This match caught my attention a few weeks ago and I tried to capture why in the ensuing blog but don't think I succeeded. Maybe my interest was piqued by the contrast between Sharapova's demeanour before the match and her actual performance.
Maria Sharapova is no Kournokova. Despite being one of the tastiest dishes on the women’s tennis circuit, she has won two Grand Slam titles and is a steely competitor. A lot of Eastern Bloc players lose their hunger when the dollars start rolling in but this has not happened to Sharapova. Her modest origins and her early struggles in the US have stiffened her resolve. Of late however the little sweetie has been out of sorts with a shoulder injury and hasn’t been playing much. Her last competitive match was in the US Open where she departed early to a nonentity.
So her end-of-season appearance at the WTA Masters in Madrid against the bang in-form Daniela Hantuchova seemed to be merely perfunctory. Fulfilling a contractual obligation. Prior to the match that amiable old broiler Pam Shriver interviewed both players before they went on court. Hantuchova exuded confidence – after the interview she bounced off eager to get going. Conversely Sharapova was nervous and unusually surly - her greasy hair and rash of pimples contributed to a sense that tonight was not going to be her night. She walked onto the court as one who was walking to her execution.
Aside from her injury and her lack of match practice, the one big flaw in Sharapova’s game has been her brittle serve – frequently breaking down under pressure. Her recent shoulder injury suggested that she would have trouble again in this area. A betting man would have loaded on Hantuchova.
But out of nowhere, after a tentative start (losing her first service game) Sharapova overcame her rustiness and began to dominate like the true champion she is. You could see her blossom as the serve started to work - helped perhaps by a modified action. Hantuchova’s perkiness began to wane and her lighter ground strokes were exposed as Sharapova hammered winners from all angles. The transformation was total.