Maria Sharapova’s comebacks are becoming something of a theme at Roland Garros in 2014.
Just two days ago, she found herself down 3-6, 3-4 to Sam Stosur in the fourth round before reeling off nine straight games to advance. In Tuesday’s quarter-finals she found herself in a similarly precarious position against the free-swinging Garbine Muguruza, down 1-6, 4-5. But when she stepped up to the line and served to stay in it, the Russian played her best game of the match to stay alive. Less than an hour later, she was celebrating another come-from-behind victory, winning 1-6, 7-5, 6-1 to secure her place in the semi-finals.
"She was playing very aggressive and hitting shots very deep. I just didn't have much to say to that in the first set," Sharapova reflected. "I also knew that the match wasn't over. I still had a fair bit of time to change things around. Little by little I started playing a bit better, getting in the court a little bit more, playing a little bit more aggressive, serving better than I did in the first set, returning as well, giving myself more looks at break points. I was a game away from losing it. I was very happy with the way I came through."
Early on, no such outcome appeared likely. Sharapova started slowly on Philippe Chatrier Court, tentative and erratic and constantly finding the net with her groundstrokes. Muguruza meanwhile looked completely at ease with her surroundings from the very first point, finding extraordinarily consistent depth on her shots.
In fact, Muguruza was taking Sharapova’s own game plan – built around getting the first strike in rallies with a big service or return, and finishing it off with a powerful groundstroke – and simply executing it better. Time and again she raced ahead 40-0 or 0-40 in games, and even if the Russian pegged one or two points back, it was too late.
The score was swiftly 4-0. Although Sharapova was able to get on the board in the fifth game and then move 0-30 in the next when Muguruza’s level dipped slightly, the Spaniard hit her way out of trouble to hold for 5-1. A double fault and three errors from Sharapova in a disastrous seventh game saw the 20-year-old pocket the first set in just 27 minutes.
But in the second, Muguruza’s impressive form was hard to maintain, resulting in Sharapova scoring her first service break of the match en route to a 3-1 lead. Yet when those errors appeared, Muguruza was able to shrug them off and recalibrate. Controlled aggression from the Spaniard saw her win three straight games for a 4-3 lead. Two games later, a Sharapova backhand error nudged Muguruza ahead 5-4.
That was when Sharapova strode out and delivered her most impressive play of the match up to that point, landing first services, being aggressive and finding the corners. She promptly levelled at 5-5.
And as in the Stosur match, all it took was a single game to change the complexion of the encounter. It was a more confident Sharapova striding about the court now, one who smacked a succession of winners to break for 6-5. After a brutal battle from the baseline on set point, it was Sharapova who emerged triumphant, and she levelled the scores.
The third set hinged almost entirely on the third game, a glorious 12-minute slugfest during which Muguruza earned five break point chances. Yet not once could she convert – so often errors into the net proved her undoing. A vocal Sharapova eventually held, and from there she ran away with it, winning eight of the last 10 points.
Eugenie Bouchard awaits. "Someone like Eugenie who has been up and coming for a couple of years, I think this is the year where she's really broken through, especially at the Grand Slams, playing at a high level. Last year was the last time that we faced against each other. It was the second round, and this year we're in the semifinals," Sharapova said. "It's a great stage to be at for both of us."