Sharapova takes first title in 2 1/2 years

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It was – duelling high volume screams notwithstanding – a roller-coaster ride of a tennis match, a train wreck of a serve-breaking contest that somehow was a highly-compelling contest.

But in the end, Maria Sharapova won the Tianjin Open with a 7-5, 7-6 (6) victory over 19-year-old Aryna Sabalenka of Belarus.

And with one final scream, she earned her first WTA Tour title in nearly 2 1/2 years, since Rome in early May 2015.

Understandably, she showed some emotion after it was over. It has been a bumpy road back, since she returned in Stuttgart in April after serving her 15-month doping suspension.

The 30-year-old Russian had to come back from two breaks of serve down – in both sets – to put it away.

She was down 1-4 in the first set (the only game she earned was on a break of serve) before coming back to win it 7-5.

And she was down 1-5 in the second set before breaking her 19-year-old opponent twice as she attempted to serve out the set and take it to a decider.

In the end, her experienced showed.

Huge experience edge for Sharapova

Sharapova was playing in her 59th WTA Tour singles final.

Sabalenka was playing in the first WTA Tour final of her career, in only the fifth WTA Tour main draw of her career.

SharapovaAt times, she seized the moment beautifully. At others, she couldn’t find the court.

Sharapova weathered the powerful gusts, and waited for the inevitable errors. Although it had to feel somewhat like foreign territory to have so much of the match’s outcome in the hands of an opponent she likely had never heard of before Sunday.

Sabalenka’s junior career didn’t really presage her run in Tianjin or even her run to the semifinals in Tashkent, Uzbekistan a few weeks ago.

SharapovaShe rarely ventured outside a pretty restricted area during juniors (the Baltics and Finland, pretty much) and never broke into the top 200 in the ITF junior rankings.

At 17, she finished the 2015 season ranked No. 541. By the end of last year, she was at No. 155.

She made her Grand Slam debut at Wimbledon this year. And when the new rankings come out on Monday, she will be ranked No. 76.

Australian Open seed on radar

 As for Sharapova, she will be inside the top 60 after earning the 36th title of her career.

SharapovaAnd she can add to that this week. Sharapova took another wild card into the Moscow Premier event, which she will play for the first time since 2007.

If she somehow manages to win that, too, the Russian would definitely put herself in range to be seeded at the Australian Open, with early opportunities during the tune-up tournaments to seal that deal.

The crowd in Tianjin was fully Team Sharapova. Many of the fans were waving copies of her new memoir around. But they appreciated the efforts of Sabalenka as well.

You just hope they brought earplugs.

Loud, LOUD final

If Sharapova shrieked, the Belarussian flat-out screamed. Most of the time.

SharapovaIt was tennis turned up to 11 (that’s a Spinal Tap reference) on both the noise, and the power.

Sharapova was by the the steadier, and it stood her in good stead when she found herself in such big trouble in both sets.

Sabalenka is a shade short of six feet tall, big and strong and sort of a hybrid of a lot of tennis players you’re far more familiar with.

Facially, she has a bit of Andrea Petkovic and Amélie Mauresmo in her.

In the big, loopy swings on her groundstrokes, there’s some Julia Goerges in the forehand, some Coco Vandeweghe in the backhand.

Her game is still so raw. But there is so much promise.

SharapovaShe reached near 180 km/hour with her serve a few times. Not enough times, but clearly the mechanics are there.

And Sabalenka wasn’t content to just stay and slug from the baseline. She improvised some shots in instinctive fashion. And she wasn’t afraid to take second-serve returns and follow them to the net.

There is some “there”, there. And a dramatic, feisty personality (despite the din) that sets her apart from many of the teenagers coming up.

Add some polish to that raw material, and she might make some noise in 2018. Pardon the pun.

Sugarpova profits for Puerto Rico relief

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Maria Sharapova has extended a helping hand to help the people of Puerto Rico.

The 30-year-old Russian, who visited the island last December to play an exhibition with the country’s biggest tennis star, Monica Puig, is helping Puig’s fundraising efforts in the wake of the devastating effects of Hurricane Maria.

Sharapova announced on Facebook Monday that she will donate all profits from her Sugarpova candy brand from today until the end of the year to support Puig’s hurricane fund.

The fun, which had an original goal of $25,000, already is at nearly $100,000, and growing. 

For those in Beijing, Sharapova’s candy is available there.

Bouchard gets wild card into Beijing

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Genie Bouchard will not have to suffer the rigors of qualifying this weekend.

The 23-year-old Canadian has been issued a wild card into the big Premier Mandatory tournament in Beijing. Bouchard left her home in Miami Wednesday to head for Asia for the first time during this Asian swing.

It will be Bouchard’s first tournament since losing in the first round of the US Open to Evgeniya Rodina of Russia.

