Maria justified her seeding of 16 at Indian Wells by reaching the fourth round... but with two unconvincing victories followed by a heavy defeat.
I'm inclined to put this form down to rustiness, with Maria not having played competitively since 21st February (she is restricted in the number of tournaments she can play as a sixteen-year-old).
It was also extremely hot in Indian Wells (39°C or 102°F on Monday), which most European players don't like - although Maria should be acclimatised to the heat, having lived in Florida since she was six!
In the second round on Saturday, Maria overcame Flavia Pennetta 6-3 4-6 6-4. Pennetta is a potential top-ten player (as, of course, is Maria), and had reached the final of Acapulco the previous week. She's also not unattractive!
Maria: "I'm going in here pretty confident. I think I've worked pretty hard in the last few days, few weeks. I'm looking forward just to competing and getting some matches in again and working on my game, doing the same thing as I always do at tournament."
This set up a third-round match with 14-year-old wild card Sesil Karatancheva, who was playing her first-ever WTA tournament. This was billed by the media as a grudge-match, as Karatancheva (after beating Magüi Serna in the second round) accused Maria of having been too scared to play a practice-match against her a few weeks ago, and announced that she was going to "kick her butt off".
However, Maria was too mature off-court to rise to the bait (she denied that she had been scheduled to play that practice-match), and too experienced on-court to accommodate the second part of Karatancheva's claim.
It was ironic that Maria should have faced a 14-year-old at Indian Wells, as Maria had played the great Monica Seles at Indian Wells 2002 when Maria was 14! And Monica had given Maria a tennis-lesson, beating her 6-0 6-2. Monica obviously taught Maria well!
Karatancheva is said to be a big talent herself, with a Seles-like power-game and a fierce backhand that did some damage against Maria.
The match took place on Monday, with Maria beating Karatancheva 3-6 6-3 6-2 in a baseline-battle where Maria was the only one to play some all-court tennis (thanks to Rowland Goodman for this information).
The first two sets were decided by early breaks. Maria was nervous in the first set, but after that she settled down and "used her precision forehand to overpower Karatancheva" [Yahoo! Sports].
Maria served for the match at 5-0 in the third, but Karatancheva saved three match-points, broke back, held, and Maria finally served it out at 5-2, on her fourth match-point.
Maria hit 35 winners and 47 unforced errors in the match.
Maria: "I think I was a little rushed [in the first set]. I was trying to get the point over with very fast, which I didn't need to do at all. And I just slowed myself down in the second set. Slowly things were starting to go my way. I thought a few balls I missed here and there, were really close, you just think, `Well, when are they going to get in?' They finally started to roll in a little bit.
"She's definitely a great young player. She has a great future ahead of her, no doubt about it. I think her backhand is definitely one of her weapons.
"It actually felt like I was ten years older because she was younger than me. I did feel like I had more experience, and I was in those kind of situations before.
"This was a little bump on the road and I passed it. I think today I found a way to win because at the beginning my game was an absolute debacle.
"You guys [media] made a big controversy out of this, and you guys had a lot of fun. It is time to move on. I am just looking forward to the next round."
Karantancheva: "She played unbelievable. I have to give her the credit. She played very well. I did everything I could. In fact, I could have played better. But, you know what, that's my first big tournament. I'm 14. I have probably 30 years more in front of me. We'll play again someday. I hope I'll do better then. But she played good. I played good, too, so I guess she just played better.
"I tried to come back, I really did. I saved three match-points. But you know, at the end I just got tired. She played better; she won the match. All I can say is `congratulations to her'."
This set up a fourth-round repeat of Maria's Australian Open third-round match against Anastasia Myskina, now the world number five.
"I've been looking forward to that match. I never like to lose twice to a player. She's a tough girl. But we're very good friends. I have a very good relationship with her. Hopefully we can put on a good show out there."
However, the match was a disappointing anticlimax, as Myskina thrashed Maria 6-2 6-1 on Tuesday - just as she had done to Daniela Hantuchová in the semi-finals of Eastbourne 2002.
The match was roundly ignored by the media, but it was closer than the scoreline suggests, with many games going to deuce (thanks to Matty Donaldson for following the live scores - I'm too busy to follow them myself outside of the Grand Slams).
The best explanation of Maria's defeat seems to come from Myskina's post-match interview (they didn't publish Maria's fourth-round interview). So here it is (with snippage for the non-Maria-related questions):
Q. Were you expecting a little tougher match today?
ANASTASIA MYSKINA: I think I play really well today. Yeah, definitely I thought it's going to be not maybe three sets, but for sure not 6-2 6-1. I think I played really well today.
Q. With any one particular phase of your game?
ANASTASIA MYSKINA: I tried to at least play smart because she hit the ball pretty hard. I know if I'm going to hit hard, it's just the way she wants me to play. So try to mix it up a lot. I took a couple steps back. I think I played really smart.
Q. It seemed like you knew what she was going to do all the time. You played conservative a lot. She'd hit two balls, the third one almost every time was out.
ANASTASIA MYSKINA: She doesn't play a lot of rallies. I know she play a lot of cross-courts. I think I read her game pretty good today.
Q. How much did it benefit you to have practiced with Maria all those times when you were still working with Lansdorp?
ANASTASIA MYSKINA: I definitely have a big advantage because I know her better than I think anybody. Just, you know, I know her game better than I think anybody else on the tour right now.
Q. Do you think that her father was yelling too much on her, and do you think that puts too much pressure on her when he's doing that?
ANASTASIA MYSKINA: I think, I mean, my father used to yell at me, and I just know how to feel because it's lot of pressure. I mean, of course we all want to win. All coaches want us to win. But you don't have to yell at the player. Just puts down more, that for sure.
Maria doesn't have a great record against other Russians. Her defeats by Svetlana Kuznetsova at Wimbledon 2003 and by Vera Zvonareva at Memphis 2004 spring to mind. It can be difficult to play people from your own country.
Myskina is a beautiful girl who bears a striking resemblance to Drusilla from _Buffy the Vampire Slayer_. Perhaps Maria should have brought a stake and some holy water as well as a racket and a crucifix!
Maria has been nominated for "World Newcomer of the Year" at the 2004 Laureus Sports Awards [ http://www.laureus.com/awards/index.php
]. She is one of five tennis-players to be nominated for an award. If Daniela Hantuchová's nomination last year was anything to go by, we should at least get some nice off-court photos!
Last year's ceremony was held at Monaco on 20th May 2003.
Dr. Andrew Broad