Philosophical Sharapova shines at night to emerge as unlikely US Open contender

Hannah Wilks in US Open 2 Sep 2018
  • Maria Sharapova has emerged as perhaps the strongest candidate to make the US Open 2018 final in the bottom half of the draw
  • 2006 champion is unbeaten in US Open night sessions on Arthur Ashe Stadium
  • Experience key to Sharapova's campaign: 'There's very little we can control.'
Maria Sharapova celebrates winning a point during the first week of the 2018 US Open (EDUARDO MUNOZ ALVAREZ/AFP/Getty Images)

Experience, the hard-won attainment of mental equilibrium and a 22-0 unbeaten record of playing at night under the lights on Arthur Ashe Stadium - 2006 champion Maria Sharapova looks like the force to be reckoned with in the bottom half of the US Open 2018 draw.

As the second week of the 2018 US Open begins and the field is whittled down, Maria Sharapova has emerged as an unlikely, but increasingly strong, candidate to reach the US Open final.

Few would have given Sharapova much of a chance coming into the final Grand Slam of the season. The Russian's comeback from her 15-month doping suspension, which ended well over a year ago, has been a rocky one and although she appeared to have found some form during the clay-court season, her quarterfinal run at the French Open ended with a crushing defeat at the hands of Garbine Muguruza and was followed by a first-round exit at Wimbledon where she lost to qualifier Vitalia Diatchenko. 

Sharapova leaves the court after losing in the first round of Wimbledon (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)
Sharapova reached the round of 16 at the Rogers Cup in Montreal in August, but was again soundly beaten in straight sets by a top-10 player - this time, Caroline Garcia of France - and withdrew from Cincinnati with a shoulder injury. Moreover, the Russian, a champion at the US Open in 2006, has only made it as far as the quarterfinals in seven subsequent appearances, losing in the semifinals in 2012. 

But after three straight-sets wins to reach the fourth round, Sharapova - albeit seeded a fairly lowly 22nd - has started to look like she could be the most formidable player left in the bottom half of the draw. 

Angelique Kerber, Petra Kvitova, Jelena Ostapenko and Caroline Wozniacki have all fallen before the fourth round, leaving Sharapova the only woman in the bottom half of the draw who knows what it takes to win a Grand Slam - let alone winning five of them, as Sharapova has done, as well as finishing runner-up at the majors five times.

Sharapova herself accounted for French Open champion Ostapenko in the third round, maintaining her stellar record in US Open night sessions as her returning shredded the Latvian's vulnerable serve for a 6-3, 6-2 victory. Her next opponent is veteran Carla Suarez Navarro, who ousted Sharapova's Montreal conqueror Garcia. The Spaniard is an experienced, savvy opponent and an excellent defender and counterpuncher - but she trails Sharapova 1-4 in the head-to-head, and has only made it as far as the US Open quarterfinals once in ten previous appearances.

Of the other seven women remaining in the bottom half of the draw, only two - Dominika Cibulkova and Madison Keys - have had the experience of reaching a Grand Slam final: Cibulkova at the 2014 Australian Open, and Keys at the US Open in 2017. And Cibulkova and Keys are slated to meet in the fourth round, so Sharapova will only have to contend with one of them. She will be hoping it is Keys who comes through: The American has a 4-0 record against Cibulkova, but lost her only previous match against Sharapova. 

Sharapova congratulates Kim Clijsters after losing to her at the US Open in 2005  (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)
In the lowest quarter of the draw, there are three young, talented but inexperienced players - 20-year-old Aryna Sabalenka, 19-year-old Marketa Vondrousova and 20-year-old Naomi Osaka - all of whom are on superb form so far at the US Open, but would have to contend with the magnitude of the occasion should they face the much more experienced Sharapova in the semifjnals. The more seasoned player, Lesia Tsurenko, has never been beyond the fourth round of a Grand Slam and doesn't really have the firepower to contend with Sharapova.

With Sharapova by far the biggest name in her half of the draw, she can also look forward to enjoying another advantage: Night sessions on Arthur Ashe Stadium. She is already scheduled to play Suarez Navarro in the night session on Monday, and would likely be scheduled to play her quarterfinal at night as well should she beat Suarez Navarro; both the women's semifinals are played at night.

Why is this significant? Firstly, because it gives Sharapova a big advantage over the other players in the draw, none of whom have played anywhere near as many matches on Arthur Ashe Stadium or under the lights as she has - a factor that felt significant when it came to her match against Ostapenko, who struggled to adjust to the conditions in their third-round clash. Secondly, because Sharapova has a superb record in night session matches played on Arthur Ashe Stadium - she is an unbeaten 22-0.

'I don't remember how old I was when I played my first night match, but I'm sure I was young enough to still be intimidated by the city and the lights and the atmosphere, the noise, as anyone that's quite young would be,' Sharapova said.

'But I really turned that around. I think I thrive on that. I love the atmosphere. I love that they know how to cheer hard. Some of the loudest crowds I think was when I played Clijsters [in the 2005 semifinals]. I lost that match, but I remember just coming back and feeling the support from the crowd. I didn't play my best tennis, but that was, like, one of the matches in my career where I felt how the fans really lifted my level up.

'Yeah, I thrive on playing under the lights for some reason. I love that. I love that challenge.'

Sharapova celebrates victory over Ostapenko (EDUARDO MUNOZ ALVAREZ/AFP/Getty Images)
Is Sharapova playing well enough to win the title? Not while Serena Williams remains in the draw - there's no realistic prospect of Sharapova ending her run of 18 straight defeats to Williams. But merely by virtue of surviving the first three rounds while others have fallen by the wayside, she has put herself in an excellent position to get to the final, and that has everything to do with the mental approach that Sharapova takes.

'I think there are a lot of things outside of the court, whether it's the media, whether it's people, whether it's opinions or fans, favorites, those have never really been in my control. They don't intend to be, ever,' Sharapova said. 

'As long as I'm showing up and I'm putting myself out there and training, putting in the effort, I think that's all that really matters from my end. As far as everything else, you all know there's very little that we can control.'

Sharapova might not be able to completely control her destiny in the second week of the US Open, any more than she was responsible for putting herself in such an advantageous position as that second week begins. But of the eight women remaining in the bottom half of the draw at the 2018 US Open, is there any player you would trust to do a better job of controlling what she can control than Sharapova?

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Philosophical Sharapova shines at night to emerge as unlikely US Open contender

Experience, the hard-won attainment of mental equilibrium and a 22-0 unbeaten record of playing at night under the lights on Arthur Ashe Stadium - 2006 champion Maria Sharapova looks like the force to be reckoned with in the bottom half of the US Open 2018 draw

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