(Update: she’ll play Magdalena Rybarikova of Slovakia in the first round. For an explanation on how she was able to get a fourth wild card this season, click here).

The China Open offers nearly $6.4 million in prize money. Other than the 10-day events in Indian Wells and Miami, that’s the biggest purse on the WTA Tour.

Bouchard’s ranking stood at No. 74 at the entry deadline. So she was still 14 spots out of the 60-player main draw as of Thursday evening back home. The Canadian would have been unseeded in the qualifying draw as well.

There certainly was a possibility Bouchard would just end her season. Or, at the least, skip the Asian swing entirely. But with a main-draw spot in Beijing, and a main-draw spot in the International-level event in Hong Kong the following week, the issue of a match-rusty Bouchard trying to qualify was off the table.

First appearance in Asia

Citing a slow recovery from the virus she contracted in New York after her first-round exit at the US Open, Bouchard withdrew from the Quebec City WTA event the week after the US Open.

She also withdrew from scheduled participation in the Korean Open in Seoul (main draw). And then, she also pulled out of qualifying for the Premier 5 tournament in Wuhan, China this week.

With the departure of coach Thomas Högstedt, Bouchard will not even have Roberto Brogin with her in Asia. Brogin, who worked with Bouchard when she first returned to the national training centre in Montreal from Florida nearly a decade ago, had filled in at various events in Högstedt’s absence this season.

He also has a full-time job with Tennis Canada at their training centre in Vancouver.

Blast from the past

Diego Ayala will be on board in Asia. Ayala, a coach based in south Florida, began the season with Bouchard down in Australia in 2015 after her split with Nick Saviano. Bouchard knew him from her younger days at Saviano’s academy.

Ayala’s agreement, we’re told is that he’ll be on board for the three tournaments remaining on Bouchard’s schedule for 2017.

So, barring anything unforeseen, that could well mean she intends to remain on the road for both Hong Kong and Luxemberg, two smaller events, to close it out.

At the time, Bouchard would not refer to Ayala as her “coach.” She preferred “hitting partner.” And upon returning home, she hired current Garbiñe Muguruza coach Sam Sumyk as a permanent replacement for Saviano.

But despite not playing any official warmup events, and under pressure to back up her breakthrough semifinal the previous year, Bouchard reached the quarterfinals in Australia with Ayala on board.

She lost in three sets to Maria Sharapova.

Beijing
Ayala, whom Bouchard has known since she was a young teenager, will reportedly be on the rest of the Asian swing with her. (Stephanie Myles/Tennis.Life)

Coincidentally, Sharapova also has a wild card into Beijing, announced last month.

The two names have been linked often recently, for other reasons. Their last meeting was blockbuster.

This linkage is a little more unexpected.  First-round wild-card popcorn, anyone?

(Chinese players Zhu Lin, Wang Yafan and Duan Ying-Ying also have wild cards into the main draw).

“Unstoppable: my life so far” – a review

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It’s finally here – the day Maria Sharapova fans (and many other tennis fans) have been waiting for.

The tennis star’s memoir, “Unstoppable: My life so far” has finally been released.

What kind of a book is it?

Much of it is good. Very good.

By any standard, not just the rather pedestrian standard of sports biographies.

Her insight into the Tour, life, and her own strengths and weaknesses is impressive. For someone with little formal education, who was hermetically sealed in a protective tennis bubble most of her formative years, she really is a grownup.

If that sounds condescending, it doesn’t mean to be. Most will admit that the life of a young sports prodigy is anything but designed to produce mature, functional, well-rounded human beings.

Sharapova has never been a sharer despite living on a very public stage. She has kept her personal life – including her love life – intensely private. For someone who is as famous as she is, that is no small feat.

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Click above to read Sharapova’s thoughts on various subject, as revealed in her her new memoir.

So the story of her life, and her career so far, is to a great extent brand-new territory even for her most ardent fans.

That quest for privacy speaks to the fact that never really sought to be famous. What she wanted – what she still wants, even now – is to win.

“I want to beat everyone. It’s not just the winning. It’s the not being beaten,” she writes.

The impossible journey to the unstoppable dream

Almost everything you read about Sharapova’s early life, and her journey to the U.S. with her father, says she was seven when she arrived. In fact, she was still just six years old.

That’s where the book begins, albeit a bit unsteadily. There are certain inconstencies with dates, certain things remembered that don’t quite match up. That’s probably an editing issue more than anything.

But there’s no doubt, even allowing for some artistic license, that the journey of Yuri Sharapov and his tiny little girl from Sochi, Russia to international stardom was a flat-out miracle.

And the book picks up steam quickly.

UnstoppableThe early years were a study in determination. If you ever wondered where Sharapova got it, her father clearly had it in spades.

He took whatever job he could to pay the rent. He would feed her, clothe her, and cut her hair. They shared a foldout couch that sagged in the middle in the living room of a Russian women’s apartment near Bollettieri’s academy.

