PARIS—When we try to describe what happened in a tennis match, there’s a tendency to oversimplify. You can’t recount every single point, so you find a dynamic and go with it. But most matches have various phases and various dynamics that lead from one to the next. Maria Sharapova’s win over Andre Petkovic today had three of them. The Russian won it three different ways.
The first lasted through the opening four games. The driving force here was very simple: A nervous Petkovic couldn’t put the ball in the court. She netted a routine backhand to lose her opening service game. She lost the second on an equally routine backhand that was driven even lower into the net. She missed an easy forehand putaway to go down 0-3.
From my view a few feet behind the court, I noticed for the first time how little margin Petkovic has on her strokes. She has compact swings, decent balance—though she's a little on her back foot—and makes clean contact, but many of her shots, even when they go in, just skirt the top of the tape. Petkovic walks an exceedingly fine line, and she was on the wrong side of that line early on.
The second phase of the match, which was repeated at the end of each set, began when Sharapova got a lead and loosened up. From the start of each rally, she showed her superior power and accuracy to the corners of the court. With Petkovic serving at 0-4, Sharapova hit two outright return winners and a third that landed smack on the baseline. Sharapova has that rare competitor’s gift, the instinct to close—it was like a reflex with her today.
The third and most interesting phase of this match came at the start of the second set. As often happens after a love set, the loser, Petkovic, relaxed—there was nowhere to go but up—while the winner, Sharapova, tightened back up. It’s a nerve-wrecking quirk of the sport that you can win a set at love, then lose the first game of the second and feel like you’re behind.
The two players met in the middle, and the result was a scrappy, see-saw, momentum-starved seven-game stretch filled with break points taken and squandered, finely measured winners followed by head-scratching errors, wind-blown tosses, lobs, and drop shots. It was the latter two that earned Petkovic her first break of the match early in the set. She was at her best when she blocked simple, safe, underspin backhands short and forced Sharapova to scramble wildly to the net.
But Petkovic’s momentum was short-lived. She gave back the break after a long deuce game, and the see-saw continued. While it was hardly a thing of beauty, this was the point in the match when Sharapova was most impressive. She struggled with her serve, she struggled with the wind, she flicked forehands wide and left lobs short, she stopped going for the lines on big points and sent the ball back down the middle. That's not her style, but sometimes you have to know what you're capable of at a certain stage of a match and what you're not. It also helps to have something more in reserve, something your opponent can't match. The biggest shot of the second set, maybe the shot that won her the match, was a let-it-rip crosscourt backhand winner to save a break point at 2-3. It landed closer to the sideline than Sharapova likely intended, but it was on the money.
Somehow, at the end of those seven games, Sharapova was ahead—I watched every point from the front row and was still surprised to look up and see that she was up 5-3 and about to win the match. The last point of that game was typical. After a shaky rally, Sharapova tracked down one of Petkovic’s trademark short balls, the short shot that had been troubling her, followed it in, and forced the German to pass her. She couldn’t; her backhand flew limply wide.
From there, Sharapova had her confidence again. She had achieved separation; her shots came faster now, and they found the corners. But as stinging as those winners were, it was the way Sharapova competed—scrapped, junkyard-dog style, without ever getting down on herself—that won her this match.
No wonder this woman, who has never been considered the world's most talented player, is on the verge of completing a career Grand Slam. Playing on clay, playing on hard courts, playing on grass, playing anywhere and anyone, Sharapova makes the best of it. What's a surface, anyway? Just another piece of ground to walk on; another place to win a tennis match.