PARIS (Reuters) - It came as a surprise that Maria Sharapova, a two-time French Open champion and former world number one, was sent to Court One for her second-round match, but she’ll most likely be back in the spotlight on Saturday.
The Russian, back at Roland Garros as 28th seed after a two-year hiatus, beat Croatia’s Donna Vekic 7-5 6-4 on Thursday on “the Bullring”, a court with less space around the lines, possibly making her task harder.
Sharapova has been used to play on the biggest courts at Grand Slams since she came to prominence by winning Wimbledon in 2004 at the age of 17.
Asked how it would feel to return to a main show court for her third-round match, she replied: “Do you know the schedule?”
The reporter: “Because it’s (sixth seed Karolina) Pliskova...”
Sharapova: “Well, there is also Sharapova.”
The five-time Grand Slam champion missed the 2016 tournament because of a doping ban and was denied an invitation last year shortly after her return from suspension.
“I would love to be there (on centre court) again, of course. And from a draw perspective, it’s an anticipated seeding match if those two seeds went through, it’s a match that maybe
people anticipated,” Sharapova said.
For her second match in Paris since 2015, she was erratic throughout, but her iron willpower helped her set up a meeting with Pliskova. She will, however, need to be more consistent if she is to beat the Czech, a semi-finalist here last year.
She failed to finish off a point at the net and Vekic counter-attacked to set up a break point in the first set, which the Russian saved to move 4-3 up before breaking her opponent’s serve.
Vekic, however, broke straight back with a powerful service return.
Sharapova, who is on a quarter-final collision course with 2016 champion Garbine Muguruza of Spain, was waiting for her moment. It came in the 12th game when she forced the Croatian into a lung-busting rally, forcing her opponent to net a forehand and drop the opening set.
To break Vekic’s rhythm from the baseline, Sharapova mixed it up with exquisite drop shots, but she made 31 unforced errors and dropped serve four times on Court One.
Vekic, the world number 50, offered stiff resistance at 5-4 in the second set but she bowed out on the fifth match point when Sharapova fired a sizzling forehand winner.
Next up is Pliskova, a big-serving player she beat in their only encounter in a Fed Cup match in 2015 on hard court.
“I don’t expect extremely long rallies against an opponent like that,” said Sharapova. “But sometimes it’s not what it takes to win a match, and I think you have to kind of take care of your service games, and I have to serve better than I have been and take care of the return.
“But that side of the game, I feel, has improved in the last few months and I like the challenge of coming up against a really good server.”
Reporting by Julien Pretot; Editing by Ed Osmond and David Holmes