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Serving Notice

Feb. 04, 2008
Feb. 04, 2008

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Feb. 4, 2008

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Serving Notice

In an Australian Open that was full of surprises, a healthy Maria Sharapova showed that she's stronger than ever, and Novak Djokovic dismissed—and dissed—the Mighty Federer

THEY CALL it the Zone. It's that mystical state most athletes are lucky to achieve a few times in their careers. The mind is cleansed. The body is free. The unity of time and space comes undone. Brilliance is elevated to perfection. Tennis player staking up occupancy in the Zone can guide the ball as if they've sent it to obedience school. The lines on the court—targets just a few inches wide—appear as vast as Montana. The ball expands to the size of a melon and seems to be moving in slow motion. The figure on the other side of the net feels less like an opponent than a collaborator.

This is an article from the Feb. 4, 2008 issue

Like most Zen-ish concepts, the Zone resists easy explanation. "It's like you're playing in your own bubble and you never want to come out of it," suggests Russia's Maria Sharapova. "It's like a video game," shrugs France's Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. "If you need an ace, you fire an ace." Serbia's Novak Djokovic echoes this: "It's playing in a dream. Like you cannot miss even if you tried."

These testimonials are based on recent experience. In an Australian Open that—like the local bath water spinning counterclockwise in the drain—spun counter to everyone's expectations, Sharapova, Tsonga and Djokovic blazed through their draws, making tennis at its highest level resemble a Wii game. The event was marked by matches ending close to dawn, a new Plexicushion court and the uncharacteristically mortal play of Roger Federer. But ultimately it will be recalled for the magic that came from the winners' rackets.

Sharapova's timein the Zone was unexpected. The Florida-based Russian appeared to have regressed in 2007, mostly because of chronic bursitis in her right shoulder,which dulled her serve and as a result exiled her from the top five. But for all of Sharapova's endorsements and global fame, she is nothing if not a jock.Even when injured, she worked out maniacally, adding bulk to her lithe frame,potential modeling contracts be damned. And when she finally got healthy, she worked feverishly with her coach, Michael Joyce, to get her game back to whereit used to be, grinding through two-a-day practices in the off-season while other players were poolside.

Sharapova arrived in Melbourne as the fifth seed, and the draw gods presented her with a disguised blessing. Her second-round opponent was Lindsay Davenport, the former No. 1 player who retired after 2006, gave birth to a son last summer and then returned to the circuit in September. Pitted against a potentially dangerous opponent so early, Sharapova immediately "locked in" (her term) and sharpened her focus. In less time than it takes to read The Very Hungry Caterpillar, Sharapova dismissed Moms Davenport. And, suddenly, she was in tennis nirvana.

PLAYING OUT of her skin," as the Aussies put it, Sharapova won her next four matches by a combined game score of 48–13. Blasting balls with her signature grunt (EEEEEHHHHH UHHHhhhh!!!!), she often played entire games without missing a shot. During one stretch against Belgium's Justine Henin and Serbia's Jelena Jankovic—the first and third seeds, respectively—Sharapova ran off 12 straight games. The serve that betrayed her last year bailed her out of what little trouble she encountered. "She's playing unbelievable tennis," conceded Henin, who, before facing Sharapova, hadn't lost in 32 matches since Wimbledon last summer. "She's serving [well], she's playing for the lines. Everything is working for her."

Sharapova's command performance was undercut only by the antics of her father, Yuri, the newest tenant in tennis's already overcrowded pantheon of ill-behaving parents.Inexplicably, he showed up for matches wearing sunglasses and a hooded camouflage sweatshirt, causing his own daughter, clearly not amused, to liken him to "an assassin." After Sharapova dispatched Henin, Yuri put the ass in assassin. Grinning as Henin was leaving the court, he threw back the hood of his sweatshirt and performed an enthusiastic throat-slashing gesture.It was vile and belligerent—particularly so in a sport that has witnessed the stabbing of a player on the court. The NFL fines players for performing such a repugnant gesture. The starstruck WTA tour, however, dismissed it as an"inside joke" between a father and a daughter. Ha-ha.

While there was never any public apology, Yuri got a stern lecture from his daughter and sat on the camouflage hoodie the rest of the tournament. (As Sydney Morning Herald columnist Richard Hinds put it, the sweatshirt was now "in the general vicinity of where most people believed it should be placed.") From his elevated perch Yuri watched his daughter continue her dominance. Though Sharapova was not exactly in the Zone in the final, she still turned in a steady, businesslike performance and outplayed the pleasant Serbian Ana Ivanovic to win her third Grand Slam title, 7-5, 6-3. "Realistically, I know it's impossible to play amazing tennis through seven matches," says Sharapova, who didn't lose a set in the tournament. "But I believe in myself [enough] to know that if my tennis will drop, I can still win. That's how much confidence I have in my game."

