Surviving and Advancing

by: Steve Tignor | January 24, 2012

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MsMELBOURNE—Maria Sharapova’s 6-2, 6-3 quarterfinal win over Ekaterina Makarova this afternoon was not, as the saying goes, “closer than the scores indicated.” Or at least it wasn’t closer than the scores of a pro tennis match typically indicate—many of the contests in the latter stages of Grand Slams are tighter than they appear. Example A, because it just happened yesterday, is Roger Federer’s win over Juan Martin del Potro. The 6-4, 6-3, 6-2 scores were dismally one-sided, but there were moments late in each of the first two sets when the momentum was on the verge of swinging toward del Potro. In the first, he had come back from 1-4 down to even it, and it seemed for a minute that he would sweep past a shaky Federer. If that had happened, we know del Potro would have had the capability to make it a very different match very quickly. That’s why Federer let out such a loud and sustained roar when he secured the second set. Even if those of us in the stands couldn’t recognize it, he knew what he had narrowly avoided.

The gap between Top 5 Sharapova and No. 56 Makarova is greater than the gap between fellow Grand Slam winners Federer and del Potro. Sharapova hits all of her shots harder. Her serve is a bigger weapon. She’s better at constructing points to her advantage. At the same time, it wasn’t like pro versus amateur out there; the two women are in the same league. Makarova beat Serena Williams, Vera Zvonareva, and Kaia Kanepi at this tournament; three wins like that in one week rule out the fluke factor for any one of them. Makarova hits flat, penetrating strokes not unlike Sharapova’s. Like del Potro, she had her threatening moments today.

More important, Sharapova makes her share of mistakes, and she made them in this match. As Brad Gilbert would put it, she “littered up the stat sheet” with 32 unforced errors against just 26 winners. You might counter that Sharapova won the important points, or that she came through in the clutch, and you would be right. But she also choked. On her first three match points, she missed three easy backhands. And in the second set, the famously intense Russian even slacked off a bit, casually running up for a drop shot and flipping a backhand into the net.

Those are not meant to be criticisms of Sharapova. They’re meant to show that even the clutch players and the mental warriors screw up about as often as they steel themselves to the task. They always have. In our minds, the legends of the sport's past played the way we see them play on YouTube highlight clips, where no one ever misses. Watch a video of an entire set from a classic match, and you’ll be reminded that the legends were human, too. Yesterday, in the waning stages of Federer-del Potro, when there wasn’t much left to talk about, Aussie commentator Fred Stolle recalled losing the 1965 Australian Open final to Roy Emerson after being up two sets to one, and two breaks in the fourth. Once you got past the “Ouch!” factor in that story, the moral was clear: Everyone chokes.

What separated Sharapova and Makarova today was, indeed, Maria’s superior pace, her smarter point construction, and her bigger serve. The most telling stat was forced errors: Sharapova commited just nine, while pushing Makarova to make 25; clearly she was controlling the action. But Sharapova didn't win on that stat alone. She won because after a long rally at 15-all on her serve in the middle of the second set, she took a very good Makarova approach and found the one foot of room down the sideline for the winning pass. She won because, after drilling a sitter backhand into the net to give Makarova a break point at 4-2 in the first set, she shrugged it off and followed it up with an ace. She won because, after Makarova handed her a game point at 4-2 in the second, she took advantage with a big serve and a big forehand on the next point to hold. She won because, when Makarova broke to take a lead early the second set, the lower-ranked player double-faulted twice rather than seizing the moment.

Sharapova won not because she was always the better player on the big points. But after blowing one of those big points, she was resilient enough to bounce right back and go after it again—like most victories, hers was imperfect, even sloppy, but it was enough. Serving for the match at 5-3 in the second set, Sharapova got to 40-15. Then she pulled up nervously and missed two simple backhands to bring it back to deuce. The Ice Queen looked vulnerable, and the specter of another WTA rollercoaster ride loomed up.

Maria has been on her share of those rides in the past; she's not above losing her game out of nowhere. Usually, though, she doesn't, and she didn't today. A minute later, she was back at match point. The ball came to her backhand again. She swung with confidence. It was enough. She's in the semifinals.

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