Anyone assuming Maria Sharapova was going to engage in a war of words with her next opponent Eugenie Bouchard should think again as the Russian insisted on Sunday that her main focus would be her tennis and nothing else.
Sharapova and Bouchard are set to square off in the Madrid Open second round on Monday (22:00 Dubai time, 20:00 Madrid time) just two days after the Canadian reiterated her statements regarding her opponent, in which she branded her a “cheater” who shouldn’t be allowed back in the sport.
Bouchard said she would have a “bit more motivation” to beat Sharapova on the back of the comments she made about her return from a 15-month doping suspension.
Sharapova, who reached the semi-finals in Stuttgart in her first tournament back, began her Madrid campaign with a 4-6, 6-4, 6-0 win over 17th-seeded Mirjana Lucic-Baroni, whom she described as a “human slingshot”.
The former world No1 though would not get dragged into any drama when asked to respond to Bouchard’s comments, and insists she will not be affected by the digs aimed at her when she steps on the court.
“It’s not the way I go about my job, and I never really have. I’ve been in the public eye since I was a very young girl. I’ve heard a lot of things,” Sharapova told reporters on Sunday.
“If everything affects you on and off the court, I think that would be a really challenging position to be in. Yeah, it’s not the way I think. My tennis speaks for itself, and that’s what I focus on.”
Sharapova is 4-0 head-to-head against Bouchard, but they’ve had tight clashes in the past, including a memorable three-set semi-final at Roland Garros in 2014.
The Russian five-time grand slam winner had an appropriate preparation for the Bouchard match in the form of Lucic-Baroni – a big-hitter who doesn’t give much rhythm to the person across the net from her.
Sharapova says Lucic-Baroni and Bouchard have some similarities in their games.
“I’m not quite sure how to describe the match because it feels like it happened so fast,” the 30-year-old said of Lucic-Baroni, who saved four set points before surrendering in the second and getting bulldozed in the decider.
“I thought she played really well. I was playing against, like, a human slingshot for a while there. Balls were coming so fast and deep. I mean, for a couple of sets, I don’t believe we had too many rallies over three balls.
“She goes for it. You have to be patient. Sometimes there’s not much you can do. Those are great shots, on the line. I mean, the breakpoints, I missed a couple of second-serve returns. That was obviously an error from my side. But she came up with some great winners. Just got to hand it to her.”
Sharapova has sent the Caja Magica into frenzy from the moment she arrived in Madrid and her practice sessions have been jam-packed by fans. The is understandably more attention, and scrutiny, surrounding the Russian since her return from her ban, but she feels she’s been handling it fairly routinely.
“It’s interesting. I feel like I’m still doing very much the same thing that I’m doing. I’m very much in my element. I think it’s always great to be the person that’s kind of in control of your actions while everything around you is moving in a different way. I don’t know how to explain it,” said Sharapova.
“Not much has changed from my end. I still go through my routines. I still go through my training. I’m around my team. But then there’s a little bit more around. I definitely feel it, but it doesn’t change anything that I do.
“I’m kind of the driver of that. I like being in that position. I like doing my work. I love being quiet about it and letting everyone around speak or have the noise, whatever it is.”
“Let’s see what Novak’s next moves are.”
Those were Andy Murray’s words when asked to comment on the bombshell news that Novak Djokovic announced on Friday, that he has parted ways with his entire coaching staff after over a decade of working together.
Murray echoed our exact sentiments. The Serb’s next appointment will be crucial for his quest to regain his top form and from the looks of it, Djokovic is looking to hire another “legend” or “super-coach”.
Djokovic, who has suffered a slew of unusual losses during the last 10 months, split with Boris Becker at the end of last season, before revealing two days ago that he will no longer be working with Marian Vajda (head coach), Gebhard Gritsch (fitness trainer) and Miljan Amanovic (physio).
The world No2 is yet to decide what his next actions may be and is here in Madrid with his brother Marko. But he hinted that he could, once again, turn to someone who has won grand slams and understands the experiences that he is going through.
“To be honest, I’m still going through the process of thinking about what the next step will be in terms of finding that person,” Djokovic told reporters in the Spanish capital ahead of the kick-off of his Mutua Madrid Open campaign.
