Two French players, Amelie Mauresmo and Mary Pierce, are in the finals of the WTA Championships. Mauresmo beat Maria Sharapova, 7-6(1), 6-3, and Pierce beat Lindsay Davenport, 7-6(5), 7-6(6), in front of a crowd of 8,723 at Staples Center in downtown Los Angeles.
Pierce is arguably American. Her father is American, she was raised in the United States and she lives in Florida. Since her mother is French, she was able to move to France as a junior and get support from the French Tennis Federation. Maria Sharapova is a woman without a nation. She moved from Russia to the US with her father at age seven but she has never played Fed Cup for Russia or the US. Davenport is the only self proclaimed American here.
Maybe that’s what confused the crowd today. Davenport lives down the road in Laguna Beach but the spectators didn’t go crazy for her. Whenever Sharapova celebrated, she turned to her box of supporters and pumped her fist, completely ignoring the crowd. If she were to cut the umbilical chord with her father, Yuri, and engage the crowd, they might embrace her. Pierce is so self-contained, we feel privileged to get the slightest nod or glance our way.
Maybe the crowd would have been more excited if one of the four grand slam winners made it to the semifinals. Three of them are not here, Justine Henin-Hardenne, Serena and Venus Williams, and the fourth, Kim Clijsters, was too tired to play effectively.
Davenport does not like to play in Staples Center. There is no backdrop and the seats go back gradually making depth perception difficult. “I can’t say I’m disappointed to not have to play a match here again,” she said, “I have struggled every year I’ve played here.” That might explain nine double faults in her round-robin match against Sharapova and four double faults in the first three games today. Not a good idea against Pierce. She is on a roll. She was the only player to win all three of her round-robin matches.
Pierce broke Davenport in her first service game but as Davenport’s serve improved, so did her play. She hit three forehand winners to break back at 4-5. Pierce won the first four points of the tiebreaker but two aces and a service winner took Davenport to 5-6 before Pierce hit a net chord winner for the first set.
We all have ways of dealing with insecurity and doubt. Pierce has chosen faith.
This was a very well played match. In the second game of the second set, thirteen of the eighteen points were decided by winners. Pierce faced three break points in that game but there were no breaks in the second set. Pierce hit 40 winners and had 10 unforced errors for the match. “I don’t know if I have ever done that before,” Pierce said. She also hit ten aces. After hitting ten aces in yesterday’s match against Mauresmo, Pierce said, you guessed it, “I don’t know if I’ve ever done that before.” A good indication that she is playing some of the best tennis of her career at age thirty.
In the tiebreaker, Davenport and Pierce each started with three winners to get to 3-3. Pierce hit a service winner at 5-5 to get her first match point. On her second, two points later, Davenport hit a forehand long and Pierce was in her first Championships final since 1997.
Pierce has been asked countless times during the tournament to explain her success this year. The answer usually has two parts. First, she said that faith helped her to “to give my best and enjoy it and just leave the rest up to God.” Second, a little part of her began to believe that she can beat players that she’d never beaten before and that part grew with victories then snowballed over time.
We all have ways of dealing with insecurity and doubt. Pierce has chosen faith. She throws her worries and doubts into into the great beyond. Others, Marat Safin, for instance, implode and disintegrate. There is an image of a Safin implosion in Bill Simons excellent article for Inside Tennis, The Dance of Doubt and Certainty. Whether you believe that the mental part of tennis is 90% or 10%, it’s hard to disagree with Simons’s characterization of a successful athlete: “The true combatant is a master of doubt management.”
Amelie Mauresmo has not mastered it yet. During her match with Sharapova, she was down a break in the first set when Sharapova started to hit a lot of errors. Mauresmo took advantage of them to break back at 4-5 to force a tiebtreak. Sharapova won the first point in the tiebreak then hit six straight forehand errors and a double fault to give Mauresmo the first set.
Sharapova strained a pectoral muscle earlier in the year and it started to bother her during the match. “Towards the end of the first set the (pain) gradually started,” she said, “It affected my serve and my forehand.”
During the second set, Sharapova served in the 70’s and hit high looping shots, it was obvious that something was wrong with her. Mauresmo must have known but it wasn’t enough to hold the demons at bay. Serving for the match with a 5-1 lead, the doubt kicked in. “I could tell she was getting nervous towards the end,” Sharapova said.
Mauresmo started the game with a double fault and ended with two errors. After getting a match point in the next game, Mauresmo hit popups on successive serves from the weak-limbed Sharapova. Mauresmo managed to hold on in the next game to win the match but if she gets nervous against an injured opponent, how will she beat Pierce, her hard hitting, injury and worry free opponent in tomorrow’s final?
There is an eerie coincidence between this year and last year’s final. During the second set in the match between Serena Williams and Sharapova. Williams injured a ribcage muscle. Despite the fact that Williams could barely serve, she went up 4-0 in the third set before finally losing, 6-4, 2-6, 4-6. Sharapova collapsed in relief rather than celebration when it was over. Sharapova’s father then ran onto the court to hug his daughter in a blatant act of disrespect to Williams who had fought a brave fight. A spectator correctly chided Sharapov as he left the court and they had a shouting match.
When a reporter asked Sharapova after the match if she considered defaulting after her injury flared up, she was offended by the question. “I’m not going to end my year by walking of the court, I can tell you that for sure,” she said with more than a hint of attitude. Sharapova’s attitude will serve her well. She has a strong game and confidence in herself. But her image belongs to Nike, Canon, Tag Heuer and her father. If she stepped out from behind that image and turned to us during matches, if her father let other suitors court his daughter, she might have a nation to applaud her.