Maria Sharapova overpowers Barty in absorbing contest

Maria Sharapova maintained the form she found in Madrid with an encouraging three-set win over talented Australian Ashleigh Barty.

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Maria Sharapova produced a determined display to see off Ashleigh Barty 7-5 3-6 6-2 and set up a second round meeting with Dominika Cibulkova at the Italian Open.

The Russian found form for the first time this year during an impressive run to the last eight in Madrid, and she picked up where she left off in Rome.

After both players battled to holds in their opening service games, Sharapova forged ahead by breaking in game three.

The set then progressed smoothly for the Russian until she served for it at 5-4. She hit a backhand into the net and made a couple of forehand errors to go down 0-40. Barty took advantage. She manoeuvred her way to the net and put away an easy smash to seal the break.

However, the Australian wasted her return to parity. She made two double-faults to gift Sharapova a break point, and the five-time Grand Slam champion finished a brilliant point with a stunning cross-court forehand winner to take it, before holding to seal the set.

Barty fought back superbly in the second set. She used her extensive range of shots and her excellent court coverage to fight for every point and almost went up a break in game four.

Sharapova saved four break points on that occasion but the Australian was not deterred. She finally broke the Russian in game six before saving three break points to establish a 5-2 lead.

After Barty clinched the second set with a gutsy hold, neither player gave any quarter at the start of the decider, and consequently the first three games took 23 minutes to conclude.

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All three went with serve, although both Sharapova and Barty had to save three break points apiece to keep it that way.

After those gruelling games, the Russian seemed to free up. She unleashed some huge trademark strikes to break her Australian opponent in game four, and then blazed her way to an easy hold.

Suddenly Sharapova was just two games away from progressing. She dominated her next service game to go 5-2 up, and then produced a succession of huge groundstrokes to break Barty for victory.

Sharapova feeling content

After the win, Sharapova told wtatennis.com, “This tournament has been special in my career, and brought me some great matches. I’m a little bit more relieved this year…and just playing, and not worrying about anything else, which is nice.”

“The beauty of what we do is you don’t know until you go out and you play. Sometimes, you feel your best and you play great and you come out losing the match, and sometimes you don’t play so well and you come out winning the match.”

The Russian also praised her opponent. “It’s been a while since I played her, and she’s always been a very tough opponent for me to play. We’ve always had very difficult matches,” Sharapova said.

“She made me hit a lot of balls, and that’s the reason why she’s doing so well, seeded here and had the results that she has.”

No trouble for Svitolina

Defending champion Elina Svitolina breezed into the third round with a 6-1 6-2 demolition of Petra Martic in just 62 minutes. She dominated the match from start to finish and broke her Croatian opponent twice in each set.

The World No.4 will now play either Daria Kasatkina or Danielle Collins after the Russian thrashed Alja Tomljanovic 6-0 6-4 and the American qualifier upset Sorana Cirstea 6-3 4-6 6-4.

Elsewhere in Rome, Angelique Kerber edged out Zarina Diyas 6-2 7-6(6), Elena Vesnina beat Laura Siegemund 7-6(5) 6-2 and Timea Babos took out Sara Errani 6-3 7-6(6).

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