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Mailbag: Sharapova survives, nearly edges Russian qualifier to advance

MELBOURNE -- Whoever said “It’s a game of inches,” didn’t cotton to tennis. Either that or they were prone to exaggeration. In tennis, the margins are smaller. Players can grind away for hours. They can slog through split-set matches. They can run halfway to Adelaide to retrieve balls. And, still, the results, often redound to infinitesimally tiny distances.

We see this when players challenge line calls and the distinction between “in” and “out” are go from here ++ to here ++.

We see it when suffer injuries. One player tweaks his wrist and he is fine. Juan Martin del Potro suffers the same injury a millimeter and it jeopardizes his career.

Sharapova saves two match points to beat Russian qualifier Panova

​We see it with “indirect wins.” Two weeks ago, Ryan Harrison, once an American prospect, beat Marcos Baghdatis at a challenger event. Today, Baghdatis moved into the third round, upsetting David Goffin 6-1, 6-4, 4-6, 6-0. This off-season in Dubai, Goffin allegedly won practice sets against Roger Federer. By this logic, Harrison has an indirect win over Federer. Yet, Harrison is not even in the draw, having to failed to qualify; and Federer is a decent bet to win his 18th major.

Today at Rod Laver Arena we got a vivid demonstration of tennis’ small margins. Maria Sharapova was trailing Alexandra Panova of Russia in the third set, 4-1, 30-0. A few points from defeat to a qualifier, Sharapova dialed in her shots. Half an hour or so later, Sharapova faced a pair of match points. Again— inasmuch as a woman worth nine figures in net worth can do this—she went for broke.

She misses either shot and it’s a devastating defeat by any measure. For her. For the tournament. For the ratings. Sharapova winds up, sends those hissing forehands and she is chided for being wild or error prone or rashly aggressive. You have a nervous opponent ranked outside the top 100 on the other side of the net. Make her play! Play safer!

Instead, Sharapova’s kisses the court inside the lines. She drills a pair of winners and, well, cue the sports clichés: Heart of a champion. Fortune favors the brave. She went for her shots. Tough as nails.

Sharapova wins, 6-1, 4-6, 7-5. She survives and advances. It was by the slightest of swatches. But she’s not on the margins. She’s still in the thick of the tournament.


Have a question or comment for Jon? Email him at or tweet him @jon_wertheim.

I saw you talking on Tennis Channel about whether Victoria Azarenka can win another Slam but I didn’t hear your answer. What says you?
-- D. Carter, Los Angeles

Nadal shows veteran form in opening match in Melbourne

I say: absolutely. Azarenka is, of course, unseeded here, trying to make her way back after a dismal, injury-addled 2014. But let’s take the long view here: a year ago she was the double defending champ and the closest thing Serena had to a rival. She’s still only 25—which is squarely middle age by today’s standards. And her self-belief is organic.

We say this from time to time but we’ll do it again: be wary of writing off a player from winning a major. It takes seven matches to win one these puppies. Not to diminish the feat, but that’s as few as 14 sets of top tennis. In team sports it can take years to rebuild. In tennis, get hot and locate some confidence and in less than two weeks, a player can completely rewrite her legacy.

Can you explain why we always hear about how hard it is to play five sets? Ever since John Isner and Nicolas Mahut had that crazy match at Wimbledon, I roll my eyes when I hear about how hard it is for players to play best-of-five. Aren't these supposed to be world-class athletes?
-- John Shearson, London

A few points: First, my any metric, playing best-of-five is a physical challenge. The conditions and the tenor of the match have an impact, sure. Gael Monfils playing a five set night match is different Feliciano Lopez going 10-8 in the fifth in the middle of the day. A serve heavy match like Isner-Mahut—played over three days, by the way—is different from a David Ferrer exercise in five-set attrition.

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To me the big issue with playing five-sets (the U.S. Open notwithstanding) is the lack of defined terminus. You conserve energy, not knowing if you're going to win 6-4, or 70-68. It’s akin to running a race without a given distance.

“Is it a sprint or a marathon?”

“Who knows? Just run.”

I keep hearing how much the players like the Australian Open. Is it really that much better than the others?
-- Cabo, Philippines

• This event has a lot going for it, not least the timing. Everyone is starting the year, healthy and full of promise. It’s like baseball players being more fond of Spring Training than the August slog. Melbourne helps, too. A world-class city with hotels within walking distance of the venue, with no Long Island Expressway equivalent.

The event contorts itself like a gymnast, though, bending over backwards to accommodate the players. Little touches abound. On example among many: the player courtesy cars have WiFi so players can text and email without charges. It’s simple. It probably costs a few thousand bucks (at an event that pays $40 million.) But it sends a message that the players’ comfort is paramount.

Why are you taking a break from the AO Suicide Pool?
-- @rgmall3

• My ego needs to recover.

Have a question or comment for Jon? Email him at or tweet him @jon_wertheim.

Shots, miscellany

Five quick thoughts for Wednesday:

1. The good vibes were tempered a bit today by the news that Juan Martin del Potro—on the grounds Sunday—hightailed it to Minnesota for still another wrist surgery. Karma owes this guy, big time.
2. Where is CiCiBellis, toast of the U.S. Open? Not here. She was playing a $25,000 challenger in Florida.
3. Christina McHale fought valiantly to win her first match. She had little left on Wednesday, falling meekly to Carina Witthoeft of Germany.
4. Gael Monfils will be here all night. Tip your server:

5. Your 2030 Australian open champ:


• Bahram Akradi, the founder, president and CEO of the Life Time Fitness chain of clubs, has been named “Person of the Year” for 2014 by Tennis Industry magazine.

• Two key tennis industry conferences -- the 2015 Tennis Industry Association (TIA) Tennis Summit and the Tennis Owners and Managers (T.O.M.) Conference -- are set for March in Indian Wells, Calif., to bring together tennis industry executives, legends, pros, coaches and other sports and business personalities.

• Chatham Capital and Stevie Johnson, currently ranked 37 in the world, have announced a two-year partnership agreement.  He will wear the logo of the Atlanta-based financial services firm on the left sleeve of his match shirt in all ATP and Grand Slam events.

• Shebai Hai is the first—of scarily many— to note: “The line you mention is from Blazing Saddles. My grandfather loved the movie :)”