Gutsy Sharapova comes through when it matters

Updated: May 27, 2009

On the mend

PARIS -- Maria Sharapova has always been among the best-dressed in her field and this year at Roland Garros is no exception.

The 22-year-old Russian is sporting a layered, multitextured Nike dress, imbued with various shades of blue -- accompanied by matching shoes, visor and underthings -- and impeccably accessorized with drippy gold and crystal earrings and a crucifix necklace.

It would all add up to a fashion tour de force, if not for one ugly exception -- two broad swaths of white trainer's tape, which intersect on the very top of her right shoulder.

This is the jarring, constant reminder of why she was unable to play tennis for nine months.

After surgery to repair a torn rotator cuff and that lengthy sabbatical, Sharapova came back, beginning with a modest tournament earlier this month in Warsaw. She defeated two lesser players, but lost to Alona Bondarenko, who was ranked No. 39 in the world.

Jacques Demarthon/AFP/Getty Images

Maria Sharapova hit seven aces, including six in the deciding set versus Nadia Petrova.

It was a modest warm-up for the French Open and, after dropping the first set of her first match to Anastasia Yakimova, Sharapova went on to win 12 of the last 15 games.

Nadia Petrova, the world's No. 11 player, would prove to be the most formidable opponent in her nascent comeback.

On Wednesday, Sharapova navigated her way into the third round with a grueling, gutsy 6-2, 1-6, 8-6 victory over Petrova.

"I think these types of matches are really important for me, for my game," Sharapova said. "Obviously, I am spending a little bit more time out there than I want to, but I think I'm learning so many new things as well.

"I kind of started stumbling away. Things went in the wrong direction. I was just glad I could pick myself up and keep fighting and do the right things, and end up with a match win."

Petrova, of course, is a proven campaigner. She was a semifinalist here twice, in 2003 and 2005, and reached the fourth round of this year's Australian Open. Still, her clay-court results have been disappointing; in five previous tournaments on clay, she lost to a player with a lower ranking.

The women split the first two sets and, so, the third became a matter of the mind. This is an arena in which Sharapova has always excelled. The shrill shrieks were vintage, even if the serve and groundstrokes were not. There were even a few retro, scowling stare-downs and a smart, stylish 90-degree turn and fist pump with heel kick.

About once a game you could see a flash of the past, a harsh roll of the wrist and a -- thwock! -- powerful forehand cross-court winner.

Sharapova trailed 4-2 and faced a break point, but her serve bailed her out -- as it would through the rest of the match. Trailing 15-30 at 5-all, she hit three consecutive unreturnable serves, one of them an ace.

In the end, Petrova unraveled. She blew an easy forehand volley and on match point ripped a forehand just a little too boldly. It sailed just wide and soon Sharapova was blowing kisses to four sides of Court Suzanne Lenglen.

Were those tears in her eyes as she looked skyward?

In the end, it was the kind of match Sharapova needs to play: long (2 hours, 12 minutes) and complicated. With her gifts of size and strength -- and the corresponding lack of mobility -- the 6-foot-2 Sharapova will never call the French her favorite Grand Slam. It remains the only one she has never won and Lenglen is considered to be the slowest of the venue's 20 clay courts.

But her comeback was not pointed to Paris. Rather, the target has been Wimbledon and, more realistically, the U.S. Open in late summer.

"I can't possibly have any expectations after being out for so long," Sharapova said. "I mean, my expectations are to do the best that I can. I know what I'm capable of out there, I know what I've done before and I know I can do it again -- and even better."

Five things we learned on Day 4

1. Dinara Safina is playing like the favorite: Through two rounds she has lost a total of exactly … uh, two games -- in less than two hours. The No. 1-ranked Russian rolled qualifier Vitalia Diatchenko 6-1, 6-1. Since she ascended to the top spot, Safina has won 16 of her 17 matches on clay. She got to the final here a year ago and made the Australian Open final earlier this year. This, clearly, represents her best chance to join brother Marat as a Grand Slam champion.

Safina's coach, Zeljko Krajan -- naturally -- was again disappointed in her play.

"If one day he's going to be happy, I think I'll finish my career," she said. "He's never happy. Even today, he's not happy."

2. And Ana Ivanovic is starting to play like the defending champion: There have been some dicey moments this year -- like losing in the third round of the Australian Open and her second matches in Miami and Rome -- but her form seems to be returning.

Ivanovic torched Tamarine Tanasugarn 6-1, 6-2 and she said she thinks she can repeat at Roland Garros.

"I do," she said, "and I worked very hard for it and know I have a game."

3. ESPN.com's "experts" asleep at the wheel: The four women tabbed by six ESPN.com writers as sleepers -- Amelie Mauresmo (2), Patty Schnyder (2), Sabine Lisicki and Kaia Kanepi -- all lost in the first round. Sleepers, did we say sleepers? We meant to place them in the early-exit category.

"If Gulbis loses, I'm completely inept with my pre-tournament picks," said tennis writer Bonnie Ford, eyeing the scoreboard with disgust early in the day.

Ten minutes later, Ernests Gulbis -- Ford's male sleeper -- fell to Nicolas Almagro in four sets. What's the French word for inept?

"Incapable," said Ford, who speaks fluent French, explaining that the word is the same in both English and French.

4. Andy Roddick is the last American man standing: As a corollary to No. 3 -- and a public service, no doubt -- we are compelled to further mention that no fewer than four ESPN.com experts (who shall remain nameless) chose Roddick as their candidate for an early exit. With the loss by California native Robert Kendrick to Gilles Simon in the second round, 5-7, 0-6, 1-6, Roddick is the LAMS.

