More disappointment for Maria Sharapova


The most intriguing match on the second day of the year-end championships in Istanbul had to be Maria Sharapova against French Open winner Li Na.

Sharapova went into this one hurting mentally and perhaps physically, still, after losing to Sam Stosur for the first time in 10 tries on Tuesday. Li, well, she'd been losing a lot lately, clearly burdened since becoming China's maiden Grand Slam winner.

The two are among the most heavily endorsed female athletes -- Li's husband and coach, Jiang Shan, donned a cap emblazoned with "Crown," an Aussie casino that backs his wife -- share the same agent (IMG's Max Eisenbud is the lucky guy), and Sharapova's coach, Thomas Hogstedt, controversially left Li in the offseason to work with Sharapova.

As she did at the French Open against Sharapova, Li prevailed -- this time 7-6 (4), 6-4, taking advantage of unusual, but understandable, gifts from her opponent. Li, who entered the event riding a three-match losing streak, received a much-needed confidence boost.

Sharapova is competing in Turkey with an ankle that's less than 100 percent, and it showed as early as the second game. Forced to scurry into the backhand corner on consecutive points, her movement wasn't free.

When Sharapova broke for 4-2, thanks to a pair of super forehand gets, Sharapova appeared to be on track.

She couldn't serve out the first set at 5-4, and it was only about to get worse in the tiebreaker. Up 4-0, she dropped the next seven points, five courtesy of unforced errors.

Li deserves some of the credit. Sharapova delivered two successful and powerful first serves at 4-1, but Li lunged to get both back in play. It was compelling, yet far from clean, tennis. They combined for 45 unforced errors and a mere 14 winners in the opener.

Sharapova's forehand was particularly off. A vast number of her misses were barely wide or barely long, not surprising given her recent inactivity and lack of practice.

Winning a first set that lasted more than an hour was always going to be pivotal, and Li kicked on in the second.

There were glimpses of her French Open form. Li authored a Djokovic-like forehand return winner, her angled backhand pulled Sharapova off court and her movement was stellar. She was mostly solid from a mental standpoint, too, refusing to self-destruct.

Li's most frustrating moment came in the final game, when she fended off three break points. A gutsy backhand down the line accounted for one, while that movement dug her out of a hole on the third.

Sharapova, as she did versus Stosur, left it too late. Later Wednesday, she pulled out of the event, citing her sore ankle. It's just as well. Sharapova is probably already thinking about next year and trying to land a first major since 2008.

Sam back down to earth: For those wondering if Stosur's win over Sharapova had more to do with the latter's ankle injury than the Aussie's play, you might have received your answer.

Stosur was crushed by Victoria Azarenka in the day's other White Group encounter, 6-2, 6-2, with the only struggle for Azarenka coming in the final game. It was as comfortable as it could get for the feisty Belorussian.

Worth noting is that Stosur got a bum deal by playing first Wednesday after her late finish a day earlier. She wouldn't have fallen asleep until early in the morning.

However, some would suggest, after ending the 0-for-9 hoodoo against Sharapova, she would have been pumped up no matter when taking the court.

If Caroline Wozniacki's forehand was shaky Tuesday, Stosur's backhand left more to be desired.

The first two games actually went well for Stosur -- now winless in five tries against Azarenka -- on that side. She ripped balls, hitting with freedom. But once a few misses started creeping in, it got ugly.

Stosur can lose it on court intermittently -- in her own understated way -- but it's rare for the U.S. Open champ to show her frustration as much as she did against Azarenka. She yelled after dumping returns, slammed a ball and continually muttered.

Call it a milder version of the old Azarenka.

The lack of depth from Stosur allowed Azarenka to dictate from the baseline. She was hardly pinned back. Azarenka conceded 11 points on serve and faced one break point -- in the final game.

By now no one should be surprised that Azarenka is so calm, but more proof of her progress came when she blew a backhand return sitter. Azarenka began walking to receive serve on the next point but then paused.

Would an outburst follow?

No. She kept on walking. And winning.