Wild card for Sharapova at Rogers Cup

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Maria Sharapova likely will still need a wild card to get into the Premier-level WTA tournament in Toronto this August.

So the Rogers Cup will give her one.

“Maria is a Grand Slam champion and a fan favourite. She has served her suspension and we know our guests will be excited to see her play,” Toronto Rogers Cup tournament director Karl Hale said in a press release. “She will join what is set to be a star-studded field, as we look forward to welcoming the best of women’s tennis back to Toronto this summer.”

For the Canadian events, the women and men alternate between Montreal and Toronto. This summer, the women will be in Toronto.

The tournament is referred to as a “virtual joint event” with the ATP. But for practical purposes, the men have theirs and the women theirs, in a different city.

Over the last few years, since the Cincinnati tournament held the following week raised the status of its women’s event and invested significantly in infrastructure, the two Canadian tournaments have been played the same week instead of back-to-back as they were for many years.

All about the Benjamins

Unlike when the women are in Montreal, the attendance drops off significantly for them in Toronto, compared to the men. That’s by Rogers Cup standards; by the measure of nearly every other WTA-only event, Canada remains the gold standard.

So the circumstances are different than they were last week, when the French federation declined to issue a wild-card invitation to Sharapova for the French Open.

For the Rogers Cup, the addition of the former No. 1 to a field that will not have Serena Williams is purely a business call. It will hope for a boost in attendance because of the interest in the Russian, whose star power reaches beyond dedicated tennis fans.

But that doesn’t mean there weren’t extended discussions within Tennis Canada about whether or not it was a good idea. There were.

Some of Sharapova’s previous invitations to tournaments came in places where IMG (Sharapova’s management company) had a stake. Or, one of Sharapova’s personal sponsors (like Porsche in Stuttgart) was prominent. Or the tournament was otherwise privately owned.

The Rogers Cup is owned and operated by a national federation, Tennis Canada. That’s a similar structure to that of the Grand Slam tournaments. But the tournaments themselves are under the aegis of the ATP and WTA Tour, not the International Tennis Federation. Still, it means there are more considerations than mere money on the table when making a decision on this type of thing.

In the end, though, money won out.

Deadline looming

The entry deadline for the Rogers Cup is coming up quickly – June 26.

That doesn’t even give Sharapova an opportunity to qualify and amass ranking points at Wimbledon. All she has left to play before that date is the grass-court tuneup event in Birmingham. It’s a Premier-level tournament, but the 470 points she would earn for winning the title would only put her just inside the top 80.

That’s not close to high enough to get into Toronto

Here’s the press-release quote from Sharapova:

“I’m really looking forward to coming back to Canada. I have some great memories of playing Toronto in the past, and the tournament and the fans have always been so supportive. This is one of the biggest events of the year and I hope to play my best tennis that week.”

It’s a nice quote. But Sharapova hasn’t exactly been the most faithful Rogers Cup attendee during her career. There have been plenty of planned appearances, but also plenty of last-minute withdrawals.

Spotty attendance

Sharapova first played it in 2003, so there have been 14 editions during her career – seven each in Montreal and Toronto. Obviously she couldn’t play it in 2016 because she was serving her suspension.  Beyond that, she hasn’t been to Toronto since 2011.

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Sharapova’s last Rogers Cup appearance came in Montreal in 2014. (Stephanie Myles/Tennis.Life)

Sharapova has played Toronto three times: 2003, 2009 (when she lost in the final to Elena Dementieva) and 2011. She has played Montreal three times as well: 2004, 2008 (both Olympic years) and 2014.

In 2012, she did fly to Montreal right after the Olympic singles final against Serena Williams at Wimbledon, and thus avoided a fine. But Sharapova ended up withdrawing from the tournament with a stomach bug she contracted the day before the gold-medal final.

Sharapova will play Wimbledon qualifying

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It’s a good pre-emptive strike against more potentially bad news. Or perhaps Maria Sharapova has already gotten some advance indication of the answer from the All-England Club, were she to ask.

The 2004 Wimbledon champion announced via her website Friday that she will not ask for a wild card into the main draw this year. She will play the qualifying, a spot earned by virtue of her ranking and results since her return a few weeks ago.

The grass tuneup in Birmingham already has confirmed a two-year deal for her to compete there in 2017 and 2018.

Sharapova hasn’t played Birmingham since 2010. In fact, she hasn’t played any grass-court warmup events before Wimbledon since then.

But before that, she was a Birmingham regular, playing it seven of the previous eight years.

“One of my most memorable tournaments as a young player. I am so grateful and excited to be playing this event again!,” Sharapova said on her website.

The Birmingham tournament is played the week of June 19. Wimbledon qualifying is the following week.

Throwback to an earlier era

Unlike the other Grand Slams, it’s not played at the main tournament venue; the grass would be kaput before the main event even begins.

Instead, it takes place at the Bank of England Sports Ground in nearby Roehampton, about a 10-15 minute drive away.

Wimbledon has already announced that it will raise the bar at the qualifying, which has traditionally been a sleepy little tournament attended by a few locals out to enjoy a day in the sum. 

The logistics are pretty basic; it’s a quaint throwback. And not many of the tennis journalists who cover the main event venture there. 

This year will be different. Instead of free admission, they will be charging a nominal fee that will go to charity. And Wimbledon has even added match streaming from one court. There’s a pretty good chance they’ll schedule Sharapova on that one.

