30th August 2007
.he has employed Roberto Forzoni, a sports psychologist, to ease the passage. It seemed to have worked a treat judging by his performance in the opening round when he defeated Pablo Cuevas of Uruguay, a qualifier, in straight sets, thoroughly enjoying himself in the process.
The high-heel sneakers and the wig down on her head were missing, but no red dress had been anticipated with quite such relish since Jerry Lee Lewis let rip. And so it was that Maria Sharapova strode on to the Arthur Ashe court to open her defence of the US Open fashion stakes – sorry, make that the US Open women’s title: “Put on a nice outfit and some make-up and you’re the bomb,” she says. “I’ve never worn red before, and there’s no better place to do it than a night match in New York.”
Last year it was the Audrey Hepburn Breakfast at Tiffany’s little black number. This year the black is confined to an Italian couture pre-match jacket – “I only have two because they didn’t have enough material” – and a handbag. The rest is spingly, spangly red. Pity her poor opponent, Roberta Vinci of Italy, who not only was made to feel like Cinderella before the ball, but had also missed three days’ practice because of toothache. Small wonder she was thrashed 6-0, 6-1.
Sharapova and the Williams sisters have lifted women’s game to new heights of zing and bling, even if there is a deep suspicion that the high fashion is no more than a cover-up for a style of play that eschews variety and guile. Never mind the quality, look at the dress. Sooner or later, and sooner it is to be fervently hoped, a new generation of women will emerge who can hit the ball hard but use such weapons sparingly in favour of greater finesse – a female Roger Federer, or a souped-up Martina Hingis. So much women’s play these days is stultifyingly tedious, not that the men are immune.
Sharapova has shoulders like a prop forward, and as a student of the Nick Bollettieri Academy was schooled in heavy hitting. When she won the Wimbledon title as a 17-year-old in 2004 it was generally supposed that everything would fall at her feet. In terms of endorsements and sundry million-dollar deals it has, but not the major titles, at least not in the quantity that had initially appeared likely. Indeed, before victory here last year her champion’s credentials were being severely questioned.
A year later the doubts about her ever becoming a multi-slam champion have surfaced again, principally because her body has begun to rebel against the pounding it has been taking, notably her right shoulder. It is an endemic problem in the women’s game, and no amount of shuffling with the calendar appears to be having any marked effect. Sharapova was heavily beaten by Serena Williams in the final of the Australian Open, and then lost similarly in earlier stages of the French Open and Wimbledon against Serbia’s Ana Ivanovic and Venus Williams respectively. Now she believes she is over the worst.
“I’ve been struggling with my shoulder for quite a while, and after Wimbledon my team thought of things that could help, not just for here but for my future. So I’ve changed my serve, shortening the swing. I’m pretty stubborn and like to keep things the same, but once you are injured such changes become necessary,” Sharapova explained. Only time will tell whether this move to help protect her shoulder will prolong her career, although her former mentor Bollettieri has already expressed his doubts. Ivanovic gave a small skip of delight when she became the first woman to reach the last 32 with a 6-3, 6-1 victory over Aravane Rezai of France. The teenager reached this year’s French Open final and, after a difficult Wimbledon, when she was mentally jaded, she has emerged refreshed here, although finds herself in the more difficult half of the draw.
Andy Murray plays his second round match against the Swedish veteran Jonas Bjorkman today feeling altogether more happy with life than he did just a few weeks ago when his comeback from his right wrist injury was clearly premature. Murray needed to trust his wrist, a considerable mental barrier, and to that end he has employed Roberto Forzoni, a sports psychologist, to ease the passage. It seemed to have worked a treat judging by his performance in the opening round when he defeated Pablo Cuevas of Uruguay, a qualifier, in straight sets, thoroughly enjoying himself in the process.
Bjorkman ought to be a more taxing test, and Murray is patently short of match play. Yet the signs against Cuevas were universally positive, as was his post-match demeanour. This has been a difficult year for Murray. But the expectations remain, voiced by most senior players – including Bjorkman – that he will soon join Serbia’s Novak Djokovic as a serious rival to the Federer-Rafael Nadal duopoly. Murray has the game, now he needs the luck.