Leading 6-3, 4-1, Caroline Garcia was in the process of demolishing one of the greatest players of recent times. Just 17 years of age, the unknown youngster was within touching distance of a huge upset, a victory that would catapult her to stardom in a tennis-loving nation desperate for a new darling ever since the retirement of Amelie Mauresmo.
U heard it here first
Andy Murray, watching on, tweeted his real-time appreciation: "The girl Sharapova is playing is going to be number one in the world one day. Caroline Garcia. What a player! U heard it here first."
Then, inevitably, the enormity of what she was about to achieve hit Garcia, perhaps as the crowd celebrated prematurely with a Mexican wave, and her game suddenly fell apart. Literally. The nerves that had lain hidden surged into her racket hand and consigned her to the same fate as so many Frenchwomen here at Roland Garros, from Mauresmo to Alize Cornet and many in between.
From that point she hardly had a look in, except at 4-4, 30-30 in the second set, when after consecutive double faults, Sharapova hit a lob that was called out, then questioned and overruled. Had Garcia been handed a break point she might, just might, have banished her fear-of-winning gremlins and gone on to win. Mentally she was crumbling, but this might have dragged her back from the brink…
Those of us who play tennis for fun, or even competitively at club level, know how it feels. One minute you are playing out of your skin, the next you can't get the ball in the court for love nor money. That's all very well when you, your opponent and the odd passer-by are the only witnesses to your shame. When you are playing on Philippe Chatrier Court for the first time in your fledgling career, live on TV in front of a watching world, the experience must be incredibly hard to endure.
Let us hope it does not break Garcia, because up to that point we had watched in awe as the outrageously talented teenager blew the Russian three-time Grand Slam champion away. It was as though the Mary Pierce of June 2000 had returned for a set and a half, as the tall, clean-hitting youngster pummeled the ball left and right.
In our Match of the Day preview (http://www.rolandgarros.com/en_FR/news/articles/2011-05-25/201105251306338781168.html) we very kindly advised the 188-ranked girl from Lyon to go out there and have fun. After all, she had little hope of victory.
Fun? No hope? You must be kidding. Garcia strode out onto Centre Court as if to the manner born, and within minutes had drawn gasps of admiration from an initially circumspect crowd. She picked her spots, leaving her more storied opponent chasing after clay-dust and racing in the process into a 2-0 lead. Her subsequent march to the first set came thanks to a battery of winners both deft and crashing, clever variety in her shot selection and some unplayable serving.
Sharapova was helpless in the face of such a hammering, and remained so until that fateful turning point at 4-1. To her great credit, the Russian seized on Garcia's disintegrating game thereafter, and showed not an ounce of mercy right to the end, letting out a scream of relief as she clinched victory after two hours of play.
Maria goes on to play Chan Yung-Jan in the third round and can banish memories of today's opponent from her mind. Garcia meanwhile should take the positives, accept that beating Maria at this stage in her career may have been too much too soon anyway, and go back to working her way up the ranking in the months to come. After all, it takes someone special to shine at a Grand Slam at the tender age of 17. Just ask Sharapova…