Sabalenka, Sharapova set up sizzling Shenzhen duel

Published by Alex Sharp

Maria Sharapova in action at the WTA tournament in Shenzhen (Getty Images)
Their only previous meeting saw Maria Sharapova clinch the 2017 Tianjin Open trophy.

Those keeping a keen eye on the build-up to the Australian Open will have noted a potentially pulsating quarterfinal clash at the Shenzhen Open between Maria Sharapova and Aryna Sabalenka.

On Thursday, the former world No.1 and five-time major champion Sharapova will go head-to-head with fast-rising No.1 seed Sabalenka.

Sharapova, 2008 champion at Melbourne Park, reached the last eight after Chinese teenager Wang Xinyu retired in the second set with cramps. Meanwhile, Sabalenka defeated Ekaterina Alexandrova of Russia 6-3 6-3.

Sabalenka enjoyed a breakthrough season in 2018, combining her piercing shots with unwavering belief to lift WTA titles in Connecticut and Wuhan. The Belarusian is a real powerhouse and rocketed up the rankings at the tail end of last season; she currently sits at No.13.

Over the net will be a rejuvenated Sharapova, determined to move on from an injury-blighted 2018.

Their only previous encounter will provide fond memories for Sharapova. It was when she last won a tournament, ousting Sabalenka 7-5 7-6(8) in the Tianjin Open final of 2017.

With confidence coursing through Sabalenka’s veins, it will be vital for Sharapova to absorb the 20-year-old’s power to then deploy her own aggressive game.

Sharapova will be eager to raise her level from Wednesday’s match with 17-year-old Wang.

The teenager closed out a turbulent 7-6(4) opening set, but Sharapova held a 5-2 lead in the second set before Wang was forced to quit the contest in tears.

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“It’s not the way either of us wants to finish the match, win or lose,” said Sharapova.

“I thought (Wang) was absolutely the dominant player in this match, and had all the opportunities to win it, even though I felt like I was finding my stride and getting a little bit closer to the line and being more aggressive.”

After the unfortunate retirement Wang, who won junior doubles titles at the Australian Open and Wimbledon last year, was comforted by the Russian in a heart-warming moment while the youngster rehydrated.

“You played unbelievable… If you play like that you’re going to be No.1, ok? I promise,” Sharapova told the Shenzhen wildcard.

She then elaborated in her press conference: “I said [to her] that being healthy is the most important thing, but if she continues to play the way that she did today, I think she has all the right tools to be a champion.”

Meanwhile, former world No.2 Vera Zvonareva has seized her wildcard opportunity in Shenzhen to surge into the quarterfinals.

The 34-year-old prevailed over Luksika Kumkhum 6-3 6-3 then clinched a hard-fought 7-5 4-6 6-4 victory over Serbian youngster Ivana Jorovic. Fellow Russian Veronika Kudermetova stands in Zvonareva’s path on Thursday afternoon for a semifinal ticket.

The 2010 Wimbledon and US Open finalist is currently ranked at world No.109 and is set to return into the top 100 for the first time since January 2013.

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