Stuttgart: Sharapova d. Ivanovic

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Dedicated Ana Ivanovic fans are by necessity an anxious lot, because their heroine personifies the essentially meek and amenable young lady trapped in the body of a competitive athlete. The contrast is especially sharp when the pleasant girl from Serbia is thrown into the ring with someone as stone-cold aggressive and competitive as Maria Sharapova.

Will Ivanovic ever overcome her deferential nature, and that frustrating tendency she has to let her opponents take control of a match? It’s a good question, to which the answer remains, “maybe.” Today, she showed real signs of becoming a more emphatic competitor before Sharapova put her back in her place—but not without a struggle. Sharapova won their tense, sometimes artful, two-hour and 16-minute quarterfinal, 7-5, 4-6, 6-4.

The first set boiled down to a battle of nerves. Ivanovic was broken in the very first game, on Sharapova’s very first break point. But Ivanovic forced a break point of her own in the second game. Sharapova was more successful navigating it, but the tone was established for a tight set in which serving proficiency played a key role.

The next break opportunity belonged to Ivanovic, with Sharapova serving to try and bump the score to 3-1. She hit a wild forehand off an excellent Ivanovic service return to go down break point, and then couldn’t keep her forehand in the court during a brief rally. It was 2-2, and the women settled into a holding (serve) pattern.

Ivanovic got in trouble at 4-all, after Sharapova plucked a patented drive volley out of the air following an excellent approach shot. That gave her break point, but Sharapova wasted it with a backhand error, added another, and Ivanovic held with an ace for 5-4.

Brave as that was, the set ended anticlimactically. Sharapova held to level things, then broke when Ivanovic lost her nerve despite having built a 40-15 lead. A terrible backhand error brought the score to deuce; Ivanovic then delivered her third double fault of the match, after which Sharapova pounded a second serve back so hard that Ana had no time to field it. She drove her backhand into the net and Sharapova backed up the break with a hold for the set.

But if this script sounded familiar to those frustrated by Ivanovic’s timid streak, it took an unexpected turn in the second set. The former French Open champ dug in her heels against the reigning French Open champ, and the women engaged in something like a serving contest—both of them making frequent use of what would be the defining shot of this match, the sliding serve out wide to the returner’s forehand in the deuce court.

Each woman served well and backed it up with crisp play through the first eight games. Even their errors were eerily similar, a free mix of unforced mistakes and inadequate responses to positive questions posed by her rival.

But who could blame Ivanovic fans for fearing the worst when Sharapova roared back from a love-30 deficit in the ninth game by virtue of an Ivanovic double fault and a neat, heavily sliced Sharapova drop shot? This time, though, Ivanovic sucked in her breath and forced a service return error, then won the game with an unreturnable serve. Ahead 5-4, Ivanovic played an excellent, unexpectedly confident game to break Sharapova, winning four straight points after allowing a 30-love lead.

Unfortunately, all the street cred the two women accumulated through the first two sets went down the tubes as the third turned into a wild, unpredictable shoot-out. Ivanovic, failing to capitalize on the momentum gained at the end of the second set, played a lousy game to be broken in the very first game. It was like a spell cast over both women, even though Sharapova did hold, then broke Ivanovic again to lead 3-0.

Sharapova then played a poor game of her own, losing her next service game at love. Errors suddenly streamed freely off the racquets of both women as they proceeded to mangle service games, yet they tightened it up as returners. That turned the set into an orgy of breaks—we saw only two holds through the nine games that left Sharapova up 5-4. In all fairness, both women hit some spectacular shots—if too few when it might have meant taking, or maintaining, control.

At 5-4, Sharapova found her poise long enough to go up 40-15, but she made errors on both match points. She gathered herself and hit a service winner to earn her third match point, and won it when Ivanovic ended a careful rally by driving a backhand into the net.

Stat of the match: A mere percentage point separated the second-serve success rate of the women, with Sharapova 15 of 36 for 41 percent, and Ivanovic 16 of 38 for 42 percent.

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