Maria Sharapova knows how to stick a massive serve, but she also knows a thing or two about hitting a nerve.
She demonstrated that again the other day at the Italian Open where, after a brief hit with Rafael Nadal on a practice court, she posted on Twitter, “Had two minutes on the court with the GOAT, was so nervous.”
The tweet predictably ignited a social media flame war between fans of Roger Federer and Nadal, whose followers are about as antagonistic toward each other as the fellas themselves are companionable.
So what did Federer do to deserve that subtle diss?
Sharapova has never been one to blurt out things she might regret later on the spur of the moment. She likes to control her message, her brand, all that marketing baloney. Perhaps she’s still miffed about the way Federer reacted to her suspension for doping back in 2016.
Federer called for “zero tolerance” and told reporters at the Stuttgart tournament: “It doesn’t matter if they did it on purpose or not — I don’t really see the difference. You need to know what goes into your body, you have to be 100 percent sure of what’s going on, if you’re not, you’re going to be damned.”
Nadal’s initial reaction, while strong, was later tempered.
But it’s easy to see another reason Sharapova might side with the minority in the great GOAT debate. Like Nadal, she has a special place in her heart for the French Open.
Nadal has enjoyed an astonishing, somewhat disproportionate degree of his success on the red clay at Roland Garros. He’s won the title a mind-boggling 10 times there, earning the nickname King of Clay. It’s a great honor, highlighting that clay is a unique surface. There’s never been an equivalent King of Grass, a King of Hard Courts or a King of Carpet, except perhaps in an advertising campaign for some home furnishings kingpin.
Clay also happens to be the surface on which Sharapova now excels. She’s won the French Open twice as many times as any other Grand Slam, although those two titles qualify her more as a Princess than Queen of Clay. But she underwent an unexpected and triumphant transformation that earned her the singles title in 2012 and 2014. She cherishes those titles, and why not? She hasn’t won any other major in more than a decade.
It’s been a long way back for Sharapova following the 15-month doping suspension that ended last April. She’s won just one event, a minor one in Asia (Tianjin) where her highest ranked victim was No. 25 Peng Shuai. She’s had to battle injuries while shaking off the rust and trying to manage the post-suspension challenges. She’s a respectable 21-10 during the past 52 weeks. Her official WTA ranking of No. 52 is relatively low, but she’s No. 12 in the more of-the-moment UTR ratings.
This is the sweet spot of the tennis year for the 31-year-old Russian. As an added bonus, her nemesis, Serena Williams, a definite maybe for the French Open, may enter the demanding event without having played a single tournament match since March. Williams is 19-2 against Sharapova, with those losses dating back to 2004. If Williams ends up playing, it will give Sharapova her best opportunity in more than a decade to scratch out a face-saving win.
Sharapova is back in the care of Thomas Hogstedt, with whom she split in 2013, shortly after he supervised her transformation into a clay-court Grand Slam champ. But she’s been plagued by inconsistency. In identifying with Nadal, she may be hoping that his ability to perform at his peak during long periods rubs off on her. It would be the next step in becoming the Queen of Clay.