STUTTGART, Germany - Maria Sharapova made a winning return to the tour at the Porsche Tennis Grand Prix on Wednesday night, defeating No.36 Roberta Vinci 7-5, 6-3 in her first match back after her 15-month suspension for a failed doping test at the Australian Open in 2016.
Three takeaways from the match:
- Sharapova won the mental battle.
Nine hours before her match, Sharapova had taken to a near-empty Centre Court at the Porsche Arena for her first hit on site. Sharapova's ban ended at midnight last night and when she strolled on court at 9:15am, following top seed Angelique Kerber's one-hour practice session, she was greeted by about 50 journalists and photographers, all quietly observing over the clicks of the cameras.
Twenty minutes into the hitting session it was clear that Sharapova had not lost anything with respect to her game, and in fact looked to have added a lower toss on her serve, a more fluid motion through that shot, as well as improved footwork on her volleys. Heads turned amongst the early-bird voyeurs: Sharapova looks sharp.
"I’ve been working on all aspects of my game and the serve was definitely one of them," Sharapova said. "I didn’t change it too much, maybe a few things in the rhythm but not extremely. Getting the ball toss more consistent is certainly one of the goals."
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Of course, Sharapova may have been impressive in practice but matches are different. At least, they're supposed to be.
No one knew how she would handle not the just the occasion of playing her first professional match in 15 months, but also the process of transferring her form after months of practice on isolated courts to a near-capacity arena in competitive play. Sharapova insisted it was something she never thought much about during her four-month preparation for Stuttgart, and everything about her demeanor and execution on court pointed to business as usual for one of the game's most notoriously focused players.
"I don’t know what type of expectations I had," Sharapova said. "I’ve been visualising it and thinking about it, but I don’t know. I think I was very much in the moment today. I was really happy when I woke up this morning and I was smiling and I was excited about the opportunity of coming on site and practicing and then going and playing a match, something that I had for so many years in my career. I didn’t know what to expect but I knew that being out there was what I meant to be doing."
Conventional wisdom says any rustiness or lack of confidence within a player will manifest itself in how they play the big points. Sharapova passed that test with flying colors. After a tight start to give up an early break and fall behind 0-2 in the first set, Sharapova knuckled down and slowly took control of the match. She did so with the help of her serve, which had become an unreliable shot after her shoulder surgery in 2008. Sharapova served at an astounding 73% in the first set, winning 75% of her first serve points and over 50% of her second serve points. When Vinci could not get her slice deep, Sharapova took control of the rallies, dominating from the baseline.
"Was a difficult match," Vinci said afterwards. "She played good, she played aggressive, very solid, good serve. The court was really fast, it was difficult to move. But I started better than her, 2-0, some chances to go 3-0, but she played better than me in that moment. She played good."
After clawing her way back on serve, Sharapova rolled through her service games before finally getting the second break she needed to 6-5. She coolly served out the first set, finishing with 24 winners to 12 unforced errors. She broke early in the second set and never looked back. In all, Sharapova faced six break points and was broken once. She finished with 11 aces, 39 winners, and 21 unforced errors.
"She's a great player," Vinci said. "I know she's coming back after a long time but she's coming back not after an injury. She practiced a lot at home and she really focused today, really aggressive. I tried my best but it was difficult, especially when I was on serve. She was always aggressive. That's it. She played good and probably she deserved to win."
- The prospect of facing Sharapova will bring its own distractions for the foreseeable future.
You had to feel for Vinci. The affable, charismatic Italian had been good-humored about her lot all week, laughing about the number of journalists in her pre-tournament press conference, and trying to accept that she was about to play the most high-profile first-round match of her career.
"It was tough to [be] focused before this match," Vinci said after the loss. "Of course there was a lot of pressure. I see Facebook, Instagram, always put Sharapova-Vinci, first match. It was tough for me to stay focused. It was difficult to think about another thing to try to stay focused on my game."
Vinci will return home before heading to the Madrid Open, in search of good form before the French Open. She was not convinced she played a great match, but the Italian had won just four games total against Sharapova in their two previous matches. While her backhand slice let her down tonight was a marked improvement, and it took a solid performance from the Russian to get the win.
- Sharapova's next hurdle: Recovery.
It will be a quick turnaround for Sharapova, who is set to play fellow Russian Ekaterina Makarova on Thursday afternoon. Sharapova has won all six matches against Makarova, who scored a good win over No.8 Agnieszka Radwanska on Tuesday night. Russian derbies are always tricky -- Elena Vesnina got through a nervy one over Daria Kasatkina earlier in the day -- but the bigger question for Sharapova will be how her body pulls up after a physical 1 hour and 45-minute match.
"I trained quite intensively since January but it’s been in different phases," Sharapova said. "It started quite physical. I spent a lot of time on the track and in the gym and then I moved on to the court and then I started playing matches in the last few weeks. So, it's kind of been a transition and you have to pace yourself and really understand what you need in that moment and kind of build your body and see where it is after a while when you don’t play. I also took a few months off last year and I didn’t play at all for a few months. So, it’s a process, and of course you want to have that transition and a smooth transition."
Sharapova will face Makarova in the third match on Centre Court on Thursday. Play begins at noon, local time.