Maria Sharapova raised a lot of eyebrows when she brought Jimmy Connors on as her coach earlier this summer.
Tuesday, on their team debut, she raised a lot of doubts after being upset by Sloane Stephens 2‑6, 7‑6, 6‑3 in the second round of the Western and Southern Open.
That was certainly not the start the dynamic duo was hoping for.
After her shocking second-round loss at Wimbledon, Sharapova announced that she was parting ways with her long-time coach Thomas Hogstedt and adding the eight-time Grand Slam Champion Connors to her camp.
The opinions of the tennis community were pretty much split right down the middle as to whether this was a disastrous clash of two egos, or the next Andy Murray-Ivan Lendl masterpiece.
The doubters certainly had ground to stand on. Connors hadn't been in the coaching business since he split with Andy Roddick in 2008, and, besides his engagement to Chrissie Evert during his playing days, he never had any strong ties to women's tennis.
Optimists, however, thought that this pairing might be just the spark that Sharapova needed to finally topple her biggest rival, Serena Williams.
But in order to try her luck against the likes of Serena, Sharapova has to find a way to get past players like Stephens first.
A little rust was expected of Sharapova in her Cincinnati debut, since she was playing her first match post-Wimbledon after taking time off to heal her hip. But when she raced out to a 6-2, 2-0 lead over No. 17 Stephens, most pencilled her into the next round.
Then she went off the rails. Sharapova racked up 16 winners and 62 unforced errors in the three-set shank-fest. She simply couldn't keep a ball in play, and looked like a drastically different player from the steadier Sharapova that spectators have become accustomed to.
Tennis Magazine writer Pete Bodo thinks that the shambolic performance should be enough to rattle the star-studded coach and pupil.
It looks like Sharapova and her new coach Jimmy Connors have a lot of thinking to do before the U.S. Open, because the world No. 3 has been off for five weeks and had officially scheduled nothing between Cincinnati and the U.S. Open. I still say this partnership is headed for disaster, and was from day one.
But in press afterwards, Sharapova took full responsibility for the defeat:
You know, I stopped being patient. I started making a lot more errors, especially off the first ball. Just errors that I shouldn't make. Obviously I haven't played in a long time, but I can't make that excuse for myself because I've got to be ready from the first match.
Before the match, Sharapova told USA Today that she enjoyed having Connors around because of his intense personality, great work ethic and vast experience.
She still echoed that sentiment after the loss, while acknowledging that she was the one who had to execute in pressure situations:
It's great to have his support. And as I said, I mean, I'm enjoying being part of his experience and him‑‑ you know, just the understanding of certain situations. He's been there, done that. It's just nice to have.
But when you're out on the court, if it gets to 5‑All or 6‑all in the third set, you're worrying about you and your opponent and, to be honest, not so much what's around you or your coach or the crowd.
The WTA allows on-court coaching, and many nosy fans and media members were hoping that Sharapova would call out Connors, especially when she started to struggle. But Connors remained firmly planted in his seat in the stadium, although he didn't have quite the poker-face of Lendl.
Though this was probably the worst start they could have hoped for, the Sharapova camp is still hopeful— or at least they want us to think that they are. Sharapova refused to take a wildcard into the WTA event in New Haven next week, claiming that she wanted to be fresh since she's "planning on playing a lot of matches in New York."
Connors, meanwhile, tweeted out proof of his confidence too, though he might have confused some with his logic:
Sharapova had a great start to 2013, but she's certainly taken a giant step backwards since losing to Serena in the French Open final. She's lost her No. 2 ranking to Victoria Azarenka once again, and has a measly 1-2 record.
There are always massive expectations on the four-time Grand Slam Champion's shoulders, and the addition of Connors only makes them that much heavier.
In order to keep up her status, she can't afford a repeat of her performance in Cincinnati at the U.S. Open. Neither can Connors.
It would be foolish to panic after just one match, but with this high-profile of a partnership, neither will have the privilege of patience.
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