Fierce-hitting Maria Sharapova ends Caroline Wozniacki’s reign

Maria Sharapova in action during her victory over Caroline Wozniacki at the Australian Open. Picture: Cameron Spencer/Getty Images
Maria Sharapova in action during her victory over Caroline Wozniacki at the Australian Open. Picture: Cameron Spencer/Getty Images
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Maria Sharapova reminded herself and everyone else she is a big-match player by ending the reign of Australian Open champion Caroline Wozniacki in the third round.

The battle between two of the biggest names in the game did not disappoint but in the end Sharapova’s fierce hitting won the day as she surged to a 6-4, 4-6, 6-3 victory on Rod Laver Arena.

Wozniacki is the highest-ranked opponent Sharapova has beaten since her first-round victory over Simona Halep at the US Open in 2017. That was her first grand-slam tournament appearance after her 15-month doping ban and at the time seemed to be a sign of the Russian’s impending resurgence, but it has not turned out that way – until now.

Not surprisingly, the Russian was in a good-humoured mood afterwards, saying: “It was a good win. I feel pretty happy about it. [I’m] even wearing a crop top. I’m really happy. I don’t pull those out often.”

It has been hard work for Sharapova, who added: “To be in the grind of things and to really have to figure out a way to be on top is what I missed. I didn’t really get many of those chances.

“Maybe Halep a year and a half ago at the US Open was where I was challenged like that. And I can think of maybe one or two other matches. I think you learn a lot, and when you put yourself in those positions and you get through, those are great, great victories.”

There is no love lost between the two players. Wozniacki was one of the most outspoken critics of the way Sharapova was welcomed back to the game following her ban, prompting the Russian’s agent Max Eisenbud to brand Wozniacki a “journeyman player”.

Sharapova refused to brand the victory extra special because of that, saying: “I just really like winning. I’m just really happy and proud of the way I competed today and I’m into the fourth round. So that’s all that matters.”

Wozniacki’s season tailed off after her superb triumph over Halep here 12 months ago and she announced in October that had been diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis.

The Dane did not want to cite that as a factor in her defeat, but hinted she may not have been feeling her best, saying: “I can’t be too hard on myself with what I got today. I did what I could. I was fighting until the end. In my head I should have won that first set. Being up 4-1, I had a chance to do that, but I didn’t, and then I fought back and won the second set. Then it was a close third set. It just wasn’t enough today.”

While Sharapova put herself back in the present conversation, one player labelled as the future of women’s tennis was beaten by an even younger rival on Margaret Court Arena. Aryna Sabalenka, 20, was many pundits’ pick to win the title but she was blown away 6-3, 6-2 by 17-year-old American prodigy Amanda Anisimova. She is the first player born in the 2000s to reach the fourth round of a grand slam and the youngest for more than a decade.

The most striking thing about the performance of the teenager, who won the junior US Open title in 2017, was how utterly unfazed she appeared by the occasion. Asked for her biggest tennis dream, Anisimova replied: “I want to win this tournament right now.”

Sharapova will face Australian hope Ashleigh Barty in the next round while Anisimova takes on in-form eighth seed Petra Kvitova, who defeated Belinda Bencic 6-1, 6-4.

Anisimova can take confidence from already having beaten Kvitova on her way to the fourth round in Indian Wells last spring.

Fifth seed Sloane Stephens battled to a 7-6 (8/6), 7-6 (7/5) victory over Petra Martic while American Danielle Collins reached the fourth round at a slam for the first time with a 6-3, 6-2 win against 19th seed Caroline Garcia.