Top women's seeds down and out
LONDON -- They were but two components in Wednesday's second-round horror show, but as the bottom half of the women's draw all but caved on a historically gory day at Wimbledon, the exits of No. 2 seed Victoria Azarenka and No. 3 seed Maria Sharapova resonated loudly.
The two are among eight former No. 1 men's and women's players who've been eliminated over the first three days. Azarenka, citing a knee injury sustained in her first-round match Monday, also followed the trend of a combined seven men's and women's players who retired or withdrew Wednesday when she pulled out of a scheduled meeting with 158th-ranked Flavia Pennetta.
Not to be outdone, Sharapova crumbled on the court in a stunning 6-3, 6-4 upset to 131st-ranked Michelle Larcher de Brito.
Sharapova, out of sorts from the outset, committed 18 unforced errors (twice as many as her opponent), complained bitterly about what she called "dangerous" conditions after slipping three times and took a seven-minute medical timeout late in the second set.
But none of that rattled her 20-year-old opponent and fellow student of the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy, who advanced to her first Wimbledon third round by basically outsmacking one of the most relentless baseliners in the game and winning on her fifth match point.
"I think it was a combination of everything," Sharapova said. "I give my opponent a lot of credit. She played extremely well today, was really solid from the baseline. I don't feel I was aggressive enough, hit the ball deep enough and I wasn't ready after returns or serves. She's someone who plays extremely aggressively, and I just wasn't there."
While Sharapova made a point of saying the slippery surface was not an excuse, as Larcher de Brito also had to play on it, she did admit it became something of a distraction.
"I'd probably be lying to say you don't think about it," Sharapova said. "Obviously, when you fall twice or three times, you do think about it. Maybe if I fell all the time on the court I'd say this is the way I play, but I rarely see myself on the ground."
With Nos. 2, 3 and 5 (Sara Errani, a first-round upset victim) gone, the bottom half of the women's draw completely opens up, with 2011 Wimbledon champion and No. 8 Petra Kvitova, a walkover winner against the injured Yaroslava Shvedova on Wednesday, the highest seed remaining.
Oddly, American Sloane Stephens, seeded 17th, is the third-highest seed remaining on that side, behind Kvitova and No. 15 Marion Bartoli.
One could say the two biggest threats to Serena Williams' Wimbledon defense are now out of the way in Azarenka and Sharapova, but the two have lost 25 of their past 27 matches against Williams combined.
Sharapova tied for her earliest Wimbledon exit (she lost in the second round in 2008 and '09).
Trading their own distinctively loud squeals with each groundstroke in long rallies more commonly seen on clay courts, it was Sharapova who uncharacteristically wilted most often. Trailing 4-1, 15-40 in the first set after Larcher de Brito broke serve in the fourth game, Sharapova appeared to be mounting a comeback, winning eight of the next nine points to save serve and break.
But Portugal's Larcher de Brito won eight of the next nine points to break back at 5-3, then hold serve for the set.
When her groundstrokes sprayed long and wide, Sharapova simply had no other tactics to go to, a shortcoming that generally stops her when she plays the sharper, stronger Williams.
Sharapova became sloppier in the second set with 12 unforced errors, struggling even on Larcher de Brito's second serve, and slipping and falling a third time in a game in which her opponent would hold serve to go ahead 4-2.
But Sharapova would wait until holding serve herself to take a seven-minute medical timeout following the seventh game. Any thought that Sharapova would have a tactical advantage upon returning was put to rest, however, as Larcher de Brito held serve at 5-3 en route to the victory.
"It's frustrating," Sharapova said. "You certainly don't want to lose matches whether it's early or late, but this tournament is extremely special and tough to lose. But I'll keep my head high because there's no other way, and I'll find a positive after today in my career, set new goals and just keep moving forward."
For Larcher de Brito, who did not know Sharapova at Bollettieri's, the goal is obviously the same.
"My father's my coach, and we just said, 'Do my best,'" she said. "I came from qualifying. Second round already. No. 3 in the world, I just got to do my best. Got nothing to lose because I've already done so well. That's what I did. I just gave it my all."