I'm pretty sure Juan Martin del Potro was asking himself who the hell the guy across the net was. "No really," he was asking himself, "who the hell is that guy? I was told I was playing Ernests Gulbis. You know, the guy who got busted in Sweden for picking up ladies of ill repute and hasn't been able to think his way out of a paper bag since? Come on people, really, who is this guy?!"
Well Juan Martin the guy across the net was indeed Ernests Gulbis and he only showed up to take names. I don't think a tennis head on the planet, except for die hard Gulbis fans thought he had a chance. Sure tennis nerds knew he had hired Guillermo Canas as his coach but surely that wasn't going to help the ATP's newest head case.
ESPN2 was contracted to show the match and that usually means that there won't be a live stream anywhere unless your ISP gives you access to ESPN3 online. I have access to ESPN3 but I figured why bother to look? The outcome was preordained. Silly me. ESPN2 was giving updates but the tennis community on Twitter was already going "WTF"? ESPN2 did cut away from the match it was showing and what I saw was jaw dropping stuff. Gulbis was hurling bombs all over the court. The shot he hit to win the first set was picked up on radar screens around the world. Delpo got a couple of licks in but if this had been a heavy weight fight the cut man in his corner would've been busy. Not to mention Delpo would've been fighting with both eyes swollen and shut.
It was a hell of a display put on by Ernests. It's going to be interesting to see if he likes the feeling enough to keep improving. He could hurt a lot of people if he does.
Unfortunately Maria Sharapova knew exactly who was across the net from her. In one of the most hyped non slam matches ever the stands at the Stanford University tennis complex were crammed with fans who came to see a steel cage match between two of the biggest servers in the woman's game. Serena Williams, as we all know, was coming back from injury and ill health and if she was going to be vulnerable it would be now. Sure she'd played some WTT matches managing to lose to old foe Martina Hingis but no one could seriously think that she was ready to face a woman who had gone deep at Roland Garros and made the finals at Wimbledon so soon right? I mean it was obvious that she was having trouble with her breathing in Europe and with Sharapova throwing bombs her way it could be a short night for Serena, and not in a good way.
Instead it was Maria who was not allowed to breathe. To continue the boxing analogy if this had been a fight Maria's corner would've thrown in the towel. What can I say? It was a statement. No, I take that back. It was a declaration. It was a beat down. It was impressive. Majestic even. It was Sharapova bringing a knife to a gun fight. It got so bad that the talking ego Brad Gilbert dragged his fellow commentators into asking why Sharapova didn't ask for her coach to come down and help clear her head as well as try and cool Serena off. There was also talk of Maria trying to slow the pace of the match down. I think it was Mary Jo Fernandez who pointed out that Maria was taking all the time she could between points and that it wasn't helping.
I admire Maria for not pulling a Wozniacki and trying to figure it out on her own even when it was clear that she was not beating the woman across the net from her on this night. Maria Sharapova is nothing else if not a veteran at 24. She's hated and loved by many. I respect her.
At the end the two women showed nothing but respect for each other and by extension their sport. That led a lot of people to ask where this kinder, gentler Serena had come from. I think Serena said it best herself during her on screen post match interview with the ESPN crew. She loves tennis. She loves being around tennis. She missed all that goes with playing, the work, the commitment, the need for warming up before matches, something new to her pre match regimen.
I would add that only someone who has been as ill as she was, who has been to the brink and come back can have that calm, that clear cut vision of what is important in his or her life and seek to hold on to it.
Serena has won 13 Grand Slam titles. Ernests Gulbis has, I think one ATP title. But both had something to prove tonight. One player has to prove he has the cojones to do what he did tonight again and again. The other, well, has 13 Grand Slams.