and I walk over and erase the mark, I'm conceding that the mark was good (otherwise I wouldn't have erased it). I don't get what the issue is.
-- Mike T., California

• The ball is called "out." The opponent objects. Before the chair checks the mark, I smudge the line, tampering with evidence that might benefit the opponent. Jim Bartle of Huaraz, Peru, however, notes: "I remember Jimmy Connors walking to the other side of the court, and after an argument, erasing the mark. But he did it more as a joke, an admission that he'd lost the point."

David Ferrer is breadsticking dudes left and right! Rafael Nadal hasn't been his usual self, Federer is out, Novak Djokovic has been shaky as well, and Andy Murray is MIA. Could this be his Gaston Gaudio moment?
-- Pete, St. Louis

• a) He needs to beat Tsonga. B) He needs the other semifinalists to beat the stuffing out of each other. C) He needs to play a dream final. Tall order. But it would be great to see the hardest-working man in the sport rewarded.

Wrapping up here ...

• Sally of Jakarta has long-lost siblings: "Sticking to the Big Bang Theory theme, has anyone else noticed that Philipp Kohlschreiber could have been moonlighting as Stuart (Kevin Sussman) from the comic book store?"

• John Whitney of Austin, Texas: "You posted a Stan Wawrinka lookalike, but I must disagree and give a better offering ... Wawrinka and actor Ron Eldard."

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.