MELBOURNE – Maria Sharapova began her second-round match versus 14th-seeded Anastasija Sevastova as if she were double-parked. A brisk 13 minutes into the match, Sharapova dashed across the court to hit a leaping running backhand swing volley to go up 4-1. Soon enough, she’d wrapped up the first set, 6-1.
At her best, Sharapova presides over her matches with the magisterial bearing of a homeowner; in Sharapova’s case, of course, no ranch house but a grand mansion. Dinner is served. And guess what, Sharapova tacitly says to her opponent, you are the main course.
Had you not known the history between these two, you’d have thought it was only a matter of time before Sevastova asked for the check. Through the 23-minute first set, the Latvian struck a measly two winners and won just one point on her second serve.
But these two have rapidly become tennis BFFs—that is, competitors well aware of their mutual chemistry. This was the third time in the last half year that these two had played, Sevastova holding match points in both prior matches. The first she’d won, a 5-7, 6-3, 6-2 triumph in the fourth round of the US Open. Sharapova had evened it up the next month in Beijing, squeaking it out, 7-6 (3), 5-7, 7-6 (7).
“She never really lets up,” said Sharapova. “She gets a lot of balls back. . . that’s something that I had trouble with in the previous matches that I played against her.”
After consistency, there came the party crasher: Sevastova’s slice backhand, the shot that had repeatedly flummoxed Sharapova at the US Open. Far from the consistent and rhythmic bite of the Stephanie Graf slice, Sevastova’s is a hydra-headed temptress, carved deep, curled down the line, even just floated high and down the middle with no apparent purpose other than to annoy and disrupt—which, as even greats like Roger Federer know and demonstrate is a darn good agenda.
“A lot of players I have played coming back have had that tricky backhand slice,” said Sharapova. “I have worked a lot on that in practice, made a lot of errors against that shot, against her at the US Open, a lot of swinging volley errors, also. I thought those were two key factors I wanted to focus on today.”
But for all the effort Sharapova had put into dispatching the slice, was her root issue with it located deep in her past? As Sharapova had come of age as a player, had her primary coaches, such advocates of concussive tennis like Nick Bollettieri and Robert Lansdorp, ever treated the slice as something other than a relic?
The most recent movie Sharapova saw in a theatre was “Battle of the Sexes,” the feature film about Billie Jean King’s seminal win over Bobby Riggs.
Said Sharapova, “I know quite a bit about Billie Jean's story, just because she was really influential in my career since I was a junior, so I always—I like to study, I like to learn, so I did go back and I wanted to understand more of where she came from and was able to create a voice that she has of so much power despite not being on tour for so many years but still being so incredibly influential.”
Attuned as Sharapova is to King’s social impact, as she labored through the second set versus Sevastova, one wondered if she might also benefit from spending time with the likes of King and Martina Navratilova to better refine her net game. Though it’s improved in recent years, there were all too many points versus Sevastova when Sharapova had opened up the court so forcefully that a few steps forward would have presented a highly makeable volley. Instead, she backed up, compelled instead to thunder a groundstroke.
And then there was that silly slice, which increasingly through the second set immediately or summarily elicited a Sharapova error. As confident and proficient as Sharapova can be off both sides, she responded poorly to enough floaters and slices to let Sevastova creep back into the match. Who invited you? Stop breaking up my contact point. Serving at 4-3 and 5-4, Sharapova was broken both times.
At 6-all, though, Sharapova played the kind of tennis that makes her a future Hall of Fame inductee. With Sevastova serving at 2-1, Sharapova put together five sparkling points, highlighted by three groundstroke winners—a down-the-line forehand, the same from the backhand, a combo retrieval-forehand angle. On her third match point, a Sevastova forehand sailed long.
“I always keep my philosophy basic,” Sharapova had written in her 2017 autobiography. “I do not have to be the best player in the world to be the best player in the world. I just have to be a little better than the other player on that particular day.” Such was the case versus Sevastova. As regally as Sharapova likes to rule the court, there usually come moments in her matches when Sharapova simply needs to clean the dishes, take out the garbage and expeditiously send her guests home.