Champions Rise and Fall – Sharapova strides on, Kerber crashes out in Stuttgart

By Ros Satar, in Stuttgart

  • Maria Sharapova [WC] def. Ekaterina Makarova 7-5 6-1
  • Kristina Mladenovic def. Angelique Kerber 6-2 7-5
STUTTGART, GERMANY – While three-time champion Maria Sharapova continued to cut a swathe through the draw, Angelique Kerber faltered in her opening round.

 

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Maria Sharapova [WC] def. Ekaterina Makarova 7-5 6-1

Maria Sharapova at the 2017 WTA Porsche Tennis Grand Prix (c) Jimmie48 Tennis Photography

After all the fanfare of the grand return, it was a very quick turnaround for Maria Sharapova, as she continues her return to the tour from a 15 month suspension for taking the prohibited drug Meldonium.

Just as she had been impressive in her dispatch of Roberta Vinci, so she had to dig deep once more in the first set against compatriot Ekaterina Makarova. Since their first meeting in Madrid, Makarova has not been able to take a set off Sharapova, and Thursday night was no exception. She did, however, come closer than before as the quality of hitting seemed to have risen a level since Wednesday night.

Makarova will come to rue the sitter she missed on a break point for a chance to serve for first set, and this story may well have had a very different ending, but if we have learned one thing in the two matches Sharapova has played – she has lost none of that brutal edge.

Her ability to regroup, especially if left off the hook like that saw her strike decisively in the second set, leaving Makarova once more.

 

Sharapova v  Anett Kontaveit

And thus we find ourselves with Sharapova now provisionally ranked No. 379 in the world, facing Anett Kontaveit who is on an impressive hot streak. It was actually a surprisingly quick turnaround for Sharapova, having played the night match and come into press quite late.

While she had trained hard in her absence away from the sport, nothing can prepare you for the rigours of competition. While she explained at length the joy of returning, after her opening win, and solving puzzles on court, what about the very physical challenge of being back on court with the quick turnaround that a necessary late start brings?

She told reporters: “I was just speaking with my team about it. It’s such an interesting change. There’s nothing like being in a tournament because when you’re training you have four or five tough days, they are long days and you go through the process but if you have a tough day or you’re a little tired, you are like ‘let’s take a day off’ (laughs).

“That’s not really an option. But I felt pretty good. I think the adrenaline of just being excited and looking forward to competing and the challenge of every opponent and the difference in the play of each opponent,

“I’m mentally excited for it. I’m in the locker room preparing and I’m listening to music, I’m reading my book but I’m already visualising the match and it’s just a great feeling to have. So, you kind of forget about anything that you feel in your body despite not playing for 15 months.”

She will play Kontaveit in the quarter-finals – the Biel finalist has won nine out of her last ten matches, including coming through the qualifying stages here in Stuttgart and coming from a set down against current French Open champion Garbiñe Mugurza to book her spot in the quarter-final.

 

Kristina Mladenovic def. Angelique Kerber 6-2 7-5

As one former champion soars, it is quite ironic that the two-time champion who deposed Sharapova in the first place two years ago slid out of the tournament. Angelique Kerber is still looking for answers after an at times lacklustre run out.

Take nothing away from Kristina Mladenovic. The sometimes outspoken Frenchwoman played her game to a tee – she was aggressive and effectively stopped Kerber from getting into any kind of rhythm.

Mladenovic told reporters after her match: “We never played on clay against each other before. Then, I’m not sure, she had everything on her side. She beat me three times, so I was the one a little bit on the psychologic(al) side like it’s tough for me because I had never beaten her.

“Maybe I surprised her with my second serve, it was way faster than what it used to be and in general my ground strokes, I think I’m hitting the balls deeper and a little bit faster than before. That’s the improvement I made from the beginning of the season and also my movement around the court. I think I surprised her a little bit with some different shots. I’m not sure she played that bad.”

Kerber’s assessment still probably raises more questions than answers about her current level of confidence in her play. It is not as if she has bot faced this sort of pressure before. As well as all the attention that came from winning her first Grand Slam title in Melbourne 2016, beating Serena Williams no less – she had to contend with all the focus that comes with an early defeat in Roland Garros

She said: “It was for sure one of the worst matches I played in the last few months. I was not able to find my rhythm, I made a lot of mistakes and also I was not moving too good. But, of course, in the end she played well. She was hitting the balls good, she moved good but from my side I was not playing my best tennis today.

“I mean when you go out there, it’s cold, it’s windy and the clay is of course a little different but maybe it’s a good omen. Last year I played well here, the year before as well and then I played not good in the outdoor season. So, maybe it will change this year (laughs). We’ll see.”

Either way, the focus has switched sharply here, and Markus Günthardt’s light hearted comments at the Press Brunch of the majority of the German public was here to see Kerber. Now, the Porsche Brand Ambassador who came in from the cold will be driving the tournament to the finish.

 

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Main Photo Credit: Jimmie48 Tennis Photography

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