At Tennis With An Accent, I wrote about two of Friday’s ATP quarterfinals. Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic benefited not just from their own considerable reservoirs of skills, but from the opponents who stood across from them on the other side of the net. Nadal has lost only three times to Fognini in his career, Djokovic only twice to Nishikori. Facing a familiar opponent, one who rarely wins the handful of points that matter, helps a proven player to establish superiority when the scoreboard gets tight. Friday’s matches were both three-setters, but one player established a clear upper hand by the time the duel was done.
A similar — though not exact — story unfolded in one of Friday’s bigger WTA quarterfinals in Rome. Elina Svitolina lacks a major title, while Angelique Kerber owns two. Yet, the recent flow of their rivalry produced five straight wins for Svitolina. She called upon positive memories to create another victory in two close sets over Kerber, sending her into the semifinals. Opponents might be formidable and talented, but if Player A gets into a comfort zone against Player B, it often doesn’t matter if Player B is talented. Player A has the formula and, more importantly, the peace of mind, needed to win head-to-head battles.
This makes Maria Sharapova’s win over Jelena Ostapenko in Friday’s WTA Rome quarterfinal that much more impressive.
Unlike Nadal, Djokovic and Svitolina — who all won over opponents they knew how to fend off — Sharapova had not previously beaten Ostapenko. Yes, this is not because Ostapenko beat Sharapova; it was merely because the two women had never played each other before. Nevertheless, it remained that Sharapova — unlike the other big names who advanced on Friday — did not have leverage over and against Ostapenko when the two stepped onto the court. This was fresh territory for both players, and when Ostapenko took the opening set in 79 minutes, Sharapova — ousted by French Open contender Kiki Bertens in Madrid — came up against the possibility that she would be taken out one week later by another legitimate threat for the Roland Garros title.
From this position of uncertainty, Sharapova rallied. She lost break leads in all three sets on Friday. Her serve is still inconsistent in big moments, a genuine concern when the French Open begins. Yet, if the three-set wins she so often produced in the past were slow to arrive this season, they are flowing now. This was a very familiar “whatever it takes, as long as it takes” survival act by Sharapova, the kind of match in which the deficiencies mattered far less than the end result. Pocketing a win in over three hours might leave Sharapova spent for the semifinals on Saturday against Simona Halep. If she loses, she won’t have reason to be concerned. The value of this win is not connected to a possible Rome title — not chiefly. The value of this triumph over Ostapenko is that it shows Sharapova can still win these kinds of matches, even against players she hasn’t played (or beaten) in the past.
No, this doesn’t mean Sharapova is “back,” but it does indeed show that Maria’s fighting qualities remain substantial and in evidence. All the components of her game might not be finely tuned or calibrated right now, but winning an extremely long match shows that a player can go through bad patches and survive…
… which is exactly how the French Open is normally won on the WTA side.
This win doesn’t guarantee Sharapova anything beyond a spot in the Rome semifinals. This victory doesn’t prove Sharapova is a fully restored player. What it DOES show is that Sharapova can call upon old and familiar resources in difficult situations. The simple knowledge that she can find solutions in times of pressure and peril is itself the best gift Maria could have given herself in Rome.
Indeed, this was very much a self-given gift. This was not something handed to her by an opponent. This was not a match in which a prior history against a player proved decisive… because there was no history at the WTA Tour level in the first place.
Maria Sharapova won this match internally and on her own. This was a gift given from within, unshared by anyone else.