Maria Sharapova admits things have been “frustrating” for her since her return from her doping ban last April, with her first round defeat to Naomi Osaka in Indian Wells on Wednesday being the latest setback for the Russian star.
Sharapova, who lost to Osaka 6-4, 6-4 in one hour and 35 minutes, fought back from a break down in each set but couldn’t stop the 20-year-old Japanese from advancing.
Physical problems have interrupted Sharapova’s comeback multiple times so far. Her most recent issue has been a forearm injury that forced her to withdraw from Dubai after she lost in the Doha first round to Monica Niculescu.
Sharapova’s loss to Osaka is her third defeat in a row on tour and takes her win-loss record in 2018 to 5-4.
“I’ve been working through a few physical things and that’s been frustrating because there’s been a lot of starts and stops since I’ve come back and that hasn’t really given me the type of playing match rhythm that I really wanted,” said the two-time Indian Wells champion on Wednesday night.
“But I felt like I committed today and there are a lot of good things that I can take away.
“It hasn’t been an easy couple of weeks since Doha, trying to get healthy, but it’s there, I need some time. I’ve done it before. It’s obviously frustrating to lose these types of matches that you get ready for and you want to win but it’s part of the process, I realise that.”
Sharapova was facing Osaka for the first time and described her as a “rising star”, commending her aggressive game.
Currently ranked 41 in the world, the five-time Grand Slam champion was one of several dangerous unseeded players in the draw – Serena Williams and Victoria Azarenka are also unseeded – and is still making her way back up the rankings
“I knew that since the comeback, I have to work to get myself to be in a seeding position, to get what they call a better draw, all those things. That takes work, that takes time, I’m not afraid of any of that, I’ve been in those positions before,” assured the 30-year-old Sharapova.
Asked if she thought she would be farther along in her comeback by now, nearly 11 months into return, Sharapova said: “That’s not how I looked at my comeback. All I know is that this year I’m competing and I’m playing and last year I wasn’t in that position so I have a lot to be grateful for when I walk out through the tunnel and onto that court and I have an incredible amount of fans that watch me play and that I get to play in front of. And that I didn’t have for a long period of time so that’s a big difference.”
“How many weeks has it been since then? So I can say that now I am recovered,” the world No. 1 jokingly told reporters at Indian Wells on Wednesday. “It was tough.”
The Romanian has suffered two Grand Slam final defeats within the last nine months but has come out on the other side stronger and wiser.
She’s the top seed at Indian Wells this fortnight, where she opens her campaign against Kristyna Pliskova in the second round on Friday, and is coming off a three-week break she needed to recover from a foot injury.
Halep used the break to unwind both mentally and physically, following a draining Australian Open that saw her save match points in two different matches en route to the final. She did that while nursing an ankle and foot problem.
The 26-year-old then played Doha, where she pulled out of the tournament before her semi-final match because of her foot.
She’s been practicing at Indian Wells looking to get back to business and while she says she’s not 100 per cent just yet, Halep feels she’s “close” to her best level.
“When I came [to Indian Wells] I was a bit upset and sad on court because I didn’t feel the ball straightaway but my coach Darren [Cahill] told me ‘you were out for about three weeks so it’s normal to be up and down’,” Halep said.
It’s no secret that Halep can come down really hard on herself but she’s been working with a sports psychologist on that very issue to make sure she finds the balance between seeking perfection, while still cutting herself some slack.
“I’m always looking for perfection but at the same time I know it doesn’t exist. So it’s a little bit weird there, why I’m thinking about it, even though I know it doesn’t exist?” said a stumped Halep.
“But now I have worked with someone in this direction to be kind with myself and to understand myself that sometimes I cannot be 100 per cent on court and I just need some time. So I’m doing well in that direction and that’s why maybe I got to No. 1.”
This fortnight at Indian Wells, Halep will extend her reign at the top of the rankings to a total of 19 weeks. If she keeps the No.1 spot until after Miami, she will equal Maria Sharapova’s tally of 21 weeks at the summit.
Halep captured the No. 1 ranking for the first time last October and ended the season at the helm.
“I have learned that I’m able to do great things. Of course it was one of my dreams to get to No. 1 but I never believed 100 per cent that I’m able to do that and after I did it, it was like a relief and it gave me power that I can go ahead and do better things,” she explains.
“So I’m thinking now that everything is open and I’m able to do anything.”
The No. 1 ranking has switched hands multiple times over the past 14 months and Halep has already lost it and regained it this season, swapping positions with currently No. 2 Wozniacki.
Wozniacki could unseat Halep again after Indian Wells but she would have to either reach the final or win the title, depending on the Romanian’s results here.
Asked what it meant for the WTA tour that the top spot is moving around between multiple players, Halep said: “It means that all the girls from top-10 are really good and the level is similar. Every tournament is open and it’s more interesting in my opinion.
“We have more fun like that – changing the No. 1 more. I’m not saying that it was a boring thing Serena winning everything and being No. 1 all the time because she’s a great champion but now is different and I feel it’s more interesting, that’s the word.”
Media day at a combined tournament is always a hectic affair as journalists sit down with the top eight seeds from each draw to catch up and hear their thoughts before the action begins.
On Wednesday at Indian Wells, we got to speak to most of the top seeds while keeping an eye on the women’s first round matches and men’s qualifying clashes that were taking place at the same time.
Players are typically relaxed when they’re still in pre-tournament mode and it also helps when you’re all hanging out at what is one of the most beautiful tennis events in the world. It’s hard to find a player, journalist or fan who doesn’t like to come to Indian Wells.
Several singles players choose to also play doubles here in the California desert to give themselves a chance to get used to the conditions with some extra match play. This year at Indian Wells, there’s a $1 million bonus for any player that sweeps both the singles and doubles titles, which is a very cool way to incentivise top singles stars to enter the doubles draw.
“No we love to play together. He’s a great guy, we have a good relationship and also it’s a good practice for us before a singles match. You never know what could happen but we’re playing just for our tennis and that’s the only reason,” said the 29-year-old Argentine.
When one reporter asked if he’d share the money with us if he won it, Del Potro swiftly replied: “It’s all yours.”
We may have to call him on that if it actually happens!
World No. 1 Simona Halep is also playing doubles this tournament, with fellow Romanian Irina-Camelia Begu.
“I heard, but it’s tough to think about it,” Halep said when asked if she knew about the bonus.
“It would be nice (to win it), we can go shopping me and my partner, so it’s going to be nice if it happens.”
Would she share her extra cash with the press?
“With the press corps? I was thinking to share it with my partner but I can buy some presents for you,” said Halep with a smile.
Jelena Ostapenko, who is playing doubles with her Latvian countrywoman Anastasija Sevastova, gave the best reaction when asked about the bonus.
“What bonus?” said the French Open champion. “I didn’t even know that. Really? Good to know.”
Meanwhile, Del Potro was quizzed about his continuous bad luck with draws as he once again fell into a tricky quarter that could see him face David Ferrer in the third round and a 10th-seeded Novak Djokovic in the fourth round.
“Always, that doesn’t change,” Del Potro said when told his draw was a tricky one. “That’s the draw I expected for sure.”
So does he typically look ahead when the draw comes out to see what it looks like?
“I don’t look too much but I always know I’m in the worst part of the draw,” he joked.