Somebody check the satellite photos again. How did we not see Maria Sharapova — all 6 feet of her — coming?
I mean, this ain’t 1812. The British navy doesn’t just suddenly show up on our shores and set fire to the White House. This is 2004, the age of the Internet and the Tennis Channel and sports talk radio. There aren’t supposed to be any secrets anymore.
Not big ones, anyway. Not the kind of secrets that win the most prestigious tennis tournament in the world, knocking off the two-time defending champ in the final.
This isn’t like Ben Crane sneaking off with the British Open championship last year or Shaun Micheel doing likewise in the PGA. Granted, they, too, were unknowns, but no one expects them to win another major anytime soon. Sharapova, on the other hand, is clearly a huge talent, one who could be accepting congratulations from the Duchess of Kent for the next decade. She’s a beauty who — unlike Anna Kournikova, another of Russia’s racket-wielding blond bombshells — turns into a beast on the court. (Or, to put it another way, she’s got game to go with her gams.)
And yet, somehow, she slipped in under our radar — which takes some doing. After all, most of us could tell you the name of the world hot dog eating king (Takeru “The Tsunami” Kobayashi), if not the Milwaukee Brewers’ former Italian sausage mascot (Mandy Block). How could we not have been familiar with a 17-year-old lass who might be on the verge of dominating women’s tennis? Hasn’t somebody, somewhere, at least identified her as a Diaper Dandy?
Apparently not. Even after she won the grass-court tournament that precedes Wimbledon, the only person touting her was her former coach, Nick Bollettieri. “It was a little surprising not to see her go all the way in Paris,” he said. (Sharapova lost in the French quarters to Paola Suarez.) “It’s just a matter of time with Maria.”
But that’s a coach talking. No one else seemed to have any rubles down on Sharapova. Indeed, she was seeded only 13th, and 13th seeds are, well, East Tennessee State. But she bashed her way into the semis, where she made an improbable comeback against Lindsay Davenport, and then she pulled an upset Saturday that even she considered “a shock.”
The real shock, though, was that the sports world was capable of producing such a shock, that the sporting public could be caught so unaware. Women’s tennis might not get the saturation coverage of, say, the NFL, but we usually find out about any Certified Prodigies fairly early in their careers, well in advance of their first major championship. Jennifer Capriati was on the cover of Sports Illustrated at 13. Chris Evert, Steffi Graf, Martina Hingis — nobody was surprised when they won their first Slam.
The same goes for women’s golf. We see and hear so much about Michelle Wie, it’s almost like she’s living in the same house with us. And during the recent U.S. Women’s Open, we learned more about high schooler Paula Creamer, who’s sure to become one of America’s favorite dairy products.
Sharapova, though, seems to have arrived by spaceship. Who is this kid? Where did she come from? Her Russian-ness might have something to do with it. Women’s tennis is teeming with Russkies — not just Kournikova, but also Anastasia Myskina (the French Open champ), Elena Dementieva (the French runner-up), Svetlana Kuznetsova, Nadia Petrova, Vera Zvonareva, Elena Bovina and Dinara Safina (not to mention Anna Smashnova-Pistolesi, the Belarus-born Israeli). It’s easy to get lost in a crowd like that, all of whom (except for Anna) were seeded at Wimbledon.
Serena Williams jokes about it. “There are like 50 players from Russia in the top 10,” she says. “Every week you have to play an ‘ova.’ They ask, ‘Who are you playing?’ I say, ‘I’m playing an ‘ova.’”
Soon enough, bookies might be offering a new betting proposition: the ova-under.
What do you suppose the ova-under was in the women’s final — that is, the number of games Sharapova figured to win off Williams? Six? Eight? That was the other part of the “shock.” Most tennis fans thought Maria would be in over her head against Serena — that it would be ova and out for the Siberian siren. But far from being outclassed, she poleaxed the reigning champion 6-1, 6-4.
It was different in 1985, when a similarly unknown 17-year-old, Boris Becker, made off with the men’s title. Back then, we didn’t have TV cameras shining a light into every corner of the sports world. There were still shadows, still unknowns. In 2004, though, we see all; we even eyeball the rings of Saturn. Which makes unsung Maria Sharapova’s victory at Wimbledon all the more amazing. How did she manage to sneak through our metal detector — and does Tom Ridge know about this?