No one, not even Maria Sharapova herself, knew quite what to expect from her return to Grand Slam tennis at the US Open.
It had been 19 months since she had entered a major tournament. She played only nine times anywhere since a 15-month doping suspension ended in April. Two three-set tussles into her stay at Flushing Meadows, it’s clear that Sharapova’s game might be patchy, but she is as capable as ever of coming up with big strokes in big moments — and maybe, just maybe, could stick around for a while in a depleted draw.
Sharapova became the first woman into the third round at the US Open by using 12 aces to help set aside a poor start and coming back to beat Timea Babos of Hungary 6-7 (4), 6-4, 6-1 on Wednesday in Arthur Ashe Stadium.
“Look, I certainly have expectations, just because I know I’ve been in these stages before and I’ve been able to execute. There’s a certain level of ‘I know I can do this. I’ve done it before. I want to have that feeling again,’“ Sharapova said. “But there’s also the realistic understanding of, ‘OK, you haven’t been in this situation for a while. It’s going to take a little time.’ Of course, managing expectations is part of it, learning as you play the matches, which is something I haven’t done for a long time.”
Her victory was the highlight of a busy day that featured 87 singles matches on the schedule after rain washed out most play a day earlier. With so many matches going on, there were plenty of names to keep tabs on, although few truly remarkable results.
The most noteworthy second-round loss was by No. 4 Alexander Zverev, a 20-year-old German who despite his lofty seeding and considerable potential has only once been as far as the fourth round at a major. He was beaten by Borna Coric 3-6, 7-5, 7-6 (1), 7-6 (4).
Past US Open champions advancing included Venus Williams and Marin Cilic into the third round, and Juan Martin del Potro and Svetlana Kuznetsova — who saved three match points — into the second. No. 14 Nick Kyrgios, No. 22 Fabio Fognini, No. 26 Richard Gasquet and No. 27 Pablo Cuevas all lost their openers.
In the early going, it looked as if Sharapova might join them on the way out.
She made 19 unforced errors in the first set, which ended with her missing twice on forehands to give the 59th-ranked Babos the lead. But as the match went on, Sharapova looked more and more like someone who used to be ranked No. 1 and owns five major titles — including the 2006 US Open — than someone who needed a wild-card invitation from the US Tennis Association because she is now 146th, on account of her ban and lack of play.
Sharapova last participated in a major tournament at the 2016 Australian Open, where she tested positive for the newly banned heart drug meldonium. She declined to answer a reporter’s question about how frequently she’s been drug-tested this year.
Babos said she thought it was “a little bit unfair for the other players” that Sharapova was let into the field, a sentiment echoed by No. 20 seed CoCo Vandeweghe of the US, who would have preferred that an American get that wild card.
But here Sharapova is, and she does not appear ready to be an easy out.
“Towards the end of the second set, I felt like I was the fresher player. Going into a third set, that’s a good position or a good feeling to have,” said the 30-year-old Russian, who wore a strip of black tape on the left forearm that bothered her earlier in the month.
She also had a sleeve on her right elbow, which she said was to keep that arm warm.
Sharapova cut down her miscues to 12 unforced errors in the second set, then just five in the third, and finished with a 39-13 advantage in winners, looking as strong as she did while eliminating No. 2 seed Simona Halep in a three-set thriller in Ashe on Monday.
“I definitely wanted to enjoy the quality of tennis that I played with the other night,” Sharapova said, “but I also wanted to put my mind onto this one.”
She already has spent nearly 5 hours on court, and so perhaps the yelling and fist-pumping she showed at the end against Babos were as much a reflection of a sense of relief as celebration.
If 14 return winners were a key to getting past Halep, it was Sharapova’s serving that really made a difference down the stretch against Babos: She won 16 of the last 19 points she served.
“In key moments, she showed why, no matter what happened to her, why she is a big player and good player,” Babos said, “because she came up with some very, very good shots and she didn’t miss her opportunities.”
In 1988 as a 17-year-old, Dharmendra Bidhuri lost in the quarter-finals to Services’ LK Bose in his first senior nationals. The loss would start a three year-long losing streak for the flyweight boxer till another quarter-final loss against now Indian coach Dharmender Yadav in 1990, which marked the end of his career in the ring. He was married the same year and five years later, set up Bidhuri Boxing Club in Madanpur Khadar village near Sarita Vihar in Delhi, a place where a decade later, his son Gaurav would start his tryst with the sport. When Gaurav became only the fourth Indian boxer to reach the semi-finals of the World Championships, assuring himself of a medal after a 3-0 win over Tunisian Bilel Mhamdi in Hamburg, it brought back memories of all the quarter-final losses for the senior Bidhuri.
