Maria Sharapova came to Stuttgart and got just about everything she wanted and needed, in her first tournament back after a 15-month doping ban.
But one opportunity did slip through her fingers.
With a win against Kristina Mladenovic in the Stuttgart semi-final Saturday, Sharapova’s ranking would have zoomed from zero to inside the top 180 in just four days. There would have been no need to bite her nails as she waited for the live wild-card announcement the French Federation says is still 17 days away. With the deadline for the qualifying draw Monday, she would have earned her way in on her own merit.
There’s an irony to the fact that it was Mladenovic, the French No. 1 and a player who has spoken out against the awarding of wild cards to Sharapova, who ended her run.
The 23-year-old, also unseeded, defeated Sharapova 3-6, 7-5, 6-4 in two hours and 38 minutes to advance to the final against wild card German Laura Siegemund.
“That was kind of a thrilling match. Maria is a tough player, very aggressive from the first shot. I was struggling a bit with my serve and return. The balls were flying all over the place. I try to find good adjustments,” Mladenovic said during her post-match interview. “Not an easy match, but just tried to fight in there. In the end, it paid off.”
An impressive return
Sharapova tested herself against all different types of opponents in what has to be considered a wildly successful return to the circuit this week.
Roberta Vinci of Italy, a seasoned veteran in her mid-30s, has a variety of game that creates some difficulties on the clay. Straight sets.
Russia’s Ekaterina Makarova was second former top-10 player. But she had taken only one set from Sharapova in six previous meetings. In this one, Sharapova would have been the favorite despite her layoff. After a golden opportunity lost by Makarova late in the first set, it was over.
Sharapova’s next opponent was a rarity: a player she had never played. Although qualifier Anett Kontaveit of Estonia had been on a roll, it was another straight-sets victory.
Against Mladenovic, Sharapova faced a significant challenge. She was playing her fourth match in four days, after playing zero matches in the previous 16 months. Mladenovic has been playing well the last three months. She’s one of the rare female players possessing a thunderous first serve. And she also is one of the few who blossoms rather than shrivels when the spotlight is on.
Mladenovic is known as a “big occasion” player. That’s shorthand for “can’t consistently win during the boring, weekly grind of the smaller events where few people are watching.” Until she recently entered the top 20, her singles ranking had not been reflective of her talent.
Kiki Time in Stuttgart
This was a “big occasion” by every metric. It was chance to get to a Premier-level final with a full house on hand, many more watching on television and a star opponent on the other side drawing the tennis spotlight right to them.
That’s Kiki Time. She had already proved she was all in when she upset world No. 2 and defending Stuttgart champion Angelique Kerber in straight sets in the second round.
There wasn’t Mladenovic could do early on as Sharapova served brilliantly and played clean, aggressive tennis. She was quickly down a set and a break. But slowly, she got her bearings. Mladenovic began putting more returns in play, staying in the rallies longer.
Finally, Sharapova’s form dropped. It was likely to happen at some point with so much emotional and physical energy being expended over the week. The serve, which had been an inconsistent weapon before the suspension but an impressive one this week, let her down. So did the forehand, to some extent.
But Mladenovic deserves a lion’s share of the credit.
If there is a glaring weakness in her game, it’s the second serve, a stroke that can often be as much about bravoura under pressure as it is about technique. But she shrugged off the 11 double-faults caused in part by the threat of Sharapova’s return. Sharapova’s second serve kept her in the match – until it no longer did.
New boss, same as the old boss
As the Russian’s return date neared and she trained intensely but privately, you almost hoped she would come back from her suspension and shock the world, somehow. How mind-blowing would it have been had she come back… without the grunt?
Seriously, though, you could hope a player would benefit from so much unexpected time off in the middle of her career, and come back with some new weapons given the “luxury” of all those months to work on them.
There are examples of this on the men’s side. Marin Cilic came back from a much shorter doping suspension having added a big weapon with the help of then-coach Goran Ivanisevic. He finally had a serve powerful enough to match his size. It was a big reason the Croat won the 2014 US Open.
And then there is Roger Federer.
Federer came back from six months off with a significantly improved topspin backhand. Once considered an attackable area, Federer has won three big tournaments since his return – and has beaten Rafael Nadal three times.
Before the match, Mladenovic said she didn’t this was the case with Sharapova. “I think she is still mastering her ‘A game’. I didn’t see anything new, I think she is just playing her game really well, like she did in the past,” she said.
It appears Sharapova has tinkered with her serve a little; she mentioned in a press conference earlier this week it was a matter of a few timing adjustments. The ball toss appears a little lower, and she lands into the court a bit more.
But the arm angle looks the same. And the velocity she never quite regained after the long-ago shoulder surgery is still MIA. Sharapova served well this week, but it was all about location. For the most part, she rarely cracked 165 km/hour. Mladenovic, on the other hand, hit close to 190 km/hour on numerous occasions.
Tactically, Mladenovic superior
The final two points of the match perfectly summed up Sharapova’s tactical limitations.
At 30-30, she came to the net on a deep approach shot to Mladenovic’s backhand. The first volley was a dreadful attempt at a backhand drop volley. It just hung up in the middle of the court and gave Mladenovic plenty of time to track it down. The second volley should have been put away, but Sharapova’s feet didn’t move. Mladenovic deftly put away a slice forehand.
On match point, Mladenovic again asked the question with one of her many crosscourt backhand drop shots. Sharapova got there, tried to respond in kind. It’s another shot she still doesn’t have in her arsenal. Mladenovic had the all the space in the world to hit the final shot, the victory shot.
The fact that Sharapova’s game basically stood still during her absence is a wasted opportunity she’s not likely to get again. But from all evidence this week, her old game is more than enough to climb the rankings quickly and get back to where she was.
With the win, Mladenovic can aspire to a top-16 seed at her home Grand Slam next month. She’s nearly there already. And with first-round losses at both Madrid and Rome a year ago, she has everything to gain before descending upon Paris.