Madrid Open

Madrid Premier: Maria Sharapova sends defiant message to critics ahead of Eugenie Bouchard meet

The former world number one sends a defiant message to her critics after setting up last 32 meeting with Eugenie Bouchard in Madrid

Maria Sharapova will take on Eugenie Bouchard in Madrid Photo: Porsche

The last time former champion and wild card Maria Sharapova played the prestigious Mutua Madrid Open, back in 2015, she reached the semi-finals, having won the title the year before and reached the final the year before that.

She arrived this year with more wins in Madrid than anyone else in the draw—19 of them—and with 11 clay titles to her name. A far remove, then, from a decade ago when the Russian coined the famous descriptor of herself playing on clay: “a cow on ice”.

She went on the next week, at just turned 20 years old, to reach the semis at Roland Garros for the first time. Come 2011, she won the Rome Masters—and would win it again in 2015—and the next year won the French Open. Safe to say, then, that after those early mixed fortunes on clay, the Russian finally got the better of the red stuff.

Last year, though, she missed the entire clay swing as she sat out a 15-month suspension for doping, and depended on wild cards for her return last week in Stuttgart and this week in Madrid. That did not go down well with some fellow players—Eugenie notable among them, but more of her later.

However, even after so long away, Sharapova immediately reached the Stuttgart semis, and with nemesis Serena Williams absent for the rest of the year on maternity leave, Victoria Azarenka not yet returned from her own maternity absence, and Petra Kvitova still recovering from an attack to her hand—all of them multiple champions or finalists—the way suddenly opened up for another title run not just in Madrid but also in Rome and Paris.

Yet the draw in Madrid was far from kind. Sharapova’s opener was against one of the form players of the season, the resurgent 35-year-old Mirjana Lucic-Baroni, who was up to a career-high ranking inside the top 20 for the first time in almost 20 years on the professional tour.

The Croat, who won her first title at the age of 15 and reached the semis of Wimbledon at 17, faded from the tour after 2000 as she suffered a series of personal problems, but after rebuilding her career on the ITF circuit, she began her climb back a decade later.

This year, almost 18 years after that Wimbledon semi-final, she reached the semis of the Australian Open, and did the same in Acapulco and on the clay of Charleston.

As if this formidable veteran was not a big enough opening test for Sharapova, the Russian fell into the eighth of the top seed Angelique Kerber, and into the quarter of the fast-rising Elina Svitolina and the formidable Svetlana Kuznetsova. Last year’s finalist, Dominika Cibulkova, was lined up for the semis if Sharapova got that far.

But back to Round 1, and the Russian looked tight in the early stages of her Lucic-Baroni match. The Croatian woman, renowned for her fast, attacking style of play, raced from the blocks to break in the first game, but that would be the first of five breaks as they headed to 3-4. At last Lucic-Baroni held, and she served to take the set, 6-4.

In the second set, however, Sharapova dug in, powering the ball from the baseline with ever more vim and ever more volume. She it was who broke first, and held off a severe challenge to her serve, through a quarter of an hour, to hold for 4-1. Lucic-Baroni levelled in the ninth game, but Sharapova roared herself to still greater effort to break again for the set, 6-4.

They had played for just 10 minutes short of two hours, and the long and successful season of the veteran at last began to tell. Sharapova took little more than 20 minutes to pound through the deciding set, 6-0, with her first serve rising from a poor 41 percent in the first set to a creditable 65 percent in the third.

Lucic-Baroni had, in trade-mark style, fired 41 winners but 34 errors. Sharapova kept her errors to just 10—certainly an impressive stat in a two-and-a-quarter-hour match.

Little wonder, however, that she had such praise for her opponent:

“I was playing against a human slingshot for a while there. Balls were coming so fast and deep. I mean, for a couple of sets, I don’t believe we had too many rallies over three balls. You know, she goes for it. You have to be patient. Sometimes there’s not much you can do… She came up with some great winners.”

But Sharapova had altogether less to say about her next opponent, Bouchard, who yesterday won her first main-draw match since January, beating Alize Cornet in three sets.

The Russian had, in Stuttgart, batted back questions about Bouchard’s “cheater” comments, though the Canadian stood by those comments in her post-match press in Madrid:

“I hope I can play Maria… inside myself, I think I’ll have a bit more motivation. But it’s very important, once I step on the court, no matter who is on the other side, to focus on the tennis.”

Sharapova was not to be drawn about the highly-anticipated showdown, their first match in two years:

“I already commented about those comments from her last week. I’m sure the WTA would be happy to provide you a transcript of that.”

But pressed about how she had dealt with the increase in her already-high profile since her return to the tour, she was calm and assured—much as she has been since entering the spotlight as a teenager to win her first Major at Wimbledon.

“I think it’s always great to be the person that’s kind of in control of your actions while everything around you is moving in a different way. Not much has changed from my end. I still go through my routines. I still go through my training. I’m around my team. But then there’s a little bit more around. I definitely feel it, but it doesn’t change anything that I do.

“I’m kind of the driver of that. I like being in that position. I like doing my work. I love being quiet about it and letting everyone around speak or have the noise.

“I’ve been in the public eye since I was a very young girl. I’ve heard a lot of things. If everything affects you on and off the court, I think that would be a really challenging position to be in. My tennis speaks for itself, and that’s what I focus on.”

Judging from today’s performance, and the intensity that Sharapova brought to court, Bouchard will indeed have to be motivated. No surprise that theirs is the headline match tomorrow evening: Don’t miss it.

Elsewhere, Kerber beat Timea Babos, 6-4, 6-2, and will next play Katerina Siniakova, while No3 seed Simona Halep looked every inch the defending champion in beating Kristyna Pliskova, 6-1, 6-2. She will play Roberta Vinci.

No11 seed Svitolina was moved out of Sharapova’s way by qualifier Saisai Zheng, 2-6, 7-6(4), 6-3, who will next meet another qualifier and Chinese compatriot, Qiang Wang, who beat Caroline Garcia, 6-4, 6-3.

The biggest upset—bearing in mind she was the home favourite—came at the end of the day when French Open champion and No5 seed Garbine Muguruza went out, in just over an hour, to Timea Bacsinszky, 6-1, 6-3.

No10 seed Caroline Wozniacki survived the longest match of the day, marred by a medical time out to her shoulder, after three-and-a half hours, beating Monica Niculescu, 7-5, 6-7(3), 6-4. She will meet one of only two remaining Spaniards in the draw, Carla Suarez Navarro, who beat Shuai Peng.

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