Did we mention that Simon and fellow Frenchman Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, who now appear to be in terrific form, were the other two early-exit choices?

5. Tennis Tweet of the day: "andyroddick evening on court 2! kinda cool. will be a very intimate setting. i have never done anything at this tourney to deserve a bigger court!" -- Andy Roddick on his Thursday encounter versus Ivo Minar. (Courtesy of www.tennistweets.com.)

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.


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Rafa watch

Nadal

When he saw Wednesday's schedule, Rafael Nadal prayed it wouldn't rain.

That's because his was the fourth match on Court Suzanne Lenglen, a time slot that potentially ran right up against the final of the UEFA Champions League between Barcelona and Manchester United. The match, played in Rome, began at 8:45 local time and for the past two days play at Roland Garros has drifted past 9 p.m.

Nadal's uncle Miguel Angel Nadal played for Barcelona, so of course he's rooting for Barcelona.

"I am Spanish, so I would like to see the Spanish team win," he wrote in his blog in the Times of London. "I like ManU a lot and always play with them at PlayStation, but Barcelona is in Spain so I will cheer for them. It will be an interesting match."

Nadal's second-round match against Teimuraz Gabashvili? Not so interesting -- until the rain began to fall at about 7:30 in the evening. Nadal was leading 6-1, 6-4, 4-1 and, even though the umbrellas started popping out everywhere, they played on.

Talk about a sense of urgency.

Nadal, supremely motivated, picked up the pace. He won the last set 6-2 -- and the match in a tidy 2 hours, 17 minutes. When it was over, after he sent a huge forehand flying into the crowd at Court Suzanne Lenglen, he smiled broadly as he shook hands with Gabashvili.

Thus, Nadal had almost exactly one hour to shower, do press and hustle back to his venue of choice to watch the game.

Ordinarily, Nadal doesn't meet the press until long after his matches. On this day, it was announced that he was on his way to Interview Room No. 1 only four minutes after he left the court.

He was asked if he was worried when the rain began.

"No, no, no," Nadal said, not entirely convincingly. "I was worried not for that. It is good to have one day off for a tournament like this."

And then he paused.

"Sure it was positive to win if I can," Nadal, a notoriously huge soccer fan, admitted, "then watch the final."

For the record, it was Nadal's 30th consecutive victory here at Roland Garros -- breaking the record of 29 set by Chris Evert.

--Greg Garber

Work to be done

Murray

Ordinarily, the world No. 3 versus No. 104 is not a tennis contest.

The caveat, however, is clay.

On Wednesday, Andy Murray seemed destined to lose to Potito Starace, the Italian clay-court specialist, when he fell into a daunting 5-1 hole in the third set. But Murray rallied like a champion, and eventually won 6-3, 2-6, 7-5, 6-4.

Murray played aggressively, as if he were on a hard court. Sort of.

"I can still play the same way I do on hard courts, but I just need to move better," Murray said last week. "Against the real clay-courters that play with a lot of topspin, you can almost try and make it a hard-court match by playing a little bit flatter and coming to net a little bit and shortening the points."

And that's exactly, eventually, what he did.

When the draw came out, ESPN analyst Patrick McEnroe thought Murray had a good draw and could conceivably make it to the semifinals.

"Murray, to me, is still weaker than the other big three on clay," McEnroe said. "His problem is that he's not physically aggressive enough on offense. He's not aggressive with those midcourt balls. He can get away with that on other surfaces because the court helps him. You have to create your own offense on clay.

"When you get a ball you can really attack, that doesn't mean you go for a winner, you get control of the point with your legs and you hit a big heavy topspin and make the other guy run. He's kind of more of a counterpuncher-type of player, and the way the clay game is played now, that can get you in a lot of trouble.

"He's definitely gotten better on clay but still hangs back a little too much. He can slide well. I think he's a year away from being a threat to win here, but I think it can happen."

--Greg Garber

Beyond her years

Larcher De Brito

She's only 16 years old, but Michelle Larcher De Brito isn't behaving like a teenager -- a young one, at that -- in her Grand Slam debut.

The native of Portugal and resident at the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy in Bradenton, Fla., since the age of 9 has already won five matches here at Roland Garros. The first three were in qualifying and the fourth was a tough three-set, first-round victory over Melanie South of Great Britain.

On Wednesday, Larcher De Brito took things to a whole new level. She handled Zheng Jie of China -- the well-regarded No. 15 seed -- 6-4, 6-3 to advance to the third round of the French Open.

"I don't think it's really sinking in yet," she said afterward. "But I'm feeling pretty good."

Adversity doesn't seem to faze her. Larcher De Brito was shut out in the first set against South, then came back to win 7-6 (5), 7-5. Against Jie, she faced two break points serving for the first set -- and chose to attack.

"Just attack," Larcher De Brito said. "That's my game -- always attack. Always run down every ball."

Next, she will attempt to run down Aravane Rezai of France, a woman who beat her 6-1, 6-2 not long ago in Miami.

"I really hope it won't end," said Larcher De Brito.

--Greg Garber

Critic's choice

Tsonga

Juan Monaco versus No. 9 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga: Tsonga was so delighted by his first-ever win at Roland Garros that he donned a necktie for his postmatch news conference. But given his past struggles on this surface, can he dress for success against a clay-court specialist who runs like a greyhound? Tsonga destroyed Monaco on hard court in Australia a few months ago, and the crowd will be prizefight-quality behind him, but he'll have to keep from getting bogged down in too many long rallies. The 68th-ranked Monaco recently beat two top-20 players -- Andy Murray and Marin Cilic -- in Rome after surviving qualifying rounds.

ESPN.com prediction: Tsonga in four.

--Bonnie D. Ford