French Open: Sharapova d. Zakopalova

Monday, June 04, 2012 /by

201206040955357425902-p2@stats.comBreak points don't always mean turning points. They definitely didn't during today's fourth-round match between Maria Sharapova and Klara Zakopalova, a contest the second-seeded Russian appeared to have under control throughout the second set—one she somehow lost despite leading by a break on four separate occasions. On two of those occasions, Sharapova served for the match.

Not that Zakopalova was the second coming of Pete Sampras. She couldn't hold serve either, broken nine times through two sets. After the Czech took the second set in a tiebreaker, the fans in attendance—a largely impatient lot, with Richard Gasquet and Andy Murray on deck—had witnessed a combined 17 breaks of serve.

If Brad Gilbert was calling this match for ESPN2, you can be sure he would have broken out the "winning ugly" line, for that's exactly how Sharapova's 6-4, 6-7 (5), 6-2 triumph should be described. She hit 12 double faults, 53 unforced errors, and, just for good measure, was broken while serving for the match a third time at 5-1 in the third set. That set off a cacophony of derisive whistles, but a game later, the crowd got its wish—a Zakopalova double fault mercifully concluded this match, its final soundtrack a mix of cheers and boos.

It's when things are at their worst when we often look for the good, and there was some of that in this anti-classic. For one, Zakopalova hit some nice shots, striking 44 winners in all. Using her compact swing, the 30-year-old kept Sharapova on the move, which is a fine strategy against the three-time Grand Slam champion on clay. Sharapova was wrong-footed on a few instances, even taking a tumble on the terre battue once, prompting many to recall "Cow on Ice", Sharapova's self-described nickname which pokes at her clay-court movement. If Twitter had "TennisWorld" as a location, the term would have been trending.

But eventually, the Cow put Zakopalova out to pasture with a relatively stress-free third set, one she naturally opened with a hold. She then consolidated the hold—the tennis-centric definition of "consolidate" needed a revision after this match—with a break, aided by a net-cord return winner. Sharapova lost just five games in her first three matches, but it seemed that Roland Garros, the French avaitor for whom this tournament is named, decided that it couldn't remain that easy.

This match exposed some of Sharapova's biggest liabilities. There's her serve, of course, but also her inability to change her game when it isn't working—some spin and slice, especially on clay, could have lessened the chance of an all-too-common misfire and taken Zakopalova out of her mid-match groove. But she got through a tough fourth-rounder, just as Roger Federer did three years ago en route to his first French Open title, which completed a career Slam. Federer's main obstacle, Rafael Nadal, was out of the picture when he overcome Tommy Haas in five sets; three of Sharapova's main rivals—Serena Williams, Victoria Azarenka, and Agneiszka Radwanska—are out of the tournament now. I'll let you decide what's the bigger takeaway from today.

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