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Wednesday, April 3, 2013
The mysterious gap

By Howard Bryant
ESPN.com

On the top of the bracket at last weekend's Sony Open finale, in the winner's circle again were Serena Williams and Andy Murray. The former again cemented the truth that while there is Victoria Azarenka and Maria Sharapova, until age catches her there is but one tennis player atop the women's game, and it is Williams. It is a truth that should rather be embraced instead of massaged into the false narrative of a WTA Big Three.

Meanwhile, Murray was solid and unspectacular and victorious, his triumph continuing the inevitable changing of the order in the men's game. If it was true last year -- anecdotally, in feel, and in momentum (but not in major count because each of the Big Four won a major and Murray won Olympic gold) -- that Novak Djokovic and Murray were the two best tennis players in the world, so it is true now in the rankings. For the first time since 2003, neither Roger Federer nor Rafael Nadal is one of the top two players in the world. Since the end of the French Open, tennis has been heading in this direction.

Andy Murray/David Ferrer
Andy Murray had a word with David Ferrer at the Sony Open.

On the other side of the bracket, the loser's place, were Maria Sharapova and David Ferrer, both uncomforted, both again unable to overcome their hell moments. The former's is well-documented: Sharapova hasn't beaten Williams since 2004. Sharapova beats and bludgeons and intimidates virtually everyone else in the game but the space between her and Williams is gulf-like. In 2013, Sharapova has lost just six sets all year, two to Li Na at the Australian Open and four to Serena. The hell for Sharapova deepened by her beginning to climb out of it in Miami, winning her first set off of Williams since 2008, being up a break in the second only to get squashed like a bug, losing 10 straight games and the championship, including the final set 6-0.

The spiked, seemingly hopeless path of the latter is equally well-known. There is something patronizing about placing limitations on the greatness of David Ferrer as a player. He's a fighter. He's relentless. He gets the most out of his ability. Unfortunately, he does not possess the physical talent to be all of these things and a perennial champion. There is in front of Ferrer a maddening, frustrating wall that represents his hell moment, which repeats itself only against the Big Four: There is something in Ferrer, something unfair and cruel, that fails him when he needs it the most. He is an underdog, certainly, but there are miracle moments against the Big Four sitting out there in the universe, to be grabbed and taken and held, it seems, by so many -- by Horacio Zeballos and Lukas Rosol, Jerzy Janowicz and Tommy Haas and Julien Benneteau -- by so many players who for one afternoon played well enough to slay the beast, except him.

Instead, like Sharapova, hell surrounded Ferrer in the second set of the finale, when loose errors and oddly poor serving kept Murray around, and hell finally engulfed him in the third when, a point from the title, Ferrer fatally and foolishly stopped play on championship point to unsuccessfully challenge a line call. Ferrer's signature is his indefatigability, but somehow, when he needs most to seal shut the door, he has always found a way to leave it slightly ajar.

Perhaps it is asking too much of Ferrer, with his brutish, maximum style of play to not suffer some dip in focus and yet the end result cannot be reconciled: Zeballos and Rosol have beaten Nadal, Haas can take out Djokovic, Benneteau can take out Federer and Janowicz can take out Murray, while Ferrer is 0-15 lifetime against Federer, hasn't beaten Nadal in two years, has lost his past six versus Djokovic and (though he beat him at Roland Garros last year) his past two against Murray. His miracle moments are slipping through calloused fingers.

Heartbreak is the price of competition and Ferrer's postgame emotions, spent and defeated, brought him closer to the people of Miami, who groaned in sympathy at his words. Their collective compassion seemed to want to hold him and hand him a different trophy, something better than the runner-up hardware by his side.

"One point," Ferrer said exhaustedly afterward, his voice talcum soft. "I'm so sorry."

It was that moment when being David Ferrer came into clear focus. He is a great tennis player but he cannot be the monument. Federer is the monument. Nadal is the monument, Djokovic, too, and perhaps one day in full flower, Murray. They are the game and the next highest rated players -- Juan Martin del Potro, Tomas Berdych, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga -- can only help create and burnish the monument. The rest will have their moments and sometimes win championships, but they are the supporting actors to the legends.

