The spotlight is an intimidating place to live in. It may look bright and shiny from the outside, but it often induces a darkness within its residents that can be difficult to overcome.
But I wonder whether anyone has ever told that to Maria Sharapova. Craving the spotlight almost like it's an addiction, Sharapova has always produced her best tennis when all eyes are on her. The bigger the stage, the better it is for her competitive juices; there's a reason she has lost only one night match at Arthur Ashe stadium her entire career.
Pitted against World No 3 Caroline Wozniacki in the Australian Open third round, Sharapova knew that the entire world would be watching when they took to the court. The match had 'showtime' written all over it, and not just because Wozniacki was the defending champion. Their rivalry had acquired an added spice after Wozniacki's comments on the way Sharapova returned to the tour after her drug suspension, and you could sense the intensity in the build-up. Fireworks were guaranteed on Rod Laver Arena today.
And there were fireworks alright, even if most of them came from Sharapova's racquet. Taking huge cuts and going for broke on practically every shot, the Russian played in only one gear today – and that was well higher than fifth. She swiped at the ball, screamed her lungs out, swiped again, screamed a little louder, and didn't stop for breath until the last point was won. It was just…a very violent kind of day in Melbourne.
Admittedly, Sharapova's no-holds-barred play against Wozniacki wasn't particularly unusual; she has made a career out of that punishing style. But her win was still surprising given how sharply the fortunes of the two women have diverged over the last couple of years.
While Wozniacki has been busy putting up strong results and hovering around the World No 1 throne, Sharapova has been spinning her wheels in smaller tournaments and struggling to break through at the Majors. The Russian has made just one Slam quarter-final since her return from suspension and even when she got there, she was handed a crushing defeat. The Dane, on the other hand, won the 2017 WTA Finals and the 2018 Australian Open, which helped her regain her place among the elite of the sport.
At the start of the match, the two women stayed true to type. Wozniacki played like the in-form champion and Sharapova, like the jaded firebrand. The 2008 Australian Open champion looked to hit winners every opportunity she got, but her opponent somehow kept anticipating correctly and kept hitting the ball back in play. After surviving a tough opening game, Wozniacki raced away to a 4-1 lead in the first set and it looked like another early Slam loss was on the cards for Sharapova.
But we hadn't reckoned for Sharapova's love of the big stage. Getting more comfortable on the court with each passing minute, she realized that she was striking the ball well enough to change the patterns of play and started hitting behind Wozniacki rather than trying to go through her.
It helped that Wozniacki seemed, for the most part, content to wait for Sharapova's errors. With time and space at her command, the Russian used her forehand to devastating effect and took the set out of Wozniacki's hands; from 1-4 down she won five games in a row to seal the first set 6-4.
At the start of the second set, Sharapova's old nemesis – the double fault – returned to haunt her, and she promptly went 0-3 down. She mounted another high-decibel comeback before conceding the set 6-4, but you got the feeling that she was still in control of the proceedings.
That held true all the way until the end of the match. While Wozniacki hit the ball with more purpose at the start of the third set, Sharapova was always a shot stronger. More importantly, she got her serve to start behaving again. Without the burden of the dreaded double faults, she managed to keep holding easily until Wozniacki finally ran out of legs.
The Sharapova vs Wozniacki rivalry might seem like an imbalance on paper, but it's always been fiercely contested on the court. Wozniacki can't match Sharapova's power, but she can chase practically everything down, goading the Russian into errors. That is where Sharapova's consistency plays such a big role – against Wozniacki, she needs to hit with pace, depth and accuracy, and she needs to keep doing that over and over again. Anything less, and she's in trouble.
But she managed to remain precise with her heavy shot-making today for close to 2.5 hours, which could be an indication that she's ready to challenge for the big titles again. Apart from her wobbly serve, Sharapova did just about everything right today. She moved well, hit with authority, and at one stage even struck a left-handed lob that got her out of a tough spot and ultimately won her the point.
When Sharapova broke for 4-3 in the third set she let out her loudest shriek of the day, accompanied by an almost deranged look in her eyes. It was as powerful a statement of intent as any we have seen over the first five days of the Australian Open.
The last time Sharapova played with such scary intensity was in her 2017 US Open first round match against Simona Halep. It was, as you have probably guessed, a night match on Arthur Ashe, with the brightest of spotlights glaring down at the Russian.
In other words, it was showtime. And there's no one better at putting on a show than Maria Sharapova.
Updated Date: Jan 18, 2019 18:56:57 IST