At 30 years old, Maria Sharapova is finding her comebacks in tennis to be all the tougher.
Slated as a second-round opponent for world No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki this week at the Qatar Total Open in Doha, Sharapova was instead shuttled out in the first round by No. 92-ranked qualifier Monica Niculescu.
It was the first meeting between Sharapova and the unorthodox Niculescu, who primarily slices her shots off both the forehand and backhand sides. The low slices and variety was too much for the former No. 1-ranked Russian, who won the first set before falling 4-6, 6-4, 6-3.
“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 starting making too many errors…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 Romanian 30-year-old Niculescu twice trailed by a set and a break before breaking at love to force a third set, then winning 12 of the final 13 points.
“I love it how I play and I like to be unique, and I think my slice forehand is a weapon,” she said afterwards. “And when I feel good on the court, then I play relaxed, I can be good and can be dangerous…The key was when I could understand her game and what she’s doing a little bit because I had no rhythm and I’m guessing she also didn’t have rhythm because I’m playing strange. With the slice I stepped in and I played a bit deeper, but I’m happy that I could get through.”
Niculescu hit 12 winners to 17 unforced errors, converting six of seven break point opportunities, while a frustrated Sharapova sprayed 52 unforced errors to 31 winners.
“I think those two matches in qualies helped me a lot,” Niculescu said. “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 in Doha Centre Court was good match, in three hours too.”
Sharapova, who sat out much of last year after a drug doping ban, has talked the talk since returning to the WTA tour but has failed to walk the walk of a champion.
Last year she was 16-7 on tour, winning one title at the small Tianjin event, and losing in the first round in her last event of the year at Moscow.
This year she has a 5-3 win-loss record. At the Australian Open she won two rounds before facing No. 21 seed Angie Kerber, prior to the match saying she looked forward to playing former Slam winners to gauge her level. She was pounded by Kerber 6-1, 6-3. In her next tournament at Shenzhen she fell to No. 6 seed Katerina Siniakova in the semis, and now the first-round loss in Doha.
For both Sharapova and Serena Williams, it seems the first six months of 2018 will see if they can still contend for Slams at the French and Wimbledon, or if the skills sets have peaked for the 30-somethings.
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