If Ferrer's defeated and rueful humanity made him endearing, Sharapova's reaction to her hell moment made her all the more foreign and distant and, in many ways, inauthentic. The professional athlete must create a formidable front, the veneer that acknowledging defeat is a loser's game. However, there is a difference between acknowledging defeat and accepting it as inevitable. Tsonga is in the process of an ongoing hell moment: the realization that maybe he cannot beat Nadal, Federer, Djokovic and Murray, because they are simply better tennis players than he. The physical tools between them may be equal, but the top players are tougher mentally, more patient and precise, better tactically and emotionally and these advantages, however great or slight, ultimately produce the difference. Tsonga virtually said as much after losing to Federer in five sets at the Australian Open.

Maria Sharapova, Serena Williams
Maria Sharapova didn't seem too upset by her loss to Serena Williams.

After losing a string of consecutive finals to Djokovic in 2011 and 2012, Nadal said to his rival after finally breaking the streak last year at Monte Carlo, "After seven straight losses, thank you for this one."

More famous was Murray's tear-streaked address to the Wimbledon audience after losing to Federer in the final.

After Serena destroyed her once more, this time in perhaps an even more devastating way, Sharapova refused to acknowledge the existence of her hell, sounding more as if she hadn't quite participated in the match the rest of the world had just watched, hadn't been the recipient of losing 10 straight games and a bagel in a championship-deciding set. She spoke of expecting to beat Serena in the future, and said that she played well.

Somewhere, in her personal, private space, where there is no camera and no spin and no image to protect, she must know she is being humiliated. Sharapova has won two sets from Williams in the past eight years. Sharapova cannot hit her way out of this problem. She cannot intimidate her way out of it, with unnecessary noise and clenched little left fists and steely looks or even a few nice aces. Even though Sharapova has lost badly to Azarenka, as she did in the 2012 Australian Open and Indian Wells finals, she's won two of her four subsequent meetings with Azarenka. She did not lose her nerve or play an extended period of time without rebalancing order slightly.

Upon further thought, there is an alternate explanation for Sharapova's recurring hell moment, for her realization that there may be little she can do to overcome Serena. It is not necessarily a hell moment at all. For all the shrieks and intimidation, the fighting and the victories, beating Serena may never mean as much to her as beating Sharapova means to Serena.

There is no doubt of Serena's legendary extra gear, but the key to that gear is the fuel that powers it. That fuel is the fuel of slight, of being underestimated, of being unwanted, of not belonging. It is a by-product of Richard Williams reminding her that only victory will gain acceptance, and even then perhaps not completely. Serena plays not only with shark-like intensity to defeat Sharapova because of their personal rivalry but also, it seems, to avenge historical slights and rebalance through domination the seemingly easy cultural advantages Sharapova is allowed to enjoy, even after losing 10 straight games in a championship final. Serena still does not attend Indian Wells. She is the greatest women's tennis player perhaps ever, and yet, despite earning millions, is approached by Madison Avenue as a package deal with her sister Venus. The great Apple iPhone 5 ad last year with Venus notwithstanding, Serena is the signature player today but not the face of her circuit.

Sharapova is a great player, but perhaps not historically great. While on court, Serena is not only competing against Sharapova, but also Chris Evert, Margaret Court, Martina Navratilova and Steffi Graf. Her fuel comes from chasing the very summit of the game, to be undisputed in the conversation of greatest ever. Sharapova, who has the career grand slam but never won the same major twice, is merely excellent for her time.

Sharapova does not require that fuel. She is an unquestioned superstar on the court and off, and unlike Williams is unburdened by history. She does not need victory for the purpose of acceptance or historical redress. She is 6-foot-2, blonde with blue eyes, secure within the standard of Western beauty. There is no historical redress. According to Fortune, Sharapova earned more in endorsement money than either Venus or Serena. Serena won Olympic gold, singles and doubles at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, but the first face on the WTA website is a smiling Sharapova, she who looks the part.

Overcoming Serena or remaining a distant second to her does not change Sharapova's status. She wants to win, certainly, but her standing and sense of self does not seem to depend on it. Her mirror does not change. She clearly dislikes losing and is one of the game's great fighters, but Sharapova does not possess the primordial ingredients that comprise Williams' extra gear because she does not need it.