In lieu of the Serena-Maria showdown, a little “she said, she said”

PARIS – The fourth-round showdown between Maria Sharapova and Serena Williams was a spicy thing to look forward to.

Only it never happened, because Williams had to withdraw due to a pectoral injury.

But in the buildup, the 36-year-old had some things to say about the references to her in Sharapova’s autobiography, Unstoppable, released last September.

Williams has not been at tournaments often since then. And in Indian Wells, when she returned, there were far more interesting, non-Sharapova subjects to talk about.

She was a new mother. She was about to be a wife. And she was returning after more than a year away from the game.

“100 per cent hearsay”

Principally, it was Sharapova’s contention that Williams’ extra motivation during their encounters – and thus the lopsided nature of the head-to-head between them – stemmed from the Russian spotting Williams crying in the locker room after her loss in their 2004 Wimbledon final.

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“I think the book was 100 per cent hearsay, at least all the stuff I read and the quotes that I read, which was a little bit disappointing,” Williams said after her third-round victory.

“You know, I have cried in the locker room many times after a loss, and that’s what I have seen a lot of people do. I think it’s normal. … I think it would be more shocking if I wasn’t in tears,” she added. “And I am emotional and I do have emotions and I wear them on my sleeve. You know, I’m human. So for me I think it’s totally normal. I think what happens there should definitely maybe stay there and not necessarily talk about it in a not-so-positive way in a book. But regardless, that’s that.”

No negative feelings

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“I don’t have any negative feelings towards her, which again, was a little disappointing to see in that hearsay book. So I have always, you know, and especially having a daughter, like, I feel like negativity is taught. One of the things I always say, I feel like women, especially, should bring each other up,” Williams said.

“You know, a lot of people always assume that I feel a different way and it’s not true. You know, if anything, I feel like we should encourage each other, and the success of one female should be the inspiration to another, and I have said that a thousand “

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She also pointed out that when Sharapova’s doping suspension happened, she didn’t kick her when she was down, as so many of their fellow players did.

Williams didn’t quite come out and say it, but it sounds as though she actually did read it.

“I wanted to read the book and I was really excited for it to come out and I was really happy for her. And then the book was a lot about me. I was surprised about that, to be honest. You know, I was, like, Oh, okay. I didn’t expect to be reading a book about me, that wasn’t necessarily true,” she said.

“So I was, like, this is really interesting, but, you know, I don’t know. I think maybe — I don’t know. I think maybe she — I didn’t know she looked up to me that much or was so involved in my career.”

Sharapova ousted by Muguruza

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It wasn’t the best time to ask Sharapova for a rebuttal, after she had just been outclassed by 2016 French Open champion Garbiñe Muguruza in their quarterfinal Wednesday afternoon.

Muguruza rolled, 6-2, 6-1 in just 70 minutes, and is in the semifinals.

But the Russian was game.

Sharapova took a slight little dig at Williams for waiting so long until she withdrew before their fourth-round match.

“I think she made everyone wait a little bit,” she said.

But as for Williams’ contention that the bits about her in the memoir were hearsay, and that she was surprised she played such a big role, Sharapova didn’t agree.

“Well, I think it would be strange for me not to include someone that I have competed against for so many years. I think there is a lot of autobiographies out in the world, especially in the sporting world, that don’t necessarily speak about whether they were rivals or someone they competed against. And I think we played many matches. Some of those matches were very defining for me,” Sharapova said.

It would be very strange, I think, if I didn’t write anything about her. I think everyone would ask me questions, as well. So I’m not entirely sure how to go about that answer. When you’re writing an autobiography, I don’t think  there is any reason to write anything that’s not true.”

It would only be right and just for the two two meet this year at Wimbledon, right?

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Serena Williams withdraws before Sharapova clash

PARIS – You could see it coming, the way Serena Williams was serving Sunday afternoon in her third-round doubles match with sister Venus.

She was just lobbing the ball in.

Some of the first serves barely broke 130 kilometres an hour.

And when she had the chance to crush a patented Serena smash, create a little intimidation, she passed on it.

So, an hour before she was to face rival Maria Sharapova in arguably the most highly anticipated match of the tournament Monday – men and women combined – Williams withdrew.

“I unfortunately have been having some issues with my pec, my pec muscle, and has unfortunately been getting worse to the point where right now I can’t actually serve. It’s kind of hard to play when I can’t physically serve,” Williams said, in a quickly-arranged press conference.

