PARIS – Defending champion Maria Sharapova lost to No. 13 Lucie Safarova at the French Open on Monday, suffering her earliest exit from the tournament since 2010. The two-time champion couldn't raise her level against the talented Safarova, losing 7–6, 6–4 in Monday's rescheduled fourth round match. How surprising is the loss? Not that surprising. After a delayed start to her clay court preparation due to a leg injury, Sharapova looked to be rounding into form late in the lead-ups, winning the title in Rome a week before the French Open. That she picked up some sort of cold or virus right before the start of the tournament was a spell of bad luck, but she managed to get through the first week against potentially tricky opposition without dropping a set.
But against the talented and dangerous Safarova, Sharapova simply couldn't find another gear. There were the untimely double-faults, both in the first set tiebreaker and at deuce 4–5 in the second set, which gave Safarova her first match point. The Russian responded by playing fantastic defense to put up a defensive lob that landed near the baseline, and Safarova put a forehand weakly into the net. The 28-year-old Czech, always a great talent without the results to show it, has never been a reliable closer. It was easy to think Sharapova would escape with the hold and keep her chances alive.
Safarova steeled herself, almost as though she could hear the general murmurs of "Same ol' Lucie." She fired a forehand winner at deuce to earn her second match point and then finished it off with another forehand winner to seal the match to make her first French Open quarterfinal.
"I felt like I had small openings, and I just wasn't able to play a good few points," Sharapova said. "I just wasn't able to keep that level up today. She was able to do that for a longer period of time. She was the much more aggressive player. She took the time away from me, created her angles and I didn't."
For Safarova, this result feels like it should have come sooner, but she seems to peaking at this point in her career. Last year she made her first Slam semifinal at Wimbledon, losing to her compatriot and eventual champion Petra Kvitova. Earlier this season she won the biggest title of her career at the Qatar Open, beating Victoria Azarenka in the final. On Monday she thoroughly outplayed Sharapova and held her nerve at the end, finishing with 34 winners and 22 unforced errors, while Sharapova hit 20 winners and 26 unforced errors.
Sharapova dismissed any talk of her illness impacting her results this year, though it was clear throughout the week that she spent just as much time coughing through matches as she did hitting forehands. "I'm still a competitor no matter what," she said. "I'm going to do everything in order to go out and give it my best, and I think I did the best I could. Today it wasn't enough, because my opponent had a different gear than I did. But I was still there and I still competed, but it wasn't enough."
Sharapova's loss leaves the bottom half of the draw wide open. Only one Top 10 player remains in that half: 2008 champion Ana Ivanovic, who hasn't made it pastthe quarterfinals in Paris in six years. How big of an opportunity is this? One of Ivanovic, Elina Svitolina, Safarova or Muguruza will make Saturday's final.
SNAPSHOTS FROM DAY 9
This post will be updated.