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A Champion’s Contradictions

Maria Sharapova’s 6-4, 6-7 (5), 6-4 win over Simona Halep in the Roland Garros women’s singles final on Saturday was, before and beyond anything else, a magnificent three-hour feast of generally great tennis, spiced with maximum drama and enough plot twists to fill a 400-page novel. Sharapova’s victory showcased not just everything that’s great about tennis, but everything that makes the sport such a window into the human condition.

If you saw the match, you know why Sharapova won — more on that shortly — but if you followed the match on Twitter or perhaps watched it with a few tennis friends whose opinions aren’t the same as yours, you certainly gained a taste of why tennis aggravates even while it enthralls and provides top-quality entertainment. Is this why tennis suffers in the American marketplace and receives bush-league treatment on major network television? That’s hard to say… but the matter is worth exploring for a bit. Few individuals bring out tennis’s many contradictions and complexities better than Maria Sharapova, now the owner of two titles at one major tournament for the first time in her career.

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Let’s get the controversial stuff out of the way before focusing precisely on the tennis — the excellent tennis — that was played in this (genuinely) epic match. Sharapova’s win was clouded, as always, by complaints about her grunting and, in this match, the various kinds of sounds that came from Sharapova’s vocal cords. Fresh complaints arose about the time Sharapova took between first and second serves. USTA explanations of the official Grand Slam (International Tennis Federation) rules of tennis exist, courtesy of Victoria Chiesa. The actual rulebook is here, and on page 43, it states the following: “A maximum of twenty (20) seconds shall elapse from the moment the ball goes out of play at the end of the point until the time the ball is struck for the first serve of the next point. If such serve is a fault then the second serve must be struck by the server without delay.”

Chair umpire Kader Nouni was reluctant to ding Sharapova for violating that last provision, creating a lot of angst on Tennis Twitter and surely for many rules-aware tennis fans who watched the match. Yet, at the end of the day, “without delay” remains vague enough to be seen as something which doesn’t necessarily demand an iron fist from the chair umpire. Even more centrally in this discussion, the simple reality of time violations in tennis is that they’re not enforced very consistently… or at least, if they are enforced consistently, the consistency pertains to non-enforcement.

Let’s bundle up the Sharapova incidents in this match by saying one simple thing: Don’t blame the players themselves if chair umpires aren’t willing to enforce the rules. (You’re almost certainly going to see some talk about these same issues when Rafael Nadal takes on Novak Djokovic tomorrow in the men’s final.) Players don’t engage in cheating; they engage in gamesmanship — the two things are substantially different, and it’s very helpful to be clear about the matter.

What endures beyond the rules questions and the gamesmanship, though, is how they (don’t) resonate with fans. To some, “gamesmanship” is merely “doing what you need to do to win a match,” much as a hitter steps out of the batter’s box in baseball to slow down an in-rhythm pitcher. To others, “gamesmanship” is “a mental crutch that a world-class athlete shouldn’t need.” The point here is not to come down on one side of the argument, but to show how much the theater of tennis and the individuals who play it can fracture audiences, turning them on or off depending on a vast array of stylistic preferences.

The ideal response to contradictory players such as Sharapova — as both a fan and a commentator — is to admire the tennis they produce while doing things (such as using the mute button) that prevent them from having to spend time (unnecessarily) lamenting the externals and side issues that detract from the enjoyment of their match-watching experience. There is something to be said about things as important as rules violations, but the line between criticizing rules enforcement and simply hating the player who skirts gray areas is a thin one. This line gets crossed many times during Sharapova matches, especially contentious ones such as this final.

While you digest those points — either as an admirer of Sharapova or someone with a very different tennis aesthetic — the following claim is a hard one to refute: No player in women’s tennis more dramatically shows how a global icon can simultaneously win so much admiration and be a magnet for so many expressions of dissatisfaction. Sharapova the person and Sharapova the player elicit such strong reactions on both sides of the aisle, chiefly because of the contradictions that surround her. These aren’t questions of gender, though it’s easy to think they are on the surface. This is most centrally a reflection of the sharpness of the contrast created between Sharapova’s off-court and on-court brands. A person whose off-court life is and has been built on being (and looking) elegant has now won a fifth major and a second French Open by being persistently, unceasingly, combative.