“The first time I felt it was against (Julia) Goerges in my last match. That’s when I started to feel it. I was, like, it was really painful and I didn’t know what it was.”

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The Williams pushed hard to get a third set in the doubles. But with Williams unable to serve, it was an uphill battle. (Stephanie Myles/Tennis.Life)

Williams tried various tape jobs and supports for the doubles match, which the Williams sisters lost, 6-0 in the third set, to No. 3 seeds Maria José Martínez Sánchez and Andreja Klepac.

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The velocity, even on Williams’ first serve, was appalling in the third set – that there was an issue was evident. (Stephanie Myles/Tennis.Life)

The issues on her serve began to show mostly in the third set, in large part due to the fact that it being doubles, she only had to serve once every four games. And they were obvious, as we chronicled in this piece last night.

But she wanted to try. It wasn’t only because the sisters feel confident they can win a doubles title every time they enter. It also was an opportunity to test things out to see if there was a way she could manage the injury, in anticipation of the singles Monday.

“Beyond disappointed”

“I gave up so much, from time with my daughter to time with my family. I put everything on the court, you know. All for this moment. So it’s really difficult to be in this situation, but I always, for now in my life, I just always try to think positive and just think of the bigger picture and hopefully the next events and the rest of the year,” Williams said.

withdraws“Yeah, it’s very difficult, because I love playing Maria. You know, it’s just a match I always get up for. You know, it’s just her game matches so well against mine,” she added. “I have made every sacrifice that I could. So it’s extremely disappointing. But also, I made a promise to myself and to my coach and to my team that if I’m not at least 60 per cent or 50 per cent, then I probably shouldn’t play. The fact that I physically can’t serve at all is a good indication that maybe I should just go back to the drawing board and stay positive and try to get better, and not get it to a point where it could be a lot worse.”

The 36-year-old said she had never had this type of injury before. 

She plans to undergo an MRI and seek out specialists in Paris over the next few days, to determine the extent of the injury and see where she goes from here.

“I don’t really know how to manage it yet. Sadly, when you do have an injury that you have had before, you can kind of manage it. I have pretty much had every injury in the book. But this is a little different, and, yeah, I’m clueless as to what to do,” she said. “I’m just going to do what the doctor thinks I should do and get all the evaluations on it.”

Sharapova also disappointed

“I was looking forward to my match against Serena today and am disappointed that she had to withdraw. I wish her a speedy recovery and hope she returns to the tour soon,” Sharapova said in a statement.

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Williams’s reactions when her low-speed serves came back more quickly then they were dispatched looked pretty much like this, during the doubles. (Stephanie Myles/Tennis.Life)

The Russian now is into the quarterfinals of a Grand Slam for the first time since the 2016 Australian Open – the last Slam she played before her doping suspension and the tournament at which she tested positive for meldonium, which resulted in 15 months away from the game.

She’ll play the winner of the match between No. 3 seed Garbiñe Muguruza and unseeded Lesia Tsurenko.

The head-to-head between the two now stands at an asterisked 3-19. Sharapova’s only two complete victories came all the way back in 2004.

But given the unique circumstances at this French Open, it certainly felt as though the Russian had a better opportunity than she had enjoyed in a long while to eke out another victory.

With Williams playing her first major in nearly 18 months, only her third tournament since giving birth to daughter Olympia, the playing field had been evened a little. And Sharapova had clearly been rounding into form between her effort in Rome, and her matches so far in Paris.

Looking ahead to the grass

In retrospect, perhaps the doubles could have waited until Wimbledon.

But Williams thought getting some needed match play in would be worth the risk of pushing herself too hard physically.

Other than the pectoral issue, she said she had been feeling better and better physically.

withdraws“Every match has been getting better for me. Physically I’m doing great. You know, again, it hasn’t been easy. I sacrificed so much to be at this event. I can only take solace in the fact I’m going to continue to get better. And I had such a wonderful performance in my first Grand Slam back. I just feel like it’s only going to do better,” Williams said.

“And I’m coming up on hopefully surfaces that are my absolute favorite to play on and that I do best on. Hopefully I can continue to heal and be able to play those events.”

Sharapova trains hard on Lenglen (video)

PARIS – The days before a Grand Slam are not necessarily intense practice days.

It’s more a time go to into maintenance mode, and play some practice sets with friendly opponents.

But Maria Sharapova isn’t operating that way.

