Sharapova show rolls on

  • Dan Imhoff
  • Ben Solomon

Anastasija Sevastova sure has a knack for making matters difficult for Maria Sharapova.

Twice last year, the persistent Latvian – a woman enjoying a second stint on tour, after a premature retirement – gave the Russian star a hell of a time.

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The ledger stood at one-apiece coming into their second-round Australian Open clash on Thursday.
And if anyone was pencilling in Sharapova’s name for the title in her chief slam tormentor Serena Williams’ absence, then she would do well to avoid yet another drawn-out struggle with Sevastova.

On a day where the mercury was tipped to hit 37°C, this one belonged to the Russian, 6-1 7-6(4). It very nearly went the way of the pair’s prior battles.

The gasp of relief upon sealing her passage into the third round was palpable.

“Well, I had really tough matches against her,” Sharapova said. “Despite winning our last match, I faced two match points and barely got through that one, 7-6 in the third.

“You know, it's a warm day. I did my job in two sets against someone that's been troubling in the past for me. So third round of the Australian Open, I don't know, I think I deserve to smile out there after that victory.”

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New York City was the suitable setting for Sharapova’s much-hyped Grand Slam return last August.

And true to her show-time script she had delivered under lights on the largest, rowdiest arena in tennis. World No.2 Simona Halep was her first twilight victim. Many at that point pencilled in Sharapova’s name to go six wins further for the title.

Sevastova was not one of those. The 27-year-old, who gave away the game for two years from 2013 due to persistent injuries, had no problem raining on the Russian’s parade in a three-set fourth-round boilover.

Sharapova narrowly claimed revenge in a three-hour thriller later in the season in Beijing.

And on Thursday, having romped through the opening set against an opponent sporting a heavily strapped right thigh, there was a sense this one was about to take a sharp turn into three-set territory again.

Sharapova began to tighten as she served for the match at 5-4 in the second on Rod Laver Arena.

The Latvian, at a career-high slam seeding of No.14, persisted with her mix of heavily sliced backhands and looping, deep forehands to break for 5-5.

“A lot of players I have played coming back have had that tricky backhand slice,” Sharapova said. “I have worked a lot on that in practice, made a lot of errors against that shot, against her at the US Open, a lot of swinging volley errors, also. I thought those were two key factors I wanted to focus on today.”

A tiebreak would end up deciding the second set and ultimately the match.

30 Maria Sharapova
6 Anastasija Sevastova

Sharapova, who knows only a crash-through or crash approach, wanted none of a third set and backed herself to get this done there and then.

Two match points slipped her grasp before Sevastova sealed the result with one final forehand long.

Should former No.1 Angelique Kerber get past Donna Vekic later on Thursday, the stage would be set for a battle between the only two former champions in the draw.

And given the brick-wall retrieving abilities of the German, another drawn-out struggle could well be on the cards.

“I'm around 50 in the world at this point, so I know I'm going to be facing seeded players, first, second, third round,” Sharapova said. “She happens to be the next one that's in the draw that I have to play.

“I look forward to these matches. I want to be playing against opponents that [are] former Grand Slam champions.

“She's had success playing out here in these conditions on these courts. I want to see where I am on that level.”