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By Richard Pagliaro | Friday, January 18, 2019

 
Maria Sharapova

Maria Sharapova played with bold aggression defeating defending Australian Open champ Caroline Wozniacki, 6-4, 4-6, 6-3, to charge into the fourth round for the 11th time.

Photo credit: Mark Peterson/Corleve

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A fiercely focused Sharapova struck with menacing intent defeating defending Australian Open champion Caroline Wozniacki, 6-4, 4-6, 6-3, in a blockbuster battle of champions.

The 2008 champion controlled the center of the court at crunch time charging through four straight games to roar into the Melbourne fourth round for the 11th time in 15 appearances.

"It was definitely a match that I looked forward to and when the draw came out obviously I had to get there first and so did she," Sharapova said. "But 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.

"You know, those are the rallies that I think many years ago that she used to win. I thought I did a great job of getting a higher percentage of wins in those."

Sharapova surrendered just five points on serve in the final set.

The only Russian woman in history to win an Australian Open singles title hit with more conviction and ambition in the final set.

The 30th-seeded Sharapova nearly quadrupled Wozniacki's winner output—37 to 10—defeating the Dane for the first time in three Grand Slam meetings.

"I thought the level was quite high," Sharapova said. "I knew I was gonna get a really tough match. She is the defending champion of this event and it's no secret she loves this arena and I haven't played many matches in the last year, especially against top players.

"And these are the types of matches that I train for. And so it was really rewarding to win that last match point."



Struggling to defend her second serve, Wozniacki saw her reign end and nine-match Melbourne winning streak snapped.

"You know, I did my best out there. I was fighting till the end," Wozniacki said. "You know, 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. I did my best. I did all I could. Just came up short. That's sports sometimes."


This rematch was infused with the intensity of a grudge match.

Following her 2016 Australian Open quarterfinal loss to Serena Williams, Sharapova tested positive for the banned substance meldonium and served a 15-month doping ban.

When the Stuttgart tournament, which is sponsored by Sharapova's sponsor Porsche, awarded the Russian a wild card in her April 2017 comeback, several players—including Dominika Cibulkova, Agnieszka Radwanska, Angelique Kerber, Andy Murray, Kristina Mladenovic and Wozniacki—objected arguing players returning from doping bans should have to work their way back through the ranks and not be rewarded with wild cards.

In response, Sharapova's agent, Max Eisenbud, famously trashed Wozniacki and Radwanska as "journeyman players" and the Dane later told The Times she rejected the agent's attempted apology as "useless" because he didn't apologize face-to-face.

Sharapova turned the Happy Slam into a Homecoming Slam signalling a return to major relevance.

Simply put, she took it to Wozniacki when the match was on the line.

The five-time Grand Slam champion will play 15th-seeded Aussie home favorite Ash Barty for a trip to the quarterfinals.

Varying the depth and pace of her slice backhand beautifully, Barty beat Maria Sakkari, 7-5, 6-1.

The Sharapova-Wozniacki clash is a study in contrasts pitting power vs. speed and a knock-out artist against a clean counter-puncher.

The Russian's flat forehand is more menacing, while the Dane's topspin forehand provides more margin.

Pummelling a series of heavy forehands, Sharapova drew the mid-court ball she wanted, but made a mess of the finish sailing an open-court forehand long. Sharapova slapped another flat forehand error gifting the break and a 3-1 lead to the champion.

Wozniacki can dot all areas of the box when she's reaching up and out on serve. She quickly consolidated for 4-1.

Swinging more freely, the 2008 champion was crunching shots with more conviction mid-way through the set. Showing disdain for the Dane's second serve, Sharapova strong-armed a double-fault to break back in the seventh game.

In an adventurous point that careened all over the court, Sharapova stayed in step with one of the sport's speediest players even resorting to the lefty forehand to prolong a riveting rally. A strong hold pulled the five-time Grand Slam champion even.

Blasting the champion back behind the baseline, Sharapova was crushing the Dane's second serve. Wozniacki jammed a body serve eliciting the short ball she wanted, but she pasted a backhand into net dropping serve and belting a ball into the crowd in frustration.

A shrieking Sharapova streaked through the final five games drilling a screaming forehand winner down the line to snatch the 50-minute opener.

If this was a WTA Tour event, a shell-shocked Wozniacki would have been calling her father, and coach, Piotr, out on court.

On-court coaching isn't permitted in majors so Wozniacki looked for answers from within.

The third seed took a straight-forward approach to problem-solving attacking her serve and stepping into the court more. Wozniacki answered Sharapova's five-game surge with a three-game run of her own.

Again, Sharapova answered driving a diagonal forehand to break back in the fifth game.

The set stayed on serve until Sharapova blinked serving at 4-5.

Spraying a big second serve long—her sixth double fault of the match—Sharapova faced set point then sailed a backhand. After 97 minutes, Wozniacki was even.

After a lengthy bathroom break by Sharapova, tension tightened in the decider.

A see-saw seventh game saw Wozniacki fight off a pair of break points before Sharapova blasted a body return for a a third break point.

Driving a diagonal return that stretched her opponent, Sharapova smacked a flat forehand down the line unleashing an extended primal "come on" to celebrate the break and a 4-3 lead.

Confirming the break with a commanding love hold the world No. 30 was four points from the finish.

On her second match point, Sharapova blasted a backhand crosscourt thrusting her arms in triumph. The two hour, 24-minute conquest was Sharapova's seventh win in 11 meetings with Wozniacki.


 

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