Maria suffered the first-ever upset of her career at the hands of Vera Zvonareva in the third round of the Rogers Cup. Yes, prior to yesterday, Maria had never lost to a lower-seeded or an unseeded player at any tournament where she had been seeded! This remarkable statistic includes qualifying and ITF Women's Circuit since her début at ITF Bradenton in 2001.
And the last time Maria lost to a lower-ranked player on the WTA Tour was at the fair hands of Daniela Hantuchová at Tokyo in February, when Daniela was ranked #32 to Maria's #27, but seeded ahead of Maria based on the previous week's rankings.
I am a demi-fan of Vera Zvonareva. I first started taking her seriously when she beat Venus Williams at the French Open 2003. The BBC televised the third set, and Vera showed tremendous fighting spirit to close out that match, even though she was very tired.
Being a demi-fan of Vera means that she's not among the seven players of all time (Maria is my second-favourite player of all time) whose careers I follow obsessively, writing regular match-reports and doing my best to support them, but I do tend to note Vera's presence in tournaments and take pleasure in her success, and I have kept on video the three Zvonareva matches that the BBC has televised so far.
Vera is quite a flairsome striker of the ball, and combines good power with amazing retrieval abilities (particularly on clay where she can slide into her shots). If she could improve the attacking side of her game, with more spreading rallies and more winners, I would consider becoming a fully-fledged fan of hers. She's not yet a spectacular player IMO, but I believe she has great potential.
And Vera is very cute, too. Not sexy in an erotic sense, because she dresses very conservatively in all the photos I've seen so far (with the exception of a very nice glamour-shot in the San Diego photos section of www.wtatour.com
). But she does have the most beautiful eyes.
Vera has had solid results in 2004 so far, without pulling off any major upsets before Montréal, although she had nine match-points against French Open champion Anastasia Myskina in an epic semi-final at San Diego last week, which Myskina finally won 6-2 6-7 (4/7) 7-6 (17/15) on her fifth match-point. Vera was in tears after that match, but it was a real indication that she is improving.
Maria and Vera both have terrific fighting qualities, but I think Maria prefers to be the front-runner, while Vera always fights to the bitter end, but sometimes has problems closing out a victory. Maria has amazing mental strength, intensity and composure, whereas Vera can get very down on herself when things aren't going her way, and has been known to lose her temper.
In the second round on Tuesday, Maria beat Kristina Brandi by her Wimbledon-winning scoreline, 6-1 6-4. Maria found her range from the start, but her nerve was tested in the second set where she was broken when first serving for the match at 5-2.
And this set up the third meeting between the blonde Russian teenagers (although Vera dyes her hair I believe). Vera beat Maria 7-6 6-2 in the semi-finals of Memphis in February, but Maria won the one that really counts, beating Vera 6-3 7-6 in the third round of the French Open.
The match - a baseline duel of awesome quality from both players according to those lucky enough to watch it - was played on Thursday evening starting at 19:30 EDT = half past midnight in the UK.
Maria won the first set 6-4, but when I casually checked the scoreboard, Vera was up 2-1 with a break in the second, and extended it to a double-break at 4-1! Maria broke back for 2-4, but it wasn't enough to stop Vera winning the second set 6-4, serving it out to love and finishing with an ace at 20:46 EDT.
I decided to start following the scoreboard seriously for the first-ever third set between these players. Maria lost her serve to love in the opening game, and Vera recovered from 0/30 to hold for 2-0 after one deuce.
Maria was in danger of going down 0-3 with two breaks as she served at 0/15, 15/30 and 30/40, and Vera had another break-point after the first deuce. But Maria held for 1-2 after the second deuce.
There was a titanic struggle on Vera's serve at 2-1, as Maria had break-point at 30/40, and three more break-points after the second, third and fourth deuces. Maria converted the last of these as she broke back for 2-2.
Sadly, Maria was broken to 30 in the very next game, and Vera held to love for 4-2. It seemed that the Zvonareva serve was functioning better than the Sharapova serve, which IMO is the best in women's tennis, and the most graceful serve along with Daniela Hantuchová's.
It would have been a neat symmetry if Maria could have held to love herself, but at 40/0 she dropped one point before holding for 3-4. I think Vera held to love for 5-3, although the scoreboard froze at 40/0 for a while.
When it unfroze, Maria was serving to stay in the match at 3-5 15/15. She won the next three points, making Vera have to serve for the match at 5-4. I was pleased that at least Vera would have to beat Maria on Vera's serve, seeing as Maria was serving first in the third set.
It's important when serving for a match to win the first point, so I was glad that Maria won the first point when Vera served for the match. Vera made it 15/15, then Maria had two break-back points at 15/40. But she netted the first one, and Vera saved the second with an ace. Suddenly Vera had match-point, and after exactly two hours, at 21:30 EDT, she sealed a 4-6 6-4 6-4 victory over the Wimbledon champion (I still get goosebumps whenever I think of that!).
There was an incident at the end of the match when an 18-year-old Russian boy jumped onto Court Central, and approached the players' chairs with a pen and two dinner-invitations! He was stopped by security-guards before he could reach the players. No doubt for him it was a bit of harmless fun, but it brought back horrible memories of 30th April 1993, when Monica Seles was stabbed on court at Hamburg, Germany.
It's frightening to think how physically accessible the players still are at tournaments - especially on the practice-courts and around the grounds. For example, Maria walked right past me, unaccompanied, on a path at Birmingham this year (photographic evidence to follow at a later date) - I don't think she'll be so accessible now that she's won Wimbledon!
Sharapova dominated the first set by forcing her opponent to move around, taking advantage of the points off her first serve, and converting two of three break points. But Zvonareva rapidly took control at the start of the second set. Sharapova responded with solid serves and well-placed returns, but Zvonareva was more efficient, managing to not only serve and return well, but also to win points off shots that seemed impossible to get back. Sharapova missed several chances to reverse the situation near the end of the set. Zvonareva set the tone of the third set by breaking Sharapova and throwing her off balance for the remainder of the match.
The statistics confirm that Vera served better than Maria on the day: 6 aces to 5 (although 8 double-faults to 6). Vera won 72% of points when she got her first serve in (Maria 64%), 49% on second serve (Maria 45%).
Unfortunately the statistics don't include winners and unforced errors, but a key statistic is that Vera broke Maria's serve 5 times from 7 break-points, while Maria had 13 break-points (6 of them in the third set) and only converted four of them.
Maria: "I played a pretty good first set and I was quite on top of it. I think in the second set my serve has let me down a little bit on important points, and when I had the chances in the third to come back, she managed to serve quite well. She played very well. She did everything she needed to win. I think that was a very good match. I did not play that bad, but there are certain things I want to improve.
"It's disappointing, but no hard feelings. I know you can't win everything, and you're going to lose sometimes. I'll go home and train now and get ready for the US Open."
Of course as a Maria fan this is disappointing, but I'm a touch bit happy for Vera. Victory for Maria would have set up a mouthwatering quarter-final with Tatiana Golovin - a repeat of the Birmingham final, which I attended - but Zvonareva v Golovin is a most intriguing match in its own right, featuring the two players I currently feel most likely to become a fan of in the future!
Extended version of this report with additional, non-Maria content:
Dr. Andrew Broad