Eugenie Bouchard rolled back the years by producing the best tennis she’s played in almost three years to defeat Maria Sharapova 7-5, 2-6, 6-4 in a near-three-hour thriller at the Caja Magica on Monday night.
The Canadian world No60 claimed her first win in five attempts against Sharapova, who was playing her sixth match since her return from a 15-month doping suspension.
The build-up of the contest saw Bouchard fire strong words at her opponent, saying she was a “cheater” who shouldn’t be allowed back in the sport. The 23-year-old also said she’d have some extra motivation to beat Sharapova, who refused to engage in a war of words.
But the sub-plot created lots of buzz ahead of the clash and the pair did not disappoint as they played one of the best tennis matches we’ve seen all year.
In a tight showdown that witnessed a combined 36 break points, it was Bouchard who played better when it mattered the most.
Bouchard had to save a break point to hold for 1-all. A nervy forehand unforced error from Sharapova saw her face two break points in game five but the Russian survived both, the latter with a massive backhand cross court winner.
A stunning running forehand cross court winner gave Sharapova game point and she held to inch ahead 3-2.
It was Bouchard’s turn to get in trouble and the Canadian found herself down 0-40. Sharapova broke on her second opportunity with a signature forehand return winner to open up a 4-2 gap.
A failed drop shot attempt from Sharapova – her 10th unforced error of the match thus far – saw her face break point the next game. She saved it but Bouchard still broke on her third chance in a nine-minute game to make it 3-4.
Bouchard took three games on the trot to go up a break and serve for the set at 5-4. But Sharapova had other plans and begged her back.
A marathon 12-minute game saw Sharapova get broken as Bouchard once again got the opportunity to serve for the set, this time at 6-5.
An incredible forehand down the line forehand winner from Sharapova saw her get break point but Bouchard found her serve when she needed it and shook it off. The world No60 finally closed it out with some big serving after 70 minutes of sheer battle.
Sharapova saved a break point in game three of the second set by moving Bouchard left and right before finishing off with the backhand cross court winner. She hung on and was helped by a pep talk from her coach Sven Groeneveld, who asked her to be “the aggressor”.
A bad double fault from Bouchard gave Sharapova three break points and the Canadian double-faulted again to hand over the break and go down 2-4. Bouchard, who hadn’t played at this high level of intensity for a long time, looked like she ran out of steam and Sharapova pounced on the opportunity.
The five-time grand slam champion got her hands on two set points on the Bouchard serve and Sharapova sealed it with a brilliant combo of a sharp-angled forehand followed by a down the line drive winner to level the match.
Some unreal movement from Sharapova saw her cover every inch of the court to get break point in Bouchard’s first service game of the decider. But the 23-year-old dug deep to hold for 1-1.
Bouchard’s fighting spirit was back and she got three break points on the Sharapova serve the next game. Somehow Sharapova got out of trouble, and then saved five break points two games later to hold for 3-2.
But Bouchard broke at love in game seven to inch ahead 4-3.
But her lead did not last as Sharapova earned two break points immediately, courtesy of a backhand down the line winner and she leveled for 4-4. The break-fest continued though as Bouchard capitalised on a sloppy game from her opponent and broke to give herself the chance to serve for the match.
Bouchard saved two break points and got her first match point on a long backhand from Sharapova.
The Russian saved it on a wild point that saw a net cord force Bouchard to sprint to the net, then deal with a lob, before Sharapova found the winner.
The Canadian got a second match point and this time did not falter, slamming across a forehand winner to seal a memorable victory. Bouchard bounced off the ground in celebration before the pair shared a formal handshake at the net.
Andy Murray’s reign as world No1 this season may not have necessarily gone according to plan but that’s not stopping the Brit from having high expectations for the remainder of 2017.
Murray, who opens his Madrid campaign on Tuesday against Romanian wildcard Marius Copil, has suffered a few early losses this year, in Melbourne, Indian Wells and Monte Carlo, and has had to deal with an elbow problem in recent weeks.
He made a last-minute change to his schedule and played the Barcelona tournament, where he fell in the semi-finals to Dominic Thiem.
While he did not walk away with the trophy, Murray feels he’s in good shape for a decent shot at a second Madrid crown.
“Barcelona went really well for me. Got three matches in three days. It would have been nice, obviously, to have played an extra one or two. It would have been perfect,” Murray told reporters in Madrid.
“But I had the long match with Ramos on the Friday. It was like three hours. Then to come out and play again the next day, I actually felt pretty good. I played some decent stuff there. Obviously could have been a bit better.
“But practice here the last few days has been very good. I’m happy with how I’m playing. I’m starting to move better, feel like I served well the last few days, which is an important part of my game.
“Last year I served well. My results improved a lot because of that. Obviously haven’t served so well in Barcelona, Monte Carlo. It’s not easy at this level to win matches if you’re getting broken a lot. Hopefully I serve a bit better this week.”
The soon-to-be 30-year-old won Madrid in 2015 and reached the final last year before going on to capture the Rome title and placing runner-up at Roland Garros.
