By David Kane
No matter how you use the word, few would argue that Maria Sharapova isn’t a diva. She may have a nerdy laugh and sardonic sense of humor, but never let that cloud the vision of a woman for whom image is – dare I say it? – everything. She wears dainty dresses (on and off the court), indulges in handcrafted “Sugarpova” candy, and has the flowing carriage of a Rachmaninoff piano concerto.
And if there is anything we know about divas, it’s that they do not share the spotlight easily.
The 2012 season brought plenty of highs to the Russian superstar, none higher than the Roland Garros triumph that completed her pristine set of major titles. Yet coming into “The Fifth Slam” in Istanbul, one could not help feeling as if she was but a footnote to the so-called “budding rivalry” between Victoria Azarenka and Serena Williams.
To say either of these women dominated Sharapova would be an understatement when one recalls how the two eviscerated the Russian in major finals throughout the year. While Azarenka herself has as paltry a success rate against Williams as Sharapova, she played the American tough at the US Open final, and was at least getting closer to improving their 1-9 head-to-head.
Sharapova, by contrast, seemed to be regressing against both, with only a lone victory against Azarenka on indoor clay to show for her numerous matches against the two. Most recently, she had blown a set and a break lead to Azarenka in Flushing, and barely contested a straight-set blowout in Beijing. That both nemeses were placed in the Round Robin group opposite the world #2 appeared more like an act of charity than anything else.
Leave it to diva to spend the week reminding us all how dangerous she truly can be.
Playing on a grittily slow hard court with a roof to protect her from the elements, the tall Russian went undefeated in round robin play, showing off her unflappable dominance against Sam Stosur and Championships debutante Sara Errani, along with her sheer determination to eek out a three-set tussle against Agnieszka Radwanska.
The semifinal versus Azarenka screamed “now or never” for Sharapova. Where the Russian was at a confidence peak and playing on a surface that favored her, Azarenka had been decisively beaten by Williams, and barely survived a battle against Angelique Kerber. With the year-end #1 no longer up for grabs (Azarenka had clinched the spot by qualifying for the semis), Sharapova played a pressure-free match and put a long-overdue beatdown on the Belorussian. Her oft-absent serve was on full display, and punctuated the hard-fought victory with an ace to make her first Championships final since 2007.
Facing primary nemesis Serena Williams, expectations for Sharapova were lower than they were before she played Azarenka. Despite beating the American to win her only Year-End Championships in 2004, the Russian’s 6-0, 6-1 loss to Williams at the Olympics final represented a nadir after a succession of ignominious defeats.
To be fair, Williams has rarely played less than her best against Sharapova. Had she come out on Sunday even half as flat as she was during losses to Ekaterina Makarova in Australia or Virginie Razzano in Paris, the story could have ended differently for the Russian, who acquitted herself well with another day of strong serving. But as Serena has proven time and time again, her “A” game is simply better than Sharapova’s, leaving fans pleasantly surprised that the Russian won the most games against Williams since Wimbledon 2010.
Sharapova’s 2012 may have ended in defeat, but she did a lot in a little time to reassert her presence among the game’s elite. To borrow a few of her “Sugarpova” flavors, the Maria Sharapova can be sassy, quirky and even a little silly; but in Istanbul, she was all that a true diva aspires to be: memorable.