Friday, June 8, 2007

Anatomy of a Murder

by Savannah

Of course, actual blood wasn’t shed on the terre battue of Stade Roland Garros today but the dissection of Maria Sharapova, begun in Melbourne by Serena Williams, was completed today by a 19-year-old Serbian girl named Ana Ivanovic. The final score was 6-2, 6-1 in favor of Miss Ivanovic and the match wasn’t that close.

From the opening ace to the closing one, Ana put on a clinic. There was no grunting, no camera commercials, no bastardizing of Steven Sondheim’s lyrics from West Side Story. There was just pure, simple, tennis.

Ana makes it look easy. Fans labor with Serena and they quietly root for Amélie Mauresmo to overcome her demons, erupting into joy when she does. There are those who celebrate with Jelena Jankovic. And there are those who pray for other women to step up and redefine the game of tennis in her image.

With her calm demeanor and steady hitting, Ana, like Serena, made Maria miss. And miss she did. Over and over and over. Easy smashes went into the net. Maria kept her game face on but it was obvious that she was overmatched on this day.

The fourth game of the second set was, in my opinion, the match in a microcosm. Maria really had a chance to hold and put herself back into the match. One deuce. Advantage, Sharapova. Another deuce. Advantage, Sharapova. Deuce again. Advantage, Sharapova. Deuce. Advantage, Ivanovic. And that was all she wrote. Game, set, match I said to my buddy Craig via an email from my office where I was scoreboard watching. Watching tonight on TV, I heard Dick Enberg say the same thing when that game was finally over. No CSI's were needed. Grissom and his crew didn't have to fly in from Vegas.

The evidence was there for all to see. Weilding her racquet like a scalpel with cool, surgical strokes, Ana made Maria look like a "cow on ice," taking everything Maria had to offer and throwing it back at her. And the one we've been told is the Great One, the one who's supposed make all the other women grovel at her feet, died of a thousand cuts. She, and her camp, were out of ideas and headed to London on the next thing smoking to try to regroup.

I’ve often said tennis fans are like cats. Try to make us do something and we give you that look that says “surely you jest” before going on about our business. We chose who we root for, a choice that in many cases will last a lifetime. We don’t like to be told who to like. The talking heads have often wondered why there is such vitriol directed against Maria Sharapova. I present three reasons. Melbourne. Key Biscayne. Paris. Rules have been bent. Draws have been created featuring opponents opponents who are either in their twilight years in tennis terms, teenagers too in awe of playing a “legend” or those whose psyches are more delicate than Baccarat crystal. All with the intent of making us like Miss Sharapova.

But tennis is played between the lines. If you don’t perform between those lines the fans in the seats and watching from either their homes or their offices (thank goodness for internet live feeds) will look for the next best thing. When you have to stretch the rules to gain an advantage over an opponent you’re supposed to be able to beat with one hand tied behind your back something, as The Bard said, is rotten in Denmark. It is telling that within minutes of Ana Ivanovic’s win posts appeared on several fan sites writing Maria Sharapova’s tennis obituary.

I’m sure the spinmeisters will be out doing their job. Her shoulder. Not her best surface. Cow on ice. It’ll be better in London and the States. The French Open shouldn’t be a Slam. The winners of that event don’t do well anywhere else. They’re clay court specialists. Real men and women win on grass and hard courts.

But a star was born today. A seemingly well-adjusted young woman who still carries a bit of baby fat in her cheeks but who, as her father indicated after the match, plays with a big heart. They seem well-adjusted, too, those parents. No jumping up and down or diamonds dripping from every finger. But I noticed Mr. Ivanovic was breathing very hard. This was his baby on court excelling at what she’s always wanted to do. Somehow, I don’t think he’ll be waving bananas at his child from the stands.

Some fans, such as Moose, have been on the Ivanovic bandwagon for a long time. Some of us thought they were just salivating over another pretty face. We’re paying attention now. And it’s not because of racquet changes, potty breaks, little brown bottles or commercials touting how hot she is. Ana Ivanovic has played her way into the spotlight and will be playing the Queen of Clay, Justine Henin, for the Championship on Saturday. Today was sweet for those who have been Ana's fans for awhile.

It was reported today that Ana decided, at five, while watching Monica Seles play, that she wanted to be a tennis player. That's what she is, all she needed to be, to cut up the Great One and put the focus back where it belongs. Between the lines.

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