By Richard Pagliaro
(March 14, 2010) INDIAN WELLS — Maria Sharapova sent another stray serve beyond the service line then rattled her Prince racket in the air as if trying to shake free the misfires streaming from her frame.
Sharapova's surgically-repaired shoulder prevents her from unloading on serve in practice and today simply locating the service box proved to be problematic for the woman who once possessed one of the most potent serves in women's tennis.
In a match that featured 38 break points, Zheng Jie took advantage of 14 double faults from Sharapova and won the final four games to knock the 2006 Indian Wells champion out of the BNP Paribas Open, 6-3, 2-6, 6-3.
The 5-foot-4 1/2 Zheng would need to stand on a step stool to high-five the 6-foot-2 Sharapova. While she may be vertically challenged Zheng suffers no shortage of fearlessness. She hugged the baseline, absorbed Sharapova's power and took the ball early in spitting back shots that forced the taller, slower woman to sometimes counter on the run, which is not a strength of Sharapova's game.
"She's like a ball machine. She hits a lot of balls back, hits them hard and deep," Sharapova said. "I mean, I'd say I should have done a much better job on her serve, because her serve is definitely one of her weaker parts of the game, but..."
Zheng fended off 15 of the 21 break points she faced as Sharapova's backhand, typically her best shot, let her down on break point chances. Zheng's husband, Cang Yu, is her coach and he offered his wife simple strategic advice: make Sharapova hit on the run, attack her second serve and jam the long-limbed Sharapova with serves into the body.
"My coach tell me I need give her move — if she stay there, I never have chance," Zheng said. "She play so hard and so aggressive."
That wasn't the only source of motivation Zheng's husband served up. In addition to shot selection advice, he offered the prospect of a shopping spree as inspiration.
Never underestimate the power of plastic.
"Before the match, he tell me if I win this match tomorrow, I can go to outlet for shopping," Zheng said with a smile. "I want shoes and handbag, yeah. My husband say if I win this match, I buy everything check or credit card."
The 10th-seeded Sharapova took a 3-2 lead in the final set and then called for the trainer for treatment of a sore elbow. Sharapova, who hit six of her 14 double faults in the final set, said the elbow pain prevented her from extending her arm on serve in the latter stages of the last set but conceded it was her inability to play consistent tennis over the final four games that cost her the match.
"I'd have periods of good games, and then the problem is trying to keep them all together and not being so up and down," Sharapova said. "Obviously trying to put, you know, things together and, you know, if you break, hold, then great; if you don't, you've got to do the same thing that you did when you broke her and not make stupid errors. It was just very inconsistent. I mean, that's pretty much the bottom line."
Down 20-3, Zheng made her move.
"Her level definitely raised and mine dropped, for sure," Sharapova said. "I mean, you could see that. That's how it felt."
The 18th-seeded Chinese Zheng fired a forehand winner down the line for a 4-3 advantage in the final set.
Sharapova, who frequently found the net on her first serve on the ad side, has little margin for error on her first serve and her second serve is not hit with enough spin to ensure safe passage over the net.
She double faulted deep to drop to 3-5 in the final set and Zheng serve out the match with a convincing hold.
The three-time major champion is the fourth Grand Slam champion to bow out before the round of 16. Top-seeded Svetlana Kuznetsova, who lost to Carla Suarez Navarro, Justine Henin, who was upended by Gisela Dulko, and 2008 champion Ana Ivanovic, who continued her losing skid with a 6-2, 6-4 loss to Anastasja Sevastova.
A year ago, Sharapova made her return to tournament tennis playing doubles with Elena Vesnina at Indian Wells after a nine-month sabbatical due to shoulder surgery.
Since her comeback, Sharapova has had some highs — she reached the Roland Garros quarterfinals on her worst surface last spring, was a Toronto finalist last summer and captured her 21st career championship in Memphis last month — but can't quite shed her vulnerability on serve.
Sharapova remains a fiercely competitive presence on court, but has lost the fear factor she once instilled in opponents and is well aware the only way to get it back is to win big titles and work her way back into the top 10. If she never consistently regains her serve, will the woman who rules Wimbledon at 17 become a one-shot, one-note power player? Or can Sharapova eventually develop a consistent kick serve to prevent the plague of double faults that can strike under pressure?
Even Sharapova does not know the answer.
"It's just the mystery of the unknown. We can only do so much and work as much as we can, and you know, spend as many hours on the court as we can," Sharapova said. "It's a combination of both physically and mentally just getting stronger and, you know, little steps."
Zheng advanced to the fourth round for the first time. She will face a resurgent Alicia Molik for a place in the quarterfinals. Wild card Molik ended the run of British qualifier Elena Baltacha, 6-0, 6-2.
The 138th-ranked Molik defeated Zheng, 6-3, 4-6, 6-2 in Dubai last month.
"It's not easy. I lost her Dubai this year. She is very good player," Zheng said. "She just come back, but I think she still dangerous. I need be careful."
Zheng will have some unfinished business to take care of first: shopping.
"I don't want think too much. I have one day for rest," Zheng said. "Shopping first. Then after shopping, I have lots time for thinking how I play with her."