April 14, 2024

Open Court

MORE TENNIS THAN YOU'LL EVER NEED

Sharapova takes first title in 2 1/2 years

Sharapova

It was – duelling high volume screams notwithstanding – a roller-coaster ride of a tennis match, a train wreck of a serve-breaking contest that somehow was a highly-compelling contest.

But in the end, Maria Sharapova won the Tianjin Open with a 7-5, 7-6 (6) victory over 19-year-old Aryna Sabalenka of Belarus.

And with one final scream, she earned her first WTA Tour title in nearly 2 1/2 years, since Rome in early May 2015.

Understandably, she showed some emotion after it was over. It has been a bumpy road back, since she returned in Stuttgart in April after serving her 15-month doping suspension.

The 30-year-old Russian had to come back from two breaks of serve down – in both sets – to put it away.

She was down 1-4 in the first set (the only game she earned was on a break of serve) before coming back to win it 7-5.

And she was down 1-5 in the second set before breaking her 19-year-old opponent twice as she attempted to serve out the set and take it to a decider.

In the end, her experienced showed.

https://twitter.com/MariaSharapova/status/919523257417547776

Huge experience edge for Sharapova

Sharapova was playing in her 59th WTA Tour singles final.

Sabalenka was playing in the first WTA Tour final of her career, in only the fifth WTA Tour main draw of her career.

Sharapova

At times, she seized the moment beautifully. At others, she couldn’t find the court.

Sharapova weathered the powerful gusts, and waited for the inevitable errors. Although it had to feel somewhat like foreign territory to have so much of the match’s outcome in the hands of an opponent she likely had never heard of before Sunday.

Sabalenka’s junior career didn’t really presage her run in Tianjin or even her run to the semifinals in Tashkent, Uzbekistan a few weeks ago.

Sharapova

She rarely ventured outside a pretty restricted area during juniors (the Baltics and Finland, pretty much) and never broke into the top 200 in the ITF junior rankings.

At 17, she finished the 2015 season ranked No. 541. By the end of last year, she was at No. 155.

She made her Grand Slam debut at Wimbledon this year. And when the new rankings come out on Monday, she will be ranked No. 76.

Australian Open seed on radar

 As for Sharapova, she will be inside the top 60 after earning the 36th title of her career.

Sharapova

And she can add to that this week. Sharapova took another wild card into the Moscow Premier event, which she will play for the first time since 2007.

If she somehow manages to win that, too, the Russian would definitely put herself in range to be seeded at the Australian Open, with early opportunities during the tune-up tournaments to seal that deal.

The crowd in Tianjin was fully Team Sharapova. Many of the fans were waving copies of her new memoir around. But they appreciated the efforts of Sabalenka as well.

https://twitter.com/doublefault28/status/919481312095989760

You just hope they brought earplugs.

Loud, LOUD final

If Sharapova shrieked, the Belarussian flat-out screamed. Most of the time.

Sharapova

It was tennis turned up to 11 (that’s a Spinal Tap reference) on both the noise, and the power.

Sharapova was by the the steadier, and it stood her in good stead when she found herself in such big trouble in both sets.

Sabalenka is a shade short of six feet tall, big and strong and sort of a hybrid of a lot of tennis players you’re far more familiar with.

Facially, she has a bit of Andrea Petkovic and Amélie Mauresmo in her.

In the big, loopy swings on her groundstrokes, there’s some Julia Goerges in the forehand, some Coco Vandeweghe in the backhand.

Her game is still so raw. But there is so much promise.

Sharapova

She reached near 180 km/hour with her serve a few times. Not enough times, but clearly the mechanics are there.

And Sabalenka wasn’t content to just stay and slug from the baseline. She improvised some shots in instinctive fashion. And she wasn’t afraid to take second-serve returns and follow them to the net.

There is some “there”, there. And a dramatic, feisty personality (despite the din) that sets her apart from many of the teenagers coming up.

Add some polish to that raw material, and she might make some noise in 2018. Pardon the pun.

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