Tennis took a one-two punch in the gut early Wednesday, as Serena Williams announced that she was pulling out of Rome, then Novak Djokovic's comeback came to yet another grinding halt in Madrid at the business end of young Kyle Edmund's racket.
Things looked pretty bleak for the game's A-listers until a somewhat forgotten star got up off the mat and struck a blow for the struggling status quo. Maria Sharapova looked sharp in dismantling Kiki Mladenovic in straight sets (6-3, 6-4) to advance to the quarterfinals of a tournament for the first time since January.
It was also a payback win: It was Mladenovic who ended Sharapova's impressive run in Stuttgart a little over a year ago. That was the then-30-year-old Russian star's first tournament following her 15-month doping suspension.
"It was a difficult match to lose," Sharapova told the press the other day, referring to her only previous meeting with Mladenovic. "I think it was just nice to get that match out of the way, I guess, in many aspects."
Sharapova's performance in Stuttgart bred great expectations because the terms of her suspension forbade her to even hit a ball on site until the day of her first match. Yet, she made the semis. But things soon went awry. Many of her fellow pros resented the willingness of promoters to offer her wild cards, and she struggled with injuries. There's always pressure on players returning from drug suspensions.
As Tennis Channel commentator Mary Carillo said, "You want to prove that your previous success had nothing to do with drugs."
Sharapova has been steadily building her match portfolio. She hasn't been winning big, but she's been winning; she's a respectable 20-9 over the past 52 weeks. She may be No. 52 in the official WTA rankings, but she's No. 12 in the UTR ratings. And we're in the midst of the tournaments at which Sharapova has been most dangerous in the past few years. Sharapova hasn't won a Grand Slam tournament other than the upcoming French Open for a decade, but she's won two titles at Roland Garros since 2012.
Then there's this: The odds that Sharapova's nemesis Serena Williams will play the French Open just took an enormous hit. You can bet that the Sharapova camp will shed no tears if that comes to pass.
The Sharapova team now has a new leader as well. In the spring, after struggling with injury and losing consecutive first-round matches at Doha, Indian Wells and Stuttgart, Sharapova parted ways with Sven Groeneveld and rehired her former coach, Thomas Hogstedt. He was vastly underrated the first time around, partly because he's a low-key individual, but also because Sharapova likes to keep her coaches in the shade. But the dates and stats tell the tale. Hogstedt coached Sharapova from late 2010 to mid-2013, presiding over her transformation into a formidable clay-court player, including those two victories at Roland Garros.
Sharapova did allude to Hogstedt's return to the fold earlier this week in Madrid. Speaking of her difficulties in that rough post-Australian Open patch, she told reporters: "I also made changes within my team, which was not easy. [But] As I've said before: There's never a bad time to make a good change. You do hope that those changes lead to better things and good things."
Djokovic made a similar move at about the same time in April as Sharapova, rehiring his former, trusted coach, Marian Vajda. It helped the Serbian star get past Kei Nishikori the other day in Madrid. Then came the tough loss to Edmund.
Right now, Sharapova's optimism seems justified. We'll see what the coming days bring. It's a long road back to the top.