Meet Maria Jose Martinez Sanchez

Until now, Maria Jose Martinez Sanchez might be best known to U.S. tennis fans for either her multisyllabic name or the ire she aroused in Serena Williams at last year’s French Open. In the third-round match, the Spaniard declined to own up to a body-directed passing shot that appeared to glance off her wrist for a winner. Serena argued with the umpire and was overheard by courtside mikes saying: “I’m gonna get you in the locker room. You don’t know me.” She added while sitting at the changeover, “She’d better not come to the net again.”

After winning the prestigious Orange Bowl in 1999, the 33rd-ranked Martinez has cobbled together an unremarkable career. In 2008, she finished in the top 100 for just the second time in a decade. But last year, at 27, she had a breakthrough season, winning her first WTA Tour titles at Bogota and Bastad and finishing the season at No. 30. In January, she climbed to a career-high No. 25.

Here in the desert, the Barcelona-based player has turned up the heat, with back-to-back wins over quality players. She took out No. 3 seed Victoria Azarenka 6-1, 7-5 in the third round and last year’s U.S. Open semifinalist Yanina Wickmayer 7-6, 6-2 in the last 16. Today, she faces Samantha Stosur for a shot at her first Premier-level tournament semifinal. She is 1-1 in meetings with the 11th-ranked Australian, beating her last year in Bali but falling to her in three sets last month in Fed Cup. Both were on hard courts.

What’s most interesting about Martinez, a soft-spoken and genial sort, is not her backstory but her game. Among the bevy of baseline metronomes in women’s tennis, Martinez stands out. For one, she serves and volleys – often, and sometimes on second serves. She can create quirky angles, attacks the net from either wing and is a counnoisour of the drop shot from any position (sometimes ill-advised). A southpaw, she loves to slice her serve wide to the ad court and has creative hands at the net. She hits her backhand volley with one or two hands, depending on the situation. A classic disrupter, she gave the temperamental Wickmayer fits in their contest two days ago.
Her style reminds me of another great confounder/attacker of another era – American John McEnroe. (She even leans on her back foot while serving a bit like Johnny Mac). Martinez told me that’s a comparison she hasn’t heard before and that her idols growing up were Steffi Graf and, not remarkably, left-handed net charger Martina Navratilova.

Martinez is the first to admit that she’s a anomaly, not only in women’s tennis but from her native Spain. “It’s a different game, I know,” she laughed. “It’s not a typical Spanish style.” From the age of 7, she says she liked being around the net, even if it wasn’t easy. Part masochist, part iconoclast, Martinez says: “I like when the game is difficult and I like to do things different.” Surprisingly, her coaches didn’t discourage her attacking style. They told her: “You have to come to the net because you are better when you do this,” she said. “It’s not normal. If you are good at it you have to do it.”

Like many net rushers/attackers, Martinez has had to learn how to organizer her game, and that takes time. “I think it is more difficult because you have to be more trusting,” Martinez told me in her imperfect English. “Attacking is more difficult than staying on the baseline. In her late twenties, she is coming into her own, later than most players mature, but not so late that she can’t think about breaking into the top 20, though she doesn’t like to set ranking-based goals. Her best results have been on clay -- at least that conforms to her Spanish heritage – but she says she is equally fond of cement and grass.

Befitting her journeywoman status, Martinez has reached the third round at every major, but advanced no further. In fact, her best results have come in doubles, which is no surprise considering her eye for angles and slicing left-handed delivery. Martínez owns 12 WTA Tour doubles crowns, including last year’s year-end championships with Nuria Llagostera Vives. Martinez and Vives upset Serena and Venus Williams on their way the title. If she gets past Stosur or goes further here, Martinez could have herself a statement tournament and would break into the top 25. “I think that I’m playing my best tennis now,” she said. “I am still alive and I have nothing to lose.”


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