PARIS (Reuters) - Maria Sharapova looked anything but a potential champion in a torrid start against French teenager Caroline Garcia but found her feet and her fight to win 3-6 6-4 6-0 and reach the French Open third round on Thursday.
“I think I relaxed and just let things happen,” the relieved Russian former world number one said after romping through the last 11 games just when a major shock looked on the cards.
“I was way too concerned about the conditions and wasn’t moving my feet and just was really slow, and she was playing aggressive and hitting great shots.
“I just felt flat-footed in the beginning. I just hit the ball finally.”
The cool, gusty conditions played havoc with Sharapova’s trademark baseline power as she littered court Philippe Chatrier with errors during a terrible first half of the match.
She rarely ducks a scrap though and from trailing 6-3 4-1 against the 17-year-old she upped her tempo and began to hit her stride, reeling in her inexperienced opponent.
Sniffing an upset, the crowd turned up the volume midway through the second set but world number 188 Garcia, who was playing only her fourth match on the main tour, admitted the atmosphere got to her with a shock victory in sight.
“4-1, the Ola (Mexican wave), that was not easy to manage. I tried, but I didn’t succeed,” she told reporters.
“I had many things going in my head, because I was leading. I was playing well. She was not really in the court. Then she reacted just like a champion, because she is a great champion.
“Then I started being very nervous, and I started playing more from the baseline and it was difficult to come back.”
Former Wimbledon, U.S. Open and Australian Open champion Sharapova is no stranger to comebacks, having notably pulled two consecutive matches out of the fire at Roland Garros in 2009 from matchpoints down.
“As far as the fighting, I think it’s important to fight. It’s not my job to compare myself to other players, but I’ll never give up out there,” she said.
Garcia’s display caught the eye and men’s number four Andy Murray predicted the teenager could one day reach top spot in the WTA rankings.
“I’ve watched Sharapova play a lot of times, and quite often when she plays younger opponents they struggle to deal with sort of her power,” the Scot told a press conference.
“If anything, I thought Garcia was hitting the ball harder, didn’t have a problem. When Sharapova was hitting the ball big to her, she was returning her serve no problem.”
He was not alone in his praise with former women’s great Martina Navratilova also impressed.
Garcia was not looking too far ahead though.
“I have this dream, but it’s very difficult,” she said. “I realize I need to work a lot.”
Sharapova, who won Wimbledon at 17 and knows everything about early bloomings, urged caution.
“I think time will definitely tell. It’s a long road and a long journey,” she said. “There will be many wins and many losses. It’s tough for me to tell, but she’s on her way up.”
Editing by Martyn Herman