On a day which saw Petra Kvitova upset, Maria Sharapova survived by the skin of her teeth against British teenager Heather Watson, 3-6, 7-5, 6-3.
Sharapova has had bad luck with plucky youngsters at the Slams this year. Watson, the U.S. Open junior champion in 2009 who qualified into the main draw for the first time this year, took the court with the composure of a seasoned competitor. A natural counterpuncher, Watson clearly planned to attack Sharapova’s forehand as much as possible, and it yielded excellent results from the start. She broke to lead 2-0, keeping great depth on her shots and placing the ball beautifully to keep Sharapova off-balance. With Sharapova reeling and unable to find her range, Watson served out a very impressive first set and went on to break in the first game of the second.
One cannot rely on Sharapova to keep missing, however, and she landed some impressive returns in the next game to put Watson under pressure. The 19-year-old played a tentative game on serve, for the first time not attacking when she had the opportunity, and was punished—Sharapova broke back immediately to even the second set at 1-1. She continued to punish Watson’s underpowered serve to break again, and many would have expected the Russian to run away with the match from there. Watson, however, is made of sterner stuff than that. Digging in her heels at 1-4 down, she deliberately took pace off the ball to disturb Sharapova’s burgeoning rhythm and held serve. Soon, she was back on serve at 4-5. And trailing 0-30, her scampering, athletic defense absorbed everything Sharapova threw at her in a marathon 27-stroke rally, eventually finding a cross-court forehand to win the point and hold serve for 5-all.
It was the high-water mark for Watson. The teenager hit her second double fault serving at 5-6 to give Sharapova the opportunity to break for the set. With Sharapova for the first time consistently keeping the ball in the court, Watson’s lack of overtly aggressive options began to work against her, and she gave up the decisive break. It was largely one-way traffic from there, as Watson found herself outgunned despite her indomitable spirit. Down 4-2 in the third, Watson did break back, but an unlucky netcord gave Sharapova 0-30 in the very next game, from which the fourth seed didn't look back, eventually serving out the match.
Sharapova’s fans will be understandably concerned at her 58 unforced errors, but many of those were elicited by the nature of Watson’s game and the skill with which she executed it. Watson’s valiant and mature performance suggests that she will be a star of the future, but it’s Sharapova who moves on in New York.