Cox: Sharapova shows flashes of brilliance in Toronto

Tuesday, Aug 6

Maria Sharapova played ferociously and relentlessly in her first time back at the Rogers Cup in eight years, like her very career depended on it.

And you know, maybe it does.

Not just this one match, of course. Not just her first round Rogers Cup slugfest with Estonia’s Anett Kontaveit on Monday night at a packed Aviva Centre. It was a three setter that lasted two hours and 40 minutes, and when it was over Kontaveit had come out on top and Sharapova had fallen to seven wins, five losses on what appears to be another lost tennis season for her at the tail end of a glittering career.

Injuries have cost her time, a drug suspension cost her more than a year and now she sure seems to be running out of time in general. Remember, she needed a wild card just to get into the Rogers Cup, and is in danger of falling out of the top 100.

It’s not that she shouldn’t have lost to Kontaveit, a younger and higher ranked opponent. But Sharapova did win the first set and had multiple chances to dispense with Kontaveit in the second set. It was, in many ways, the kind of match Sharapova used to win as a matter of course, with her grit and willingness to hit blazing, flat groundstrokes without feeling the need to sit back or change the pace often the decisive element in so many of her wins.

She’s got five Grand Slam titles and another 31 tournament triumphs, but now the old ways just aren’t getting the job done any more for the 32-year-old Russian. With aging players like Serena Williams and Roger Federer still going strong, we forget they are the exception, not the rule.

Sharapova last won a Grand Slam, the French Open, in 2014. In 2016, at the age of 29, she was hit with a two-year suspension from the International Tennis Federation for testing positive for the banned substance meldonium. It was later cut to 15 months, but it put her on a shelf for an extended period at a key time in her career, and she hasn’t been the same since returning. Ongoing shoulder concerns have just made it more difficult.

“It will just take time to build that confidence again,” she said. “I have struggled with it for a long time.”

There were times against Kontaveit, however, when she looked like the old Sharapova, shrieking with every shot, going to left-handed shots when stretched out and pumping her fist while hollering “C’mon!” after a noteworthy point.

Her service, such a problem so often since she first started fighting shoulder problems, looked very good when she won the first set and pretty good for most of the match. Both she and Kontaveit struggled at times with their second serves, but both also saved multiple break points (eight of 12 for Sharapova) in a match with some rallies so hard-hitting the audience was left gasping.

At 4-4 in the third, Kontaveit finally broke through, ending an extended deuce game by inducing Sharapova into a running forehand error to break the former world No. 1. Kontaveit then won the match decisively, passing Sharapova at the net one last time then delivering a strong first serve that Sharapova couldn’t return.

Given that it was just an opening round match, there was a surprising degree of emotion and ferocity to the match. Sharapova can still pack a stadium, and beating her is still a major achievement for younger players.

“I need to be quite intense and focussed to play my best tennis,” said Kontaveit, who next faces the winner of the Venus Williams-Carla Suarez Navarro match. “I think I managed to do that tonight.”

Sharapova, who began working with veteran coach Ricardo Piatti this summer, said she believes she can still climb her way back up the rankings.

“There’s definitely things coming off a match like this that I can improve,” she said. “Those little opportunities and windows that. . .maybe came a bit naturally when I used to play week in and week out and didn’t really think twice about things.”

Earlier in the day, another wild card, Canada’s 16-year-old Leylah Annie Fernandez, got a taste of what the big leagues are really like in a one-sided loss to Marie Bouzkova of the Czech Republic. Bouzkova pushed Fernandez around the court and bullied her, delivering a 6-0, 6-2 victory.

Fernandez won the French Open girls title earlier this year. Bouzkova, meanwhile, was the U.S. Open junior title back in 2014, and at 21, she’s worked her way inside the top 100 in the world.

She’s essentially five years down the path that Fernandez has just embarked upon, a sobering reminder that teenagers don’t rule the roost in the women’s game the way they did a long, long time ago.

Fernandez, just two years old when Sharapova won Wimbledon, appeared visibly nervous in her first Rogers Cup main draw match, and it was worth wondering if she would have fared better if, like Bouzkova, she’d been forced to go through qualifying. Bouzkova won two matches just to get into the main draw, and she looked sharper and ready to take it to the young Canadian from the first point.

Aside from some interminable ball bouncing, the most noticeable parts of Fernandez’s performance was an avalanche of unforced errors. Combined with an inability to attack with any consistency or to use the width of the court to her advantage, she was easy pickings for Bouzkova.

“Too bad I couldn’t play my best,” said Fernandez. “But I did what I could today.”

That said, there were also some good signs for the Canadian in the 63-minute match. She plays like a true leftie, showed some variety with some drop shots and slices and had lots of energy and positive body language until near the end of the match. In the end, just , she was simply overwhelmed by the power and placement of her older opponent.

Fernandez needs to get faster and stronger, and this match demonstrated that. She’s just starting out on a long journey that should be fascinating to watch.

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