It was there that Sharapova quickly learned that the girls in the locker room were not her friends. As much as she is criticized for it, there’s a long history behind it that makes it completely understandable.

She arrived with the old racket of fellow Sochi resident Yevgeny Kafelnikov, cut down to size, “a single change of clothes, and shoes from a factory in Minsk”.

The other girls laughed at her. Later, when she lived in the dorm, they went through her things when she wasn’t there.

Everyone wants a piece

Being so good, so young, worked against her. Most of the students at Bollettieri’s were the children of rich parents paying exorbitant fees. Sharapova dusting off kids three, four, five years older just brought home to those parents that their little Ashley or darling Peyton wasn’t going to be nearly good enough to be a professional tennis player.

According to Sharapova, Alla Kournikova, the mother of Anna, spread rumours that the little tennis prodigy had been kidnapped by Yuri Sharapova and spirited away to the U.S. Not wanting to risk a whiff of scandal, Bollettieri asked Sharapova to leave. She was “trouble,” Sharapova writes.

Holding her hostage

The next top was a club called El Conquistador, where a former player named Sekou Bangoura ran an academy.

unstoppable
The Bollettieri routine, for a pre-teen, was bordering on ridiculous. No wonder Sharapova put “homework” in quotes.

Bangoura, whose son Sekou currently plays on the Challenger Tour, had dollar signs in his eyes. Sharapova writes that he held onto Yuri Sharapov’s visa and passport – effectively holding them hostage. He hired her father in lieu of paying academy tuition. Then he fired him and began charging for all the court time.

When they were about to get evicted for not paying the rent, he came up with a contract for her to sign.

Luckily, they didn’t.

Sharapov had met another tennis father, an oncologist, who brought it to a lawyer. The lawyer declared the contract no less than “indentured servitude”. It would have forced Sharapova to hand over a large percentage of her earnings to Bangoura for her entire career, in exchange for the scholarship during those early years.

Bollettieri eventually came back into the picture. But as much as the perception is out there that he was a huge influence on Sharapova’s early career, the reality is probably that Robert Landsdorp had more influence than anyone except her father.

Sharapova rose quickly. And the rest is history. 

Maria and Yuri

Eventually, in an email, she asked her father to step aside. And she writes that he graciously did. It’s interesting that at this point in the book – whether subconsciously or by design – she no longer calls him “Yuri”.

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(Photo reproduced from “Unstoppable”)

She calls him “her father” – just as she calls mother Yelena “her mother” and her various coaches, for the most part “her coach.”

For all those years, there was only “Maria and Yuri”. In the end, everyone else – even her mother – was the supporting cast.

Sharapova writes a little about the two major romances of her life – with Slovenian pro basketball player Sasha Vujacic and current top-10 tennis player Grigor Dimitrov.

And she writes about her brief coaching experience with Jimmy Connors. She doesn’t remember it fondly.

Dishing the dirt

Even if you’re Maria Sharapova, it’s probably a challenge to sell a book if you don’t deliver some of the good stuff.

And the good stuff, in this case, is Serena Williams.

Unstoppable
Sharapova writes that Serena slipped and fell to the ground deliberately during their 2004 Wimbledon final, so it wouldn’t look as though Sharapova had gotten a ball past her.

Sharapova admits Williams’s talent is a big reason she has beaten her only twice in 21 attempts (both before the 2008 shoulder surgery that left her without her biggest weapon, the serve).

But mostly, she attributes it to her shocking Williams in that 2004 Wimbledon final, when Sharapova was only 17 and Williams, 22.

They had first faced each other a few months before, in Miami.

“Her physical presence is much stronger and bigger than you realize watching on TV. She has thick arms and thick legs and is so intimidating and strong. And tall, really tall,” Sharapova writes. “It still feels that way. Even now, she can make me feel like a little girl.”

It’s a funny thing, perception.

Sharapova is 6-foot-2. You wouldn’t think she’d consider too many other women “really tall”. Especially not Williams, who is listed at 5-9. And when people see Williams in person, they usually remark she looks significantly smaller in person than on TV.

But on the court, to Sharapova, she seemed – seems – a giant.

“Serena’s strengths are like puzzle pieces that snap into my weaknesses,” she writes, most eloquently.

A portrait of Serena

“There is the serve and the groundstrokes and the game, but it’s also her attitude that defeats you. She looks across the net with something like disdain, as if you are unimportant and small. … Then there is her temper, which can be hot and unpredictable. She is not afraid to scream, throw her racket, bitch at the refs about calls she doesn’t like.

“It’s interesting at first, then it gets irritating. Irritating in a way that might be intended. She behaves as if she is the only player out there, the only person who counts. And you? You are a speed bump. You are a zero. Many great players have this mentality. Serena Williams just has it more.”

