A 10:50 A.M. start is on the early side for most Madrileñas, but not for Maria Sharapova. She was there at game time, with her game stare in place, even if very few spectators had made it to the center court at the Caja Magica to see her flash it. Sharapova got an early jump on her opponent, Sabine Lisicki, as well. By 11:15 she was up 3-0 and had two breaks in hand. The question at that point was whether the match would last long enough for anyone to see it.
But those who knew the recent history between these two players might have guessed that it wasn’t going to be a breeze for Sharapova. Lisicki knocked her out of Wimbledon last year, and took her to three sets a few weeks later at the Olympics. Something about the German’s all-power, no-rhythm game throws Maria off, and it did again for periods today. Despite Sharapova’s fast start on the scoreboard, she was never at her best, though neither was Lisicki. At the beginning, it appeared as if the two women had stayed up late watching the double-fault fest between Ana Ivanovic and Laura Robson the night before, because both of them had trouble finding the box with their serves; each finished the first set with four doubles. But Lisicki also had far more errors from the ground, and that spelled the difference in Sharapova’s 6-2 opening set win. Lisicki was broken all four times she served.
Things were different in the second. Lisicki secured her first hold with an ace, and saved a break point at 1-1 to make it two in a row. Lisicki had begun to find her range, while Sharapova had lost hers. Lisicki pounded Maria’s second serves, and Sharapova briefly lost all feel on her backhand. An early key to the set came with Lisicki up 3-1 and holding a game point. Sharapova was reeling, and it appeared that the set was reeling away from her. But rather than let it go, she tracked down a short ball, hit a backhand winner to stay in the game, and eventually broke to keep herself in the set. Sharapova’s coach, Thomas Hogstedt, appeared to tell her that while Lisicki would hit winners with her forehand, she would also make errors with that shot. It was a timely reminder, as Lisicki committed a few key mistakes from the forehand side down the stretch.
Still, the German pushed ahead, and pushed Sharapova to the brink of a third set. Lisicki played her best game of the match to hold at 4-4, then earned two set points at 5-4, 15-40. Again, though, Maria righted herself just in time, dropping a backhand on the outside of the sideline to save the second point—when Lisicki saw that the mark was just catching the tape, all she could do was smile. It would be her last chance. Maria being Maria, she persevered through her shaky play to hold, and persevered to win the next game on her fourth break point. As Hogstedt predicted, it was a Lisicki forehand into the net that gave Sharapova the decisive break for a 6-2, 7-5 win.
Both players improved as they went, and both littered up the stat sheet. Sharapova had 29 winners against 29 errors, and eight aces against six double faults. This was her 19th straight win on clay, and 23rd straight on red clay, but it was certainly in doubt at times. She’ll have to serve better and tighten her ground strokes if she wants to add Madrid to her clay-title collection. Next up for Maria will be a quarterfinal against either Daniela Hantuchova or Kaia Kanepi. She's 8-1 against Hantuchova and 1-0 against Kanepi.