MADRID, Spain - Maria Sharapova looks to be coming into the form that took her to a Mutua Madrid Open title back in 2014, surging through the second set of a 7-5, 6-1 win over Irina-Camelia Begu to reach the Round of 16.
"It was a lot of hard work," she said in her post-match press conference. "Obviously being down a break to start off both of those sets didn't make things easy for me. Although I didn't play at my best level in the first set, I pulled it through. I played some really tough points. I hung in there especially in that final game. Then I really set up a good opportunity for me to step up.
"I thought I did a really good job of that, especially in the last six games. I was very aggressive, played deep, returned a lot better. That will certainly help me moving forward."
The former World No.1 was coming off her first match win since the Australian Open on Sunday, where she conquered J&T Banka Prague Open runner-up Mihaela Buzarnescu, and was similarly efficient against fellow Romanian Begu, who had knocked out reigning Roland Garros champion Jelena Ostapenko in the first round.
Battling through a tight opening set, Sharapova rallied from a break down and 3-1 deficit, completing the comeback with a thrilling set point that featured both combatants at their very best.
— WTA (@WTA) May 7, 2018
The five-time Grand Slam champion only grew stronger from there, channeling that momentum into a decisive second set to win 20 of the final 22 points to secure a 92 minute victory on Court Manolo Santana.
"I think it's always a thin line, especially in the altitude, with her serve. I think she likes that high bounce. She has bigger swings, especially after the forehand. She likes when the ball comes a little bit higher. Gives her a little bit of time to back up and get back in the court."
She's a good player. I thought I really had to win the match today. I went in with that attitude. I think that was the best part of that match for me.
On Monday, Sharapova struck 21 winners to 24 unforced errors and converted five of 10 break points. While Begu could often match the Russian's power, she was less successful off the ground with six winners to 19 unforced errors.
— WTA (@WTA) May 7, 2018
Injury struggles kept the Russian off court for much of the post-Australian hardcourt swing, forcing her to withdraw from both the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships and the Miami Open and briefly fall outside the Top 50.
The win over Begu has her tentatively rising back up to World No.46, with a return to the Top 40 for the first time since 2016 possible should she reach the quarterfinals.
Standing between the unseeded Russian and a second WTA quarterfinal of 2018 is Kristina Mladenovic, finalist in Madrid last year. The Frenchwoman outlasted Zhang Shaui in three sets and defeated Sharapova in their last meeting at the 2017 Porsche Tennis Grand Prix.
"I think there's a lot of variety off her backhand," she said of Mladenovic. "She doesn't like to hit through the backhand as much as she does on the forehand. You see a lot more of her, especially on the defense, slicing and dropshotting. That's not a secret because we've played against each other a few times, even though it's been about a year.
"She also likes to play aggressive as well. I don't think defense is really her ultimate style of play. I think she also likes to attack and prefers that, as well."