Maria Sharapova's seemingly smooth return to tennis action after spending nearly 10 months on the sidelines recovering from shoulder surgery was brought to a shuddering and embarrasingly halt at Roland Garros last night. The Russian, world No 1 a year ago but now outside the top 100 due to her lay-off, was throughly humiliated by Slovakia's Dominika Cibulkova, the 20th seed in front of a shocked crowd on Court Sunzanne Lenglen.
Sharapova, who had battled her way to the quarter-finals by surviving tough three-set encounters in the previous two rounds, was completely overwhelmed by Cibulkova, who capitalised on a string of unforced errors by her opponent, including five costly double faults at key points in proceedings. Sharapova was two points away from suffering the dreaded "double bagel" normally reserved for hapless players rather than world stars but she averted that by breaking Cibulkova when the Slovakian was serving for the match at 6-0, 5-0.
That delayed what was always the inevitable by another few minutes as Sharapova then held her own serve before she pushed her opponent to deuce on her next service game. But Cibulkova was in no mood to miss the taking of a prize scalp and went through to a semi-final clash with the top-seeded Dinara Safina 6-0, 6-2. But Sharapova can take heart from her encouraging showing at Roland Garros, which will certainly give her heart to put up a strong showing at Wimbledon later this month, a tournament she won back in 2004.
Safina, who has succeeded her Russian compatriot as the world No 1 at the end of a 12-month span when several players have risen to the summit of the rankings during a turbulent period for the women's game, also looked like suffering an embarrassing exit in her quarter-final against Victoria Azarenka of Belarus as she made a slow start to proceedings and went a set down before rallying. Safina arrived on court having allowed her previous four opponents a miserly total of five games between them, but within half an hour she had conceded another six as an inspired Azarenka stormed through the opening set in only 23 minutes as the No 1 struggled to find any kind of form.
The top seed looked as though she had taken the sting out of the Azarenka service by breaking it twice in the early part of the second set. But suggestions that Safina had fought her way out of trouble had to be put on hold as both of those breaks were immediately surrendered back with Azarenka, who had beaten last year's champion Ana ivanovic in the previous round, proving to be a stubborn opponent.
Undaunted, Safina broke again earning her the right to serve out for the set and despite nervously dropping the first two points she managed to do so to take the match into a decider. A swift break at the start of the second set allowed Safina to take the lead for the first time in the match and not even the unacceptably continuous screeching of her opponent - Safina was not exactly blameless in that department - could deflect her from her 1-6, 6-4, 6-2 passage which took her 1hr 52mins.
A disappointed Azarenka said: "I just didn't take the chances I had. "She [Safina] definitely stepped it up and played some good points at the key moments, which I have to give her credit for. "At 4-4 in the second set, I didn't really do anything with my game, which I should have. "I just have to learn to play better in these moments. It's all experience. Hopefully I'll do better next time." email@example.com