With her victory,the rest of the field is now on notice: Sharapova is back. She has regained her serve and, with it, her regal disposition. Asked after the final if her mental strength intimidates opponents, she laughed and said, "I don't really care.I try to take care of my own business." Not far from Sharapova, Joyce was gripping a well-deserved beer. He wore a Nike cap embroidered with the message: AIROGANCE JUSTIFIED. Which pretty much says it all about the player he coaches.

WHILE SHARAPOVA and her dad shared their "inside joke," the otherworldly play of Tsonga might be called an outside joke, a source of fun and amusement for everyone to share. The son of a Congolese father and a French mother, Tsonga grew up in LeMans and was a top junior. He turned pro in 2004, but a herniated disk jeopardized his career. Last spring his status was so far off the map that he was playing events such as the Tallahassee Challenger. Even as he improved his ranking to No. 38, Tsonga entered the Australian Open having never played beyond the semifinals of an ATP tournament. In his four previous Grand Slam appearances he had advanced no further than the round of 16.

Tsonga upset Britain's Andy Murray on the first afternoon of the tournament. Then he raised his level of play with each succeeding match. Demonstrating a vast array of skills, he would belt a 130-mph serve, follow it up with a forceful forehand from the baseline, then head toward the net and finish the point with a delicate drop volley. With the exception of Federer, no player layers such power with such touch.

By the start of the second week, this sacre bleu shotmaking—and a smile spanning from one studded ear to the other—had made Tsonga the toast of the tournament. Crowds lavished him with standing ovations. On his off days, fans ringed his practice court. As one supporter's handwritten sign read, it's a TSONGA TSUNAMI!

By the time he faced Rafael Nadal, the second-seeded Spaniard, in the semifinals, even Tsonga wondered when he would "return to earth," as he put it to the French press. Not that night. In a virtuoso performance Tsonga didn't so much beat Nadal as render him just another admiring spectator, left to shake his head in wonderment at the tennis being played. Tsonga clubbed 49 winners to Nadal's 13 and out-aced him 17-2. After watching the match from a hotel room in Miami,San Antonio Spurs guard Tony Parker—who shares a French agent with Tsonga—was so charged with excitement that he couldn't sleep. "He's playing with zero pressure," said Nadal after the 6--2, 6--3, 6--2 massacre. "Everything is going good for him, every ball is hitting the line. It can't be his real level, no?"

There were strange doings in the other half of the men's draw as well. Slowed by a pretournament case of food poisoning, the Mighty Federer, two Grand Slam titles from tying Pete Sampras's career record of 14, never found his groove. In the third round he was pushed deep into a fifth set by Janko Tipsarevic, a little-known Serb.By contrast the third-seeded Djokovic ripped through his first five matches without dropping a set.

While most players revere Federer and regard him as a sort of benevolent despot, Djokovic, 20,goes light on the deference. His notorious player impersonations, a YouTubefavorite, include a spoof of Federer's meticulousness. Djokovic's mother, Dijana, has already expressed the opinion that her son is better than Federer,just not as experienced. Last week Novak referred to Federer as "probably one of the best players this sport has ever had," not exactly gushing praise for a figure who even Rod Laver willingly concedes is the greatest of all time.

INSTEAD OF being galvanized by this brash challenger, Federer seemed annoyed. Playing Djokovicin the semifinals, Federer was impatient, fragile and unaccustomedly short-tempered. After he lost the first set, frustration was apparent on his face. Meanwhile, still ensconced in the Zone, Djokovic was almost frightening in his accuracy from the back court, and he served brilliantly. His 7--5, 6--3,7--6 win marked the first time since the 2005 Australian Open that a player other than Federer or Nadal would win a Grand Slam title.

Djokovic was so calm (cocky?) he had to be talked out of attending the Police concert the night before the final. The match took place amid an atmosphere worthy of a World Cup soccer game—the crowd was overwhelmingly pro Jo—and Tsonga sustained his impossibly high level of play, winning the first set with a running topspin lob that was so good it was almost silly.

Then an hour into the match, just like that, Tsonga left the Zone. He lost the radar on his serve. A few of his mishits risked hitting Sting, who was sitting a dozen or so rows from the court. Tsonga's decision-making deserted him too. Djokovic,though, continued his unerring play and seized the match. When Tsonga belted his 41st unforced error, punctuating a 4--6, 6--4, 6--3, 7--6 defeat, Djokovic dropped his racket, fell to his knees and kissed the court. He had won his first Grand Slam title, and one has to believe there are more where that came from. "I'm going to be more relieved now, coming as a Grand Slam champion to all the tournaments in this season," he says. "I play my best tennis on the most important events, so it's encouraging."

It was well into Monday morning when Djokovic finally left the complex. As he made his way to his courtesy car, a security guard called after Djokovic to congratulate him.The new champion kept walking. Maybe he hadn't heard the man. Or maybe he was simply still in the Zone.

"I believe in myself [enough] to know that even if my tennis will drop, I CAN STILL WIN," says Sharapova.
Djokovic's win marked the first time since the '05 Australian that a player other than Federer or Nadal would take a GRAND SLAM.