Sharapova's mind went first, then her game
Sharapova's mind went first, then her game
Yuri Sharapov moved his seat further back after his daughter, defending U.S. Open champion Maria, went down 2-5 in the third set.
It was clear that the second-ranked Russian wasn't coming back and her father knew it. She was confused, she had lost her feel for the ball, she couldn't contend with the wind, the sun or ambitious Polish teen Agnieszka Radwanska, who shocked Sharapova 6-4, 2-6, 6-2 in perhaps Sharapova's most disappointing Grand Slam result ever.
Yuri could see his daughter had lost all faith in her game and it no longer mattered how hard she was fighting. She no longer had a go-to shot, as her serve had deserted her long ago and she had lost accuracy with both her backhand and forehand. There was no point in just cutting loose on the ball, because nearly every time she did, she yanked one wide or flew it long.
Her normally steely self-confidence had disappeared into the sunny haze of the New York sky and she didn't look at all the part of the woman who had bullied her way to two Grand Slams finals.
It was arguably the worst six-game stretch that Sharapova ever played. She had won eight straight games to go up 2-0 in the third set, but she still didn't think that her "A" game would come. Her "B" game didn't arrive either. She flunked, lost her serve on a double fault and an awful backhand error to make it 5-2, then lost the match when a forehand return clunked off the net cord and fell lazily into the doubles alley.
"Although I won many games in a row after losing the first (set) and being down 1-0, you'd think I'd have the momentum in the third set with a break," Sharapova said. " But I just didn't really feel that way inside of me for some reason today."
It wasn't Serena Williams standing across the net, who crushed her in the Australian Open final. It wasn't even Dinara Safina, a top-20 player with reasonable experience who came back from 0-5 in the third set to take her out at the French Open two years ago. It wasn't fifth-ranked Ana Ivanovic, who destroyed her in the 2007 Roland Garros semifinals, or former No. 1 Lindsay Davenport, who doubled bageled her at 2005 Indian Wells.
It was Radwanska, a talented and scrappy Pole seeded No. 30, but one who had to do little more than keep the ball in play as Sharapova had no go-to stroke. She finished the match with 49 unforced errors, 20 of those coming in the third set. Radwanska could sense just how shaky Sharapova was, especially with her second serve, and danced happily close to the service line to return serve. She didn't deliver cannon shots, but had Sharapova on her heels.
"I think she make many mistakes and double faults so I think she was a little bit nervous," Radwanska said. "I knew that she doesn't like if somebody is moving if she serving. She was also nervous with that, so I was trying to do something like this."
Sharapova looked dazed, and when she arrived for her press conference her green eyes were puffy and she didn't deliver her statement with her normally commanding voice.
"I don't feel like I had that belief that I usually do," Sharapova said. "I don't know whether I put a lot of pressure on myself coming into this event, because I felt like I was starting to play a lot better. I felt really good physically. I felt healthy. It just wasn't there. I don't know if it was a combination of the circumstance or the wind or the opponent playing well. I don't know what it was. I just didn't quite feel like me out there."
There is very little that Sharapova can take out of this season, especially at the Grand Slams, where she has underperformed in all her losses. She was never in her matches against Serena in Australia, against Ivanovic in Paris, or against Venus Williams at Wimbledon. Then she handed Radwanska, and 18-year-old who keeps rats for pets, a delicious piece of cheese to snack on.
"Clearly it hasn't been my best year," Sharapova said. "But that's the way things go. I got to take the good and I got to take the bad and I got to move on, just keep working hard, and someday the work that I did before this tournament, beginning of the year, whenever it was, it's going to pay off. You just to have to move on. I have a whole future ahead of me. I'm not going throw myself a pity party here."
Now she'll have to put up strong results in Stuttgart, Zurich and Linz in order to qualify for the season-ending Sony Ericsson WTA Championships, because she'll drop hundreds of points with this U.S. Open and has only won one title (San Diego) this year. By the end of the Open, it's conceivable that her ranking could drop to No. 6. She's put her own back firmly up against the wall.
Now Maria and Yuri, as well as her touring coach, Michael Joyce, will have to hold a summit meeting to find out how she could come into a tournament she dominated last year, play incredibly well in her first two matches, and then lose all sense of herself against an opponent who is not without talent, but not close to Sharapova's level. Even though she still has a number of areas she needs to improve upon, the loss had little to do with stroke production, and everything to do with mental acuity.
Women's tennis' most visible tall blonde said she wasn't in shock, but she was none too pleased either.
"It's disappointment," she said. "There's no happiness, I'll tell you that. At the end of the day it really is a just tennis match. Some days you win and some days you lose. Some days you lose in the finals and some days you lose in the third round and some days you lose in the first round. You just never know how it's going to play out. Sometimes you work really hard for something and you get it when you want it, and sometimes you work really hard and you don't get it. You never know when God's going to bring down those gifts. So I'm waiting for those Christmas gifts."