Five thoughts on Sharapova, before grass

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With Maria Sharapova now out of Rome, and in the wake of the decision on Tuesday by the French Tennis Federation not to grant her a French Open wild card of any kind, tennis won’t see her for another month.

The 30-year-old Russian declined to come in to her press conference after the retirement against Mirjana Lucic-Baroni in the third set of their second-round match.

Instead, the WTA offered up a short quote from the player about the injury and defeat. She may get a fine, but it would be a tiny one, considering her ranking.

The questions, of course, would have been plentiful and difficult. And they are likely to keep coming as her comeback continues. Even without them, it was a tough three hours for Sharapova with the French Federation’s snub, the loss, and the injury. 

As she now looks ahead to the grass-court season, here are five issues to ponder.

1. The WTA, once again, looked weak

For the second time in 72 hours, WTA CEO Steve Simon spoke out. For the second time in 72 hours, Simon didn’t particularly distinguish himself.

Late Saturday, after Madrid Open tournament owner Ion Tiriac thought it would be a great idea to have women’s singles champion Simona Halep’s countryman Ilie Nastase be part of the trophy ceremony, the WTA issued a statement from Simon.

It revealed the WTA had revoked Nastase’s credential privileges. And to reveal it well after the fact only made the WTA look rather toothless in response to the saber-toothed tiger that is Tiriac.

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The Simon statement after the French Federation’s decision wasn’t much better.

decision“What I do not agree with is the basis put forward by the FFT for their decision with respect to Maria Sharapova. She has complied with the sanction imposed by CAS.

“The tennis anti-doping program is a uniform effort supported by the Grand Slams, WTA, ITF, and ATP. There are no grounds for any member of the TADP to penalize any player beyond the sanctions set forth in the final decisions resolving these matters.”

Perhaps Simon makes the Sharapova camp happy by publicly siding with them, even if the grounds on which he does don’t really stand up.

But his continued, unvarnished support of Sharapova cannot sit well with the players he calls “our members,” the numerous players who disagree with the special treatment she has received.

2. Wild card debate kicks up again

As arbitrary and collusional as they can sometimes be, wild cards are a privilege, not a right. The FFT could simply have said, “we prefer to attribute all of our wild cards, whenever possible, to French players.”

Of course, no one would have bought that story.

It also could have said, “That lilac colour Sharapova seems to prefer in her Nike kits offends our fine French fashion sensibilities. So, non.” And it still would have been their right. 

The FFT is not “penalizing” Sharapova by not giving her a wild card. Because it was never hers to begin with. A “penalty” would have been awarding it and then, following some revelation or other, revoking it. Whatever their stated reason, they don’t actually need to explain themselves.

The French could have saved everyone all the drama and said non, merci long ago. In trying to treat the Sharapova case as “nothing special,” they made it even more special.

3. Comeback got difficult quickly

When Sharapova took the court April 26 for the first time since the 2016 Australian Open, she looked like she had never been away. The feet seemed a little slow at first, but she posted two solid victories against experienced top-50 players, and everything was firing. Especially the serve.

decisionBut by the time the Stuttgart semifinal against Kristina Mladenovic rolled around, the legs looked weary in the third set. In her second-round match against Genie Bouchard in Madrid, same thing. 

The serve was beginning to look a little like it did before she went away – untimely double faults, the velocity not particularly impressive.

By the second-round match in Rome against Mirjana Lucic-Baroni, who had given her plenty of trouble in Madrid, a left thigh injury forced her to retire.

Sharapova was 161-51 in deciding sets during her career, per Tennis Abstract. Since her return, she is 1-3. It’s entirely normal she wouldn’t have the endurance she used to have, after such a long layoff. Nerves surely play a part as well. But if the trend continues, she is going to face questions – fairly or unfairly – about whether the decade-long use of meldonium did, in fact, help her endurance.

4. The “motivated player” factor

Sharapova’s sheer mental strength is such a force, there’s no counting how many matches she wins simply by breaking her opponent’s will.

But there’s now a new wrinkle on the face of this equation. There are players who have stepped up their their level in a major way.

Bouchard
A joyous Bouchard jumps for joy after defeating Maria Sharapova for the first time, under extraordinary circumstances.

Some of it is because they feel as though they have the support of the locker room behind them. Some of it is because they don’t like the royal treatment she is receiving. And a lot of it is because they feel so strongly about doping they fail to recognize the various shades of gray in a very non black-and-white issue.

It was no small factor in Bouchard’s win in Madrid and Mladenovic’s win in Stuttgart. Lucic-Baroni, who at 35 has been through far more trials in her professional tennis life than Sharapova ever has, had some interesting remarks before she played her for the second time in two weeks.

“I feel the same way everybody else feels: You know the drill, you know what happened, you know what it is. Some people are forcing us to say everything is great, and blah blah, but it is what it is. I don’t much care for it,” she told the New York Times.

She wouldn’t say who might be “forcing them” to say anything. But that’s not hard to deduce.

”I’m not going to say those things because then I’m going to get in trouble,” she said. “No, no — nobody is pressuring us to say anything,” she said. “I know the way the real world works, and this is the way the real world works. Money and everything speaks for itself. Maybe they should give a wild card to Lance Armstrong, too? He’s won the Tour de France a few times. How is it any different?”

