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THE BIG SQUEEZE

Saqib Ali

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Matt Zemek

To compete in the cauldron of elite professional athletics is to sign up for a life of pressure. That pressure takes many forms — withstanding the pressure of the opponent’s attack, confronting the reality of a tight scoreboard, dealing with the stakes involved in the contest, and living with the reality of struggle and hardship.

Caroline Garcia and Maria Sharapova dealt with all of those forms of pressure in their first match at the loaded WTA tournament in Stuttgart, Germany, on Tuesday afternoon. Stuttgart — like Charleston — is a Premier level tournament, but unlike Charleston, Stuttgart involves red (not har-tru) clay and occurs on European soil. It is also closer to Madrid on the calendar than Miami. On several levels, Stuttgart easily eclipses Charleston as a clay-court tournament of significance on the WTA Tour. 

Yet, the value of Stuttgart is not found solely in the tournament itself, especially since Premier points aren’t as susbstantial as P-5 or mandatory points. A significant source of value in Stuttgart is often the simple ability to accumulate match-play experience on clay.

Players who participate in Charleston do so because the event is located very close to Miami and represents an easy travel situation attached to a Premier tournament with a solid field and a reasonable expectation of a points pickup. Stuttgart, though, is more properly seen as the first truly big leg of the European clay-court season and the push toward Roland Garros. It is true that the indoor tournament cannot replicate Rome or Roland Garros, but the quality of the field and the closer proximity to the bigger events on the outdoor clay calendar still give Stuttgart a significant place in the WTA’s scheduling architecture.

With that point in mind — and also in light of the fact that Madrid does not play like a normal clay-court event with its elevated altitude and funky bounces — it is a big boost for WTA players to get at least three matches under their belts in Stuttgart so that they aren’t coming to Madrid and Rome with virtually no match play under their belts. Serena Williams didn’t need Stuttgart, but she’s Serena Williams. She isn’t representative of most players on tour. 

Sharapova is precisely an example of a player who has needed Stuttgart to rev up the clay-court engines on the road to Paris. From 2012 through 2014, she won Stuttgart. In each of those three years, she made the Roland Garros final, winning it twice. Garcia is more of a wild card, an erratic player who has not built on her late-2017 surge the way many hoped she would. Whether Tuesday’s match represented a necessary foundation for her clay-court season was more of an open question, but she certainly needed match play as she arrived in Germany.

What is much clearer: Sharapova badly needed to get some matches — plural — this week. If anyone on tour needed a jump-start and a full week of tennis — or at least half a week, going through Friday — it was the Russian superstar.

Match play is why Tuesday’s clash was so important. After losing a 2-0 lead in the third set to cede a 3-6, 7-6, 6-4 decision to Garcia, Sharapova is the player feeling the big squeeze. It’s a squeeze of pressure, but more precisely, it’s a squeeze of time. Sharapova will go to Madrid still without a main-draw tour win since January. This makes it imperative that Sharapova, who entered Stuttgart ranked No. 41, bank multiple wins to not only gain matches, but also enough points to snag a seed at Roland Garros. 

The obvious complication arising from this loss: Sharapova will remain lower in the rankings and is therefore vulnerable to another very difficult early-round draw… which is precisely what can lead to another early loss and a continued inability to gain any level of traction on tour.

It is true that Garcia would have felt “the big squeeze” had she lost this match. Yet, she doesn’t have Sharapova’s credentials or history — on clay or on any other surface, for that matter. It is powerfully important for Garcia to have tucked away this win — it gives her another match, steadies her own position in the rankings to a degree, and gives her a chance to build the confidence which was superabundant last autumn in China but has not remained unbreakable in 2018. Yet, in comparing these two players, Sharapova needed this match even more than Garcia did — not in relationship to the broader sweep of history (where Sharapova has a career slam and five total major titles), but when viewed through the prism of the 2018 season and the accompanying need to feel like a restored player.

Garcia took one small but significant step toward restoration — that is certainly one headline to emerge from Tuesday’s tense tussle in Stuttgart. Yet, the bigger story is that Maria Sharapova has to thread the needle (defined by at least three match wins) in either Madrid or Rome if she wants to have any realistic chance of competing at Roland Garros. Given that she is still winless since January, time is growing short, the odds are growing longer, and the big squeeze is increasing its grip on a star who is scuffling.

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Image taken from Zimbio.com

 

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