Maria Sharapova could be forgiven if, at times during her first-round match at Wimbledon today, she looked across the net and thought she saw. . . Maria Sharapova. For Kristina Mladenovic, a 20-year old blonde from France, shares many attributes—and some liabilities—with the 26-year-old former Wimbledon champion.
Unfortunately, one of those liabilities played an enormous role in Sharapova’s 7-6 (5), 6-3 win. That was Mladenovic’s penchant for tossing in double faults and basically letting her serve go wayward. Ironically, on a day when Mladenovic hit seven double faults, Sharapova went the full hour and 42 minutes without hitting a single double. It helped her cause immeasurably, because this match was surprisingly close, from start to finish.
If Sharapova could be forgiven for seeing a lot of herself in Mladenovic, also a 6-foot, statuesque blonde, for much of the early going fans could have been forgiven for mistaking the two ladies for Goran Ivanisevic and Pete Sampras. The women served bombs, and produced that rarity of a WTA match—one with scant few service breaks and, at least in the early going, few break points thanks to joint serving efficiency.
In fact, the first break point was against Sharapova, when she was struggling to stay on serve in the first set at 3-4. She dismissed that threat with a service winner (what else?) right down the pipe, and it was a good thing for her that she escaped that jam. Her life would have become considerably complicated if she fell behind a youngster who was determined to comport herself in a manner as cool and controlled as that of any Alfred Hitchcock blonde.
By the 10th game of the set—with no potential turning point since that lone break point—Sharapova was yelling and pumping her fist when she hit a winner, but the challenger was unfazed. The women continued on serve without drama until the tiebreaker.
Mladenovic started the deciding session off with an ominous double fault, which Sharapova followed with a service winner that gave her a 2-0 lead. But an inside-out forehand gave the mini-break right back, and an artless forehand that Sharapova drove into the net leveled the score at two points each. But Mlandeovic hit another double fault, and Sharapova clocked another service winner, and we were right back where we started—sort of.
And again, this time from a 4-2 lead, Sharapova handed back the advantage. Mladenovic played a good drop shot-volley combination to get back on serve, but by then her serve had utterly deserted her. After hitting yet another so-so second serve, Mladenovic erred with a down-the-line backhand and Sharapova was up a mini-break yet again, 5-3.
Once more, Sharapova promptly surrendered the edge when she served at 5-4. Mlandenovic managed to stay in a brief but intense rally with a squash-shot retrieval from way out of the court, and Sharapova, perhaps surprised, drove her ensuing forehand into the net.
But at 5-all, Sharapova hit a cross-court backhand winner, and at set point down Mladenovic couldn’t afford to give away another mini-break. She did it anyway. Forced to hit a second serve yet again—Mlandenovic didn’t put a first serve into play in the entire tiebreaker—Sharapova drew her opponent toward the net and smacked away a backhand smash to finally take the set in 58 minutes.
Mladenovic managed to control the disappointment she must have felt, which is another sign that this big-hitting, even-tempered former world junior champion is headed for a big career. She fought off three break points in the second game to hold for 1-all in the second set, even though her serve was still deteriorating. It broke down one last, critical time in the fourth game, which ended with a Mladenovic double fault—and gave Sharapova all the breathing room she would need at 3-1 with serve to come.
Sharapova kept her unyielding opponent under her thumb the rest of the way, and while she wouldn’t break again, she served out the match with relative ease. Mladenovic had much to feel good about after this match, despite her erratic serving. Her movement is excellent for a girl who’s both young and tall, and that only adds to the upside she has with that big serve and solid groundstrokes.
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