CINCINNATI, OH, USA - Returning to Cincinnati for the first time in five years, Maria Sharapova was a winner on Monday night at the Western & Southern Open.
In a clash of wildcards under the lights, the former World No.1 and five-time Grand Slam champion defeated Alison Riske in the first round of the Western & Southern Open, 6-3, 7-6(4).
"I think I persevered through the second set. I think that was really important. I could have been in a very similar situation [as last week in Toronto, losing to Anett Kontaveit] in the third. I think she's a really tough opponent deep in the third sets," Sharapova said.
"I think she's had some of her best results this summer and she's dangerous, especially in early rounds when you haven't played a lot of matches and she has.
"I was excited about it, and I took on the challenge and I found a way."
A wildcard into this year's field, the 2011 Cincinnati champion rallied from a break down twice in the second set to see off the in-form Wimbledon quarterfinalist to set up a meeting with top seed and French Open champion Ashleigh Barty.
Sharapova nearly doubled Riske's total of winners in the match, and though she failed to convert a match point on serve at 6-5 in the second set, she ultimately beat the World No.37 for the fourth time in four career meetings.
"I tried as best I could. I tried a few different things. It just was a rough day for me, and I tried to get through it," Riske said in defeat.
"I didn't have much success obviously. She had a big part to do with that, and, yeah, we can only look forward to my next match and getting better for that.
"I think from Point 1, I have to be establishing myself. I need to be playing my game. I need to be asserting myself, and I can't let them be the one dictating play.
"I think that's what's gotten me this far, and unfortunately I wasn't able to do that today. That's what Maria did to me."
The Russian needed five set points on serve to secure the opening set, and needed four match points in the late stages of the second set, including three conseuctive opportunities in the tiebreak, before eventually sealing her first win since the Mallorca Open.
"I think the repetition that I'm putting in and feeling it, feeling a little bit better in terms of just speed and the strength in my arm," Sharapova continued.
"I think that's a big part of -- in general, the recovery from all that I have done with the shoulder is just to get that repetition and then really believe in my shoulder, you know, deep, an hour, two, an hour, three, if that's what it takes."
Currently ranked World No.97, Sharapova is back in Cincinnati for the first time since reaching the semifinals in 2014, and next faces a rematch against the Aussie, who defeated her in the fourth round of the Australian Open in January.
"It's not an easy match and really not an easy matchup for me. I think she does a lot of things well. She's a tricky opponent," Sharapova assessed.
"If I had played against her best game like when I was just coming up, like a [Justine] Henin or someone that sliced and diced and had a lot of variety, it was very tough for me.
"I feel like I have improved. Ee had a really tough one in Australia, and ever since then she's been on a roll. She's been dominating. She's one of the few players that have really dominated and has been impressive to see.
"I'm the one coming in with not a lot of match play, but I'll have to figure it out. If not, it's going to be too late."