— The mental and physical demands of playing in just her second tournament after a layoff of nearly 10 months because of a right shoulder injury finally caught up to Maria Sharapova.
The Russian looked weary, and her legs wobbly at times, as she fell to Dominika Cibulkova of Slovakia, 6-0, 6-2, in the quarterfinals of the French Open. Sharapova looking tired and flat for much of the match is not that big of a surprise since she had won three-setters in all four previous matches in this year's tournament. She played a lot of tennis for someone sidelined for so long, and it caught up to her.
Sharapova, who has never won this major, wasn’t driving the ball until very late in the match. It certainly appeared she did not have enough left in the tank. There are those days when a player just doesn’t feel sharp, whether it’s in striking the ball, or being mentally in tune with every single point. Sharapova had one of those days.
Sharapova was trying to be offensive consistently, but she was making errors (she had 27 unforced errors in the match) so she pulled back too much. There’s that fine line of controlled aggression where a player is driving the ball, but also able to keep the majority of balls in play. Early on Sharapova was error prone, so she pulled back, and Cibulkova benefitted from that.
Clay is never going to be Sharapova’s favorite surface. She has trouble sliding, and she has trouble moving on the dirt. Plus, the clay neutralizes the pace of her serve, which is her biggest weapon. Cibulkova, who is 5-foot-3, is a great mover, and a great counter puncher. She gets most balls back, and Sharapova, her energy depleted, didn’t have enough to hang in on points and overpower Cibulkova.
Sharapova has a very flat style of play. She hits the ball very flat. So if she is not in her groove, it’s a very tough match for her because she doesn’t have as much margin for error as say a Rafael Nadal, who puts more spin on his shots. That being said, because Sharapova does hit flatter, that makes her lethal when she’s on and in the groove, which is most of the time. On those occasions, her shot really moves through the court, and is very tough to track down.
Despite the one-sided loss to Cibulkova, who is ranked No. 20 in the world, it was a very successful French Open for Sharapova. She beat a couple of quality opponents in Nadia Petrova and Na LI. And she rallied for both of those wins. Morever, her shoulder held up fine, and she got to play five matches.
Sharapova, like the rest of us, didn’t know what to expect at Roland Garros. She even said prior to the start of the major she wasn’t going to take losses as hard given the reality she was just coming back from injury. But from her play in Paris, it looks to me like she is right back in the thick of things. The time away did not cause her to lose any mental toughness, and she called upon it when she needed to in her matches.
Her plan pre-Wimbledon should be to play a tournament next week so that she gets some matches on the grass, where she feels so comfortable and so confident. In Paris, she erased the doubts that surrounded her return, namely whether she could come back and play at her prior level given what she experienced with her shoulder. Her impressive showing at the French Open puts her into a totally different light entering Wimbledon.
Given that she’s healthy, that she is so comfortable on grass, and that she has won a singles title at the All-England Club (2004), she’s one of the top Wimbledon contenders this year along with Venus and Serena Williams.
Stamina won’t be a factor for her at Wimbledon because the points are quicker. While out with her shoulder injury, she worked hard on her fitness. But at Wimbledon, it’s not about stamina. It’s about that first strike and using the grass to one’s advantage. That’s where Sharapova’s big first serve is emphasized, making her all the more tougher to beat.