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Hot Sharapova shows she’s a serious title contender

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Unseeded Maria Sharapova Thursday showed she is a serious contender for the Australian Open by swatting aside a 14th seed who had given her major trouble in the past.

Sharapova, back in the top 50 after a 15-month doping ban, demonstrated all the shot-making that made her a five-time major winner as she destroyed gritty Anastasija Sevastova 6-1, 7-6 (7/4) on Rod Laver Arena.

The Russian, who faces Angelique Kerber next in a mouth-watering clash of former Australian Open champions, warned she was still improving less than a year after her comeback last April.

“She’s had success here,” she said of Kerber, the 2016 title winner. “She’s had success playing out here in these conditions on these courts. I want to see where I am on that level.”

The Latvian had thwarted the Russian’s Grand Slam comeback in the last 16 of the US Open last year.

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In their next encounter in Beijing Sevastova was only denied after more than three gruelling hours in a titanic three-setter.

On Thursday, it was a different story as Sharapova sped through a sizzling first set in just 23 minutes for the loss of only nine points.

“I played really well at the net, finished the balls off with a swing volley or good volley,” she said.

“Something I’ve been working on, and definitely improved in the match today.”

Sevastova characteristically fought back in the second but the only time the 2008 Australian Open champion and crowd-favourite wobbled was when serving for the match.

“She never really lets up,” Sharapova said. “But I got through it. I did the job in two, and that’s not something I did, you know, towards the end of last year.

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“I think that’s an improvement.”

– Dramatic demolition –
As temperatures soared towards 40 Celsius (104 Farenheit) on the hottest day of the tournament so far, it was a dramatic demolition.

The Latvian, who reached back-to-back quarter-finals at the US Open in 2016 and 2017, briefly woke up to break the Sharapova serve for the first time early in the second set.

The jolt to the Sharapova juggernaut was evident and she began to make unforced errors as service holds and breaks were exchanged.

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At 4-4 a backhand winner got Sharapova to break point and when a second screamer followed it was greeted by a double-fist pump from the Russian.

But still Sevastova was not done and broke back again to force a tiebreak.

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Sharapova regathered and was not to be denied as she hit a scarcely believable forehand crosscourt winner on the run to get to 5-2 before closing out the match with a scream of joy, a fist pump and a huge smile.

“I did my job in two sets against someone that’s been troubling in the past for me. I think I deserve to smile out there after that victory,” said Sharapova.

Sharapova, one of the highest earners in women’s sport, suffered a string of early defeats after her comeback but has been working her way back up the rankings since.

She broke through to win the Tianjin Open in October — her first title since 2015 — and enjoyed a run to the semi-final in Shenzhen to start the year.

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