From Russia with Love (Games)

Wham, bam ... etc.: Maria Sharapova smacks a serve to her compatriot Vera Zvonareva at their exhibition match at Taipei Arena last night.

Maria Sharapova was in fine (hitting) form and voice last night at Taipei Arena. The world No.2 turns it down a notch in practice and on less critical points in competition, so – in scraping even the lower reaches of the screechometer in her 6-3, 6-4 exhibition win over compatriot Vera Zvonareva – she showed she was taking things seriously enough.

The arena was not much more than half full again.

As entertaining as January’s Agassi-Safin event was, it was all fun and frolics. Aside from the opening short doubles with a couple of local prodigies, last night was about serious shot-making, with both women banging those balls at a ferocious pace.

Zvonareva gets in poisition for a backhand

I watched Sharapova’s almost resigned capitulation to Petra Kvitova at Wimbledon, and was astonished by how lumberingly leaden-footed both players seemed. Part of the current disillusionment with the women’s game stems from the perception that, to mangle a boxing phrase, even excellent little-uns will invariably get bashed off the court by average big-uns.

Watching these women up close, though, I had to eat a certain amount of my own excrement. That both are exemplary strikers of the ball is not news. Sharapova’s backhand, in particular, was quite extraordinary.

What really impressed me, though, was the footwork and movement. At a lean 6’2”, Sharapova was amazingly agile and surprisingly graceful – much more gazelle on the Serengeti plains, than the “cow on ice” she claimed to be on clay. With both players competing in the Toray Pan Pacific Open in Tokyo on Friday, the effort was commendable, the standard of play high. Fist pumps, muttered self-admonishments and Shara’s sucking-on-a-lemon scowl all featured.  

And the screams. At the 5-minute post match press conference, I couldn’t help myself. Having asked Zvonareva what she thought of the contention that the women’s game lacked the depth of quality of the men’s (see above vid), I managed to blag a final question (no mean feat at these events).

All at once, the scream queen’s famed vociferousness evaporated. The thin-lipped grimace and haughty gaze returned and – jeepers – I couldn’t even hold the bloody camera straight!*  

Down the line winner from the lass or defensive backhand block? What do you reckon?


* Nothing, I should emphasise, to do with any pre-, mid-, or post-match libation.

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