The first major upset of this year’s Australian Open unfolded on Day 5 in Melbourne after former champion Maria Sharapova dethroned defending champion Caroline Wozniacki in three tight sets on Rod Laver Arena. It was always going to be a tough encounter for Wozniacki, who was seeded 3 for the title but went into her third round match 4-6 down in the head-to-heads against Maria Sharapova, the 2008 Australian Open champion.
I though the level was quite high. I knew I was going to get a tough match. She [Wozniacki] is the defending champion of this event. It is no secret that she loves this arena. Maria Sharapova
The two are not exactly buddies either.
Wozniacki was vocal about Sharapova’s return from her drug ban, labelling her wildcard into the Stuttgart Open as ‘disrespectful’ before hitting out at the US Open for scheduling the 31-year-old ahead of her on Arthur Ashe Stadium.
Sharapova gave as good as she got at the time, and has since said she has no time for locker room friendships.
That both had something to prove was clear, with Wozniacki dearly loving to take out a player she has been so critical of, and Sharapova desperately looking for a statement win, having failed to produce her best form since coming back from her ban.
It took 2 hours 24 minutes to resolve the differences between them on the RLA, in a match that proved to be a cracker.
That Sharapova knocked out the reigning champion out of the Australian Open following a hard-fought 6-4 4-6 6-3 victory in the third round will be a matter for the history books, but on a personal level the loss for Wozniacki is a bitter pill to swallow as the Russian basks in glory.
Sharapova produced a fierce and erratic display against her opponent, highlighted by 37 winners and 46 unforced errors from the five-time Grand Slam champion.
Blighted by injuries in recent months, the win is Sharapova’s first against a top 10 player since Jelena Ostapenko at the US Open.
“I though the level was quite high. I knew I was going to get a tough match. She [Wozniacki] is the defending champion of this event. It is no secret that she loves this arena.” Sharapova said during her on-court interview.
“I haven’t played many matches in the last year, especially against top players. These are the types of matches I train for. It’s really rewarding to win that last point.”
Heading into the third round, neither player had lost their serve in the tournament and locked horns with brutal and testing rallies, the trend of no breaks ending three games into the match.
Back-to-back Sharapova forehand errors gifted Wozniacki the early break for a 3-1 lead but, despite the setback, the Russian came roaring back to level at 4-all.
Continuing to gain momentum, Sharapova went on to break the Dane for a second time to serve for the opening set and needing three set points to nail it, with the aid of a miss -timed Wozniacki backhand smashing into the net, and a clean forehand winner down the line of her own.
An erratic patch from Sharapova rewarded Wozniacki three consecutive games at the start of the second, but she was unable to capitalise on her advantage as the Russian rallied back to 3-3 with the help of some deep and heavy hitting.
Wozniacki continued to press and benefitted from mounting mistakes from her opponent as she forced the match into a decider.
Sharapova, renowned for her mettle, was not to be denied her chance of reaching the fourth round in Melbourne for the first time since 2016 and, 7 games into the decisive set, she got the breakthrough she needed, slamming another forehand winner to break for 4-3 with a trademark scream of ‘come on’.
It sucked the wind out of Wozniacki’s sails, and the disappointed Dane looked defeated as she enabled Sharapova to across over the finish line with untimely errors.
“The experience is priceless, but you still have to work for it. The girl on the other side is just as much as experienced,” said Sharapova, who now leads Wozniacki 7-4 in their head-to-head.
Awaiting Sharapova in the fourth round will be home favourite Ashleigh Barty.
The 15th seed has progressed to the last 16 of the tournament for the first time in her career after downing Maria Sakkari, 7-5 6-1.
“It’s another opportunity for me to go out and test myself against the world’s best.” Barty said ahead of the next round.
Barty has already won 7 out of the 8 matches she has played this year, finishing runner-up to Petra Kvitova in Sydney last week.
It will be the first time they have played each other on the tour, although Sharapova holds a 1-0 head-to-head record over the Australian as a result of Barty withdrawing from their meeting at the 2014 Brisbane International.
“I think her story is phenomenal. She loves playing here,” Sharapova said of her next opponent. “She did extremely well in Sydney, but just overall has been so consistent.”
Barty received treatment for an apparent stomach muscle ailment at the end of her first set, but appeared not to be affected for the rest of the 82-minute match.
Rain forced a continuing delay to the start of matches on outside courts but with the roofs closed on all three main arenas, the upsets continued.
Title hopeful Aryna Sabalenka, the 11th seed, crashed out of contention after being outplayed by an inspired Amanda Anisimova.
