On her return to tennis this week, Maria Sharapova has offered icy stares and perfunctory answers to anyone who dared ask awkward questions about her 15-month doping ban.
Various British reporters have clearly got on the wrong side of Team Sharapova – and the same may now be true of Kiki Mladenovic, the French No. 1, who on Saturday delivered the second half of a stinging double-whammy.
Not only had Mladenovic led the outcry against Sharapova in March last year, after her original confession of a positive test for meldonium. But on Saturday she ousted tennis’s highest-earning woman from her first tournament back. And that will have repercussions for Sharapova’s hopes of playing at Roland Garros next month.
Monday is the cut-off date at which the qualifying field for the French Open is decided. Frustratingly for Sharapova, she needed only to beat Mladenovic yesterday to make sure that she would be on that list. But her 3-6, 7-5, 6-4 defeat means that she will start next week ranked No. 262, when only players in or around the top 200 will sneak in.
This may not prove to be a problem if the French Tennis Federation award Sharapova a wild card into qualifying, Or, as seems less likely, a wild card into the main draw.
The FFT have already promised to announce their decision by Facebook Live – a dramatic way of dealing with this administrative wrinkle – on May 16. But Sharapova would surely have loved to earn a spot under her own steam.
The sense of a missed opportunity will be all the greater because Sharapova stood within touching distance of a comfortable victory. Having snared the first set, she looked unstoppable when Mladenovic served at 4-4 in the second and faced three break points. But that was Sharapova’s downfall yesterday: her dreadful conversion rate. She earned 16 break points in the match and took only three of them.
Mladenovic was the first opponent who had stood up to Sharapova all week, using drop shots and slices to neutralise the power coming from the far side of the net. Perhaps the moral of the story was that you can practise your serves and groundstrokes all you want on the training court, but you can’t practise dealing with pressure in a tour semi-final. The stakes were high, for Sharapova was playing not only for a shot at a 36th career title today, but also that French Open carrot.
So, Sharapova will have to rely on the FFT’s generosity. Still, a run to the semi-final here was probably better than most would have expected after a 15-month lay-off.
She claimed three straight-sets victories and earned 185 rankings points, which might not cut it for Roland Garros, but gives her a head start on the same process with regard to Wimbledon. Because of the three week gap between the two majors, another 75 points from Madrid and Rome would put her into qualifying at Roehampton, while another 415 or so would earn a main-draw place in SW19.
Meanwhile Andy Murray fell at the semi-final stage in Barcelona, where he was unable to tame the muscular style of Austria’s Dominic Thiem, and went out by a 6-2, 3-6, 6-4 margin. Given that Thiem had already disposed of the other two Britons in the draw, Kyle Edmund and Dan Evans, we could describe him as a Brexit specialist.
Ranked No. 9 in the world, Thiem’s Wawrinka-esque power will make him a serious threat at the French Open. Yet Murray – whose win-loss record for 2017 now stands at a modest 15-5 - still feels like he is battling himself after his litany of injuries and illnesses this year. The last two points of this match found him handing over his serve via some uncharacteristic mental aberrations.
There was one British victory yesterday on the men’s tour, however, as Aljaz Bedene moved into his second ATP final by beating Laslo Djere 6-2, 6-4 in Budapest. Bedene, who is on a run of 16 straight wins, will play Lucas Pouille in today’s final. If he wins, he will overtake Kyle Edmund to become the British No. 2.