After bypassing the Sony Ericsson Open due to injury, Maria Sharapova bounced back by winning the first clay court tournament of her career at the Bausch & Lomb Championships in Amelia Island, Florida, a tier II event. Sharapova defeated Slovakian Dominika Cibulkova 7-6, 6-3.
The one-week affair commenced on April 7. The main singles’ draw showcased 64 players, 8 from the top 20 along with other prominent names such as Lindsay Davenport and Amelie Mauresmo. Regrettably, last year’s champion, Tatiana Golovin was unable to attend after undergoing surgery in March to extract a cyst from her hip as well as an appendectomy. In addition, past winners Venus Williams and Elena Dementieva withdrew due to health reasons.
As a first time participant at this event, Sharapova utilized this as a preparatory step to Roland Garros, as she begins her quest to win her first French Open. Unlike a ballerina, Sharapova is heavy footed on clay. For the world’s number 5, movement was clearly an issue in her matches, as Sharapova needed three sets in the third round and the quarterfinals to advance against Annabel Medina Garrigues of Spain and Alona Bondarenko of Ukraine respectively. This is keeping in mind that the highest ranked player Sharapova faced was Bondaranko at 22. Maria received a walkover in the semifinals when past tournament champion, Davenport, was unable to play due to a viral illness. On Sunday, Sharapova took on Cibulkova who turned out to be a problematic opponent despite being ranked 34 in the world. This eighteen year old has been steadily climbing in the ranking. This week proved quite a confidence booster with Cibulkova having wins over Anna Chakvetadze ranked 7 in the world and former world number one, Amelie Mauresmo.
In the finals, even though Sharapova obtained the lead early on in the first set, she was broken and a tiebreak was required to determine the set’s owner. In the tiebreak, the Slovakian had chances to put away the set. Cibulkova even got a freebee when Sharapova’s foot touched the net as she hit a winning volley, that mistake cost Maria the point. But unforced errors by Cibulkova put the Russian back on top and gave her the set. In the second set, Cibulkova broke Sharapova in the initial games, but subsequently renounced the lead. In the match, a significant tipping point was Cibulkova’s weak first serve; she only won 58% of the points despite serving at 65%. On the other hand, Sharapova had more than twice as many winners (38 to 14) and won 70% of her first serve points. With only two other top ten players in the draw, it is hard to judge how well Sharapova will do versus more natural clay court players such as Justine Henin. Yet, having added this trophy to her case will surely enhance Sharapova’s belief that she can conquer the “terre battue”.