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Maria Sharapova vs Ashleigh Barty WTA Rome tennis live: Sharapova faces rising Australian to open Internazionali BNL d’Italia campaign

Hannah Wilks in WTA Tour 14 May 2018
  • Three-time WTA Rome champion Maria Sharapova takes on Ashleigh Barty on Tuesday
  • Sharapova vs Barty Internazionali BNL d'Italia tennis is live from Rome on Tuesday at 12.30pm local/11.30am BST
Maria Sharapova (Photo by Giuseppe Bellini/Getty Images)

Three-time champion Maria Sharapova starts her 2018 Internazionali BNL d’Italia campaign against Ashleigh Barty in Rome.

After snapping her four-match losing streak in Madrid, Maria Sharapova aims to continue turning her season around as she heads to the Foro Italico for the Internazionali BNL d’Italia, where she has won the title three times – but can she get past rising Australian Ashleigh Barty in the first round?

Sharapova has a fantastic record in Rome, which she has won more times than any other clay-court tournament apart from the Porsche Tennis Grand Prix in Stuttgart. The Russian took the title at the Premier-5 event in 2011 (d. Samanatha Stosur), 2012 (d. Li Na) and 2015 (d. Carla Suarez Navarro), going 18-1 during that period. But her return to Rome after her doping suspension didn’t go so well. She beat Christina McHale, but had to retire injured during her second-round match against Mirjana Lucic-Baroni – an injury that would cause her to miss the entire grass-court season and only return to action in Stanford. 

It was one of a number of hiccups and minor injuries which made Sharapova’s 2017 comeback a rather stuttering one, highlighted by making the semifinals in Stuttgart, the fourth round at the US Open and winning her most recent title at the Tianjin Open to end the year world no. 57. But there’s no doubt that Sharapova, as well as many of her fans, expected her return to competition to be more of a quick and easy ascent up the rankings than it has been – and those difficulties were only magnified at the start of 2018. After a semifinal run in Shenzhen and a third-round finish at the Australian Open, Sharapova lost her opening matches in Doha, Indian Wells and Stuttgart – and looked a shadow of her former self at times during those defeats to Monica Niculescu, Naomi Osaka and Caroline Garcia. 

Splitting with long-time coach Sven Groenefeld and reuniting with former coach Thomas Hogstedt, Sharapova finally snapped her four-match losing streak in Madrid with a win over a fatigued Mihaela Buzarnescu, following it up with victories over Irina-Camelia Begu – a quality opponent on clay – and 2017 Madrid runner-up Kristina Mladenovic. Ultimately, her run ended with a three-set defeat to Kiki Bertens, but it was still an immensely boosting week for Sharapova, who got three wins in a row for the first time since Shenzhen in the first week of the season. 
Now up to world no. 40, Sharapova has one more chance to get match wins and confidence ahead of Roland Garros – where she is a two-time former champion and where she will believe she has every chance of winning – and that’s the Internazionali BNL d’Italia, where her practice partners this week have even included Rafael Nadal.

Sharapova has landed in a quarter of the draw that contains three other French Open champions, including the last two women to win the Coupe Suzanne Lenglen, Garbine Muguruza and Jelena Ostapenko, so she will be taking nothing for granted in Rome – and that extends to include her first-round opponent Ashleigh Barty.

Barty comes into the 2018 Internazionali BNL d’Italia ranked world no. 18 after a superb 2017 season. Having only played four events in 2016 after taking a break from competition that lasted over a year – she spent part of it playing professional cricket – Barty came back in 2017 and rose 250 ranking places in the course of the season. Winning her first title in Kuala Lumpur in February, by June Barty made her first Premier final at the Aegon Classic in Birmingham, made the third rounds of Toronto, Cincinnati and the US Open, and then made her first Premier-5 final at the Wuhan Open, beating top-10 players Johanna Konta, Jelena Ostapenko and Karolina Pliskova before losing to Caroline Garcia.

By the time Barty finished the year with a semifinal appearance at Zhuhai, she was up to world no. 17 in the rankings and had proven beyond question that she is a serious talent. Her challenge in 2018 is to consolidate that ranking and push further – and so far she’s made a decent job of it. None of Barty’s results have been too eye-catching since she finished runner-up to Angelique Kerber at the Apia International Sydney, but they’ve been quite solid – she made the third round of the Australian Open before losing to an on-fire Naomi Osaka; made the third rounds of Miami and Charleston; and in Madrid last week she pushed second seed Caroline Wozniacki to a third set, earning high praise from the Australian Open champion.

Sharapova and Barty have never met before – and Barty has never beaten a top-10 player on clay, which doesn’t seem to bode especially well for this clash. The Australian’s all-court game, to my eyes, runs the risk of being a bit overwhelmed by the sheer relentless depth and pace which Sharapova, at anything like her best, hurls down at her opponents. That said, Barty is capable of doing pretty much anything she wants to with the ball, and often does better against power players than the likes of Wozniacki or Elina Svitolina; she also pushed Jelena Ostapenko to three sets in Rome last year. One suspects that much will depend on how Barty serves – if she can deliver a good serving performance, anything, up to and including victory over Sharapova, is entirely possible. If not, the Australian could be easy pickings for Sharapova, who looks to be once again finding her feet on clay.

Sharapova vs Barty Internazionali BNL d’Italia tennis is live from Rome on Tuesday

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Maria Sharapova vs Ashleigh Barty WTA Rome tennis live: Sharapova faces rising Australian to open Internazionali BNL d’Italia campaign

Three-time Internazionali BNL d’Italia champion Maria Sharapova aims to build on a strong Madrid showing as she takes on Ashleigh Barty: WTA Rome tennis live from Rome

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