He has managed to master a surface he had struggled with in the past and believes he can replicate his great form on clay from the last two seasons over the next five weeks.
“Expectations are high. I want to do well the next few weeks. In many ways, it’s the most important part of the year. There’s a lot of big tournaments that come very quickly, one after the other,” added Murray.
The Scot maintains though that it remains a surface that requires the most adjustment from himself.
“At the beginning of the clay season, it’s always a bit trickier for me than the other surfaces just because the movement isn’t as natural on this surface for me as it is on the hard courts and the grass courts. It takes me time. I need to work on that each year when I come back onto it a lot before I feel comfortable doing it,” he explained.
“The last couple of years, once I’ve got that part of my game right, then I feel like clay does actually suit my game well. You know, the results the last couple of years would suggest that.”
Murray started his year by making the Doha final, which he lost to Djokovic, before exiting the Australian Open in the fourth round at the hands of Mischa Zverev.
He won the Dubai title, before losing his opener at Indian Wells, and missed Miami with an elbow problem. A third round defeat to Albert Ramos-Vinolas in Monte Carlo saw his clay season get off to a rocky start, but he avenged the defeat to the Spaniard the following week in Barcelona, where he made the semis.
“To be honest, the one (early loss) that was disappointing for me was Australia, because it was a slam, a tournament where I’d had really good runs for a number of years in a row. I felt good going into it. That one was disappointing to me,” reflected Murray.
“I think Indian Wells, I’ve struggled there in the past. I’ve lost maybe some matches there that I wouldn’t have been expected to. I haven’t played well there. I mean, that’s happened to me. That’s not just been this year that that’s been the case.
“Then, yeah, since then I’ve obviously had the elbow issue. It was touch-and-go whether I was going to be able to play Monte Carlo.
“I mean, the one disappointment for me this year has been the Australian Open really. That’s one that I thought about, spoke a lot to my team about at the time. Yeah, I tried to learn from that one.
“But now I’ve been wanting the last three, four weeks to get myself back in match shape, feeling fit and healthy again. And I do. I’m hoping now my results start to pick up.”
Rafael Nadal has pushed his start date at the Mutua Madrid Open from Tuesday to Wednesday in hopes to recover from a painful ear infection (otitis) before he commences his assault on a fifth title in the Spanish capital.
The world No5, who is on a 10-match winning streak that included trophy runs in Monte Carlo and Barcelona, first felt the pain late on Friday and admits it’s been an unpleasant experience.
“Yeah, it’s painful. Happened on Friday night. I wake up 3:00 in the morning with pain on the ear,” Nadal told reporters at the Caja Magica on Monday.
“No, I am still practicing. But today little bit better than yesterday. But still bothering me. Is something new for me. I never had. Is something that it really bothers a lot because is pain all around and on the head. Sometimes you get dizzy little bit with that.
“But it’s fine. I visit the doctor two days ago. Is nothing important. Just takes little bit long, few days. Hopefully going to be good. I supposed to play Tuesday. That was the idea, I think. That was my goal. But with that probably going to be much better play Wednesday.”
Nadal opens his Madrid campaign against temperamental Italian Fabio Fognini, who had a famous five-set win against him at the US Open in 2015. Nadal has beaten Fognini all three times that followed that meeting in New York and is 8-3 head-to-head against him.
After losing his first three finals of the year (to Roger Federer at the Australian Open, to Sam Querrey in Acapulco, to Federer in Miami), Nadal turned things around with triumphs on the clay of Monaco and Barcelona and is now looking to extend his winning run.
“Right now I feel fine. I’m very happy because of the start of the year, not only because of the start of the clay season. I think in general it’s been some very good months,” said Nadal.
“Of course, since the beginning of the clay season, I needed to win a title after playing a few finals. I’m very happy for having achieved that.
“Right now we’re here in another event. We’ll leave the past behind us. I’m happy for all I achieved. It is something that is behind my back. It’s something that is very hard to achieve.
“We’re here to play another tournament, a very different tournament. It’s very important for all of us, especially for me, because it’s very special for me to play at home once again.”
Nadal seems to be enjoying a surge in form but the Mallorcan insists there hasn’t been a dramatic change in his game, or the way he’s been doing things.
“Basically what I’m doing better or what I’ve been doing better for the last couple of months is that I’ve been playing way better than what I did in 2015. Last year I had an injury, but I was playing well, too,” he explains.
“My game now is not so good. My game before was not so bad. You don’t have to lie to yourself. There are just things you try to develop, try to have evolution with. You just need goals. You have to just train with joy. You just want to be able to do things better.”
The 30-year-old has been accompanied in Madrid by both his coaches, Toni Nadal and Carlos Moya, who was added to his team at the start of this season.
Asked to comment on Novak Djokovic’s recent decision to part ways with his entire coaching staff that had been with him for more than a decade, Nadal said: “I think if he believes that he needs that, for sure is the right decision. That’s it.”