BRISBANE, Australia – Qualifier Jennifer Brady quelled the big hitting of wildcard Maria Sharapova as the Russian lost out 3-6, 6-1, 7-6(3) on her return to the WTA Tour at the Brisbane International.
Sharapova had been victorious in the 2015 edition of the tournament having reached the semifinals 12 months earlier, but after making a positive start to her third visit, she found herself frustrated by the WTA World No.53, who offered more consistency than the five-time Grand Slam champion.
Playing in her first tournament since the US Open, Sharapova, whose 2019 campaign was devastated by an arm injury, showed few signs of rust in the opening set but upon closer examination was found to be short of sharpness by an opponent who did not make a single unforced error in the second set.
The decider saw her trademark competitive spirit come to the fore, batting off a break point that would have seen her opponent serve for the match, but the tiebreak proved a bridge too far.
"I thought she had a great performance," Brady commented after the match. "I think both of us played pretty well.
"I don't think she made very many errors as far as she didn't really miss any easy shots, maybe just the swing volley in the tiebreak at the first point.
"I would say she served well, she was moving well. I'd say she's in good form right now."
Brady, though, proved superior, with her serve functioning especially smoothly.
"I've been focusing a lot on it, working a lot on it and spending a lot of extra time out on the practice court," she said. "I was pretty happy to dominate on my serve because towards the end there it definitely got me through and helped me in the match."
Initially, it was the fierce ball striking of Sharapova that dominated the early stages of the opening set. A string of one-two punches saw her carve out a 3-0 advantage, which she would not relent.
Brady, however, began to become accustomed to the pace coming at her from the opposite end of the court and, having worked hard simply to stay in touch, started to make inroads towards the end of the set.
Indeed, the 24-year-old American fashioned her first three break points as she moved 0-40 up as Sharapova served for the set only for the former WTA World No.1 to respond with a sequence of powerful shots that were such a motif of the opener, which was finally sealed after 35 minutes.
It was the first set that Brady had lost all week, having come through three qualifying matches unscathed, and so it was little surprise that she buckled down further in the second to complicate life further for her 32-year-old rival.
The opening three services games raced by without a point against the head only for Brady to then take command by springing out into a 0-40 advantage on the Sharapova delivery. Having been thwarted from such a position only minutes earlier, she was far more clinical on this occasion.
It set the tone for the remainder of the set, in which she scored more than twice as many points as Sharapova and secured another break.
During this period, Sharapova leaked four double faults and missed with two key second-service returns as her level dipped.
If her game was not at its absolute best, though, the months away from court had not dented her competitive spirit, which was amply evident in the decider. When placed under pressure, she responded emphatically, notably in a lengthy sixth game, as the players remained locked together into the tiebreak.
It was Brady who emerged victorious in sudden death, setting up a meeting with WTA World No.1 Ashleigh Barty.
For Sharapova, though, the two-hour 16-minute encounter was one to draw positives from, despite the outcome.
"It's definitely not the result I would have wanted because I would've loved to play another match, but that's this game," she said.
"I think I hit, in total today, over 160 serves, which is a lot for me, considering I haven't played in a few months.
"It was a long match. I think this is going to be a good test for my shoulder, not so much right now, but maybe tomorrow and the day after to see how I feel. I definitely lost like speed on it and strength toward the end of the match, but that comes with time. I have to be patient with that."