Sharapov put in weeks of hard yards between her first-round loss at Indian Wells and her return in Stuttgart six weeks later. And she is continuing on that track.

And in that, the rehiring of former coach Thomas Hogstedt is probably a good fit. He lives for that kind of stuff. And his energy never flags.

Sharapova was on Court Suzanne Lenglen Wednesday morning, sweating up a storm and putting in max effort.

A quarterfinal effort in Madrid, followed by a run to the semifinals in Rome that included four three-setters and a booming victory over reigning French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko were the early rewards for the hard yards. 

And now, she’s looking to make some noise at a major.

Here are a few pics.

Best Sharapova Slam

Sharapova won the French Open in 2014. She lost to Serena Williams in the 2013 final. And she won it in 2012. It has been, unexpectedly, her most consistent Slam.

In the last four rounds in 2014, the Russian defeated future Roland Garros champ Garbiñe Muguruza, then 2010 finalist Samantha Stosur, then Genie Bouchard, and then Simona Halep in the final. They were all three-setters.

She lost to eventual finalist Lucie Safarova in 2015 . And that was the last time she played it.

At this time of the year in 2016, Sharapova was serving her suspension for a positive meldonium test. A year ago, she was back less than a month from the suspension. Sharapova needed a wild card from the French Tennis Federation. But she didn’t get it.

Rounding back into form

Until those warmup events in Madrid and Rome, it didn’t look as though Sharapova would be seeded in Paris. More pertinently, it didn’t appear she would even be a dark horse contender, after some pretty pedestrian results in 2017.

But here she is. Sharapova currently sits at No. 29 in the world, after an 11-spot jump with her Rome results.

If she gets to the third round, she would face a top-eight seed. 

The way she’s been playing, you’d have to think those top eight will have an eye on Thursday evening’s draw.

Here’s some video of her working out with Hogstedt and hitting partner Alex Kuznetsov. Kuznetsov offered plenty of advice of his own.

It looks like a major team effort on Team Sharapova these days.

Sharapova hits the desert daylight (video)

INDIAN WELLS, Calif. – Two practices within about 15 hours is all Maria Sharapova will get, before she starts her Indian Wells campaign Wednesday evening.

The 30-year-old Russian, unseeded, has not played the BNP Paribas Open in three years – since 2015, for reasons already well-documented.

But at least she got some time in under the lights during her first practice Monday night.

Tuesday morning, not on the official schedule, she returned to Court 9 to get more hitting in.

But she has not played against other female players, as most players will do to simulate match play before a big tournament. (Sharapova rare does this, though). She played a (very few) points against her hitting partner, Alex Kuznetsov.

Here’s what she looked like on Tuesday.

Low on match play

The two-time Indian Wells champion has played just one match since the Australian Open more than six weeks ago.

Her opponent, Naomi Osaka, is 10 years younger and ranked just four spots below Sharapova’s current No. 41.

They are the fifth match on the Stadium court, as the main draw play gets under way on Wednesday. There is not, though, an official night session. But this one will likely end up under the lights for the duration unless some of the earlier matches are really, really short.

An American is involved in each of the other four matchs on the main stadium. The only exception is Sharapova (a longtime U.S. resident) vs Osaka (also a nearly lifelong U.S. resident), the Russian against the Japanese.

 

Sharapova back at IW (exclusive video)

INDIAN WELLS, Calif. – Three years seem to have flown by in a flash.

But probably not for Maria Sharapova. Because it has been that long since she was at the BNP Paribas Open.

It’s a tournament she has won twice, in 2006 and 2013. She reached the final in 2012. She was a semifinalist in 2005, 2006 and 2011.

It’s a place she suffered her worst-ever beatdown – a 6-0, 6-0 loss to Lindsay Davenport in the 2005 semifinals.

Not incidentally, it is also the tournament that is now the closest to her Manhattan Beach, home.

Closes the place

Sharapova had an 11 a.m. practice court scheduled. And there were plenty of fans on hand waiting, and waiting, for her to show.

Instead, they got Irina-Camelia Begu – a lovely lady, but not who they came to see.

She was out during the day doing some promotional stuff for her racquet sponsor, Head, along with youngster Alexander Zverev.

But when 7 p.m. – the time of her second scheduled practice – came and went, those who were patiently waiting for her began to lose hope.

And then, suddenly, about 20 minutes later, there she was. Sharapova didn’t even stop by the locker room. Team Maria basically hopped out of their vehicle, ready to go, and straight to the court.

