Under the watchful eye of the world’s media, former world No.1 Maria Sharapova didn’t disappoint at the Stuttgart Open after defeating Roberta Vinci 7-5, 6-3, in the first round of the premier tournament.
Wednesday’s clash wasn’t just the start of Sharapova’s return, it was also the first day she could legally play a WTA tour match following a 15-month suspension for failing a drugs test. Walking onto the court simultaneously with Vinci, there were no signs of a negative atmosphere inside the packed Porsche Arena.
“It’s the best feeling in the world. This first few seconds before you enter the arena, you know, its been a stage of mine since I was a young girl.” Said Sharapova. “To know that I would be walking back on was really special. I’ve been waiting for this moment for a long time.”
— WTA Insider (@WTA_insider) 26 April 2017
Sharapova’s absence from the tour was reflected in her game. Struggling to generate rhythm at the start of the match, it was world No.36 Vinci that was in control. The desire to win was evident on the faces of both players. Sharapova was looking for a dream start to her return, whilst Vinci wanted to down a player she had publicly condemned for being awarded a wildcard.
An error stricken start by the former world No.1 was soon corrected as she broke back during a marathon five-deuce game before levelling the proceedings 2-2. Unlike their two previous meetings, which was dominated by the Russian, Vinci’s resistance ensured a closely contested encounter. Sharapova’s high intensity in the match, featuring 24 winners in the opening set, eventually granted her the breakthrough she sought. At 5-5, a Vinci serve out wide was met with interest as the Russian hit a clear backhand winner down the line to break for a 6-5 lead. Fighting towards the one-set lead, it was a stroke of luck the brought her triumph. On her second set point, the ball bounce off the net onto the service line, leaving Vinci unimpressed.
Part of Sharapova’s surge was her opponent’s tentative serve. Unknown as to why, 34-year-old Vinci continuously hit to Sharapova’s hitting area, allowing the Russian to return shots with force. The strategy cost the Italian dearly at the start of set two as Sharapova broke once more to extend her stronghold on the match. Still, there were battles to be won on route to the victory. One of the most notable was a 10-minute Sharapova Service game, where she saved a trio of break points.
Closing in on her first tour win since January 2016, the Superiority of Sharapova’s serve just got better and better. Ace no.11 elevated the Russian to 5-3, four points away from victory. The match was then sealed by a love service game in Sharapova’s favour, which concluded with a Vinci backhand hitting the net.
— Live Tennis (@livetennis) 26 April 2017
“It’s my first match in a while, but this is what I have done for so long. When you’re in the moment you try to block everything out and you compete. I’m a competitor by nature, even when things are not working.” The delighted 30-year-old said following her win.
Despite her lengthy absence from the tour, Sharapova has been kept busy with other ventures such as her own business. The suspension might in some way been a blessing in disguise for the five-time grand slam champion, who credits her break from the sport as something that has given her a boost.
“I didn’t know when I would be back. I wanted to do other things in my life and to learn and to explore. I went to school for a little bit, I was working a little bit, growing my business and I had a pretty normal life for a while.” Said Sharapova.
“I kept in shape, but I definitely put my racket away for a little bit. I think it really invigorated me for when I came back in January and started training.”
Securing her 14th win in Stuttgart, Sharapova will play compatriot Ekaterina Makarova in the second round. She currently dominates their head-to-head 6-0, but the Russian isn’t too concern of who she will be facing. For Sharapova it is currently about playing as many matches as possible.
“I think every match no matter who I play is important for me. It’s important to play points, to play games, to play sets. That’s what I want.” She said.
It’s a journey. It starts today and i’m looking forward to playing as many matches as I can.”
Sharapova’s second round match will be tomorrow afternoon.
Karolina Pliskova Faces Race Against Time To Be Fit For French Open
The Czech has less than a week to recover from a thigh problem before the next Grand Slam gets underway.
World No.4 Karolina Pliskova says she is ‘hopeful’’ that she will be ready in time to play at the French Open after suffering a setback in her preparations on Monday.
The Czech tennis star was forced to retire during her clash with Simona Halep in the final of the Italian Open after falling behind 0-6, 1-2. During the match she wore tape on her left thigh and also has work done on her back during a medical time out. However, Pliskova said afterwards that the issue was her thigh and playing a series of matches within a short period.
“I think it’s a combination of just playing every day and tough matches. Of course I played some two-set matches, but it’s still clay, which I was coming to play on quite fast from the hard court’s. There is a lot of sliding and running,” said Pliskova.
Due to the Tour being stopped by the COVID-19 pandemic earlier this year players are playing a more compact schedule with two Grand Slams taking place within a month. Only 14 days separates the last day of the US Open from the first day of the French Open.
Despite her injury, 28-year-old Pliskova is optimistic that she will be able to play at Roland Garros with her first match possibly taking place on Sunday. She is a former semi-finalist in Paris back in 2017 but has lost in the third round two consecutive times since then. Overall her main draw record at the tournament stands at 11 wins against eight losses.
“I hope to be ready, there is a week so I think that’s plenty of time,” she said.
