MELBOURNE: Former world number one Russian tennis player Maria Sharapova on Tuesday sailed serenely into the second round of her first Australian Open since returning from a 15-month doping ban, sealing the victory with an ace.
The unseeded Russian beat Germany’s Tatjana Maria 6-1, 6-4 in an hour and 18 minutes. “Look, I’ve got shivers,” said Sharapova pointing to her arm when asked on the court how much being back in Melbourne meant to her.
“I cherish these moments. I love it here,” she added. “It’s been a couple of years and I wanted it to be really meaningful to me. But we know it’s only going to get tougher.”
On paper, this should have been a close match. Sharapova, who is climbing her way back up the tennis ladder following her ban, is ranked 48th with her German opponent one place higher.
But the gulf in class and experience between Sharapova, who has won 36 singles titles, and the 30-year-old journeywoman yet to register a WTA title was evident from the opening exchanges.
The Russian 2008 Australian Open champion raced into a 2-0 lead, holding her own serve to love and then breaking Maria with ease.
It set the tone for the opening stanza with Sharapova, behind her trademark loud shrieking, powering home winners as Maria failed to hold serve.
A couple of double faults and one dropped service game aside, Sharapova was almost flawless in taking the first set 6-1 in just 32 minutes behind 14 winners, most of them driven unerringly from her powerful forehand side.
The German found her service range at the start of the second and briefly led 3-1 after breaking Sharapova for the second time.
But the Russian cranked up the decibel meter, broke back with a further flurry of forehand winners and levelled at 3-3 when holding serve with a cry of “Come on!”
When Sharapova forced another break point after an attritional 18-shot rally the German’s fleeting resistance melted away on a double fault as the five-time Grand Slam champion scented victory.
The German held for 4-5 but, serving with new balls, Sharapova closed out the win with an ace and a huge smile for the rapturous crowd on Margaret Court Arena.
Sharapova had been banned for taking the performance-enhancing substance meldonium, and has been working her way back up the rankings since returning in April 2017.
One of the highest earners in women’s sport, she suffered a string of early defeats after her comeback.
But she showed glimpses of her old self by reaching the last 16 at the US Open and then broke through to win the Tianjin Open in October – her first title since 2015.
She got back into the world’s top 50 just before the year’s first Grand Slam and on this form will relish a potential second-round meeting with 14th seed Anastasija Sevastova of Latvia or American Varvara Lepchenko.
Meanwhile, Canada’s Milos Raonic was knocked out by Lukas Lacko on Tuesday in his earliest exit at Grand Slam for seven years.
The 86th-ranked Slovakian beat the 22nd seeded Raonic 6-7 (5/7), 7-5, 6-4, 7-6 (7/4) in 3hr 22min on Show Court three.
It was Raonic’s earliest exit at a Slam since losing in the first round at Roland Garros in 2011.
Raonic, a 2016 Wimbledon finalist, is fighting his way back from a wrist injury last season and despite serving 36 aces, he made 47 unforced errors and had his serve broken three times. Lacko will play Argentina’s Nicolas Kicker in the second round.