Friday, October 22, 2010

Defending Sharapova (for real)

File photos of Los Angeles Lakers Sasha Vujacic in San Antonio dated May 27, 2008 and Maria Sharapova during the U.S Open tennis tournament in New York dated August 31, 2010. Vujacic is engaged to marry Sharapova after the Slovenian told reporters before an exhibition game on October 21 that the Russian former tennis world number one had accepted his proposal. REUTERS/Jessica Rinaldi/Shannon Stapleton/Files (UNITED STATES - Tags: SPORT TENNIS BASKETBALL SOCIETY)

Tennis Ace’s criticism of my last article was very fair. She pointed out that in my bid to make a case for the potentially negative effect of imminent marriage on Sharapova’s motivation to keep playing tennis, I completely missed the fact that Sharapova may already no longer be invested in tennis. In order to lose focus and interest, you have to have them in the first place. And Tennis Ace believes that Sharapova lost interest in tennis a long time ago – at least, ever since Yuri stopped being a presence in her box.

It’s a very fair point. In fact, re-reading my article in the light of these comments, I realized that I offered better clarity on how Caroline Wozniacki became tennis’ top player. I may not have been as clear on what I think may be going on with Sharapova. Let me try to clarify my thinking.

The main point of yesterday’s entry was on how some of us (including myself) sometimes come to benefit from the lack of focus of those better than us. This is the story of Caroline Wozniacki and Serena Williams. It is not the story of Maria Sharapova. Serena’s apparent loss of interest in tennis has clearly benefitted Wozniacki. Which is not to say that Caroline isn’t hard-working and intrinsically motivated. On the contrary, girlfriend worked her butt off to get to # 1. But Serena’s apparent lack of focus also helped open the door. That really was my main point – using the analogy of Linda the love-struck.

And I agree that none of this explains what is currently going on for Sharapova. I don’t however agree that Sharapova has stopped investing in tennis. I don’t know what is in her heart, but Sharapova signed a contract with Nike that she has no choice but to honor. So even if in her heart she could give a crap about tennis right now, none of this can be evident once she hits the court. In fact, it has been cute to see her playing tennis with her sweetie. She actually seems to be enjoying herself. And in her matches, she is still playing her aggressive game. She is still screaming like a banshee. She is still using her tactic of pull-her-wide-and-the-point-is-over. She seems to be making her best effort to always to win.

While it is true that some lesser players may have benefitted by Sharapova’s 2007-2008 disappearance from tennis due to injury, at this time her presence or absence from a tournament is no longer an outcome changer. Returning from injury and rehab, she lost in the first round of the 2010 Australian Open to Maria Kirilenko and in the first round of the Madrid Open to Lucie Safarova. She won on clay in Luxembourg and made it to the finals of the Aegon grass tournament. But her performance during the summer remained uneven. And no one will be surprised if she fails to defend in Tokyo.

But the fact that Sharapova has become beatable, that her game is predictable, that her opponents know exactly what she is going to do, and that she is not the tennis threat that she used to be – while all of these statements are true, none of this is the same as saying that she has lost motivation or that she is no longer invested. I think that many of the folks currently deriding Sharapova are conflating the issue of motivation with the issue of threat. They are not the same.

I think too that Sharapova’s critics are making the mistake of assuming that motivation must always be internal and intrinsic, flowing from a personal passion and a genuine heartfelt interest. I disagree. Sometimes motivation is purely external. Some people show up to work and do a great job not because they love their jobs but because they are professionals who are motivated to get a paycheck. I agree that intrinsic motivation is probably always more satisfying. It certainly is for me. But that does not mean that there aren’t people who work just as hard, even harder, for the sole motive of external gain.

I think therefore that it is unfair to say that Sharapova has stopped making an effort to win at tennis. Outcome and effort are not the same issues. I played my heart out in a mixed-doubles match last night, but my partner and I lost 2-6 3-6. Our efforts to win cannot be determined by the score line. So too Sharapova’s string of relative failures do not mean that she simply goes out there and tanks.

But I do think that it is fair to say that Sharapova’s best tennis is in the past. I believe that the Sharapova era of tennis is over. I don’t think she will ever dominate again. I don’t think she will any more Slams. But that is not the same as saying that she has lost motivation. That Nike made a misguided investment that Sharapova will have to honor seems crystal clear to me. My criticism of that deal has always focused on the idiocy of Nike and the lack of deserving of Sharapova.

Do I think that Sharapova is professional enough to honor her agreement? Yes I do. Obviously, so does Nike, or they would have made the deal in the first place. Yet I do wonder whether marriage and possibly babies may kill of whatever little intrinsic motivation she still has. I do wonder if she might find it increasingly difficult to keep honoring the terms and conditions of a multi-million dollar deal that requires her to be out there on the tennis court when she’d rather be at home making love to her sweetheart and changing poopy diapers. That too was part of the point of my article yesterday.

1 comment:

TennisAce said...

Actually TC, I was kidding when I made my first remark in your last post. On this one however, I have to give a more considered viewpoint. This year I worked from home from last October to now. During this time I have watched a lot of tennis. Maybe too much and mostly women's tennis.

The Sharapova that I have seen during the clay, grass and hard court series is certainly not the player that I used to enjoy watching (love her game as I love power tennis). There were 2 matches this year that we saw the old Sharapova, the FO against Justine and Wimbledon against Serena. Every other match, she was just there.

For the first time I listened to the on court coaching from Michael Joyce and let me tell you, Sharapova is one whiny young miss. My shoulder hurts, the balls are coming fast, the court is slow. When you are a player who was anointed the next big thing and you sit there by the side of the court and whine to your coach most of the time and basically stop trying mid match, then I say that you are not as invested in tennis as you used to be.

One of the things that separated Sharapova from the rest of the screaming banshees was her ability to stay in the point, no matter what. She gave 110% on every single point. During the times that I have seen her play this year, she seemed out of it. In addition she is not fit. Run her around for 5-6 strokes and she is done. Clijsters did it to her at Cincy and Dementieva if she had a serve and nerves worth speaking about could have taken her out in Stanford. As it was Azarenka schooled her.

When commentators start making up excuses for why you are looking as if you do not wish to be out there, then I say, you are no longer invested in tennis.

No matter how little Serena plays, when she comes to play, you see that determination in her face, in her strokes, in her body language. She is there to play and to win and even when she is going down she is going down swinging. Right now I am not seeing that from Sharapova.