There are some big things on the line for Sharapova this week. First of all, she's going for her third straight title here, which would be the first time in her career she has won the same WTA tournament three times - on a more defensive note, she needs to reach the semifinals this week to retain her place in the Top 10, an elite she has been a part of since April 4, 2011 - 160 consecutive weeks ago.
Sharapova and Safarova have had some epic battles in the past - not only did they go two hours and 56 minutes in the early rounds of Miami just a few weeks ago, with Sharapova winning, but they also went to three long sets at this tournament, and in this round, a year ago. Sharapova won that one too.
The Turning Point
This encounter was just as dramatic. For three hours and 23 minutes the two put an absolute slugfest on display in front of a packed crowd, with the serving particularly impressive early on in the match - neither player broke serve en route to the first set tie-break, with Sharapova closing that one out to take a one set lead. Safarova struck back in the second set, jumping out to a 3-0 lead and, after getting broken back, rallying from 3-0 down in the tie-break to push the match to a deciding third set.
That's where the real drama happened. After storming out to a 5-1 lead, Sharapova looked like she was on the verge of victory. But Safarova came back again, reeling off five games in a row to lead 6-5 - even fighting off a match point down 5-3 - and she was two points away, going up 30-0 in that game.
But there was one last momentum swing and it swung Sharapova's way, as the two-time defending champion won 11 of the next 13 points, breaking back for 6-all and cruising through the tie-break.
By The Numbers
The biggest differences between the two players were in serving and second serve returning. While Sharapova finished with nine aces to three double faults, Safarova finished with four aces to eight double faults - and a few of those at crucial times. And on the other side of the net, Sharapova won 57% of points returning Safarova's second serve - Safarova managed just 46% on Sharapova's.
The fight the two displayed made this the third-longest match of the year, with Sharapova's three-hour, 28-minute win over Karin Knapp at the Aussie Open the longest. It was also the first WTA match to go to three tie-breaks since Serena Williams' win over Vera Dushevina at Madrid in 2010.
"I think Lucie is an exceptional player," Sharapova said. "She's presented me a lot of challenges when we've played in the past, and going into the match today I knew it wasn't going to be an easy one.
"I could have returned better. But I think this was one of the best serving matches she's played against me. She was finding the lines extremely well and mixing it up too, and it was hard to break her.
"But I'm really happy I was able to be the winner of this match. I was two points from losing."
Awaiting Sharapova in the second round will be Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, who beat Latvian qualifier Diana Marcinkevica earlier in the day, 63 62. Sharapova and Pavlyuchenkova are tied in their head-to-head, 1-1, with Pavlyuchenkova winning their most recent encounter at Paris [Indoors] this year.