Sharapova's power again hard to handle
Fighting the wind, a talented opponent and, initially, her own lethargy, Maria Sharapova blasted her way into the final of the Sony Ericsson Open on Thursday with an impressive demolition of Andrea Petkovic 3-6, 6-0, 6-2.
This was a significant win for one of the shining lights of the women’s game. Sharapova moved back into the top 10 earlier in the week and will be No. 8 if she wins the final against 2009 champion Victoria Azarenka. It is also Sharapova's first appearance in a WTA final since Cincinnati last summer, when she reached match point before losing to Kim Clijsters. Prior to the shoulder problems that derailed her career a couple of years ago, the 2004 Wimbledon champion also knocked on the door here, losing in both the 2005 and 2006 finals.
It has been a hard road back but, finally, Sharapova looks capable of winning big again. Her fighting spirit never has been in question, and she needed to show plenty of it during her protracted battle with Alexandra Dulgheru on Tuesday night. But now the serve is beginning to look more solid under pressure and when she goes for her groundstrokes, the sheer velocity generated makes them difficult to handle. Off the ground, she probably is hitting the ball harder than ever.
Sharapova wasn’t satisfied, however, with the way she started the match.
“I felt like I was making a lot of errors in the first set and I wasn’t moving my feet at all,” she said. “Especially in the wind, I wasn’t moving towards the ball. I was letting the ball come to me and not being really aggressive. That’s what won me so many matches in my career – when I step in and hit my strokes and they come deep.”
Sharapova sensed that Petkovic tired as the match went on, but that was not news to the sharp-witted German.
“A champion like Maria, she just feels any kind of weakness,” Petkovic said. “Even if you’re not showing it, or you think you’re not showing it, they just feel it. That’s what makes them so much better.”
After winning the first set quite comfortably, Petkovic proceeded to lose the next 11 games before she managed to cut out the forehand errors and actually break the Russian’s serve to haul the third set back to 2-5. But Sharapova quickly snuffed out any thoughts Petkovic might have had of emulating Clijsters’ remarkable comeback from 1-5, 0-40 in the third set against Ana Ivanovic in the fourth round.
Petkovic had beaten Sharapova in straight sets at the Australian Open in January, but this time she couldn’t maintain the intensity that carried her to victory in Melbourne. Even the severe talking to she gave herself didn’t work. “I was telling myself, ‘She also had a three-and-a-half-hour match; she must be feeling tired, too. You’re not the only one who’s tired here so, come on, move your ass. Sorry!’ ”
Andrea laughed. She is someone who likes to tell it as it is and has admitted her humor frequently gets the better of her. Despite the disappointment of failing to reach her first big final, she was as bright and breezy as ever in the news conference and rightly looked for positives.
“I really started believing in myself as a top player during this week,” said Petkovic, who will move into the top 20 for the first time. “I think it’s a good sign when you still have so many things to improve. I’m beating these players and I still have 105 things to improve. That’s good.”
There was a major disappointment for the crowd after the Sharapova match when Gilles Simon was forced to retire against Roger Federer after losing just three games. The Frenchman explained that he had suffered from a stiff neck at Rotterdam and that the problem had returned this morning.
“I’m not really sure whether the pain is in the back or the neck, but I can’t turn my head and can’t run properly,” Simon said. “This is a hard game. You have to be 100 percent to have a chance to win. When you play Roger, you have to be more than that.”
Simon, who had a 2-1 record against the Swiss star going in, said he understood if some of the crowd booed him off court. “They want to see a match,” he said. “No one wants to end it like this. Even Roger would rather win hitting all his winners.”
Lightning obviously can strike twice at this tournament, which has been hit with some devastating storms: car accidents to finalists (Thomas Muster had to withdraw one year when he was hit by a car downtown) and even another player pulling out with a stiff neck. That happened in 1996 when Goran Ivanisevic slept in the wrong position and, despite hours of massage, had to quit after three games of the final against Andre Agassi.
Federer’s advance at least has ensured that American fans will get to see him play Rafael Nadal for the first time on U.S. soil since they met here in the 2005 final – Federer winning 6-1 in the fifth. Incredibly, they have met 20 times in a variety of tournaments all over the globe since then but interventions by the likes of Andy Murray and Juan Martin del Potro during the U.S. Open Series – and at the U.S. Open itself – meant that one or the other was knocked out before they could reach projected meetings in finals at American tournaments.
Their second meeting here is now assured after Nadal’s hard-fought 6-2, 3-6, 6-3 victory over Thomas Berdych under the lights. The big Czech, who lost to Nadal in the Wimbledon final after knocking Federer out of the championships, came back strongly after a poor start and outhit the Spaniard during a dominating performance in the second set. But Nadal’s well-documented ability to run down balls and whip winners away to all parts of the court proved too good for Berdych in the third.