DOHA, Qatar - Known for slices that defy the imagination, Monica Niculescu wove a web of incredible shots to pull off a 4-6, 6-4, 6-3 upset of former World No.1 Maria Sharapova in the first round of the Qatar Total Open.
"I love it how I play and I like to be unique, and I think my slice forehand is a weapon," Niculescu proudly told press after the match. "And when I feel good on the court, then I play relaxed, I can be good and can be dangerous."
In her first meeting against Sharapova, who was playing in Doha for the first time since 2013, the Romanian veteran twice trailed by a set and a break before turning the tide on the Russian wildcard, breaking at love to level the match and winning 12 of the final 13 points to secure victory after two hours and 38 minutes on court.
"At the beginning I was stood behind of the baseline and I was just defending. At one point I think my serve got a bit better; I was hitting some winners and stepping in, and I was not just defending like I did the first set. The key was when I could understand her game and what she's doing a little bit because I had no rhythm and I'm guessing she also didn't have rhythm because I'm playing strange!
"With the slice I stepped in and I played a bit deeper, but I'm happy that I could get through. It's not easy to beat these kind of players in third set; when it was 3-3, they always play better and better, so I'm happy that I could take the moment and win."
Niculescu and Sharapova treated the Doha crowd to some thrilling games and rallies, but it was the 2012 Qatar Total Open quarterfinalist's consistency that won the day, hitting 12 winners to just 17 unforced errors and converting six of seven break point opportunities. Visibly frustrated by Niculescu's spins and slices, the 2008 champion was ultimately undone by the 52 unforced errors that canceled out her 31 winners.
"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 reflected after the match. "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.
"I love playing in three-set matches, and I think I've thrived in them my career. So I don't necessarily shy away from that challenge. I think I have to look at the tape and see why I started going back behind the baseline and not moving forward, not putting the pace on her."
The 30-year-old has been ranked as high as No.28 in the world but nearly fell out of the Top 100 for the first time in eight years at start of the season, and was forced to play qualifying just to make the Qatar Total Open main draw.
"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, actually, because I thought I'm playing good," Niculescu said. "But I thought I was getting better and better by match, and in the second and third set I could understand a little bit her game.
"I think those two matches in qualies helped me a lot. I knew a little bit about the surface and the conditions; it's a bit windy. I'm happy that I could get through. It was a tough match, and to beat Maria first round here in Doha Centre Court was good match, in three hours too."
Edging back towards the Top 80, Niculescu will next play either No.14 seed and 2018 Wimbledon semifinalist Magdalena Rybarikova or local wildcard Fatma Al Nabhani.