Connors, recently tapped by Sharapova to be her coach, will be taking this role for only the second time; he had previously coached former US Open winner Andy Roddick from 2006-2008.
It’s a curious union. Connors is the 1970s star who played the US Open with the same kind of rebellious beat as a Ramones album. He had finished winning Grand Slam titles three years before Sharapova was born.
Sharapova is like 21st century hip hop: you either like her tennis or you don’t. She loves to rhythmically belt out her own brand of baseline smashes and screams. Her decision to tune in to Connors is like Nicki Minaj seeking enlightenment from Paul McCartney.
There is no reticence from Sharapova who has designs to become the dominant No. 1 player in the WTA. The decision to enlist Connors is her exclamation point.
From Beyond the Baseline
Sharapova has always demonstrated athletic power. Her force of will in how she plays tennis is mirrored by her competitive tenacity. She emphasizes each hard smash as if she were an evolutionary Monica Seles.
There is stubbornness in her tactics to outhit her opponents, and despite her success, she is not as nimble as some of her retrieving competitors. There is also her troubled second serve. Too often, she has sprayed out double faults like New York’s Bethesda Fountain.
Connors is a strange choice to help with Sharapova’s biggest technical deficiencies. He was only an adequate server himself, and Maria’s aggressive baseline game may not find added volume.
Certainly, he will have her continue her aggressiveness. If he can help Sharapova to approach each shot with more purpose, such as the Connors staple to go for the corners and cover the net, she might find her own sense of improved intuition and skill.
Inspiration and Perspiration
Connors can see in Sharapova the kind of desire and competitiveness familiar to his way of seeing tennis. From her inception as a superstar—Wimbledon 2004 titlist—her grittiness was proclaimed by WTA champion Martina Hingis (“mean as a snake”) and tennis training guru Nick Bollitieri (“tough as nails”), according to Linda Pearce of theage.com.
Sharapova, like Connors, likes to celebrate big points with a fist pump and snarl, though her dead-fish wrist action could use help from the master. Connors, at age 39, once turned Louis Armstrong Stadium into his own rock concert with several double-fisted celebrations that all but unnerved his quarterfinals opponent Paul Haarhuis.
So what does Sharapova need most from Connors?
Above all, she has lacked the versatility and mental power to defeat her American rival Serena Williams. Thirteen straight losses to Williams must be shattered if she hopes to regain No. 1. While it’s true that Williams has long been the superior player, Sharapova needs to replace her failures with belief.
Who better than Connors when it comes to understanding how to face up to superior talents? He had to battle through Bjorn Borg, mix it up with John McEnroe and intimidate Ivan Lendl. His first act might be to paste a picture of Williams at the center of a bull's-eye and throw darts with Sharapova. There will be no shortage of vitriol if it is necessary for victory.
No Sideshow Here
Sharapova and Connors will certainly feel a jolt of energy in their tennis relationship. There will be no cutting corners with the demands of hard work and mental improvement. In 2006, Connors was clearly an inspiration for Andy Roddick’s march to the US Open final.
Nevertheless, many tennis fans are interested in the partnership because, well, it’s Jimmy Connors.
With added success, Sharapova may find herself sharing much of the limelight. If she slips, she will find the Connors shadow looming over her with unspoken expectations.
Ultimately, time will tell if Sharapova is able to raise her game and become a dominant No. 1 player. Connors or not, she will be the one creating winners and grinding through matches. But clearly Sharapova is willing to shake up her career for the chance to play better championship tennis.
Why not go all the way? That’s what Sharapova is banking on.
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