ISTANBUL—As Maria Sharapova said before the WTA Championships began, when she was asked what it felt like to be the most popular tennis player in Turkey: There is no statistical evidence to support that contention. But at least on opening night, far more fans in attendance cheered for the Russian by way of Manhattan Beach then they did for her opponent, Italy’s Sara Errani. And the majority got their wish, with Sharapova prevailing, 6-3, 6-2.
The contest was a rematch of this year's Roland Garros final, and what transpired was not dissimilar to their Paris clash. Although players are saying that the court at the Sinan Erdem Arena in Istanbul is playing substantially slower than last year, Sharapova no longer minds facing players who hit with high-bouncing topspin, like her opponent today. Sharapova is tall, for one, and over the years she has developed better timing when it comes to deciding when to jump on high balls.
As she is wont to do, Sharapova got off to a slow start, but Errani wasn't locked in herself, and had trouble keeping balls low enough and away from the center of the court.
Sharapova began to find her range in the sixth game, when she broke Errani to 4-2 with a stinging forehand winner. By then she was comfortable employing her standard attack, and Errani could do little to counter it. Again and again, Sharapova would slice a serve out wide to the deuce court and then belt a winner off a mediocre Errani return into the open court. Or, she’d crunch a serve down the T into the ad court, and put together a three-groundstroke combination that left Errani shaking her head.
As for her return game, Sharapova took any Errani serve that wasn’t deep and well placed and ripped the reply. The world No. 2 went cross-court until she got a clean look down the line, and ate up almost every short ball that was presented to her.
There were a few moments during the match when Errani showed the crowd why she managed to crack the final eight—in singles (she's also entered in the doubles draw with Roberta Vinci). Blessed with quick feet and good hands, Errani doesn't shy away from the net. Down 2-5 in the first set, she took a short ball, pushed Sharapova wide to her backhand side, and caressed a low backhand drop volley into the open court for a winner.
But to pull off the upset, Errani needed to frequently move Sharapova around and make her grind out points, but was unable to do so. Sharapova hit with tremendous depth and accuracy, not only powering flat balls, but also adding some top spin to both her forehand and backhand when she was in defensive positions, something she has been working on with her coach, Thomas Hogstedt.
Sharapova’s two-handed backhand has always been her most consistent weapon, but it's her forehand that wins her big matches. She would end the contest with her 22nd forehand winner and 39th overall, playing a workmanlike point where she got herself into a comfortable position in the left-hand corner and scalded an inside-out forehand on the line.
If Sharapova can keep her forehand cranking at the same rate, she has a good chance to win the White Group (which includes Petra Kvitova and Agnieszka Radwanska) and has at least a puncher’s chance to upset her two nemeses—Serena Williams and Victoria Azarenka—on the weekend.