MELBOURNE – About 15 minutes before the tall blonde skipped happily down the hallway after grabbing her third Grand Slam title at the Australian Open, the tall brunette had walked gingerly down the same corridor, still weeping quietly.
Maria Sharapova was full of joy while Ana Ivanovic was deeply sad, unable to understand why she couldn’t bring out her best again in a Slam final in a 7-5, 6-3 loss.
Ivanovic put on a brave face later and she will certainly have more chances in the future, but on court, she pursed her lips, yelled in anguish at her Friend’s Box and cried through her speech when accepting the runner up trophy.
She may have the biggest forehand in the women’s game, but the shot completely deserted her against Sharapova. Had she not served very well and had Sharapova played anywhere close to the level she showed in stomping Justine Hein, the match could have been over much quickly.
Ivanovic has one small opportunity in the match, up 5-4 in the first set and holding a 30-0 lead on Sharapova serve, but she went for a silly drop shot and after that, Sharapova proved unbreakable and crunched her.
“Yes, it hurts, I can tell you that,” Ivanovic said. ” Yeah, it was a little bit poor shot selection, I would say. Obviously I was emotional out there and I was really disappointed I couldn’t take these chances I had. But, at the other hand, I’m still young and I still think I have a lot of Grand Slam finals in front of me. So it’s just a learning experience and learning process.”
Sharapova could lecture Ivanovic long and hard on tough losses. She’s had plenty of them in the past year, on court and off. Saddled with a bum shoulder in 2007, she was blown out by Serena in the Aussie Open final, was bullied by Ivanovic in the French Open semis, was run over by Venus at Wimbledon and then in the biggest shocker of her career, was made to look clumsy by teen Agnieszka Radwanska at the US Open. “That was horrific tennis,” Sharapova said, who added of her lost season where she only won one title.
“It kept rolling and rolling and you think good things were going to happen and they will, but it seemed like no good things were happening. There were so many setbacks and I was left in so many tough situations. You have appreciate every single moment you have, which is why this one is so much sweeter. When I was going through all those setbacks I tried to remember what it was like to hold those Wimbledon and US Open trophies and know that I was capable doing before and doing it again. But I’m human and have emotions.”
Sharapova matured in ’07, but that was evident more off court then on, because she became so frustrated with her right shoulder injury that took away her service speed and then a left cyst in her wrist that didn’t allow her to hit backhand in the fall that she was ready to shut her year down in October.
But she did learn to contend with personal loss, as she had grown close to her coach Michael Joyce’s mother, Jane, whom she had known she was 12.
Jane passed away last spring after a long battle with cancer.
“Maria kind of went through the roller-coaster, and I think having such a hard year last year with her injuries, in a way that put things into perspective for her, and at the end of last year when she was still struggling, we just kept talking about it and just saying there’s so much more to life than just winning or losing tennis matches,” Joyce said. “For a young girl at her age, sometimes when you’re there it’s the biggest thing, and when you go through something like that I think it puts things in perspective a little more, so maybe my Mum was helping her from up above.”
While Sharapova was clicking on all cylinders on court, off court, there was no smooth sailing for the world’s wealthiest women’s athlete. After Sharapova had blown out Henin 6-4, 6-0 in the quarters, her controversial; father Yuri, was caught on camera giving a throat slitting gesture while dressed in a Nike fatigue hoodie.
Yuri was ripped on TV, in the papers and online, even though the gesture was supposed to be an inside joke between he and Maria, who had taken to telling him that he looked like an assassin in the outfit. But even though Maria tries to shut out outside criticism during the tournament, she was very aware of what had transpired.
“It was a tough night,” said Joyce. “It turned into this thing, but she’s used to that. I think she read one morning that some seal was born to her grunts or something, so you just try to look past all that stuff.”
After the Ivanovic victory, a jolly Yuri walked by this reporter and a TV analyst in the hall, beer in hand, and said, “See, I’m a great guy, a great guy. Why were you talking about the hood?”
Whether Maria told him to keep contained in her next three matches isn’t known, but Yuri behaved in the Friend’s Box afterward and when she asked if they have enough of an equitable relationship to where she can tell him to put a lid on it, she said,
“Even when I was a kid I did that. That’s never stopped me before. He knows me very well with that. Some things never change.”
While Sharapova may have not captured the hearts and minds of tennis fans the world over (at the Australian Open crowd gave her a lukewarm reception), Joyce considers she and Yuri to be good friends, saying that Maria and Yuri were there for him and his mother during her final days. Sharapova even helped Joyce Christmas shop for his sister last month, as without his mother around, who used to do loads of shopping for his sister, he felt lost.
“She must have bought my sister 25 presents,’ Joyce said. “It kills me sometimes when I hear things about her Dad. I know he can do some things in the box and this and that, but the family is so supportive to me. They were both at my mom’s funeral. They were there for me.”
What also hasn’t changed is how fast the young champs are forced to grow up. Sharapova is no different than any of the other teenagers who broke out as stars – Evert, Austin, Hingis, Graf and Seles – in that she feels much older than her 20 years. She and her $30 million a year portfolio will out earn all of them soon, but while she’s become an international crossover celebrity, there’s still a lot of Masha from Siberia in her. She feels likes she earned every ruble and penny.
“When I see other 20-year-olds driving in their Range Rover and I get dirty looks and they are saying ‘That spoiled brat, who is that, her father probably bought her Ranger Rover.’ And I’m like, no, honey, I bought that for myself. I know that I worked for mine.”
Even though she’s only ranked No. 5, Sharapova is now firmly back in contention for the world’s top ranking. Her run to the title was nothing short of phenomenal, as she lost 32 games in seven matches without dropping a set, thrashing the likes three-time Grand Slam champ Lindsay Davenport, two-time Slam finalist Elena Dementieva, top-ranked Henin number three Jelena Jankovic and number two Ivanovic.
She was rarely threatened in the final, simply because she was more composed and served big and with placement when she needed to. Ivanovic could never find her money shot, while Sharapova was solid enough all around not to have to go in search of one. The Serbian ended the match with 33 errors to only 16 for Sharapova, who only lost two points on her serve in the second set.
Sharapova has won three Slams and now is in the hunt to catch Venus Williams (six), Henin (seven) and Serena Williams (eight) before she retires. She may be an old 20 mentally, but she’s still has at least seven good years ahead physically if she can stay healthy. Plus, she an unfinished product on court.
” Everybody forgets she’s young and she can improve lots of things.,” Joyce said.