Serve fails Sharapova as she falls in third round

NEW YORK -- The battle that Maria Sharapova waged in the third round of the U.S. Open at Arthur Ashe Stadium on Friday seemed almost as much with herself as with her opponent, 26th-seeded Flavia Pennetta of Italy.

"I just didn't feel comfortable with most of my game today," said Sharapova.

It showed. Sharapova had problems with her serve throughout the afternoon and struggled with wayward groundstrokes, committing 60 unforced errors and 12 double faults. It was a sloppy match, unbecoming of a three-time Grand Slam singles titlist. And even the mettle of a champion couldn't save Sharapova against journeywoman Pennetta, whose 6-3, 3-6, 6-4 victory moved her into the fourth round of a major for the second time this season. Pennetta, a two-time U.S. Open quarterfinalist, will face Peng Shuai of China next.

"The tennis I think was amazing,'' Pennetta said. "We fight a lot, we play really good tennis. In the last set I was really nervous. But I'm really happy. I'm really proud of myself."

Sharapova, the third seed, was broken seven times during the match, including three times in the first set, twice more in the second set, and again in a monumental second game of the third set that gave Pennetta a 2-0 lead. Pennetta pushed it to 4-2 before she was broken by Sharapova, who held to even the contest at 4-4. But when Pennetta held to go ahead, 5-4, that put the pressure back on Sharapova's serve. Even though she had a 12-0 record in three-set matches this year, Sharapova -- or at least her serve -- broke down under the pressure. She double-faulted twice to open the game. Pennetta had triple match point on Sharapova's serve, and she converted to end the match after 2 hours, 29 minutes.

Now it is close to four years since Sharapova last won a major, at the 2008 Australian Open. She has come back from a serious shoulder injury that required surgery in the fall of 2009 and worked her way to the final at Wimbledon this year. She looked like she could contend for a fourth Grand Slam title. But then she fell to Petra Kvitova in the final at the All-England Club, and suffered an early exit Friday at the Open.

"You know, just sometimes I come in on a day and I don't quite have my rhythm ," Sharapova said. "Not only do I feel like I have to get a high percentage of first serves, but my opponent gains tremendous amount of confidence on their return. So it's kind of a lose-lose situation.''

Martina Navratilova, the 18-time Grand Slam singles champion, was one of the nonbelievers even before Friday's loss. She said she didn't believe Sharapova could win the U.S. Open even though she was one of the favorites going in, behind Serena Williams.

"I think her serve is too much of a liability,'' Navratilova said this week. "I don't think it's the injury anymore. It's now become more mental, because the toss with the left hand has nothing to do with any injury. Once it gets into your head it's hard to get rid of and you've seen even the guys have issues with the toss when you get nervous.

"Maria's serve right now is very predictable, because you just know where it's going to go. So she doesn't win the points with it and that obviously affects the rest of her game."

Prescient comments delivered from an all-time great. The question now is whether Sharapova, still just 24, will fix those service problems and make it to another Grand Slam final.

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