Sharapova believes that Williams plays so well against her because of that Wimbledon final.

“I think Serena hated me for being the skinny kid who beat her, against all odds, at Wimbledon. And I think she hated me for taking something that she believed belonged to her. I think she hated me for seeing her at her lowest moment. But mostly I think she hated me for hearing her cry. She’s never forgiven me for it.”

A few missing details

There are few areas most readers might have hoped she dug more deeply into. But it’s her book; she gets to set the agenda.

The positive test for meldonium, with which she begins and ends the book, is of huge interest to a lot of people. But Sharapova doesn’t reveal much beyond what’s already out there.

“I figured all I had to do was explain myself and it would be fixed. … It should’ve been easy to clear up,” she writes.

Again, Sharapova is a little hazy on the dates. The email announcing the positive test for meldonium arrived “three weeks into the season”. Or it came “a few weeks after the Australian Open”. Or it came “less than a week” before her shocker of a press conference, which took place on March 7, 2016.

She doesn’t really clear up much about what remains, at best, a polarizing situation.

But Sharapova clearly has no intention of shedding any more light on it. She’s just moving forward. Otherwise, she would have expanded upon the period when the health issues she was having necessitated her doctor advising her to take a medicine cabinet-sized list of supplements she took at one time, including the meldonium.

The tricky thing about writing a memoir while your career is still very much a going concern is that there surely are more interesting chapters to come.

From all indications, this book is going to sell very well. In retirement – whenever that is – she may well have to get to work on a sequel.

Maria on … fame, Grigor, Jimbo & more

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Maria Sharapova shares her thoughts on a lot of different subjects in her new memoir.

Many of the observations are incredibly astute. And surprisingly blunt and honest.

She talks about locker-room culture, and love on tour, and how she was used as a selling tool at a very young age – the same time she realized that tennis wasn’t just a game, it was a business. And she was the business.

Sharapova writes about how fame and success can be a big trap that sucks you in and puts your priorities all out of whack.

And so much more.

Here are just a few of her musings.

On the game:

“I know you want us to love this game – us loving it makes it more fun to watch. But we don’t love it. And we don’t hate it. It just is, and always has been.”

On the Bollettieri Academy:

“Rich kids for the most part, spoiled and sent down to live out a parental dream. I was a player -– one of only a handful on scholarship – who attracted the attention of those parents and got them to fork over all that money for tuition.  That was out job, how we paid back Bollettieri. We were the advertisement. We attracted the deluded, wannabe tennis parents.”

Sharapova’s first serious love was basketball player Sasha Vujacic. In the end, it couldn’t be all about him, so it was over.

On tennis besties:

“There are so many times when you see two players in the locker room, two girls, just chatting away like they’re best friends … Listening to them speak, they sound like best friends. And then, a few hours later, one of them is playing a match and the other is in the locker room watching the match on TV, looking pleased when her friend loses the point. That’s how it really is.”

On her (unrequited) teenage crush:

“Lanky, not too tall, with tousled hair, dark but dyed blond, and warm, mischievous eyes.” (Can you guess who she’s talking about?)

On Jimmy Connors:

“There was no structure, no thought-out plan for the practice, no particular drills or things we would work on. I would hit in the center of the court for hours at a time. No patterns, nothing. … I thought this was maybe the beginning. But weeks went by, and nothing had changed.

“The moments I enjoyed most were during water breaks, when he would talk about his career, his experiences, his mentality. All the things that had nothing to do with my game.”

Sharapova
The Jimmy Connors coaching experiment lasted … one match.

On winning:

“Winning f…s you up. First of all, it brings all kind of rewards which, if seen from the proper perspective, reveal themselves for what they really are: distractions, traps, names. Money, fame, opportunity. Each laurel and offer and ad and pitch takes you further from the game. It can turn your head. It can ruin you.

“And then there is what winning does to your mind, which is even more dangerous. It completely distorts your expectations. You start to feel entitled. When you win Wimbledon, you expect to win Wimbledon every year.”

Maria
                                       Click above to read Tennis.Life’s review of Sharapova’s new memoir

On Russian rival Elena Dementieva:

“She was always giving me dirty looks, laser beams. Then, one day, her mother complained to my masseur. She told him, ‘Elena can’t get any deals in Japan because Maria has taken them all.’ “

On combining tennis and love:

“You’re never home, so the only way you can have a relationship is either with another tennis player, or with a person who gives up his life to travel with you, becoming part of your entourage. And who does that? Someone without a life of his own? That is, someone you’d probably not want to date in the first place. You see them in the players’ lounges or carrying bags. Not the coach, not the parent, but the boyfriend. By definition, any relationship you have is going to be long distance, which amounts to a kind of telephone buddy or pen pal.”