“When I started boxing, I reached the quarter-finals in my first year at the senior level but lost to Bose in the quarters. I got a job offer from Services the same year but since we had a family business, I did not join. The following two years saw me losing again the quarters and my father got me married. Perhaps that was the reason I started the club as I wanted to be close to boxing. Gaurav ki aaj ki quarter-final ki jeet ne un sabhi losses ko bhula diya,” shares 49-year-old Dharmendra. Gaurav is also aware of what his achievement means to his father.
“I got a wild card entry into the tournament and the gold medal at the Grand Prix in Czech Republic did help my confidence. I feel so happy for my father, who always had faith in me. In almost every competition, I lost in the quarter-finals and I had to break this barrier,” said Gaurav, who will now face American Duke Ragan. “There was pressure today but I talked with my coaches and countered the Tunisian’s headbutts. Now I want to change the colour of this medal and am eager to create history for India in the world championships,” said Gaurav. His mother Sunita did not watch his quarter-final as Gaurav too has had his share of quarter-final defeats in the the last three years. He lost in the quarter-finals of the 2014 Incheon Asian Games to Uzbekistan’s Shakobidin Zoirov before going down to American Antonio Vargas in the quarter-finals of the Rio Olympics qualifiers in Venuzuela last year. “I do not watch his matches as I still worry for injuries. But then his father would again ask him to train in the basement of the academy. Woh kehte hain har naya tournament ek naya start hota hai aur aaj ka medal bhi hamare liye naya start hai,” Sunita said.
Struggle of early days
Gaurav started boxing at the age of 10 and participated in his first state-level tournament in 2006. He became the sub-junior national champion in Noida in 2006 before joining the senior ranks in 2010 and won a bronze medal at the 2011 National Games where he defeated L Devendro Singh in the quarter-finals in the flyweight category (52 Kg).
“I still remember when he accompanied me for a sub-junior state championships, he was 11 and wanted to fight in the championships. But they had the lower age limit of 12 years. He cried for more than one hour and later I talked with boxing official Narottam Singh Rawat. They organised a show bout against a boxer, who was three years older to him and 5-6 Kg heavier. He defeated him and even though he did not win a medal, he would talk about it to the academy boys for a long time,” remembers Dharmendra.
Bidhuri was also signed by Mumbai Fighters in 2011 for World Series of Boxing and the youngster scored a win against Russian Vladimir Nikitin (who won the bronze medal in 56kg in Rio last year). In 2015, Bidhuri fought eight bouts for Italia Thunders in WSB, and scored four wins in the flyweight division. He was also signed by USA Knockouts but only managed three bouts before the Rio Olympics qualifiers last year.
Last year before joining the USA Knockouts, Bidhuri underwent an operation in Patiala to remove a stone, which meant he had to spend his recovery time in the USA. While he lost in the Rio Olympics qualifiers in Azerbaijan and Venuzuela, Bidhuri suffered an injury to his right hand knuckle which kept him away from the ring for more than two months. It was also a time when the youngster decided to make a switch to the 56 Kg bantamweight category, and he reached the Quarterfinals of the Asian championships in Tashkent, Uzbekistan in May early this year which acted as qualifiers for world championships where he lost to China’s Jiawei Zhiang before losing to Japan’s Ryomei Tanaka in the box off for quota place for world championships in Germany. “After the surgery and hand injury. he stayed at the village for more than a month and we would do shadow boxing and work on his footwork. Before the quarter-final today, I talked with Dharmendra Yadav and we still talk about his quarter-final win over me. And we will talk again tomorrow about changing the colour of Gaurav’s medal,” Dharmendra said.
HYDERABAD: It was so near, yet so far for PV Sindhu. The lanky shuttler gave it her all, but still had to settle for silver in the World Championships. In the one-hour 50 minute slugfest, the longest match of the tournament so far, Sindhu lost the title 19-21, 22-20, 20-22 to Nozomi Okuhara of Japan on Sunday.
The 22-year-old shuttlers were involved in perhaps the best women's singles final with all the strokes, dribbles or drives on display. Only six points across three sets separated Sindhu and Nozomi. Sindhu saved a championship point trailing 19-20, but luck deserted her as the Japanese girl scored the next two.
It was all over once Nozomi's drop puzzled Sindhu at 21-20 and the Indian girl was crestfallen. Nozomi became the first Japanese women's singles champion while Sindhu is the second Indian after Saina to secure silver. Unlike at the Olympics when she recovered fast to congratulate the eventual champion Carolina Marin, Sindhu took a lot of time and looked deeply hurt after the loss.
After mowing down Chen Yufei of China in straight sets in the semifinals on Saturday, Sindhu was the clear favourite in the final. She even played like one and led 11-5 at the break. But Nozomi came back strong, hitting the shuttle hard and returning everything. The Japanese girl surprised the Indian with her guile and retrieving ability. From 10-14, Nozomi came up with an eight-point burst and dominated thereafter.
Sindhu started on a strong note after losing the first game and both players indulged in lengthy rallies. With Sindhu ahead 15-13, she won a rally which lasted 43 shots.
