Thursday, May 26, 2011
Maria Sharapova finally awakens
By Greg Garber
PARIS -- OK, let's review:
At the end of January, four-time French Open champion Justine Henin retired -- for the second time. Serena Williams, who won the title here in 2002, hasn't played in nearly a year. World No. 2 Kim Clijsters came into this year's event at Roland Garros without having played a match on clay.
The result? One of the widest-open women's tournaments in years. And then on Thursday, Clijsters went down to a Dutch player few had ever heard of. Suddenly -- shades of Moses and the Red Sea -- the draw was opening up for Maria Sharapova. Finally, coming off the best clay-court win of her career in Rome, she seemed to be destined to complete her career Grand Slam.
Uh, hold on to that thought.
Hours after Clijsters fell to Arantxa Rus, ranked No. 114 among WTA players, Sharapova found herself being tested almost beyond her limit by a 17-year-old French wild card named Caroline Garcia. The wind always causes Sharapova fits, and on this day it was brutal. The partisan Parisian crowd at Court Philippe Chatrier was delirious, given that Garcia is ranked No. 188 and was playing in only her second Grand Slam event, and her fourth WTA-level match ever.
For 14 games, the crowd and the girl almost got their miracle. Garcia led 6-3, 4-1 before she actually processed what was happening, before her nerves betrayed her. Sharapova won the last 11 games and escaped with a 3-6, 6-4, 6-0 victory and is into the third round.
The crowd, not surprisingly, lustily booed Sharapova afterward.
"First of all, I think I relaxed and just let things happen," Sharapova said. "I think I was way too concerned with the conditions and wasn't moving my feet and she was aggressive.
"I just finally hit the ball."
Garcia is a 5-foot-10, 134 haricot vert, but nevertheless displayed some crazy power for one so thin. She was born in Saint-Germain-en-Laye, the town that produced former world No. 1 Amelie Mauresmo -- who was in the audience this day.
"I forget the opponent, and I play very well in the beginning," Garcia said. "She was not really in the court. After, it was a little bit difficult. I had many things going on in my head because I was leading. And then she reacted like a champion, because she is a great champion. These stupid mistakes that she made in the [beginning], she no longer made them.
"I started being very nervous and I started playing more from the baseline, and it was difficult for me to come back."
Andy Murray tweeted that Garcia would one day be the No. 1-ranked player -- of course he also tweeted here that Lady Gaga was singing songs at the Virgin Records store on the Champs Elysees, when she was actually in New York.
"Yes, I have this dream, but it's very difficult," Garcia said. "But I hope one time I will be No. 1."
Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.