NEW YORK—Right from the start of Monday’s first-round match between No. 5 seed Maria Sharapova and fellow Russian Maria Kirilenko, spectators contented themselves with frequently shouting out, “Come on, Maria!”
What, did they want to spare Kirilenko the embarrassment of realizing that Arthur Ashe Stadium was full of Sharapova fans? Or perhaps the two simply looked enough alike—both blonde, visored, similar builds—to render any urge to distinguish between them futile.
They did choose different outfits, though. Sharapova was wearing cocktail-dress—or perhaps we should call it undertaker—black, while Kirilenko chose a salmon-colored skirt with a matching top, featuring fabric that looked like a dorsal fin running diagonally across her back. Even with that appendage, she was unable to swim away from one of the the game’s most voracious sharks.
It was a tough night for Kirilenko, who lost 6-4, 6-0 and could easily have been mistaken for a smaller and weaker if not necessarily worshipful sister of Sharapova.
“Come on, Maria.” Read what you want into it, ladies.
These two represented a fair bit of recent Russian tennis history on this pleasant night in Flushing Meadows. They’re both 27 (Kirilenko is just three months older), and both have struggled with injury, most recently Kirilenko, who was just 2-5 on the year coming into this match, partly because of knee and wrist problems. Were the 5’9” Kirilenko blessed with an extra five-inches of height—which would make her just as tall as Sharapova—who knows how different her destiny might have been? As it is, Sharapova’s 5-2 lead in the head-to-head before this encounter certainly wasn’t overwhelming.
Sharapova and Kirilenko have known each other since they were 12 years old, which would make them old friends, if there were any such thing in tennis.
“We spent a lot of time in the juniors away from the courts practicing a lot together, competing against each other,” Sharapova said after the match. “We certainly have a big history together. But when you go out on the court, you have to face that person as a competitor, not someone that you’ve known for years and developed a friendship with. It's always a tricky balance, I guess.”
It was clear from the start of play that this would be a battle between Sharapova’s aggression—and the power with which she backs it up—and Kirilenko’s quick feet and consistency. But despite owning a career Grand Slam, Sharapova still loses the plot with surprising frequency. At any time she’s prone to hit a bad patch littered with mortifying double faults and out-of-sync groundstrokes.
Tonight, Kirilenko’s strategy was built on waiting out Sharapova—not a bad plan for someone so fleet and versatile. She worked hard at retrieving and mixing up the pace of her groundstrokes, often with a backhand that’s a hybrid between a slice and a chop. At times it worked, but mostly it didn’t. For this was one of those nights when instead of struggling through ups and downs, Sharapova would recover from a slow start and gradually pull away, thanks to her superior firepower.
Sharapova missed two break-point opportunities after starting the match with a hold. Two holds later, Kirilenko broke Sharapova mainly through her ability to stay in rallies and mix up the pace, often with those odd, floating, hybrid backhands. But those are no long-term antidote to the kind of fierce, flat power Sharapova is capable of generating, except when she’s out of touch with her game.
It looked like that might be the case when Kirilenko showed great poise to hold for 4-2, but that would be the high point of her night: Sharapova settled in and grew increasingly steady and commanding from that point on, gulping down the next—and last—10 games.
On the surface, this might have seemed like a routine first-rounder for the U.S. Open champion of 2006. Sure, Kirilenko hit her career-high ranking (No. 10) just last June, and she’s now down to No. 113. And yes, she was woefully short of match play, and simply can’t match Sharapova’s power, nor do much to blunt the force of her returns. But first-round matches are always spooky, and Sharapova has looked vulnerable since she won the French Open on what is now her best surface, red clay.
Asked what special problems—or advantages—the hard courts here presented her with, Sharapova said: “I think maintaining the good balance between being aggressive but not overdoing it (is the key here). I always play my best when I'm moving, feel like I'm hitting my shot, moving forward, taking the next one out of the air or hitting an approach shot. Sometimes when you try to create those opportunities you go for a little bit more than you want to. So it's about finding that good range.”
Sharapova dialed in her game expertly tonight and won in an hour and a half, which included both a bathroom break by Kirilenko as well as a medical time-out she requested on the changeover after she fell behind 0-3 in the second set. She had her left foot/ankle taped then, although it seemed suspiciously like she was trying to stop the bleeding in a different sense.
When Sharapova was asked, apropos of nothing, what rule she’d change if she were in charge of the game, she replied without hesitation: “I'd probably start charging for medical timeouts. I think we'd all see who really uses them and who doesn't. Yeah, I don't know what we put on it, maybe like twenty-five hundred (dollars) or something. Yeah, I think we should do that. That would be fun.”
It was a startlingly frank assessment of an ever-worsening problem, and a fairly harsh judgment of Kirilenko. But it was as refreshing to hear Sharapova speak her mind on the subject and left me wishing more players would do the same.