Saturday, April 2, 2011

Duel in the Sun

It may not always seem like it, especially when you look at the scores, but there are dramatic moments — turning points — in a tennis match.

I was reminded of that today when I watched the women's final of the Sony Ericsson Open in Miami between Maria Sharapova and Victoria Azarenka. If Sharapova won, Susan Miller Degnan of the Miami Herald reminded her readers, it would be her first title since last May.

I don't know why, but I always tended to view tennis as a women's sport, even though I knew that some pretty talented male athletes played tennis.

When I was a teenager, I followed women's tennis because I had a crush on Chris Evert — and she was almost always in the finals of every tennis tournament. In fact, it was almost routine to see Evert (or Evert–Lloyd, as she was known after marriage) face Martina Navratilova in championships.

Frankly, it was so routine that I always thought it was a waste of time to play the earlier rounds — except on those occasions when one or both did not survive them (which rarely happened).

I didn't really follow men's tennis too closely. I admired Jimmy Connors — mostly because he had won Chris Evert's heart — and I kind of followed McEnroe and Borg, but mostly I followed women's tennis.

I gravitated away from women's tennis after Evert and Navratilova retired. But I started to feel myself being drawn back to it when Sharapova won Wimbledon in 2004 at the age of 17. I knew about her tendency to shriek every time she hit a tennis ball, and that may have been a bit upsetting for some people, but I kind of liked it. When I watched Sharapova play, I knew she was giving everything she had.

And, OK, I'll admit it. I thought she was cute, too. Who didn't?

Sometimes, promoters have tried to manufacture momentum for female athletes who had succeeded mostly because they were cute and not because they were talented. But some female athletes who were cute also happened to be talented. Sharapova was one of those, and she was deceptive. There was a lot of power in her slender physique.

She suffered a shoulder injury in 2008, though, and disappeared from professional tennis for nearly a year. Her appearance in today's championship was seen by some as a hopeful sign.

But it was not to be. Not quite yet.

Remember those turning points I mentioned earlier? There were two of those in today's match, both in the second set.

Azarenka handled Sharapova fairly easily in the first set, winning 6–1, then led 3–0 when the two got into battle over the fourth game. Sharapova took the lead, then held on as Azarenka rallied to force it to deuce.

(Since I don't watch tennis very often, it was a little difficult to orient myself. I remembered that Sharapova was blonde and shapely so I decided to watch for the one who was blonde and shapely — but it turned out that Azarenka is blonde and shapely, too.

(So I decided to look for the shrieker. But that was no help, either. Azarenka is a shrieker, too. And they wore similar headgear. From a distance, they looked remarkably similar. But I quickly discovered, through the brief closeup shots, that Azarenka was dressed in white and Sharapova was dressed in blue. Kind of a North Carolina Tar Heel blue.)

The two exchanged the advantage several times before Azarenka finally prevailed and led 4–0. At that point, I thought Sharapova was finished. I had seen similar matches when one contestant was dominated until a critical point, when everything turned around, and that contestant rallied for an improbable victory.

But I had seen other matches in which the contestant had a chance to turn things around but failed to seize the opportunity — and I feared that what I had just seen was an example of the latter.

Well, it was — and it wasn't.

It wasn't because, a few minutes later, Sharapova had rallied to win two games since losing the deuce and trailed 4–2 when the two were deadlocked again.

Again, it went back and forth, but finally Sharapova broke the tie and trailed only 4–3. Momentum seemed to be on her side, and I could imagine her rallying for a dramatic victory.

But it turned out that it was one of those times when the contestant fails to seize the opportunity after all.

Azarenka won two of the next three games and took a two–set victory in the final.

Sharapova has said that she hopes to retire early, that her plans for life include marriage and children. I hope those plans work out. It would be nice to see her win Wimbledon again, though.

And Azarenka showed me today that she has a lot of talent. I'm inclined to think she will win a few Grand Slams herself before she is through.

And I'm inclined to think the future of women's tennis is in good hands.

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