Nerves can play as big a part in deciding matches under Wimbledon's intense microscope as penetrative serves and punishing forehands.
Dulko celebrates zenith of career on Centre Court
LONDON // Nerves can play as big a part in deciding matches under Wimbledon's intense microscope as penetrative serves and punishing forehands. They nearly spoiled the biggest day in the moderate career of Gisela Dulko, a charming Argentine who had captured the affections of a Centre Court audience. Dulko had the former champion Maria Sharapova, a one-time giant of the game, just where she wanted her as she led by a set and 3-0 before remembering where she was and who she was up against.
Six mistake-filled games later, all of them somehow captured by Sharapova, the match was all square again with the highly experienced Russian looking sure to prevail against an opponent who had only once been past the third round in 23 previous grand slams. Sharapova, who has gone all the way in three grand slams at different venues, was surprisingly unable to capitalise on her enormous reprieve as the plucky Dulko managed to pull herself together and dominate the deciding set to record a splendid 6-2, 3-6, 6-4 victory.
She needed five match points before she could acknowledge the crowd's wild cheers, though, as a dramatic final game ebbed and flowed to make up for the disappointing quality of the play that had preceded it. An appallingly limp forehand by Dulko on the first of them suggested she would not manage to scrape over the finishing line and that view was endorsed when she struck the wildest of forehands on the fourth of her match points - Sharapova having saved two of the others with an audacious drop shot and a blistering winner.
But when the fifth came along it was the Russian's turn to falter under pressure and she put Dulko out of her misery with an overhit forehand to send her delighted opponent into a third round meeting with the 10th-seeded Nadia Petrova. On the face of it this represented a shock result but, in reality, it was to be expected considering Sharapova's rustiness after nearly 10 months inactivity due to shoulder problems.
She warned beforehand that she did not yet have the game to do serious damage here and she went into yesterday's match as the lower ranked player, despite being given a privileged seeding of 24 in recognition of her previous performances. Ranked 60 and rising steadily, Sharapova found the 45th-rated Dulko unrecognisable from the player who had taken only three games from her in two previous encounters. The former champion knew she was lucky to avoid an ignominy similar to her 6-0, 6-2 crushing by Dominika Cibulkova at the recent French Open.
It was only Sharapova's grittiness, assisted by Dulko's mental fragility, that extended the affair to a 2hr 13min struggle, the crowd clearly favouring Dulko as the moment of reckoning approached. Serena Williams, whom Sharapova defeated in the 2004 final here, had no such trouble on Court One requiring less than an hour to account for Australia's Jarmila Groth and move one step closer to another final showdown with sister Venus.