By Sudipto Ganguly
MELBOURNE, Jan 18 (Reuters) – Maria Sharapova scorched the Rod Laver Arena with her aggressive tennis to eliminate defending Australian Open champion Caroline Wozniacki 6-4 4-6 6-3 in the third round on Friday.
Five-times Grand Slam champion Sharapova, who won her last major at the 2014 French Open, hit 37 winners against 10 from her opponent and converted her second matchpoint to set up a fourth round clash against Australia number one Ashleigh Barty.
Sharapova, who won the Australian Open in 2008, headed into the match with a 6-4 lead in their previous meetings and went for her shots from the first point making it difficult for the third-ranked Dane with a game built on defence.
“I thought the level was quite high. She is the defending champion of this event and it’s no secret she loves this arena,” Sharapova said in a courtside interview.
“These are the types of matches I train for so it’s really rewarding to win that last point. I’m definitely not walking around thinking I have experience and think they’re just going to give it to me.”
Wozniacki had the first break but handed the advantage back with a double fault before the Russian 30th seed, who was suspended for 15 months for taking banned drug meldonium in 2016, won three consecutive games to take the set.
After a trade of breaks, Wozniacki took the match into a deciding set after a double fault from former world number one Sharapova gave her a set point which she converted to level the entertaining encounter on Rod Laver Arena at 1-1.
Sharapova shrieked in delight with her fists clenched after converting her third breakpoint in the seventh game with a scorching forehand and broke Wozniacki again to seal the victory in two hours and 24 minutes.
The 31-year-old Russian said she had decided to be aggressive against Wozniacki and aim for shorter points.
That plan, however, took her unforced errors to 46, more than double than from Wozniacki.
“It was definitely, you know, a match that I looked forward to and when the draw came out obviously I had to get there first and so did she,” said Sharapova, who wore a black crop top to her news conference.
“But, yeah, I thought it was, as usual, as expected, a physical match. Didn’t have to be in some ways, but I felt like even in the longer rallies I did a great job of winning those. Put a lot of pressure on her.”
Sharapova will brace for a hostile crowd in the fourth round when she takes on local hope Barty, who beat Greek Maria Sakkari 7-5 6-1.
“I think her story is phenomenal, she loves playing here,” Sharapova said of her next opponent. “I know it’s going to be a tough crowd but I go out here to perform and play tennis.”
Amanda Anisimova – Aryna Sabalenka 6-3, 6-2
American teenager Amanda Anisimova upstaged 11th seed Aryna Sabalenka 6-3 6-2 to storm into the fourth round of the Australian Open and signal the arrival of a new force in women’s tennis on Friday.
The fearless 17-year-old bullied her much higher ranked opponent who looked shell-shocked by the power being generated at the other end of the court.
It was Anisimova’s third consecutive straight sets win, which included a 6-0 6-2 destruction of 24th seed Lesia Tsurenko. She will play the winner of Petra Kvitova and Belinda Bencic in the fourth round.
The youngest player in the draw said she wouldn’t mind being a teenage Grand Slam winner like one of the players she most looks up to, Maria Sharapova.
“I want to win this tournament right now,” the Miami teen said, when asked what she longed for.
Anisimova showed no nerves despite playing in only her third Grand Slam main draw, and not having previously gone past the first round.
She broke Sabalenka’s opening service game, and by the third game of the match the usually dominant Belarusian was glancing skywards as if wondering how her slightly-built opponent could punch like a heavyweight.
“Definitely, I was trying to be really aggressive today because she plays really aggressive too and we are both really big hitters,” the American said.
With youthful disregard for the consequences, Anisimova refused to take a backward step, half-volleying her opponent’s powerful shots when required.
Anisimova, ranked 87, might have a strong first serve and forehand, but it will be her double-fisted backhand that, should she fulfil her obvious potential, stood out.
On the backhand wing, she took the ball as early as anyone else on tour, yet always appeared balanced, and never rushed.
She treated Sabalenka’s strong first serve with disdain, by going for outright winners off the return.
Although that particular tactic had modest success – the American seemed unperturbed even after making several errors – it sent a not-too-subtle message that she was the one in control.
The eleventh seed’s muffled frustration became increasingly audible, and after getting out-hit on match point she whacked the ball into the stadium roof in angst, after missing out on an opportunity to advance to the last 16.
The victor blew kisses to the crowd.