For an elite player, Maria Sharapova has been embroiled in plenty of touch-and-go matches characterized by unpredictable swings of momentum (see her second-round win over Christina McHale). But today, in the third round of Madrid, she played one of her most consistent, punishing matches in recent memory. The victim was Sam Stosur, and the score was 6-4, 6-3, in a tidy hour-and-a-half.
These women are well-matched, partly because the versatility of Stosur’s serve contrasts nicely with Sharapova’s straight-ahead power, and both women like to give the ball a ride with their groundstrokes. While neither is a resolute attacker, neither is a baseline shrinking violet, either. Stosur’s forehand may be more reliable, day-in, day-out, but then her backhand is more easily broken down.
The first set unfurled with both women taking big cuts at the ball and not giving away much. Sharapova had a lot of trouble handling Stosur’s kick serve, while the Aussie struggled to stay in the rallies against the firepower of the No. 8 seed. Things have been tough for Stosur lately, but at least today whatever problems she’s had with her confidence were no factor. What she had trouble doing was keeping Sharapova away from her weaker, backhand wing.
We were into the sixth game of the match, with Sharapova leading 3-2 on serve, before Stosur missed a first-serve opportunity. But her second serve—that wonderful kicker—isn’t a poor alternative. The points rolled by, each woman giving as good as she got. This was one of those matches in which the player serving the odd games really seemed to benefit. In such situations, that 4-3 or 5-4 lead puts extra pressure on the one who trails—in this case, Stosur.
That extra pressure finally paid off for Sharapova in the 10th game. She hit an uncharacteristic backhand drop shot—an idea borne of her poor court positioning—to level at 15-all, and an atomic forehand service return winner to reach 30-all. The rally in the next point ended with an inexplicable shanked backhand by Stosur. The ensuing set point for Sharapova was also the first break point for either woman in the match. Sharapova made good on that chance when she goaded a forehand error out of Stosur after a brief rally.
The quality of the match remained high at the start of the second set, with Stosur dismissing two break points in the second game to knot the score at 1-1. She may have missed her best chance to take control of the momentum in the next game, when she battled her way to a break point. But Sharapova ramped up her game when she most needed to, hitting a pair of heavy forehand winners before belting a backhand return winner to hold.
The next opportunity for either woman was in the sixth game, with Stosur serving. She fell behind 0-30 through no fault of her own, but then pushed a backhand into the doubles alley. Suddenly, Sharapova had a chance to break the match wide open, with three break points. Stosur faced down two of them, but her backhand once again let her down at a critical moment. She she hit another wild one to kill her chances and leave Sharapova up, 4-2.
It was at that point that Sharapova momentarily took her eye off the ball and dug herself into a 0-40 hole, just as Stosur had done in the previous game. Stosur converted the first break point thanks to a rally error by Sharapova.
Undeterred, Sharapova again ran off the first three points of the next game. A Stosur forehand saved a break point, but Sharapova smacked a cross-court forehand winner to end the next rally and take a 5-3 lead. She served it out with little drama in the next game.
On the day, Sharapova put in 72 percent of her first serves, and she won 32 of those 43 points (74 percent). When she can produce numbers like that, even Serena Williams needs to be alert.