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Monday, June 22, 2009

Sharapova forced to fight hard for win

Photo Titled Sharapova style
Maria Sharapova making an entrance with her new Wimbledon kit.

If Maria Sharapova was seeking a useful workout as she continues her return from injury, then she got it today on No.1 Court. She saw off a spirited challenge from Ukrainian qualifier Viktoriya Kutuzova, requiring one hour and 42 minutes to gain a 7-5, 6-4 victory.

On paper this looked like a straightforward match for the 22-year-old Russian, who is seeded 24. But these are not straightforward times for the 2004 champion, barely six weeks into her comeback after nine months out with injury.
Last August after years of problems – yes, years of problems are quite possible even in a player of Sharapova’s age – with her right shoulder, she had surgery on the rotator cuff. But recovery necessitated a long lay-off, including three months without so much as picking up a racket, and this was the first match she had played without visible strapping to support the old injury.
It was not as if she could take heart from happy memories of Wimbledon 2008 either, as 12 months ago she fell in the second round to the unheralded Alla Kudryavtseva.

Truth be told, few on No.1 Court had heard of Kutuzova either before this match, but it rapidly became clear that the 20-year-old world number 79 was not in the least overawed. For one thing, she gave every bit as good as she got in the grunting department, with the two of them exchanging bellows with every strike of the ball.
And what strikes they were, with Kutuzova, especially, putting enormous power into every baseline stroke, forcing errors from Sharapova.
The Russian was also contributing a fair number of unforced mistakes, and these factors led to Kutuzova breaking for 2-1 in the first set. Barely had the crowd recovered than the Ukrainian repeated the feat for 4-1.

Sharapova looked to be fighting back. She got one break back and almost levelled for 4-4. But when she failed, the set was within Kutuzova’s grasp. On a rare visit to the net, she volleyed in an attempt to convert set point, but a punchy Sharapova forehand saved it. Those familiar with Kutuzova’s play say that she has most difficulty playing well when she is ahead, and that characteristic emerged here.

Meanwhile, Sharapova’s competitive determination was in full drive and from 3-5 she took four straight games to plunder a set she should have lost.

Instead of crumbling, Kutuzova reacted with apparent calm, breaking in the first game of the second set. But she could not consolidate the lead, and Sharapova’s application brought her the break back.
When Sharapova broke for 2-4 the match looked to be done and dusted, but Kutuzova was not done yet. The Ukrainian answered to love before Sharapova broke once more. Again Kutuzova broke back, this time to love, to make it 4-5. But eventually her problem was that she ran out of opportunities to break back. A great return gave Sharapova her first match point, and she closed out the match with no further drama.

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