10-0. That was the 2011 third set record Maria Sharapova brought with her into the final of the 2011 Western & Southern Open at Cincinnati. This year, if a player is to beat Masha, they better do it in straight sets. If she takes you to a third, she has been automatic. In the Cincinnati final, Jelena Jankovic had Masha down a set and an early break but couldn’t finish her. JJ had Masha in a second set tiebreak to win it, and still couldn’t finish her. JJ even had Masha down a break three times in the third set and couldn’t close the show. Showing grit, fitness and mental toughness, Masha rallied back every time she was in danger of letting this match slip away to finally capture the championship, 4-6 7-6 (3) 6-3. Make that 11-0 in third sets this year.
With the win, Masha takes her second title of the year, to go along with her victory in Rome on clay. The former world #1 also climbs back to #4 in rankings. It wasn’t the prettiest of wins, as both players were streaky. For the first 6 games of the final set, neither player could hold serve. Jelena would break first. Masha would break back. Neither player seemed able to protect their serve. Finally, Masha held serve at love in the 7th game of the set to go up 4-3. It was now up to Jelena to try to hold serve for the first time in the set. She didn’t. After going up 30-0, JJ was passed by a beautiful crosscourt angled forehand by Masha. An unforced backhand error later, and it was 30-30. You could sense trouble for JJ. And she was indeed in jeopardy. She missed another backhand up the line to give Masha a break point. JJ battled back to deuce. At deuce, it appeared that JJ hit an ace, but Masha challenged the call. The replay showed the ball was out. Masha would win the point on JJ’s second serve for another break point but missed long on the next point to go back to deuce. This was the game to decide the match, even if it wasn’t the final game of the match. Both players knew it, and it turned into a marathon. Unfortunately, it ended the way you don’t want to see a decisive game end, with JJ double faulting twice in a row to hand the game to Masha. Up 5-3, Masha wouldn’t let JJ off the hook, finishing her at 30 in the final game.
The commentators made a great point about this match. It was a great win for Masha, another step in her potential return to the top of the game, but the kind of tennis played in this match cannot win a Major. Both ladies will need to step up their games to take the title in Flushing Meadow at the 2011 US Open. Masha is the clearer candidate to make a run, but JJ is a darkhorse. Still, over 60 errors and 11 double faults, which Masha had in this match, won’t get it done if Masha is facing Serena Williams or Caroline Wozniacki on the other side of the net in the Big Apple. In the end, a win is a win. It doesn’t have to be aesthetically pleasing.