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Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Annals of Shamapova

You could set your watch by Maria Sharapova, her ludicrous hype, her even more ridiculous dumb luck and her humiliating subsequent implosions. You really could.

There the world was, breathlessly babbling about her "perfect season" and her "dominating wins," ignoring the fact that she hadn't played a single match this year against a high-quality opponent who was playing on form, and that most of her matches were played against second-rate saps who played badly. Any excuse to slap Sharapova's cute little ass up on the screen to sell a little newsprint, and the facts be damned.

In the semi-finals at the Tier I event in Indian Wells, California last week, Sharapova finally got such a match from "countrywoman" Svetlana Kuznetsova, and meekly surrendered the third set (winning only two games) after being crushed in the first and struggling to take the second.

No sooner had she lost than, in classic Shamapova fashion, the lame excuses started flying. "I'm playing a lot of tennis, been flying a lot," she whined. "It's pretty much been non-stop with all the tournaments I've been playing, and Fed Cup as well," she whimpered. "It takes a toll on your body and your mind as well," she pouted. The next thing you knew, she was once again claiming "injury" and pulling out of her next tournament (the Sony in Miami). Boo-freakin'-hoo.

Maria, honey, maybe you haven't noticed, but you're supposed to be a professional athlete. You lost your nineteenth match of the 2008 season last week against the paunchy Kuznetsova in California, in your country and state of residence, which means you've averaged less than two three-set matches per week so far this year, and you're not even 25 years old. For you to say that exhausted you is an indignity to the sport of tennis and all those who play the game. You claim equal right to compensation with the men, but at this year's Australian Open the men played five-set matches, and we didn't hear you complaining that you were discriminated against by being allowed to spend much less time on the court. Maybe we missed something.

The net result (excuse the pun) was that we saw a Russian (Kuznetsova) access the finals of a major tournament the easy way, by beating another Russian. We previously reported on the pathetic display by Russians at this year's Australian, and the ridiculously easy path offered to Sharapova as she "won" that title. Were women's tennis to consider along that path, it would soon find itself without a fan base. The reaction of most knowledgeable fans to the news that they'd be seeing Kuznetsova in the finals (instead of, say, Justine Henin or Venus or Serena Williams) could only be a giant yawn.

Here's a little trivia question for you: When was the last time a Russian who calls Russia home beat a top-ten non-Russian to reach the finals of a Tier I or Grand Slam tournament and then beat a second top-ten non-Russian to take the title? Pretty hard to think of such an occasion, isn't it? In fact, one might even be tempted to think it's never happened in all of tennis history. For instance, the last time a Russian woman who calls Russia home won a Tier I event not only did she beat a Russian in the semi-finals but the tournament itself was played in Russia. The time before that the same player, Elena Dementieva ("the serveless wonder") prevailed in Tokyo, again beating a Russian to reach the finals.

Going into the finals at Indian Wells Kuznetsova, supposedly the world's #2 player and its top-ranked Russian, hadn't won a singles title since August of 2007, when she took the lowly Tier II event in New Haven, needing to play only four matches and facing an unseeded qualifier in the finals after beating a Russian, the pathetic Dementieva, in the semis (again following the Russian pattern). In her last outing, in Dubai, Kuznetsova lost in the finals to Dementieva, going down meekly in the third set winning only two games, the same way Shamapova just lost to her.

Naturally, when Russia's "best player" reached the finals, Kuznetsova was easily brushed aside in a humiliating drubbing, able to win only one point in the final game as her serve was effortlessly broken by Ana Ivanovic. Dominance? The only place Russian "dominance" is ever in evidence is when they play each other.

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