In light of everything that’s been said up to this point, it was and is fitting that Saturday’s match against Simona Halep deviated from much of what Sharapova had fashioned over the previous six rounds of her triumphant stay in Paris.

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Maria Sharapova didn't strike many elegant poses over the past two weeks, but she played excellent tennis on Saturday against Simona Halep. Moreover, she needed every last ounce of that excellence in order to fend off the rising Romanian in a three-hour gem of a match that showed why tennis is such a feast for anyone who enjoys seeing human beings surmount the pressure and obstacles of championship-stage competitions.

Maria Sharapova didn’t strike many elegant poses over the past two weeks, but she played excellent tennis on Saturday against Simona Halep. She needed every last ounce of that excellence in order to fend off the rising Romanian in a three-hour gem of a match that showed why tennis is such a feast for anyone who enjoys seeing human beings surmount the pressure of championship-stage competitions.

At last, let’s get to the tennis — there was so much of it, and the vast majority of these three hours provided top-tier quality worthy of a championship showdown. This was the first three-set women’s final at Roland Garros since 2001, when Jennifer Capriati defeated Kim Clijsters, 12-10 in the final set. Long matches often get confused for epic matches in much the same way that a close basketball game is often seen as a great game. On this occasion, however, a match that was long and close also happened to be well-played and marvelously fought.

This wasn’t an interminable men’s fifth set, prolonged only because neither player had a remotely decent return game. This was a match that, while weak on serve for much of the afternoon, nevertheless managed to rise to a high level because of the quality of defense from each player. Breaks of serve were at times donated, especially in the first set, but as the match wore on, breaks were more the result of the receiver becoming more able to apply pressure. It was from this textured reality that Sharapova-Halep managed to exceed the considerable hype which accompanied it. The contest between the veteran seventh-seeded Russian favorite and the fourth-seeded Romanian underdog appearing in her first major final defied easy categorization from the beginning of the second set until the final point.

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The central tension point heading into this match was going to be (or at least seemed to be) if Halep could hold her nerves against the big-stage experience of Sharapova. While Sharapova doesn’t hold up well against Serena Williams or (to a lesser but still real extent) Victoria Azarenka in high-stakes situations, she’s managed to be a rock against just about everyone else. Halep won the first set against Sharapova in the Madrid final nearly a month ago, but then lost two straightforward sets in the face of a foe who knows how to regroup. The conventional wisdom in this match was that Halep would throw the first punches, and Sharapova would force her to land the knockout blow.

This line of analysis didn’t really materialize on Saturday. Just when you thought these players had established certain templates, they deviated from the script, thereby affirming the notion that sports offer the best and most authentic form of reality television.

Sharapova, having lost the first set in her previous three matches, took the first set, 6-4, and raced to a 2-0 lead in the second. Sharapova needed only two games to settle into the match. She carried the play in the first set with the best tennis of her two weeks in France. Her crosscourt backhand sizzled, repeatedly catching Halep off balance. She hit authoritatively, with pace and angle, from both wings. She harnessed her game and her focus more decisively than at any previous point in the tournament, save for a double-bagel win in the third round. Sharapova’s first-set display, however, came against Halep, a rising star on tour and the No. 4 seed at this event. Sharapova’s third-round blowout came against Paula Ormaechea, ranked 75th.

Up to 2-0 in the second, the template of the match caught no one off guard. Sharapova was accustomed to playing in major finals (this one being her ninth), while Halep — playing in her first — faced the difficult task of defeating not just her opponent, but the occasion itself. When Sharapova took a set-and-a-break lead, the natural inclination was to expect a straight-set match, but that’s when Halep showed why she’s likely to remain a fixture in her own right as the story of women’s tennis evolves over the next decade.

One of the constant matches-within-the-match on Saturday was the cat-and-mouse game that’s part of tennis: Hitting to the open court or trying to wrong-foot the opponent by hitting behind her. In the first set, Halep was on the wrong end of most of these exchanges, but in the second set, she became more clear-headed and willing to hit into open space. The following might seem like a pointless distinction, but it matters: Sometimes, a tennis player is scrambling; on other occasions, that same player is running because she anticipates the shot. In set two, Halep managed to get Sharapova to scramble more.

