While rehabilitating from a shoulder injury last season Maria Sharapova spent five months getting into tip-top shape, and it more than paid off on Thursday when the Russian outlasted Karin Knapp 6-3 4-6 10-8 at Rod Laver Arena.
In a battle that lasted three hours and 28 minutes in intense heat that climbed above 40 degrees Celsius, both players showed tremendous guts and willpower. The hard-fought contest ended when Knapp erred on a backhand on Sharapova’s fourth match point.
“I'm really happy to get through,” Sharapova said. “I really am. I worked really hard in the last few months and I wanted this match. I didn't play my best tennis; I didn't do many things well. I got through it, and sometimes that's what's important.”
The 27-year-old Sharapova had been in a similar position before in Melbourne, when she overcame Camille Pin 9-7 in the third set in the first round in 2007.
Then, a dizzy Sharapova could barely remember how she won the match, but this time around, she appeared to be more clear-headed, saying after the victory that she felt numb to the heat, but also mentioning that it's those types of matches that she puts the work in for.
The Italian Knapp does not have Sharapova’s star-studded resume results-wise, but off-court she more than matches her, undergoing heart surgery and two knee surgeries just to get back on court. She went right at Sharapova during the contest, cracking heavy groundstrokes, moving her taller foe around and going after her returns.
But 2008 champion Sharapova dug in, even though her level was very up and down during the match. She held three match points in the 10th game of the third set, but Knapp kissed the line with a backhand crosscourt, and another with a forehand crosscourt before Sharapova netted a backhand.
Knapp then broke Sharapova to 5-5 with a backhand net cord winner.
At times, the 26-year-old Knapp dictated play, but she was unable to break Sharapova again and finally the four-time Grand Slam champion broke the Italian, this time to 9-8 when Knapp pushed a backhand into the net.
After holding to win the contest in the next game, Sharapova and Knapp exchanged a warm handshake at the net.
“You have so many mixed emotions because you have opportunities and chances, and then you're down and then you feel you're out,” Sharapova said. “So you're going through all of this within these three hours or more. I went through all the different ones, like, ‘How could you miss those second‑serve returns? Why are you going for so much?’ The other side of my brain, ‘Well, it's 110 degrees.’ Of course you're going for too much. I don't know. When you win match point you get off the court, no matter how you feel and how tough it was, I love these moments. That's why I play the sport.”
Sharapova will face France’s Alize Cornet in the third round and says that she feels more fit than she was back in 2007, when despite the marathon against Pin she reached the final.
She is far from saying that she is too tired and has no chance at another title.
“I was up a set and a break and I had many opportunities to finish the match faster,” Sharapova said. “So I would have loved for it to finish faster, but that's what I got and I have to deal with the circumstances. I'm all right with that. I'm a competitor here, and I worked hard to get through that match. I will have to work just as hard to get through the next ones.”