Well, it’s very different. But Sharapova she may well face this type of extra motivation across the net every time she plays. It can make a difference. And there can be a snowball effect.

5. Next for Sharapova: grass

Sharapova actually could start her grass-court season a week early, during the $100,000 ITF event in Surbiton, England the second week of the French Open. No doubt they would welcome her with open arms. And playing an ITF event would certainly assuage some of the critics who believe she should “working her way back from the lower levels.”

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Sharapova at Wimbledon in 2010. (Stephanie Myles/Tennis.Life)

The Russian has been offered a wild card into the tournament in Rosmalen, Netherlands the week of June 12. Tournament director Marcel Hunze was on board in mid-March with a strong statement of support.  

No official word yet if Sharapova has committed.

The BBC  and the Times report she will be offered one into Birmingham the week of June 19. The center court for that International-level event has a capacity of just 2,500. The Times reports LTA CEO Michael Downey has “approved” that move, which shouldn’t be interpreted to mean that the LTA is on board for a Wimbledon main draw wild card. That’s an All-England Club decision, anyway.

Ironically, it could be one of the final decisions Downey makes in this six-month, lame-duck period after an announcement that he’s returning to his old job with Tennis Canada July 1.

Sharapova has not played a single Wimbledon grass tuneup event since 2010. The only one she has ever played has been Birmingham, which she played seven of eight years between 2003-10. She lost to Li Na the last two times she played it.

No word yet on the Eastbourne tournament, the week before Wimbledon.

Wimbledon’s decision announcement on wild cards will come June 20.

French Federation says no to Sharapova wild card

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The French Tennis Federation announced the decision Tuesday, via Facebook live.

No wild card will be granted to two-time champion Maria Sharapova at the French Open this year.

No main-draw wild card. Not even a wild card into the qualifying.

FFT president Bernard Giudicelli said his message to Sharapova in advising her of the decision was simple.

“No one can take away the titles she has won but today we cannot – and I cannot – give her the wild card she asked for,” Giudicelli said (translated from the original French) during the broadcast. “The titles she won here at Roland Garros, she won them without being beholden anyone, and she accomplished them within the rules.”

He said he was unable to speak with her directly. If he was trying to get in touch with her shortly before the announcement, that’s probably because she was trying to focus on the task at hand. Sharapova had a second-round match against Mirjana Lucic-Baroni in Rome Tuesday night.

Or maybe she blocked him.

Former champions roster thin

The decision means three illustrious former champions will not be in the tournament this year. Serena Williams is on maternity leave and Roger Federer announced Monday that he will skip it.

On the women’s side, defending champion Garbiñe Muguruza of Spain and 2009 champion Svetlana Kuznetsova will be the only players in the field who have hoisted the trophy.

Just a few minutes after the announcement, Sharapova took the court in Rome against Lucic-Baroni.

The Russian’s ranking already is high enough to get into the Wimbledon qualifying. So the British Lawn Tennis Association need not be concerned about being put in a position where they appear to be “anti” anti-doping, if they broke ranks and offered her a wild card.

Sharapova would need to make the semi-finals in Rome this week to get close to the top 100. If she does that, she would earn direct entry to the main draw. So it’s not too late. Tournament entries close Monday.

Giudicelli said he read articles 100 and 101 of the Court of Arbitration for Sport, which reduced the length of her suspension from two years to 15 months.

“But even if the court reduced the sanction, they still agreed with the panel that first ruled on it that she violated the anti-doping program and needed to have that 15-month suspension,” he said.

“That suspension is now over. And Maria is now able to resume her journey back to the highest level. She served that suspension with dignity, with respect. But if there is a wild card for return from injury, there cannot be one for return after doping. It’s up to her, day after day, tournament after tournament, to find the strength to win the major titles without being beholden to anyone.”

Live broadcast for decision

More than 1,000 people went online to watch the Facebook Live broadcast during which Giudicelli – a master of suspense – opted to announce the main draw and qualifying wild cards for the men first.

wild card

He immediately followed the statements about Sharapova with the announcement that the federation granted a wild card into the wheelchair tennis event to former champion Shingo Kunieda of Japan. Giudicelli lauded Kunieda’s career achievements. He also made a point of mentioning the Japanese player was coming back from an injury, and thus deserved it. “It was important that this great champion be able to play at Roland Garros,” he said. 

The FFT president said he realized many will be disappointed by the decision.

“The French Tennis Federation, along with the other Grand Slams, the ATP and the WTA, invests a lot in the fight against doping. It was inconceivable to make a decision that would contravene this,” he said. “In all good conscience, after thoughtful reflection, it was impossible for me to supersede the anti-doping code and its rules.”

The French Open qualifying wild cards will go to the following players: Harmony Tan (No. 372)  Manon Arcangioli (No. 395), Jessika Ponchet  (No. 442),  Jade Suvrijn (No. 449), Audrey Albie (No. 468) and Yasmine Mansouri (No. 67 in the ITF junior rankings).

Canadian Aleksandra Wozniak, in a reciprocal exchange, received the final qualifying wild card. Tennis Canada gave Caroline Garcia a free pass into the Rogers Cup last summer in Montreal.

The French case is closed

The deadline for the qualifying is past. The qualifying cut, as of today, stands exactly at No. 200. Sharapova is entered in the qualifying, but with a ranking of No. 262. So she has absolutely no shot at getting in on her own.