Even though Sharapova dug out of love-30 at 2-all to hold serve in a game in which she double-faulted three times, Halep didn’t relent. Presented with a tense, multi-deuce service game at 3-4 in the second set, Halep hit some of her cleanest shots of the match, unfurling her best tennis precisely because she didn’t overthink her shot selection. This last application of pressure at 3-4 sent a message to the other side of the net. Sharapova, so used to coming from behind in matches, was placed in the different position of having to hang onto a lead.

She didn’t handle it well… not in the second set, at any rate.

The final four service games of the second set were service breaks, with Sharapova feeling the weight of Halep’s shots and Halep — serving for the set at both 5-4 and 6-5 — feeling the weight of the scene at Court Philippe Chatrier. Mirroring Halep’s comeback from a 2-0 deficit in the set, the tiebreaker witnessed the Romanian work her way out of a 5-3 ditch to claim the next four points and the set. Sharapova was so close to the finish line in that breaker, but she leaked errors and forced a third set. Failing to win a close second set and finish off a match? That’s what Sharapova’s opponents — Sam Stosur and Eugenie Bouchard, specifically — had done earlier in the week. Everything you thought was true about this match against Halep had been turned on its head.

This set the stage for a final set whose direction changed at each turn, defying logic until the last ball.

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The true turning point in this match — the point when Halep could have gained a measure of leverage, though by no means a guaranteed ticket to the winner’s circle — came when Sharapova was serving at 1-2, break point down in the third.

Halep, despite a serve that lost its punch as the match wore on, found a little extra mustard on her first deliveries at 1-all, love-30 to hold for 2-1. That was the first service hold since 3-4 in the second set. Sharapova visibly felt the weight of the match tilting against her, even though the third set had been her refuge throughout the fortnight (and usually in her career as well). Sharapova’s crosscourt backhand was not penetrating the court the way it had been earlier in the match. For just a brief moment, she was there to be taken.

On break point at 1-2, Sharapova hit a decent crosscourt backhand, but Halep — standing in the doubles alley — was there. Yet, a down-the-line backhand settled into the net. A fairly ordinary error in a match loaded with well-beyond-ordinary points gave Sharapova that last ounce of belief she needed. Sharapova did falter on serve at 4-3 in the final set, but with Halep not getting enough cheap points from her own first serve, it’s more than reasonable to say that the flow of the match abandoned Halep when she couldn’t break for 3-1.  Even when Sharapova was broken at 3-4, creating a 4-all set and a race to the finish line, the veteran had to feel that she still owned the upper hand.

With that having been said, no one in the stands, the press box, or in living rooms across the planet could have expected this delightful competition — the best women’s match of the tournament, appropriately enough — to end with two love games from Sharapova. Covering the court with ease again, especially on her forehand (deuce) side, Sharapova powered her way past Halep in the end, clocking forehands to win points convincingly.

Her defense was better. She won a few more late-stage points with her serve. She regained her weight of shot after it flickered in the first four games of the third set. She looked like the better player for most of the match, and that superiority — briefly in question early in the third — was reasserted in crunch time.

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This was the final contradiction of Maria Sharapova’s reputation-enhancing fortnight in the City of Light: At the end of two weeks — and a riveting championship match — in which “doing things the easy way” had almost always eluded her, Maria Sharapova breezed through her final two games, exhibiting a level of beauty that has often been used to refer to her body, not always her tennis.

That brings the discussion of Maria Sharapova full-circle, when you think about it: No matter what — or how — you feel about her, this polarizing presence in women’s tennis once again showed everyone who loves the sport just how much her finest competitive attributes go far deeper than the skin which has graced so many magazine pages and covers.

Maria Sharapova might be seen as little other than image-making, stagecraft, and corporate muscle, all bereft of substance. In reality, the truth of Sharapova as a tennis player and — more centrally — as a competitor is both laudable and conspicuous precisely because of how substantive it actually turns out to be.

Matt Zemek

About Matt Zemek

Matt Zemek is the managing editor of The Student Section, covering college football and basketball with associate editors Terry Johnson and Bart Doan. Mr. Zemek is also Bloguin's lead tennis writer, covering the major tournaments in 2014. He contributes to Crossover Chronicles and other Bloguin sites.

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