Those 15 months of exile had deprived Maria Sharapova of what she lived for: the chance to compete in front of thousands; millions when you counted those watching on television in every corner of the globe. “You can’t replicate that anywhere,” Sharapova said, “especially at a Grand Slam.”
Sunday past 4:30 p.m., there was what she wanted. A day that had begun with rain and the roof over the court had turned dry enough for Sharapova’s match to be played in sunlight. In the round of 16 US Open versus16th-seeded Anastasija Sevastova, Sharapova had lost 12 of the first 13 points of the third set to go down 3-0 – two service breaks
As the top of the hour neared, Sharapova had earned back one of the breaks and held. Sevastova now served at 3-2. Ashe Stadium, near filled, buzzed. The feint sound of trains could be heard, yet another of the US Open’s many noises that signal that we are in a very different territory of volume than any of the other majors.
But again, this was Sharapova’s desire, precisely what she’d missed and hungered for. Now we would see where Sharapova stood on the spectrum of rust to sharp. Everyone watching knew that these were the situations where champions stepped up and the aspirational backed down. No matter how polarizing Sharapova could be, she was after all the winner of five majors, on the comeback trail, her trademark grit, willful posture and signature glare in full force. Would the rest of the game comply? Though Sevastova had reached the quarters here last year, she’d never played Sharapova. How would Sevastova handle the situation? “I just want to play matches,” Sharapova said afterwards. “I mean, there’s no secret recipe to that. You just have to go and figure it out, whether you’re ahead in a match or behind in a match.”
On the first point of the 3-2 game, Sharapova controlled the rally and elicited a short, eminently makeable forehand. Off it went wide. On the next point, a Sevastova serve jammed Sharapova just slightly enough to elicit a seemingly makeable forehand return into the net.
Still, just 30-love. Another chance: an easy swing volley – which Sharapova promptly netted. Then, a missed forehand return. 4-2 for Sevastova.
The words of longstanding coach Jose Higueras echoed. Tennis, went Higueras’ mantra, is a game of errors. Sharapova by now had made too many to generate the kind of confidence and bold execution that have historically defined her game. Now, down 2-4, 30-30, Sevastova was the cat, Sharapova the mouse. Sevastova carved an exquisite slice backhand down the line so short and low that all Sharapova could do was flail and miss yet again. On the next point, Sharapova netted a forehand. The rust was clear.
If errors and the judicious management of them were the bedrock of Higueras’ belief system, Sharapova’s had usually been more brazen: now or never. As Sevastova reached double match point at 40-15, aided yet again by Sharapova’s miscues, Sharapova fought back with two big forehands to reach deuce. Yet again, a Sharapova forehand into the net. And though she’d fight off another match point, in the end it wasn’t enough. Sevastova had closed it out, 5-7, 6-4, 6-2, making just 14 unforced errors to Sharapova’s 51.
Per usual, there was a clinical, rational aspect to Sharapova’s post-match press conference. “I came in not playing a lot of matches,” said Sharapova. “We all know that. Didn’t have much practice.” To think that at one point she had imagined she would once be retired by the time she was 30. But now, the end of her career was light years away from her mind.
There would be tournaments to be played, wild cards off in Asia, exhibitions and a buildup for the next Slam. As far back as Sharapova’s teens, she had loved to say how her career was not a sprint, but a marathon. Sharapova’s corporate life was one of splash and sizzle and glitzy, transitory campaigns and appearances, fragrances and cars, clothing and candy.
But the tennis would never permit such speed. Her US Open result had been plausible, but hardly significant enough to warrant a belief that she could climb into the thick of things yet again. As she had her whole life, Maria Sharapova would have to figure it out.