The surprise announcement that Maria Sharapova is joining forces with Jimmy Connors is leaving a lot of people in the tennis world scratching their heads about this unexpected pairing of Grand Slam champions. Sharapova first revealed on her official website that she and former coach Thomas Hogstedt parted on good terms after Hogstedt decided he did not want to continue traveling on a day to day basis anymore.
In their three years working together, Hogstedt helped Sharapova not only return to No. 1 in the world but also win a French Open title that completed Sharapova’s career Grand Slam. Hogstedt improved Sharapova’s overall movement, instilled more patience in the Russian’s game and taught her to hit her normally flat groundstrokes with more margin. Though by all accounts her partnership with Hogstedt was a successful one, it did have one glaring omission. That being a win over Sharapova’s nemesis Serena Williams. Sharapova did get closer to that elusive goal with a three set loss in Miami this spring and a tight battle in this year’s finals in Paris. But once again Williams prevailed in each and extended her already substantial head to head over Sharapova 14-2.
Connors, since retiring, has kept a lower profile than most ex-pros of late. The eight-time major champion continues to do some television broadcast work here and there, but his most recent publicity came from the release of his tell-all biography “The Outsider” that gave a very honest and, at times, very explicit account of his heady days as one of the sport’s maverick players especially in the 1970’s and early 1980’s. Connors did briefly coach Andy Roddick during the American’s slide out of the top ten back in 2006. That arrangement, which ended 19 months later, was viewed by many as giving Roddick more confidence than anything else during his time with Connors.
Sharapova’s familiarity with Connors due to their brief working stint before the 2008 Australian Open may have tipped her decision in his favor. A decision Sharapova had to make quick given the sudden breakup with Hogstedt. Connors certainly comes loaded with experience and shrewd tactics that he can share with Sharapova. But for someone who just spent two years writing and promoting his book, it’s probably likely Connors himself is going to have go through a crash course on current WTA players if he really wants to be an effective help to Sharapova right from the start.
The coaching change comes at an interesting time for Sharapova. Despite being ranked No. 2 in the world, she still is unable to breakthrough against Williams who continues to dominate their rivalry, if you want to call it that. If Connors helps Sharapova get over the mental hurdle she possesses when facing Williams, then that could be his most important accomplishment in their new partnership. Meanwhile, Victoria Azarenka continues to be a difficult opponent for Sharapova and one she is likely to continue facing in either the semis or finals of future majors. While Sharapova improved under Hogstedt, her game still contains glaring vulnerabilities. Most notably Sharapova’s serve that is her best friend and worst enemy in any given match. Can Connors, who was best known for his solid returning, find a way to help Sharapova solidify what is still her biggest weapon and often biggest liability?
While it is unclear yet if Connors will help Sharapova’s game in terms of technical changes, his own trademark mental toughness could help give Sharapova a new advantage. Though Sharapova is indeed one of the fiercest fighters on the WTA tour, her dependence on Hogstedt during changeovers in regular WTA matches was well known. Observers on social media often mocked the sight of Hogstedt imploring Sharapova, “It’s time to show them the real Maria” when his charge was down in a match. As if Sharapova really needed reminding of her status as one of the sport’s toughest fighters on court.
Will we see Connors strut out onto court and give Sharapova pep talks this summer as Hogstedt did? Or will Connors decide to let Sharapova figure out matches on her own as she has to do during the majors? Neither Azarenka or Williams utilize on-court coaching. Is it time for Sharapova to do the same?
How much traveling Connors himself will actually undertake given than he just underwent hip replacement surgery last year is something else to consider. Now based in California, Connors may well travel with Sharapova during the upcoming North American hard court season. But what about when she flies back to Melbourne, Australia at the start of next season? Is this alliance to be viewed as perhaps a trial test period until Sharapova decides that Connors is indeed a good fit for her? Or is Connors just a temporary fix until Sharapova finds someone that she thinks can benefit her over the next several years?
Plenty of questions remain about how Connors will work with Sharapova and if it will work at all. Whatever happens out of this new alliance, it’s perhaps best to expect the unexpected from this unlikely pairing one of two of the sport’s most decorated but very different champions.