WIMBLEDON, ENGLAND—Maria Sharapova walked onto Centre Court on Tuesday the way she walks onto every court, with an icy, tight-lipped stride of determination. She towered over her opponent, Angelique Kerber, a woman she had beaten in four of their previous five meetings. The expectation was that Sharapova, the French Open champion and the favorite to win this title after Serena Williams’ defeat, would make it five of six. Maria had won so many close comeback matches in Paris, she had come to seem bullet-proof.
But as any tennis champion will tell you, every day is a new one—some days that’s a good thing, other days it’s not. To start the match, Sharapova turned her back to her opponent, spun around, strode purposefully to the baseline—and sailed her first serve six feet long. There was something about the shot that didn’t look, sound, or feel right. And that went double for her next shot, a backhand that she pulled wide. By the time Sharapova had double-faulted at break point, the Centre Court crowd was in full, murmurous buzz.
They were also in full, surprised roar over what was happening on the other side of the net. As poorly as Sharapova started, that’s just how sharp Kerber was. The German is famous for her retrieving ability, and she was her usual stubborn self, flying from sideline to sideline to chase down Sharapova’s drives, and sending them back any way she could—sliced, hacked, stabbed at, sidespinned, whatever it took. But Kerber was also very good in two areas where she typically struggles: Staying calm in tight moments and mounting an attack of her own.
Down 0-2 in the first-set tiebreaker, she won seven of the next nine points for the set. And she surprised Sharapova time and again from the baseline by poking forehands past her down the line. Most of the match was on Maria’s racquet, but Kerber’s did its part as well. She finished with 27 winners and 11 errors, and her sneaky, counterpunched placements forced Sharapova to keep aiming for the lines. Anything safe and Angie was on it.
“She’s a great anticipator of the ball,” Sharapova said of Kerber afterward. “She’s one of the best. That’s why she’s been in the top the last few years. I don’t think she has a huge weapon, but the fact that she makes you play such a physical match, gets so many balls back, and not just back, but deep and hard and flat, yeah, it says something.”
As far as her own play, Sharapova hit 57 winners and made 49 errors, but she blamed herself most for two things: not closing out the first-set tiebreaker when she had the momentum, and getting off to a slow start in the third set. She was a little unlucky in the first case. At 1-0 in the tiebreaker, Sharapova drilled one of her best backhand winners of the match into the corner; for the first time, she was ahead. On the next point, she had Kerber on the run again; the German finally stabbed a ball into the air that landed near the sideline. Sharapova was there for what looked like a putaway, but the ball was called wide. Kerber challenged, the call was overturned, and Sharapova lost the next point. She proceeded to lose her backhand completely, making six unforced errors from that side in the next eight points.
Outside of those few blown opportunities from Maria, though, this match belonged to Kerber.
“Before I went on court,” she said, “I was telling myself, you know, 'Just go out there, enjoy it, and play like you're at practice.' Not focus on her, just focus on yourself, and believe you can beat her.”
That belief was put to the test in the match’s final game. Sharapova, to no one’s surprise, held off a match point at 2-5, and then broke a nervous Kerber at 3-5. But to everyone’s surprise, Maria started her next service game with three errors of there own to go down 0-40. Aside from her fighting spirit, this really wasn’t her best day, and no matter how hard she clenched her first, it wasn’t going to get her timing back for her.
But Maria’s fighting spirit was still almost enough. She held off three match points to get back to deuce, and the match, good all the way, kicked into another gear. The two women traded quality shots for the next 10 minutes, as Sharapova saved match point three more times. She and Kerber were out on the high wire together; there was a sense that whoever won this game would win the match.
“I felt like I worked too hard within the match to let it go the easy way,” Sharapova said. “So I did everything I could in the end to try to save those shots. I did, but I didn’t save the last one.”
Sharapova’s last shot, like her first one, was a backhand that flew out. But both women agreed that the match—the 7-6 (4), 4-6, 6-4 result was most exciting of the tournament so far—had been won rather than lost.
“At the end I was trying to focus from point to point,” said Kerber, detailing one of the more extensive inner monologues we’ve heard from a player. “I was trying to tell me, 'You can do it. She will not make mistakes. If you would like to win the match, you need to do it, to be aggressive, just go for it.'"
“I’m just happy actually I won the match," she said. "I think she didn’t lost the match. I won it. That feels good.”
It felt good to Kerber on the inside, and looked just as good to us watching from the outside. She had done what no one could do in Paris: Find the magic bullet to put Maria Sharapova away.
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