For the third time in four years, Sharapova opened Rod Laver Arena on the first day of the Australian Open. She had lost there to Kirilenko in 2010 and defeated Tanasugarn there in 2011, but her performance today surpassed either of those efforts as she did not drop a game to the overmatched Olga Puchkova. Since she had not played any preparatory tournaments, the Russian needed a commanding start like this match to help her find her groove quickly before the competition stiffens.
Looking a bit rusty at first, Sharapova challenged incorrectly in her first service game to set up a break point. She saved it with an ace that barely grazed the center service line, and another ace saved a second break point as she continued to struggle with the range of her groundstrokes. In a flaming red dress, Puchkova burst out to an early lead in her first service game, only to see it evaporate with penetrating returns from Sharapova. The world #2 consolidated her lead with two more aces and kept the momentum firmly in her control as she raced to 5-0.
For the second straight year, Sharapova started her Australian Open campaign with a bagel against an opponent who appeared to lack belief. When she had bageled Dulko to start last year’s tournament, however, she had lost focus early in the second set and let it become temporarily competitive. A deuce game on her serve to start the second set this year suggested the same trend. Sharapova escaped it, recalling the first set, and continued to keep Puchkova pinned well behind the baseline with groundstrokes of a depth that her opponent probably had seen little among the players at her level.
At 0-6, 0-3, Puchkova looked likely to arrive on the scoreboard for the first time when she built at 30-0 lead behind solid first serves. But Sharapova’s unleashed a barrage of ferocious shot-making that ranged from a forehand winner over the high part of the net to a backhand return winner. From there, the Russian closed the fourth double bagel of her career comfortably.
Sharapova now owns a double bagel at every major except Wimbledon, and she extended her recent first-week dominance at majors, especially those on hard courts. Since the start of last season, she has lost just twelve total games in the first week of hard-court majors while serving 18 bagels and breadsticks at majors overall. Her next opponent, likely Petra Martic, faces a stern challenge as Maria aims to set up a third-round clash with Venus Wiliams.
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Last week on the challenger circuit, a former top 5 player and the only college graduate mother on tour recorded impressive results, while two players on the men’s side broke into the top 100 for the first time this week with their tournament wins.
Twelve years after competing in her last professional singles event, Kimiko Date-Krumm of Japan returned to the tour this week at the $50,000 challenger event in Gifu, Japan. The 37-year-old, who reached a career high ranking of No. 4 in the world, accepted wild cards into the qualifying draw of the singles event and main draw of the doubles event. Date surprised everybody by coming through qualifying and storming through to the finals of the singles draw. In Sunday’s championship match against Tamarine Tanasugarn of Thailand, she was up a set and 4-2 before Tanasugarn prevailed 4-6, 7-5, 6-2. However, Date won the doubles event with fellow Japanese player Kurumi Nara. Date will also play in the singles and doubles draws of the $50,000 event in Fukuoka, Japan next week.
At the $100,000 challenger in Cagnes Sur Mer France, Viktoria Kutuzova of Ukraine finally lived up the expectations placed on her as a can’t miss junior prodigy, winning the biggest event of her career with a 6-1, 7-5 victory over Maret Ani of Estonia. The win also places Kutuzova back in the top 150.of the rankings. Despite the loss, Ani has been riding a hot streak as of late, having reached the semifinals of the WTA event in Estoril, Portugal last week.
At the $50,000 event in Charlottesville, Virginia, Alexis Gordon of the United States won the first title of her career with a 6-3, 6-3 win over Olga Puchkova of Russia. The 25-year-old Gordon is currently in her debut year on the tour, having finished college at the Univ. of Florida in May of last year. She also took time off in college to give birth to her daughter, Imani, who’s now three years old. Gordon moves up to No. 374 in the rankings this week and she says that her goal is to make the cut-off for the qualifying at the Australian Open next year.
In other challenger results on the women’s side, Stephanie Vogt of Liechtenstein won the $50,000 event in Makarska, Croatia and Noppawan Lertcheewakarn of Thailand won the $25,000 event in Balikpapan, Indonesia. Jarmila Gajdosova of Slovakia won the $25,000 event in Gimcheon, Korea, and Augustina Lepore of Argentina won the $25,000 tournament in Coatzacoalcos, Mexico.
On the men’s side, Thomaz Bellucci of Brazil won the biggest title of her career at the $125,000 challenger in Tunis, Tunisia, beating Dusan Vemic of Serbia 6-4, 6-4 in the final. This is Bellucci’s third challenger title of the year and propelled him into the world’s top 100 for the first time in his career.
At the $75,000 event in Prague, Czech Republic, Jan Hernych of the Czech Republic beat fellow countryman Lukas Dlouhy 4-6 6-2 6-4 in the final. This was the first all-Czech final in the tournament’s history.
Stephane Bohli of Switzerland won the title at the $50,000 event in Lanzarote, Spain with a 6-3, 6-4 over Yen-Hsun Lu of Taipei. This is the first challenger title for Bohli, having lost in all four of his previous finals. Lu has been a strong competitor on the challenger circuit this year, reaching the finals of a challenger in Busan, Korea last month and winning the title in Waikoloa, Hawaii last January.
At the $35,000 event in Rome, Italy, Eduardo Schwank of Argentina won his second challenger title in the tow with a 6-3, 6-7, 7-6 win over Eric Prodon of France. The win also moves Schwank into the top 100 for the first time in his career.
Sofia Arvidsson of Sweden leads the way next week as the top seed at the $75,000 event in Zagreb, Croatia. Lourdes Dominguez-Lino is the top seed at the $50,000 challenger in Jounieh, Lebanon, and Yanina Wickmayer of Belgium takes top billing at the $50,000 event in Indian Harbour Beach, Florida. Challenger events will also be contested next week in Bucharest, Romania, Fukuoka, Japan, Antalya, Turkey, Florence, Italy, Changwon, Korea and Irapuato, Mexico.
On the men’s side, Donald Young is the top seed at the $50,000 challenger in Tunica, Mississippi. Michael Berrer of Germany is the top seed at the $42,500 event in Dresden, Germany, Sergio Roitman of Argentina takes top billing at the $42,500 challenger in Ostrava, Czech Republic, and Guillermo Garcia-Lopez leads the way at the $42,500 challenger in Rabat, Morocco. Challenger events will also be contested next week in Rijeka, Croatia and Telde, Spain.