In certain moments Sunday afternoon, you could see it in Maria Sharapova's eyes. Her frustration boiling over, the memories of past early eliminations haunting her brain. You could see her pressing.
She just wouldn't give in.
Sharapova defeated 19th-seeded Samantha Stosur 3-6, 6-4, 6-0 to advance to the 2014 French Open quarterfinals, coming back from the brink of elimination to oust the upset-minded Aussie.
Stosur, a 2010 finalist in Paris, came in motivated to flip the script on her career record versus the seventh-seeded Russian. Sharapova had taken 13 of her 15 career matches against Stosur, including each of their three on clay. But for the first hour of the match, it seemed it was Stosur, not Sharapova, who held the distinct career advantage.
While never dominant at any point, Stosur made a series of clutch shots when she needed, performed admirably on her serve and never let the weight of the moment get to her. She breezed through the first set 6-3, breaking Sharapova twice as the Roland Garros crowd settled in for what was shaping up to potentially be the day's second big upset.
From the outset, something was amiss with Sharapova—particularly with her serve. She hit only 20 of her 35 first serves in play during the first set, allowing Stosur an opportunity attack versus weak second serves. Stosur won more than half of Sharapova's second-serve points. That helped Stosur earn five break points, two of which were converted, as did Sharapova's three double faults in the first—particularly in moments of high pressure.
The first set ended on the third service gaffe. In the second, Sharapova gave away an early break by drilling the ball into the net on her second serve. With five double faults, Sharapova was never in her peak form.
At least not until she needed to be.
Tied 4-4 in the second set with Stosur serving, something within Sharapova's psyche clicked. The final two games of that set and her entire third were a masterclass in Sharapova tennis. The serve found its groove, the forehands powerfully peppered the lines and the grouchy disposition was replaced with fist pumps and determination—like a superhero whose powers were stolen and returned.
Instead of Sharapova, it was Stosur at a complete loss as everything went wrong in the third set. Sharapova was accurate on 64 percent of her first serves, won three quarters of them and systematically overpowered Stosur on her own serve.
With the Aussie's steadiness on her serve being so key to the first set—she held Sharapova off on four break points—her struggles as the match went along proved impossible to overcome. Sharapova needed only 31 minutes to cap off her comeback in a jarring 6-0 third set.
"I have beaten her before," Stosur told reporters prior to the match. "I know what it takes. I know I have to play very well against her. I know there are certain things I have to do well and if I don't, then it makes life very, very tough that day."
Sharapova has advanced to at least the semifinals every year at Roland Garros since 2011. Once a self-titled "cow on ice" when playing on clay, Sharapova had emerged as one of the world's best on the surface late in her prime. She completed the career Grand Slam in Paris in 2012 and got to the finals before losing to Serena Williams last year.
With Williams gone and wins at the Porsche Tennis Grand Prix and Madrid Open under her belt, Sharapova has been anointed by many as the favorite going forward. Her latest trip to the semifinals will be paved through one of two possible unseeded opponents.
Garbine Muguruza, who upset Williams, defeated Pauline Parmentier on Sunday for the right to take on Sharapova later this week. Sharapova defeated Muguruza in their only previous matchup last year in Rome. That second-round match saw Sharapova barely break a sweat in a 6-2, 6-2 romp.
Muguruza will come into the quarters as a heavy underdog to Sharapova. If what we saw in the second half of Sunday's match is a sign of things to come, she won't stand a chance. When Sharapova is at the top of her game, no one on the planet—save for Williams—can match her shot for shot.
But inconsistency has done in many tennis greats on this stage. Sharapova herself has many times fallen victim to just that, as Williams did against Muguruza. On Sunday, she nearly did again. The sighs, the eye rolls, the self-admonishment are all part of the Sharapova meltdown folklore.
There's a funny thing about maturation, though; sometimes you grow up just enough to push yourself past those things and reach your goal. Sharapova did so just in time versus Stosur.
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