There was just one question left in the wake of Maria Sharapova’s 6-3, 6-0, third-round win over Alison Riske in the Wimbledon thunderdome today. Where did the No. 5 seed find the time to belt 25 winners in a match that lasted barely over an hour (1:08, to be exact)?
The only difference between the two most commanding performances of this fortnight—this one and Andy Murray’s demolition of Roberto Bautista Agut yesterday—is that it took Sharapova a few minutes to dial in her big game. And once she had it properly calibrated, there was nothing Riske could do.
From 1-3 down, Sharapova’s racquet poured forth an astonishing, variegated stream of winners: Sharply angled passing shots, unreturned serves, down-the-line placements, stinging service returns, and pinpoint groundstrokes that had Riske, one of the better scramblers in the game today, huffing and puffing, unable to keep up. Even when Riske did manage to stay in a rally, it inevitably ended badly for her.
It was difficult to foresee how this could happen at the outset of the match. A forehand unforced error by Sharapova on break point gave Riske a 1-0 lead, after which the American expertly pulled the Russian off the court with her own serve a few times and rallied with precision to hold for 2-0. By then, one of Riske’s strategies seemed clear: Instead of trying to move Sharapova around the court, she would hit down the middle.
That’s a good idea, at least in theory. For one thing, it can make an opponent uncomfortable because of its sheer novelty. For another, it drastically reduces the angles available to an opponent. And few players are as dangerous as Sharapova when the court is opened up, and she has the full array of angles to exploit.
While I don’t think sticking with this strategy would have worked today in any event, it will certainly be worth trying again, perhaps on a day when Sharapova isn’t quite as sharp.
Riske built her lead to 3-1 with some eye-opening serve-and-volley tennis, another element of her game plan that seemed apt. Of course, the withering nature of Sharapova’s passing shots, especially when she loads up on the forehand side, introduce a certain element of Riske (sorry!) into the equation. But if you have the volleying skills and a reasonable powerful serve, the time-honored serve-and-volley strategy is always worth trying.
Sharapova began to get her game in gear in the next game, an easy hold. She then produced a break in the next game, which featured five deuces. It’s hard to say what might have happened had Riske managed to cling onto that game. But following the next deuce, Riske hit a double fault and it was 3-all, and the beginning of the end.
Quickly building a 40-0 lead in the next game, Sharapova lost two points to give Riske a glimmer of hope. But she doused that light with another forehand winner to take a 4-3 lead. The next game was critical, for Sharapova was coming on strong and Riske needed to stop her in her tracks. She couldn’t manage it, thanks mostly to Sharapova’s skill.
From 30-all, Sharapova took one of those previously effective wide serves and blasted it back for a return winner. She then forced Riske into a long rally that ended with a backhand error, leaving Sharapova serving for the set. Sharapova closed it out 6-3, and then broke immediately to start the second set. The rout was on, and little more need be said about it.
The score will make it look like another routine crushing, but in truth, Riske showed a lot of promise and had no reason to feel ashamed of how badly she was beaten by a woman enjoying one of the finest days of her career.
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