Monday, June 6, 2011

When inflexibility borders on stupidity

I make no bones about the fact that I wanted Na Li to win Roland Garros. Indeed, I predicted that she would. To me everything started lining up in her favor the minute I saw her performance in the match against Sharapova. It wasn’t just that she beat Maria. It was that she beat her in straights despite not playing her best tennis. Li did so by adapting her game to her opponent as well as to the conditions on Court Chartrier.

Sharapova on the other hand, played the same way she always plays, whether she’s in Dubai, Flushing Meadows, Australia, London, or Rome. Sharapova has a singular style of playing tennis that she deploys regardless of opponent, surface, or circumstances – she plays in a manner that can only be characterized as fearless, gutsy, and loud.

This style of playing worked in her favor in Rome, allowing her to hoist the winner’s trophy. But Rome and Roland Garros are not identical. The surfaces may both be clay but they play very differently. In addition, the weather was different in both cities. In Rome, Sharapova did not have to contend with winds gusting at 20 mph. Nor did she have to play with lighter balls. You’d think she would then have made adjustments to the changed conditions in Paris. But she didn’t, and she lost.

A reader recently challenged me to defend my opinion that Maria Sharapova is a mentally strong player. How could Sharapova possibly be mentally strong when she needs a tennis-whisperer to tell her what to do? And it is indeed possible that if her new coach had been able to approach courtside and tell her what adjustments to make, she may have beaten Na Li. But he couldn’t, and she lost.

But this loss had nothing to do with a lack of mental strength IMO. On the contrary, Maria’s problem may be that she takes mental strength to a level that becomes a liability. She is strong to the point of being obtuse, inflexible, mindless. She is mentally determined to the point of stubbornness. She will do things in her own way, in her own style, using her own approach, regardless. She seems to be rigid to a level that is scary. (I suspect that this may be true for other aspects of her life as well, but that is Sasha’s problem – after all, he plans to spend his life with her).

In the match against Na Li, it quickly became clear that everything that is right about Sharapova’s game is also everything that is wrong with it. She is determined and fearless, yes. She goes for big power shots, yes. She plays Big Babe tennis, yes. But in France, against Na Li, none of these were going to help her win the match. And at no point did Sharapova make any adjustments or concessions to the prevailing conditions.

A simple example: Maria tends to toss the ball extremely high on her serves, and makes contact with it as it starts coming back down. Under dry windless conditions, that would be fine and would not be costly. But with winds swirling at 20 mph, a high toss was just not the smart option. You’d think it would once occur to Sharapova to make the adjustment. It never did. Instead she went for more and more screaming power. Na Li patiently allowed her self-implode.

I was amused by the politically correct commentary offered by ESPN’s Cliffy and Mary Jo as they watched this match. Mary Carillo would have called it like it was, which is the reason I adore her. But Cliffy and Mary Jo remained circumspect in their comments about Sharapova’s performance. Mary Jo commented on Maria’s determination to play her own game, but never once noted that this could also be a liability.

As with the commentary in the match against Petkovic, you’d swear that Maria was the only person on the court. The powers that be were clearly invested in Sharapova completing a Grand Slam. Alas, it was not to be, despite the advantage of currently being coached by Na Li’s former coach who seemed to have clearly advised her to pick on the Na Li relatively weaker forehand.

Na Li, on the other hand, is an intelligent and adaptable player. That she was able to get past Kvitova, Azarenka, and Sharapova was nothing short of mind-boggling. But her adjustments to Schiavone’s game in the finals were simply brilliant. Her 7-0 win in the second set tiebreaker was gutsy. Congrats Na Li. Well done!


Kim at TennisFixation said...

Great post as usual. Your analysis of Sharapova's playing style makes it seem very obvious why she hasn't been able to consistently and forcefully remain at the top most levels of tennis. And, yeah, with this attitude on court, I wonder what she's like off the court.

Erik G. said...

Great post. Maria is a fighter for sure but she does not have a plan "B" or "C". Sure she might try and "serve and volley", if you want to call it that,but mixing up her game is not her forte. The tennis media definitely "root" for her to win, but as she's the biggest mainstream star the sport has ever produced, they almost have to to keep their jobs.

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