MADRID – They have 10 Grand Slam singles titles between them and both have been No 1 in the world, but neither Maria Sharapova nor Justine Henin could survive the first round at the Mutua Madrilena Madrid Open.
When the pair staged a magnificent final at the WTA Tour year-end championships here at a different venue in Madrid in 2007, neither player could have predicted the diverse and oft-interrupted paths their careers would take. Henin won that day and Sharapova was simply pleased to have played such a great tournament so soon after returning from a shoulder problem.
Life has not been easy for the Russian diva since. The shoulder has continued to give her problems and, more recently, it has been an elbow injury that has forced her back onto the sidelines in recent weeks. This, in fact, was Sharapova's first appearance since Indian Wells in March and she never looked capable during a 6-4, 6-3 loss of stamping her authority on Lucie Safarova, a 23-year-old Czech who is starting to make her presence felt on the tour.
Sharapova has her critics. If you are 6-foot-2 and beautiful and carry yourself with a certain hint of arrogance, not everyone is going to love you. But people reveal their true natures in adversity and it is hard to be anything but impressed by the way she has handled a series of frustrating disappointments.
After this setback, she started with the usual platitudes about being too slow off the mark; wishing she had more matches under her belt and moving forward.
Then someone asked her if it was a pain for her to have to change her travel arrangements because of this early loss. Weren't the logistics a bit difficult?
"That's why we get paid so well," she shot back and then went on to reveal a little about her philosophy of life.
"We don't get paid because everything is brought to us on a gold plate every single day. We don't wake up in the morning with someone brushing the clay off our shoes. We go out there and we work as many hours as we need to become better. There's no real secret to success. People ask you why you won this and why you became that. I don't know. That's the way life goes. Why is this a difficult period for me? I don't know. It's a lesson.
"I still have to go out tomorrow and change my flights and it's not a big deal - I mean it is a big deal but it's just another thing. The bottom line is that you rely on a strong family back home. Because realistically a tennis match is a tennis match. We hit a yellow tennis ball with a racket and it's actually quite funny when you think about it. But that's my life at the moment and I enjoy doing it and I know what comes with it."
You won't get a more sane speech from a genuine competitor trying to come to terms with the thing a competitor hates most - defeat. But Sharapova has a sharp brain and does pretty well at accepting Kipling's triumphs and disasters . Don't be distracted by the grunts and the swagger and the haughty glance. The last person to get carried away with the glamour of being Sharapova is Sharapova herself.
For Henin, the defeat did not come as much of a surprise. The Belgian has been suffering from a cold and mild flu since winning the title in Stuttgart and admitted that she just ran out of steam against the solid French woman Aravane Rezai who is currently ranked 22nd in the world. The score of 4-6, 7-5, 6-0 tells much of it own story.
"I wasn't feeling at my best after Stuttgart," she said. "I did not feel the energy I need to win a match like this. She was playing at a very good level and, as strong as you are, if you are not 100 percent it affects everything. But we have to deal with these things and now I just want to get ready for Roland Garros."
Like Sharapova, Henin has had plenty of time to evaluate her life as a player and a person and she is happy with the decision she has made.
"It's been very interesting the last few months and I have learned a lot of things and generally its been pretty positive, even if you have to find a good balance between your personal and professional life. It's a different life being on the circuit, with travelling a lot and being away from home. I got used to it and I feel I took the right decision and that has been very exciting for me."