THEY CALL it the
Zone. It's that mystical state most athletes are lucky to achieve a few times
in their careers. The mind is cleansed. The body is free. The unity of time and
space comes undone. Brilliance is elevated to perfection. ¶ Tennis players
taking up occupancy in the Zone can guide the ball as if they've sent it to
obedience school. The lines on the court—targets just a few inches wide—appear
as vast as Montana. The ball expands to the size of a melon and seems to be
moving in slow motion. The figure on the other side of the net feels less like
an opponent than a collaborator.
Like most Zen-ish
concepts, the Zone resists easy explanation. "It's like you're playing in
your own bubble and you never want to come out of it," suggests Russia's
Maria Sharapova. "It's like a video game," shrugs France's Jo-Wilfried
Tsonga. "If you need an ace, you fire an ace." Serbia's Novak Djokovic
echoes this: "It's playing in a dream. Like you cannot miss even if you
are based on recent experience. In an Australian Open that—like the local
bathwater spinning counterclockwise in the drain—spun counter to everyone's
expectations, Sharapova, Tsonga and Djokovic blazed through their draws, making
tennis at its highest level resemble a Wii game. The event was marked by
matches ending close to dawn, a new Plexicushion court and the
uncharacteristically mortal play of Roger Federer. But ultimately it will be
recalled for the magic that came from the winners' rackets.
in the Zone was unexpected. The Florida-based Russian appeared to have
regressed in 2007, mostly because of chronic bursitis in her right shoulder,
which dulled her serve and as a result exiled her from the top five. But for
all of Sharapova's endorsements and global fame, she is nothing if not a jock.
Even when injured, she worked out maniacally, adding bulk to her lithe frame,
potential modeling contracts be damned. And when she finally got healthy, she
worked feverishly with her coach, Michael Joyce, to get her game back to where
it used to be, grinding through two-a-day practices in the off-season while
other players were poolside.
in Melbourne as the fifth seed, and the draw gods presented her with a
disguised blessing. Her second-round opponent was Lindsay Davenport, the former
No. 1 player who retired after 2006, gave birth to a son last summer and then
returned to the circuit in September. Pitted against a potentially dangerous
opponent so early, Sharapova immediately "locked in" (her term) and
sharpened her focus. In less time than it takes to read The Very Hungry
Caterpillar, Sharapova dismissed Moms Davenport. And, suddenly, she was in
PLAYING OUT of her
skin," as the Aussies put it, Sharapova won her next four matches by a
combined game score of 48--13. Blasting balls with her signature grunt
(EEEEEHHHHH UHHHhhhh!!!!), she often played entire games without missing a
shot. During one stretch against Belgium's Justine Henin and Serbia's Jelena
Jankovic—the first and third seeds, respectively—Sharapova ran off 12 straight
games. The serve that betrayed her last year bailed her out of what little
trouble she encountered. "She's playing unbelievable tennis," conceded
Henin, who, before facing Sharapova, hadn't lost in 32 matches since Wimbledon
last summer. "She's serving [well], she's playing for the lines. Everything
is working for her."
command performance was undercut only by the antics of her father, Yuri, the
newest tenant in tennis's already overcrowded pantheon of ill-behaving parents.
Inexplicably, he showed up for matches wearing sunglasses and a hooded
camouflage sweatshirt, causing his own daughter, clearly not amused, to liken
him to "an assassin." After Sharapova dispatched Henin, Yuri put the
ass in assassin. Grinning as Henin was leaving the court, he threw back the
hood of his sweatshirt and performed an enthusiastic throat-slashing gesture.
It was vile and belligerent—particularly so in a sport that has witnessed the
stabbing of a player on the court. The NFL fines players for performing such a
repugnant gesture. The starstruck WTA tour, however, dismissed it as an
"inside joke" between a father and a daughter. Ha-ha.
While there was
never any public apology, Yuri got a stern lecture from his daughter and sat on
the camouflage hoodie the rest of the tournament. (As Sydney Morning Herald
columnist Richard Hinds put it, the sweatshirt was now "in the general
vicinity of where most people believed it should be placed.") From his
elevated perch Yuri watched his daughter continue her dominance. Though
Sharapova was not exactly in the Zone in the final, she still turned in a
steady, businesslike performance and outplayed the pleasant Serbian Ana
Ivanovic to win her third Grand Slam title, 7--5, 6--3. "Realistically, I
know it's impossible to play amazing tennis through seven matches," says
Sharapova, who didn't lose a set in the tournament. "But I believe in
myself [enough] to know that if my tennis will drop, I can still win. That's
how much confidence I have in my game."
With her victory,
the rest of the field is now on notice: Sharapova is back. She has regained her
serve and, with it, her regal disposition. Asked after the final if her mental
strength intimidates opponents, she laughed and said, "I don't really care.
I try to take care of my own business." Not far from Sharapova, Joyce was
gripping a well-deserved beer. He wore a Nike cap embroidered with the message:
AIROGANCE JUSTIFIED. Which pretty much says it all about the player he
and her dad shared their "inside joke," the otherworldly play of Tsonga
might be called an outside joke, a source of fun and amusement for everyone to
share. The son of a Congolese father and a French mother, Tsonga grew up in Le
Mans and was a top junior. He turned pro in 2004, but a herniated disk
jeopardized his career. Last spring his status was so far off the map that he
was playing events such as the Tallahassee Challenger. Even as he improved his
ranking to No. 38, Tsonga entered the Australian Open having never played
beyond the semifinals of an ATP tournament. In his four previous Grand Slam
appearances he had advanced no further than the round of 16.