Rome: Sharapova d. Stephens

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All kinds of bad things happen when you’re in a slump, not all of them obvious, like double-faults or errors that spin out their miserable lives in the net. There’s also a tendency, among other things, to watch rather than participate, to pull up or back out of a shot at a critical moment, to toss the service ball too low, and to rely too much on retrieving, thereby allowing your opponent to dictate.

Sloane Stephens was plagued by many of those shortcomings in her third-round match with Maria Sharapova today, and the net result was a dispiriting, one-hour and 20-minute, 6-2, 6-1 loss.

Stephens looked like the reluctant competitor as the first set began, and surrendered a break in the second game. She showed signs of wanting to get right back into it though, picking up two break points in the very next game. But Sharapova, doing what she does best—which is, go for it—fended them off with a service winner followed by what is becoming her (and everyone else’s) go-to shot, the inside-out forehand winner.

Stephens won her next game for 1-3, and continued to press Sharapova. At 30-40, the women played an intense, crisp rally that ended with a Sharapova backhand error. Stephens had broken back, but her general lack of confidence these days wasn’t easily dismissed, and it probably contributed to the fact that she was unable to keep the pace. Hitting with more power and unwavering focus, Sharapova took advantage of Stephens’ increasingly defensive posture in the next game and broke again with a backhand down-the-line winner off a slice backhand. Sharapova now led 4-2.

Although Stephens was playing reactive rather than proactive, aggressive tennis—some of which had to do with her opponent’s customary belligerence—she still managed to retrieve and rally her way to another break point with Sharapova in the next game. Stephens hit a short angle cross-court, almost a drop shot, that looked a winner, but Sharapova raced forward to make an unexpected get and dumped the reply deep enough to force an error. She went on to hold for 5-2, and broke Stephens to seal the set.

Stephens’ coach, David Nankin, trotted out to speak to his protégé, and told her that instead of 6-2, the women might still be going at it, tied at four-all. It was true, but Stephens seemed in no mood to be inspired. She complained gently about how Sharapova was finding so many lines and angles, to which Nankin provided the intelligent response: “If she can hit those, it’s just too good. Don’t worry about it.”

Sharapova opened the second set with a routine hold, after which she pressed Stephens in the ensuing game. By this time, Stephens was really counting on her retrieving ability, but the slice return of pressing, flat or topspin shots is just begging for trouble—and Sharapova is always willing to provide it.

Sharapova worked her way to deuce in that second game, but Stephens hung in there, as she would through three more deuces. After the fifth deuce, Sharapova achieved her second break point of the long game in classy fashion. Stephens tried to end a lively rally with a lovely drop shot to Sharapova’s backhand side—only to watch, helpless, as the Russian sprinted up, reached the ball with her racquet outstretched and scraping the red dirt, and dumped it parallel to the net all the way across to the far sideline.

The shot seemed to break Stephens’ spirit. Sharapova returned her next serve, and Stephens made a sloppy cross-court backhand error to surrender the break.

With the 2-0 lead, Sharapova continued to press her advantage. Her confidence, already high, continued to swell and produce stinging, deep, offensive shots that rendered even Stephens’ considerable retrieving skills moot. It was becoming ugly, but Stephens managed a face-saving hold in the sixth game before she gave up the ghost.

Stat of the Match: Sharapova won 11 of her 15 forays to the forecourt. I presume her useful retrievals of a number of Stephens’ drop shots count in that tally, as do her drive volleys. The stat is a tribute to one of the greatest areas of improvement in Sharapova’s game.

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