DOHA — Maria Sharapova took to the court on Monday night against an unfamiliar opponent, fellow 30-year-old Monica Niculescu. On paper, it was the former No. 1’s match to win, but the Romanian qualifier ran away with the upset, 4-6, 6-4, 6-3.
Though it was her first time playing Sharapova, it was far from the first time the slicing and dicing Niculescu has scored a big victory. During her career, Niculescu has risen as high as No. 28 and beaten the likes of Johanna Konta and Petra Kvitova—to name a few.
While the five other former (and current) No. 1’s in the Premier 5 draw were awarded byes, Sharapova needed a wild card to gain main-draw access. Niculescu benefitted from a few wins under her belt, while Sharapova hadn’t played a match since losing to Angelique Kerber early at the Australian Open.
“I thought I played really well in qualies, and I thought I have the game but when I saw the draw I wasn't too happy,” Niculescu said. “But I thought I was better and better by match, and [in the] second and third set I could understand a little bit more [Sharapova’s] game.”
Sharapova’s rustiness showed visibly with 52 unforced errors (and 11 double faults).
“But that was to be expected. I haven't faced against her before or seen her play many matches,” Sharapova said about dealing with Niculescu’s game style. “I did a good job of it, but just completely changed the way that I was playing and changed what I was doing to get myself in the winning position.”
The world No. 92-ranked Niculescu is famous on tour for her unusual slice forehand, high consistency (she made just 17 unforced errors) and scrappy defensive tactics.
“I love it how I play and I like to be unique, and I think my slice forehand is a weapon,” Niculescu said. “And when I feel good on the court, then I play relaxed, I can be good and can be dangerous.”
If you’ve ever played someone who slices a lot then you know it’s challenging on both the mind and body. You have to bend lower and brush up faster to get similar power and depth on the ball as you normally would. For a player with a game as big as Sharapova’s, it’s annoying to have to work almost double on every shot to get the impact you expect on your own strokes.
“My coach said, yeah, that I [got inside] her head, but I was just thinking, yeah, now I know why she's so good,” Niculescu said about how she felt when she saw Sharapova also pull out a slice and drop shot.