SHE’S BACK – No One Does Statuesque Like Maria

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Photo: ©Mal Taam/TennisClix

Bill Simons

PALO ALTO—

The pale peach dress is impeccable – so feminine.

The pale peach sneakers are a perfect match – flawless, of course.

The neon orange cap is a lovely accent.

And there she is.

There are a lot of tall powerful women’s tennis players from distant lands who come to our shores to claim tennis trophies.

There’s only one Sharapova.

There are a lot of players that pound deep, fierce backhands that kiss the lines.

But there’s only one Maria.

Elegant and lean, with a beautiful, distinctive line – no one does statuesque like Maria.

And no one is as loud as the five-time Slam winner, or so it seems. The roar is back, a singular groan that penetrates Palo Alto’s night air – a familiar siren.

Few are as efficient as the Russian. She crushes the over-matched American Jennifer Brady 6-1 in 37 minutes in their first set at Stanford’s Bank of the West Classic.

In the old days, the fat lady would now have been singing for tennis’ thin lady. But these are not the old days – when we thought of Maria as the fiercest WTA fighter this side of Serena, the seamless shotmaker and icy battler who turned supposedly strong foes into mush.

Rarely has a more proud athlete suffered such an ignominious fall. Despite having served her 15-month-old drug suspension, a cloud still lingers.

Her harshest critics are unsparing – they still label her a drug cheat. Some seemed to relish the downfall of a very private lady who never tried to make friends in the locker room. “She’s a totally unlikable person,” said Slovokian Dominka Cibulkova. “Arrogant, conceited and cold. When I sit beside her in the locker room, she won’t even say hello.”

But you have to say one thing about marvelous Maria – she’s always had game. In the first set against Brady she dominated. In the old days, she would have mercilessly finished off the American with the 80-something ranking long before the night chill descended.

But not tonight. In the second set, Maria all but wilted. Despite many a meditative stare to the back wall, Sharapova seemed at a loss. She shanked backhands. Her movement was suspect. Too often she was graceless – she lurched and waved haplessly as another Brady forehand whizzed by.

She double-faulted and seemed to defy the universe – mumbling to herself, “This cannot be.” She made a hash of a groundie and twice pounded her thigh in frustration. As she dropped the second set 6-4, one sensed the fear of the tournament promoters. Maria, one of the elite draws in tennis, had attracted the second biggest Monday-night crowd – 2,187 – the tournament had ever seen. Now the kid in the front row who held up the sign that read “I’ve been waiting 13 years to get a picture with Maria Sharapova” looked like he might have to wait longer. The Russian seemed to be going down.

But there is a reason Sharapova has reached No. 1 in the world. Maria promptly broke Brady and went up 2-0 in the third set. Promoters, fans and writers exhaled. Sharapova – who was playing in America for the first time in 28 months – now hopefully would not suffer another one-and-out tournament, like she did in her last appearance in Rome in May.

Her forehands found the corners. She attacked her foe’s 73 mph second serves, and when Brady flubbed a key volley, fighter Sharapova gave us three fist pumps en route to a 6-4, 4-6, 6-0 win.

The tennis world was back on its axis. The PA announcer gushed praise. Maria confided to the happy crowd that there was lots of catching up to do. Hundreds of giddy fans circled round as Maria signed countless autographs.

Later in her press conference, Maria deflected many a question. We noted that she had written that she had felt an “emotional toll” when she was off the tour. So we asked, what emotions did she feel – sadness, anger, frustration?

Maria adeptly dodged. She was then asked, “Are you now a different person?” She replied, “I don’t think I’m a different person, I think I’m an evolved person.” And what, we asked, have you learned during this time? “That’s a good question,” she replied. “I’ve learned a lot of things.”

Now tennis is poised to learn a lot about the thin lady who likes to have a mystique about her. Will the Russian be able to return to glory? Can she overcome the thigh injury that brought her down at the Italian Open? Can she reach another Slam final or, more immediately, will she make it into the US Open?

All these questions linger. But one thing is clear. The statuesque lady in the lovely pale peach dress will be embraced by fans near and far.

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