The French Open champion’s performance bordered on the farcical at times with the second seed frittering away three set points to surrender the initiative before pulling off an escape act in a match lasting three hours, nine minutes in Tokyo.
Sharapova left herself with work to do after a string of double-faults and horror misses gift-wrapped the first set tiebreak to Watson 9-7.
The errors continued to mount but the Russian, her squealing growing increasingly louder with the effort, did just enough to restore parity by winning the second set.
A forehand miss gave Sharapova the break for 4-3 in the decider and the twice-Tokyo champion crawled over the line with a big forehand. “I definitely felt rusty today,” said Sharapova, who served 14 double-faults and finished with 67 unforced errors. “It’s one of those matches you’re just happy to get through.”
By contrast, world number one Victoria Azarenka took 63 minutes, exactly a third of the time Sharapova spent on court, to crush Austrian Tamira Paszek 6-1, 6-1 and book her spot in the third round of the $2.16 million Tokyo event.
Li Na, last year’s Roland Garros winner, shrugged off a nasty cough to beat Russian Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova 7-5, 4-6, 6-2. One of three Chinese players who made the trip to Tokyo despite a blazing political row between her country and Japan, Li’s experience told after a wobble in the second set.
“I’m still not 100 per cent,” Li said. “I’m just trying to stay healthy and taking [cough] medicine every morning and every night.”
Li’s appearance in Tokyo was a relief for organisers after China withdrew its badminton players from last week’s Japan Open amid tensions over disputed islands in the East China Sea. The 30-year-old saved her best for the crunch points, putting the match away by smashing a cross-court backhand into the corner after two hours and 37 minutes.
Former Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova was bundled out in the first upset of the WTA premier five event, suffering a 6-4, 6-4 defeat by Croatia’s Petra Martic.
Germany’s Angelique Kerber made short work of Japanese wildcard Ayumi Morita, the fifth seed comfortably winning 6-3, 6-4 to reach the third round. Sixth seed Sara Errani, of Italy, beat Sweden’s Johanna Larsson 6-3 7-6 and next faces Frenchwoman Marion Bartoli after the ninth seed’s 6-2, 7-5 win over German Julia Goerges.
Meanwhile, Rafael Nadal still has no timetable for his return from a knee injury. The Spaniard, who hasn’t played since losing in the second round of Wimbledon in June to little-known Lukas Rosol, is recovering from a partially torn patella tendon in his left knee.
The 11-time Grand Slam champion said he’s not sure how soon he’ll be back or whether he’ll play in the Australian Open in January. “All that is in my mind is to keep working hard to come back,” Nadal said. “I can not think about the future because it’s not like if you break your arm and you know you will have a few weeks like this, then a few weeks like that and then you are back. This is a day-by-day thing. I have checks every day to see how I’m improving. I can’t predict what will happen.”