Sharapova overcomes Errani to win first match at WTA Championships

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The third match of the day in Istanbul, a repeat of the French Open final between Maria Sharapova and Sara Errani, ended with the exact same scoreline. But the contest was a much tougher battle than the numbers suggest, and Sharapova, drenched in sweat from as early as the first few games, will have been relieved to come through such a tough workout unscathed.

Errani’s participation in the tournament had been in doubt, as she was nursing a thigh injury that forced her out of her last tournament in Beijing. However, the pocket powerhouse was in determined mood right from the get-go, matching the powerful Russian from the baseline and scrambling for every ball. The first four games were a 30-minute slugfest, full of long, intense rallies that were as draining for the players as they were entertaining for the crowd. Sharapova’s 2-0 lead was soon erased by Errani, but the Russian managed to secure a second break and move to 4-2, fending off two break points against her along the way.

Errani is having the best season of her life, and she showed flashes of the form that has carried her to four titles and a career-high ranking of 7. Scurrying and slicing from all corners of the court, she ran down Sharapova’s brutal groundstrokes and refused to be out-hit, often getting the extra ball back in order to draw an error from her opponent. To Sharapova’s credit, she maintained her trademark sense of calm in spite of a frustrating inability to dominate points, holding serve throughout the remainder of the set to eventually take it 6-3.

The second set played out in a similar vein. Long, gruelling points showcased the contrast in styles: Sharapova’s fierce hitting alongside Errani’s brick wall defence. However, the Italian, who was achieving the rare feat of out-grunting her notoriously vocal rival, could not match Sharapova for winners, and found herself 5-1 down in the second set after losing two of her service games.

The Sharapova serve was becoming a more reliable weapon; 70% of her first deliveries were now landing in the court. This allowed Sharapova to gain the upper hand in her service games, and Errani, for all her resilience and guile, could not compete. She continued to make the Russian work for every point, and her clever use of angles and slice kept her in many rallies, but the world number 2 held firm. She won her final service game to clinch a hard-fought victory 6-3, 6-2 in just over one and a half hours.

Although she did not have it entirely her own way during Tuesday’s match, Sharapova will be content with a superb winners tally of 39, as well as 6 aces. Another positive for the French Open champion is the court surface, which is playing very slow this year. Although Sharapova’s power game benefits from hard courts, a slower surface gives her more time to set up for shots. Given that she has had her greatest success this year on red clay, Sharapova must fancy her chances of doing extremely well in Istanbul.

She will take on Agnieszka Radwanska on Wednesday, and victory would guarantee Sharapova a place in the semi-finals of the championships for the first time since 2007.

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