Italian Open 2014: Maria Sharapova's Clay Vulnerability Resurfaces Before French

Lindsay Gibbs@linzsports Featured ColumnistMay 15, 2014

Russia's Maria Sharapova reacts after losing a point during her match against Serbia's Ana Ivanovic at the Italian open tennis tournament in Rome, Thursday, May 15, 2014. (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia)
Gregorio Borgia/Associated Press

Maria Sharapova has looked invincible on clay this year. However, after her surprise loss to Ana Ivanovic in the third round of the Italian Open in Rome, the rest of the WTA now has a blueprint on how to take down the four-time major champion on the dirt. 

Prior to Rome, the 2012 French Open winner was undefeated on clay in 2014. Sharapova had won clay-court titles in Stuttgart and Madrid, taking out four players in the Top Five and three French Open champions along the way. 

But on Thursday, Sharapova finally had an off day on the dirt. Ivanovic, currently having her best season in five years, won convincingly in straight sets, 6-1, 6-4. For the first time in a while, nothing went right for the creator of Sugarpova.

It's important to note that the Serb, now ranked No. 13, played a nearly perfect match. The former No. 1 took the ball early, assertively hit winners from all over the court and smartly attacked Sharapova's second serve. Ivanovic, who won the French Open in 2008 but has been in a slump since, did a great job of keeping Sharapova off balance.

Speaking with reporters afterwards, Sharapova, whose ranking has dropped to No. 7 after she missed the end of last season with a shoulder injury, conceded that Ivanovic was simply the better player on this day. 

My energy level today maybe was not the best, but Ana played a really great match, she came out with winners from all over the court and she was the better player, that’s it. She was more aggressive than me, she wasn’t making a lot of mistakes. I felt that when I had a good shot I didn’t do much on the next one. I had opportunities but I didn’t follow through, and hesitated a little bit.

This match certainly didn't follow the script that both players have written recently. In the past few years, Ivanovic has been an expert at collapsing in matches against a wide variety of opponents, and Sharapova's reputation has been built on her ability to come back from tight situations. Both of these truths were on display the last time these two met, in the Stuttgart final last month. There, Ivanovic was up a set and a break before Sharapova rallied to take 11 of the last 12 games and claim the title, and the Porsche that came with it.

Daniel Maurer/Associated Press

But on this day, there was no wavering from the Serb and no digging deep for Sharapova. Ivanovic looked like the 20-year-old who made three Slam finals and climbed to the top of the rankings in 2008, while Sharapova looked like a shell of the "Claypova" tennis fans have come to know over the last few years. 

However, Courtney Nguyen of Sports Illustrated's Beyond the Baseline blog believes that the extra rest that Sharapova will get after this loss could be good for her.

The upset may be a blessing in disguise for Sharapova, who will now have time to rest both physically and mentally before the French Open, where she was a finalist last year. Her plan now is to shrug off the loss and head to Paris.

'It doesn’t take anything away from the last two weeks and the way that I’ve played. So I’m quite excited about the weeks coming up at the Grand Slams,' [Sharapova said.]

The French Open used to be one of the worst Slams for Sharapova, but it has turned into one of her best thanks to her impressive clay-court development. Over the last three years, Sharapova is 47-3 with six titles on clay. She's made the finals of Roland Garros the past two years and is certainly one of the favorites to get back there this year.

Before her loss to Ivanovic on Thursday, Sharapova was 47-0 against players not named Serena on the dirt over the last three years.

But on Thursday, Ivanovic helped out the non-Serenas on the WTA tour by exposing the Russian's weaknesses. Sharapova's serves are still impacted from her shoulder injury and are a present for powerful returners. And, while she has come a long way from her "cow on ice" days, Sharapova's movement on clay is still not the best.

Sharapova didn't seem too concerned after her loss, though. Going forward, she is focused on preparing for Roland Garros with her team, including coach Sven Groeneveld. "I am going to try to recover the next two or three days, settle down in Paris and get my body ready for a week of training," she told reporters. "I’ll have a week of training and I think it’ll be very important."

So, while surprising and a bit revealing, this loss isn't a huge blemish on Sharapova's record heading into the second major of the year. If anything, it's a wake-up call. The rest of the field might have a better sense of what the Russian's weaknesses are, but exploiting them is much easier said than done.