New York Daily News

Sharapova falls — and falls and falls


WIMBLEDON — Others had toppled on this very spot Wednesday, on the slick, pitted grass behind the baseline on Court 2. All over the grounds, half a dozen players were injured and pulled out of the tournament. The women had griped about conditions. The men had kept their mouths shut, for some reason. But none of them, not the men nor the women, were Maria Sharapova, who is tennis royalty here, one of the few names left who can carry the day at Wimbledon.

Sharapova, like Serena Williams, is supposed to be spared these undignifie­d pratfalls on a side court, struggling against a lowly qualifier. She nonetheles­s plopped down on her bottom three times while chasing baseline rallies, and each time Sharapova did not appreciate the spill. She complained to the chair umpire about the surface and then she called for a trainer to massage her right leg and finally Sharapova took a medical timeout for a strained hip. “This court is dangerous,” she said, pleading for interventi­on.

“After I’ve buckled my knee three times, that’s obviously my reaction,” Sharapova said afterward. “I don’t think I’ve ever fallen three times in a match in my career. That’s certainly a little strange. . . . I rarely see myself on the ground.”

Nothing worked, nothing stopped the improbable run of events and this shocking 6-3, 6-4, second-round exit to Michelle Larcher De Brito of Portugal. Each time it seemed there was an escape hatch available, it slammed shut. Down 4-3 in the second set, Sharapova won an 18-stroke rally to earn a breakpoint, then quickly netted a forehand return. Soon enough, there were steely match points to rescue on Larcher De Brito’s serve.

Sharapova saved one of them with a swinging forehand volley. On the second, Larcher De Brito sailed a forehand long. The third match point was salvaged by Sharapova’s backhand down the line. The fourth, on a risky insideout forehand. The fifth proved the fatal charm, as Sharapova netted a forehand.

The two walked up to the net, and only then really was the difference in stature so obvious. Larcher De Brito was giving up maybe six inches of height in this matchup, along with 10 mph on her serves.

“I give her a lot of credit,” Sharapova said. “She was really solid from the baseline. I don’t feel like I was aggressive enough. I just wasn’t there.”

Larcher De Brito, 20, was not long ago an exceptiona­lly promising junior. She moved to Florida at age 9 to join the Nick Bollettier­i Tennis Academy, one of its star pupils. She was ranked as high as No. 75 in 2009, at age 16. She smacks the groundies hard, she’s quick on her feet. But she’s had injury problems, her serves generally don’t top 92 mph, and her ranking has slipped Bollettier­i Academy to No. 131 in the world.

“I can’t believe it,” Larcher De Brito said, with an i mpeccable American accent. “I was playing so well, I thought if I can hang in there, go for the points, I can do it. She’s a fighter. I knew she wouldn’t give up for anything.”

Larcher De Brito somehow managed to navigate the same grass court as Sharapova without major incidents. Her shorter legs seemed to help.

“I know these grass courts can be quite dangero u s ,” Larcher De Brito said. “I can relate to her. I was injured two years ago on a grass court and I missed months. There’s a lot of dead grass on the top. That made it slippery. I tried to take short steps instead of stopping right away.”

Sharapova was broken at 3-5 in the first set on a netted backhand, then on a double fault i n the fourth game of the second set. With Larcher De Brito serving at 0-15 in the sixth game, Sharapova’s right foot gave out, and the Russian performed an unplanned split, her clumsiest, for the third time. On the changeover, a trainer worked on Sharapova’s left leg. She walked off for her 10-minute medical timeout, returned to no avail. Larcher De Brito wasn’t rattled by the delay. So we lose Sharapova and we lose the melodrama that pitted the Russian against Serena Williams, plus some of that girlfriend vs. ex-boyfriend thing. Sharapova was asked whether the subplots here had anything to do with her demise.

“I’ve handled a lot of things off the court in my career,” she snapped. “I’m a four-time Grand Slam champion. I’ve been No. 1 in the world. I don’t know if you can call those things a distractio­n.”

Then she was off to meet Grigor Dimitrov, her boyfriend — for now. Love is even more slippery than grass courts.

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