Will Jimmy Connors Help Maria Sharapova Beat Serena Williams?

Lindsay Gibbs@linzsports Featured ColumnistJuly 18, 2013

Jun 8, 2013; Paris, France; Serena Williams (USA), right, and Maria Sharapova (RUS) pose with their trophies after their match on day 14 of the 2013 French Open at Roland Garros. Mandatory Credit: Susan Mullane-USA TODAY Sports
Susan Mullane-USA TODAY Sports

Two egos, one goal. 

After shockingly splitting ways with Thomas Hogstedther coach of three yearslast week, Maria Sharapova has announced that she has a new addition to her team: Jimmy Connors. 

During her time with Hogstedt, Sharapova successfully climbed to the top of rankings again, won the French Open to get her Career Slam and established herself as one of the most consistent players on the WTA tour.

Also during her time with Hogstedt, she was 0-8 against Serena Williams, winning only one set in all eight matches. Ouch.

Jimmy Connors, your mission is clear. 

Hogstedt brought patience and consistency to Sharapova's game, helping her stay at the top and be relevant in nearly all big events she's competed in over the last three years. As her dad stepped to the sidelines and her controversial hitting partner and coach Michael Joyce left her team, Sharapova has benefited from Hogstedt's reserved but steady nature.

Connors is, quite literally, the exact opposite of that. 

Upon first glance, this is an incredibly suspect and jarring decision. Connors is an in-your-face loner who cares as much about P.R. as he does about fashion, two things that Sharapova has mastered.

However, according to journalist Steve Tignor, this thought has been in Connors' head for quite some time. 

Still, they seem like an odd couple.

It's tough to see Sharapova working with someone who has a more dominant and intense personality than she does. And even though he's previously worked with Andy Roddick, it's hard to see the dominant Connors working for anyone, let alone a player on the WTA.

But as Sports Illustrated's Jon Wertheim pointed out, the dynamic duo might not be so incompatible after all:

But upon further review, maybe it's not such an odd couple. Like Connors, Sharapova predicates her game largely on grit, compensating for a lack of raw talent or innate athleticism with a certain competitive zeal and an appetite for the fight. Like Connors, Sharapova eventually cut ties with an intense parent and sought outside coaching. Like Connors, she operates at a certain social remove from the competition.

These similarities might just be the things that give No. 2 Sharapova some much-needed confidence against No. 1 Serena. 

At the top of the game, the margins are razor-thin. Sharapova is not going to develop a completely new style at this point in her career. During her time with Hogstedt, she put in a lot of work in to firm up her weaknesses. She improved her movement, patience and defense.

Right now, all of her weapons are rendered ineffective against the 16-time Grand Slam Champion. The trick now is to do the things that she does well even better against Serena. 

That's a good thing, because it's unlikely that Connors will be interested in—or even capable of—digging into the stats and sports science to change Sharapova from a tactical standpoint. He didn't have that many dimensions to his own game, so it would be hard for him to add some to Sharapova's.

But the hope has to be that the unapologetic, foul-mouthed, win-or-die, king-of-the-world attitude that made Connors one of the most feared and admired players of his generation will rub off some and infuse some spice and drama back into her matches with Serena.

As Tennis.com columnist Pete Bodo wrote,

The next time Maria Sharapova loses to Serena Williams, she just may drop all that “She’s a great player, she was just too good today” hooey and snarl, “I’ll follow that b**** to the ends of the earth...”

Of course, none of this is certain to work. Connors, who was a bit of a recluse until he came out of retirement to work with Roddick in 2006, never could get the 2003 U.S. Open Champion over the Federer hurdle. In fact, you might even say that he made things worse. 

But Sharapova-Serena is a different situation. Serena will be 32 this fall, and age is likely to catch up with her at some point, however minimally. Sharapova is only 26. This is the time to make some dents in the pseudo-rivalry and improve her abysmal 2-14 head-to-head.

If looking into her box and seeing Connors there gives Sharapova that extra boost, then it's worth a shot. If hearing Connors tell her to fight and take the ball early will get her to listen and execute, then this move is a risk that will be rewarded.

Connors' best asset is that he's Jimmy Connors. That's what he brings to the table. That's what he will try to teach Sharapova.

Only time will tell if the results will be effective, but one thing is for sure: The process will definitely be worth watching.


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