Former Australian Open champion Maria Sharapova, on the comeback trail after shoulder surgery in 2019, takes on 19th seed Donna Vekic in a must-watch first-round clash on Melbourne on Tuesday.
Maria Sharapova vs Donna Vekic is live from Melbourne on Tuesday 21 January at 1pm local/2am GMT
Heavy rain on day one of the Australian Open means that there are around 90 singles matches scheduled for day two, but even amidst that welter, the first-round duel between Sharapova and Vekic stands out.
One of five former champions in the Australian Open women’s draw, Sharapova is certainly the one that the fewest people are backing to win the title. But the Russian, despite being beleaguered by injuries in the time since returning from her doping suspension, remains one of the biggest draws in the sport.
Sharapova won the Australian Open in 2008 and has reached the final on three other occasions, most recently in 2015 when she lost to Serena Williams. All in all, she has made the quarterfinals or better in Melbourne eight times, although the eighth result – a quarterfinal finish in 2016 – does not officially count as she failed the fateful drug test during the tournament.
Missing the tournament in 2017 in consequence, Sharapova made the third round in 2018 before losing to Angelique Kerber and the round of 16 in 2019, ousting defending champion Caroline Wozniacki before losing to Ashleigh Barty. In the latter case, it was one of the very few highlights of a short and frustrating season for Sharapova, who only played 15 matches throughout 2019 and shut down her season entirely after losing to Serena Williams in the first round of the US Open.
The Russian went on to undergo surgery on her right shoulder, a significant and ongoing problem area for many years, and has played just one match since that US Open defeat – a three-set loss to Jennifer Brady in Brisbane two weeks ago. Although Sharapova did lose the match, it was a hard-fought battle, the former world no. 1 eventually capitulating to the qualifier 3-6, 6-1, 7-6(3) after two hours and 14 minutes; and although Sharapova was frustrated to lose, there were plenty of positive signs in the manner of her defeat after such a lengthy absence from the game.
‘It’s definitely not the result I would have wanted because I would’ve loved to play another match, but that’s this game,’ Sharapova said.
‘I think I hit, in total today, over 160 serves, which is a lot for me, considering I haven’t played in a few months.
‘It was a long match. I think this is going to be a good test for my shoulder, not so much right now, but maybe tomorrow and the day after to see how I feel. I definitely lost, like, speed on it and strength toward the end of the match, but that comes with time. I have to be patient with that.’
With another fortnight’s practice behind her to build up that strength in her shoulder, how will Sharapova fare against a higher-ranked opponent as she takes on Donna Vekic on Tuesday?
While Sharapova struggled in 2019, Vekic had the best season of her career so far, breaking into the top 20 for the first time and reaching a career-high ranking of world no. 19 in November after compiling a 37-24 win-loss record. A teenage phenomenon who lost her way for a few years, Vekic has been working incredibly hard to improve over the past couple of seasons and reaped the reward in 2019 as she reached her first Grand Slam quarterfinal at the US Open, in addition to runner-up finishes at the St Petersburg Ladies Trophy (to Kiki Bertens) and in Nottingham (to Caroline Garcia); she also made semifinals in Brisbane, Acapulco and San Jose, and the round of 16 at the French Open.
One of the lowest points for Vekic in 2019 was her second-round exit from the Australian Open at the hands of Australian wildcard Kimberley Birrell. Although Vekic has never been beyond the second round of the Australian Open, all three of her previous defeats at that stage had come at the hands of seeded players, and to lose to the wildcard after winning a very tricky first-round encounter with Kristina Mladenovic in impressive style was not part of the plan.
Vekic has made a reasonably solid start to 2020, with a first-round defeat to Yulia Putintseva in Brisbane followed by good wins over Anastasija Sevastova and Maria Sakkari – two potentially frustrating opponents – to make the quarterfinals of the Adelaide International before losing to Dayana Yastremska, who would go on to make the final.
Make no mistake, however, this is a really tough draw for Vekic. The Croatian player’s game is not unlike Sharapova’s, in that it is built around a big serve and a big forehand, a reliance on first-strike power tennis from the baseline; and in that the biggest weakness of both women is their movement. But Sharapova hits a much heavier ball and is a much more tenacious competitor and consistent server, able to really blow opponents off the court in a way that Vekic is rarely able to do. Vekic’s improvement has been based on increasing her fitness, lower-body strength and developing her ability to hang in and build rallies, but she’s still a similar player to Sharapova – but not as good, brutal as that sounds.
The only previous match between the two was a 7-5, 6-4 win for Sharapova on clay at the French Open in 2018 – but Sharapova wasn’t recovering from shoulder surgery then. Vekic should be much more physically fit and match-fit for this one, and might be fired up by the chance to take down Sharapova; on the other hand, she’s prone to nerves and struggles for consistency. It’s a difficult one to call, but Sharapova is the better competitor. Will that be enough?