— Maria Sharapova, owner of three Grand Slam titles, could become one of the top stories of the French Open. After nine months away from the tour due to injury (she had surgery on her right shoulder in October) she has returned to action at Roland Garros in impressive fashion.
Sharapova opened the Paris fortnight by losing only three games to Anastasiya Yakimova of Belarus in a straight-set victory, and then followed that up on Wednesday by knocking out No. 11 seed Nadia Petrova of Russia, 6-2, 1-6, 8-6.
Likely the biggest positive Sharapova can take from the match is how impressively she performed on break point conversions, which are always crucial to winning. Sharapova converted on 60 percent (6 of 10) of her break point conversions, compared to Petrova’s 38 percent (5 of 13).
Sharapova served big when she needed to, especially in the third set when she was down a break point. In that deciding set, she trailed 4-2 when she broke Petrova to get back on serve at 4-4, and then saved two break points to take a 5-4 lead. She saved another break point while serving at 6-6
She also returned big when most needed. I forgot how good her return was until I witnessed it against Petrova. She just goes after returns, she sends them back in a hard and punishing manor, and that applies so much pressure on her opponents, especially if she is returning a second serve.
The unseeded Sharapova is playing her first major since last summer’s Wimbledon. And even though she had her right shoulder taped, she gave no indication she was favoring the shoulder. Her service motion is abbreviated. It doesn’t go all the way down near her knee at the start, so that’s something that’s different, but the fact that the pace on her serve was up is a positive, and it contributed to her exceeding my expectations after her being sidelined for nine months.
Against Petrova, she competed so well. There weren’t any lapses of concentration, which we so often see from players after long layoffs. I was very impressed with the way she focused on every single point. She could have mentally tired because she hasn’t had to stretch herself like this in a long time, but she stayed mentally tough. And physically she held up well, which is saying something because playing matches is a lot different from practicing.
Sharapova likes to dictate points, and she pretty much had her way doing that against Petrova. It was important for her to quickly get ahead in the points because she is not as quick a mover as Petrova. Her hard, flat groundstrokes were impressive.
She hit well, and competed well. She had a marked advantage in net approaches, winning 71 percent to Petrova’s 40 percent. She had seven aces, but also six double faults. She has to be extremely pleased with the way she competed, the way she struck the ball, and the fact she did away with Petrova to nicely open up her quarter of the draw.
Sharapova should benefit from a wide open quarter of the draw. She’ll next face a qualifier in Yaroslava Shvedova, and if she passes that test the biggest threat to her in the fourth round is China’s Na Li, who is the 25th seed. In the quarterfinals, she could meet up with third- seeded Venus Williams.
When being off the tour for such a period of time as Sharapova was, there will always be doubts in a player’s mind about how long it will take to get one’s game back in top form, and also some doubts over whether that will eventually happen. The win over Petrova should erase many of the doubts Sharapova carried into her comeback. This victory should make her that much more confident.
The French Open is the only Grand Slam title Sharapova has not won. Her best Roland Garros result came in 2007 when made the semifinals before losing to Ana Ivanovic. Last year she lost in the fourth round to eventual finalist Dinara Safina, this year’s No. 1 seed.
She came into this major saying she had no expectations. Clay is her least favorite surface, but expectations and surface won’t keep her from going for broke. Now she wants more. That’s the type of competitor she is, and so why not try to strike it rich on the red clay, even if the odds are against her?