by Kate Battersby
Monday 25 June 2012
Should anyone have been under the mistaken impression that completing her career Grand Slam at Roland Garros earlier this month would instil in Maria Sharapova a comfy air of laidback contentment, the Russian put them right at the first opportunity. If anything the No.1 seed appeared hungrier than ever, more fiercely focused than ever as she dismantled the world No.133 Anastasia Rodionova 6-2, 6-3 in 70 minutes.
Sharapova opened up in statement fashion, taking her first service game to love in one minute. Seventeen of the first 18 points in the match belonged to her, and it seemed Rodionova – Russian-born but a naturalised Australian since December 2009 – could do nothing to stem the Sharapova onslaught of winners. Even a Rodionova challenge on a Sharapova ace was shown to be clearly erroneous, and Sharapova was 5-0 up in a scant 14 minutes. A “bagel” set beckoned, and Sharapova was up for it – but Rodionova was not. At 30, she might be a journeywoman of the tour, but her experience means she did not obligingly fold in the manner that a younger, more shell-shocked opponent might have. This was her seventh main draw appearance at Wimbledon, her 12th overall, and all that knowledge counts for something. Moreover, she does actually like playing on grass.
There followed a nine-minute game of nip and tuck, in which the Australian saved three set points, but also required five separate game points of her own before she was able to get her name on the scoreboard. She did it by lobbing Sharapova at the net and the Russian could not get enough of her racket to it. Rodionova smiled in acknowledgement of the crowd’s sympathetic applause. Next game she saved a fourth set point before unexpectedly forcing break point with a sizzling return. Moreover, she actually took it courtesy of a short rally on Sharapova’s second serve. At 2-5 the set had acquired an air of respectability, although that was as much as Sharapova would allow. As if tired of the game, she broke again to take the set via an unanswerable backhand return.
By then Sharapova was in no mood to allow Rodionova any ideas about gaining much of a foothold in the second set. It was not quite the decimation job seen in the early part of the first set, but this time Sharapova was in far more consistent control. Rodionova hung in there, but Sharapova’s relentless attack permitted her to serve out an ideal first-round workout. She took it on the first match point with a roaring ace – but after the match, she was typically not all that impressed with herself.
“The first one’s always tricky, the transition from clay to grass,” Sharapova said. “I had a couple of let downs at the end of both those sets but overall I’m happy. It’s always a very nice feeling to be back on Centre Court. It’s such a special place for me.
“The career Slam is the best gift I could have received at this time in my career. It wasn’t a Cinderella story – I worked really hard, a lot of tough days. I couldn’t compete at a high level without a lot of pain. Now it’s great to say I’m French Open champion but you have to start from scratch again with the practice and the work to get yourself through round one, and maybe to the final again. I still believe I can achieve a lot more. That’s what drives me and gets me up in the mornings still. I always think I can be better.”