Maria Sharapova booked her place at next month’s Wimbledon qualifying event by beating Christina McHale in the first round of the Internazionali BNL d’Italia.
The 30-year-old will move into the top 200 in the world rankings after seeing off American McHale 6-4 6-2 in one hour and 35 minutes on Monday.
And that is enough to earn Sharapova direct entry into Wimbledon qualifying at Roehampton, while she could still earn a place in the main draw if she reaches the semi-finals in Rome this week.
Sharapova, playing at her third WTA Tour event since returning from a 15-month doping ban, found herself 3-1 down in the early stages against McHale but soon hit back, levelling the scores at 4-4 before winning the next two games to claim the first set.
The 2004 Wimbledon champion raced to a 3-0 lead in the second set and had a series of break points in the fourth game, but McHale held to reduce the deficit.
Sharapova won the next two games and although McHale broke back to make it 5-2, Sharapova took the next game to clinch victory.
The Russian, who is a three-time winner of this event, will take on Mirjana Lucic-Baroni in the second round.
Kristina Mladenovic has emerged as a force to reckoned with in the women’s game this season, winning a title and reaching three more finals so far in 2017, to rise to a career-high ranking of No14 in the world.
The Dubai resident has been making waves on the tour, not just because of her skills on court, but also for being one of the more outspoken voices of the circuit.
The Frenchwoman will be providing an exclusive column to Sport360 to give us an uncensored and insightful view of what it’s really like to be a professional tennis player on tour. This is her first installment, which coincides with her 24th birthday.
Hello everyone! I am doing this with Sport360 because I’m a resident in Dubai and I myself discovered the newspaper and the website once I started living there.
It’s really important for me to see that tennis can be followed all around the city that I love, and that it gets more popular, because we have so many great athletes and champions living there. Dubai has so many things to offer and I feel that we also have to offer something back.
I tend to be outspoken about various issues we face on tour, which I think is very important.
It’s me, it’s my personality, I don’t speak too much, but when I do, it’s really well-thought and I really want to express things because I kind of know I’m right and that I won’t regret it.
When I’m not sure about things, or there’s a doubt, I don’t allow myself to come in or to judge anyone. But I think nowadays whether on the tennis tour or in sport in general, or in society, I think we’re blocked somehow. We’re afraid to express what we feel is right, and sometimes it’s not easy to defend the values you believe in.
I think I’m in a position, in my sport at least, as a celebrity or whatever, I can have maybe a little impact and say out loud what most of the people think but they maybe don’t have the courage to say it. That’s just me, I’m not forcing myself to be that way, I have inside of me that kind of leader behaviour.
There was a lot of backlash from the previous comments I made about Maria Sharapova, and I was criticised by her fans. When you love someone you don’t really see the truth, and it can be painful. All this story is quite heavy, it’s a big topic.
For me, there are two sides, the athlete and the person. As I said, I never loved the person she is, because she’s not very sociable, not very respectful, or polite… of course we can’t all be friends on the tour, and it’s also a job. But you know, manners – hello, thank you… we see each other every day so we can salute each other, be polite, manners, just respect. I think anywhere in the world human beings should respect each other and not ignore each other, otherwise life would be sad.
And then there’s athlete. I always respected her a lot for the champion she is, everything she has achieved, her professionalism, her behaviour and attitude on the court, showing a great example, a great fighting spirit. And I have to say that when this news came out, I was disappointed.
Even if I didn’t like the character, I always had tremendous respect for all she has achieved, because I never achieved that and she’s a true champion of our sport.
But when this happened, of course you get disappointed and it puts a doubt on how she’s done it all. Her story is that she’s been taking this substance (meldonium) for 10 years. Okay, some people are saying before January 2016 she was fine (it was legal), so basically she was just taking a prohibited substance for three weeks (from the day it became prohibited to the day she tested positive).
If this substance became forbidden, it means that even in the last 10 years it should have been, it was just that they didn’t discover it and it was not on the list because they didn’t know about it. But the medicine, eventually they found out, so I’m saying if now it’s not allowed, it means that even before it shouldn’t have been allowed.
