A break fest with your breakfast, anyone? That’s what Maria Sharapova and Agnieszka Radwanska cooked up for those of us watching in the U.S. this morning. The two Top Tenners opened their Stuttgart quarterfinal with seven straight breaks of serve; in the end, Radwanska held just three times in 10 attempts. Not coincidentally, she also lost to Sharapova for the ninth time in 11 meetings, 6-4, 6-3.
This match was a returner’s special from both sides of the court. Sharapova won just nine of 24 points on her second serve, while Radwanska managed the amazing feat of converting just 11 of 31 first-serve points. If there were ever any questions as to why Radwanska will always (a) struggle against big-hitting top players, and (b) struggle on clay, this match should have answered them. Her serve, both first and second, sat up, begging to be dismissed. Given that chance to take batting practice, Sharapova grew more aggressive and accurate with her return as the match progressed. She cashed in on seven of 11 break points.
More important, Sharapova also found her own serve when she needed it. Up 4-3 in the first, she appeared to be heading for a fourth straight break when she went down 0-40. Her coach, Sven Groeneveld, had cautioned her to “take your time” and “pick your spots” on the previous changeover, and now Sharapova took the advice to heart. She steadied herself with a forehand winner and two service winners, and then closed out the first, match-changing hold of the day with another big forehand. From there, Sharapova had no more troubles on her serve, as she marched to a 4-0 lead in the second and finished with a respectable first-serve percentage of 66. By the middle of the second set, a slump-shouldered Radwanska couldn’t find the court even on easy returns, and she couldn’t control the rallies long enough to put her variety to any use.
I shouldn’t say that Sharapova had no more troubles on her serve. She had six more, to be exact, and they all came when she tried to close the match out at 5-2 in the second. Sharapova found six ways to squander match points—with a swing volley into the net, a backhand long, a forehand wide, a backhand into the net, another backhand into the net, and a missed pass off an admittedly very good Radwanska approach. Aga, who saved all of her fight until the last millisecond, hung on long enough to break serve. But once again, her own serve failed her, as a slightly shaky Sharapova kept her nerve and drilled a forehand winner on her eighth match point. Her roar of relief brought a laugh from coach Groeneveld.
Sharapova, the two-time defending champion and spokeswoman for the tournament's title sponsor, Porsche, has now won 11 straight matches in Stuttgart; this one also kept her from dropping out of the Top 10 for the first time in three years. She’ll go for win No. 12 against either Carla Suarez Navarro or Sara Errani in the semis.