By: Jane Voigt
Maria Sharapova likes chances. She’s a risk taker. Put her on any court and she’ll play her best, fight tooth and nail, scream and screech. Even if she can’t serve. Simply put, this is the matter with Maria…with a grateful nod to a Rodgers & Hammerstein classic.
With calculators clicking away in the background – because plenty of scenarios had yet to be flushed – Sharapova’s tournament life rested on a two-set win against Agnieszka Radwanska today. Otherwise, Maria had no shot at a semifinal berth at this year’s WTA Tour Final.
Sharapova, though, probably didn’t give a hoot about the math, like fellow competitor Ana Ivanovic learned yesterday, saying, “At one point in my match I started counting, and I’m like, Why am I doing this? I don’t want to know. I want to go out there and play the best I can. I don’t want to think too much about how much is enough and how much is not.”
Maria just didn’t want to lose.
Before her match, coach Sven Groenfeld asked her to put aside the dismal results from the first two matches, where she could not consistently control rallies and wracked up too many errors. He asked her to be patient, the Tennis Channel team reported, which was like asking a six-year-old to tone it down on Christmas morning.
Not until the first set was knotted at 4-4 did Maria reflect on her coach’s suggestions. She swung out, displayed patience and consistency. She broke to 5-4. This was going to be it, the set, only one away from a possible semifinal and a clear shot at hoisting the Billie Jean King Trophy. It would be her second since 2004.
But that serve.
Sharapova knew it was key; but she could not open the door. Her percentage of points won on her first serve stood at 48%. Bizarrely, points won off her second serve were higher.
An odd flip-flop of stats.
Radwanska was also aware that this poor-serving Maria was stuck in her head. The Pole held on and moved Maria every which way, provoking yet another error to bring the set even. But it was Aga’s turn to mess up, as Maria took the reigns once again for a 7th combined break of serve. And with one whippy, down-the-tee second serve, Maria tipped the set in her favor, 7-5.
Her confidence on the rise. She dug in mightily, striking first in the second. She consolidated the break after a 9-minute second game. 2-0, Maria. Her serving percentages shifted. She was winning more points off her first serve than her second serve. She had won five consecutive games. 3-0, Maria. The train had left the station, was rolling down the tracks.
Memories of prior Finals were raised outside the court. In 2004, Sharapova was 2-1 in round-robin play. She defeated Amelie Mauresmo in the semifinal and then Serena Williams in the final.
4-0 Maria. Toot … toot. The horn in her head cheered her on.
Maria executed the patience tactic, as Radwanska’s balls landed shorter and shorter in the court. Her errors piled up like stones in a quarry. Match point No. 1 for Maria. Face-to-face with her rightful destiny. All on schedule.
Then, the schedule changed.
Radwanska fought back. Why not? The last time they’d met at the WTA Finals, in 2012, Maria won 7-5 5-7 7-5. Today was going to be nothing but a scratch-and-dig encounter.
Radwanska was smart. Serving at 1-5, she held and forced Maria to serve for the match. It was the best thing she could do, put all the pressure on a woman who had served relatively poorly all year.
Soon after, Maria had her second match point. She was the No. 2 seed in Singapore. The No. 2 player in the world. The train was almost in the station. Radwanska held, as Maria double faulted, and ran off a stream of errors from both sides. Her footwork stuttered and stumbled; her expectations shattered, her mind full of the wrong stuff. Groenfeld came out, coaching Maria, “You are the one up a set and a break. It’s the actions that you take that are going to make the difference.”
It made the difference, but not how he expected.
After 2 hours and 15 minutes of every type of tennis any fan would have ever wanted to witness, sudden death. A match with top-notch entertainment value. If Maria lost the tiebreak, she was out of the tournament. And, she lost it, throwing in yet another double fault.
In many ways, it was over before it began. Serena Williams assured herself the year-ending No. 1 for the fourth time: 2002, 2009, 2013, and 2014.
The final set resembled a dead-rubber in Davis Cup. It’s played, but doesn’t count. But not for Maria Sharapova who eats, sleeps and drinks ‘not losing’ nourishment 24/7. Pride was at stake for the Russian, and at least a peek at what could have been here and what might be in 2015.
Her impish smile toward Groenfeld, as she won the match 75 67(4) 62, was the taste of a sweet candy cane for her fans. It came on the fourth match point, but it came. Bonus pride coverage. The struggle went 3 hours and 9 minutes. Rafael Nadal would have been proud, too.
Maria told fans, “I felt like I was rushing too much at times,” Tennis Channel reported.
“It’s great to win here in Singapore.”
Sharapova was eliminated from the WTA Finals, but with the victory secured her No. 2 ranking. The three-set win was her 20th of the the year, with a 20-7 record in those, the most 3-set wins in a year for Sharapova, reported the WTA. She’ll also bank well over a $250,000 USD for the week.
And, finally, some math…Caroline Wozniacki defeated a flat Petra Kvitova, 62 63, immediately following Sharapova’s win. The Dane, and lowest seeded player in Singapore, now leads her group with a perfect 3-0 match record. It also means, for Radwanska, losing feels a heck of a lot like winning.
Follow Jane on Twitter @downthetee!