Fearless Kerber stuns Sharapova
LONDON -- Maria Sharapova may not have played her best tennis in a 7-6 (4), 4-6, 6-4 fourth-round loss to Angelique Kerber on Tuesday at Wimbledon, but she did demonstrate once again why she is one of the toughest competitors in the game.
Sharapova fought off six match points before finally pushing a backhand long in a 2-hour, 37-minute match that was certainly one of the most compelling in the women's draw thus far.
Women's tennis will crown its third different Grand Slam champion of the year after the elimination of Sharapova, the French Open champion. Australian Open winner Li Na lost in the third round here. It will be the fourth straight year the first three Slams will be won by different players.
"You see a younger generation that's driving through the Grand Slam stages, playing exceptionally against top players," Sharapova said when asked about a "changing of the guard" in the game. "I think they're Top 20, going to be [Top 10] in the world now. So you definitely see that shift.
"As far as winning Grand Slams, I think that's yet to be determined."
Sharapova was referring to such upstarts as quarterfinalists Eugenie Bouchard, 20, who reached the semis of the Australian and French opens and plays Kerber next, and Simona Halep, 22, who was ranked 47th last year and is now No. 3 in the world.
Kerber, the No. 9 seed, is 26, has reached the quarterfinals or better in three of the past four Slams, has made two Grand Slam semifinals, including Wimbledon in 2012, and was ranked as high as No. 5 two years ago.
But there is little question that where once there was intimidation at the prospect of playing Sharapova or top-ranked Serena Williams, who lost to 24-year-old Alize Cornet in the third round here, it has significantly dissipated.
"She is a great player," Kerber said of Sharapova. "She won like so many Grand Slams [five total, including Wimbledon as a 17-year-old in 2004]. She's confident. So before I went on court I was just telling myself, you know, 'Just go out there, enjoy it and play like you are at practice. You know, not focus on her, just focus on yourself, yeah, and believe that you can beat her.'"
The match, which was originally scheduled for Monday but postponed because of rain, began slowly for Sharapova, who handed Kerber the first set on three backhand errors in a row after fighting back to force a tiebreaker.
The pattern would follow throughout the match, Kerber mixing up the pace while also playing spectacular defensive tennis in running down shot after shot in a match characterized by its long rallies.
But the real dramatics would come down the stretch after Sharapova, down 5-2 and a break, broke back to 5-4.
Trailing 0-40 and looking at triple match point in the 10th game, Sharapova did what she has done throughout her career, cracking fearless groundstrokes to pull to deuce.
Match points Nos. 5 and 6 came and went with a Sharapova service winner and a backhand winner. On deuce No. 5, Kerber ran down still another apparent winner on a drop shot and chased down a Sharapova lob only to see Sharapova retrieve her overhead but push it just long.
"I feel like if she won that game, she would have won the tournament," John McEnroe told BBC viewers.
Sharapova's relentless desire to go for winners resulted in 49 unforced errors to go with 57 winners (Kerber had 27 winners and 11 unforced errors). The loss also broke a streak of 10 straight Slam wins and 11 straight three-set victories for Sharapova, who was trying to complete the first French-Wimbledon double since Williams accomplished the feat in 2002.
"I think there were a few little key moments in each set actually that I can learn from," Sharapova said. "I was up in the tiebreaker and didn't follow through. It was great to come back in that second. I had a really slow start in the third [and] she rode with that confidence.
"It was just a few points in the end. ... Maybe things would have been different if I won that game, but in the end I didn't."
Ultimately, Sharapova, who missed the last six months of 2013 with a shoulder injury, said she was not worn out after going through the grind in Roland Garros.
"I think I've actually had a really rejuvenating trip, to be honest," she said. "I know it's been very physical and I played a lot of matches. To think of where I started in Stuttgart, I was a couple points from losing that first round and here I am three titles later with a Grand Slam and obviously a tough result today.
"Otherwise, I'm in a much better position compared to last year. Last year I was sitting here with an injured shoulder not really sure what I was going to do. I didn't really have a coach at that time.
"So looking at a bigger perspective, I'm in a much better place."