Barely squeaking out a three-set win in the first of seven potential French Open hurdles she will have to clear this Paris fortnight to win the only major to allude since she turned pro in 2001 is not usually the kind of opening act that’s part of a championship script.
She managed to keep from bidding adieu to the Parisians much too early at the season’s second major but her struggles to stay alive on dirt in what was looked upon as a solid chance to get off to a convincing start here reminds anyone -- who has somehow forgotten – of an important fact of Sharapova’s tennis life: that the surface on these courts is not her favorite ground on which to compete.
Sharapova’s less-than-stellar curtain raiser on clay sends a clear message that while she’s the top ranked player in the world, she’s no shoo-in to finally emerge the queen of clay.
What the much-more-difficult-than-expected tangle with Rodina tells all is that there are several elite players besides the abundantly talented Russian who could be holding the champion’s trophy in Paris this spring. They are Serena Williams, my pick for the title, 2007 French Open finalist Ana Ivanovic, Jelena Jankovic and Venus Williams as well.
It certainly looks as if Sharapova has convinced herself that clay is her worst surface and that’s a key as to why she has not had the type of success she’s had on other surfaces. Her best result in five previous tries at Roland Garros was making the semifinals last year.
If playing championship-caliber tennis on clay is a mental roadblock for the world No. 1 that’s something she needs to overcome if she is ever going to complete the career Grand Slam. She’s way too young at 21 and way too talented to have that kind of mental negative affecting her focus on the dirt courts.
Sharapova survived Rodina despite major serving woes. Many were left to wonder what was going with the star after she committed 17 double faults – and did so in a first-round match to boot. That just should never happen to the top ranked player in the world against an inferior opponent.
Her serve was a glaring issue for Sharapova. She tried to go hard on the first serve, but when that didn’t work she chose to just spin the second serve in. A top ranked player should be able to do more than just try to get the ball in play. This is especially true for Sharapova with her height (6-foot-2) helping drive her serves.
There are those that might reason that the extremely windy conditions earlier in the day were the cause of Sharapova’s issues with her serve. To that I say, “Weather happens,” so I was glad to see Sharapova did not offer that up as an excuse. She was doing something wrong with what usually is such a big weapon for her and failed to make any successful adjustments to her serve given the windy conditions.
Regardless of whether the wind is blowing hard or not, Sharapova needs work on her ball toss with her serve. In my mind, her toss is too high, which prevents her from controlling the ball.
I guess the real analysis of the match, however, is that she showed the heart and mental fortitude to win when she easily could have been sent packing. The other kid she played – I don’t know all that much about Rodina but I found out today she brings a lot to the table if she’s challenging the No. 1 in the world. Rodina played very well and was just a couple of points away from creating a huge upset that could have been one of the biggest upsets in Roland Garros history.
Sharapova prevented losing a stunner by doing what champions often do so well – stepping it up and hitting fearlessly when most needed. That effort put her into the second round but she’ll have to play a much better overall game to get on a potential title run here.
She has an incredibly favorable draw. Her next opponent is American Bethanie Mattek and that should be all but a give-me for the top seed. Her quarter of the draw should spell little trouble with a few key names lurking about in fellow Russians Elena Dementieva, Vera Zvonareva and Dinara Safina but she should be able to handle all of those opponents. She has fellow Russian, No. 4 Svetlana Kuznetsova in her half of the draw but I believe if they meet, Sharapova wins.
Where her sternest challenge to winning this major for the first time could occur is in the final if she manages to get there. Some heavy hitters are potential opponents there for the Russian: Serena and Venus Williams, Ivanovic and Jankovic comprise the list.
But Sharapova cannot get ahead of herself. She needs to work on playing better with each round, especially after the start against Rodina. She also needs to remember that while she possesses a mental toughness that can see her through rocky matches like her opening-rounder here, she’s not the only player with the sort of ultra tough mindset that leads to winning championships. The Williams sisters can match her in that regard.
Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal will renew their rivalry in the Italian Open final Sunday.
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