MELBOURNE—Fashion-wise and playing-wise, Maria Sharapova and Bethanie Mattek-Sands are a study in contrasts. When it comes to clothes, one is branded, the other downright bizarre. When it comes to games, one is loosely athletic, the other rigidly precise.
Rigidly precise won out over loosely athetic on Tuesday night here, as Sharapova beat Mattek-Sands by the not-quite-as-routine-as-they-sound scores of 6-3, 6-4. Maria, as she does so often, started well—she won the first four games of the match. But she could never sustain her best for long; this was her first Grand Slam match since Wimbledon last year, and it showed. Sharapova hit five aces, but had nine double faults, made just 53 percent of her first serves, and finished with 28 errors to go along with her 29 winners. Up 3-1 in the second set, she played three mistake-filled games to go down 4-3, before willing herself past the American in the end.
It should be said that, while Sharapova was 4-0 in their head to head coming in, the 41st-ranked Mattek-Sands isn’t the easiest first-round opponent. She’s a free swinger and a good mover, and when she’s connecting, she can stay with anyone from the baseline. And she came up with enough variety in her locations to keep Sharapova off balance much of the time. But Mattek-Sands can also swing wildly, as she did on a forehand error that put her down a break in the first set, and as she did again when she fell behind early in the second. Bethanie served as poorly as Maria, double faulting eight times and making just 57 percent of her first balls. She also committed 30 errors against just 18 winners. It was an uphill climb for her all the way, and Sharapova, more aggressive and accurate when it counted, with better depth and placement, ultimately wouldn’t let her catch up.
In past years, Sharapova has come to Melbourne well-honed and firing on all cylinders. She’s not there yet this time. She’ll try to get closer to top form in her next match, against Italy’s Karin Knapp.