LONDON – Does every girl need a basketball player?
Helps with the rebounds apparently, painting a ceiling or scoring on the old boardinghouse reach. Anything needing a necessary stretch. But get a good one. A professional.
That’s what Maria Sharapova did, and it seems to be working well for the ex-champ, who glided into Wimbledon’s fourth round yesterday over Czech Klara Zakopalova, 6-2, 6-3.
On the sidelines her partner – actually fiancé, Sasha Vojacic – was vigorously using his large hands. Not for dribbling, instead for constantly applauding the loveliest teammate he’s ever had. It was loyal, helpful exercise as Sasha, a point guard, often leaped to his feat to salute one of Maria’s dynamite shots.
The Sharapova-Vojacic combine is a rare – maybe unique – blend of professional tennis and basketball. Sasha, a Slovenian, started the recent NBA season with the Los Angeles Lakers, and later was traded to the hopeless New Jersey Nets. They didn’t make the playoffs, so there was more time to be together while Maria competed.
This trip, she says, has made up for previous long times apart. “You get to know a person by being with them every single day, which we really hadn’t had in our whole relationship.
“So it’s been really nice, enjoyable for both of us. But we’ve obviously been at tournaments [winning the Italian, semifinalist at the French, the clay court stopovers that have bothered her in the past.] We’re competitive, so we’re doing everything in order for me to win tennis matches. Sasha helps.”
He is part of an entirely new team. She has a new coach, physio, hitting partner, and, of course the new admirer who has brought joys – and jitters – of jumpshots into her life. A shot into the net isn’t too good in her league.
She says, “There’s no doubt that I’ve watched more basketball the last couple of years than I have all my life. And I’ve been a lot more nervous in my life in those games I’ve watched than I have been in my life.
“I think it’s easier [on the nerves] to play. That’s what I’ve learned. It’s a lot tougher to be on the sidelines or watching on TV. Forget about it. Just don’t do it. But at the end of the day, you know we’re still athletes. We still have to put that amount of work in. There is that level of understanding of what it takes.
“Basketball is different because it’s a team sport. You want that person to do well, but you know you’re also rooting
for the other people on the court. But it’s fun, too. You might have an off day, but your team comes through and pushes you up. Some days you’re the hero of the game but you end up losing that game you felt like you played great.
“It’s very different.”
After she won the championship here as a 17-year-old in 2004. Maria registered two semifinal finishes in a row, and became a regular in the Top Ten. However injuries, especially the right (serving) shoulder and surgery dragged her down to two losses in the fourth round and two in the second, and a ranking of No. 18 in 2010.
But she’s up to No. 6 and playing confidently, covering lots of sod with those long legs.
She says, “I’m happy at this point to have gotten where I was last year, and hopefully this year I can go a step further, and even more. I’m pleased to be in the second week. I haven’t done that for a while. The opponents get tougher, raising your game is what it’s about in the second week. That means a collision with No. 20, the rising Chinese,” Peng Shuai.
She thinks about the 2004 triumph over Serena, and says, “It was just a lot of excitement. Two weeks before was my first French Open, the first time I got to the quarterfinals [of a major]. I was pretty physically exhausted. I kind of knew I couldn’t go further. So to get to the fourth round or quarters at Wimbledon was a great accomplishment. I was satisfied.” Maria laughs, “I don’t think I would say that today.
But she kept going anyway all the way.
What could be better than ruling the Big W again? Maybe having your own basketball player. He’s got the right reach, 5 inches taller at 6-7, and can teach her the pick-and-roll.