ROME – Just when you thought it was against the rules of women’s tennis to serve and charge the net, a who-she? senorita with a boxcar length name landed amid the pines at Il Foro Italico to smack holes in the accepted wisdom.
Apparently nobody told Maria Jose Martinez Sanchez out of Barcelona that the first commandment of the women’s game is: Thou shalt not volley.
Is volleying a mortal sin? I’m not sure, but have you ever watched women practicing? I mean the pros. They don’t know how to volley, and treat the opportunity of striking the ball before it strikes the court as though they’d seen a cobra. They are glued to the baseline. If they played like the loose and limber 6-foot Martinez Sanchez – unexpectedly winning the Italian Open over the world’s No. 4, Jelena Jankovic – their coaches would have a stroke . Though not the stroke called a volley. But most of them should be fired anyway for not teaching their pupils a varied game.
Here was No. 26 Maria, who had won two minor tournaments (Bogota and Bastad), delighting 7,311 customers who braved wind, rain, patches of sun and cold coffee – but didn’t get what they had planned for. An unknown’s victory, 7-6 (7-5), 7-5, was enough of a reward, a tough struggle, because Jankovic who can run all day, too, has been No. 1 and won the important Italian title in 2007-2008.
The way the left-handed Maria went at it was a revelation – serve and volley all the way plus an extraordinary total of 22 drop shots, and 17 volleying points. She knew how to produce angles, and get this. Lefties are generally known for suspect backhands. But the Spaniard’s southpaw groundies were immaculate with spins varied. And she came to the net a couple of times behind the almost unheard of forehand slice.
It must be noted that Jankovic, in her fetching apple green frock, had come through the rougher side of the draw, beating the Williams family: Venus, 6-0, 6-1; Serena, 4-6, 6-3, 7-6 (7-5).
“Not many people have beaten both of them in the same tournament,” Jankovic says, justly. She became the eighth (Others: Steffi Graf, Martina Hingis, Kim Clijsters – twice, Lindsay Davenport and Justine Henin). ”This was like within 24 hours – Venus was Thursday night, Serena Friday afternoon.” Her Serena trial was a roarer in which Jelena ducked a match point against serve at 5-4 in the third, and rose from 2-5 in the tie-breaker.
These may have been the Italian’s best successive finels. Certainly they were the most Spanish: Rafa Nadal last Sunday, and now the contrary serve-and-volleyer Maria, both lefties.
Had Jankovic ever been blanketed in so many volleys? “Playing against [lefty] Martina Nabvratilova. Long ago. And that was in doubles “ The great attacker Navratilova, 37 in her last singles final here, 1994. Martinez is 27.
Martina and Martinez – sounds good doesn’t it. The only other lefty to win in Rome was Englishwoman Ann Jones, in 1966, a serve-and-volleyer, also.
The new champ was “too excited for words. This is the biggest thing happening to me. The drop shots were part of my plan, and they worked very well.
“They killed me,” said Jankovic. In her dreams Jelena will be chasing those spinning backhands that dropped and stopped.
But Maria’s serving and volleying, her base, was extraordinary on a slugglish clay court.
It seemed that Jankovic would catch up in the second set when she broke serve to 5-5, and went ahead to 40-15 in the next game. However Maria stood firmly like those pines overlooking the stadium, winning the last five points, closing with the day’s special – a serve into the rib cage, followed by a volley to the far corner and Jelena was caged.
Shall we say of the iconoclast Maria Jose Martinez Sanchez that this was the birth of a star, and maybe the rebirth of a style? Or can we be that optimistic?
Anyway a gentleman who lives a short distance from this ball park might give a papal dispensation to those women daring enough to break the commandment: thou shalt not volley.