 

On Grigor Dimitrov:

“He has so much potential. He can do amazing things with his body. It’s a gift and also a curse. It’s gotten in his way, this need not only to win but to look beautiful doing it. It has to be perfect or he does not want it at all. It has to be unbelievable or forget it. That’s why he’s yet to fulfill all that potential.”

On the consequences of winning:

“Suddenly, the world, the only world you have ever known, is filled with girls who dislike you. They’re jealous of the money and fame. They want what you have and the only way to get it is to take you out. Every match becomes a big deal – if not for you, then for her. Everyone is waiting.”

Sharapova

On Justine Henin:

“She exposed my weaknesses better than any player. She makes you move, move and move. No matter what you hit, or where, she anticipates its direction and gets it back.. … Even when I’ve beaten her, she’s made me look bad and wore me out. I would go to sleep with her one-handed backhand staring me down.”

Spirit willing, but body betrays as Sharapova bows out

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NEW YORK – When the US Open draw was made, it wouldn’t have been any shame at all had Maria Sharapova bowed out to world No. 2 Simona Halep in the first round.

It was a tough draw in her first Grand Slam appearance since Jan. 2016, when she tested positive for the banned substance meldonium and served a 15-month suspension.

But the 30-year-old Sharapova succeeded beyond most expectations except possibly her own. Until, it seemed, the body said no más against No. 16 seed Anastasija Sevastova Sunday in the fourth round.  

Sevastova reached her second consecutive US Open quarter-final with a 5-7, 6-4, 6-2 win.

Start with a bang, end with a whimper

The best match Sharapova played was the first one against the snakebitten Halep.

It was a night match, to open the tournament, on the biggest tennis stage in the world, after waiting so long as both the French Open and Wimbledon declined to offer her wild cards. So the rush of adrenaline had to be through the roof.

It carried her through the forearm issues that had scuttled her summer plans.

After that, the Russian won her matches on grit and reputation and determination and experience even as the sleeve she had worn in practice reappeared on her right arm, and tape appeared on her left.

Still, she might have won this one, too.

Hawkeye non-challenge a turning point

Had she decided to call upon the Hawkeye challenge system on a shot of hers that hit the line, on break point at 4-5 in the the second set, Sharapova might well have won in straight sets – although we’ll never know.

She might have been preparing to face Sloane Stephens, who is mounting an impressive comeback of a completely different sort, from foot surgery, in the quarterfinals. Instead, Sevastova will try to take it one step further.

“Actually, just before my press conference I found out that the ball was in. I didn’t know that, so… Great news.

“Yeah, I mean, the umpire told me that he clearly saw it. So I went on his judgment. He kind of gave me a sign that it was … I mean, I wanted to challenge it. He said, ‘Are you sure?’ He said, ‘It was pretty long’,” Sharapova said. She was smiling/not really smiling. “I didn’t because I had one challenge. The reason I had one challenge is because I missed two. That’s on my end, not on his.”

Sharapova multiplied the unforced errors after that. She even came up a blister on her right middle finger. She said it was the first time in her career that happened.

Sharapova
Sharapova could smile during her press conference, after an expectedly good run in New York.

Good run, regardless

“I think there are a lot of positives. You know, playing four matches, playing in front of a big crowd and fans. Just competing, you know, being in that competitive environment. That’s what I missed. You can’t replicate that anywhere, especially at a Grand Slam. So for me to come out, Monday night (against Halep) was a special night for me. I will always remember it. I’m very grateful to have had that opportunity to bring it,” she said.

“As I said, I came in not playing a lot of matches. We all know that. Didn’t have much practice. Obviously always disappointing to be on the losing end of things. But, yeah, I mean, reflecting back on the week, I can be happy.”

Sharapova
From 0 when she returned in April, Sharapova made a big move in her first tournament back. But the rankings rise has been a lot slower than she would like – or might have expected – because the body has balked at times. She should be at No. 100 after the US Open. (WTA Tour)

For Sevastova, who was a quarterfinalist in New York a year ago, it was the equivalent of a title defense. At the very least, a points defense.

Her ability to run, change the pace and not give an inconsistent Sharapova some rhythm to get back on track were the keys.

“If she hits you off the court, then you say, congratulations. But, again, I try to play smart. Sometimes it’s an advantage, sometimes not,” Sevastova said.

“When they’re hitting, they’re also making mistakes So if you move well, if you mix it up, you have always a chance.”

Interestingly, in the wake of some other WTA Tour players’ objections to the special treatment Sharapova has received since her return from suspension, Sevastova had no such extra motivation.

Only respect for Sharapova

“I think some players have that. But I don’t have that. I have great respect for her. I mean, I was 14 years old, I was playing under-14, at a tournament, and she was winning Wimbledon the same day, basically,” Sevastova said. “Yeah, I was confident. I was feeling it. But still you have to beat her.”

Sharapova said the focus the next few months will be to build back up her base of match play and endurance. With only five tournaments since April – since Jan. 2016, in fact – there is work to do.

