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By Erik Gudris | Tuesday, April 22, 2014

 
Maria Sharapova Stuttgart 2014

Maria Sharapova was forced to play three tiebreak sets against Lucie Safarova. But the two-time defending champion came out victorious in her opening round match in Stuttgart.

Photo Credit: AP

When this year's Porsche Tennis Grand Prix draw in Stuttgart was released, the first round meeting that caught most people's eyes was that between two-time defending champion Maria Sharapova and Lucie Safarova. Both women recently contested a tough three set battle in Miami that Sharapova won and the expectation going in Tuesday was that this rematch would probably go the distance and then some.

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That it did even when Sharapova looked liked she might close things out on her terms not once but twice early on in the evening. Both players held their own in a first set that soon needed a tiebreak. Sharapova earned a quick mini-break lead and kept hold off it to eventually claim the set 7-6(5).

Safarova would jump out to a 3-0 lead in the second set only to watch as Sharapova leveled things soon enough. Another tiebreak was needed and again Sharapova marched out to an early lead for 4-2. But Safarova would turn things around to win it 7-6(5) and soon forced yet another deciding set between them.

The final set became a battle of nerve, will and who could keep the ball in the lines at the right moment. Safarova would miss out on early break point chances at 1-all. Sharapova though, in the next game, converted her break point chance when Safarova double faulted.

That soon started Sharapova's march for the exits as she built up a convincing 5-1 advantage. Safarova didn't bow out easily though. Fighting off one match point against her at 5-3, Safarova would claw her way back to 5-4. With Sharapova still a game away, her coach Sven Groeneveld told her during the changeover "She (Safarova) will feel the pressure."

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Safarova seemed to do just that as she tossed in her sixth double fault to hand Sharapova two more match points at 15-40. But Sharapova, with badly mistimed shots, allowed Safarova to breath again for 5-all. Now Safarova started applying pressure back to Sharapova.

Forcing more errors, Safarova broke for 6-5 and what seemed unthinkable a few minutes ago was happening - Safarova would now serve for the match.

Yet Sharapova responded by finding backhand winners when she needed them. Another ill-timed double fault from Safarova down break point, after leading 30-0, sent the set, and match, into one last tiebreak.

Safarova errors, including netting an easy forehand pass, allowed Sharapova to earn a 3-1 lead. With Safarova fading, Sharapova soon held more match points. She only needed one as Safarova, perhaps in a cruel twist, suffered a broken string when returning that sent her shot well long.

A relieved Sharapova could finally celebrate the 7-6(5), 6-7(5), 7-6(2) win after over three hours.

This is now the first ever triple tiebreak match in Sharapova's career and the first WTA match to need all three tiebreak sets since Madrid 2010.

For Sharapova, it's on to the second round. For Safarova, it's yet another tough loss this season that could as well have been a victory. Safarova narrowly missed defeating eventual Australian Open champion Li Na in their third round match back in January after she missed a shot on match point by mere inches. As today in Stuttgart, Safarova once again will have to think about a match that almost might have been hers.

 

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