Five thoughts as Maria Sharapova prepares for a possible career grand slam.
Put your fingers in your ears and you can still hear them talking about Sharapova’s grunting. There’s a big, screaming myth about Maria Deci-Belle. You will often be told that Sharapova doesn’t wail on the practice court, that she puts herself on mute during training. Then you will hear, ‘if she doesn’t do it in practice, why the need for all the grunting when she’s playing a match?’ The 200-odd spectators who wandered into Court Six on a Friday lunchtime – perhaps attracted by the noise? – heard for themselves that the new world number one also grunts in practice.
And since a good half of those fans were filming her with their cameras, there is plenty of video evidence; word should get around. The Parisians will undoubtedly boo Sharapova if they feel as though she is getting too loud in Saturday’s final with Sara Errani, but they should not imagine that the Siberian finds it easy to turn her grunting on and off, and they should certainly not believe that she is trying to unsettle her opponent. Grunting is just one of those things that Sharapova does, like staring at the backdrop between points. She’s not a doll with an on-off switch, to be seen and not heard.
The Parisians should save any anti-American feeling for the battles that really matter – like Big Macs at the Louvre. How will Paris greet a career slam for the US-based Sharapova? The Americanisation of European culture tends to upset a lot of people in Paris. Sharapova is a citizen of the world – Siberia, Florida, California, wherever – who speaks English in an MTV accent. Some at Roland Garros consider Sharapova to be too Americanised for their tastes (she once became so fed up with the booing here that she was picked up saying, “Allez up your f—— ass”). The reality is that Sharapova’s transatlantic background, and therefore transatlantic appeal, are good for the sport.
A victory for Errani would be the romantic ending to this women’s tournament. A victory for Sharapova would be the best thing that could happen to the women’s game as the tour looks for new sponsors. Errani could cost the tour millions of dollars.
Maria is the Stakhavonite of the women’s tour – no one has a stronger work ethic. Players prepare in different ways. Sharapova trains with her gameface on (just like she trains with her game-vocals). There was no snorting with laughter or looning around on Court Six. Sharapova has said herself that she has made enough money to feed her great-grandchildren. If Maria was plain, she would not be so wealthy, but there would be a much greater and wider appreciation for how much she has put into her tennis career. She has always been more of a striver than a diva; there is no sense of entitlement. There was a time when it looked as though her shoulder problems – which required fixing with a surgeon’s blade – could end her tennis life.
At that point, many other players would have been satisfied with their lot, with having won Wimbledon at 17, then then the US Open two years later, and after another two-year gap, the Australian Open. But Sharapova, 25, felt as though there was much more she could achieve with a tennis racket. By reaching a first French Open final, Sharapova will become the world No 1 again on Monday. For the first time in four years, the computer will recognise her as the alpha female. If she wins La Coupe Suzanne Lenglen, it would bring her a first grand slam title since the 2008 Australian Open. It would also signify that the comeback was complete.
If Court Philippe Chatrier is not full when the final starts, don’t think that Paris has forgotten about the women. There were also huge areas of empty green seats when Rafael Nadal’s semi-final against David Ferrer started on Friday. Lunch always trumps tennis at Roland Garros. You clear your plate first and then you fill the stadium.