By Sahan Bidappa/Doha
Maria Sharapova’s head must be spinning after her loss to Monica Niculescu at the Qatar Total Open last night. For, the Russian was subjected to a series of incredible topspin forehand shots by Niculescu, which brought Sharapova’s downfall on the opening day of the Premier 5 WTA tournament at the Khalifa International Tennis and Squash Complex yesterday.
Having managed to defy Niculescu’s unique style of play when she won the first set, Sharapova found herself tangled in a web of sliced shots from the Romanian to crash out of the tournament 4-6, 6-4, 6-3.
World No. 92 Niculescu, who had to win two of her qualifying matches to make it to the 64-field strong main draw, plays the most unique brand of tennis on the WTA Tour. Her game is not based on power, baseline rallies or volleys but her signature style of play is centred on a topspin forehand, which makes her a tricky opponent.
And Sharapova found it the hard way yesterday. The five-time Grand Slam champion is still on a comeback trail after returning from a 15-month ban for doping violation. Currently No. 41, 30-year-old Sharapova received a wild card for the main draw in Doha, where she has won twice before — in 2005 and 2008. And the reception she got from the motley crowd showed she is still one of the favourites in women’s tennis.
It was the first meeting between the two, with Sharapova also playing in Doha for the first time since 2013. And Niculescu put Sharapova through the grind with some head-spinning, slow sliced forehands. The Romanian was ready to play a patient game, which clearly frustrated the former No. 1.
Niculescu, the 2012 Qatar Total Open quarter-finalist, twice trailed by a set and a break before turning the tide on the Russian wildcard, breaking at love to level the match and winning 12 of the final 13 points to secure the victory after two hours and 38 minutes on court.
Niculescu’s consistency got her on the winning side in the end. She hit just 12 winners but also made only 17 unforced errors, converting six of her seven break-point opportunities.
Sharapova, on the other hand, failed to nail her forehand winners, committing 52 unforced errors that cancelled out her 31 winners.
“I thought I played really well in qualifiers, and I thought I have the game but when I saw the draw I wasn’t too happy, actually, because I thought I’m playing good,” said Niculescu, who will next play either No.14 seed and 2018 Wimbledon semifinalist Magdalena Rybarikova or wildcard Fatma al-Nabhani of Oman.
“But I thought I was getting better and better by match, and in the second and third set I could understand a little bit of her game. I think those two matches in the qualifiers helped me a lot. I knew a little bit about the surface and the conditions; it’s a bit windy. I’m happy that I could get through. It was a tough match, and to beat Maria first round here on Doha Centre Court was a good match, in three hours too,” Niculescu added.
Sharapova was clearly lost for words as she once again bowed out of a tournament early. “I thought I did a really good job in the first set and a half, but that’s obviously not enough to win the match,” Sharapova said. “I did a good job of winning the longer rallies, even though that’s not really what I wanted to get myself into. So physically I felt good. I just got pretty passive in the end and started making too many errors.
“I love playing in three-set matches, and I think I’ve thrived in them my career. So I don’t necessarily shy away from that challenge. I think I have to look at the tape and see why I started going back behind the baseline and not moving forward, not putting the pace on her,” the Russian said.
Meanwhile, the other qualifiers too had a good day, with Anna Blinkova, Catherine Bellis and Ying-Ying Duan also booking their sport in the second round.
American CiCi Bellis advanced after Russia’s World No. 24 Daria Kasatkina pulled out of their opener with an neck injury while trailing 7-5, 4-1. Unheralded Blinkova shocked her Russian compatriot and No. 23 Elena Vesnina 6-1, 6-3, while Chinese Duan beat Tunisian wildcard Ons Jabeur 6-2, 6-3.
Earlier, Dominika Cibulkova rallied past Russia’s Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova 7-6 (8), 6-4 as she progressed to a second round meeting with France’s seventh seed Caroline Garcia. Romania’s Mihaela Buzarnescu eased past Lesia Tsurenko 7-5, 6-4 to set up a clash with sixth-seeded French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko.
Russian Ekaterina Makarova also reached second round after a 7-5, 6-0 win over Shuai Zheng of China.
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