Maria Sharapova Upset By Niculescu In Doha
Maria Sharapova became the latest victim of Monica Niculescu and her box of tricks as she surprisingly lost 6-4 4-6 3-6 to the Romanian in the first round of the WTA Premier event in Doha.
The five-time Grand Slam champion, 30, is not the force she once was but she would certainly have expected to beat Niculescu, particularly as she was ranked 50 places higher than the World No.92 before the match.
However, the Romanian upset the odds to make it through and will probably face Magdalena Rybarikova in round two. Provided the Slovakian successfully negotiates her encounter with Omani wild card Fatma Al-Nabhani (World No.521), the Doha crowds can look forward to an exhibition of clever slices, drop shots and deft volleys when she plays Niculescu.
“I love it how I play and I like to be unique, and I think my slice forehand is a weapon,” the Romanian said during her press conference. “And when I feel good on the court, then I play relaxed, I can be good and can be dangerous.”
Sharapova was always likely to find the ever-inventive Niculescu tough to put away unless she produced something approaching her best form and, for most of the first set, she managed to do exactly that. The Russian opened the match with a flawless return game to break the Romanian to love, and then responded to Niculescu levelling the match at 2-2 by breaking her twice more to race into a 5-2 lead.
But Sharapova faltered when she was serving for the set and Niculescu dragged the score back to 5-4. And, although the Russian held serve to clinch the first set, her level of performance steadily dropped off as her Romanian opponent battled, sliced and hustled her way to a 6-4 scoreline to take the contest into a third set.
— Jimmie48 Photography (@JJlovesTennis) 12 February 2018
Things got even worse for Sharapova in the decider as she failed to capitalise on an early break and then made a string of double faults and forehand unforced errors to lose three games in a row and gift Niculescu the set and the win.
In total, the Russian made 52 unforced errors and served 11 double faults in the match. Those are awful numbers, but she has coped with similar stats in the past by hitting just as many aces and winners. This time, however, she could only manage 31 winners and two aces, which was way short of what she needed.
“I did a good job of winning the longer rallies, even though that’s not really what I wanted to get myself into.” An upbeat Sharapova reflected about her performance.
“So, physically I felt good. I just got pretty passive in the end and starting making too many errors.”
Agnieszka Radwanska looked in danger of suffering a similar fate to Sharapova when she lost the opening set to Mona Barthel, who cracked 25 winners past the Pole to take it 6-3.
The 2012 Wimbledon finalist responded by stepping inside the court and being more aggressive in the second set in the hope of unsettling her opponent’s rhythm. It worked wonders, as Barthel suddenly found it much more difficult to time her shots. Before the German could fully adjust to the change, she was 4-0 down in the set and eventually lost it 6-3.
Radwanska initially kicked on in the decider and raced into a 5-2 lead. However, she wasted an incredible nine match points as she allowed Barthel to level the set at 5-5. Finally, the Pole took her tenth opportunity to close out the match and breathe a sigh of relief that she had not thrown it away. Sealing the marathon win 3-6, 6-3, 7-5. She is likely to play Petra Kvitova in the next round.
— WTA Insider (@WTA_insider) 12 February 2018
In other matches, Dominika Cibulkova held her nerve to edge out Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova 7-6(8), 6-4. The Slovak, who has only won back-to-back matches in one tournament so far this season, will take on seventh seed Caroline Garcia next. American world No.48 Cici Bellis also progressed after her opponent, Daria Kasatkina, retired with a neck injury.