Safina advances; Sharapova ousted

6/2/2009 - Tennis

PARIS -- Facing match point in the quarterfinals, Maria Sharapova was no longer focused on winning her first French Open title. She merely wanted to win a game.

That she did. A weary, rusty Sharapova averted a shutout Tuesday but lost to Dominika Cibulkova 6-0, 6-2 in the worst Grand Slam defeat of her career.

"I don't really care about numbers," she said. "It's either a W or an L, and I prefer W. You know, if it's 7-6 in the third and you come out with a loss, I mean, what's the difference?"

Cibulkova was one point from victory at 5-0 in the second set before Sharapova finally found her form. She won that game and then another, hitting a flurry of winners and saving four match points before Cibulkova closed out the win.

Sharapova was playing in just her second tournament after a layoff of nearly 10 months because of a right shoulder injury. She won three-setters in all four previous rounds at Paris, and the long matches took a toll.

"I guess you could only ask your body to do so much," she said. "Everything fell a little short today. The pace wasn't there on my strokes, and I was five steps slower."

The three-time Grand Slam champion had 27 unforced errors to nine for the No. 20-seeded Cibulkova, a Slovak who advanced to her first major semifinal.

Cibulkova's opponent Thursday will be top-ranked Dinara Safina, who rallied to beat Victoria Azarenka 1-6, 6-4, 6-2.

Sharapova's legs looked wobbly, and she repeatedly hit the ball late, while the 20-year-old Cibulkova relied on steady strokes from the baseline.

The margin in unforced errors in the opening set was 13-1.

"It was, I think, more surprising for the people who don't know me, maybe for the crowd," Cibulkova said. "But today I was playing really solid."

Games were closer early in the second set, but Sharapova looked increasingly desperate. Caught out of position in one rally, she even tried a left-handed forehand.

It went wide too, putting her behind 5-0.

When Sharapova finally won a game by smacking a return winner, she reacted with only a subdued fist pump. She then clubbed three winners to hold at love for 5-2, but although she erased three match points in the next game, there would be no comeback.

When Sharapova pushed a forehand into the net on the final point, Cibulkova collapsed to the clay in glee and relief. Sharapova took consolation in reaching the quarterfinals.

"Reflecting back on everything that I've been through in the last year, I think I can sit here and say I'm pretty proud of what I've achieved," she said. "I've just got to keep working and keep my head up, just go on a practice court and hits millions of balls."

Safina, seeking her first Grand Slam title, lost only five games in the first four rounds. Against Azarenka, Safina was repeatedly lunging for shots early but regained her dominating form at 4-all in the second set.

Safina was the runner-up at the 2008 French Open and this year's Australian Open. She became No. 1 for the first time on April 20 and is 19-1 this year on clay.

On a cloudless, mild afternoon, the No. 9-seeded Azarenka played nearly flawless tennis at the outset. She hit 10 winners with one unforced error in the opening set, which took only 23 minutes.

"She was playing well, and basically I was not doing anything to complicate it," Safina said. "I started to fight point by point just trying to change a little bit."

After Safina fell behind 1-0 in the second set she dug in, running off four consecutive games. Her groundstrokes became steadier, while mistakes crept into Azarenka's play.

"She was missing way too much," Safina said.

By the final changeover, a frustrated Azarenka sat with a towel draped over her face. Safina swept the last three games and the final five points.

"I just missed a lot of my chances," said the 19-year-old Azarenka, who was playing in her first Grand Slam quarterfinal. "It's all experience, which I have to learn from."