Maria Sharapova and Jimmy Connors. Stop and think about it: It sounds like a shotgun mixed-doubles team at an exhibition, not a formal arrangement between player and coach. But in the aftermath of Wimbledon, where Sharapova suffered a second-round loss, it was announced that the two would be working together for the foreseeable future.
There has been little else mentioned about the pairing -- other than that Sharapova’s former coach, Thomas Hogstedt, couldn’t commit to the travel required of the job -- and we’re left with even more questions than usual about a high-profile tennis union. Perhaps it is the sport’s answer to the Miami Heat’s Big Three -- huge personalities coming together; whether they’ll neatly join or collide and clash remaining to be seen.
We know one thing before Sharapova ever strikes a ball with Connors in her corner: There will be immense pressure on both parties to perform. Sharapova, one of the top stars in women’s sports, likely isn’t starstruck by anyone anymore. But when it’s an eight-time major champion watching your every move instead of someone with which an established comfort level exists, it will surely be a different experience. There will be an added level of scrutiny, and unfairly or not, what Sharapova does or doesn’t do will be tied back to Connors. The focus may periodically waver from Sharapova because of her new coach’s status, but the spotlight will undoubtedly be more intense.
Then there’s Connors, whose previous coaching stint with Andy Roddick produced mixed results -- and not one Grand Slam title. He’ll be thrown into the fire right away, with Sharapova not scheduled to return until Toronto, a scant few weeks before the US Open begins. Assuming their partnership lasts beyond 2013, they’ll have months’ worth of tournaments to prepare for 2014, but the bulk of this season is behind us, and Sharapova’s final shot at a Slam is fast approaching. What can Connors teach Sharapova that she can implement in such a short time frame? Again, we’re left with questions.
I’m going to guess that, in the short term, we should expect much the same from Sharapova, with any radical changes to come gradually, over time. Even the very natural pairing of Ivan Lendl and Andy Murray took time to materialize into what it has become today. The Scot seemed to be stuck in his old, passive ways for a while, even with a new voice and perspective running his practices. But Lendl’s persistent assistance seems to have played a big part in Murray’s rise, and that might be the best news for those who want to see Sharapova take a different kind of leap. Already a winner of the career Slam, the never-satisfied icon likely wants to become a truly dominant No. 1 while she still can.
It’s not an unreasonable desire. At 26, Sharapova is firmly in her prime and is the prohibitive favorite against all but a few of her contemporaries. It’s also worth wondering if Sharapova got the most out of the relationship with Hogstedt, and if Connors, whom Sharapova briefly worked with in 2008, might be the missing link. The timing may be right for a change.
Ultimately, whether this coaching change works will come down to Sharapova. Connors can instill his experience and tactics all he wants, but Sharapova is nothing if not a stubborn player. She plays at one volume: loud. Not just with her voice, but with her bold, flat groundstrokes, and with a serve that continues to walk the tightrope between aggressive and reckless too often.
Here’s another thing I can predict: Expect the cameras to pan to Connors after a groan-inducing Sharapova double fault. The American would be considered a genius if he could eradicate those from the box scores. But again, it’s Sharapova who will hit those second serves, and the one who, when tossing the ball skyward beforehand, will have to stop and think about everything.