Sharapova has had a less-than-ideal start to her 2018 season. After a third-round loss to Angelique Kerber in Melbourne, she was dumped out of the first round in Doha by Monica Niculescu.
“I love playing when there's something on the line, when I come in with a little bit more than maybe other players. I enjoy that and I've done well with it in my career,” Sharapova said in Doha. “Thriving on that is extremely important, and being consistent and mentally strong and not letting other things get in the way.”
“Other things” could mean an array of factors, but these days it seem to mean Sharapova’s opponents. Osaka has been on a rapid rise since she arrived on the scene in 2016 with third-round runs at Roland Garros, Wimbledon and Flushing Meadows, improving seemingly match by match. Already this season, she has collected wins over Top 20 players Kristina Mladenovic, Ashleigh Barty and Elena Vesnina. By contrast, Sharapova’s best victory in 2018 has come over Anastasija Sevastova.
Osaka got off to the faster start on Wednesday, winning the first three games before holding with ease for 4-1. Her huge serve is one reason why many compare her to a certain big-serving GOAT, Serena Williams.
The Haitian-Japanese star openly idolizes Williams. Perhaps she even took some inspiration from Williams’ 19-2 record against Sharapova, for Osaka was in command for most of this night match. (Osaka also happens to be working with Sascha Bajin, Williams' former longtime hitting partner.)
"Sorry, I was always rooting for Serena," Osaka said about the Williams-Sharapova saga. "I remember being really impressed by Sharapova. You would never know what she was thinking because she never really got upset and she was always fighting."
Sharapova, as always, was unruffled by her less-than-perfect play, clawing back to 4-4 in the first. But as has also been the case for the 30-year-old, her serve let her down. She hit a costly double fault at 4-5, 15-30, giving Osaka a set point that she quickly capitalized on.