Her only window of opportunity before the deadline was her comeback tournament in Stuttgart the last week of April. To make it, she would have had to reach the final. She fell one match short.

The announcement is not a major surprise. Giudicelli didn’t offer a lot of  hope from the get-go.

Back in March, in the early weeks of his tenure as French Federation president, he spoke about “integrity” as being one of the pledges of his new administration. “We can’t decide on one side to increase funds earmarked for the fight against doping and on the other … (invite her),” he said back then.

No. 1 French female player Kristina Mladenovic made a pronouncement on this during a busy couple of weeks of pronouncing.

“Regarding Grand Slams, I think it’s different. I think the French Open is going to shine with or without her, I have the feeling,” Mladenovic said in a new column for the Dubai-based Sports360 website. “It’s also a Grand Slam, it’s run by a federation, it’s different. It’s a federation kind of mentality and values. Let’s see what they decide. Knowing them, I think it’s (doubtful), but we’ll see. Maybe for them it’s also going to be interesting (on some level), I don’t know. We’ll see. But I think in Grand Slams, she shouldn’t get a wildcard.”

Ironically, the Facebook Live broadcast was going on while Mladenovic was in the press conference room in Rome, having just lost in the first round.

Of course, Mladenovic had thoughts.

Off-court grudge produces enthralling tennis for Bouchard and Sharapova

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Genie Bouchard did plenty of talking off court about Maria Sharapova’s return to tennis after her 15-month doping suspension.

On the Manolo Santana stadium court Monday night in Madrid, she let her racquet do all the talking.

The 23-year-old Canadian channelled her 2014 self on every level and defeated Sharapova 7-5, 2-6, 6-4, to move into the third round of the Madrid Open.

Wednesday, she will face Germany’s Angelique Kerber, who returns to the No. 1 ranking next week but who has a 2-4 career record against the Canadian.

“It was a very tough match, not only physically and tennis-wise, but also mentally and emotionally,” Bouchard told the media in Madrid. “Each point was a battle from the first point. It was really a fight. I’m just proud that I came out stronger in the end and held it together in the third set.”

There was an outsized amount of hype leading up this second-round women’s match. Not much of the hype was about the actual tennis.

Expecting drama, not great tennis

Most expected Sharapova to roll over a player who has been a good “get” for a lot of lower-ranked players this season – indeed, for the last couple of years. Most expected the Russian to have a little extra motivation, given those comments. Most expected Bouchard wouldn’t even make the second-round date at all given she had not won a WTA Tour-level match since January.

It turned out Bouchard had more motivation than anyone knew. She felt she was swinging her racquet for many.

“I was actually quite inspired before the match because I had a lot of players coming up to me privately wishing me good luck, players I don’t normally speak to, getting a lot of texts from people in the tennis world that were just rooting for me,” she said. “So I wanted to do it for myself, but also all these people. I really felt support.”

That it took such an extraordinary set of circumstances for the lone wolf to feel a little warmth in a locker room she has never welcomed, nor has been welcomed in,  is subject matter for an entirely different dissertation.

No backing down

Bouchard
Bouchard’s body language was positive throughout, even when she blew a couple of love-40 leads on Sharapova’s serve in the third set.

The Canadian said she felt the significance of it was that “most people have my opinion, and they were just maybe scared to speak out.”

“Most” is probably stretching it. But Bouchard has not backed down from her original remarks. She stood by them again Tuesday.

The victory, her first in five tries against Sharapova, was a combination of several factors.

There was that additional motivation. There also was the big spotlight that shone upon this match. Bouchard’s best moments back in 2014 came precisely because she rose to the challenge on the big occasions, at the biggest tournaments.

For Sharapova, just the start

On the other side of the net, there was an opponent still feeling her way back after a long absence.

Sharapova’s effort in reaching the semi-finals in her first tournament after serving her doping suspension was impressive. Now comes the job of keeping up that effort physically and mentally, week after week, during the meat of the tennis season.

Bouchard
Sharapova fought as she always does. But by the end she was making a lot of errors she probably won’t make when she has more matches under her belt.

The Russian had a difficult first-round match against Mirjana Lucic-Baroni Sunday. At times late in the second set, she looked a little panicked.

She turned on the afterburners and ran away with that one. But she may have used up some of the rocket fuel she ended up needing against a surprisingly resistant Bouchard.

“There’s no way to train but be a part of it, like I was today, and the previous tournament. To find myself in those situations, come up with the goods… You know, I could have easily gotten out of the match. I got myself in a position to finish, and I didn’t,” Sharapova said. 

Better legs, better defense

Bouchard looks to have gained a little healthy weight. And clearly she has  worked her legs and endurance; she did a lot of running and defending Monday night and looked by far the fresher of the two by the end.

Defence is not the Canadian’s strength, but there weren’t many options. Sharapova plays offense better than she does. For long patches of the two-hour, 51 minute match, the Russian hit her off the court.

Often enough, though, Bouchard chased down that one extra ball and forced Sharapova to hit that one extra ball. Cumulatively, it seemed to pay dividends by the end. Sharapova coach Sven Groeneveld stressed the importance of putting more spin on her ball when he came on court to consult. He urged her to hit with more margin. He urged her not to go for winners all the time.

