Friday, July 19, 2013

Sharapova-Connors Pairing Will be Entertaining, Could be Lethal

(July 18, 2013)--I'm sensing a lot of doubting of Jimmy Connors right now, and I just want to warn you all that there could be some payback coming for that.

Why, you ask?

Because Jimmy Connors takes pride in proving people wrong. And while he doesn't need the extra motivation right now, he'll gladly take it. The man has a chip on his shoulder the size of West Virginia--he'd rather tap dance on your flower beds than help you water the plants. He's also ornery, and he proved that in spades in "The Outsider," his punchy, in-your-face, recently released memoir.

More than that, Connors, a gambler in the truest sense of the word, is hungry to have a horse in the race. In Sharapova he has taken the reigns of a very fine thoroughbred.

But will Sharapova and Connors mesh together?

Hmm... Now there's a good question. Most people tend to believe that Connors has little to offer the shrewd, world-beating Russian in terms of strokes, but even if he doesn't there are other ways that he can help her immensely. There's tactics, for one, and Connors was a shrewd tactician, well-versed in the art of chiseling away at and exposing the enemy's weaknesses. In truth Connors would be best served in leaving Sharapova's game alone, instead focusing his efforts on teaching Sharapova the kind of things that can't be taught.

Does it matter that Connors had losing records against Borg, McEnroe and Lendl, and lost nearly as many Grand Slam finals as he won? No. Sharapova will never hold a winning record against Serena Williams now that she's fallen behind 2-14 in the head-to-head, but she can gain some ground on her.

That's where Connors can help her. Connors is a down-and-dirty, rip-your-throat-out-and-eat-it street fighter who looks under rocks for ways to beat people. Sharapova may be down and dirty, but the general impression is that she hasn't been looking far and wide enough for solutions to her problems with Serena Williams. Just prior to Wimbledon she got into a bit of verbal volleying with Serena, and while many didn't think much of it at the time, it might have been the first clear indication that Sharapova was ready to really get down and dirty about ending her miserable run against the younger Williams sister. She didn't get to face Williams at Wimbledon, but one wonders if Sharapova's public shot across the bow of Serena was a sign of things to come.

With Connors now in the fold, more shots are sure to follow. But Sharapova knows that Williams has a taste for the down-and-dirty as well. Williams has been fighting fire with fire her whole career, so any off-court diversions that Sharapova might choose to partake in ought to be chosen wisely.

Sharapova may have shown a willingness to get dirty with Serena in the press room prior to Wimbledon, but she has yet to do so on the court, at least effectively. The Russian's on-court resistance has been futile at best in recent years against the World No. 1, and her moral victory in Miami, where she won the first set, then promised that she will eventually beat Serena at some time afterwards, is not the type of sustenance that will keep a hungry lion like Jimmy Connors--or the media for that matter--satisfied.

Can Connors help her with the mess she has made? Is there a way out of the deep, dark hole that Serena Williams has relegated her to?

You better believe that if there is, Jimmy Connors is the type of man that can help her find it. He's spent a long career of antagonistically pursuing his on-court rivals, so he ought to be well-suited to helping one of his charges do the same. And, Connors is hungry to pad his legacy. He may be getting gads of cash to work with Sharapova (rumor has it), but don't be fooled into thinking that Jimmy Connors is the type of man who would mail it in to collect a paycheck. Here's what he had to say about getting back into tennis when I interviewed him in early May. Clearly, Connors has gotten the itch.

"Whether I get back into coaching or try to figure out a way to find some good players to come up and take over and be the next US Open champion," Connors said, "I'm trying to get back and get busy now. I've got a number of years left and it's just a matter of how I want to spend them, and how much energy I want to put into it. And if I get back into it I want to put into it what I've always done and try to go about it the right way, and that's going to take a bit of time to get the feel, because I have been away for a bit of time."

He's been away since he finished up his tenure with Andy Roddick in 2008, but let's not forget that just over a month after they formally announced their partnership, Connors guided Roddick to the U.S. Open final after a dismal year that included a fourth-round loss in Australia followed by a first-round exit at Roland Garros and a third-round dump at Wimbledon.

"Once I get the feel and the opportunities, then hopefully I can take advantage of them," Connors said.

He did that with Roddick, guiding the American to the 2006 U.S. Open final, where he fought tooth and nail with Roger Federer. That he lost that final in four sets is probably more a product of the fact that Federer was in his prime in 2006. That he pushed Federer, splitting the first two sets before losing a very tight third set and a blowout fourth, is probably more of an indication of just how fired up Roddick was to be playing with Jimmy Connors, one of the game's all-time greats and one of its greatest fighters, sitting in his box.

Will Maria Sharapova, a player who has been there and done that and is probably jaded a bit when it comes to celebrity and legend, feel the same electricity when she looks up to see Jimmy Connors in her box during this year's U.S. Open?

That all depends on the chemistry the pair have. Word on the street is that Sharapova had been considering working with Connors for a long time, and, additionally, Connors has the backing of Sharapova's father Yuri. If that's the case, than she might feel a sense of wholeness as their partnership starts moving forward. It may put a gust of wind in her sails and give her the clarity she needs to finally find a solution to her most vexing, invincible rival.

And, at the very least, Sharapova will be able to look back at this period of her life someday, and say "I gave it a shot." Right now, she really has nothing to lose. Neither does Connors, who has been out of the game for so long, he's hardly considered a viable coaching option.

Now they can take the gloves off and get down to the fight. The world is waiting to see what they will bring.

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