Ana's Lament;

Learning Life’s Lessons, Maria Sharapova’s Phoenix Rises

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By Frank A Hilario

The Serbian loser was disappointed, of course; she had only her tears to show. The Canadian reporter was disappointed too; she had only her complaints to write. They were both missing the point – the January 26 Australian Open victory of the Russian winner was of another kind. It was psychological. It was less a tennis player’s mastery of her opponent than a tennis player’s mastery of herself. Your first and best opponent is always yourself.

It’s a point of view. ‘The tennis was hardly memorable: unimaginative at best, tense, error-prone and mediocre at worst.’ That is Canadian Stephanie Myles of Canwest News Service describing the January 26 Australian Open finals between Russian Maria Sharapova and Serbian Ana Ivanovic (canada.com), where Maria won 7-5 & 6-3 in 91 minutes. That’s some Reporter’s Notebook you’re keeping, Stephanie. My guess is that you have been watching the wrong pretty game, or rooting for the wrong pretty girl. Pretty isn’t on the outside.

I, Filipino have been waiting for this victory for a whole year, and you, Stephanie try to spoil it for Maria and for me and her other fans. This was a match between Beauty and Beauty, and I say Beauty & The Best won. ‘The Best?’ You ask, thinking of the grammar of comparison; shouldn’t it be ‘The Better’ because I’m comparing only two? You don’t understand.

The Better, you insist, because you are looking at only one game, that climactic fight between two tennis-playing girls who just happened to be both good-looking (‘Glam Slam’ is what they called it), with only a net preventing them from thrashing each other, and going after the US$ 1.2 million prize. It’s enough to make you sweat, never mind the 34°C heat at the Rod Laver Arena in Melbourne. A million for The Best.

The Best, I insist, because you don’t look at the finals as if it were the only game played. Even in women’s tennis, you have to be holistic, not only ballistic. Maria Sharapova defeated all 7 opponents in 2 weeks under the sweltering heat of the Australian sun. That’s the Big Picture Down Under or Up Top. If you’re not broad-minded, you miss the Big Picture. You have to be broad-minded; you have to look at the elephant. (Now then, you might also want to read about the Big Picture I have written about, ‘The Green Elephant Of India,' frankahilario.com.)

Alix Ramsay looks at a ‘More mature Maria’ who is ‘the new champion of Australia, having scythed through the draw without dropping a set and rounding off a majestic 2 weeks with a 7-5 6-3 pounding of Ana Ivanovic’ (sport.scotsman.com). Right! Alix. Beautiful words. Beauty & Brains won: persistent beauty, consistent brain can be said of Maria, which cannot be said of Ana.

Neil Harman says Maria’s victory shows she is ‘the second best player in the game today’ (timesonline.co.uk). Wrong! Neil; Maria Sharapova is the best player in the game today, period.

Christopher Clarey says, ‘This season is off to a perfect start: seven matches and seven victories with no sets lost despite one of the toughest draws conceivable’ (nytimes.com). She had to play against World #3 (Jelena Jankovic), World #2 (Ana Ivanovic) and World #1 (Justin Henin) and demolish them on the way to winning the Australian Open. When the Top 3 Balls fall one after the other because of your serve, what should they call you? #1.

Her coach Michael Joyce says, ‘If you put the whole tournament together, for sure it was the best tennis she’s played.’ Ever. Michael, there is no other way to put it except together. You don’t win a title playing only the last and decisive game. Leo Schlink is singularly astute and emphatic, saying ‘Sharapova proved she was the best player in the world’ (news.com.au). You’re a winner, Leo; congratulations, Courier-Mail (Australia).

And Ana’s Lament? Ivanovic is ‘left to lament a stack of unforced errors as she hit 33 for the match to Sharapova’s 15’ (Luke Buttigieg, huliq.com). Does that mean Ana Ivanovic defeated Ana Ivanovic? Not by a long shot. Even Ana says no. She lost to a great player. She says, ‘I want to congratulate Maria for a great tournament and for giving me a tough time today’ (news.com.au.com). You can lose and be gracious.

The Melbourne victory was a sweet gift to Maria’s mother Yelena on her birthday. ‘Last year, I lost on her birthday and this year I said I’m going to make it up to her, and I did.’ You can win and be gracious.

Bonnie Ford says the Australian Open victory was Sharapova’s ‘striking return to top form in the season’s first major’ (sports.espn.go.com). In 2004, Maria won her first Wimbledon title and she was only 17; in 2006, she won her first US Open and she was only 19 (she was born 1987 April 19). In 2007, everything went wrong – she kept losing her games, the most humiliating being that Serena Williams, the #81 seed, defeated Maria Sharapova, the #1 seed in the Australian Open. She won only 3 games that time. You can lose and not be gracious to yourself.

