MADRID, Spain - Eugenie Bouchard turned back the clock on Monday night in Madrid's famed "Magic Box", putting on an impressive display of mental and physical fortitude to oust Maria Sharapova, 7-5, 2-6, 6-4 in the second round of the Mutua Madrid Open. The win, her first over Sharapova in five meetings, sets up a face-off with top seed Angelique Kerber for a spot in the quarterfinals.
Three takeaways from one of the best matches of the 2017 season:
Bouchard put together her most inspired performance since 2014
It was difficult to know which Bouchard would walk out on Manolo Santana Court in the feature night match in the Spanish capital. Would it be the Bouchard who has struggled over the last two years and who came into Madrid without a tour-level match win since January? Or would it be the Bouchard who found a way to summon her best under the brightest of lights in her breakout 2014 season?
It proved, definitively, to be the latter.
Bouchard told reporters she hoped she would play Sharapova in the second round and she got her wish. In the face of an offensive early onslaught, Bouchard stayed cool and gradually elevated her level as the protracted first set went along. When Sharapova jumped out to a 4-2 lead and looked to be the more poised of the two, Bouchard bounced right back to break and get back on serve, reeling off three straight games and eventually close a grueling one hour and 10 minute set.
The resilience showed again in the decider. As Sharapova wrenched control of the match after blitzing through an aggressive 6-2 second set, Bouchard found herself up against it in the third. But she never panicked and, even when Sharapova looked poised to break at 0-40 in the third game, or when Sharapova repeatedly dug out of a 0-40 hole to hold, the missed opportunities and pressure never rattled the 23-year-old Canadian, who played her best match in years to oust the the 2014 champion. Bouchard's opening win over Alizé Cornet was her first three-set win since the Rogers Cup last year. Now she tallies her second.
"At points in the match, I definitely did not feel the rhythm," Bouchard said. "There was a little bit of up and down in the match, for sure. I had moments where I was a bit frustrated. I thought I could play better.
"But overall, you know, with the whole mental aspect, just fighting and playing almost a three-hour match, the physical battles, I mean, she's playing really well right now. Everything together, for sure, it's one of my more prouder matches in the past couple years."
Sharapova struggles to close...again
There's no doubt that Sharapova is playing at an impressive level since her return, and she's done well to block out the swirling circus that surrounds, as the novelty of her return continues. But, in both her loss to Kristina Mladenovic in the Porsche Tennis Grand Prix semifinals and to Bouchard in Madrid, the natural rust from being out of competition for 15 months showed when it came to closing out games and sets.
Against Mladenovic in Stuttgart, Sharapova had three break points to earn a shot at closing the match in straight sets. She also had a 15-40 lead on Mladenovic's serve in the fifth game of the third set to edge ahead. Often it has been her return game that let her down.
Similarly, against Bouchard, she let game points, during a 4-2 lead in the first set, slip away. In the final set, she held triple-break point in the fourth game, only for Bouchard to hold, and held a 40-15 on her own serve but was broken in the ninth game. In the final game, with Bouchard looking wobbly, Sharapova had two break points at 15-40 but went for too much and missed, giving Bouchard a chance to close out the win, which she did with a fantastic forehand.
"I definitely thought I should have taken care of the first set," Sharapova said. "I had a letdown, being up a break. I was happy with the way I changed things around in the second, stepped in, was a little bit more aggressive inside the baseline. Then the third, kind of felt like it was a similar pattern: set up opportunities, breakpoints, and just did not convert them today."
It's difficult to fault Sharapova for backing herself in the big moments and going for the spectacular winners. That fortitude is what allowed her to also save 10 of 15 break points on a night when her serve was not at its best. If there's one thing that she's proven throughout her career, backing down is not part of her regular repertoire. And there will come a day, likely sooner than later, that those shots will fall.
"There's no way to train but be a part of [tough matches], like I was today, and the previous tournament. To find myself in those situations, come up with the goods... You know, I could have easily gone out of the match. I got myself in a position to finish, and I didn't."
"I would be worried about myself if I sat here and said I'm pretty happy with losing a tennis match, no matter who I face, no matter what round it is, whether it's the first round or final of a Grand Slam.
"You know, I'm a big competitor. What you work for for so many hours every single day is to be on the winning end of matches. Today was just not that day.
"Of course, I'm disappointed. That's what's going to make me a better player. That's what's going to win me more tournaments and more Grand Slams."
And with that, Sharapova sent a clear message. She's not focused on working herself back. She's focused on winning more Slams.
Bouchard's next test: Consistency
The task does not get easier for Bouchard as she's set to face top seed Angelique Kerber on Wednesday. Bouchard needed just over two hours to get past Cornet in the first round and had to battle through the grind with Sharapova for nearly three hours. Bouchard leads their head-to-head 3-2, with two of those wins coming on clay.
"I want to maybe rest my brain a little bit, not think about [the match] too much for tomorrow. I have the day off, which is good.
"I want to go for it. I'm the underdog, by far. It's nice to have this position. So I want to at least take advantage of that, just go for it, play good tennis, build on this, and enjoy it, kind of just show what I can do."