WHEN Maria Sharapova first won Wimbledon as a 17-year-old, the question was how many more times she would lift the Venus Rosewater Dish. When she lost 7-6, 4-6, 6-4 to Angelique Kerber in yesterday’s fourth round, a decade on from that famous victory, it seemed more relevant to ask if the Russian would ever add a second triumph to that first one.
She should have done it again by now. Notwithstanding her injury problems, she has had the opportunity to add two or three more titles. This year, that opportunity was arguably greater than for some time.
Venus Williams is a faded force now. Serena, while still capable of greatness, did not get past the first week here, losing in Saturday’s third round to Alize Cornet. That left Petra Kvitova as the only other former champion in the draw – and the Czech player is in the other half, meaning the two could only meet in the final.
Well, not this year they won’t. Sharapova is the most consistently competitive player on the women’s tour, but even she cannot sustain her best form all of the time, and when her level dips, others rise to the challenge.
That was the case with Kerber. When the going got tough, the smart money said, the German would crumble. Most players do when up against Sharapova at her most aggressive, and yesterday Kerber’s resolve was tested as never before.
The No 9 seed had a single match point on the Sharapova serve at 5-2 in the third set: she lost it, and you suspected then that her chance might not come again. The suspicion became all the stronger in the next game when Sharapova broke back, and grew into virtual conviction when five more match points went begging at 5-4.
Sharapova takes a while to build up momentum but, once she does, it can be the devil’s own job to stop her. That has frequently been the case over the ten years since she won the title, and it looked like being the case again in this fourth-round match on Centre Court.
By the time that sixth match point had gone, Kerber looked like she was on the verge of tears. Sharapova, too, seemed emotionally drained, at the climax of the best match of the women’s singles so far.
Then at last, at the seventh time of asking, Kerber made it over the line, albeit thanks to an unforced error by her opponent. The crowd, their sympathies having moved steadily towards Kerber during the contest, applauded the victor heartily as the two players left court, with Kerber understandably exultant after one of the biggest victories of her career.
However, you suspected that the woman celebrating most, and the biggest beneficiary of the result, was not there on court at all. Eugenie Bouchard, who now meets Kerber in the quarter-final, had a day off yesterday, having disposed of Cornet on Monday. She will be rested today, while Kerber, surely, will still be feeling the effects of this win.
Sharapova, too, will be feeling them for a while – not so much the physical fatigue, as the blow to her morale of seeing another chance at a title vanish, even if she insisted her status as tournament favourite did not make defeat any harder to swallow.
“I always consider myself one of the favourites, because I’ve won Grand Slams before, been No 1 in the world,” she said. “It’s absolutely normal for people to have high expectations of me doing well in Grand Slam stages. I certainly do, as well.
“Today could have gone either way, and it didn’t go my way. I gave myself a chance to come back in the match after losing the first set. After having a slow start to the third [when she went 3-0 down], I felt like I worked too hard within the match to let it go the easy way. So I did everything I could in the end to try to save those [match points]. I did, but I didn’t save the last one.
“I still love playing on grass. I think my game suits the surface extremely well. The surface itself has changed since ten years ago. I don’t think we had the rallies that I had with Kerber today ten years ago against anyone.”
Kerber, no rookie at 26, has been to the semi-finals here before, but knows she is up against it in her bid to get there again by defeating Bouchard. “It will be a tough one,” she said. “I lost against her in Paris, but I’m feeling right now better and I’m feeling better on grass.
“I never played against her on this surface, so I will be focused.”