WTA Finals 2015

Tenacity key for Maria

Sharapova's tactical variety and mental strength vital in three-set victory against brave Radwanska

Maria Sharapova during her 4-6, 6-3, 6-4 victory over Agnieszka Radwanska in their WTA Finals Red Group encounter last night.
Maria Sharapova during her 4-6, 6-3, 6-4 victory over Agnieszka Radwanska in their WTA Finals Red Group encounter last night. ST PHOTO: ONG WEE JIN

Until yesterday, Maria Sharapova had not played a complete match since July. She even admitted a day before the WTA Finals started that she had some rust to dust off her sizeable shoulders.

But one cannot say the Russian has forgotten how to fight.

Her shrieks, her fist pumps, her back facing the court after every point - all of the most recognisable traits of Sharapova's steely mental game were still evident last night, as she battled her way through a slugfest with Agnieszka Radwanska to win 4-6, 6-3, 6-4.

The Singapore Indoor Stadium, while not as packed as the opening night of the inaugural edition last year, still had the crowd reserving its loudest cheers for Sharapova last night. This no doubt contributed towards carrying the world No. 3 across the finish line.

Immediately after the hard-fought win, the second tie of the Red Group, it was clear how much it had meant to Sharapova.

"It's a pretty big deal to me," she said on court immediately after her win.

Despite a favourable 12-2 head-to-head record against Radwanska before yesterday - including wins in all of their last five encounters - Sharapova said the combination of leg and arm injuries over the past few months had left her more uncertain than ever.

Said the five-time Grand Slam winner: "Coming into this event, I tried to do everything I could to be healthy. I didn't quite know how my results would go."

By the third game of the match, spectators had already received the warning that the match might go the distance. The third game alone took almost 10 minutes, while another in the deciding set took close to 14 minutes. The match ended after 2 hours 47 minutes.

Given past experience, both players showed up knowing it could be a marathon match. After all, they had spent 3 hours 10 minutes on the same court last year, when Sharapova also won in three sets.

She joked that yesterday's clash had her toes feeling frozen, that a few years had been taken off her life, and that her hair must now be a hopeless mess.

"There was a lot of running," she said. "I was very determined going into this match. I felt like I was focused and I did everything I could to be ready in the last three weeks.

"(There was) a little bit of hesitation on not getting under the ball as much as I would've liked to."

But the 28-year-old did manage to throw in an uncharacteristically wide variety of shots, with slices, drop shots and lobs filling her game yesterday.

Radwanska, meanwhile, was left to rue the missed chances to level the match at 5-5 in the rubber - including a crucial mistake where she allowed Sharapova to hit a lob winner.

Said the Pole: "I definitely didn't use my chances. I start a little bit too slow in the second set and I guess it was a little bit too late to come back. In those kind of matches when you're not using your chances, it's not really ending your way."

She said of Sharapova: "Very powerful. Solid player. She's really going forward from the first point. So you cannot really step back, because otherwise she's going to pretty much kill you from every point."

Sharapova was well aware she did not play her best tennis yesterday. Her post-match statistics would not impress many.

Twelve double faults, 56 unforced errors.

So what? She got the one victory that counts.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 26, 2015, with the headline 'Tenacity key for Maria'. Subscribe