Monday, March 10, 2014

PLEASE STEP ASIDE MISS SHARAPOVA

Since he won the reinvented ATP 500 event in Acapulco just a couple weeks ago, there's been a lot of talk about Grigor Dimitrov and whether he is in pole position to usurp the four horsemen of the tennis world.  And while there is a lot to like about this kid with seemingly unlimited potential, the next match of his beloved Maria Sharapova may elicit an altogether a more interesting question:  what does the future hold in the game on the other side of the gender gap?  The stark contrast between the stroke production of the ambassador of "Big Babe" tennis, and that of her precocious and spindly opponent in the third round of the BNP Parisbas at Indian Wells, brings that question into relief.

I first saw Camila Giorgi play two years ago at Wimbledon 2012, as she confronted another proponent of the ball bashing brigade, Nadia Petrova.  And while Petrova stood 2-4 inches taller than her (the gentleman in me will not reveal their weight difference), it was this sinewy little Argentine (moonlighting as an Italian) Giorgi who bludgeoned her way not only to victory, but to the beginning of a voyage that has brought her to the cusp of a regular seat at the table of the privileged.  She fell at the subsequent hurdle against the wily Aga Radwanska, on her way to the final, but for me it was Giorgi who really impressed.

And this has been the pattern in Giorgi's career since.  Later that summer, after justifying her wildcard into Cincinnati by defeating her aging compatriot, Francesca Schiavone in two blistering sets, she succumbed to Sloane Stephens in the next round.  The next year, after muscling her way through the qualifying draw at the Family Circle Cup in Charleston, South Carolina, and handling Luxembourg's Mandy Minella in straight sets, she lost tamely to Serena Williams. She then stunned the tennis world with a straight sets, first round victory over Marion Bartoli at Strasbourg, just two months before the French courtesan's victory at Wimbledon, before losing desperately in straight sets to Genie Bouchard.  And that loss included a bagel in the second set!  At Wimbledon, after blowing out the 22nd seeded Sorana Cirstea (another little babe with a big game, and inversely proportional tactics) she fell to Bartoli at Wimbledon in the 4th round.

But her career seemed to take a turn for the better at the US Open.  There she defeated Caroline Wozniacki in three brutal, bone-crushing sets under the lights in Arthur Ashe, endearing herself to the commentators and fans alike with the win.  In this match Wozniacki's exceptional defense allowed Giorgi to display the full force of her modern forehand, with technique which distinguishes her from the vast majority of women in the WTA.  She showed a compact and explosive forehand where you can always see her racquet head, a refusal to conceded the baseline, and the refreshing willingness to come forward, despite a shaky net game.  With footwork reminiscent of Steffi Graf, and a forehand punch more penetrating than Justine Henin v2.0, Giorgi appeared to have found her sweet spot technically and tactically at just the right time.

Then it all came apart at the first sign of "difficoltà".  

In the next round she faced another wily compatriot, Roberta Vinci, who exposed her limited tactical acumen by feeding her a steady diet of short slice backhands and deep topspin forehands pushing her forwards, backwards, left and right, and straight into a humiliating straight sets loss. The variation was enough to disrupt the momentum she had gained in the previous round.  Two steps forward, one step back, was the order for her still burgeoning career.  

But something happened in the Fed Cup this year.  Once again facing a clone from the big babe mold, Madison Keys, she befuddled her with a steady diet of flat power and wrong-footing, hitting aggressively to conservatives spots for one incredible hour.  The result:  she so comprehensively overwhelmed her more celebrated (for all the wrong reasons) adversary, that Captain Mary Jo Fernandez removed Keys from the line-up the next day, in a desperate attempt to salvage the tie.  In this match Giorgi demonstrated the same relentless first strike tennis that poses the biggest threat to the hegemony of the bodacious bruisers of women's tennis.  It's a style of play that has turned the women's game into an uninspiring monotony of essentially pared down versions of the Williams sisters...but Giorgi's style may just be the tonic.

In Dubai she dismantled Marta Domachowska (the not-so-curious recipient of a wild card) in the first round of qualifying, then demolished Andrea "Petkorazzi" Petkovic in the first of two victories this year over her popular German opponent.  The second came here at Indian Wells - this one a determined come back from a set down.  But the interesting thing about this match up is that it pits two players who've broken through the phalanx of brainless ball bashing, with modern technique and aggressive point control from the baseline.  That's a style more reminiscent of the men's game and diametrically opposed to the cast-iron replicas of...well, everyone else.  And as long as they're still around, nobody will never do that better than the Williams sisters.

Foremost of that mold is Maria Sharapova - a less mobile, less powerful, less resourceful version of the Queens of tennis.  And her steady diet of flat pace should be the perfect pilot light to ignite the full throttle, first strike repertoire that is the not so obvious answer to doldrums of the big game.  Sharapova's record against Serena Williams over the last 10 years, and the entirely invented rivalry the media have been begging for, demonstrates the fallacy of fighting fire with fire.

If ever there were a time for Camila Giorgi to make a move in her career and possibly shake up the women's game, it's today against Miss Sharapova.  If she does, she (and not one of these other big babe clones) may accidentally become the new "it" girl for which the WTA is always on the lookout.
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