Sharapova won like a champion yesterday, with her flaws intact, writes @SteveTignor: http://t.co/jzB5vDhxi6 #AusOpen pic.twitter.com/BwabCpm2lw
— TENNIS.com (@Tennis) January 21, 2015
According to the tour narrative, Russians don't like playing each other, but Alexandra Panova looked to be having a high old time yesterday when she faced off against Maria Sharapova in Rod Laver Arena. Sharapova is the Australian Open second seed, and Panova is a qualifier ranked number 150 in the world.
Qualifiers should come with a Danger--Flammable! sign pinned on them. No one expects them to even be there, and only hard-core tennis fans know who they are. Playing with house money, a qualifier at a major can sometimes walk onto a very big stage and feel loose enough to cause major damage. That appeared to happen with Panova, who was one cool character from start to finish in yesterday's second round match against her countrywoman. In the end, Panova succumbed to the sometimes frightening fighting mentality of Sharapova, but it wouldn't have taken much for the whole thing to have gone the other way.
Sharapova made 51 unforced errors in the 2 1/2-hour match, which she won 6-1, 4-6 7-5. She double-faulted eight times, which is the kind of thing we've come to expect from the Russian star. Though she handled the first set easily, with stunning 89/80 first and second serve win percentages, by the second set, she looked vulnerable.
Panova, who had obviously put the opening set behind her, broke her opponent in the first game. Sharapova then proceeded to not only flub her serves, but to repeatedly pound her groundstrokes into the net. Panova went up two breaks. Sharapova got one of them back, but Panova prevailed to force a third set.
Anyone see this coming? World No.150 Alexandra Panova takes the 2nd set 6-4 against #Sharapova. Third set coming up.. pic.twitter.com/awxj1CUtgX
— Australian Open (@AustralianOpen) January 21, 2015
Sharapova left the court after the second set, and when she returned, she was immediately broken. In what seemed like no time, Panova was up two breaks of serve. At 4-1, she hit two consecutive aces, which probably put an end to the musings of any doubters. But there was one doubter remaining--Panova herself. She double-faulted, and even though she then soon found herself at 40-15, a point away from a 5-1 lead, something had changed. Sharapova sensed it, and broke her opponent as Panova began hitting nothing but errors.
At this point in the match, Sharapova began screaming and glaring and fist-pumping somewhere around 8.5 on the Bartoli Scale, and Panova's psychological advantage had ended. The world 150 served for the match at 5-2, but was broken again. She held a match point at 5-4, 40-30, but she double-faulted, then gave her opponent a 74 mph second serve that Sharapova destroyed with a forehand down the line. Panova held a second match point in that game, only to see it, too, obliterated by the Sharapova forehad.
That was it for Panova. It was all Sharapova after that, and the second seed won on her second match point.
Much has been made about Sharapova's fighting spirit, but the world number 2 needed more than her fighting spirit to turn this match around: She needed her opponent to collapse, and Panova obliged, although she certainly went down harder than most of Sharapova's inexperienced-but-hopeful opponents. Panova had the match on her racket, not once, but several times, but in the end, she wasn't up to the heavy psychological burden of pulling off the biggest upset of the tournament.
Sharapova will next face Zarina Diyas, who could give her a bit of trouble. If she wins that one, the Russian will get either Yaroslava Shvedova or Peng Shuai (who has very quietly moved into the third round). Sharapova is ostensibly on a path to meet Genie Bouchard; however, Bouchard first has to get past the relentless Caroline Garcia. If Sharapova makes it to the quarterfinals, either the Canadian star or the Frenchwoman would be happy to finish the job Panova started.
Sometimes, when a champion stumbles badly in an early round, the scare is a kind of wake-up call, giving her the resolve she needs to stop messing around and get serious. Sometimes, though, it's more of a wake-up call to potential opponents that opportunity is theirs for the grabbing.