“Hello” and “Goodbye” with not much time in between. Hardly the way to visit Melbourne, a beautiful city. Maybe a latte, perhaps a bagel. Work up a sweat for nearly 3 ½ hours, then head for the airport, and cross off Melbourne for another year.
Was that any way to blow town, a town that she had owned only two years ago. Then she stuck around for two weeks, long enough to win a tennis tournament called the Australian Open. She was looking good on the blue court within Rod Laver Arena, didn’t lose a set, demolished Ana Ivanovic in the title round, 7-5, 6-3 – was clearly the best player in the planet’s female precinct.
She was becoming the most recognizable woman in her game, building an international reputation in the glamour department. Magazine covers, millions in endorsements, on her way to the International Tennis Hall of Fame. Who am I talking about? Come on. Who else but the gorgeous Siberian Siren, Maria Sharapova? But why would she be leaving this city on the Yarra River after the first round of the 105 year-old tournament? Because on this Ave Maria matinee, another Maria – a compatriot – evicted her from the court where Sharapova was last seen as the champion.
“Get outa town!” was the theme of Maria Kirilenko out of Moscow as she wrecked what was supposed to be a “Welcome Champ!” party. Champions are not supposed to flop so quickly when they return to the scene of their most recent major title. But flop she did, 7-6 (7-4), 3-6, 6-4.
Monday was unseasonably chilly and damp (in the 60s) for this usually sunny location where temperatures can hurdle 100. Nobody felt colder than Sharapova, decked out in a sea green frock and unable to control the thermometer or the hot other Maria, ranked No. 58.
I was a bit late. But as I approached the Laver Arena there was no doubt that the match had begun, and No. 14 Sharapova was in full sirenly voice. Though the roof was shut, to defend against rain, her cries leaked beyond the walls. Not cries of suffering, as they might seem to the uninitiated. Just the stately long-legged Sharapova’s lengthy noise arsenal.
The melee of the 22-year-old Maria’s was on, and Kirilenko was doing just fine, running well to overtake Sharapova’s drives, keeping points alive until the champ made a mistake or two. Make that 72, an horrific total of unforced errors. Little Maria, 6 inches shorter at 5-8, had but 38 bungles.
It seemed, however, that she would be the one skipping town after all. Unable to serve it out at 5-3 in the third, Moscow Marie appeared ready to crumble, her opponent – known for fighting qualities — about to take over as she should have at 4-5
No dice. Kirilenko had her brown eyes on the biggest prize of her life. She pulled herself together after choking a bit on the first match point, and pushed Sharapova into a wild drive on the second. The roof was closed and so was the holder of Australian, Wimbledon and U.S. titles.
“Just didn’t win. The bottom line,” Sharapova said softly. I let her control the situation.”
Instead of leaping crazily like somebody who’d won the lottery, Moscow Maria calmly put a finger to her lips. Be calm. She got that from a Russian soccer player, Andrei Arshavin, famous for his poise.
Kirilenko, whose knee problems have been cured, her game uplifted, let the full house of 15,000 go bonkers for her.
Her boyfriend, Igor Andreev, who faces Roger Federer, Tuesday, encouraged her, “Let’s start the year loud.”
“I started the year loud,” she laughed. “Now it’s his turn.”
Loud, too, was the door slamming on Sharapova as she left town. Early. “Hello!” and “Goodbye!”