She warmed up carefully, and hit for about an hour.

Here’s what it looked like. It looked like (most of) the media had long left the building, as well.

By the time Sharapova was done, she was the last one woman standing on the practice courts. There also were a dozen fans who had waited all that time, and had to watch from a fair distance as she practiced.

She could have headed off the court, and down the back end of the complex, through the player’s field and out. But Sharapova headed in the other direction.

She went over to those very patient fans and signed and posed, before taking off into the night.

A major pro move.

Slow start to 2018

Sharapova made the semifinals in her opening tournament of the year in Shenzhen, China. But she lost in desultory fashion to a resurgent Angelique Kerber in the third round at the Australian Open. And she lost in the first round in Doha to the tricky Monica Niculescu.

Sharapova and the Romanian are just a few months apart in age. But despite the big overlap in their careers, this was the first time they had ever met on court.

By the end, Sharapova’s timing was completely shot. She began trading funky sliced forehands with Niculescu – who, at that point, given she’s perfected that shot, probably figured she had it in the bag.

That was nearly a month ago. 

Sharapova’s won-loss record on the year is at 5-3. And that actually sounds better than it was.

There are three dangerous, unseeded floaters in this year’s BNP Paribas Open. Sharapova is one; Serena Williams and Victoria Azarenka are the others.

The draw did Sharapova no favours. She drew the unpredictable but very dangerous Naomi Osaka in the first round.

Another player she is facing for the first time.

Oz Open ’18 – Day 4 preview

MELBOURNE, Australia – The tennis ended in the wee hours Thursday morning, as Daria Gavrilova and Elise Mertens only got under way at the stroke of midnight.

It was the latest-starting match ever in Australian Open history, after the dramatic overtime five-setter involving Grigor Dimitrov and Mackenzie McDonald earlier in the night.

So there was barely a break before Day 4 and the rest of the second-round matches got under way.

The weather will be the story.

Thursday will be the hottest day of the week by far, with the high temperature expected to be 37 degrees Celsius (98.6F) at peak, around 4 p.m.

The humidity will be low – 15 per cent. So the magic formula that kicks in the heat rule may not happen. If it does, that would close the roofs on the three main stadiums. But more crucially, and less well-publicized, is that it also would stop play on all the outside courts.

Between 1 p.m. and 7 p.m., the temperature is expected to be 34C or higher. And that doesn’t factor in how much hotter than that it actually is on court.

So, in short – a scorcher. Followed by another one on Friday.

Women’s Matches to Watch

[1] Simona Halep (ROU) vs. Eugenie Bouchard (CAN)

The two met three times during Bouchard’s golden run in 2014. But not since.

Halep suffered a Grade 1 sprain to her ankle during her first-round win Tuesday. So the state of that ankle may play a role in the outcome of the match against Bouchard.

The Canadian looked solid in a straight-sets win over Océane Dodin in the first round

Day 4
Simona Halep was carrying an injury before she faced Genie Bouchard in the 2014 Wimbledon semifinal. As they meed Thursday, it could be history repeating itself.

[14] Anastasija Sevastova (LAT) vs. Maria Sharapova (RUS)

The two met twice within a two-month period last season. And both encounters were rather dramatic.

The first one came at the US Open – Sharapova’s first appearance there after she served her 15-month doping suspension. The Russian reached the fourth round, where Sevastova surprisingly ended her run.

In the fall, in the first round of Beijing, the two played a crazy match – 7-6 (3), 5-7, 7-6,(7). This time, Sharapova was the winner.

[18] Ashleigh Barty (AUS) vs. Camila Giorgi (ITA)

The Italian banger disappeared from the Tour the last few months of 2017, as she had reoccurring back issues. Her last match of the season was a first-round loss to Magdalena Rybarikova in the the first round of the US Open.

So she has sort of come out of nowhere to have a solid start to 2018.

Giorgi went from the qualifying through to the semifinals in Sydney last week – upsetting Petra Kvitova, Agnieszka Radwanska and Sloane Stephens along the way.

In Barty’s favor is that she has already played a hard hitter on Rod Laver Arena at night. She needed three sets to beat Aryna Sabalenka of Belarus in the first round. But at least she got used to the pace she can expect from Giorgi.

Men’s Matches to Watch

[14] Novak Djokovic (SRB) vs. Gaël Monfils (FRA)

It’s a tough one for a second-rounder. But that’s because Monfils’s ranking currently stands at No. 39.

