Donna Vekic has claimed a big-hitting battle with former Australian Open champion Maria Sharapova to secure a second-round berth at Melbourne Park for the fifth time.
The Croatian – still just 23 years old – had not appeared at Rod Laver Arena since falling to Caroline Wozniacki three years ago.
But on Tuesday, the No.19 seed ensured a more prosperous outing with a 6-3 6-4 victory over Sharapova.
Defeat meant Sharapova, a five-time Grand Slam champion, would tumble outside the world’s top 350 in the rankings.
Following a second-round defeat on debut – also to Wozniacki – as a 16-year-old, the Dane declared “we’re going to see a lot of her in the future”.
Vekic’s progress since has been steady to say the least, but after finally passing the third round at a major for the first time at Wimbledon in 2018, she has come into her own.
Following her run to a maiden Grand Slam quarterfinal at the US Open last year, to finish a season in the top 20 for the first time, Vekic joked her goals this year did not extend beyond her next match.
“I think winning through second round at Australian Open would be good,” she laughed, having never won back-to-back matches at Melbourne Park before.
Vekic put her improvement over the past 18 months down to one key factor – her coach.
“Yeah, I have been working with Torben [Beltz] for the last two years now and we have an amazing connection and we have been working really hard,” Vekic said.
“I think what we have been doing on the practice court, it's all coming together on the match court, as well. We keep improving, and that's a good thing, you know. We keep going forward … we both feel that there is still a lot to improve on. So, you know, we have a clear vision and we have amazing communication.
“So I think that's been the main reason for my success.”
While Sharapova had claimed their only prior match at Roland Garros in 2018, she arrived languishing at No.145 in the rankings and required a wildcard to make the main draw having played only seven events last year due to a shoulder injury.
The Russian, a winner at Melbourne Park in 2008, had not won consecutive matches since reaching the fourth round at last year’s Australian Open, where she fell to Ashleigh Barty.
She had not won a match since Cincinnati in August and had not beaten a top-20 opponent since Wozniacki in the third round a year ago.
The 32-year-old was pragmatic when pressed on whether this was her final appearance on these shores.
“I don’t know, I don’t know,” Sharapova said.
“It's tough for me to tell what's going to happen in 12 months' time … I haven't thought of my schedule moving forward from here yet … I can speak about my struggles and the things that I've gone through with my shoulder, but it's not really in my character to.
“So, you know, I was there. I put myself out there. You know, as tough as it was I finished the match and, yeah, it wasn't the way that I wanted.”
Following a tough season, Sharapova’s lack of matchplay showed early on as time and again she was caught on the back foot, spraying balls wide as she caught Vekic’s heavy shots late.
The Croatian broke to love for 3-1 and Sharapova’s error count was sky-rocketing as a double break ensued.
But with Vekic serving for the set at 5-1, the Russian began to find her range.
Despite closing it out, the momentum had shifted and when Vekic was staring down break points early in the second, she muttered to herself, “I’m hitting too many to the forehand”.
That wasn’t the sum of her struggles. She dropped serve on a double fault to fall behind 1-4 only for Sharapova’s rust to return.
Vekic tightened the screws to reduce loose shots and reeled off the last five games of the match.
“I mean, for me, I really enjoyed being on Rod Laver today,” Vekic said.
“I think when I found out who I was playing, I knew it was going to be on a big court, so I was happy about that.
“I enjoy playing on the big stage. But then always winning the first round of a slam is always relieving … definitely didn't feel like playing a wildcard. Maria is a great player, a champion.
“I practised with her in the off-season and … I knew it was going to be a tough match and that I had to bring my A-game.”
Vekic awaits the winner of Alize Cornet and Monica Niculescu for the chance to reach the third round at Melbourne Park for the first time.