But perhaps she felt she had to. It was the most difficult match physically Sharapova has has played so far.

Coach Högstedt returns

Bouchard
Sharapova is out of Madrid, but she can try again next week in Rome as the comeback continues.

At times, Bouchard showed better anticipation than she typically does. Credit for that has to go to her coach, Thomas Högstedt.

Högstedt wasn’t there for Bouchard’s last two tournaments in Monterrey and Istanbul. But he’s back for this one. And after coaching Sharapova for several years, the veteran Swede has some inside knowledge of Sharapova’s patterns. Even after a 15-month absence, the Russian still plays basically the same game. So the intel remains relevant.

Had Bouchard not ended her losing streak in her first-round win over Alizé Cornet, her confidence might still have been at too low an ebb for this awaited encounter with Sharapova. So that helped as well.

Most of all, it seemed the fire was there. In her first-round match, Högstedt felt Bouchard’s poor attitude in the second set allowed her opponent to maintain belief in victory.  This time, even when she failed to convert twice from love-40 on Sharapova’s serve, she stayed the course. Even when Sharapova had love-40 on Bouchard’s serve, she stayed the course. She just kept running, and fighting.

“Obviously, there was a lot going on besides tennis in this match. As soon as I stepped on the court, I really just wanted to make it about tennis. We both did that. We just battled our hearts out, I think,” Bouchard said.

Just here for the handshake

The handshake – the moment tennis fans wait for whenever there is friction in any tennis match – didn’t disappoint. The interpretations on social media of what it all meant varied depending on who your rooting interest was, and how much you wanted it to mean.

Bouchard
The handshake was firm, the gaze lingered a second longer than average, after a tough battle.

But the grip was firm, lingering a little longer than it normally might as the two women looked firmly into each others’ eyes. Bouchard was stoic; Sharapova had a slight smile on her face.

Obviously, there was a lot more going on besides tennis, to quote Bouchard. But somewhere in there there had to be an appreciation from both sides about what a righteous battle it was. An unspoken conversation between fellow athletes that the mere mortal probably can’t understand, and that the athletes themselves probably couldn’t verbalize.

THAT look

There is a look Bouchard gets when she’s zoned in, 120 per cent committed. Her eyes get dark as coals as the pupils dilate to the maximum. She has not had that look often in recent years. The last time it was truly there was last summer, at the Olympics in Rio.

She had it Monday night, in spades.

With a new challenge in less than 48 hours against Kerber, she needs to not only keep it, but use it. There will be a natural letdown. Everything will almost be back to normal.

As much talk as there may be in the next 24 hours about how Bouchard is “back”, the reality is that she’s only as good as her next match, not her last match.

“Overall, with the whole mental aspect, just fighting and playing almost a three-hour match, the physical battles … Everything together, for sure, it’s one of my more proud matches in the past couple of years,” Bouchard said. “I was working hard that whole time, just waiting for it to come. Okay, it didn’t happen this week, it will happen next week. Okay, it didn’t happen this week again, it will happen next week.

“So I just tried to keep my head up, finally saw a little bit of results from the hard work I put in coming in to play this week. I just want to build on it,” she added.

Sharapova makes date with Bouchard

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‘C’MON, Maria. FIGHT!”

In the second point of the third set against Mirjana Lucic-Baroni Sunday in Madrid, Maria Sharapova urged herself on – in the third person, no less.

From that moment, she almost had an out-of-body experience. It was as though she flipped a switch. She rolled through that set to defeat Lucic-Baroni 4-6, 6-4, 6-0 and make her second-round date with Canada’s Eugenie Bouchard.

By that point, Sharapova knew she was in a dogfight. For the first set and a half, Lucic-Baroni had been the better player. Even the final stats showed how much of the play the 35-year-old Croat dictated. She had 41 winners to Sharapova’s 16, many of them stone-cold winners on the return of serve. Of those, 15 came in the first set.

But she also had 34 unforced errors to Sharapova’s stingy 10, and a large portion of those came in that third set.

That entire first game, Sharapova urged herself on. She jumped around on the baseline pantomiming her groundstrokes. When she’d miss a couple of returns, she would reset and make the next two even better.

By 0-3, Lucic-Baroni felt the pressure. She double-faulted twice to open that game, and again on break point to essentially let the match go.

But at 5-0, Sharapova was STILL shadow-swinging furiously before points. It seemed she wasn’t going to drop the intensity until the (relatively cool) handshake.

The popular narrative would be that this was Lucic-Baroni in a nutshell. She is capable of some tremendous play, but prone to inconsistency because of her high-risk game.

But that would be a disservice to both players.

At 35, the Croat is having the best season of her career. Her inspiring run to the Australian Open semi-finals might have been overshadowed by the Venus-Serena and Federer-Nadal finals. But it was one of the great stories of the first Grand Slam of the season.

She reached the quarter-finals in Miami, and the semi-finals in Charleston. You don’t do that by being inconsistent.

“I’m not quite sure how to describe the match because it feels like it happened so fast.  thought she played really well. I was playing against, like, a human slingshot for a while there. Balls were coming so fast and deep that, for a couple of sets, I don’t believe we had too many rallies over three balls,” Sharapova told the media in Madrid after the match. 

