Ahead of the Curve
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Not a tennis fan, you say?  A tad too tame for your taste?  Find the strawberries & cream at Wimbledon a bit on the haughty-taughty side?

Maybe you prefer the roar of the raceway where speed is the elixir.

Perhaps it's the steady cadence of 9 baseball innings, punctuated by the call of the umpire and crack of the bat that floats your boat.

Perchance hockey's your thing.  You thrill at the sound of steel cutting ice, stick, puck & pads crashing and co-mingling in a fast & furious battle of bodies.

If that's you, you're in the majority.  Like youth soccer, recreational tennis has a huge following in the USA (Atlanta's wild for it), but TV ratings for the US Open will never come close to the NBA Finals or Selection Sunday on CBS.

No matter.  Not everything need be a YouTube virus to warrant a look-see.

And tennis is worth a look-see.  Only a few minutes in and even the most skeptical observer will discover just how competitive and engaging the back 'n forth can be.

With the French Open getting air-time on ESPN this week I did a fly-by Monday of the clay-court cotillion.  Excluding MMA, spelling bees, Dancing with the Stars and poker, I'll watch just about any competition for a time.

Just by chance I caught the Maria Sharapova v Klara Zakopalova 4th-round clash.

I'd be remiss if I didn't admit to the draw Maria's good looks has on keeping my eyes fixed to the screen and away from the remote.  She's a looker, alright.  But then her Czech opponent in this particular battle was / is very easy on the eyes herself.

Sharapova survived her 44th ranked but determined opponent, 6-4, 6-7, 6-2.

The fact the French is a major tourney works as bait.  What reels-me-in, though, has little to do with sex-appeal.  If that base-urge was major motive for my viewership I would've dumped sport long ago and taken up stamp-collecting.  Not a bad idea anyway, the stamp thing.  Damn the naysayers, besides a few grumps, USPS does a pretty nifty job.

What's turned me onto Maria's game involves more than a beautiful backhand.

For age 25 she's well-decorated from the tennis wars, having won 3 majors and 26 WTA titles.  Garnering a champion's laurel at Roland-Garros this week would complete the career grand slam, a nice feather in any tennis star's cap.

Maybe it's her humble beginnings that puts me in her court.

While in-utero, her parents (Yuri & Elena) re-located from Belarus (Chernobyl zone / '86) to Nyagan, Russia.  No silver-spoon for this young lass who probably learned to hold a racket before riding a bicycle.  Upon professional advice and a chance at the good life, Dad and 7-year old daughter moved to Florida in 1994, though red-tape and money prevented Mom from joining them for two years.  I get choked-up thinking about it.  Seriously.

Looking like one more in a recent long line of terrifically talented Eastern Europe tennis players when she hit the scene in 2001, Maria has separated herself from the pack.  And how, pray tell? Just listen to one of her post-match interviews.  Either she's one fine actress or this woman genuinely enjoys playing tennis.  Imagine that?

"Play" seems a funny word to use for a job she and many of her peers have been working at for most of their walking-lives and longer than many folks' careers by age forty.

In contrast, the Williams sisters (Venus & Serena), with more hardware than you can shake a stick at, give the impression that the phrase "be happy in your work (Saito)" ain't part of the equation.  If true, I could understand their malaise, given the long travel, over-zealous fans and endless grind of the game.

Not that Sharapova is a constant ray of sunshine.  Like everyone, excepting the always upbeat Tebow, Maria's sunny days can be intermittent.  The Zakopalova match showed as much.  With sore wrist and tender temperament, the always expressive Parisian crowd let her know their displeasure with her moody, albeit victorious play.

When you cut your tennis-teeth watching guys like Jimmy Connors, John "Super Brat" McEnroe and Boris Becker, occasional testy displays today are tantamount to a tempest in a teapot.  Just don't ever direct a veiled-threat towards an umpire (Serena).  That's a big bright line you should never cross.

There was a time when some compared young Maria to Anna Kournikova, another Russian prodigy of the mid-90s.  Both turned heads with their youth, beauty, high-skill (Anna made 4R of the '96 US Open at 15, losing to titlist Steffi Graf) and mental preparedness.

But while AK became template for what some feel you don't do with a promising tennis career, Maria helped set-the-bar by winning Wimbledon at 17 (v Serena / '04).

With her 6-3, 6-3 semifinal win over Petra Kvitova (Czech) on Thursday, Maria's on the brink of something special in the world of tennis, positioned to win her first French and thereby complete a career grand slam (all four WTA majors).  On Saturday, Sharapova (2) faces Italian Sara Errani (21) for the 2012 French Open Women's Singles Championship.  Ms. Errani is looking to breakthrough for her first major title since turning pro one year after her opponent (2002).

Though a handful have done it before, a win would put her in that rarified-air of tennis greats.  Many have mastered the game, only a select few have mastered the profession in all its venues.

Champion or runner-up on Saturday, you've come a long way from Belarus, Maria.

Steven Keys

June 9, 2012  07:52 PM ET

Steven, this is one hell of an article. It is a fine look at the development of a superstar who has been anything but complacent during her career. To see her come back from a shoulder injury, when the money and notoriety she already possessed from tennis and her ability to model for any number of sponsors would have led many others to walk away happily from the game, is a testament to just how impressive an athlete Sharapova has proven to be. It is inspiring to see the perseverance which has led to the rehabilitation of both her arm and her career, and to see her finish out the Slam and regain #1 is to see just why sports are such an integral part of the fabric of humanity. Thank you for the piece, and I look forward to more insights in the future...

 
June 10, 2012  01:47 PM ET

((J)ust why sports are such an integral part of humanity) speaks well to one reason I choose to write on tumultuous merriment, rather than say, news, entertainment, etcetera.

When fitting, I like to incorporate other topics into a sports piece. Its easy to do. But in politics and the like, where is the sincerity to write about today, the camera-shy courage, uniqueness, difference-maker, the (perseverance (Maria)) that you can, on occasion, find in sport? Where o where? And then when you do find it (service people, caring healthcare workers, single-parents, helpful bus-drivers, terminally-ill) few read it and its pushed aside. Sad.

Thanks for reading Bigalke and for your own insights.

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