When the two tall, blonde, long-legged Russians walked back onto a damp Arthur Ashe Stadium after a 1-hour-13-minute rain break, Maria Sharapova knew she had work to do to prevent Nadia Petrova from beating her — something Petrova had only done once in nine previous meetings.
Petrova, outplayed in the first set, won the second set and then had fought back doggedly to gain a 2-0 lead in the decider, and now it would be a race to the finish line. But despite starting with a 118 mph ace, Petrova couldn’t do it — not against a Sharapova as determined and as fiercely competitive as this.
In the end the No. 3-seed Sharapova reached the quarterfinals of the US Open for the first time since she won the title in 2006, winning 6-1, 4-6, 6-4. She let out a scream of relief as much as joy when Petrova’s ball went wide on the first match point.
The rain break had helped her. Asked what her Swedish coach Thomas Hogstedt had told her in the locker room, Maria replied, “He told me to get my act together.”
As the crowd laughed, she went on, “I was a little bit sloppy in the second set, but he told me to keep fighting. I spoke to my dad on the phone, and he said, ‘Keep fighting.’ So I did.”
While Sharapova was getting a talking-to downstairs, her manager Max Eisenbud, who has just masterminded the launch of the tennis star’s candy line Sugerpova, lay on a couch in a near deserted players’ lounge fretting over what would happen when play resumed. At least he didn’t have to worry about what effect a loss might have on sales. The candy, which is manufactured in Spain, is just about sold out.
But Sharapova was not about to sell herself short. A fractional tactical adjustment on the return of serve, which had her standing a couple of feet further back so she had more time to take a swing at the powerful Petrova serve, worked wonders, and she was able to break immediately with three crunching winners.
Sharapova then held for 2-2, and you could see the belief drain from Petrova. They had first played in Los Angeles back in 2003, and Petrova’s only success had come at the round-robin stage of the WTA Championships when they were played at the Staples Center in downtown LA in 2005. It was a long time ago.
The turnaround in Sharapova’s fortunes on this steamy evening was helped by the huge crowd of 24,600 packing the game’s largest stadium. “It is impossible not to be lifted by that energy,” said Sharapova. “Of all the stadiums we play in around the world, this is unique, especially at night with the lights and the tunnel as you walk out with people reaching out to you for autographs even before the match and then those amazing stands reaching up around you. And the noise. You really feel it.”
Maria Bartoli will be Sharapova’s next opponent after the No. 11 seed from France upset former Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova, who had won the US Open Series through the summer, by the strange score of 1-6, 6-2, 6-0.