Thursday, December 21, 2006

Confessions of a Teenage Drama (and Tennis) Queen

I was watching an old episode of Around the Horn (terrible show on ESPN...but it's Christmas Break, what can I say?) and a 2004 edition of the show had the Jennifer Capriati French Open semifinal meltdown (she lost two and two to Myskina) as one of the points of discussion.

The various guests on the show (all writers for distinguished American newspapers) talked about the bombing of Capriati and how the French Open field had been depleted to a barrage of unknowns. One of the players that was mentioned was none other than Maria Sharapova, the now Teenage Drama Queen of the Tennis Court.

It was amusing to watch these professional sports journalists stumble over Sharapova's name, and when one of them said that she was the up-and-comer of the tour, the others scoffed at their colleague and it was on to talk of Tiger's slump and NASCAR catastrophes.

Two weeks later, however, Maria would belt her way through the Wimbledon field in order to capture her maiden slam title. After squeaking out a quarterfinal win over Ai Sugiyama (7-5 in the third) and being saved by the rains of London and a moody Lindsay Davenport, Sharapova took Serena Williams (and the rest of the tennis world) by surprise with her 6-1, 6-4 drubbing of the younger Williams. Tennis had found its new Queen: 17 and cell-phone savvy; she could giggle almost as good as she could grunt.

In the past two years, Sharapova has matched (if not surpassed) Serena Williams in the tennis diva slash celebrity category by becoming an internationally-known model/spokeswoman/athlete/sex symbol/millionaire. The difference, however, was that Sharapova was able to maintain her high level of play, advancing to five slam semifinals following her Wimbledon 04 title and finally landing a sophomore slam at the US Open this past fall.

Even with all this on-court and off-court success, the lords of the 21st century demanded more of the Russian-born Sharapova. It wasn't enough that she had won multiple slams, signed the biggest endorsement in women's sports history or been named one of the 100 most beautiful people in the world, Sharapova didn't have a (gasp!) website. Like any star (athlete or actress), Sharapova answered with swift action, launching, her website in late September following her US Open victory. What is surprising about this website isn't that it gives fans useless links and out-of-date information, but rather the Sharapova-ness that is distinguishably oozes.

Maria blogs at least once a week, talking about her personal life and the adventures of a young star. This - as far as my research shows - is the best women's pro tennis player web page on the internet. The photos, the blogs, the news updates and the player information (stats, etc.) are all there for both the common fan and the Maria maniacs alike. I particularly enjoy Sharapova's latest installment: The Top 10 Lists.

And until Venus, Serena, Justine or Amelie is able to name their top ten "Things They Hate" or "Sweets They Love" while training during the off-season for the most grueling grand slam of the year, I must crown Miss Sharapova as the Teenage Drama (and Tennis) Queen for the new year. It's not just her on-court performances that are grabbing our attention now; but the quick-witted and light-hearted confessions of a champion that keep us coming back.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

From Lindsay, With Love

Last year at this time, Martina Hingis set the sports media world abuzz with the announcement that she would return to the WTA Tour after a three-year layoff. This year, Lindsay Davenport sent in her RSVP for the 2007 season with regards, citing pregnancy - not retirement - as the reason she may be done with the sport altogether.

Though Davenport, who's slumped shoulders on court always meant a sure-fire loss and off court meant a short press conference, may not be making a clear-cut statement to as what she really is doing, she's due in mid-07 and is more likely to be grunting in a Southern California delivery room instead of an obscure European tennis court.

Yet in Davenport's Wednesday announcement, she said she had "no plans to return" and felt that she was beginning a new chapter in her life. Her Christmas gift to Larry Scott, WTA Tour CEO? A little package postmarked not from the North Pole, but from Mr. Stork himself.

And while Lindsay ended the year as the number one ranked player in the world four times during her career, she never quite reached the potential she was destined to reach. She found her stride in the late 90s, kicking aside Hingis in the '98 US Open final before winning Wimbledon in '99 and the Aussie in 2000. Later that year however, Davenport would fall to Venus in the All England Club final and hit a dry patch in '01 and '02 as Capriati resurged and the Williamses began to dominate.

And it was in the 2005 Wimbledon final when the American girl next door matched Venus stroke-for-stroke and grunt-for-grunt that really marked the end for Lindsay. She held a match point late in that epic thrid set, but wasn't able to convert, which left her sitting on her backside wondering not about her next groundstroke but instead about which decorative window blinds would go best with the crib she longed for from Babies"R"Us.

Though Davenport did her best to make the most of her last 18 months on tour, she was an injury festival week in and week out. Her intermittent play meant more time with husband Rick and mother Ann to talk about family and future instead of forehands and footwork.

As the darling of American women's tennis makes her exit, the women's game may take on the same identity crisis that the US men have suffered for several years now. The Capriati-less, Seles-less, (almost) Williams-less Americans now must turn to a barrage of up-and-comers to carry the US flag. And while no American is ranked inside the top 30, there's no Andy Roddick, James Blake or Robby Ginepri to save the day.

But for Davenport, it's the right time not only for her family, but for herself. As a young teen who was often times criticized for her weight in the early 90s before taking the '96 Atlanta Games and Flushing Meadows in '98, Davenport now can step away from the spotlight and into the baby room's nightlight, a place she's longed to be since marrying Leach in 2003.

Now as an expecting mother, Davenport's "woman's touch" will be used for things other than volleys and drop shots. Even though we'd all like it to be a cake-and-candle departure for the three-time slam winner, there is still much to be wondered for the Girl Next Door. Was she too hard on herself? Was she not hard enough? (See 2005 Aussie final third set.) Was she gifted with game and not guile? Lindsay Davenport sends her wishes from her couch in California, with love and laughter. Good bye, Lindsay. We'll miss you too.