Monday, April 30, 2012
Maria Sharapova, a creature of clay?
After Rafael Nadal won his seventh ATP 500 Barcelona title Sunday, he said, "It's almost unimaginable to win here seven times."
I know Nadal was trying to say the right thing, and that he's a humble guy. But it would have been more accurate -- and credible -- if he'd said, "It's almost unimaginable to lose a match here."
It almost seems like 2011 and Novak Djokovic never really happened. We're right back where we were a year ago, with Nadal absolutely dominating the early-clay court season. In Monte Carlo, he won his mind-boggling eighth straight title. On Sunday, he beat up on his countryman David Ferrer for the fourth time in the final of Barcelona.
Nadal is 14-4 against Ferrer, and lost just one of an even dozen matches they've played on clay. That was in Stuttgart. Nadal was barely 18 years old at the time.
Speaking of Stuttgart: The top eight WTA players all showed up for the first high-value clay event of the European season, and the last woman standing was Maria Sharapova. The WTA No. 2 upset top-seeded No. 1 Victoria Azarenka, whom the Russian had been 0-4 against in finals (3-5 overall). Azarenka won each of those previous finals in straight sets.
But this time, it was a blowout by Sharapova, who banged out 31 winners (on red clay, no less) and made just 13 unforced errors in the course of the 6-1, 6-4 beatdown.
A comparison of these two events, Barcelona and Stuttgart, is telling. Nadal lost just 16 games in all of his matches leading to the final. That's an average of four games lost per match. Sharapova lost exactly twice as many, and in one of those matches, her opponent, Alize Cornet, had to retire with an injury after the first game of the second set.
No opponent of Nadal's, until Ferrer in the final, came within shouting distance of a set point; Sharapova had to fight off a match point (against No. 5 Samantha Stosur) in her quarterfinal. If Nadal's tournament was the kind of cakewalk that has become all too familiar at this time of year, Sharapova's was a marathon run through a minefield.
So how many of you looked at those two draws and thought anybody but Nadal would win, while also picking Sharapova to pull through? This was Sharapova's 25th career title, but just her fourth on clay. For Nadal, that's not a good career; it's a good spring.
But there's a larger story here than Sharapova. It's the suddenly red-hot WTA Tour, which is chockablock with players who not only can win but seem to be playing with a degree of resolve and pugnacity that seemed sometimes to be lacking in recent years.
The dramatically altered landscape is pretty neatly summed up in the fact that Caroline Wozniacki, year-end No. 1 for 2010 and 2011, is down to No. 6 -- and she was coldcocked in the third round of Stuttgart by Angelique Kerber, 6-1, 6-2.
Other favorites who were just spinning their wheels, if they got started at all, included Ana Ivanovic, Jelena Jankovic, Marion Bartoli and defending French Open champion Li Na.
The WTA has become volatile -- unpredictable in the best way imaginable, with more shifts of momentum and ascendancy than we've seen on the ATP side of the fence lately. Just how long can tennis continue to ride the coattails of the sensational year Djokovic put together in 2011? We'll have an answer soon enough, but if Nadal once again dominates on Euroclay, there will necessarily be a "been there, done that" feeling about it.
The only predictable aspect in the WTA scenario is that Azarenka is going to meet Agnieszka Radwanska in the semis every time the two women are at the same event, and that Azarenka will crush her. If you discount the walkover Radwanska gave in the quarters of Kuala Lumpur, she has a perfect record this year -- unless she's had to play Azarenka.
In Stuttgart, Azarenka improved to 5-0 against Radwanska for 2012. Even Nadal must be impressed by her mastery.