In 0:59 win over Pliskova, Sharapova shows underrated strategic smarts
PARIS—It had been three years since Maria Sharapova
had played in Court Philippe Chatrier. Which meant it had been three
years since that 90-year-old stadium’s old concrete rafters had been
rattled by the Russian’s screams of competitive desire. To hear them
again at the start of her third-round match with Karolina Pliskova was
a little startling. If anything, Sharapova’s shrieks rang out louder
and longer than ever. The 31-year-old sounded like she wanted to win
this match more than all of the hundreds that have come before in her
“I would love to be there again,” Sharapova had said on Thursday as
she contemplated a return to Chatrier, where she has won perhaps the two
most satisfying major titles of her career, in 2012 and 2014. “If I do
have a chance to play on it, I’ll welcome it with open arms.”
It had also been a while since Sharapova faced Pliskova.
Three years, to be exact, and in those three years Pliskova had
transformed herself from just another long, lean, gunslinging
up-and-comer into a regular Grand Slam contender and, for a few weeks at
least, the No. 1 player in the world. But Sharapova was ready for her,
“Obviously creating looks on second balls after the return and after
the serve,” she said of what her tactics would be against Pliskova.
“Getting in position, there [will be] a lot of hard hitting. I don’t
expect extremely long rallies against an opponent like that...I have to
serve better than I have and take care of the return.”
Mission very much accomplished. Rarely has a game plan been executed with such precision.
Take care of her serve? Check. Sharapova made 73 percent of her first serves, and won 73 percent of those points.
Take care of her return? Check. Sharapova won 55 percent of the
points on Pliskova’s first serve, which is one of the game’s best, and
hit 18 winners to just five from the Czech.
In her 6-2, 6-1 win, which lasted all of 59 minutes, Sharapova
focused on taking the initiative and gaining the advantage as soon as
she could in every rally, and Pliskova had no answer for it. Sharapova’s
ground strokes had the pace needed to make them shoot through the clay,
but they also had topspin for shape and margin—it wasn’t power as much
as placement that earned her all those winners today.
As tempting as it may be to think so after listening to this match,
Sharapova’s win had less to do with her well-documented love of
competition than it did with her underrated strategic intelligence.
“The return, as I said in my previous press conference, it was a big
part of getting in the point,” Sharapova said, “and not giving her too
many free points and giving her confidence from the baseline.”
“I was solid. I played smart. I think I did the right things, I was
aggressive on the break points, I went for it. I took the match rather
than her giving it to me.”
Sharapova’s shrieks were indeed rafter-rattling today, and they only
seemed louder when they alternated with Pliskova’s complete silence on
the other end of the court. Sharapova may or may not have “wanted it
more,” but she certainly made her desire utterly clear. Even up two
breaks in the second set and running away with it, she was still
celebrating her winners with double fist-pumps and full-throated “Come
Sharapova’s reasoning for her motivation is hard to argue with.
“You don’t put those hours on the back courts in
Bradenton-fricking-Florida—you know what I mean—to show up at events and
not bring it,” she said.
Words for every tennis player to live by. Who knows, they could be carved on Maria’s Hall of Fame plaque someday.