That nerve-wracking loss was the first sign that Maria Sharapova’s world had crumbled. In 2007, she won only one title, in San Diego, in August that even she forgot (Linda Pierce, theage.com.au). She had suffered with Michael Joyce, her friend and coach, when he lost her mother Jane to ovarian cancer in April. And Maria had a cyst in her left wrist, and shoulder and hamstring and other injuries. She had known the Joyces about half of her life, meeting the family when she was about 10 or 11. It was Jane who encouraged Michael, who had stopped playing professional tennis, ‘to keep devoting time to helping the rising star’ (Bonnie Ford, sports.espn.go.com). Jane was herself already fighting ovarian cancer at the time. When Jane died, Maria was herself devastated. ‘I think the reason for that is because it’s one of the closest people in my team, in my family, that passed away,’ she says (Dennis Passa, origin.insidebayarea.com). She calls her team her family; she knows she is lucky to have her family supporting her. Q: When you have your family behind you, when can you lose? A: When you forget.

In 2007, Maria needed much encouragement, as her own injuries and ‘wounded confidence’ (Ford, cited) plagued her. Thinking back, AAP had this headline 2 days before the finals: ‘Sharapova out to erase 2007 demons’ (news.theage.com.au). No, you can’t erase demons, AAP, much as you wish to; Maria finally learned she had to confront them. And she did.

Linda Pearce says, ‘Tragedy close to home (was) an inspiration’ (theage.com.au). No, Linda, tragedy does not inspire you; you have to inspire yourself. The package comes completely knocked down, some assembly required. Growing up is a do-it-yourself thing.

In fact, it was more a championship match between real life and a dream of greatness in a sport one loves. Maria Sharapova had been down and almost out not by consistently better tennis opponents but by persistently bitter experiences.

Jane, mother of her coach, died. Jane had been mother to Maria too. So she had been a regular visitor at the hospital during Jane’s 6-year battle with ovarian cancer (Linda Pearce, theage.com.au). ‘It completely changed my perspective on life,’ Maria says. ‘During the time when I was practicing, the days I could practice without being injured, it was hard to motivate myself because tennis just didn’t seem important in those moments, whatsoever, at all.’ Jane was fighting, Maria was learning.

She dedicated her Australian Open (Daphne Akhurst Memorial Cup) trophy to Jane. That is because, Maria says, when Jane died, ‘after the loss that (Michael) suffered, I got a whole lot of perspective with my injuries and setbacks. It helped me prioritize so many things that were outside of tennis.’ Like life.

Maria’s 2007 had been overwhelming in an awful way. Matthew Cronin quotes Maria saying of her 2007 games (foxsports.com):

It kept rolling and rolling, and you think good things were going to happen and they will, but it seemed like no good things were happening. There were so many setbacks and I was left in so many tough situations. You have to appreciate every single moment you have, which is why this one is so much sweeter. When I was going through all those setbacks I tried to remember what it was like to hold those Wimbledon and US Open trophies and know that I was capable of doing it before and doing it again.

Her coach, Michael Joyce, says of her student and friend (Cronin, cited):

Sometimes those downs actually help you to shoot back up. And a young girl like her hasn’t been through a lot of ups and downs. It’s been mostly up, up, up. But I kept telling her, ‘It’s going to make you stronger, it’s going to make you stronger,’ and obviously it has.

No, Michael, the downs don’t automatically give you ups– you have to pick yourself up, you have to help yourself, you have to learn from life’s lessons yourself. Go ask your friend Maria herself.

In 2007 November 12, in the Madrid tournament, Maria Sharapova found herself when she lost to Justine Henin. She found she still loved tennis and had the heart of a champion, giving Henin a fight for her life in the marathon (3 hours,24 minutes) WTA final match. Maria lost, but she knew she did her best and that was good enough for her to come back from the living dead.

Justin Gimelstob credits Maria’s Australian Open victory to ‘Sharapova’s rediscovered game’ (sportsillustrated.cnn.com). No, Justin, it’s not a rediscovered game; it’s a rediscovered self; it’s Maria rediscovering Maria.

What happened? How did Maria defeat her demons? She didn’t. ‘Late last season,’ Bonnie Ford says (source cited), ‘when Sharapova couldn’t practice long stretches because of a strained shoulder and a ganglian cyst on one wrist, she found out what it was like to stop attacking a problem and simply live with it.’ She had a moment of inspiration. She had grown up. That’s the mind. Maria herself says, ‘I don’t think my body has 100% developed into its own’ (Luke Buttigieg, huliq.com). That’s the body, not the mind.

To Paul Newman, Reporter, it was excellence that won the match despite the sweltering 34°C-heat; as to Ana Ivanovic (independent.co.uk):

Her game eventually fell apart in the face of Sharapova’s excellence. The 20-year-old Serb made 33 unforced errors to Sharapova’s 15 as her game melted under the fierce Melbourne sun. Her ground strokes, particularly on the backhand flank, grew increasingly clumsy.

From the text (SMS message) sent by the American living tennis legend Billie Jean King the morning of the game, Maria had drawn inspiration. The text said: ‘Champions take their chances and pressure is a privilege’ (Bruce Matthews, news.com.au). From one champion to another. Used with love, the cell phone is one of our modern wonderful media; if it doesn’t bring you good news, it brings you grace.

