WTA Cincinnati Preview: Maria Sharapova vs Sloane Stephens

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Maria Sharapova will play her first match of the summer hard court season when she takes on Sloane Stephens later today.

The world number three had originally planned to play in Stanford and Toronto in the run-up to the US Open, but took some additional time off to recover form the hip injury she suffered at Wimbledon. While the Russian claims to be fighting fit now, it does mean that she will be under pressure to hit the ground running in Cincinnati. An early loss at the Premier 5 event would leave her woefully short of match practice ahead of the final Grand Slam of the year.

Sharapova is always under the spotlight, but her on-court exploits will receive even more attention now that she has hired Jimmy Connors as her new coach. Many have speculated that the American legend has been brought onto Team Sharapova to help crack the Serena Williams conundrum: she hasn’t beaten the world number one since 2004 and has been humiliated by her several times in recent years. Can Connors encourage Sharapova to develop a Plan B, or will he urge her to play even more aggressively than she does already?

While a second round meeting with Stephens looks dangerous on paper, chances are that Sharapova will be fairly happy with her draw. She has beaten the 20-year-old in all three of their previous meetings, losing no more than seven games in each contest. Stephens has climbed into the top 20 by going deep at the big events this season, but her achievements are more modest than her ranking suggests: until the Rogers Cup last week, she hadn’t beaten a top 40 player since January.

If Sharapova is way off her game in her first hard court match since March, a steady and patient Stephens could capitalise on the unforced errors and sneak an upset. That shock Wimbledon loss aside, however, it has been a long time since the third seed played a howler of a match. For the past two years she has been remarkably consistent, rarely losing before the latter stages of a major tournament. More mature, experienced and cool-headed than ever, she’ll know exactly what to expect from Stephens and is unlikely to get flustered if things don’t go her way initially.

The first set of this one could be interesting, but once Sharapova finds her groove it should turn into a routine straight sets workout.

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