Maria Sharapova - The Championships - Wimbledon 2011: Day Ten

Sharapova vs. Kvitova:  After repeated disappointments at her favorite tournament, the 2004 Wimbledon champion has arrived in her first final there since the moment that transformed her from upstart into superstar.  Despite not facing any top-15 opponent in her previous six matches, Sharapova will have accumulated confidence from winning all twelve sets that she has played.  In her semifinal, she found her rhythm only sporadically and yet still prevailed routinely over a dangerous foe.  Feared in the first half of her career for her electric serve, Sharapova has compensated for that weapon’s decline by honing the most explosive return in the WTA.  Stifling the single most discussed shot of the women’s tournament, Lisicki’s serve, her return skidded off the sidelines and baseline with a depth and precision difficult for even an agile mover to withstand.  When she parries the formidable serve of Kvitova, Sharapova should adopt a similarly fearless positioning and tactics on her ripostes.  Displaying not only immense ball-striking power but sparkling shot-making talent, the Czech has devoured mid-court replies with Marian savagery throughout the tournament.  Leaving pockmarks across Centre Court, her 40 winners in a three-set semifinal victory over Azarenka portend a final organized almost entirely around offense and overwhelming first strikes.  Both title threats can deliver point-ending blows with virtually any shot from well behind the baseline, while their indifferent movement leaves them few defensive options.  Although lefties have thrived on the low, skidding bounces of grass, the Russian has won 21 of her last 22 matches against them over a six-year span.

From the early stages of the final should emerge clues concerning the factor upon which the title will hinge:  the minds of both competitors.  As earlier WTA breakthrough performers have discovered, the pressure of contesting a maiden major final poses a challenge unique in the sport.  Yet Kvitova may suffer from those nerves less than other debutantes, having captured a Premier Mandatory title in Madrid, defeated Clijsters in a Paris final, and reached the semifinals here last year.  Since Sharapova’s comeback, meanwhile, her formerly superb efficiency in finals has dipped to a pedestrian level.  In part a result of rust, her recent struggles in title matches also may have developed from a desire to win so keen that it has consumed her energy and prevented her from playing within herself.  Edgy during her loss to Li at Roland Garros, Sharapova narrowly avoided a deep deficit in the first set against Lisicki after similarly tense, rigid play.  For both women, a key to their psychological position lies in their footwork, which grows crisper in proportion to their confidence.  Allowing opponents to gain early momentum, the Russian often has begun unremarkably in her matches as her shoulder loosens and her focus crystallizes.  Kvitova conversely has opened most of her matches in obdurate form before occasionally wandering into a mid-match malaise.  Considering Sharapova’s perfect record in third sets this year, the Czech cannot offer the 2004 champion second chances as she eyes a second Wimbledon crown.  Unless Kvitova seizes control swiftly and decisively, Sharapova’s unsurpassed appetite for battle should spring into the spotlight during a fierce collision saturated with audacious winners.

Rafael Nadal - The Championships - Wimbledon 2011: Day Eleven

Nadal vs. Djokovic:  Having collaborated on no fewer than 27 prior encounters, the Sunday #1 and the Monday #1 meet in a Slam final for only the second time.  Aligned in opposite directions are the two most relevant statistics from a rivalry that has evolved into a worthy successor to Federer-Nadal.  Undefeated against the Serb at majors, Rafa generally has showcased a superior resolve on the grandest stage to virtually all of his peers, a trait that emerges most compellingly in the best-of-five format.  Nevertheless, the Spaniard’s hegemony withstood a severe, temporarily terminal blow during the first half of 2011, when he sustained four losses to Djokovic in the finals of Masters 1000 events.  Even on Nadal’s beloved clay, he found no answers to an opponent who had assembled the finest transition game in the ATP.  Still with only one loss this season, the new #1 seeks his eighth title in nine tournaments this season and seventh at the expense of a top-5 opponent.  To the surprise of most observers, he twice rallied from losing the first set against the Spaniard this spring and outlasted him with superior fitness despite a reputation for fragility on physical and mental levels.  Having claimed the top ranking with his semifinal victory, however, one wonders whether Djokovic will approach this final with the same determination manifest in his earlier assaults upon Nadal.  His overflowing satisfaction in becoming the third Serb to reach the sport’s pinnacle may lead to a slight lull in his energies, upon which a competitor as relentless as the current #1 surely would capitalize.   But he repeatedly has named Wimbledon among one of his career’s principal objectives, so he may summon the extra jolt of motivation necessary to conquer the defending champion.

While Djokovic certainly has earned his ascendancy, he has not spread his Slam empire outside the more informal environment of the Australian Open, where pressure descends less heavily than at the other majors.  In contrast, Nadal built his reign upon the foundation of Roland Garros and Wimbledon, the traditional epicenters of the sport and the sites most fraught with the psyche-testing presence of history.  Forged from this crucible that has melted so many competitors, the Spaniard remained unbroken by a potentially alarming injury early in his match against Del Potro and again when Murray threatened to accumulate a set-and-break advantage.  Somewhat more easily ruffled, Djokovic has enjoyed the smoother draw and has not faced either a Slam champion or a top-10 opponent en route to the championship Sunday.  Despite that smoother pathway, he spurned chances to dispatch Baghdatis, Tomic, and Tsonga more economically, while his mannerisms slipped some distance back towards the sardonically self-deprecating “Djoker” of his underachieving period from 2009-10.  After Murray’s outstanding return could not break Nadal more than once in their semifinal, the Serb can expect scant windows of opportunity in the final and thus must hold serve with greater conviction than he has for most of the fortnight.  If Djokovic can conquer the Spaniard on his weakest surface to collect his second major of the season, he would cement his ascent to become the dominant player of the ATP.  If Nadal can defend his grass kingdom, meanwhile, he would maintain a mastery over majors that would counterbalance the Serb’s statistical superiority in the first half.

Since each finalist knows the nuances of his rival’s game almost as thoroughly as his own, one expects tactics to play a relatively inconsequential role in deciding Wimbledon’s 125th men’s champion.  Like the women’s final, the last match of the season’s third major instead should revolve around execution, nerve, and desire—attributes that both contenders possess in far greater measure than any of their peers.

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