Differences may contribute to Maria Sharapova-Jimmy Connors pairing

Wednesday July 17th, 2013

Maria Sharapova hasn't beaten Serena Williams since the WTA Tour Championships in 2004.

So, Roger Federer enhanced his equipment. New Hall of Famer Martina Hingis made plans to unretire to play doubles at the Southern California Open. A player trashed another player on social media, and then blamed it on his publicist. Oh, and Maria Sharapova hired Jimmy Connors as her new coach. Otherwise, it was a perfectly normal week in the tennis world.

What do you think of Sharapova's hiring Connors as her coach? Does this change mean she has finally admitted to herself that she needs to come up with a plan "B" to even have a chance at beating Serena Williams? Do you think Connors will try to make her come to the net more (chip and charge) and improve her net game?
-- Bob Diepold, Charlotte, N.C.

• Brad Gilbert and Andy Murray. Todd Martin and Novak Djokovic. Mats Wilander and Marat Safin. We've seen some player-coach relationships that, on the surface anyway, would seem quite odd. If this were match.com, the compatability scores would be low. And yet, sometimes the lack of overlap and the difference in temperament, philosophy and hard-wiring is what makes the relationship work.

Prima facie, Sharapova-Connors flirts with the Lyle Lovett-Julia Roberts level for strange pairings. He's twice her age and grew up in the guts of America. She's Russian and she's a she. He's a "he" of the highest order. His recent literary foray would suggest ... well, you know where we're going here. (Can we stop here and say this: The notion of Jimmy Connors sitting in the bleachers of, say, Cincinnati on a hot summer night and scouting some Olga Puchkova or Lesia Tsurenko or Petra Cetkovska brings a smile to the face.)

But upon further review, maybe it's not such an odd couple. Like Connors, Sharapova predicates her game largely on grit, compensating for a lack of raw talent or innate athleticism with a certain competitive zeal and an appetite for the fight. Like Connors, Sharapova eventually cut ties with an intense parent and sought outside coaching. Like Connors, she operates at a certain social remove from the competition.

I also think the specter of Williams plays no small part in this decision. Sharapova might downplay the rivalry, but she knows the deal. She knows Williams has taken up a long-term tenancy in her head. She's convinced that Williams is the one player who, in her heart of hearts, she cannot can beat. Sharapova -- to her credit -- can't abide by this and has taken a number of approaches to try to change the dynamic. She looked into breaking down Serena's game statistically. She's been both deferential and confrontational.

Connors didn't exactly shy from rivalry; this a guy who once threatened, "I'll chase that son a bitch Borg to the ends of the earth." Think he might have some ideas of how to take down Williams?

If nothing else, it will make for compelling theater.

Why is Serena playing a "Podunk" tournament on red clay in Sweden a week after Wimbledon ends? Is this a practical joke of some sort?
-- Brian, Provincetown, Mass.

• I've had just about enough of your Bastad bashing! But, yes, this is a curious move. I would say three things. 1) Remember, Williams has a base in Paris, so it's not as though she's crossing oceans to get to this event. 2) The complaint used to be that she didn't support the tour sufficiently and only played the big stages, so it seems strange to chastise her for playing a smaller event. 3) Don't forget the lure of appearance fees. A lot of the -- shall we say -- unconventional scheduling decisions can be attributed to an un-turn-down-able sum of money.

Has nobody noticed that Simona Halep has won three of her last four WTA tournaments? Recall: She served for the match against Jelena Jankovic in the first round of the 2010 U.S. Open but succumbed to exhaustion, and she also took a set from Serena at Wimbledon last year. If she were to return to her service motion of 2009, she could be a top-10 player (her current serve makes her too vulnerable to the top returners). But three tournament trophies are evidence of her intelligent shot selection. She is as smart out there as Agnieszka Radwanska, and more powerful.
-- Doug, Los Angeles

• The curmudgeon might point out that a) these events have been "Podunk," as Brian of Provincetown would say, and b) she lost in the first round of the French Open before her run of titles and the second round of Wimbledon during it. But, yes, good for Halep.

