Stunning looks, winning tennis

The evolution of Maria Sharapova offers the most compelling evidence yet that the direction which the game has taken, particularly since the power chord-strumming Williams sisters arrived in the late 1990s, cannot be altered, writes VIJAY PARTHASARATHY.

PRECISELY how much has Maria Sharapova grown in stature since her breakthrough performance at Wimbledon last summer? One inch, if one seeks factual information; but to view it in such terms is of course a little uncharitable and altogether banal, for the 18-year-old Sharapova has since emerged as the sport's unique selling point, its most attractive poster-girl, the face that launches a dozen perfumes and all that, but also — more significantly — as a player who can perform consistently and measure up to reasonable expectations, even if she hasn't followed up in the interim with another major.

Last year, it was remarkable to watch the lanky, six-foot tall teenager — then ranked outside the top 10 — almost hustle the more muscular Serena off Centre Court with a combination of impeccably deep forehands and screaming backhand passes, her apparent gawkiness effectively disguising the potential for raw power in her ground strokes. Sharapova went on to win the WTA championship towards the end of 2004, a season that was washed in an unexpected wave of Russian girls, three of whom won consecutive Grand Slams, and a fourth, who made two of those finals.

It would have been more fitting had Sharapova, with two important titles tucked away, taken the top ranking then; as it happens she lost to Serena in a see-saw Australian Open semifinal in January, then to Justine Henin-Hardenne in the quarters at the French and finally to Venus Williams in a tame semifinal at Wimbledon. Her losses, as is immediately evident, came to the eventual champion at those tournaments, a fact that robs Sharapova's brief reign of some of its credibility, just as the extended barren patch in Slams did the same to Lindsay Davenport. Which goes to show that the rankings system somewhat conservatively — and it must be added under the circumstances, justifiably, if boringly — rates consistency higher than Slam wins.

Still, the evolution of Maria Sharapova offers the most compelling evidence yet that the direction which the game has taken, particularly since the power chord-strumming Williams sisters arrived in the late 1990s, cannot be altered, and was perhaps, in hindsight, inevitable from the first. With every passing generation women's tennis (like the men's game) has reinvented itself so completely that the old norms when applied to new situations appear almost na�ve — indeed, it is hard to suppress a smile while watching, say, Evonne Goolagong's evidently serious, quasi-ballet performances in grainy Wimbledon films from the mid-1970s. Steffi Graf's much maligned (yet undeniably effective) deep slice has accordingly made way for Justine Henin-Hardenne's gorgeous single-handed backhand that could drill holes in oil-rigs; Elena Dementieva's faulty serve and the parabolic toss wouldn't have been regarded as such a weakness in another era — certainly she wouldn't have felt the urgent need to modify her action.

Power had already strangled skill in men's tennis by the time Pete Sampras established himself; Jim Courier's four Grand Slams were seemingly won in street-brawls. Yet, as soon as Sampras began to assert himself, Courier's game slowly began to disintegrate — his power was neutralised and rendered irrelevant for the most part in the manner that electricity has rendered the candle obsolete. Sampras's subsequent dominance on grass and hard courts, exerted in equal parts through his unique blend of velvety deftness and grungy power, meant that for a decade, clay was the last bastion for the grinders and retrievers, and this in turn led to a glut of surface specialists.

Side by side, women players in the professional era have focused on building strength, their stamina has increased; and with that, their ground strokes have flattened out, female players are winning more points on serve than ever before. Mercifully, improvements in racquet technology haven't yet wiped out proficiency in the women's game, which is partly why female players have traditionally adapted better to different surfaces. Borg was the last male champion to hold the Wimbledon and French titles in the late 70s; but as late as 2002, Serena Williams won both (after Steffi Graf had done the same in 1996), and in fact went on to win the US and Australian Open titles to hold all majors simultaneously, a feat last, and more memorably, completed in a calendar year by Graf in 1988. And while someone like three-time French Open champion Arantxa Sanchez was undeniably more comfortable on clay, which suited her dogged style perfectly — she was perhaps the first woman clay specialist — her record at the other Slams is impressive and includes a U.S. Open title and two final appearances at the Australian Open.

It can be argued with some conviction that players like Sanchez thrived even on surfaces they weren't entirely comfortable on because of the perceived lack of depth in women's tennis in the late 80s and 90s; that their early-round opponents often weren't up to the challenge, and allowed them to build momentum and gain in confidence. But the times have changed; now the women's Tour has its dangerous floaters, and if players like Kim Clijsters are perfectly capable of winning on both clay and harder surfaces, it is purely on account of their possessing the requisite skill — although with their Slam record, questions regarding the mental fortitude of Clijsters and the gifted Amelie Mauresmo have inescapably been posed.

Sharapova herself has proved vulnerable on clay; certainly she is no match for the superior Henin-Hardenne. Her main weapons, the booming serve and heavy artillery ground strokes, are naturally best-suited to grass, and Wimbledon is where she is most likely to find further success in coming years. She is incidentally the fifth youngest-ever world number one among women, but already the achievement has received a silent burial in the press; for since the time of Tracy Austin, young has always been supplanted by younger. At any rate, Sharapova's ascension to the top spot for a week at 18 had better not be her greatest achievement.

Sharapova, the first Russian woman to be world number one, and who will almost certainly regain that position sometime in the near future, has for a while been the face of women's tennis itself in a way that not even Roger Federer's genius could represent the men: as Andy Roddick commented recently, the absence of a fan-base for Federer particularly in the United States is mystifying. Thus she is today arguably the best recognised tennis player on earth — way more glamorous than Chris Evert in her time — and a far more responsible one than her immediate predecessor, Anna Kournikova; and, as has been documented ad nauseum, that is some progression for a giggly school-girl who was transplanted not a decade-and-a-half ago from remote Siberia to Nick Bollettieri's academy in sunny Florida, on Martina Navratilova's now famous recommendation after she had watched the then six-year old during a tennis clinic.

However, Sharapova's greatest impact on the sport could well manifest half-a-decade from now, for better or worse, in the distinct possibility that future power-crunchers could mutate into a new super-generation of surface specialists, each concentrating on her fragmented space. Sharapova came with a certain attitude and a certain amount of baggage; exactly what she leaves behind for others to pick up will eventually determine her status and legacy.