Maria Sharapova avoids meltdown
MELBOURNE, Australia -- From her vantage point, which was flat on her back in a woozy haze following a full-body ice bath in the women's locker room, Varvara Lepchenko watched on television as No. 3 seed Maria Sharapova prevailed in the 18th game of the third set of her second-round match at the Australian Open, 3 hours and 28 minutes after it began.
Neither Sharapova, her opponent Karin Knapp nor Lepchenko, who lost to Simona Halep an hour earlier, benefited from the tournament's Extreme Heat Policy that stopped play in nearly every other match in 108-degree heat Thursday. And it left Lepchenko both dazed and amazed.
"I was watching Maria and I thought, 'Wow, she played in the same conditions' … it was just too much," said Lepchenko, still weak an hour and a half after her 6-4, 0-6, 1-6 match ended. "I just feel like I want to sit down all the time and lay down."
Sharapova, a 6-3, 4-6, 10-8 winner, and Knapp had to continue playing for 43 minutes after the policy was implemented because under the rules, current sets have to be completed before play is suspended or the roof on Rod Laver and Hisense arenas are closed.
The third set alone lasted 115 minutes. It was the longest match (in games) Sharapova has played in her career, and hours later, she expressed frustration over not knowing the vague policy, which is based on a comically confusing formula called the "Wet Bulb Global Temperature Reading."
"No one really knows what the limit is," Sharapova said. "Not the players, [not] the trainers themselves when you ask them, 'When will the roof be closed?'
"No one actually knows what that number is in comparison to humidity or the actual heat. ... It would be nice. I mean, I would love to know a bit more detail before -- not even before I get on the court, but just in general, it's good to know. I didn't even know there was no play when I left the court. I mean, I had no idea."
Unlike a rain delay, when matches are stopped regardless of the score, waiting until after a set is completed is arbitrary, she said, and particularly unfair when it occurs during the final set, because there are no tiebreakers in the women's third and men's fifth sets.
"Officials can't just rely on, 'Maybe the set will go fast and the set will be over and we will be off court,'" Sharapova said.
In addition, according to Sharapova, players never received emailed warnings about the weather or how to combat the heat.
"Actually, I did receive one, I think, while I was in the ice bath a few minutes ago, and I was like, 'That's a little too late.' ... It was probably when they were stopping the matches, like, 'Oh, maybe it's about time we sent out a warning,'" she said.
This surely was not the crispest match Sharapova, who won the title here in 2008, has played. She squandered 13 of 20 break-point opportunities and three match points, had 67 unforced errors (Knapp had 55) and had 12 double faults -- eight in the final set and three in the final game.
And yet there was no disputing the match's entertainment value and high quality of play from both players considering conditions that, with the increased humidity, made it the most challenging day of an already grueling tournament.
"It was really tough, but we didn't stop. We played, and that was it," said the 44th-ranked Knapp, who was ranked as high as 35th and seemingly climbing as a 21-year-old in 2008 before surgeries on her knee and two more for a heart defect kept her off the tour for two years.
Sharapova, who lives and trains in the humidity of South Florida, spent enough time in an ice vest during changeovers that she might want to consider starting a new clothing line. The challenges, she said, went beyond tennis.
"I mean, on one hand you're trying to get as much rest in between points as you can, but then you have an umpire who is giving you a time violation," Sharapova said. "Then you're asking yourself whether that's fair in whatever-degree weather that was."
The conversations going on in her head were almost as entertaining as the tennis.
"I went through all the different ones, like, 'How could you miss those second-serve returns? Why are you going for so much?' Then the other side of my brain was going, 'Well, it's 110 degrees. Of course you're going for too much,'" she recalled.
"[But] when you win match point, you get off the court [and] no matter how you feel and how tough it was, I really I love these moments. That's why I play the sport."
Sharapova, playing her first Grand Slam tournament since her second-round loss at Wimbledon last year, next plays No. 25 seed Alize Corney of France in a third-round match Saturday.
"I'm really happy to get through, I really am," she said, and there was no doubting her sincerity. "I worked really hard in the last few months and I wanted this match. I didn't play my best tennis; I didn't do many things well. [But] I got through it, and sometimes that's what's important."