Roberta Vinci plays Maria Sharapova on Wednesday at the Porsche Tennis Grand Prix
On a quiet day in the office as the Monday was given over to the end of qualifying and continual dramatic rehearsals for the grand celebration of 40 years of the tournament, Roberta Vinci took all the hubbub in her stride. From the second she walked into her press conference in the specially extended media centre given the extraordinary circumstances around the return of Porsche brand ambassador Maria Sharapova, she radiated good humour in stark contrast to some of the more bitter exchanges we have seen over the past week or so.
“Wow, wow, wow – Why so many journalists? I don’t understand,” she started with a mischievous smile.
With Vinci you can be sure she will go off-piste at times with her answers, and she knew what was going to be coming right at her. It started promisingly enough, with the more diplomatic ‘It’s a tough draw, tough tournament, so yeah I’m so excited to play against Maria,’ before she revealed what she really thought about the situation.
She told reporters: “My personal opinion is [I do not] agree about the wildcard here, about the wildcard in Rome and the other tournaments. I think she’s a great player, Personally I don’t have nothing against her, but she paid her mistakes for sure – less but she paid.
“I think she can return to play but without any wildcards, any help, but just to play and for me probably she will play two tournaments, three tournaments, will be Top 30 for sure.
“I know she’s important for the tennis, for the WTA, for everything. She’s great player, great person, great champion but this is my personal opinion but I have to play on Wednesday against her.”
The Rome Wild-card Issue
Rome in particular is a thorny issue – French Open champion Francesca Schiavone in her final year will get a wildcard for pre-qualifying at her home tournament – IF she asks for it. But it’s looking unlikely that she will receive even a qualifying wildcard.
Sure, there is the element of bums on (albeit elaborate marble) seats, but the fact that an Italian heroine has to try and earn her final farewell in front of crowds that love her by winning the pre-qualifying tournament seems unduly harsh.
Practice, Match-play & Time on Centre Court
But back to Vinci, herself flirting with retirement, is at least trying to find a way to stay grounded and focused through the increasing buzz around this usually small and perfectly formed tournament. For many of the top players, the clay court season starts here, but the indoor slick surface is not at all like the more claggy stuff they will expect as they march towards Paris.
She said: “This is a different kind of clay I think and I practice in the other side and this is different. So tomorrow morning I practice on Central because it’s completely different. But for me it’s better that it’s more fast than the normal clay. It’s indoor, I like to play indoor court.
“I played last year here a great tournament so I try to remember the good memories of the last year, and why not enjoy the match.
“Probably a lot of pressure for both, but I try to don’t think about all this, the questions of wild-card, but just to stay focussed and play a good game.”
There has been no doubt that Sharapova has been working hard, staying fit, and practicing for this day, having had her ban reduced to a total of 15 months after her case went to the Court of Arbitration for Sport.
Perhaps then, the key for Vinci will be that she has at least had match play this year, if a little patchy. Continuing issues with her tendons have seen her struggle with her form, and since reaching the St Petersburg quarter-finals, she has yet to win back to back matches.
She joked: “When I saw the draw I was in the airport, on Saturday afternoon. And somebody said ‘ok you play on Wednesday’ so I say to my coach ‘OK come back home, and then we come back, stay for days – it’s not easy’,” with a smile.
Adding that she had just been joking, she said: “I stay, practice a lot, try to play on centre and that’s it. I say OK, I play on Wednesday, it’s fine.”
On the subject of practice – Due to the Fed Cup tie being played here at the weekend, Vinci has been practice on the outer courts and will get her first feel of the Centre Court early on Tuesday morning, which plays far differently to the other courts. Given that Sharapova is not even allowed on-site until Wednesday, she joked that she can stay in the leafy Stuttgart suburbs where she has been practicing for her come-back.
“The important thing for me is to stay focused really every single point because probably she can play good game for maybe two games and then go a little bit down for her concentration. It’s not easy to come back after long time to play a match. And so nothing special, just play my game, try to enjoy, that’s it.”
Of course few would forget her rising to the biggest of occasions, beating Serena Williams in the 2015 US Open, where she produced some of the most dazzling tennis of her life. She plays with incredible variety and her doubles experience makes her one of the trickiest players to face in a comeback. The by now legendary slice, and her charging of the net will give the tournament the match it needs to bring the media maelstrom to an end on Wednesday.
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