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Nadal overcomes slow start to progress in Melbourne as Sharapova books clash with rival Wozniacki

The pair will now move on to the third round of the Australian Open.

Rafael Nadal in action at the Australian Open.
Rafael Nadal in action at the Australian Open.
Image: Imago/PA Images

RAFAEL NADAL OVERCAME a slow start to book a spot in the third round of the Australian Open while five-time Grand Slam champion Maria Sharapova also progressed to set-up an exciting clash with defending champion Caroline Wozniacki.

Nadal remains on course for an 18th Grand Slam after defeating Matthew Ebden on Wednesday.

The 32-year-old’s newly remodelled serve briefly came under pressure from Ebden, who enjoyed vociferous home support on Rod Laver Arena before losing 6-3, 6-2, 6-2.

The Australian forced three break points at 3-3 in the first set, but could convert none as Nadal continued his bid for an 18th Grand Slam championship.

“He is not an easy opponent, Nadal told reporters. 

“I started a little bit slow, especially on the return side, serving I think was good from the beginning. 

“Then I saved that game at three-all. After that things changed.”

It was one-way traffic from then on as Nadal, sporting a trademark sleeveless shirt, cruised into the last 32.

“I played a solid match, I was happy with the way I served. I did a few things very well,” added Nadal. “It is an honour to play here. Was a great atmosphere.”

Imago 20190116 Nadal celebrates after his victory over Matthew Ebden. Source: Imago/PA Images

The Spaniard, who beat James Duckworth in the first round, will have to complete a hat-trick of Australian scalps if he wants to continue his quest for another Slam title.

He faces teenager Alex de Minaur, seeded 27, next after racing through in just 116 minutes. 

He is bidding to become the first man in the Open era, and only third in history along with Roy Emerson and Rod Laver, to win each Grand Slam on two or more occasions.

Meanwhile, Sharapova’s scintillating return to form continued as she powered into the Australian Open third round to set up a mouth-watering clash with Wozniacki. 

Sharapova, who is seeded 30th at the tournament and seeking to recapture former glories after coming back from a drugs ban in 2017, brushed aside Swede Rebecca Peterson 6-2, 6-1.

The 31-year-old has only conceded three games en route to round three at Melbourne Park, where she won the title in 2008 and has reached the final a further three times.

“I’m really happy the way I performed today and obviously it’s always great to be back on this court,” she said.

“Overall, I thought I played a really solid match.”

The pair emerged on Rod Laver Arena late in the night due to a long-running men’s match, meaning only a smattering of fans were there to cheer on the former world number one.

While Sharapova served a 6-0, 6-0 “double bagel” to her first-round opponent Harriet Dart, Peterson initially promised more of a fight as she rallied against the Russian from the baseline.

Australian Open Tennis Sharapova with Sweden's Rebecca Peterson after their clash at the Australian Open. Source: Aaron Favila

Her aggressive approach was not enough to prevent the veteran going up a break in the third game, while offering the Swede nothing on her own serve.

The gulf in experience began to tell as the match stretched into early Thursday, with Sharapova breaking Peterson again to take an iron grip on the first set, which she wrapped up after 34 minutes.

Sharapova’s blistering returns proved too much for world number 64 Peterson and the Russian soon ran away with the second set. 

Sharapova and third seed Wozniacki have met 10 times, with the record 6-4 in the Russian’s favour.

But their most recent clash was in 2015, when Sharapova was still at her peak and the Dane was yet to win her coveted maiden Slam, which she has credited with boosting her confidence.

There is no love lost between the pair. 

Wozniacki questioned the way the WTA handled Sharapova’s return from her drugs ban in 2017 and was furious when she was bumped from the show court in favour of the Russian at that year’s US Open. 

It prompted a withering response from Sharapova after Wozniacki’s elimination: “I’m in the fourth round. I don’t know where she is.”

Their meeting promises to be the standout match in the first week of the women’s draw.

“It’s a tough third round but I’ve set up the challenge and I’m willing to take it,” Sharapova said.

© – AFP, 2019

Additional reporting by Sinéad Farrell

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