That gave the Indian a lot of confidence as she powered ahead to 20-17. But Nozomi was so determined that she saved three game points before both players delighted the crowd with the longest rally of the match. Sindhu won that 73-shot rally and clinched the game 22-20.
At the start of the third game both players looked tired but their will to win the title kept the contest alive till the last point. The fact that the game itself lasted a good 46 points (the time usually taken to finish three games) is an indication of the intense battle. This is the third medal for Sindhu after the two bronze medals at the 2013 and 2014 championships.
Delighted with her victory, Nozomi thanked her fans. "I am extremely delighted to become the world champion and I thank everyone for supporting me. It was very tough and I am tired," she added.
Saina Nehwal and PV Sindhu created history on Friday as both entered the women’s singles semi-finals of the World Badminton Championships, thereby assuring themselves of bronze medals and that for the first time Indian shuttlers will return home with at least two medals.
There is also a high possibility that the two could meet each other in the final on Sunday, provided they beat their respective opponents on Saturday.
Twelfth seeded Saina was tested by local girl and 16th seed Kirsty Gilmour before prevailing 21-19, 18-21, 21-15 in a marathon match that lasted an hour and 14 minutes.
Saina has now beaten the Scot five times in as many matches. In fact, this was the first time Kirsty managed to win a game against the Indian.
Saina, who won a silver at the 2015 Worlds, will next take on Japanese seventh seed Nozomi Okuhara, who ousted defending champion Carolina Marin of Spain the another quarterfinal. Saina has a strong 6-1 record against the Japanese.
Sindhu guarantees third medal
Earlier, PV Sindhu did not have to break a sweat as she eased past World No.6 Sun Yu 21-14, 21-9 to enter the women’s singles semis in Glasgow on Friday. The 2016 Rio Olympics silver-medallist needed just 39 minutes to dismiss the Chinese fifth seed to assure herself of a third World Championship medal, a feat achieved by no other Indian.
The 22-year-old Sindhu, who time and again has shown how to lift herself at the big stage, always brings out a game which is good enough to beat the best in the world.
Unlike the previous three decades, when Indian shuttlers struggled at the world’s biggest stage, the Pullela Gopichand-coached Indian shuttlers have been among medals in recent times.
Prakash Padukone pioneered India’s success at the Worlds, winning a men’s singles bronze at the 1983 edition.
India had to wait for another 28 years before Jwala Gutta and Ashwini Ponnappa clinched a bronze at the 2011 Worlds. Since then, Indian women have ensured they do not return empty handed from the annual event.
Sindhu won successive bronze medals in 2013 and 2014 and Saina Nehwal went a step further, winning silver at the 2015 edition. (The World Championships are not held in the year of the Olympics).
Such was Sindhu’s dominance on Friday that the fourth seed won 42 of the 65 points played in the match to register her fourth victory over the Chinese in eight meetings.
At the start, Sindhu rushed to a 3-0 lead. Sun tried closing the gap at 4-5 but made far too many errors and poor line judgement calls, allowing Sindhu to take a 13-4 lead.
The unforced errors made it too easy for a player of Sindhu’s calibre, who needed just 19 minutes to win the game. The Indian World No. 4 did not even have to use her ‘killer’ smashes and closed it on her second game point.
One would have expected China’s top player to fight back in the second game but Sun Yu had lost confidence after losing the first. She continued making errors and Sindhu took the momentum into the second game.
The fourth seed needed only one matchpoint to finish the contest.
Sindhu next faces ninth seed and World No.10 Chen Yufei, who ousted former World Champion Ratchanok Intanon in the quarterfinals earlier in the day.
Chen, also a Chinese, has a 1-1 head-to-head against Sindhu but won the only contest played between them this year, in Malaysia.
Earlier, Kidambi Srikanth suffered heartbreak. The 24-year-old was only a win away from earning his maiden medal at the Worlds. But the Guntur-born lad went down in straight games to the top seed and World No.1 Son Wan-ho. The South Korean took just 49 minutes to beat the eighth seed Srikanth 21-14, 21-18.
Having beaten the reigning Asian Games champion twice in recent past, Srikanth was hopeful. However, it was not to be his day.
In the first game, Son Wan-ho raced to a 6-1 lead to take the early advantage. However, Srikanth fought back with some brilliant smashes to level the contest at 8-all.
The game was close enough till the point when Son was leading 13-12 but he went on a spree, winning the next eight out of 10 points to pocket the first game.
Son took the momentum into the second game and easily took a massive 16-5 lead. Srikanth put all his focus together to close the gap and brought the scoreline to 18-19. But by then, the Indian had run out of steam and Son clinched the next two points to finish the game and match.
The South Korean will next take on two-time Olympic champion Lin Dan in the semis. Son has a poor 2-10 record against the legendary Chinese.
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