Looking back over the vast landscape of Maria Sharapova’s illustrious career, it is apparent that this pugnacious competitor has always prided herself on elevating her game for auspicious occasions. Sharapova is, after all, a career Grand Slam champion, and deservedly so. She took her first of the four prizes at Wimbledon way back in 2004, toppling Serena Williams on Centre Court as a phenomenal 17-year-old. Two years later, Sharapova took apart the formidable Belgian stylist Justine Henin in straight sets to win the US Open. Sticking sequentially with her even year pattern of success at the majors, Sharapova eclipsed Ana Ivanovic for the Australian Open crown in 2008.
Given her prowess on hard and grass courts, all of those triumphs seemed almost inevitable. But, not accidentally, Sharapova’s last two victories at Grand Slam venues have both taken place on red clay at Roland Garros. In 2012, she completed her career Grand Slam in Paris by overwhelming and overpowering the guileful defensive standout Sara Errani. Not content with that career-altering triumph, Sharapova captured a second French Open title in 2014, overcoming the inexhaustible Simona Halep in a first-class, three-set final.
But today, back at one of her favorite playgrounds, Sharapova’s historical milestones were not enough to prevent her from being pushed into precarious territory. In the first round, she faced Dutch qualifier Richel Hogenkamp, a 26-year-old ranked No. 133 in the world. Sharapova had a low ranking of her own, relatively speaking. The 31-year-old is seeded No. 28 this year, in her first Roland Garros appearance in three years, largely because times have been tough for Sharapova ever since she returned from a 15-month suspension for performance enhancing drugs in the middle of 2017.
From 2011-2015, Sharapova finished five consecutive years among the Top 4 in the world. But post-suspension, Sharapova has never been quite the same player. She finished 2017 at No. 60 in the world, partially because she played only one of the four majors, reaching the round of 16 at the US Open. That was an injury-riddled season of disruption for as prideful and driven a player as the women’s game has witnessed in modern times, with the possible exception of Williams.
In her abbreviated 2017 campaign, Sharapova won 16 of 22 matches and took the title in Tianjin, China, but seldom approached her uppermost level. This year has been much the same. Sharapova is 13-7 thus far. She commenced her season with a semifinal appearance in Shenzhen, lost to Angelique Kerber decisively in the third round of the Australian Open and endured a four-match losing streak.
But once she stepped back out onto the clay, Sharapova began playing the game more on her own terms, reaching the quarterfinals in Madrid before advancing to the semifinals in Rome. On the Italian clay, she ousted 2017 French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko in a quarterfinal that lasted over three hours, before falling in another rugged skirmish to Halep in three sets.
And so Sharapova arrived at Roland Garros in a positive state of mind, match tough and more confident, happy to be back on a surface that nowadays suits her as well if not better than any other. She started her first-round duel against Hogenkamp on Court Suzanne Lenglen Court ruthlessly, wasting no time asserting her authority, sweeping through the first set powerfully and purposefully.
Sharapova moved swiftly to 3-0, taking 12 of 13 points and giving nothing away. She set the tempo, controlled the rallies and kept her adversary completely at bay. Hogenkamp managed to hold once in the fourth game, but Sharapova continued dictating and collected three games in a row to close out the set confidently, 6-1, in 24 virtually flawless minutes.
Seemingly headed for a commanding victory, Sharapova moved ahead 3-1 in the second set, but dropped the next two games. Nevertheless, Sharapova broke for a 4-3 lead. She was well within range of a comfortable win.
Hogenkamp, however, was no longer intimidated by her accomplished rival. She took three games in a row to claim the second set, and then surged to a 3-0 lead in the final set. At this stage, Sharapova’s survival instincts served her exceedingly well. She reached back with all of her resources to regain the upper hand, and soon got back on level terms.
With Hogenkamp serving at 3-3, Sharapova went to 15-40, dropped the next two points, but then brought to the forefront some of her vintage tennis material, driving a forehand crosscourt winner off a drop shot before sending a scorching forehand down the line that was unanswerable to earn another break.
From the edge of desperation, Sharapova had started to roll. She held on for 5-3, and then closed out the match with an insurance break, picking on her opponent’s forehand side at the end. Sharapova willed her way to a somewhat bizarre 6-1, 4-6, 6-3 victory that was essentially three matches wrapped into one: Sharapova won nine of the first 11 games to lead by a set and a break; she then fell into disarray and lost eight out of nine games to fall behind dangerously in the third set; down the stretch, the experienced campaigner summoned her best tennis again to sweep six games in a row and emerge victorious.
The task will get tougher. Sharapova should be able to win her second-round meeting with Donna Vekic, but would then have a potentially vexing confrontation against No. 6 seed Karolina Pliskova. If she can make it through that battle, Sharapova could make herself an authentic contender for the crown.
This much is certain: Sharapova must avoid another mid-match lapse along the lines of what occurred in her clash with Hogenkamp. She rescued herself today, but in the coming rounds the better players won’t let her get away with lingering bad patches. The guess here is that Sharapova is well aware of that.