With the U.S. Open just around the corner, do you expect players like Donald Young and Brian Baker to get wild cards into the main draw? I remember last year that there was some fuss about how the wild cards favored U.S.-born players.
-- Ralph Clark, Jackson, Miss.

• Again, I think the gentlemen at the All England Club were honorable in saying, "We could feather our own nest but, frankly, some of these wild cards are better off going to the players a few spots away from the draw cutoff and not to some 'locals' who just had the good fortune of hailing from a country that hosted a Grand Slam." It will be interesting to see if other Slams follow suit.

I confess that I feel some pity -- perhaps too much pity -- for Young. But keep in mind, he'll be 24 next week. He is ranked No. 154. He lost in the first round of qualifying at Wimbledon. He has one tour-level win for 2013. Inasmuch as wild cards are designed to boost up-and-comers and give promoters a means of including box-office draws, does Young meet either criterion?

Steven Wong should have added a postscript to his Andy Murray letter -- "P.S. -- but don't get me wrong here -- if you ever try to hit me with a ball again, or say anything bad about my Mum, I will take you OUT."
-- Helen, Philadelphia

• Nice. This was a good tennis feud, almost as good as Lleyton Hewitt versus Mike Russell's publicist, Lennay Kekua. But both Murray and Juan Martin del Potro are mature and likable, and this never lived down to its potential.

How did we get through the first week of Wimbledon without describing Dustin Brown as a "Germaican"? And how have we overlooked Ernests Gulbis' over-the-top forehand preparation?
-- Megan, Indianapolis

• Boom and boom. (I was also kicking myself for not recalling this Monty Python sketch after Murray won Wimbledon.) As for Gulbis, it looks like he's surfing.

No surprise that John Isner defeated Ivo Karlovic in the quarterfinals in Newport last week, but did I see that right? Not only were there no breaks of serve during the match, but not even a single break point in Isner's 7-6 (3), 7-6 (3) victory?
-- Nick W., Lexington, Ky.

• Yes. From the ATP's Greg Sharko: "The only other completed match this year without a break point was in Zagreb, involving -- who else? -- Ivo, who defeated Grigor Dimitrov 7-6 (3) 7-6 (3)."

As long as we're looking as stats, who else noticed that Arantxa Rus won a match this week at the Nurnberger Gastein Ladies? From UPI: "Arantxa Rus posted the first upset of the tournament with a 7-5, 5-7, 6-4 decision over No. 7-seed Maria-Teresa Torro-Flor. Rus totaled seven breaks -- against six for Torro-Flor -- in snapping a WTA record-tying 17-match losing streak. The only other player to lose 17 consecutive WTA matches was Sandy Collins in 1984-87. Rus had last won a WTA main draw match last August in the first round of a tournament in Dallas. The losing streak caused her ranking to drop to No. 262."

Have you noticed that each of the Big Four has a poor record in the finals of one Grand Slam? Novak Djokovic is 1-3 in the finals of the U.S. Open, Andy Murray is 0-3 in the finals of the Australian Open, Rafael Nadal is 2-3 in the finals at Wimbledon and Roger Federer is 1-4 in the finals at the French Open.
-- George W, Santiago

• The stats crowd might be inclined to point out that if some top players have a winning record in the finals of certain events, then, necessarily, others will have a losing record. Take Murray. Even after winning Wimbledon, his record in major finals is 2-5. But those losses came against Federer and Djokovic. If they were winning, someone else had to be losing.

But, yes, it seems as though each of the Big Four has a "weakest Slam." And I wouldn't necessarily look at finals. What about the many times that one of the players didn't even get that far?

Marion Bartoli received some flak for winning Wimbledon without having to play a higher seed.
Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

I think some of your readers are misunderstanding how an asterisk should be used. An asterisk isn't used when an underdog wins or your favorite player tanks before the middle weekend. It isn't used whenever the winner doesn't have to beat Serena. A classic example of appropriate use of the asterisk is Roger Maris playing a 162-game schedule while Babe Ruth played only a 154-game schedule. While not exactly comparing apples and oranges, Maris had more games to reach the record. Marion Bartoli beat the seven players put in front of her, just like every other Wimbledon champion. When someone wins using a laser-sighted racket, we can talk asterisks. Until then, congratulations, Marion!
-- Jeff L., Brooklyn, N.Y.