She plans to start at the Premier event in Beijing next month, for which she has received a wild card.

Sharapova
Stephens’ rise in the rankings through the North American summer shows the value of winning multiple matches at the bigger events. The American is just outside the top 50 with that she’s done in New York; if she beats Sevastova in the quarterfinals, she’ll be just outside the top 30. (WTATour)

“I want to play. I just want to play matches. There’s no secret recipe to that. … The good thing is I know I’m not going to be in an MRI machine tomorrow. I think that’s a pretty big positive. Had a few of those in the summer,” Sharapova said.

“Look, three-set matches are challenging. I love being part of them. There’s an element of concentration, focus, physicality that goes into all of it.

“There’s no doubt that not playing those matches certainly cost me today. I didn’t feel like I was thinking a little bit too much and not playing by instinct as maybe I would be in those situations.”

Ranking still a stumbling block

Sharapova’s ranking should clock in at exactly No. 100 after the US Open. That’s still a long way from her getting into the bigger events on her own. And at this point, with the six-week deadline cutoff, that will remain true for the rest of the season regardless of how she does.

It’s going in the right direction. But when you look at the rocket that has been Stephens’ rankings rise this summer upon her return after 11 months away, you can see how this summer was an opportunity lost.

The final question remains: with Sharapova and Shapovalov now out of the tournament, who will get those coveted Arthur Ashe Stadium stadiums slots every second day?

(We kid; there are options that don’t begin with “Sha” and end with “ov(a)”)

Ousted Wozniacki rips USO scheduling

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NEW YORK – Caroline Wozniacki, the No. 5 player in the world and a US Open semifinalist a year ago, wasn’t happy about going out so early.

She was upset by the dangerous Ekaterina Makarova in the second round Wednesday.

And afterwards, the veteran Dane was pretty outspoken about the tournament scheduling.

Wozniacki isn’t exactly a go-to for an inflammatory or even particularly insightful quote. She keeps it on the bland side, which is probably wise.

On Wednesday, Wozniacki’s beef was with the US Open scheduling. 

She’s not the only one arching an eyebrow or shaking their head about that very thing.

“I think putting out a schedule where the no. 5 in the world is playing on court 5, fifth match on after 11, I think that’s unacceptable. And when you look on centre court … I understand completely the business side of things and everything. Someone who comes back from a drug sentence, performance-enhancing drugs. And then all of a sudden gets to play every single match on Center Court. I think that’s a questionable thing to do,” she said during her post-match press conference.

“It doesn’t set a good example. And I think someone who has fought their way back from injury and is five in the world deserves to play on a bigger court than Court No. 5,” Wozniacki added. “Finally they moved us to Court 17 which is a really nice court, actually, and we had great atmosphere out there. But yeah, I think sometimes they should look into what things to do in the future.”

Wozniacki’s reasoning doesn’t necessarily hold up. Because of the rain on Tuesday, the schedule was packed Wednesday with the balance of the first-round matches. All of the second-round matches were scheduled “not before 4 p.m.”, or even later.

But the subject of Maria Sharapova clearly hits a nerve.

While always acknowledging she understands it’s a business decision, Wozniacki has been blunt whenever the issue of awarding wild cards to the 30-year-old Russian has arisen.

It started with Stuttgart

Back in March, Wozniacki was fairly clear she didn’t think Sharapova, whose 15-month doping suspension ended in the middle of the clay-court event in Stuttgart sponsored by her own sponsor, Porsche, should get a wild card into that event.

“Obviously rules are twisted and turned in favour of who wants to do what. I think everyone deserves a second chance … but at the same time, I feel like when a player is banned for drugs, I think that someone should start from the bottom and fight their way back,” said Wozniacki, whose ranking was No. 14 at the time.

Wozniacki echoed those thoughts when asked if Sharapova should get a wild card into the French Open (in the end, Sharapova didn’t get one).

The reaction, famously, came from Sharapova agent Max Eisenbud. 

Eisenbud apologized. Wozniacki wasn’t having any of it.

It has to be personal; Wozniacki made no mention of No. 94 Evgeniya Rodina and No. 76 Eugenie Bouchard also playing on Arthur Ashe Stadium Wednesday.

And that one raised just as many eyebrows, even if the decision may well have been made for similar seasons.

Sharapova wins in emotional return to Grand Slam tennis

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FLUSHING MEADOWS – When it was over, after two hours and 42 minutes, Maria Sharapova fell to the court in victory.

It was an reaction more appropriate for a Grand Slam final.

But this 6-4, 4-6, 6-3 victory over world No. 2 Simona Halep of Romania came … in the first round, on opening night of the US Open.

The moment, of course, lost a little in that after Sharapova hit the deck, everyone had to wait for the Hawkeye challenge to ensure that the Russian, indeed, had won.