So it helps you (perform). It’s not like a cream that you put occasionally for two months and it happened to be prohibited. It’s a process, you’ve been taking it for 10 years. All girls are playing great tennis and at the top level it’s just about the little details. So of course you’re going to doubt her now, if this has helped her in the past or not. And we will never know.
In sport, we are all fighting for a clean sport, that’s very important for me – integrity and clean sport. I was very disappointed because I respected the athlete she is a lot. So that’s why I was critical of her.
I played Maria in the semi-finals in Stuttgart. It was her first week back from suspension, it was her comeback. There was a lot of media, it was insane. The entire world was following her there and following that tournament.
She showed amazing form, she played such great tennis, beating girls in straight sets, and then we played at the stage of the semi-finals. Of course she knows about what I said, because there weren’t a lot of players who had the courage to criticise this. I could feel the tension.
I could feel of course that she was so fresh because she hadn’t played for 15 months and was extra motivated to beat me. She started off very strong. I felt the pressure, because I was surprised that so many players would text me before the match, and after the match – kind of putting pressure on my shoulders, I don’t know, not to defend a cause, but kind of… it was a weird feeling. Because I personally have nothing against her, she hasn’t done anything to me in my life. It’s just the story and everything.
Obviously her tennis skills are there, I had no doubt she’d play good tennis at all. I was expecting a tough match and it turned out to be a thriller, a great match for the crowd. I have to say that I was really proud to have won that match – not because it’s Maria, but because of the way I handled myself through that entire pressure, from the media side, because you know that everybody is looking at that match; the fact that I was down a set a break, being kind of ridiculous because it looked so easy for her, with everything I said, people could easily say ‘look she’s only talking and now that she’s playing against her she has no strong character to show fight at least’. And the fact that I showed a lot of fight there, strong personality, great tennis…
It’s true that it’s a bit of a drama, but in a way I think it’s entertaining. Tennis-wise, I was happy to have won that match because it made me reach a final, not because it was against Maria.
Of course it’s even more enjoyable because it’s attractive, if it was another opponent at another tournament, it wasn’t going to be the same feelings. That meant a lot to me, and it was proof, to myself, that it’s one thing to say things out loud – everybody can speak – but after that you have to stand behind your words, and that’s something more difficult. I’ve never been in that position before, and it was a great experience, to work on myself, on my mental strength, to handle all kinds of pressure around. Because that was a little bit more than tennis.
There has obviously been a lot of discussion around Maria getting wildcards from tournaments. It’s a big topic. I understand if small tournaments on tour, like Madrid or Stuttgart – even if the tournament director doesn’t want to give her, I understand the process and the fact that if he gives her a wildcard, she’s such a diva all around the world, and that brings a lot of media, a lot of ticket selling, lots of money… nowadays sport is business. So I understand those tournaments that actually need her because she’s a superstar no matter what.
I understand that point of view and I cannot judge it. If I myself am a tournament director I’m thinking about how I’m going to make my tournament work and win money and survive. That’s part of the business.
But regarding Grand Slams, I think it’s different. I think the French Open is going to shine with or without her, I have the feeling. So that’s a different topic.
It’s also a Grand Slam, it’s run by a federation, it’s different. It’s a federation kind of mentality and values. Let’s see what they decide. Knowing them, I think it’s a big doubt, but we’ll see. Maybe for them it’s also going to be interesting somewhere, I don’t know. We’ll see. But I think in Grand Slams, she shouldn’t get a wildcard.
What’s painful for other players is that you don’t have any rules for players who have been caught by anti-doping. When you are a former world No1 or a Grand Slam champion, you have this rule that you can get unlimited wildcards. I think that’s totally great and fine, but they should apply a specific rule when it’s for a doping offender – I think it’s not fair that we don’t have a rule like that.
Of course if you got caught, you can have the chance again to play tennis and come back, but I mean she can have wildcards every single week and she doesn’t really care about the fact that she hasn’t played for 15 months and doesn’t have a ranking. She’ll compete in every single event like she has the ranking.