“You know, she goes for it. You have to be patient. Sometimes there’s not much you can do. Those are great shots, on the line. I mean, the breakpoints, I missed a couple of second-serve returns. That was obviously an error from my side. But she came up with some great winners. Just got to hand it to her.”

On Sunday, Lucic-Baroni lost the mental toughness battle. The two went head-to-head for a long time but in the end, she couldn’t keep up with Sharapova’s surreal level on that score.

There is little shame in that; most players will lose that battle against Sharapova. What’s astonishing is that the Russian’s steely will hasn’t faded even an iota after the long time away.

It’s hard to know how Sharapova is feeling physically. She had a week off after her return in Stuttgart. But she played four matches in four days there, and none of them could qualify as routine.

After 15 months away, now 30 years old, there’s no doubt she had to be feeling it – likely in every body part she could name.

But late in the game Sunday, she wouldn’t allow herself to feel it. Or perhaps, because she felt it, she knew she had to up the ante on the determination side.

Bouchard did her part to make this much-anticipated second-round match happen with a 6-4, 4-6, 6-1 victory over Alizé Cornet of France Saturday. It was her first victory since the Australian Open last January, her first three-set win since last July in Montreal.

There isn’t a single second-round match on the women’s side that has anywhere close to the allure of this one. As a result, it gets night-session treatment on Manolo Santana stadium (not before 8 p.m. in Madrid; 2 p.m. EDT). Hopefully, the crowds will be better than they were for both Bouchard’s match Saturday and Sharapova’s match on Sunday.

The head-to-head is unanimously in Sharapova’s favour.

Sharapova

After her comments in Istanbul concerning Sharapova’s return from her doping suspension, Bouchard didn’t back down when asked about it Saturday.

“I think they both play similar, aggressive tennis, but I hope I can play Maria,” Bouchard said. “Once I step on the court, everything will be to the side. But, you know, inside myself, I think I’ll have a bit more motivation.”

She wanted to play Sharapova. She got her wish.

It will be a spotlight occasion of the type the Canadian enjoyed three summers ago during her best days, even though it’s only a second-round match. She took Sharapova to three sets in the semi-final of the 2014 French Open before bowing out.

As it happens, Sharapova will be sporting the identical (if disparate) orange and lilac color combination for this one. As if time stood still, which of course it hasn’t for either player.

The win over Cornet was encouraging. But it was only one victory. Bouchard’s tennis has never been at the level of Sharapova’s tennis. She has never been at the level of Sharapova’s will And these days, it has never been further away.

The beauty of it, though, is that it will all be decided on court.

Bouchard wins for first time since January

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Eugenie Bouchard did her part Saturday at the Madrid Open.

Your turn, Maria Sharapova.

The 23-year-old Canadian finally ended her streak of futility; the 6-4, 4-6, 6-1 first-round victory over Alizé Cornet of France was her first match win at the WTA Tour level since the Australian Open in January.

It was hard to gauge which side of the court was more tense. And the enterprise wasn’t especially stylish. But Bouchard’s first victory in her last seven tournaments was never going to come easily.

The road since Australia has been strewn with potholes and puddles. Bouchard even self-demoted to the ITF Pro Circuit, the minor leagues of pro tennis, in search of some confidence and match wins.

That didn’t go particularly well. And the longer the dry spell was extended, the more challenging it was going to be for Bouchard to get herself out of it.

This was the first three-set match the Canadian has won in nearly 10 months. Bouchard defeated Lucie Safarova of the Czech Republic in a third-set tiebreaker at her hometown tournament, the Rogers Cup in Montreal, last July.

In Cornet, she faced an opponent whose emotions often get the better of her.

An Alizé Cornet match can be must-see TV, or it can be like rubbernecking at a two-car pileup. Sometimes it’s both in the same match.

The 27-year-old Frenchwoman gave Bouchard just enough help early on. And the Canadian was able to run away with the third set with some occasionally excellent shotmaking and a fair bit of calm under pressure. Add to that frustrated opponent who couldn’t hang in there and wait for things to turn around – as she had done so well in the previous set – and it’s a much-needed win.

Half the potential popcorn match set

JanuaryWhen the Madrid Open draw came out on Friday, the potential second-round clash between Bouchard and Sharapova lit up as though in neon.

It took the draw gods no time at all, in the wake of Bouchard’s very publicized comments about Sharapova and her return from a doping suspension, to cooperate to make an on-court clash happen.

Bouchard held firm when asked about it by the media in Madrid after the match. “It’s my personal opinion. I’ve always played true my whole career,” she said. “Yeah, just my opinion.”

Sharapova still must defeat No. 17 seed Mirjana Lucic-Baroni of Croatia Sunday to make the date, though.

The match began as many of Bouchard’s defeats have, with a good start. She was up 4-2 early and managed to hold on long enough to take the first set.

The second set was that two-car pileup. Bouchard would break serve, then get broken. Rinse, repeat three times.

A couple of bad-luck net cords didn’t help the Canadian as Cornet closed out the set.

Coach Thomas to the rescue

Enter coach Thomas Högstedt, whose counsel was missing during Bouchard’s last two tournaments in Monterrey, Mexico and Istanbul, Turkey.

He pulled out all of his best on-court coaching moves.

The Swede is one of the rare coaches in the women’s game who goes out of his way to include the opponent in the conversation. His advice to former pupil Sharapova during one match years ago went like this: “Don’t worry. She’s gonna choke.”

