Sharapova never got gloves on in semifinal loss

6/7/2007 - Tennis

PARIS -- Maria Sharapova graded herself on the curve Thursday, and she had a decent argument.

Her 6-2, 6-1 loss to Serbia's Ana Ivanovic in the French Open semifinal might have woken the echoes of her recent maulings at the hands of Serena Williams in the Australian Open final and the round of 16 in Miami.

But Sharapova wasn't supposed to be in the Roland Garros semifinal in the first place, for a variety of reasons. Clay is not her preferred playground and she is just back from a layoff to nurse a tender shoulder. She kept advancing, seemingly, on borrowed time.

Sharapova managed a Houdini-like escape in the third round, shucking her underwater handcuffs to beat clay-court specialist Patty Schnyder by sheer force of will. Schnyder admitted, agonizingly, afterward that she felt like "the little champion who couldn't do anything'' across the net from an unyielding presence.

It was Sharapova's turn to be overshadowed Thursday, politely steamrolled by Ivanovic, who has been playing with the light feet of predestiny.

While Sharapova's serve still doesn't look like its old self in terms of speed or positioning -- match commentators noted that there were a few times Ivanovic barely had to move to return it -- she can still win, as she proved in this tournament, by reigning supreme on the baseline. Ivanovic took that turf away from her, along with any chance that she could draw on her strongest asset.

Sharapova is often called one of the best fighters in the women's game. She never got the gloves on in this tilt, but she looked resigned rather than intimidated. The verbal evidence of that attitude came in her postmatch news conference, where she graciously offered explanations rather than excuses.

"I gave her the chances, you know, to open up the court,'' Sharapova said. "And I felt like she was always the one getting the first hit on the ball.

"She seemed to be jumping a lot at the serves. And I didn't do much with my return, either. So giving her the first ball isn't exactly a great game plan.

"I was always the one that let her control the point from the beginning of the point. Every time I did feel like I had my chances, I was making unforced errors. Once you start off slow, and I started off slow in the beginning of the first set, and the second set, I mean, the train's already in London.''

Looking ahead to Wimbledon was what most observers expected Sharapova to do here in the first place, but to her credit, she got off the train in Paris and stayed for a while.

In Ivanovic, she ran into a player who promises a challenge both on the court and in the more vast open spaces of marketing.

"I don't think you can compare the two,'' said Dan Holzmann, Ivanovic's business manager and chief financial backer in her developmental years. But people inevitably will. They embody the age-old dichotomy best acted out in the corny '60s sitcom "Gilligan's Island,'' where unattainable Ginger Grant and girl-next-door Mary Ann Summers vied for the hearts, minds and libidos of the marooned crew.

Sharapova-Ivanovic sets Nike against adidas, powerful Russia versus rising Eastern Europe, blonde alongside brunette. Sharapova based an advertising campaign on singing "I Feel Pretty,'' then bashing the ball. Ivanovic is focused on refining an all-court game and has no idea how pretty she is, according to people close to her.

"She's not the one who looks into the camera when the light is red,'' Holzmann said. "She still looks away. We're going to try to change that.''

Gavin Versi, who also works for the Swiss marketing firm that represents Ivanovic, said she "makes a separation between being a nice girl and what she does on the court. Sharapova wants to murder her opponents. Perhaps Ana has to be a bit meaner on the court, but when I hear she's too nice to be a champion, that's garbage.''

Both left home to aim for the top, backed by generous patrons and fueled by a mentality that was the opposite of soft. "Everyone knows many sports people coming from the East fight harder than people from the West,'' Holzmann said.

Sharapova's most problematic opponent recently has been Williams, a girl from Compton, Calif. In Ivanovic, she's dealing with another player who may trump her backstory of expatriate drive and hunger. When reporters tried to draw Sharapova out on the subject, she put the two of them in the same psychological ballpark.

"I personally never have suffered, but I worked very hard, and I didn't have all the things being given to me,'' Sharapova said. "You know, not everyone came up to me and said, here's all this money and here's a car and here's a house and here, I'll give you this match.''

It's a good thing Sharapova is a fighter. She's going to need that trait as players from more and more blue-collar nations join the tennis sweepstakes. Her expectations of herself will be higher when she gets off the train in England. That will be the time to tell if she's back in Grand Slam-winning form.

Bonnie DeSimone is a freelancer who is covering the French Open for ESPN.com.