I’m speaking as someone who is thinking about others, personally she’s not taking my spot, it doesn’t affect me, but maybe she’s taking a spot of a girl who is working for it.
So there are a lot of different thoughts about her, and people are saying she deserves her spot there, she has the skills… you can see it in very different ways. Like I said, I understand tournaments, I’m not going to judge this, it’s totally fine for the tournaments thinking that way because it’s business. But morally, it’s not totally fine or fair.
*This column was done via an interview with Kristina Mladenovic. It has been slightly edited for clarity.
Rafael Nadal admits that he is “playing with joy” after he captured a 15th consecutive match win by defeating Dominic Thiem in straight sets to lift a fifth Madrid Open title on Sunday.
The Mallorcan, who will rise to No4 in the world on Monday, overcame a break deficit in the opening set to beat an inspired Thiem 7-6 (8), 6-4 and claim a third clay-court trophy on the trot.
Nadal, who turns 31 next month, saved five of the six break points he faced en route to a memorable triumph at the Caja Magica, that hosted a sell-out crowd that included Brazilian star footballer, Ronaldo.
“I think it was a tough match since the beginning, especially here in altitude, which is difficult to make breaks against a player like Thiem. Returning the ball is difficult, especially when he hits it so high,” said Nadal after the win.
“Since the beginning, I was playing with a lot of pressure. Fortunately I managed to come back and break… Anything could have happened at the end of the first set. But I think I played well the important points at the end of the first set. I saved a few set points playing some good shots with my forehand. After that I went for it.”
Nadal has now equalled Novak Djokovic’s record of most Masters 1000 titles won, having picked up his 30th crown at that level on Sunday.
After losing his first three finals of the season – in Melbourne, Acapulco and Miami – Nadal has now won Monte Carlo, Barcelona, and Madrid within the last four weeks. The Spaniard is emerging as the hot favourite to capture a 10th French Open title but he refuses to look that far ahead. He currently leads the ATP Race to London, ahead of Roger Federer.
“I just play every single tournament without thinking a lot of things. I just try to focus. I’m not thinking about the race or anything like that,” said Nadal.
“I just try to go to each tournament to give the best of myself, being conscious when you are in the good way, as I am this year, I have confidence and security in myself. But in December or January, I was not expecting to play badly, because I knew I was doing a very good off-season. I was expecting to play well. Of course, things are working out, and I’m very happy for that.”
Sunday’s victory could have a significant impact on Nadal’s French Open chances as it has moved him past Federer in the rankings, into the top four, which means he could get a more favourable draw as a top-four seed in Paris, avoiding potential quarter-finals against the likes of Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray.
“To try to win Roland Garros, you don’t need to be No4 or No1 or No5, what you need is to play tennis very well. This is the situation right now,” assured Nadal.
“If I am No4 and I played badly, I’m not going to have chances. If I am No5 and I play well, I will have the same chances as if I’m No4 or No5. It’s just circumstantial.”
Nadal’s next stop is Rome, where he’ll be looking to keep his winning streak going. Last year, Nadal picked up a wrist injury in Madrid and played through it in Rome before eventually withdrawing from Roland Garros ahead of his third round there.
He concedes that going to Rome last year was a mistake, but it was a decision based on wrong advice from his doctors.
Nadal says he is fit at the moment and still plans on playing Rome, which has already started with the early rounds on Sunday.
“Physically I’m feeling fit. It’s logical that after a hard week, I’ve been playing a lot of matches, a lot of hours out there on the court, I feel like it’s (knee) sore, a little bit tired. Because I’m not walking perfectly doesn’t mean I have an injury. I’m just a little bit sore, tight. I’m 31 years old. That’s all,” he explained.
“I think today the decision is completely different, the situation is different. I don’t have any problems, any injuries. It’s a very important clay tournament. I’m playing with a lot of joy. I think what is logical is to go to Rome, try to give 100 per cent. After that, I think I have a few days to rest.”
Nadal has a tricky opener in Rome against either home favourite Andreas Seppi, or Spanish former top-tenner Nicolas Almagro. He could face Thiem in the quarter-finals.