Mixed emotions for Sharapova, Azarenka
PARIS -- Relationships are interesting in tennis. Players compete against (and occasionally with) each other tournament after tournament, on continent after continent, month after month, and year after year.
For instance, consider Victoria Azarenka's relationship with clay courts.
Clay hasn't always been kind to her. Asked a while back how she felt about playing on the surface, Azarenka said she wasn't exactly married to it. After she advanced to the semifinals at Roland Garros by beating former doubles partner Maria Kirilenko on Wednesday, a reporter asked her to update the status of her relationship with clay.
"I still don't have any ring on my finger," she said, waggling her blue- and red-polished fingers. "But I feel like we made a step forward. We are moving in together. It's kind of that type of a relationship. You know, moving forward and seeing what happens."
Relationships can be tricky, though. One day you're in love with the clay of Roland Garros, and the next you can feel betrayed and wonder whether you should go back to your relationship with the hard court of Australia.
Consider the reported feud between Azarenka's semifinal opponent, Maria Sharapova, and Jelena Jankovic.
Sharapova and Jankovic are don't-invite-'ems who go back a long way, to when they were together at Nick Bollettieri's Florida tennis academy in the 1990s. That's believed to be where their rivalry started, and if so, it's understandable. They were two girls from the former Eastern Bloc (Russia and Serbia, respectively) trying to become the best in the game. And from Jankovic's standpoint, it must be frustrating competing against the prettiest girl in the class.
Jankovic ever so briefly was ranked No. 1, but she has never won a major. Sharapova won her first slam at age 17 and won her most recent here last year. Sharapova has endorsement deals with Porsche and Tag Heuer (among many others). She has more than 10 million Facebook followers. And she has defeated Jankovic eight times in their nine tournament matches.
Which is not to say that Jankovic has not been successful -- she has homes in San Diego and Dubai, after all. Still, Sharapova eased onto the court looking as elegant as Nicole Kidman walking onto the red carpet. Jankovic took the court wearing athletic tape on her right shoulder and on both thighs.
And then Sharapova immediately played as clumsily as Melissa McCarthy. Making numerous unforced errors, she got bageled by Jankovic. Sharapova said she could not remember coming back to win a match after being beaten 6-0 in the first set. For good reason: She had never done it before Wednesday.
She calmly and icily battled back against Jankovic. She broke to win the first game of the second set, then broke her opponent. Frequently shouting in frustration and losing her cool, Jankovic spent the rest of the match trying to catch up ... and could not. Sharapova won the second set 6-4 and the third 6-3 to advance to the semifinals.
The two players slapped hands at the net after the match. During the postgame press conference, Jankovic said she did not consider their past together.
"To be honest, when you step on the tennis court, everything is how you're going to play your points," she said. "I don't think it's what was in the past, what's in the future -- it's what is happening in this moment, right now, right here."
And in the end Wednesday, Jankovic said, "She was a better player. I was a bit unlucky, but I fought."
Azarenka and Kirilenko, meanwhile, are close friends. They played doubles together for a while.
"We just tried one of the tournaments and we had so much fun together," Azarenka said. "I mean, she's definitely my favorite doubles partner I ever had. We just enjoyed so much time, and we kind of connected. She had things to offer, I had things to offer, and we kind of came together."
It's an interesting dynamic to go from playing together to facing each other across the net while competing for the same thing. But you wouldn't have known they were former doubles partners. The two friends fought and scrapped and played an extremely tight first set that took so long that Sharapova and Jankovic were in the third set before it was over. Azarenka finally won the first-set tiebreaker 7-3 and then dominated the second set 6-2.
Azarenka (2013 Australian Open) and Sharapova (2012 French Open) have each won Grand Slams in the past 12 months. Now they will face each other for the opportunity to play for another title.
"She's playing really well this tournament," Sharapova said of Azarenka. "It's always a tough match. We have played each other so many times, there are really no secrets between each other in terms of our game styles and what we do well and not."
Well, that's the secret of a good relationship. No secrets. Open communication. Honesty.
And, Azarenka said, "You have to keep loving each other. That's the most important thing -- love all around."