The first round of Fed Cup came and went this past weekend. Unless you’re a women’s tennis diehard (I’m looking at you, Madhitter), it’s a challenge to find anything resembling drama in what transpired. For one thing it coincided with the Super Bowl. Even if you don’t care much for football, it’s tough to compete against mini-Darth Vaders and Doritos addicts. But there was one storyline that bears further inspection: hidden just beneath Russia’s comeback win against France was the benching of Maria Sharapova.
This was only Sharapova’s second career Fed Cup tie, and her first in her native Russia. It’s difficult to imagine she wasn’t up for her opening day 6-3, 6-4 drubbing from 83rd-ranked, Virginie Razzano; if anything she could have been too eager. Truth be told, I didn’t see a point from the match. What has me interested is the puzzling score, especially since Sharapova had just handled Razzano in straight sets in the second round in Melbourne. And it’s her third such thorough defeat of the young season; the other two coming courtesy of Greta Arn and dancing queen Andrea Petkovic.
Sharapova’s loss put the Russians down 0-2 heading into day two. It’s a little unfair to label her subsequent benching as the turning point. Coach Tarpischev is a wily one, and he played a hunch that Pavlyuchenkova (who for the sake of brevity will henceforth be called Pavster) would rise to the occasion. It’s not inconceivable that given the same chance, Sharapova could have also beaten Alize Cornet. But the fact that Tarpischev felt comfortable even trying the gamble speaks volumes about Sharapova’s current standing. Not long ago she was the clear-cut alpha feline from her country; largely thanks to her steel will and self-belief. She’s doesn’t possess the athleticism of many of her countrywomen, but was their better primarily because of superior nerve and competitiveness. That seems a thing of the past, as is her mystique.
Which is a shame because sports are much more compelling when their headliners play up to their billing. With Serena still sidelined and Henin pulling her most recent (bizarre) career adieu, women’s tennis needs an in-form Sharapova, a three-time Grand Slam champ. She’s not yet 24, so there’s still time for her to rediscover her mojo. Since her recent coaching change hasn’t seemed to spark any improvements, perhaps she’ll consider some of these suggestions:
Get over the demise of your serve. It’s true, Sharapova suffered a shoulder injury that required surgery. And it’s quite possible she continues to struggle with that part of her body. But shoulder pain is just a hazard of the business; like concussions in football or breast implants in adult film. Even if it caused her to lose a little mph off her fastball, it’s no excuse for becoming a double-faultaholic. If the fallout from the injury is so severe that the serve is forevermore a liability, it’s time to put down the racquet and start plugging product on HSN. Besides, the WTA is like stock-car racing: other than Serena, everybody’s serve is pretty much the same and usually in need of maintenance.
Bring back Yuri. Perhaps it’s coincidence, but Sharapova has not been the same player since her domineering dad/coach took his act backstage. Family dynamics can be tricky and there’s nothing wrong with a young woman asserting some independence. Maybe she misses his pre-match pep talks. Maybe she misses seeing his angry-looking mug in her friends box shouting encouragement to her and threats to her opponents. Whatever the reason, she doesn’t seem to fight with the same resistance without daddy cracking the whip. If he’s reluctant to join back up with the traveling circus she can always threaten to cut off his allowance.
Smile. Fans like Sharapova because she’s a star; not because she’s inherently likable. Her on-court demeanor is frosty at best. It probably fueled her in the early stages of her career, but now that she’s on the back nine and not winning that kind of attitude, along with her bludgeoning playing style and bone-chilling screeches, will eventually wear on crowds. Still, she could use the support; nothing rallies a struggling player like a vociferous fanbase. She should engage the fans by showing more vulnerability: a laugh when she double-faults or an apology when she pops someone’s eardrum. Instead of going the bunker mentality route of a sparse friends box, turn it into the front row of a Lakers game. Pro sports are entertainment, so it doesn’t hurt to be entertaining. If all else fails…
Have a kid. Nobody gets more love than the working mom. It worked wonders for Clijsters. More importantly, it turned Kimmy into a terror between the lines; and her husband isn’t half the basketball player that Sharapova’s fiancé is. Take a year off to discover the joys of sleep deprivation and Yo Gabba Gabba reruns and the pressures of a Grand Slam match will seem like a welcome vacation.