Before he decided to take a last-minute wild card into Doha (and won the event), it was No. 46.

Djokovic may well find a sterner test Thursday than he did in his first round, when he had little trouble dispatching American Donald Young. 

And he gets a Rod Laver Arena assignment for his second round, more befitting a six-time champion even though he’s only the No. 14 seed this year.

NOT in Monfils’ favor is the fact that his record against Djokovic is … 0-14.

[12] Juan Martin del Potro (ARG) vs. Karen Khachanov (RUS)

Day 4
Juan Martin del Potro got himself back into the top 10 this week. It was a long, long way back.

This is a heavyweight battle between two imposing human beings.

It might have been expected to be a closer battle earlier last season, when Khachanov really seemed to be a star on the rise. But he plateaued, and in the process ended things with the coach he’d had through his transition to the pros, Galo Blanco.

Del Potro  started his season a week later than many. But he hoisted himself back into the top 10 with a finals appearance in Auckland last week, losing to Roberto Bautista-Agut.

In the quarterfinals of that event, del Potro defeated Khachanov 7-6, 6-3. Sounds about right. Add a set or two.

Hyeon Chung (KOR) vs. Daniil Medvedev (RUS)

This is a Next-Gen rematch between two of the players who competed in the special event in Milan last November.

Medvedev decided to start his 2018 season at a Challenger event in Playford, Australia where he lost in the first round to No. 379 Marinko Matosevic. His ranking would have gotten him into the main draw of pretty much all of the pre-Australian Open events, so it’s possible that someone forgot to enter him into anything early in 2018.

But Medvedev made up for lost time in Sydney, where he qualified and won the tournament.

Chung and Medvedev played in the semifinals of the Milan event, with Chung prevailing in five (short-format) sets.

Sharapova takes first title in 2 1/2 years

It was – duelling high volume screams notwithstanding – a roller-coaster ride of a tennis match, a train wreck of a serve-breaking contest that somehow was a highly-compelling contest.

But in the end, Maria Sharapova won the Tianjin Open with a 7-5, 7-6 (6) victory over 19-year-old Aryna Sabalenka of Belarus.

And with one final scream, she earned her first WTA Tour title in nearly 2 1/2 years, since Rome in early May 2015.

Understandably, she showed some emotion after it was over. It has been a bumpy road back, since she returned in Stuttgart in April after serving her 15-month doping suspension.

The 30-year-old Russian had to come back from two breaks of serve down – in both sets – to put it away.

She was down 1-4 in the first set (the only game she earned was on a break of serve) before coming back to win it 7-5.

And she was down 1-5 in the second set before breaking her 19-year-old opponent twice as she attempted to serve out the set and take it to a decider.

In the end, her experienced showed.

Huge experience edge for Sharapova

Sharapova was playing in her 59th WTA Tour singles final.

Sabalenka was playing in the first WTA Tour final of her career, in only the fifth WTA Tour main draw of her career.

SharapovaAt times, she seized the moment beautifully. At others, she couldn’t find the court.

Sharapova weathered the powerful gusts, and waited for the inevitable errors. Although it had to feel somewhat like foreign territory to have so much of the match’s outcome in the hands of an opponent she likely had never heard of before Sunday.

Sabalenka’s junior career didn’t really presage her run in Tianjin or even her run to the semifinals in Tashkent, Uzbekistan a few weeks ago.

SharapovaShe rarely ventured outside a pretty restricted area during juniors (the Baltics and Finland, pretty much) and never broke into the top 200 in the ITF junior rankings.

At 17, she finished the 2015 season ranked No. 541. By the end of last year, she was at No. 155.

She made her Grand Slam debut at Wimbledon this year. And when the new rankings come out on Monday, she will be ranked No. 76.

Australian Open seed on radar

 As for Sharapova, she will be inside the top 60 after earning the 36th title of her career.

SharapovaAnd she can add to that this week. Sharapova took another wild card into the Moscow Premier event, which she will play for the first time since 2007.

If she somehow manages to win that, too, the Russian would definitely put herself in range to be seeded at the Australian Open, with early opportunities during the tune-up tournaments to seal that deal.

The crowd in Tianjin was fully Team Sharapova. Many of the fans were waving copies of her new memoir around. But they appreciated the efforts of Sabalenka as well.

You just hope they brought earplugs.

Loud, LOUD final

If Sharapova shrieked, the Belarussian flat-out screamed. Most of the time.

