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.
A routine win was far from guaranteed for the world No. 41-ranked Sharapova, yet she still came out guns blazing for a 5-2 lead. But Niculescu settled into the grind, pushing the five-time Grand Slam champion in a 61-minute first set. Her persistence would pay off, as she started picking up momentum in the second set, particularly at 3-3 when Sharapova lost the game at love—clearly having lost her own patience.
“I thought I did a really good job [in] the first set and a half, but that's obviously not enough to win the match,” Sharapova said. “And I did a good job of winning the longer rallies, even though that's not really what I wanted to get myself into. So physically I felt good. I just got pretty passive in the end and starting making too many errors.”
Instead of doubling down and fighting through the torture, Sharapova started slipping away—letting Niculescu’s unconventional game style beat her down. It’s not what fans expected to see from the Russian, but she’s only human. Many assume that a famous player’s life is all glitz and glamour but sometimes its bad days like this one, with the only next steps being a packed bag, boarded flight and extra practice time ahead of the next tournament.
“I think there's always something to work on whether you win or lose, and I'm not shy of the work. So I'll continue to do that,” Sharapova said. “But yeah, I don't know what my next tournament is actually.” (Sharapova did accept a wild card into Dubai next week).
For Niculescu though, the win is proof that even an underdog with a forehand slice can have her day and maybe a lot more. She’ll face the winner of No. 11-seeded Magdalena Rybarikova and wild card Fatma Al Nabhani next.
“Since the beginning of the year I feel I'm playing better. But for me probably is to be healthy because last year wasn't too great,” Niculescu said. “And this is my goal, to get better in ranking and have these matches like I had [today].”
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