Earlier this week, in his first match on tour since an extended, injury-induced absence, ATP No. 4 Andy Murray recorded a 6-0, 6-0 win over Qatari wild card Mousa Zayed in just 37 minutes. His second match back was a little more difficult. Florian Mayer, ranked 2,089 spots higher than Zayed in the rankings, trailed Murray by a set and 3-0 before rallying to victory. No one factor can explain the result, but it doesn't seem a stretch to say that Murray might have benefitted from a more demanding opening-round test.
Maria Sharapova's fans were probably thinking the same thing after she fell behind Kaia Kanepi by a set and a break today in Brisbane. After all, the WTA No. 4 was barely tested by Caroline Garcia in round one (she won 6-3, 6-0 in 64 minutes) and received a walkover into the quarterfinals against Kanepi, a five-time Grand Slam quarterfinalist and the proverbial "dangerous player" in any draw.
A loss many have caused anxiousness in the Sharapova camp ahead of the Australian Open, but the Russian's 4-6, 6-3, 6-2 win will only aid her comeback efforts, no matter what she's able or unable to do against her likely semifinal opponent, Serena Williams.
With the exception of her return game, which I thought was exemplary, not one aspect of Sharapova's play was finely tuned from start to finish. But she had the opportunity to play through difficult patches and make adjustments, and in doing so, closed today's performance with a largely commanding third set. If match play was what Sharapova was looking for, she got it today, partly due to Kanepi's challenging shots and partly due to Kanepi's mental challenges. The Estonian kept Sharapova on the move and made her hit plenty of balls, but Kanepi's untimely and frequent errors gave Sharapova plenty of chances to atone for any mistakes of her own.
There were mistakes aplenty in this quantity-over-quality affair, particularly in the first set, which began with four consecutive breaks. Sharapova broke the pattern with a two-ace hold for 3-2, but gave the game right back. Buoyed by the donation, Kanepi played her best ball of the day, powering her shots with a short backswing that took time away from Sharapova. Unable to get into a rhythm and still struggling on serve, Sharapova let the set escape her, then fell behind triple break point to start the second set.
Kanepi's physical gifts are obvious; it's the other critical part of tennis success that's in shorter supply. And once Sharapova began to serve efficiently, the pressure swung back to Kanepi. She let her opportunity slip immediately, getting broken while up 1-0; then, after consecutive Sharapova holds, her set came crashing down. Sharapova broke serve once more, finding the range with her forehand and keeping Kanepi pinned back, and notched two more holds to even the match, if only on the scoreboard. In reality, Sharapova had pulled ahead, which both her and Kanepi hastily confirmed, as the opening games of the decider resembled the just-concluded set.
Drained of emotion, Kanepi badly botched a backhand to fall behind 3-1 in the third, and double-faulted away a game to give Sharapova a 5-2 lead she wouldn't surrender. But there weren't many fist-pumps or 'Come on!"'s from the winner's side, either. It was a business-like performance from the former Australian Open champ, something we can count on no matter how many matches Sharapova has played.