Friday 22 February 2019

Sharapova delighted to beat old foe Wozniacki in grudge match

Maria Sharapova seals it with a kiss. Photo: Reuters
Maria Sharapova seals it with a kiss. Photo: Reuters

Simon Briggs in Melbourne

Maria Sharapova will need to call upon her patented persona as the ice woman when she faces Ashleigh Barty - the 15th seed and biggest home hope - in the Rod Laver Arena tomorrow.

The fans here are never afraid of showing their colours and Barty, a refreshingly normal character from Queensland, has become their new darling, whereas Sharapova inspires plenty of awe but little warmth.

Should Barty make inroads with her subtle, slice-heavy game, the roars will surely startle those pesky seagulls out of the stadium's rafters.

Yesterday, Sharapova collected one of her best results since her doping ban ended in April 2017.

Her 6-4, 4-6, 6-3 win over defending champion Caroline Wozniacki must have come as a real fillip.

Sharapova has been largely inactive since last year's Wimbledon as a result of various niggles and strains. And this would have tasted all the sweeter because she and Wozniacki have been at daggers drawn since her comeback from a 15-month sentence for using meldonium.

The blasts and counterblasts began in 2017, when Wozniacki said it was "disrespectful to the other players" for Stuttgart to offer Sharapova a wild card in the first week of her comeback.

They continued with Sharapova's agent, Max Eisenbud, calling Wozniacki a "journeyman" in an unsolicited email outburst, and then enjoyed a third act in New York last year when a row broke out over scheduling.

After yesterday's match, Sharapova was asked whether this was a particularly satisfying outcome. "I just really like winning," she replied. "I'm really happy and proud of the way I competed today and I'm into the fourth round. That's all that matters."

Wozniacki also opted to play down the grudge-match narrative, although not without a small dig at Sharapova's queenliness.

"I think our terms are the same as they have always been. I think she doesn't really talk to anybody and just has her team and has her own thing.

"I do my own thing," added Wozniacki, who is a close ally of Sharapova's arch-enemy, Serena Williams. "I have my friends and that's that. We are competitors and we both fight our hardest."

On the court, Wozniacki was a little underpowered. She snatched the second set against the run of play but the fact that she struck only one winner during those 10 games was a sign that she has reverted to the old scrambling routine instead of going for her shots in the way that she did here last year.

Perhaps this is the effect of Wozniacki's recently diagnosed illness, rheumatoid arthritis, which must have had an impact on her training volume.

Whatever the explanation, she is simply not timing the ball in the same way and her hard-running game, which carried her to the top of the world rankings for 67 weeks early in this decade, is not well suited to the fast Melbourne courts.

"I'm OK," said Wozniacki, the third seed, after her defeat. "I gave it everything I had and that was that. She was just a little bit better than me. I definitely don't want to blame it on anything else."

Wozniacki was the first of the top eight seeds to be eliminated, in a tournament which is generally returning more predictable results than other recent grand slams.

Earlier, Barty swept past the talented Greek prospect Maria Sakkari in fine style, using up only 82 minutes in her 7-5, 6-1 victory.

Barty has an interesting back story. She became a professional cricketer for one season in her late teens, having felt burned out by the expectations of her first sport.

After that summer representing Brisbane Heat in the Big Bash League, she switched back from her willow wand to her old polyester strings.

Soon she was messing her opponents about on court with the same deft touch she had once used to thread the ball through the covers.

© Daily Telegraph, London

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