“I know I might play on Sunday in Paris but there are a couple days which I hope is gonna help a lot.
“I really want to be100% ready because if I want to go far in a Grand Slam. It’s going to be, like, two weeks of tennis, which I’m not sure today I can do. I just need to see what the doctors say,”
One of Pliskova’s biggest rivals at the major will be former champion Halep who has won back-to-back clay court titles within the past month. The Romanian is now in a 14-match winning streak and has reached the quarter-finals of better at every single tournament she has played in so far this year. The Czech believes her rival is the key contenders to lift the French Open trophy this year.
“Now she’s won two tournaments on clay, so I think she’s confident enough and she’s done well there,” Pliskova said. “She’s going to be dangerous.
“And she had big success in Paris, so I think she’s going to be one of my favourites to go for the title.”
Pliskova will be the second seed at Roland Garros.
World No.1 Ash Barty Impresses At Golf Club Championship
The 24-year-old is still winning trophies but this time it isn’t in tennis.
After deciding to pull the plug on her season due to concerns related to the COVID-19 pandemic Ash Barty has once again illustrated that tennis is not the only sport she can excel in.
The world No.1 has won the Brookwater Golf Club women’s champion on Sunday with a seven and five triumph in the match play final. Following in the footsteps of her father Robert who once represented Australia as an amateur golfer. Although Barty is playing down the significance of her latest sporting win.
“It’s not a big deal,” she told the Australian Associated Press.
It is not the first time Barty’s golfing abilities have impressed. During a promotional event last December ahead of the Presidents Cup she earned praise from Tiger Woods after hitting wedge to a makeshift green on the Yarra River. After that shot Woods commented ‘she’s got a great swing, are you kidding me?’ Barty’s boyfriend, Garry Kissick, is also a PGA trainee professional at Brookwater. The place where they first met back in 2016.
Louis Dobbelaar, who won the men’s competition at Brookwater, believes Barty has what it takes to become a professional in the sport should she wish. The 24-year-old is also an avid cricketer and played professionally between 2014-2015 during a break from tennis. Playing in the Women’s Big Bash League Barty enjoyed stints with teams Brisbane Heat and Queensland Fire.
“She’s got all the tools if she wants to pursue it. If she put her mind to it, I’m sure she could,” he told the AAP.
“I’ve seen quite a lot of golfers come from different sports and she’s the one that stands out the most – by far actually. Her ball-striking’s really good. She just gets that naturally from tennis, the hand-eye stuff.”
Barty hasn’t played a match on the WTA Tour since the Qatar Open back in February where she reached the semi-finals. She will not be defending her title at the French Open next week due to concerns related to the pandemic. Besides worldwide travel, she has been unable to train with her coach due to local restrictions.
The Australian has made more than $17.5M in prize money so far in her career.
Maturing Simona Halep Closing In On Rome Milestone
The Romanian is hoping that it will be third time lucky at the Foro Italico this year.
Top seed Simona Halep survived a roller-coaster encounter against Spain’s Garbine Muguruza to progress to the final of the Italian Open on Sunday.
The world No.2 required more than two hours to disposed of Muguruza 6-3, 4-6, 6-4, in what was the seventh meeting between the two Grand Slam champions on the WTA Tour. It was a far from straightforward win for the Romanian who lost her serve three consecutive times during the second set. However, she managed to bounce back in the decider with the help of a four-game winning streak as she edged towards victory despite facing some late resistance.
“Against Muguruza she’s a very, very difficult player and a good player. It’s always good vibe and a good feeling when I win against her,” Halep told reporters after.
“I know I had so many chances to maybe finish the match a little bit faster and easier, but she doesn’t give up.’
“Credit to her that she fought till the end. I am happy that I was a little bit stronger in the end and I could be more aggressive when I needed to.”
There is still room for improvement for Halep who won only 48% of her service points and converted nine out of her 18 break point opportunities. She also hit 21 winners alongside 22 unforced errors.
The latest victory was the first singles match at this year’s Italian Open to take place in front of fans. Due to a recent decision by the local government, a maximum of 1000 spectators has been allowed to attend the Foro Italico on its last two days. A move that has been hailed by Halep even though she admits that it was her opponent who was getting more cheers.
“It’s been nice to see people in the crowd, even if they were all not supporting me today. They were with Muguruza, but I understand,” she said.
“But I was happy to see them and I felt the energy.”
Halep now moves into her third Rome final where she will have a shot of achieving a unique milestone of winning three major clay events on the WTA Tour along with the French Open and Madrid Open. Something only Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova have achieved.
Standing in her way of the title will be the winner of the all-Czech clash between Karolina Pliskova or Markéta Vondroušová. Somewhat of a relief for Halep who lost her two previous finals in Rome to Elina Svitolina.
“I’m not playing her so I have a plus,” she joked.
“It’s a final, so I have to manage it a little bit better than previous years. It’s gonna be a tough match.’
“Now I’m more mature. So let’s hope that I can be better tomorrow and to win it.”
Halep will be playing in her 18th WTA final on the clay and is currently on a 13-match winning streak.
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