Sharapova survives three-set battle

 - Sarah Edworthy

Trailing 3-0 in the final set, Maria Sharapova stages gritty comeback to see off Richel Hogenkamp.

Cremnophobia (from the Latin cremnos, meaning overhanging cliffs) is a fear of falling off a precipice, and the word makes its way into a tennis match report courtesy of Maria Sharapova. The two-time Roland-Garros champion was expected to sail into the second round against an opponent who has failed to establish herself in the Top 100 and hasn’t won a Tour-level match all season, but the Russian found herself summoning all her competitive resources to prevent a topple into the abyss, coming back from 0-3 down in the final set to eventually quash Dutch qualifier Richel Hogenkamp 6-1 4-6 6-3.

“I finished out six straight games. I think if there is any way to turn that match around, it's that way,” she said. “I think I can be proud of that effort… I have come back from a lot of matches in that position. If you look at it, I was only down one break, and the scoreline wasn't like I lost eight games in a row or maybe eight out of ten or one of those stats. I still knew that I produce quite solid tennis in order to get myself in a winning position, and I felt there was no reason that I couldn't get that back.”

Defeat was a potential abyss, rather than a mere first-round upset, because of the unspoken drama behind Sharapova’s arrival on Court Suzanne-Lenglen. She has not competed at Roland-Garros since 2015, and her return has been hindered by injury and lack of match play, but in fits and starts of fleeting brilliance, the formidable talent is still there, even if consistency is not.

And surely, it would be here on the Paris clay – where she reached the final in three consecutive years, in 2012, 2013 and 2014 - that she would feel most confident about rediscovering her former stellar form?

“Well, no year is the same, and no situation is the same,” she said, refusing to be drawn on how she rates her chances of progressing deep in the draw, after an encouraging run to the semi-finals in Rome and the quarter-finals in Madrid. “That's why I still enjoy competing, because every week, every tournament brings kind of a new challenge and a new way to face it. Nothing is repetitive in this sport. Although you can use your experience and knowledge on what has helped you before, there is always new things and things that you have to come up against.”

Sharapova had beaten Hogenkamp in straight sets in their only previous encounter at Wimbledon. From the outset, their first meeting on clay was a tale of contrasting demeanours. Sharapova, carrying herself with the air of a champion, vociferous on every strike of the ball, self-contained after incurring errors, against the scurrying Hogenkamp, notably silent during play but ever ready to berate herself for a fluffed shot. Within 24 minutes, the first set went to Sharapova.

Maria Sharapova© Philippe Montigny / FFT

Sharapova was back, and boy was she back, drilling the ball with power and clever placing. Yet, despite being down 6-1 3-1, Hogenkamp stood firm, and broke serve twice to take the second set. The Dutch world No.133, who won a thrilling three-setter against Ons Jabeur in the third round of qualifying to earn this match-up, could draw on two further experiences to give her confidence against a big-name opponent. Last year, on her only previous appearance in the main draw at Roland-Garros, she came through qualifying and defeated former world No.1 Jelena Jankovic before losing to Elise Mertens in the second round. In the Fed Cup, in 2016, she famously beat Svetlana Kuznetsova in a singles tie that lasted four hours.

Hogenkamp had her chances in the third set, but Sharapova’s nerve and indomitable focus saved her. With a first-serve strike rate of only 60 per cent, six double faults to negate six aces, and 29 unforced errors, Sharapova’s match stats don’t make a strong case going forward, but as she says: “Sometimes you have to dig deep, and I am proud of the way I came back.

“I feel incredibly fortunate to be back. You can see how much this court means to me. I love competing here and I wish to continue the good memories I have.”

Next up for Sharapova is Croatia's Donna Vekic.