Sharapova's championship chances received a boost before she even stepped on the court for Day 4. Serena Williams, the tournament favorite, was knocked out by Garbine Muguruza. With Li Na also out of the equation, the Russian star moved to the front of the pack.
Clay didn't begin as the surface of choice for Sharapova. She was consistently making it to the business end of the other Grand Slam events during the early portion of her career, but made just one semifinal at Roland Garros in her first eight appearances.
Her fortunes at the second major of the season began to change in 2011. Since that point, she had reached the semifinals three straight times, including her first title in 2012. The improved results were a result of her hard work to improve on clay.
Jim Caple of ESPNW passed along comments from the fan favorite about the process of becoming more comfortable on the surface:
I think it was one of the biggest individual goals I had, because I realized that I needed to do something about it, and I think I just took it upon myself. There wasn't a specific moment, but it was really a combination of these moments in the gym or these moments on the court. It's almost like getting that fear away. OK, you can slide and you can get back in the court. You don't need to just hang around by the post on the side. It's OK to get back on the court and play your game again.
Sharapova got off to a sluggish start as Pironkova rushed out to a quick 2-0 lead in the opening set. As usual, it was an issue of movement as the No. 7 seed wasn't navigating the court well and it was leading to unforced errors.
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The early deficit served as a wake-up call for Sharapova. She cruised through the first round without being seriously tested, dropping just three games to fellow countrywoman Ksenia Pervak. It quickly became clear this would be a tougher test.
She rebounded well. The four-time major champion didn't face another break point for the rest of the set and got back level with a break of her own to level the set at 4-4.
After a pair of holds, Sharapova was able to capture the first set with another break. She picked a perfect time for some of her best ball striking of the match, pushing Pironkova off the court and setting up some easy winners.
And when you play that well, the luck seems to fall your way. That was the case for Sharapova, who got the benefit of a net-cord winner to close out the set.
Ben Rothenberg of The New York Times noted the comeback from the new top choice on the women's side:
Maria Sharapova, new betting favorite for the women's title, digs out of an early deficit to take the first set 7-5 over Pironkova. #RG14— Ben Rothenberg (@BenRothenberg) May 28, 2014
SI.com's Beyond The Baseline provided word that Pironkova received treatment from the trainer following the set:
Maria Sharapova eeks out the first set 75 on a net cord and Pironkova calls the trainer. #rg14— Beyond The Baseline (@SI_BTBaseline) May 28, 2014
The second set was far more straightforward.
Sharapova started hitting the court far more often off both wings, which dropped her unforced error total from 20 to seven. Add in the fact Pironkova certainly didn't seem at full strength after the trainer's visit and it was pretty routine for the Russian.
She used a pair of breaks to close out the match 6-2 in the second. Yahoo Sports' Busted Racquet pointed out the real accomplishment was avoiding the upset bug:
As the upsets keep rolling on, Maria Sharapova is able to survive 7-5, 6-2 over Tsvetana Pironkova.— Busted Racquet (@Busted_Racquet) May 28, 2014
Looking ahead, Sharapova will play the winner of the second-round clash between Monica Niculescu and Paula Ormaechea for a spot in the round of 16. She will be a heavy favorite either way despite never facing either potential opponent.
While it's important for her to remain focused on each individual match, it's hard not to start thinking about a title run. The eliminations of Williams and Li blew the draw wide open for her. Now she must find a way to capitalize.