To be in the backseat of a car, the cyanotype night on some minor highway, and pass at a distance of one or two hundred yards a rectangle of total green under pooled white lights is to see North American heaven. A community baseball field, a high school football field. A tennis court, occasionally. Say you’re a tennis-playing child from an oil town in Siberia where there are no courts, and no oranges, and in photographs of home it’s always snowing or sleeting or for another reason it’s gray. Around the age of 6, having first picked up a secondhand racket on the clay courts in Sochi, off the Black Sea, you arrive in Bradenton, Florida, home of Tropicana Products and IMG’s Bollettieri tennis academy. Will you ever get over it, the way the green lies shining against the dark? Maria did not. Maria Sharapova was, for a brief lambent time between 2004 and 2006, when she was 17 and 18 and 19, the best female tennis player on grass.
She was trained by Nick Bollettieri at the IMG Academy on mostly hard courts, to hone her technique absent variables. She moved on clay, she said later, jokingly, like “a cow on ice.” But on grass she was a dancer, a ballerina. One other body moves like hers, and it is that of the actual ballerina Sara Mearns, who shares with Maria a fissive mix of rigor and bounce. Some of Maria’s best serves in the middle 2000s are unbelievable when seen in slow motion. The extension of the right, working leg, reaching à la hauteur. The high toss followed by a hyperbolic swing of the racket, almost dismissive of the ball. Richard Williams, a former chief sportswriter for The Guardian who happens to share his name with the father and former coach of Venus and Serena, wrote that a poem about Maria “might start with a description of the moment when she tosses the ball up to serve and, as it reaches its apogee, a line through her left arm and right leg forms a perfect perpendicular.” Which is to say, the girl knew her angles.
Green clay and grass showed Maria to advantage in early photographs. The verdancy made wonder of her coloring, brought out the complementary flush of her cheeks, the gray-green in her cat’s eyes, the analogous streaks of gold in her long straight hair. She looked like a sixth Lisbon girl in Grosse Pointe, as if she’d been away at summer camp while the other five virgins were suiciding. She wore tank tops and little A-line skirts in white, or pink, or powder blue, obviously from Nike, and a simple gold-plated cross in the Orthodox style. No makeup. Quick-bitten nails. Goody-brand snap clips in her basic ponytail. Before each serve, she paused to brush back the newly escaped baby hairs with her ball hand, and the down on her forearm snagged the light. In 2003 she won no matches on the hard courts at the Australian Open nor on the clay at the French Open, but when she got to Wimbledon, to the grass, she beat the 11th-seeded Jelena Dokic and reached the fourth round, where she was beaten by fellow Russian Svetlana Kuznetsova. The tour made her Newcomer of the Year. A talk-show host began to compare her to Anna Kournikova, and she was ready, saying, “That’s so old.”
At Wimbledon one year later, the turf looked like home. Before beating Serena for the first and second-to-last time in her career, Maria ended her warm-up a few minutes early, getting permission, like a bored kid in trig class, to go to the bathroom. Already the boys were crowding on the hill for a free show. She was nervous to be seen. She had only to look in the mirror to see the face of a winner. For days it had been raining; it was in the rain that she’d defeated Lindsay Davenport—“stunned” her, according to the papers—to arrive at the final, and now the sun had come through. Her whites were perfect. Her top was thinner-strapped than usual, shoulders so tanned. Her thigh-slit skirt, a new variation on a favorite style, conspired with ankle socks to make her legs look longer than possible. She wore semiformal opalescent drop earrings, and she had the gold cross, the snap clips, and she had altogether the mien of a 22-year-old Gwyneth Paltrow arriving to collect her Oscar in a gum-pink ball gown.
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