May 15, 2011

The Virtue of Patience

More than three years ago Novak Djokovic and Maria Sharapova stood atop the victory blocks in Melbourne, both just crowned champions at the 2008 Australian Open. Some thought the pair would be constant fixtures at the top of tennis, but for various reasons both had been pushed to the sidelines for some time. It's been long, very different roads since then for the two, but now just a few days from the start of another Grand Slam and they've both been rewarded and are finally king and queen of the same tournament again.

Sharapova had struggled after capturing her third Major title -- though she added a few trophies to her mantle that year, a shoulder injury hampered her play at Wimbledon and caused her to withdraw before the third round in Montreal. She came back to the game in mid-2009, and though she won a couple smaller titles here and there, she didn't really regain her footing until this year. A semifinal run in Indian Wells and runner-up finish in Miami pushed her back into the top ten, but she really turned on the heat in Rome.

Seeded seventh at the tournament, she got a big break in the quarterfinals, when Victoria Azarenka had to retire while up a break. Sharapova was quick to take advantage of the gift and followed up with a dominating straight-set win over world #1 Caroline Wozniacki. But against Sam Stosur in Sunday's final she was truly impressive -- the Russian ran off to a 4-0 lead against last year's second place finisher at Roland Garros, and after trading breaks to start the next set, took control of the match. In just under ninety minutes, Maria had improved to 8-0 against the big-hitting Aussie and reminded us all she's still hungry for the big titles.

Novak Djokovic, of course, came back into the spotlight much earlier in 2011. Though he'd spent much of the last three years playing third fiddle to Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, he erased any doubts that he should be considered part of the sport's elite when he reclaimed the title in Australia. And ever since then he's been on a roll, racking up a 32-0 record before coming to Rome, one of history's best starts to a season. Most of us thought that streak would end last week in Madrid, when he finally met Rafa on the surface he'd dominated for more than half a decade -- but even then, the surging Serb was unstoppable as he downed the previously undisputed King of Clay in straight sets. But surely lightning couldn't strike twice, right?

Well, by now we should know better than to count Djokovic out of anything. After easily dismissing two-time French Open finalist Robin Soderling in the quarters, he put on one of the greatest battles of the year to date against Andy Murray on Saturday night. He somehow surrendered the second set and gave back a break lead in the third. Murray even had a chance to serve for the match, but the relentless Nole wouldn't give up -- forced to a tiebreak, he got an early lead and didn't look back. After three hours, and probably the biggest scare he's had all year, Djokovic made the finals where he displayed no signs of exhaustion. There were three straight breaks in the first set to give Novak the early lead and he earned three championship points on Nadal's serve in the second -- finally converting on the fourth try and proving there might just be another man to beat on the dirt.

With just a week left before the French Open, it's encouraging to see both these athletes still playing at their best on a surface that's never been their favorite. On courts where the rallies can last so much longer, they've both shown they have the patience to ride out the toughest opponents -- and that maybe they'll be standing on top a few more times this year.

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