How Do You Solve a (Grass Court) Problem Like Maria? 2005 Wimbledon Preview

Special to the Minneapolis
Star Tribune, Sunday, June 19, 2005


Do You Solve a (Grass Court) Problem Like Maria? 
2005 Wimbledon Preview

Contemplating the life and times of defending Wimbledon Ladies Champion, Maria
Sharapova, would surely compel any sociologist to ask: 
Is it nature or is it nurture? 

Consider how…

  • An
    only child of a poverty stricken Siberian couple goes from dodging
    Chernobyl's nuclear fallout to donning the Wimbledon trophy at seventeen. 
    (That's called a "good career move.") 
  • A
    father with $700 to his name, leaves his wife behind in Russia to bring his
    seven-year-old to a tennis academy in Florida, works golf course maintenance
    to pay for it, and now that same daughter makes $25 million a year in
    endorsements.  (Parents, don't
    try this at home.) 
  • An
    18-year-old girl who has gone from pauper to princess adroitly juggles the
    potential distraction of killer looks
    while maintaining her killer instinct.  (Internet poll:  "Who's
    hotter:  Anna Kournikova or
    Maria Sharapova?"  Answer: 
    Maria doesn't care-she's too busy pursuing her potential.) 

So, is it nature or is it
nurture?  Try plenty of both. 

World number two, Maria
Sharapova, is six feet tall (nature), slugs thunderous drives from the baseline
(nurture), draws looks as long as her blond hair (nature), competes with
eye-of-the-tiger intensity (nurture), and possesses a winning blend of Russian
stoicism and American opportunism (nature/nurture). 

She also grunts like a stuck
pig, but I won't go there.

She truly is the anti-Kournikova. 
Whereas one always felt Anna was playing for the off-court benefits (fame
and fortune), one senses that Maria is playing for on-court substance knowing
the off-court style will follow (and boy, has it ever!). 

This year she enters Wimbledon
with a 36-6 match record, three titles (including Birmingham on grass last
week), and a 17-match win steak on grass.  Whereas
her flat strokes and rangy movement (long legs have their drawbacks, you know)
prove less troublesome to her opponents in Paris, cross the English Channel and
her peers are instantly quoting Austrian nuns: 
"How do you solve a problem like

Yes, Maria poses a big
problem on the low-bouncing, ball-skidding lawns of the game's greatest stage
with her first-strike philosophy, big-point boldness, and nerve-free
net-rushing.  Make no mistake: last
year's title was not a fluke as her results and ranking have continued to

So who can silence the
Russo-American siren?  Number one
ranked Lindsay Davenport?  Perhaps
on a good day, but her late-round Grand Slam performances of late have been underwhelming.  One of the seven
other seeded Russian women?  Not
unless a patriotic mental block occludes Maria's frontal lobe.  Former number one, two-time champ, but now number 14 seed,
Venus Williams?  Uh, no-the stars,
er, planets haven't been aligning
for the older sister the last couple years. 
Her sister, number four seed, Serena? 
You're getting warmer-depends if she's healthy…and hungry. 

Resorting again to the French
derivative theme, the versatile
Belgian, Justine Henin-Hardenne, stands alone as Maria's main challenger to
her Wimbledon throne.  Coming off a
victory at Roland Garros, seventh seeded Henin-Hardenne has the type of game
that can give Maria fits-change of pace, good defense, slice backhand, cagey
play, and steely resolve.  Plus,
Justine has some extra motivation with the Rosewater Dish being the only major
trophy she hasn't raised.  I'll
pick her to complete a career Grand Slam. 

In the men's draw, excuse me,
the Gentlemen's Championship, tipping
Roger Federer to three-peat would be like saying "I'd like some cream with
those strawberries."  Well, duh. 
I'll forego most of his eye-popping statistics and leave you with one: 
Roger hasn't lost a grass court match since the year 2002. 
That's five titles and 29 straight matches in case you're counting. 

The only way Roger loses is,
first, he's having an off day, and second, either Marat Safin (Halle finalist
last week), Andy Roddick (Queen's three-peat last week), or some other big
server is playing outside his planetary revolution such as 2004 semi-finalist,
Croatian Mario Ancic (who is the last person to beat Federer on grass). 

Making matters worse, Roger's
challengers don't even know what kind of game they'll be facing: 
he won serve/volleying in 2003 and staying back in 2004. 
With his grass court ability, standing
on his head might be the plan for 2005. 

But as everyone knows, even the
biggest buck sometimes doesn't make it through a Minnesota November with his
antlers.  As dominant as Federer has
been the last year (91-5 match record with 14 tournament wins), he's been
bagged and tagged in the semi-finals of both the Australian and French Opens
this year. 

Don't let your mind wander
too far though-if you think newly minted Roland Garros champ, fourth seeded
Rafael Nadal might make it two wins in two Slams over Roger at Wimbledon, I'd
suggest adding a little more water to that Kool-Aid.  I'll be surprised if El Nino sniffs the second week. 

As for American intervention
abroad, don't expect a Yank-other than 2004 finalist Roddick-to pull the
trigger on Roger.  With past-champ
Andre Agassi and slumping Mardy Fish both out with injuries, that leaves big
serve and volleying Taylor Dent to pull off an upset or two.  I wouldn't alter your plans-he could just as easily go
out in the first round.  And what
about nearest of kin, past champ, Aussie Lleyton Hewitt, or perennial English
heart-breaker, Tim Henman?  Fogettaboutit-Federer's
still my fave. 

In a couple days, I'll be
arriving in that little village just southwest of London called Wimbledon. 
I'm looking forward to settling into our flat, walking the grounds of
the All England Club, catching up with old friends, having a scone with a cup of
tea, feeling the grass under my feet, and of course, trying to defend the Over
35 Doubles Championship with my partner, T.J. Middleton. 

But even more than enjoying the
land and its lore, I'm looking forward to reliving a dream…a dream that
began as a boy, was fueled as a teen, played out as a pro, and is now treasured
as a man.

David Wheaton won the 2004
Wimbledon Over 35 Doubles Championship with T.J. Middleton. 
He is also the author of a new book, University
of Destruction-Your Game Plan for Spiritual Victory on Campus. 
You can find out more and contact David at

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