SharapovaIt was tennis turned up to 11 (that’s a Spinal Tap reference) on both the noise, and the power.

Sharapova was by the the steadier, and it stood her in good stead when she found herself in such big trouble in both sets.

Sabalenka is a shade short of six feet tall, big and strong and sort of a hybrid of a lot of tennis players you’re far more familiar with.

Facially, she has a bit of Andrea Petkovic and Amélie Mauresmo in her.

In the big, loopy swings on her groundstrokes, there’s some Julia Goerges in the forehand, some Coco Vandeweghe in the backhand.

Her game is still so raw. But there is so much promise.

SharapovaShe reached near 180 km/hour with her serve a few times. Not enough times, but clearly the mechanics are there.

And Sabalenka wasn’t content to just stay and slug from the baseline. She improvised some shots in instinctive fashion. And she wasn’t afraid to take second-serve returns and follow them to the net.

There is some “there”, there. And a dramatic, feisty personality (despite the din) that sets her apart from many of the teenagers coming up.

Add some polish to that raw material, and she might make some noise in 2018. Pardon the pun.

Sugarpova profits for Puerto Rico relief

Maria Sharapova has extended a helping hand to help the people of Puerto Rico.

The 30-year-old Russian, who visited the island last December to play an exhibition with the country’s biggest tennis star, Monica Puig, is helping Puig’s fundraising efforts in the wake of the devastating effects of Hurricane Maria.

Sharapova announced on Facebook Monday that she will donate all profits from her Sugarpova candy brand from today until the end of the year to support Puig’s hurricane fund.

The fun, which had an original goal of $25,000, already is at nearly $100,000, and growing. 

For those in Beijing, Sharapova’s candy is available there.

Bouchard gets wild card into Beijing

Genie Bouchard will not have to suffer the rigors of qualifying this weekend.

The 23-year-old Canadian has been issued a wild card into the big Premier Mandatory tournament in Beijing. Bouchard left her home in Miami Wednesday to head for Asia for the first time during this Asian swing.

It will be Bouchard’s first tournament since losing in the first round of the US Open to Evgeniya Rodina of Russia.

(Update: she’ll play Magdalena Rybarikova of Slovakia in the first round. For an explanation on how she was able to get a fourth wild card this season, click here).

The China Open offers nearly $6.4 million in prize money. Other than the 10-day events in Indian Wells and Miami, that’s the biggest purse on the WTA Tour.

Bouchard’s ranking stood at No. 74 at the entry deadline. So she was still 14 spots out of the 60-player main draw as of Thursday evening back home. The Canadian would have been unseeded in the qualifying draw as well.

There certainly was a possibility Bouchard would just end her season. Or, at the least, skip the Asian swing entirely. But with a main-draw spot in Beijing, and a main-draw spot in the International-level event in Hong Kong the following week, the issue of a match-rusty Bouchard trying to qualify was off the table.

First appearance in Asia

Citing a slow recovery from the virus she contracted in New York after her first-round exit at the US Open, Bouchard withdrew from the Quebec City WTA event the week after the US Open.

She also withdrew from scheduled participation in the Korean Open in Seoul (main draw). And then, she also pulled out of qualifying for the Premier 5 tournament in Wuhan, China this week.

With the departure of coach Thomas Högstedt, Bouchard will not even have Roberto Brogin with her in Asia. Brogin, who worked with Bouchard when she first returned to the national training centre in Montreal from Florida nearly a decade ago, had filled in at various events in Högstedt’s absence this season.

He also has a full-time job with Tennis Canada at their training centre in Vancouver.

Blast from the past

Diego Ayala will be on board in Asia. Ayala, a coach based in south Florida, began the season with Bouchard down in Australia in 2015 after her split with Nick Saviano. Bouchard knew him from her younger days at Saviano’s academy.

Ayala’s agreement, we’re told is that he’ll be on board for the three tournaments remaining on Bouchard’s schedule for 2017.

So, barring anything unforeseen, that could well mean she intends to remain on the road for both Hong Kong and Luxemberg, two smaller events, to close it out.

At the time, Bouchard would not refer to Ayala as her “coach.” She preferred “hitting partner.” And upon returning home, she hired current Garbiñe Muguruza coach Sam Sumyk as a permanent replacement for Saviano.

But despite not playing any official warmup events, and under pressure to back up her breakthrough semifinal the previous year, Bouchard reached the quarterfinals in Australia with Ayala on board.

She lost in three sets to Maria Sharapova.