It’s still a classic.

As Bouchard complained of a sore stomach, Högstedt reiterated the obvious.

“She’s not confident. Your opponent is not confident. Because you show the (poor) attitude, she hangs in there. At the end of this set you looked like you don’t care,” he said. “You win this match. Whatever the score is now, win this match – one ball at a time. Go in there and decide you’re going to and go in and change it – like you did in Australia.”

The Canadian had two break points in the first game of the third set, but couldn’t convert. But in the third game, she broke. Even better, Bouchard broke with a one-two volley combination: a forehand swing volley and then a short-angle crosscourt backhand volley for the winner. 

At 3-1, she broke Cornet at love for some insurance.

After just over two hours, Bouchard looked in command of a tennis match for the first time in months. There were a few “C’MON”s and fist pumps. There were points won at the net. She was patient, often enough, from the back court. At times, the shot selection was spot on.

When it was over, she looked over to her support group and even cracked a smile.

Just one small step

At No. 60 in the world, Bouchard’s ranking still hasn’t felt the full weight of her struggles in 2017.

She hasn’t been playing anything like a top-100 player, but the numbers still don’t really reflect it. Her ranking in the WTA’s Porsche Race to Singapore standings is just one spot below her actual ranking. 

Bouchard has some clusters of points coming up that need defending, including a third-round effort in Rome last year. Without those Rome points, she would drop about a dozen spots. So the 55 points she earned for winning this first-round, Premier Mandatory tournament match will help.

Now, she waits.

Will it be Lucic-Baroni, the 35-year-old comeback story?

Or will it be Sharapova, whom she has not beaten in four tries although the last came more than 2 1/2 years ago.

Bouchard said after that while she felt both had similar aggressive styles, Sharapova is the one she wants to play.

It was a little more than a week ago that Bouchard spoke up loudly against the player she said she once admired. The Canadian feels those caught doping should be banned for life.

There were no shades of gray to her statements, even though there are so many shades of gray in the anti-doping game. Even the official adjudicating bodies more or less agreed Sharapova’s transgression was more sloppiness than any intent to enhance performance.

Not that Sharapova needs any motivation at this point; she’s had 15 months on the sidelines and is raring to go. But this one might have a little extra spice to it.

We’ll see if it happens.

Bouchard vs. Sharapova a potential 2nd-rounder in Madrid

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The draw gods have spoken. And Madrid could be buzzing early next week.

The Mutua Madrid Open women’s draw was made Friday. And when it all shook out, a juicy second-round matchup may await. If Maria Sharapova and Eugenie Bouchard win their first-round matches, they will meet in the second round.

Given the events of recent weeks, that’s a matchup tennis fans with a bit of a perverse streak have been looking forward to.

Sharapova returned to the WTA Tour in Stuttgart, Germany last week after serving a 15-month suspension for a positive meldonium test. Many of her competitors did not receive her warmly. Some thought she didn’t deserve the benefit of wild cards from tournament organizers and should work her way back up from the bottom.

War of words might be settled on court

Bouchard, who was playing a concurrent tournament in Istanbul because her ranking had fallen too low to make the very demanding cut in Stuttgart, went much further.

The Canadian was the last one originally into the main draw, after the withdrawal of Venus Williams. She plays Alizé Cornet of France in the first round.

Sharapova, in the draw with one of those contentious wild cards, will play No. 17 seed Mirjana Lucic-Baroni of Croatia

The tournament shuffled things a bit with the late withdrawal of Agnieszka Radwanska of Poland. She would have been the No. 7 seed. Sharapova originally was to play No. 13 seed and fellow Russian Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova in the first round

No. 9 seed Madison Keys moved into Radwanska’s spot. Pavlyuchenkova moved into Keys’s spot. Lucic-Baroni, who was to play Katerina Siniakova in the first round, was designated the No. 17 seed and moved into Pavlyuchenkova’s spot in the draw.

Radwanska also has been vocal in her disagreement with Sharapova’s wild-card privileges. She was to have met the Russian in the second round in Stuttgart. But she was upset in the first round by Ekaterina Makarova.

Dimitrov, Halep win Tie Break Tens in Madrid

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One thing’s for sure, it’s not difficult to get a bunch of tennis players together for an evening when winning a few 10-point tie breaks will earn you $250,000.

To kick off the Madrid Open, the Masters 1000 / Premier Mandatory joint event that begins Friday with the first round of women’s qualifying, the tournament hosted a Tie Breaks Tens event . 

A fine roster was assembled. Among the luminaries were Maria Sharapova, Stan Wawrinka, Simona Halep, Tomas Berdych, Madison Keys, Jack Sock, Grigor Dimitrov and more.

At the end of the night, Halep and Dimitrov had won their respective titles – and $250,000 apiece. It was announced that both would donate $50,000 of that to the tournament sponsor’s charity, which combats domestic violence. 

It’s an eight-player, knockout format, winner take all. One 10-point super tiebreak for the right to advance. Three wins gets you the money.

Big guns down early

Sharapova and Wawrinka didn’t last long.

The returning Russian was eliminated in the first round by Puerto Rico’s Monica Puig. Wawrinka flamed out to Spaniard Feliciano Lopez, 10-1. Keys, who is returning to action for the first time since losing to Shelby Rogers in the first round of Charleston a month ago, lost her first round 12-10 to Svetlana Kuznetsova.

