Ashleigh Barty may have dropped to the No 2 ranking spot, but she has not lost the ability to weave her magic web on a tennis court.
I found my groove a little bit more. It took a little bit to adjust to conditions, but it was easy for me to swing out at the start Ashleigh Barty
The Australian, 23, won the battle of former No 1 players in just over 90 minutes, but the top seed at the Western and Southern Open in Cincinnati had to overcome a slow start to defeat Maria Sharapova, 6-4 6-1, in an encounter that could well have resulted in an upset.
The French Open champion double faulted to give Sharapova a 2-1 lead in the opener, but the error-prone Russian bowed out after producing 6 double faults and squandering 6 of her 7 break point opportunities.
“Overall it was a pretty clean performance,” Barty observed. “It’s difficult to come out against a player like Maria.
“She’s an incredible champion, she knows how to fight, and she makes you earn every single point.
“So I was really pleased with the way I was able to hang in there today and win some of those big points.”
Barty earned an early break in the second set when she rifled a crosscourt forehand that caught Sharapova flat footed for a 2-0 lead.
Sharapova fought hard in the next game, forcing 7 deuces, but she was unable to break and Barty cruised to the finish from there, winning 11 of the last 13 games to beat the five-time Grand Slam winner, who was the Cincinnati champion in 2011, for the second time this season after a win at the Australian Open.
It was Barty’s 40th victory of 2019 and she goes on to face Estonia’s Anett Kontaveit, who beat Polish teenager Iga Swiatek, 6-4 7-6(2).
Barty said she remained focused after last week’s opening defeat in Toronto: “It was certainly no panic sessions after last week.
“I knew I was a little bit underdone going into Toronto and certainly had no worries or concerns there,” Barty said. “I’ve been striking the ball really well over the last 7 or 8 days.
“I found my groove a little bit more. It took a little bit to adjust to conditions, but it was easy for me to swing out at the start.”
Barty fired 18 winners, breaking Sharapova four times as the Russian made 31 unforced errors.
Fourth-seeded Halep took a late break in the penultimate game of the final set to beat Russian Ekaterina Alexandrova, 3-6 7-5 6-4, after 2 hours on court.
The Romanian has finished runner-up in Cincinnati three times in the past, last reaching the final a year ago against Kiki Bertens.
Halep had her back against the wall against the big-serving Alexandrova when she dropped the first set and trailed 5-4 in the second, but she won the next 3 games and elevated her play again in the decider.
The match was the first for Halep since she pulled out of her quarter-final at the Rogers Cup on Friday with an Achilles issue, but she moved well in her battle with the Russian.
“I feel confident every time I come here but the conditions are very tough. The court is very fast,” the Romanian admitted. “It was a very, very tough match. She played well, hitting the ball very strong.
“Mentally, it was tough to return for me at the start after playing injured last week, but I didn’t have pain, which is good. It took time to get a rhythm and then do something on court.”
In the next round, the 27-year-old, who retired injured from her Toronto quarter-final against the Czech qualifier Marie Bouzkova, will face American Madison Keys, a 6-4 6-1 winner over Russia’s Daria Kasatkina.
World No 1 Naomi Osaka improved to a 4-0 lifetime record against Aliaksandra Sasnovich with a 7-6(3) 2-6 6-2 win.
Osaka, who regained the top ranking after Barty’s early exit from the Rogers Cup last week, smacked 24 winners as she looks to sharpen her game before heading to New York later this month to defend her US Open title.
The two-time Grand Slam champion needed more than 2 hours to outlast Sasnovich, and the Japanese will next face a third-round match against Taiwan’s Hsieh Su-Wei, who defeated American Jennifer Brady, 7-6(9) 6-3.
Osaka finally scored her first win at Cincinnati after losing in the opening round here a year ago.
“I was just trying to have fun,” Osaka said. “In the second set I was taking myself too seriously and was down on myself.
“Now I just want to have fun and enjoy it. That’s what I’m supposed to do.”
Osaka advanced with 8 aces, 24 winners and breaks on 4 of 5 chances against an opponent who received treatment on her right knee several times.
Third seeded Karolina Pliskova crushed lucky loser Wang Yafan, 6-1 6-3, and Donna Vekic knocked out former champion Victoria Azarenka, 6-2 7-5, to set up a showdown with Venus Williams on Thursday.
Seventh seed Elina Svitolina, a semi-finalist four years ago, got past Belgian Elise Mertens, 6-4 6-1, to set up a date with American Sofia Kenin, who beat Zarina Diyas, 6-4 6-1; while ninth seed Aryna Sabalenka and big-serving American Madison Keys also advanced to the third round behind straight set wins.
Another American, eighth seed Sloane Stephens, had a tougher match against Yulia Putintseva but prevailed 2-6 6-4 6-3 and will next face Russian Svetlana Kuznetsova, a 4-6 7-6(7) 6-2 winner over Ukraine’s Dayana Yastremska.