A Stunning, Left-Handed Rome Champion: No, It's Not Rafa, but Maria José

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A Stunning, Left-Handed Rome Champion: No, It's Not Rafa, but Maria José
Ian Walton/Getty Images

María José Martinez Sanchez, that is, the new women’s champion of Rome. And yes, she also happens to be Spanish.

It’s another of those heart-warming stories that has pervaded the tennis tour in 2010.

It’s up there with Ivan Ljubicic winning his first Masters event at 31.

Or Andy Roddick reaching back-to-back Masters finals on home soil, and winning one of them, Miami, for the first time.

Or Justine Henin taking the Premier title in Stuttgart just four months after her return from retirement.

Or Juan Carlos Ferrero, aged 30, reaching three consecutive finals and his highest ranking since 2004.

For the lovely Martinez Sanchez is now 27, and has just won is her first singles Premier title.

Although she had won two titles before this, both on clay, they were at International level—Bogota and Bastad in 2009. So Rome is a truly break-through moment for her.

There’s never been any doubting the Spanish woman’s talent. But her very special skills and style have, until now, reaped greater rewards in her doubles career where she has acquired 13 WTA titles since she turned pro in 1996.

She is now ranked No. 6 in the world in that specialism, and won the Hopman Cup in January with fellow Spaniard Tommy Robredo.

But there have been signs of late that she has other ambitions, despite almost giving up singles tennis a couple of years ago. With almost a dozen years on the circuit, and not a singles title to her name, it was easy to see why.

But in 2008, she made the finals in Barcelona. Then 2009 brought those first two WTA titles, as well as a semifinal place in Bali. These successes took her into the top 30 for the first time.

This year, she made the quarterfinals at Indian Wells, and in Rome, as an unseeded player, took out some of the top players in the competition.

The home favorite, top-20 Francesca Schiavone, herself enjoying a late flowering at almost 30, fell in three sets.

Then second seed Caroline Wozniacki lost in straight sets.

Finally, and most impressively, Martinez Sanchez took out a resurgent Ana Ivanovic and Jelena Jankovic in the semis and the final, both in hard-fought, straight sets.

What makes the Spaniard’s success all the more exciting is that she plays a style of tennis rarely seen in the modern game. For the left-hander is one of the natural serve-volleyers in tennis. Indeed, she won both set points against Jankovic with this very tactic.

She is almost a throwback to the style of Martina Navratilova were it not for her double-handed backhand. It transpires that, when the Spaniard was a girl, she used to watch her heroine and was inspired, as a left-hander, by her style of play, despite growing up on the clay of Spain.

“My game isn’t typical, not even to the other Spanish players, but that’s the key. I like doing a lot of different things, coming to the net, playing drop shots…When I was seven or eight I always hit the ball then went straight into the net.”

Her service delivery is straight out of the Navratilova handbook: a swinging leftie delivery down the middle, or the swerving delivery that fades away from the opponent’s forehand return.

She combines her effective serve with precise and flat drives and an extravagant use of slice. This last quality is especially destructive when used in the Martinez Sanchez signature play, the drop shot.

She uses this tactic in the most outrageous of moments: as a return of serve, perhaps, or from well behind the baseline: even from a mid-court volley. Her variety of shot and cunning tactics simply undermine the most determined baseline play of her opponents.

She does not execute these shots with the grace of an Henin, nor the neatness of a Navratilova. She faces the net head on rather than at an angle. But her hands deliver such touch and accuracy that it hardly seems to matter. In fact, the very unorthodoxy of her delivery adds to the difficulty in reading her game.

And while her technique may not have the elegance of Henin’s, she is blessed with a physical elegance that more than compensates. Her face is reminiscent of a young Jane Fonda, all cheekbones, eyelashes and big smile. Her frame is lithe, her demeanor sunny.

Yes, the similarities with the men’s Rome champion are multifarious. Take her words after the final: “The key is to fight, fight, fight to the end. You don’t have to set a limit for yourself.”

The Martinez Sanchez skills, of course, have been honed on the doubles court. And the Spanish woman found herself back on court in the women’s finals having barely drawn breath form her singles triumph.

There, she was able to please the Italian crowd once more by losing to Gisela Dulko and the Italian Flavia Pennetta. It was a sterling effort, but she ran out of steam on her own serve to concede the match, with Nurai Llagostera Vives, in straight sets.

Martinez Sanchez will break into the top 20 for the first time this week, and though unseeded, she has been rewarded with a bye in her first round in Madrid.

But she has an unenviable draw if she is to make much headway: the fast-rising Samantha Stosur first, then Agnieszka Radwanska, followed by either Schiavone or Venus Williams. Her quarterfinal match, should she get that far, would put her up against Wozniacki again, and that probably wouldn’t worry her at all.

It’s a big ask for her to shine quite as brightly so soon after her efforts in Rome. She did, after all, play two finals on Saturday. But the seeded women will not fancy seeing her in the early rounds.

She has also become a danger to them at Roland Garros. As she was playing her way to the Rome title, there were no odds available for Martinez Sanchez in the French Open. That’s all changed. She’s now up there—at around 20-1—with the likes of Ivanovic, Wozniacki, and Venus Williams.

And judging by the enthusiastic support she won from the Italian crowd this week, her tennis will go down a treat in Paris.

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