“I was so nervous,” said Dimitrov, who defeated Lopez 10-7 in the final. “I think the format does that – I was sweating a lot in that first match. When it came to crunch time it was important to be strong and in the final I was.”

In an interview after the final, Lopez was pretty honest about the reality of the experience, before he caught himself and heaped it with praise. As he pointed out, you’re there for about four hours. You play 10 minutes or so, and then you have to sit around for an hour or more, cool down, warm up again, and then you get to play another 10 minutes. If you win, you do it again.

The ATP and WTA Tours need to adopt this graphic for their doubles match tie breaks – immediately.

It’s a completely different routine than these finely-tuned athletes are accustomed to, pretty tough on the body – especially with a big tournament coming up.

Players in relaxed atmosphere – talking!!

The fun part for those watching on TV (ESPN3 in the U.S. decided to carry it at the last minute) is seeing all those big names in one place, at one time. More than that, you actually see them … interacting with each other.

Of particularly prurient interest were Sharapova and Dimitrov, who had a very serious romance a few years ago. They appeared to be getting along like a house afire.

There clearly is some big money behind this concept, because they’re promoting it in a top-class way. And that’s a ton of prize money for one night.

tie break
Want the same plate Simona Halep got Thursday night? It can be yours for the very reasonable sum of … £10,000.00!!!

Two separate companies (one called “MTB Ventures”, the other “Lionyxeye”) have as managing director a 45-year-old Londoner from South Africa named David Millner, referred to in the prospectus as an “investor and tennis enthusiast”.  Also involved are former ATP CMO and Tour Finals chairman Phil Anderton, former WTA Tour marketing exec Sophie Goldschmidt, BBC tennis journalist David Law, and John McEnroe.

There is merchandise available for sale. We like the stress ball for £2.95.

And did you think the silver plates awarded to Dimitrov and Halep kind of looked like one of those long, skinny balloons twisted into the shape of a dog?

Well, that’s exactly what they were.

You can get the plate on the website, too. For a very reasonable £10,000.

WTA Tour expands deal with Porsche

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How’s this for a sequence of events?

*Tennis superstar Maria Sharapova is set to return to the WTA Tour after serving a 15-month doping suspension.

*The expiration of her suspension comes smack in the middle of a Premier-level WTA Tour event sponsored by Porsche. Which just happens to also be a one of Sharapova’s sponsors.

*The tournament, of course, is the first to offer Sharapova, who had no ranking, a wild card.

*A little problem arises. Technically, Sharapova shouldn’t be allowed to play in the Porsche Tennis Grand Prix because per the WTA rules, as of the start of the event, she was still under suspension and therefore not “available to play.”

*No problem at all! The WTA tweaks its rule slightly – or, if you like, clarifies them. Since it’s a 28-player draw with as many as five first-round matches being played as late as Wednesday, all systems were go!

*The opening ceremonies on Monday, which celebrated the tournament’s 40th anniversary, were a nice photo op for WTA Tour CEO Steve Simon and Porsche CEO Oliver Blume. They shook hands over plaques and whatnot, with a Porsche for background interest.

*Wednesday, the tickets for the WTA Tour Finals in Singapore went on sale, just as Sharapova made her return to the court after her long absence.

And the Porsche pièce de résistance…

*Sunday, before the Stuttgart women’s final, the WTA Tour announced – wait for it – a newly expanded sponsorship deal with Porsche.

All in the tennis family Monday night in Stuttgart. (Photo: Porsche Tennis)

The auto manufacturer already had been the “official automotive sponsor” of the Singapore event. Now, it will become the title sponsor for the “Road to Singapore,” which keeps track of the race for the eight singles and doubles qualifying spots at the year-end championship.

Porsche
This sweet ride goes to the No. 1 in the year-end race. (Photo: Porsche)

It will now be the “Porsche Race to Singapore.” Which actually is a natural fit.

The player who finishes No. 1 in the race will win a new Porsche 911 GTS Cabriolet (retail value: about $140,000 US).

She doesn’t even have to win the tournament.

Logo update scramble

The deal must have come together quickly; the WTA Tour hasn’t even yet had time to update its websites to replace the old (unsponsored) logos with the new sponsored ones.

No Porsche logo, and no clear favourites to win the Porsche Race to Singapore yet. (WTAFInals.com)

Meanwhile, the contenders in the new Porsche road/race didn’t exactly light it up at the Porsche Tennis Grand Prix.

No. 1 Karolina Pliskova, seeded No. 2 in Stuttgart, went out in the quarterfinals to wild card Laura Siegemund (No. 73 in the race, but she’ll move up). Caroline Wozniacki didn’t play it at all. Johanna Konta lost in the second round to Anastasija Sevastova (No. 23). Serena Williams, we know. But she had never entered anyway.

Williams has played the Porsche event just twice, way back in 2007 and 2008. She also played it in 1999 when it was technically in Filderstadt. She has won just two matches there in her career.

Meanwhile, Sharapova will enter the Porsche road race Monday, at about No. 116.

She has plenty of time to jump into the top eight and qualify – especially given the inconsistent results from nearly all of the top players. But if she doesn’t, would it shock anyone if they somehow figured out a way to get her a wild card? Just a little rules tweak, or clarification. No big deal.

After all, it’s all in the (Porsche) family!