One of the oft-repeated laments of those observing the ATP’s golden age is that it lacks the intensity of the McEnroe-Connors era. It’s true – the quartet that has led the men’s game over the past decade is known as much for their niceness as for their shotmaking. The primary rivalry in the game over the past decade has been between two guys who spent 15 minutes giggling next to each other, and the closest thing to fireworks at the top of the game is when someone knocks over Rafa’s water bottles.
Anyone who is tired of the smiles, stomach pats, and good natured ribbing of the ATP tour need only take in a few WTA matches to find the intensity they’re missing. This isn’t about the played up, stereotypical “catfights” that have come out of the media coverage of the sport. Rather, it is the ferocity of competitors who are less concerned with popularity than with victory.
The quarterfinal match between Maria Sharapova and Simona Halep in Cincinnati was their third meeting this year, and the first since Sharapova willed herself past Halep’s composed attack to win her second French Open title. It’s been many years since Sharapova was the 17 year old upstart who refused to yield to Serena Williams in the 2004 Wimbledon final. In those years, despite the injuries and inconsistency that plagued her at times, Sharapova has become a domineering on-court presence, who punctuates her shots with guttural screams in important moments, forces her opponents to pay at her deliberate, and often slow pace, and deploys the strategic bathroom break that is in vogue on both tours these days.
At Roland Garros, Halep responded to Sharapova’s slowing of play during Halep’s service games by delaying Sharapova’s serve at 5-3 in the second set tiebreak, which was enough to force the match into a final set. That said, before Friday night’s hard court quarterfinal with Sharapova, Halep admitted that she was not prepared for Sharapova’s slow pace and that it had disrupted her at the French Open.
While the result was the same as in Paris – Sharapova willing herself to win in three hard-fought sets, the match showed two players pushing each other to their mental and physical limits. Halep countered Sharapova’s searing groundstrokes with superior movement and an ability to capitalize on Sharapova’s multitude of errors. Sharapova refused to let Halep hang onto the leads that she established and continued to use her weight of shot to push Halep around the court.
While Halep learned to counter Sharapova’s delay tactics by forcing Maria to slow down her service games at times, Sharapova simply bullied her way to victory – bathroom break, primal screams and all. Aided by a strong Romanian contingent, the crowd supported Halep’s David versus Sharapova’s Goliath – but, in the end, even they had to admire the will of the victor. And, unlike the muted match point celebration at the Federer-Murray match playing out one court over, in victory, it was clear that Sharapova was not only happy to win, but also to crush Halep.
The Sharapova-Halep rivalry is not the only one that brings ferocity to the court. Nearly a decade ago, Halep’s hero, the similarly undersized Justine Henin’s groundstrokes were as elegant as her spirit was competitive. Perhaps one of the earliest to use the well-placed medical/bathroom break, Henin accepted that these guerrilla tactics were necessary for her to compete against her bigger, harder hitting opponents. Like Sharapova, she was not concerned with being popular, and, with the infamous “hand” incident at the 2003 French Open, she was in no danger of wresting the most popular crown from her countrywoman Kim Clijsters. And, just as the Fedal niceness has come to define the current ATP, today’s WTA owes no small debt to Henin and her indomitable will to win.
In a match that made her battle against Halep look like a gentle practice session, Sharapova took on a newly resurgent Ana Ivanovic in the semifinals. Down 6-2, 4-0, Sharapova started the match error-prone and subdued, her famous grunts replaced by uncharacteristic self-flagellation in Russian. Yet, by sheer force of will, with an assist from Ivanovic’s drop in form, Sharapova stormed back to take the second set 7-5, and got as far as leading by a break in the third set.
Yet, soon after taking – say it with me now – a bathroom break after losing the second set, Ivanovic hunched over and called for the trainer at 1-0, 15-all in the third set. Suddenly, play stopped, and the crowd and Sharapova were faced with the surreal sight of Ivanovic lying on her back, with a blood pressure cuff on her bicep. Moments after the break Ivanovic was playing again, running after shots as if nothing had happened, and refusing to wilt under Sharapova’s physical and mental assault.
Sharapova, no stranger to gamesmanship, was none too pleased and made numerous sarcastic comments about checking blood pressure as she, making errors and frustrated, lost the third set. For the record, Ivanovic is not known for gamesmanship. Ana explained after the match that she had been nauseous from the second set onwards, and that the medications she got during the medical time out did help. Sharapova’s wan handshake at the end of the match indicated that she wasn’t convinced.
Yet, in the final, all of the fireworks in the prior rounds evaporated. Serena Williams, whose history includes that infamous 2009 U.S. Open lineswoman rant and a perplexing and scary doubles appearance at this year’s Wimbledon, has found her mojo in the past few years by ridding herself of the drama that crept up all too frequently in earlier parts of her career. That said, while Serena is happy to pal around with her sister Venus and Caroline Wozniacki, her determination to beat them, to say nothing of the others on the tour, remains undiminished.
The current era of WTA stars – both the established stars, such as Sharapova, Azarenka, and Serena Williams, and the rising generation of Bouchard and Halep, have made it clear that they’re here to win titles, and not necessarily to make friends. Of course, the predominant spirit of an era is not felt universally – for every no-nonsense Bouchard, there is the effervescent Caroline Wozniacki, and for every Fedal gigglefest, there is a Berdych fury (though tempered by his charming Twitter feed).
I can’t say that I’m a fan of the strategic bathroom break, and I admit that the other patches of gamesmanship make me uncomfortable. But, in an era where many working women are being advised to be more assertive and “lean in,” it is refreshing to see that the women of the WTA are taking the lead in providing pro tennis with the intensity that many have been looking for. So, the next time a commentator laments the congeniality of today’s tennis game, direct him or her to the nearest WTA match – chances are, it will be fierce.
What do you think? Do you like your tennis fierce or friendly? How can the tours control bathroom breaks? How much gamesmanship is too much? Tell us in the comments below.