The fearless 17-year-old bullied her much higher ranked opponent, who looked shell-shocked by the power being generated at the other end of the court.
Anisimova showed no nerves, despite playing in only her third Grand Slam main draw, and not having previously gone past the first round.
She broke Sabalenka’s opening serve, and by the third game of the match the usually dominant Belarusian was glancing skywards, wondering how her slightly-built opponent could punch like a heavyweight.
Anisimova, ranked 87, might have a strong first serve and forehand, but it will be her double-fisted backhand that, should she fulfil her obvious potential, stood out.
On the backhand wing, she took the ball as early as anyone else on tour, yet always appeared balanced, and never rushed.
She treated Sabalenka’s strong first serve with disdain, by going for outright winners off the return.
Although that particular tactic had modest success, the American seemed unperturbed even, after making several errors, it sent a not-too-subtle message that she was the one in control.
The World No 11’s muffled frustration became increasingly audible and, after getting out-hit on match point, she whacked the ball into the stadium roof in angst, having missed out on her opportunity to advance to the last 16.
It was Anisimova’s third consecutive straight sets win, which included a 6-0 6-2 destruction of 24th seed Lesia Tsurenko.
She will now play Petra Kvitova, winner over Belinda Bencic in the fourth round.
The young American fired 21 winners and won 80% of her first service to stroll to a 6-3 6-2 win in just over an hour.
Prior to this tournament, the teenager had never won a main draw Grand Slam match in her career but is coming into her own in Melbourne.
“This is an unreal feeling. I can’t believe this is happening right now. I was expecting a really tough match, she is a great player. I really can’t believe I got through this round,” she said afterwards.
“I’m feeling out here that I’m playing some good tennis.”
As a junior Anisimova won the 2017 US Open girls’ title before making a successful transition to the professional tour a year later and reached her first WTA final at the Japan Open last September.
Reflecting on her run, the American is hoping to emulate her idol Sharapova by winning a Grand Slam at a young age, the former World No 1 having been the last teenager to win a major title at the 2006 US Open.
“Maria is someone I looked up to so much,” Anisimova said in tribute to the Russian. “I still look up to her to this day. She’s an amazing athlete and a great person too.
“I’d definitely want to be the second to win a Slam as a teenager, for sure,”
Anisimova is the youngest player to reach the fourth round of a Grand Slam since Tamira Paszek in 2007 and she is also the youngest American to reach the milestone since Serena Williams at the 1998 French Open.
No 8 seed Petra Kvitova of the Czech Republic made it into the second week of a Grand Slam event for the first time in over a year at the Australian Open on Friday, dispatching Belinda Bencic of Switzerland, 6-1 6-4, in a third-round meeting.
Two-time Wimbledon champion Kvitova failed to advance past the third round at any of the majors last season, but was able to break her duck already in 2019 after easing past 49th-ranked Bencic in a comprehensive 68-minute encounter.
Kvitova picked up her third straight win by winning a massive 86 percent of points on her first serve, and firing 32 winners to only 19 unforced errors.
The first set was one-way traffic as Kvitova dominated with her typical combination of fiery forehands and powerful serving, but it was the Czech’s backhand that gave her the initial lead, as she broke Bencic for a 3-1 lead by forcing an error from that wing.
Another break of serve went Kvitova’s way two games later, as Bencic let two game points slip before plopping a forehand miscue into the net to give the Czech a 5-1 lead.
Kvitova claimed her one-set lead with consecutive aces in the following game.
Bencic made the second set much more competitive, ramping up the aggression on her serve and groundstrokes, and was very nearly rewarded with an early break to lead 3-1, but Kvitova used more forehand blasts to maintain equilibrium and hold for 2-2, as the Czech’s winner count increased dramatically.
Kvitova finally cracked open the second set by breaking through in a lengthy 3-3 game, eventually claiming the decisive break after a Bencic backhand error found the net.
The Swiss player did well to rebound from an opening double fault at 5-3, picking off four straight points in a row to hold for 5-4 and force Kvitova to serve out the match, but if Kvitova felt nervous as she approached victory, it was unapparent and she raced to triple match point with her 7th thunderous ace.
Another big serve was returned by Bencic into the net, putting Kvitova back into the second week where she will play one of the surprise packages of the tournament, 17-year-old Amanda Anisimova of the United States, who moved into the fourth round of a Grand Slam event for the first time in her career when she outhit No11 seed Aryna Sabalenka, 6-3 6-2, earlier on Friday.