British fans have had a long-awaited taste of success in recent weeks, thanks to Laura Robson’s superb run to the US Open fourth round and the final in Guangzhou last week. She replaced her good friend Heather Watson as British number one, sparking what could become an intriguing and healthy rivalry between the two youngsters as they each attempt to break into the WTA top 50.
Robson’s success last week caused her to miss this week’s event in Tokyo, so all of the focus was on Watson at the Pan Pacific Open. The 20-year-old, who came through qualifying to make the main draw, had already claimed a notable scalp in her previous match against the formidable German Sabine Lisicki. In the second round today, she took on Maria Sharapova, who hadn’t played since her tough loss in the US Open semi-finals.
The pair had met once before, in the first round of the US Open 2011. On that occasion, Watson gave the Russian a huge scare and was a mere two games from victory. Sharapova recovered by doing what she often does in the early rounds of tournaments: battling through despite not playing well and booking a place in the next round with a 6-7 (7) 6-3 6-4 victory.
It was a similar story in Tokyo. By the time the match ended, after an incredible three hours and nine minutes, Sharapova had hit a hideous 67 unforced errors to 44 winners, and served 14 double faults. Watson made 42 unforced errors, but only had 8 winners, a clear indication that Sharapova was the aggressor throughout.
A tight first set saw Watson rebound from a break down to hold a set point on Sharapova’s serve at 5-4. She didn’t manage to convert, however, and fell behind 3-0 in the tie-break. But the Brit held firm, saving two set points and eventually taking the tie-break 9-7 when Sharapova’s forehand hit the net.
The second set was an equally patchy affair. Sharapova failed to find consistency with her serve and groundstrokes, the unforced errors costing her dearly. Watson was playing superb defence, but her serve remained vulnerable too. Although she lost serve twice, Sharapova broke three times and snatched the set 6-3.
Neither player raced into a commanding lead at the beginning of the third set, which began with yet another exchange of breaks. Sharapova broke Watson again in the seventh game, however, allowing her to serve for the match at 5-4. Her serve, which had been faltering throughout the draining contest, finally paid dividends, and an ace helped her secure victory.
Watson will be encouraged by her performance, and only narrowly missed out on the biggest win of her career. Sharapova, meanwhile, will be somewhat less than impressed by her own display, and will need to pick up her level against Lucie Safarova in tomorrow’s third round match.
Another winner on Tuesday was the diminutive Dominika Cibulkova, who had a much easier time against China’s Jie Zheng. The Slovakian broke serve five times on her way to a straightforward 6-0, 6-3 victory, and will be hoping for a strong showing at this high-profile event. Cibulkova has a lot of talent, and is more powerful than she appears, but a lack of discipline with her shot selection has led to inconsistent results in 2012. She will, however, have a good chance of reaching the quarter-finals, as her next opponent is the equally inconsistent Sam Stosur, who squeezed past Francesca Schiavone in a repeat of the 2010 French Open final.