“I assume it’s going to be someone that has been through similar experiences like I have, so… Not too many people in the past of tennis have managed to get to that stage and play at that level, so I’ll see.
“I’m thinking slowly and thoroughly about it. I don’t want to take things with a rush.”
Djokovic, who has a 14-4 win-loss record so far this season, is the defending champion in Madrid. He has lost before the semi-finals in four of the five tournaments he has contested in 2017 – which is well below his standard.
The lack of success in recent months eventually led to the split.
“We all felt like we needed a change. We all felt like we needed to kind of enter a new chapter,” explained Djokovic.
“It was a mutual decision. It was not only my decision. We gave it a last shot I think in the last couple of months. We talked about what I guess the future brings for us at the end of the last season.
“We tried to work things out another time, but we just needed to move on.”
Djokovic added that Vajda has been practically travelling continuously for the past 30 years as he went from being a player, to coaching to Dominik Hrbaty, to moving to his team, with no breaks in between.
Despite having a fairly large entourage for the past decade, Djokovic insists travelling solo, or with his brother, will not be difficult for him.
“I’m completely confident in myself, and I believe in the process of change, that it’s going to bring me some good things,” said the soon-to-be 30-year-old.
“I’m going to take a little bit more time to think of the next person that will be there as a tennis coach. But, as I said, I don’t want to rush into it because I don’t think I’m incapable of being by myself, or with my brother, with my family now on the court. I completely feel comfortable with him and by myself.”
He continued: “Right now it’s a transition sort of process that I’m embracing and I’m accepting. So I’m just trying to be in the moment.”
One member of Team Djokovic that is still around is Spaniard, Pepe Imaz, who is being referred to as a “guru” by some media outlets and whose tennis academy’s mission is to “give absolute priority to the person’s wellbeing, feelings and emotions”.
It appears Imaz has been a key figure in what can be described as Djokovic’s spiritual journey. A video of them meditating together emerged a few months ago but Djokovic insists their acquaintance is far from new.
“Yes, he’s here. We’ve been working together for the last four, five years. He’s still part of the team,” said Djokovic of Imaz.
Djokovic’s career went from complete domination that culminated with him winning the French Open to secure the Career Grand Slam, to a bit of a stutter, all within a 12-month period.
“Of course when you start losing more matches, you start questioning your game, yourself, what you’re doing wrong so you can rectify that and get better, turn the tables around,” he said.
“Of course, I’m thinking about it. I’m analysing my game. I’m trying to get as much as I thoroughly personally can do, and also input from the people that are close to me. I’m constantly trying to improve and to get better.
“In the last six months, I haven’t had too many of great results. That’s why, I’ve felt like I needed some changes and I needed to approach things maybe a little bit differently, which is completely fine.
“It’s just life always throws a new challenges as you. Instead of avoiding them and ducking them, I’m trying to confront them and trying to embrace them. I guess in the process, I’m trying to get better as a person and as a tennis player.
“How long maybe this process is going to last before I get to the winning terms again, I don’t know. I’m just hoping I will get there again.”
He signed off from his press conference on Sunday the only way he knows how – being philosophical and optimistic about the future.
“It was just meant to be for me this way. But I’m sure difficult paths lead to beautiful destinations,” said the Serb.
Djokovic is seeded No2 in Madrid and begins his title defence against one of two Spanish wildcards – Tommy Robredo or Nicolas Almagro.
Madrid -- Saturday was one of those days you could sense from the moment it started that it would be a never-ending one.
When you have four day-session matches and every single one of them goes to three sets, you know you’re in for the long haul. Then of course, the first night-session match, which started two hours later than it should have, also went three sets.
The women’s draw kicked off on Saturday, along with men’s qualies, and there was so much action both on and off the court.
Last year’s runner-up Dominika Cibulkova was unable to do her pre-tournament press conference during All Access Hour on Friday so she sat down with the press on Saturday, which happened to be her birthday. The tournament got her a cake, and yes, we sang.
A Spanish reporter asked Cibulkova about Spain’s top two players, Garbine Muguruza and Carla Suarez Navarro, and turns out, they’re quite good friends.