• ** I agree.

In your last mailbag, you said you were working on a television-related book and that your subject had said of announcers, "Sometimes the hardest thing to do is be quiet. When you're in the booth, five seconds of silence can seem like a minute. But you have to lay out sometimes. Just let the images talk for you." Can I safely assume your subject is not Vin Scully?
-- Andrew Ragusa, Harrison, N.Y.

• Correct. (Al Michaels.)

Thanks for your successful intervention on behalf of Nicolas Mahut! At the French Open, we saw Mahut sobbing on his partner's shoulder during the doubles trophy ceremony after losing a heartbreaker of a final against the Bob and Mike Bryan. You wrote that someone should slip the goddess of victory a message with Mahut's name on it. I believe you've done just that and, boy, was it successful. Having been a specialist for heartbreaking losses for so long, Mahut thoroughly deserves a few well-earned days in the sunshine!
-- Sabine, Hannover, Germany

• Why, I feel like Pennsyltucky, the miracle worker, from Orange Is the New Black. (If you haven't seen this show, do so. I leave it at that for now.) I always felt that Mahut got a raw deal from the tennis gods. While tennis and Wimbledon got a nice spike from his historic 70-68 fifth set at Wimbledon against Isner, what did Mahut get? First-round-loser prize money, some commemorative stemware and, presumably, a year's supply of Turtle Wax. He got a small book deal. And he got the physical and mental anguish that cost him months of his career.

Then, when he lost in the French Open doubles final and was too shaken up to speak through his sobs, it seemed almost unendurably cruel. Since then, though, he has won TWO events -- most recently the Hall of Fame Tennis Championships last weekend. He won the doubles there, too. He earned a Wimbledon wild card and won a round. He's earned almost $500,000 so far this year. And now, his ranking will get him into most main draws.

Sometimes fate gets it right. What's that? Oh, right. Brian Baker, it's your turn.

A few weeks ago you casually mentioned that if anyone deserves a break, it's Nicolas Mahut; then he immediately goes on to win his first two career titles? Nifty work!
-- Scott Brooks, New York

• I do birthday parties and Bar Mitzvahs, too.

Shots, miscellany

• In honor of Hingis' enshrinement, here's a piece from when she took over the No. 1 ranking in 1997.

• Pound, explode to our pal Mike Kosta, former tennis standout who will be part of Regis Philbin's show on Fox Sports 1.

• Cam Bennett of Canberra, Australia: "A different take on the coverage of women's tennis in light of Bartoli's Wimbledon title."

• Toni Nadal: "I talk to Rafa during matches."

Nadal meets his match.

• Amy writes: Re-living Robin Soderling's final match from 2011, in GIF form.

In praise of Cliff Drysdale.

• The ITF has announced its Board of Directors for 2013-15.

• Florida's Lauren Embree and Virginia's Jarmere Jenkins have been named the 2013 ITA National College Players of the Year, the ITA announced today. Additionally, USC's Sabrina Santamaria and Kaitlyn Christian were named the ITA National Women's Doubles Team of the Year, while Henrique Cunha and Raphael Hemmeler of Duke were honored on the men's side.

• Wally Holzman was named to the Cincinnati Hall of Fame.

• RZ of Los Angeles: "I thought this article on Andy Murray's sibling rivalry with his brother, Jamie, was a fresh look at Murray's road to present-day success.

• Sending good vibes out to Karen Pestaina.

• Mike McIntyre wrote about the relevance of Henman Hill in the aftermath of Andy Murray's Wimbledon victory.

• Jeff Davis of Cloverdale, Ind: "The readers are idiots for disparaging the quality of Marion Bartoli's Wimbledon win. And so what if Sabine Lisicki had a meltdown? People who think it's easy to perform on the world's biggest stage in one's sport and not be affected by it probably have never competed for anything worthwhile. I'm a 54-year-old racquetball player who gets nervous playing for the third-place trophy in the State Men's C tournament!"

• James Stuchell of Savannah, Ga., has this week's long-lost siblings: Andy Murray and the San Antonio Spurs' Tiago Splitter.

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