Wimbledon: Maria Sharapova slowly building her rhythm
Russian’s power too much for Dutch outsider after she learns power of patience
Maria Sharapova hits a forehand during her match against Richel Hogenkamp at Wimbledon. Photograph: Henry Browne/Reuters
It was an unusual entrance for the 2004 title holder, Maria Sharapova. Because of the heat and humidity many of the fans that had come to court two were standing up flapping their clothes. Those higher up at the back of the amphitheatre were facing away from the umpire’s chair and into a light breeze blowing across the All England Club.
So when she came there was a small ripple of applause; in terms of welcoming a former champion, it was more polite than enthusiastic. Towering over her opponent, Richel Hogenkamp, Sharapova, her lips tight and face lightly stressed, didn’t care a jot.
Her partner Grigor Dimitrov had just come off the same court having played his way into the third round with a 7-6, 6-2, 7-6 win over American Steve Johnson. She had a little bit of living up to the other half to do.
Facing a player making her Wimbledon debut, ranked outside the top 100 and low enough not to be included in the WTA handbook, a player who has won just €10,091 this year and whose appearance on court came through the qualifying tournament, was an exercise for Sharapova in facing up to expectations.
But first-week matches are there to test the best as well as the Hogenkamps of the tennis world, although the Dutch player appeared almost a foot smaller than the 6ft 2in Sharapova.
In tennis, size counts and while it took Sharapova some time to adjust, she eventually grabbed the match and ran away with it. By the second set, as she sped to a 3-0 lead having won the first set, the crowd began to get involved.
The now unoriginal booming scream of “I love you, Maria” quickly followed by a wimpy “me too” from the other side of the court meant just one thing, that the fans were sensing the match was unravelling for Hogenkamp.
What Sharapova will ask herself is, was it good enough to win the title for the first time in almost 10 years? She has not made it to the final since 2011. Never doubtful, the answer will be yes.
Typically, the good parts of her game were good and the bad parts awful, one string of three double-faults in succession handing Hogenkamp a service break in the sixth game of the first set.
But steaming at herself for a lapse that could have turned the match against a better opponent, Sharapova rattled off the games and while the scampering Dutch fighter was eagerly chasing down everything and winning over the crowd with her tenacity and willingness to mix up the game with drop shots, the Russian power kicked in.
What the little Hogenkamp highlighted was that even at a lowly 123 ranking and having only once before played against a top-five player, moving the fourth seed around the court was productive. Sharapova’s power, which kept her opponent on a treadmill between the tramlines, simply didn’t allow her much opportunity.
A ferocious crosscourt forehand drive killed the match 6-3, 6-1. The scoreline looked good but it wasn’t vintage Sharapova. She stooped to her opponent at the net, broke into a smile, pirouetted and waved. This time the crowd were watching.
“I feel my first-round match, compared to today, had different conditions. The court played a lot slower. We had a lot longer rallies. Didn’t get a huge advantage off the serve [or] the return,” said Sharapova.
“Didn’t serve my best today. Made a few too many unforced errors. Overall, once we got into the rallies, once I realised I needed to be a little more patient, then things started working a little better for me.”
She felt satisfied without having impressed herself. Now in her 13th year of coming to SW19, a win in the first week is plenty. She even took time to look on Dimitrov’s game beforehand. “I actually watch a little bit of all the matches, especially the matches beforehand, before my match,” she said.
“Since he was playing on my court, I like to see what the conditions are, how the court is playing. So, yeah, I don’t shy away from that.
“I think we’re quite professional in that we do. We try to separate, you know, our match times and go about our business as we would in any other careers, respect each other very much.
“When we’re out here, we’re doing our job and trying to do the best we can.”
Heather Watson, the only British woman left in the draw, also warmed local hearts when she reached the third round for the second time in her career, beating Daniela Hantuchova. Fiesty Watson went 3-1 down in the first set but fought back to take the match 6-4, 6-3.
“I’m really happy with way I played. I went 3-1 down, made three double faults and kind of gave the game away,” said Watson. “But I stayed composed and I didn’t let that bother me,” said Watson.
“I hit the ball a lot harder, was more aggressive. That’s the way I have to play against players like that.”
More of that composure will be required in her next match as she now faces Serena Williams, who on a mission for a calendar grand slam.
That’s on Friday, probably on Centre Court.