Maria Sharapova Out of 2011 US Open in Shocking Third-Round Exit
In case you haven't heard, third seeded Maria Sharapova has been shown the exit from the US Open by the wily Italian Flavia Pennetta, 6-3, 3-6, 6-4.
The two had met only three times, with Sharapova leading 2-1. Despite a considerable disparity in the flashiness of their resumes and their games, each encounter had been a closely fought, tense battle of wills.
Today was no exception. In the late afternoon sun, Sharapova's grunts became louder as the noose tightened and she went down 0-3, 15-40 in the deciding set.
But Sharapova has always been known as a fighter. Maria is the female Nadal, a woman who never gives an inch and plays every point as if it is match point. And so she fought back, and eventually the set was level at 4-4.
Pennetta served to go ahead, and then put the pressure squarely on Sharapova's shoulders.
The battle at that moment was less between the two players than between the Russian's mighty will and her own technical flaws. She had never lost a third set in twelve tries this year. But in the match, she had committed 10 double faults already, and 60 unforced errors total.
Ultimately, the weight of her mistakes was too much to bear. There was a flicker of an emotion on Maria's face in that final game that you don't often see: fear.
Sharapova was not confident in her serve. It had abandoned her too often in the match and over the course of the year. It's rare that Sharapova's head is clouded by anything, but looking at her you felt for the first time that she was thinking about what a loss might mean, or how she would survive in the tournament even if she passed this one match.
We couldn't be surprised, then, by the two double faults that gave Pennetta a 30-0 lead on the Sharapova serve.
Credit Pennetta, too, for finally closing the door on Sharapova with two beautiful winners. She has cleared a major hurdle, and the path ahead could lead her deep into the second week if she cleans up on her unforced errors and holds her nerve.
As for Sharapova, she'll leave a vacuum in her half of the draw.
In her current form it is unlikely she could have survived through to the final, much less challenged Serena Williams. Still, she provided celebrity and was the only player who could match Serena's fierce will.
Maybe their rivalry will reignite in the future. But for now, the US Open has become the Serena Williams show, more than it was already.
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