Rise Of One Or Fall Of Many?
With the French Open nearly completed and Wimbledon just around the corner, we're sufficiently deep into the tennis season to start assessing where we are and what the big stories are shaping up to be.
Last year, the biggest story was the extraordinary rise of Novak Djokovic. This year, it may be the return to prominence of the richest female athlete in sports history, Maria Sharapova.
But the Sharapova story, let's face it, has two sides to it.
There's the positive slant, for starters. More than three years after serious shoulder surgery, the 25-year-old Sharapova has fought her way back to the top and will again become the No. 1 ranked woman in tennis next week regardless of how she fares on Saturday in the final at Roland Garros against upstart Sara Errani of Italy. Even non-tennis fans know who Sharapova is, and any success she has tends to bring globs of attention to the sport, which is a good thing.
This is Sharapova's chance to complete a career Grand Slam on a surface she once infamously labelled herself an "elephant on roller skates" for her inability to effectively navigate her 6-foot-2 frame around the dirt court. While athletes in other sports have found incredible wealth and then been unable to find the motivation to either keep their game at a high level or fight back when adversity strikes, Sharapova deserves enormous credit for sticking with it, dealing with embarrassing double-faulting problems and moving forward with a drive that has been noticeable since she won Wimbledon at age 17.
Her big moments have been oddly spaced out; she won at the All-England Club in 2004, captured the U.S. Open in 2006 and then the Australian Open in 2008. Now, perhaps, the French in 2012. But she has endured and hung around, and a victory on Saturday will certainly vault her to the top of the tennis conversation heading towards Wimbledon.
But, as it usually the case with multi-textured sports stories, there's a negative side to the second rise of Sharapova.
For starters, while she's had to fight back from injury, she hasn't renovated or developed her game. She basically plays the same way she always has, hitting flat and dominating from the baseline, staying away from the net and eschewing variety in favour of power. Her shrieking, if anything, is worse than ever, but in the noisy women's game, that seems to be something we just have to live with.
More important, her ability to win another major and get to No. 1 is, in its own way, a withering commentary on the state of the women's tour. Bluntly, Sharapova is back on top because most of the women she struggled to beat have either retired or seen their careers hindered by injury. That's left the women's tour with a series of No. 1 players - Dinara Safina, Caroline Wozniacki and now Vika Azarenka - who pale in comparison to the great players of the 1990s and early part of this century. Both Safina and Wozniacki got there without even winning a major title.
There have been exciting, inspiring moments in recent years - the victories of Francesca Schiavone and Li Na at Roland Garros, Petra Kvitova's win at Wimbledon, Sam Stosur's victory in New York last year - but for the most part the competition has been erratic and the absence of truly dominant players has been undeniable. The ability of players like Serena Williams and Kim Clijsters to drop in from time-to-time and still be among the very best isn't a flattering commentary on the rest of the tour. From a North American perspective, the absence of any up-and-coming U.S. players to succeed the Williams sisters makes it seem worse.
So Sharpova's back at the top and has fought hard to get there. Good for her. It's not like she needs the money or anything. She's motivated by winning and competition.
But it's about time for the rest of the tour to wake up and show some life as well.