Beijing
Ayala, whom Bouchard has known since she was a young teenager, will reportedly be on the rest of the Asian swing with her. (Stephanie Myles/Tennis.Life)

Coincidentally, Sharapova also has a wild card into Beijing, announced last month.

The two names have been linked often recently, for other reasons. Their last meeting was blockbuster.

This linkage is a little more unexpected.  First-round wild-card popcorn, anyone?

(Chinese players Zhu Lin, Wang Yafan and Duan Ying-Ying also have wild cards into the main draw).

“Unstoppable: my life so far” – a review

It’s finally here – the day Maria Sharapova fans (and many other tennis fans) have been waiting for.

The tennis star’s memoir, “Unstoppable: My life so far” has finally been released.

What kind of a book is it?

Much of it is good. Very good.

By any standard, not just the rather pedestrian standard of sports biographies.

Her insight into the Tour, life, and her own strengths and weaknesses is impressive. For someone with little formal education, who was hermetically sealed in a protective tennis bubble most of her formative years, she really is a grownup.

If that sounds condescending, it doesn’t mean to be. Most will admit that the life of a young sports prodigy is anything but designed to produce mature, functional, well-rounded human beings.

Sharapova has never been a sharer despite living on a very public stage. She has kept her personal life – including her love life – intensely private. For someone who is as famous as she is, that is no small feat.

Maria
Click above to read Sharapova’s thoughts on various subject, as revealed in her her new memoir.

So the story of her life, and her career so far, is to a great extent brand-new territory even for her most ardent fans.

That quest for privacy speaks to the fact that never really sought to be famous. What she wanted – what she still wants, even now – is to win.

“I want to beat everyone. It’s not just the winning. It’s the not being beaten,” she writes.

The impossible journey to the unstoppable dream

Almost everything you read about Sharapova’s early life, and her journey to the U.S. with her father, says she was seven when she arrived. In fact, she was still just six years old.

That’s where the book begins, albeit a bit unsteadily. There are certain inconstencies with dates, certain things remembered that don’t quite match up. That’s probably an editing issue more than anything.

But there’s no doubt, even allowing for some artistic license, that the journey of Yuri Sharapov and his tiny little girl from Sochi, Russia to international stardom was a flat-out miracle.

And the book picks up steam quickly.

UnstoppableThe early years were a study in determination. If you ever wondered where Sharapova got it, her father clearly had it in spades.

He took whatever job he could to pay the rent. He would feed her, clothe her, and cut her hair. They shared a foldout couch that sagged in the middle in the living room of a Russian women’s apartment near Bollettieri’s academy.

It was there that Sharapova quickly learned that the girls in the locker room were not her friends. As much as she is criticized for it, there’s a long history behind it that makes it completely understandable.

She arrived with the old racket of fellow Sochi resident Yevgeny Kafelnikov, cut down to size, “a single change of clothes, and shoes from a factory in Minsk”.

The other girls laughed at her. Later, when she lived in the dorm, they went through her things when she wasn’t there.

Everyone wants a piece

Being so good, so young, worked against her. Most of the students at Bollettieri’s were the children of rich parents paying exorbitant fees. Sharapova dusting off kids three, four, five years older just brought home to those parents that their little Ashley or darling Peyton wasn’t going to be nearly good enough to be a professional tennis player.

According to Sharapova, Alla Kournikova, the mother of Anna, spread rumours that the little tennis prodigy had been kidnapped by Yuri Sharapova and spirited away to the U.S. Not wanting to risk a whiff of scandal, Bollettieri asked Sharapova to leave. She was “trouble,” Sharapova writes.

Holding her hostage

The next top was a club called El Conquistador, where a former player named Sekou Bangoura ran an academy.

unstoppable
The Bollettieri routine, for a pre-teen, was bordering on ridiculous. No wonder Sharapova put “homework” in quotes.

Bangoura, whose son Sekou currently plays on the Challenger Tour, had dollar signs in his eyes. Sharapova writes that he held onto Yuri Sharapov’s visa and passport – effectively holding them hostage. He hired her father in lieu of paying academy tuition. Then he fired him and began charging for all the court time.

When they were about to get evicted for not paying the rent, he came up with a contract for her to sign.

Luckily, they didn’t.

Sharapov had met another tennis father, an oncologist, who brought it to a lawyer. The lawyer declared the contract no less than “indentured servitude”. It would have forced Sharapova to hand over a large percentage of her earnings to Bangoura for her entire career, in exchange for the scholarship during those early years.

