In the wake of her statement triumph over Venus Williams, world #2 Maria Sharapova faced the challenge of avoiding complacency as she prepared for a fourth-round encounter with the unremarkable Kirsten Flipkens. At first, that challenge did seem to trouble an inconsistent, uninspired Russian, who struggled through a few protracted games. Once she settled into the match, though, Sharapova added a breadstick and a bagel to the waffles of Belgian bakeries by dispatching Flipkens 6-1 6-0.
Battling through three deuces, Flipkens needed several game points to light up the scoreboard with an encouraging “1” next to her name—more than two of Sharapova’s three previous opponents had accomplished. That encouraging start stemmed in part from a slightly scratchy series of groundstrokes by the second seed, who missed two routine inside-out forehands. Once she stepped to the service notch, however, Sharapova produced a confident hold and built upon it for an easy break of serve. If Flipkens failed to seize control of the point with the first stroke or two, her more powerful opponent typically wrested it away.
Sharapova continued to look a bit flat, at least in comparison to her sparkling performance against Venus. One wondered whether her motivation simmered at a low ebb for a foe of whom she knew little. With two double faults and two errant forehands, she offered Flipkens a pair of break points in the fourth game, which extended through several deuces. A challenge erased a third break point by handing the Russian a backhand winner, and the 12-minute game finally ended with a hold.
Deploying drop shots to great effect, Flipkens tried to move Sharapova into the net on uncomfortable terms whenever the opportunity invited. After she had led 30-0, though, she soon faced break point following a thunderous return winner from the second seed. Seizing the insurance break with a backhand pass, Sharapova established her authority over the first set. An uneventful hold preceded a long game on the Flipkens serve in which the Belgian held several game points before yielding on her second set point under the pressure of her opponent’s weight of shot.
Despite her pedestrian play for much of that set, Sharapova still had recorded her sixth bagel or breadstick of the Australian Open. One sensed that her level would rise in the second set as the quarterfinals beckoned, and such proved the case. Losing just five points through the first five games of that set, she mirrored a dip in her opponent’s level with cleaner tennis in most areas, although her first-serve percentage continued to languish. It appeared briefly that Flipkens would hold when she held three game points at 1-6, 0-5. True to her remorseless character, however, Sharapova saved all three and ripped a forehand winner down the line on her first match point.
This match did not represent a peak performance from the second seed, the scoreline notwithstanding. But Sharapova still has lost only five games in four matches here, illustrating how quickly she can find her rhythm at the start of a new season and how well this surface suits her. She should face a more worthy opponent in the quarterfinals, compatriot Ekaterina Makarova, although their meeting at the same stage last year ended with a comfortable victory for the more heralded Russian. Few players ever have plowed so deep into a major with such a tsunami of momentum, and Sharapova could not have asked for a more auspicious start here.