Maria says of King, ‘She’s always a person who texts me’ if I have a tough moment or a great win’ (Richard Evans, sport.guardian.co.uk). King, now 64, had won the Australian Open in 1968, among 12 grand slam singles titles. ‘King will be proud how the Florida-based Russian heeded her words. Sharapova grabbed most of the important points of the match and stood firm when Ivanovic briefly threatened to take control late in the first set.’ It was the serve. She won a blistering 89% of first serve points. ‘She was serving so well it was hard for me to control my returns,’ Ivanovic says. When Maria won, she got another text from King: ‘Congratulations. You did great.’ Billie, it’s great when you conquer all the Top 3 in your game in one big tournament; it’s even greater when you conquer yourself.

Maria first met Billie Jean King when she (Maria) was 13 or 14. ‘From that point on, she’s just always been really supportive,’ Maria says (AP, sportsline.com). Even champions need people who support them.

Ana says of her defeat, ‘Experience will only make me better’ (Greg Stutchbury, uk.reuters.com). No, Ana, learning is not automatic; experience doesn’t teach – the learner has to learn. I know; I was a teacher. Go ask Maria herself.

Nirmal Shekar refers to Maria’s ‘test of character’ as she was down 0-30 in the first game, ‘but she came through in style’ (hindu.com), displaying ‘the red-hot form and the hunger that she has displayed over 2 weeks in the Australian Open championship.’ Playing against Ana, Maria passed.

Grant Clark and Heidi Couch say it was the ‘hard training and greater perspective on life that helped Maria Sharapova seal her first Australian Open tennis title with a straight-set victory over Ana Ivanovic’ (bloomberg.com). I say it was the greater perspective on life. ‘I had many setbacks throughout last year. I’m so happy I can come through and perform great throughout the whole two weeks.’ Among others, the death of a loved one. ‘After that loss I just gained a whole new perspective on life and my injuries and how to treat life with respect.’ She was paying attention to her inner self.

Is Maria’s smashing victory a comeback? A resurgence? No, a Phoenix Rising. The Phoenix does not rise until it has become ashes. Then and only then can the Phoenix will herself to rise. No one else will will it for her. (You might also be interested in another’s Phoenix Rising; try my ‘The Gospel Whisperer,’ frankahilario.com.)

Sharapova serves it to Ivanovic,’ Terry Maddaford says (nzherald.co.nz). It is her ‘almost surreal service games.’ Serves Ana Ivanovic right! I say. Serves the Australian tennis crowd too. Ana was the Melbourne crowd’s darling from beginning to end, from promise of victory to reality of defeat. When will Australians ever learn that the premise of winning depends on the pressure on the player, not the pleasure of the throng?

I’m 48 years older than but I’m a fan of the Russian. I became a member of the Maria Sharapova Fan Community some 3 years ago. I love the website too; I owe maria-sharapova.org the free image you see above, my PC desktop background (‘Sharapova Mural’). For the last two years they have sent me from the other side of the International Dateline a birthday greeting on the exact date. How many of my friends do that? None, zero, zilch! So you see, I’m a winner as long as I’m with Maria win or loss or more or less.

Why did the loser lose? Jake Niall says of Ana Ivanovic, ‘She wasn’t ready to win. So she didn’t’ (theage.com.au). You are your first and worst opponent.

Playing to a home crowd does not guarantee a win. ‘I have relatives here,’ Ana says, ‘so I just feel very comfortable here. And I feel like playing in front of an Aussie crowd is like playing in front of a home crowd.’ Ana, stop playing to the crowd and start playing to win!

Despite the loss, Ivanovic advances to World #2 in the rankings, behind #1 Henin. And Sharapova? To #4. Crazy. But you can’t win them all.

Greg Baum says, ‘Sharapova has always been easy to admire, hard to love’ (theage.com.au). ‘She presented as a prima donna, statuesque but cold. Affected on court, preening, shrieking and taking inordinately long to serve.’ (She didn’t serve until Ana stopped moving around with her squeaky tennis shoes.) Tennis Australia festooned the center court with flags, all Australian, none Russian. Poor losers!

Greg Baum quotes Maria as saying that after Michael’s mother died from ovarian cancer, ‘Tennis became so small in everyone’s perspective then.’ Life’s like that when you’re paying, not playing attention.

The winner has kind words for the loser. Maria says, ‘Ana has a wonderful future ahead of her’ (Stephanie Miles, canada.com). I say, win or lose, Maria has a wonderful future ahead of her.

There’s more to learn. Maria says, ‘I know I’ve already won three Grand Slams, I know I keep saying this, but I don’t think I’m at the peak of my career yet’ (Luke Buttigieg, huliq.com). Just wait a while, Maria, just wait a while. Growing up is hard to do.

Bonnie Ford says (cited), ‘In those moments you feel mature. You have a wonderful career. Doing something that you love to do and being good at it, there’s no greater gift.’ There is, Bonnie. The greatest gift of all is Your Own Phoenix Rising, rising out of the ashes of your defeats, failures, heartaches and then going out there and persistently if not consistently being the best at what you love to do. I know. Been there, done that.


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