Bollettieri eventually came back into the picture. But as much as the perception is out there that he was a huge influence on Sharapova’s early career, the reality is probably that Robert Landsdorp had more influence than anyone except her father.

Sharapova rose quickly. And the rest is history. 

Maria and Yuri

Eventually, in an email, she asked her father to step aside. And she writes that he graciously did. It’s interesting that at this point in the book – whether subconsciously or by design – she no longer calls him “Yuri”.

unstoppable
(Photo reproduced from “Unstoppable”)

She calls him “her father” – just as she calls mother Yelena “her mother” and her various coaches, for the most part “her coach.”

For all those years, there was only “Maria and Yuri”. In the end, everyone else – even her mother – was the supporting cast.

Sharapova writes a little about the two major romances of her life – with Slovenian pro basketball player Sasha Vujacic and current top-10 tennis player Grigor Dimitrov.

And she writes about her brief coaching experience with Jimmy Connors. She doesn’t remember it fondly.

Dishing the dirt

Even if you’re Maria Sharapova, it’s probably a challenge to sell a book if you don’t deliver some of the good stuff.

And the good stuff, in this case, is Serena Williams.

Unstoppable
Sharapova writes that Serena slipped and fell to the ground deliberately during their 2004 Wimbledon final, so it wouldn’t look as though Sharapova had gotten a ball past her.

Sharapova admits Williams’s talent is a big reason she has beaten her only twice in 21 attempts (both before the 2008 shoulder surgery that left her without her biggest weapon, the serve).

But mostly, she attributes it to her shocking Williams in that 2004 Wimbledon final, when Sharapova was only 17 and Williams, 22.

They had first faced each other a few months before, in Miami.

“Her physical presence is much stronger and bigger than you realize watching on TV. She has thick arms and thick legs and is so intimidating and strong. And tall, really tall,” Sharapova writes. “It still feels that way. Even now, she can make me feel like a little girl.”

It’s a funny thing, perception.

Sharapova is 6-foot-2. You wouldn’t think she’d consider too many other women “really tall”. Especially not Williams, who is listed at 5-9. And when people see Williams in person, they usually remark she looks significantly smaller in person than on TV.

But on the court, to Sharapova, she seemed – seems – a giant.

“Serena’s strengths are like puzzle pieces that snap into my weaknesses,” she writes, most eloquently.

A portrait of Serena

“There is the serve and the groundstrokes and the game, but it’s also her attitude that defeats you. She looks across the net with something like disdain, as if you are unimportant and small. … Then there is her temper, which can be hot and unpredictable. She is not afraid to scream, throw her racket, bitch at the refs about calls she doesn’t like.

“It’s interesting at first, then it gets irritating. Irritating in a way that might be intended. She behaves as if she is the only player out there, the only person who counts. And you? You are a speed bump. You are a zero. Many great players have this mentality. Serena Williams just has it more.”

Sharapova believes that Williams plays so well against her because of that Wimbledon final.

“I think Serena hated me for being the skinny kid who beat her, against all odds, at Wimbledon. And I think she hated me for taking something that she believed belonged to her. I think she hated me for seeing her at her lowest moment. But mostly I think she hated me for hearing her cry. She’s never forgiven me for it.”

A few missing details

There are few areas most readers might have hoped she dug more deeply into. But it’s her book; she gets to set the agenda.

The positive test for meldonium, with which she begins and ends the book, is of huge interest to a lot of people. But Sharapova doesn’t reveal much beyond what’s already out there.

“I figured all I had to do was explain myself and it would be fixed. … It should’ve been easy to clear up,” she writes.

Again, Sharapova is a little hazy on the dates. The email announcing the positive test for meldonium arrived “three weeks into the season”. Or it came “a few weeks after the Australian Open”. Or it came “less than a week” before her shocker of a press conference, which took place on March 7, 2016.

She doesn’t really clear up much about what remains, at best, a polarizing situation.

But Sharapova clearly has no intention of shedding any more light on it. She’s just moving forward. Otherwise, she would have expanded upon the period when the health issues she was having necessitated her doctor advising her to take a medicine cabinet-sized list of supplements she took at one time, including the meldonium.

The tricky thing about writing a memoir while your career is still very much a going concern is that there surely are more interesting chapters to come.

From all indications, this book is going to sell very well. In retirement – whenever that is – she may well have to get to work on a sequel.