It was the first time Sharapova had played a match in a Grand Slam since the 2016 Australian Open, some 19 months ago. That was the tournament at which she tested positive for meldonium. 

After serving a 15-month suspension, Sharapova was awash in wild cards from WTA Tour events eager to benefit from the most marketable athlete in the women’s game.

But the Slams weren’t quite so eager.

First Slam in 19 months

The French Open righteously insisted they would not give a player returning from a doping suspension a wild card.

Wimbledon never had to make the decision. Sharapova controlled that narrative as she has controlled much of the narrative through her suspension and comeback. She announced she would play the qualifying.

But the thigh injury she suffered a couple of months before in Rome still had not healed sufficiently. And Sharapova ended up skipping the grass-court season.

Sharapova
Sharapova dropped to the court after her win – but a last Hawkeye challenge kind of crushed the moment.

Now, in New York, the former champion and American resident did receive an invitation to the big dance.. And she returned in style.

“I just thought that this was another day, another opportunity, another match. But this was so much more, and I didn’t want to think about it,” Sharapova said during an on-court interview with an acquiescent ESPN. “You never know how you’re going to feel until you win that match point. But you know that everything you go through is worth it, just for this moment. You sometimes wonder why you put in all the work. And this is exactly why.”

Health a big question

There had been plenty of buzz prior to the match that Sharapova wasn’t tip-top physically. She has played just one tennis match since early May because of an assortment of physical niggles. A lot of it is a by-product of her now being 30 and having been out of competition for such an extended period.

Were they playing possum? Possibly. But not probably. If there’s anything most are unanimous about when describing the Russian, it’s that her competitive spirit is unquenchable. She’s done everything, made more money than she could ever spend. But that desire never seems to waver.

“When the draw came out, I knew what a difficult matchup this would be, how much excitement was behind this matchup and the hype. That all goes to the fact that we’ve just competed so well against each other in the past. Really produced some good tennis,” Sharapova said. “Despite not playing a lot of matches coming into this, it almost seemed like I had no right to win this match today. And I somehow did. I think that is what I’m most proud of.”

Sharapova
The handshake was firm, with a nod. And good eye contact. Solid, professional shake.

Sharapova said she almost didn’t make it to New York. She had an MRI when the forearm issue first surfaced, and another one a couple of weeks ago in Cincinnati. After that, she flew to New York to get another opinion on it.

Had it been a regular tournament, the decision might have been different. But this was New York. A Grand Slam. A lot of off-court business to take care of. a memoir coming out in a couple of weeks.

And prime time. Sharapova is now 18-0 in night matches on Arthur Ashe Stadium in her career. 

New Yorkers welcomed her

The crowd in New York was hugely welcoming. Was that surprising? Hard to tell. If you spent too much time on social media during the last year and a half – as many tennis fans do – you see how polarizing the doping suspension has made the former US Open champion.

Many fans – and players, and even people in the game – feel Sharapova has no business getting wild cards as she works her way back from the suspension. Clearly most of the 23,771 on the stadium court, who paid good money (or had their company or a client pay good money) to see her, felt differently.

Host broadcaster ESPN treated her as returning royalty. The crew – all female save for on-court interviewer Tom Rinaldi, praised her improved flexibility and intimated they’d never seen her play better. Which was going a little far.

And when Sharapova went up to the control desk, it was kisses and reverence and emotion.

 

It was a lot. And, as always, Sharapova directed the narrative. When Rinaldi even tried to bring up the past, Sharapova swiftly shot that down. And then … she giggled.

She deflected the question again in her press conference.

Team Sharapova emo

But however you feel about whether she should have been there, however you feel about the doping suspension, the reality is that Sharapova wasn’t able to ply the trade she’s passionate about for quite some time.

Sharapova
Halep kept her cool, for the most part. Maybe too much. But it was a tough-luck draw and Sharapova played far better than most expected.

The emotions were real. The sight of tough-talking agent Max Eisenbud sobbing after Sharapova left the court, and her putting her arm around him, spoke to the loyalty Sharapova engenders in the people she has brought around her. 

It was a primetime show the likes of which hasn’t often been seen in women’s tennis this season.

And it’s not that there haven’t been many incredible matches. There have been.

But Sharapova’s star power brings it to the next level.

And what of Halep, who two weeks ago was one win away from coming into the US Open as the top seed and the new world No. 1? 

Another setback for Halep

It’s going to be serious reflection time the next two weeks as the rest of the women’s field vies for the big trophy.

“It was a tough one for first round, for sure. But still I think I played okay. She played really well. It was a good match. It was good for the fans,” said Halep, who was a vocal critic of the way being paved so invitingly for Sharapova’s return.

She fought. Sharapova was up a set and 4-1, with a break point to go up 5-1 and serve for the match in the second set before Halep reeled off five straight games and pushed it to a decider.

