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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Sharapova Escapes Defeat at Debut

ReutersAnna-Lena Groenefeld wincing after hurting her ankle while leading Maria Sharapova 6-1, 4-1 in a second-round match at the Kremlin Cup on Wednesday.
The roar from the Kremlin Cup crowd that accompanied Maria Sharapova when she stepped onto a Russian court for the first time in her professional career Wednesday was the welcome that she might have hoped for, crushing any lingering doubts about her place in the hearts of her compatriots.

But the victory that was expected over an unseeded German player began to look all but impossible after Anna-Lena Groenefeld thrashed her 6-1 in the first set and took a 4-1 lead in the second before twisting her left ankle and crumpling to the court.

Groenefeld took time out to have her ankle taped and then gamely tried to continue the match. With tears in her eyes and unable to put much weight on her left leg, she lost three straight points before retiring with the score 6-1, 4-2.

"I knew I didn't win this match fairly. I don't like such victories," Sharapova, the world No. 1, told reporters. "But strange things happen in tennis, and today's match was one of them."

Center court at the Olimpiisky Sports Complex was as packed for Wednesday's second-round match as for many a Kremlin Cup final. Russian tennis fans had come to get their first look at Sharapova, who was born in Siberia but has lived more than half of her 18 years in Florida.

Sergei Savushkin, 40, made the trip from Samara to welcome her home.

"Most people don't understand her, but I do. It's not true what some people say and what they write in the press sometimes, that she is somehow un-Russian," Savushkin said. "What do people expect? She was born in a communist state and realized that her best chance to make it in tennis was to go to America. This doesn't make her un-Russian, it makes her a champion -- our champion."

Another fan chimed in: "She's a real Russian. I am proud we have a world No. 1."

If she could take little pride in how she won the match, Sharapova said she was thrilled by the crowd support.

"All the shouting -- Masha, Masha, Masha -- and all in Russian. It was great," she said after the match.

As Sharapova fought back in the sixth game of the second set, trailing 1-4, the familiar booming cry of "Rossia!" rang out from the press stands for the first time during the match. Dmitry Grantsev, or at least his voice, is familiar to anyone who has attended a major tennis match in Russia because of his rallying cry.

He said he had waited until deep into the second set because "for the first time it felt like she had a chance."

"I usually feel when they need my support," said Grantsev, who has covered the Kremlin Cup for the Argumenty i Fakty weekly since the tournament began in 1990. He said he had asked most of the leading players whether they liked his cheering and "they say it helps, especially the men."

After the injury, though, it was Groenefeld who had much of the crowd's sympathy, with chants of "Anna, Anna" springing up in sections of the stands.

Sergei Karpukhin / Reuters

Sharapova, who never seemed to find her rhythm in her match against Groenefeld, said she would be working on her forehand and footwork on Thursday.

From the beginning of the match, the 19th-ranked Groenefeld outplayed her more illustrious opponent at almost every turn. Her motif was a stinging crosscourt backhand for which Sharapova had no answer.

Sharapova's game as a power baseliner seemed to desert her, and she missed repeatedly with her forehand.

"I would be lying if I said that I was not nervous before the match," she told reporters.

The bigger problem, she said, was that she had been unable to find her rhythm, though that was normal after an injury. She had not played in two weeks, since pulling out of her semi-final with a chest injury at the China Open, where Groenefeld reached the final before losing to Maria Kirilenko.

Sharapova had beaten Groenefeld 6-2, 6-2 in their only previous encounter, at the German Open this year. And she said she had not given up during Wednesday's match.

"I don't think that I had totally lost the match. Sometimes you look at the score and you think it's all lost, but anything can happen in tennis, and sometimes people even come back from matchpoint down," she said.

Sharapova will face either Dinara Safina, younger sister of Marat Safin, or Australia's Samantha Stosur, who play Thursday, for a place in the semifinals.

To progress, she admitted she would have to play better than she did Wednesday.

"I need to feel like I am able to really play. I need to work on my footwork and the forehand especially," she said.

"Tomorrow, I'll be training."