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By Richard Pagliaro | Tuesday, January 20, 2020

 
Donna Vekic

Donna Vekic was a step quicker and a shot sharper sweeping the final five games to stop Maria Sharapova 6-3, 6-4, and reach the AO second round for the fourth straight year.

Photo credit: Mark Peterson/Corleve

Midway through the second set, Donna Vekic and Maria Sharapova came nose-to-nose at net.

Vekic poked a stretch volley right back at the Russian, rattling out an error in an exchange that that summed up this Australian Open opener.

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The 19th-seeded Vekic was a step quicker and a shot sharper sweeping Sharapova 6-3, 6-4, to roll into the Melbourne second round for the fourth straight year.

Vekic converted all four of her break points and reeled off five straight games to close her first victory over Sharapova in one hour, 21 minutes. 

"I'm really happy to win today," Vekic told Jelena Dokic afterward. "I always enjoy playing the big stages, and this one is pretty big! I enjoyed my time on this court from the first point, and I'm happy to leave with a win this time."

The 145th-ranked Russian's free fall continues. She is projected to drop to No. 366 in the rankings.

The former world No. 1 suffered her third straight major loss and her first Melbourne opening-round exit since losing to compatriot Maria Kirilenko 10 years ago.

Sharapova has not won a match since defeating American Alison Riske last August in Cincinnati—a 161-day drought—with her last Grand Slam victory coming 368 days ago in Oz when she out-dueled defending champion Caroline Wozniacki.

"I can speak about my struggles and the things that I've gone through with my shoulder, but it's not really in my character to," Sharapova said. "So, you know, I was there. I put myself out there. You know, as tough as it was, you know, I finished the match and, yeah, it wasn't the way that I wanted."



The Croatian's forehand was the key stroke in the opening set as Vekic broke in the fourth and sixth games surging out to a 5-1 lead.

Showing her familiar fighting spirit, Sharapova smacked a deep return breaking back for 2-5.

The wild card held a break point to get back on serve, but Vekic denied it serving out the 36-minute opening set.

The lead did not embolden the 23-year-old Vekic, who wasn't striking with the same aggression in the second set.

Sharapova won 12 of 13 points on serve, including stamping successive holds, snatching a 4-1 second-set lead. The woman who served a 15-month suspension after testing positive for the banned substance meldonium at the 2016 Australian Open could not sustain her edge. 

Resetting, Vekic won that rapid-fire net exchange, propelling her through a fierce five-game roll.  

Slapping a double fault into net to face break point Sharapova scrawled her signature shot, the two-handed backhand, into the middle of the net gifting back the break as Vekic earned her fourth break for 5-4.

Vekic will play Alize Cornet or Monica Niculescu in second round.

As Sharapova walked off with a wave, it was worth wondering if this was her farewell to the tournament she won back in 2008.

Karolina Pliskova won 82 percent of her first-serve points and saved six of seven break points conquering Kristina Mladenovic 6-1, 7-5.

Bidding to become the first Brisbane champion to win the Australian Open, Pliskova improved to 5-0 on the season setting up a second-rounder vs. either Laura Siegemund or Coco Vandeweghe.

"I think for sure to start like this it's a good start of tournament, and it gave me some at least feedback, how I played and that I managed some tough situations in the first round," said Pliskova, who avenged her 2019 AO loss to Naomi Osaka in Brisbane. "I was not, of course, feeling the best, so for sure was good start. I hope to feel better in the next round."

Karolina Pliskova
Photo credit: Mark Peterson/Corleve

US Open semifinalist Belinda Bencic beat world No. 202 Anna Karolina Schmiedlova 6-3, 7-5, avenging a three-set loss in the Hobart semifinals last year.

"It doesn't buy me anything," Bencic said of her US Open success last summer. "It doesn't matter anymore that I played Grand Slam semifinal in US Open. Now it's a new Grand Slam and I still have to win my matches to get there eventually again.

"So, yes, it's about the confidence, for sure, but I think it's also kind of the expectation is a little bit bigger and I think you can't compare yourself with US Open right now. You have to focus on a brand new Grand Slam, Australian Open."

The sixth-seeded Swiss could potentially play 2017 French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko for a spot in the third round.

Ons Jabeur applied her all-court skills shrewdly surprising 12th-seeded Johanna Konta 6-4, 6-2. Konta was playing just her second match in four months after battling a knee injury last year.

"I think ultimately the main thing was to start playing again, and I am," Konta said. "And how I physically felt out there is obviously a massive tick for me compared to where I was in September of last year. Before Brisbane, I had been out for almost, yeah, four, four-and-a-half months.

"So it's been quite a bit of time, not far off getting a protected ranking. I think giving myself that time to find a level that I want to play is going to be important. And I also played a very good opponent. So, you know, it's not all on my racquet."

 

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