“I didn’t think that I lost the match. I just kept fighting, playing. I feel that I started to play a little bit more relaxed after that score. Then I got the confidence back. Actually, I didn’t lose the confidence during the match because I felt that I was very close, also in the first set,” she said. “I mean, I cannot judge myself for not doing something, just the serve, because was a bad serve today. I didn’t have the timing, the feeling. I don’t know why. Maybe because was night. It’s always different. I didn’t practice night. But these are excuses.

“I just had to try something else, but I didn’t. So was my bad there,” she added.

US Open wild cards announced

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The US Tennis Association announced its US Open wild cards Tuesday.

And, as usual, with the exception of the reciprocal wild cards bartered with the Australian Open and the French Open, they are going to Americans.

There is one notable exception.

Maria Sharapova has been awarded a pass into the women’s singles main draw.

It’s a privilege she was denied at both the French Open and Wimbledon. But as a longtime US resident and a former champion, it seemed a reasonable slam-dunk.

What remains to be seen is whether she can play, after only one match since early May because of injuries.

The awarding of the wild card to the Russian Sharapova is exceptional. Tennis.Life looked back in the draws going back to 2007. And the only non-American or non-reciprocal wild card on the men’s side was … Juan Martin del Potro last year. On the women’s side, the only exception was in 2009, when Kim Clijsters received one.

Both, as with Sharapova, are former champions. 

Here are the wild cards.

Women’s singles

-Former champion Maria Sharapova
-Newly-crowned girls’ national 18s champion Ashley Kratzer
-NCAA champion Brienne Minor
-Taylor Townsend
-Kayla Day
-Wild-card challenge winner Sofia Kenin
-Amandine Hesse (French Federation reciprocal)
-Tennis Australia reciprocal (to be announced)

Men’s singles wild cards

-Taylor Fritz
-Bjorn Fratangelo
-Christopher Eubanks
-NCAA champion Thai-Son Kwiatkoswki
-Newly-crowned boys’ national 18s champion Patrick Kypson
-Wild-card challenge winner Tommy Paul
-Geoffrey Blancaneaux (French Federation reciprocal)
-Alex de Minaur (Tennis Australia reciprocal)

Women’s qualifying wild cards

-Usue Arconada
-Kelly Chen
-Francesca Di Lorenzo
-Victoria Duval
-Ashley Lahey
-Ann Li (junior Wimbledon runner-up)
-Claire Liu (junior Wimbledon champion)
-Whitney Osuigwe (junior French Open champion)
-Katerina Stewart  

Men’s qualifying wild cards

-William Blumberg 
-Marcos Giron
-Christian Harrison
-Evan King
-Bradley Klahn
-Austin Krajicek
-Raymond Sarmiento
-JJ Wolf   

A note of interest is that the average age of the men’s qualifying wild-card recipients is nearly 24; many are former college players. There’s a big group of current Americans either still teenagers or just out of it whose rankings are high enough to get into the main draw or qualifying on their own. But perhaps not so many in the high junior age range – or at least no one good enough that the USTA decided they merited wild cards.

In stark contrast, the average of the women’s qualifying wild-card recipients is just a shade over 18. 

Maria Sharapova out of Cincinnati

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Granted a wild card into the Premier tournament in Cincinnati this week, Maria Sharapova actually got to Ohio.

But neary as soon as she did, she was out.

The reason is the forearm injury that led to her withdrawal from Stanford after her first match two weeks ago. She then withdrew from the Rogers Cup in Toronto, where she also was granted a wild card.

Here’s the official Sharapova quote from the tournament.

“I arrived in Cincinnati yesterday eager to play. However, following the doctor’s advice on-site, as a precaution for the US Open, I am unfortunately withdrawing from the tournament with the left forearm injury I sustained in Stanford. I want to thank the tournament for the wildcard opportunity and really look forward to competing here next year.”

No doubt Sharapova’s doctors in California would have said the same thing. But that’s how the protocol on these things go.

Low on match play

To say the least, Sharapova’s comeback after serving a 15-month doping suspension hasn’t gone the way she – or her many fans – had hoped or planned.

To sum up, the 30-year-old Russian has played just one match since the beginning of May in Rome.  She has played just nine since her return in late April in Stuttgart – and four of those came in that first tournament back.

Despite that 6-3 record, she has taken her ranking from infinity to No. 149.

Sharapova must be fairly confident that she will be granted a wild card at the US Open, which she would need to play in the main draw – if indeed she is fit enough to play by then.

It will be a challenge to perform after having played just one match in the preceding four months. Then again, she came back in Stuttgart after 15 months and reached the semi-finals on pure grit and adrenaline.

The US Open wild cards won’t be officially announced until next week. Sharapova is officially entered in the qualifying draw.

She was to have played young French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko in the first round in Cincinnati – a tasty prospect. Now, Ostapenko will play a qualifier or lucky loser.