Maria Sharapova crossed something off her bucket list when she hit a few balls with Rafael Nadal during a practice session in Rome on Monday.
She then stepped on court on Tuesday to claim a tough 7-5, 3-6, 6-2 over 16th-seeded Ashleigh Barty to set up a second round against Slovakia’s Dominika Cibulkova.
Sharapova, currently ranked No. 40 in the world, could clinch a seeding spot in this month’s French Open if she has a good week in a Rome and her first match was a good omen.
A three-time champion in the Italian capital, Sharapova holds the second-best record at the tournament (19-2) among active players behind Serena Williams (23-2).
Asked how her hit with Nadal came about, the Russian star said: “I saw he was practicing on the court right before me and I said to my team ‘God, wouldn’t it be amazing if I just came out to Rafa and said would you hit a couple of balls with me?’ And they’re like ‘yeah what’s wrong with that?’ And I said ‘a lot of things. There’s a lot of things wrong with just coming out to Rafa…’ And they’re like ‘no, you should’. And I was like ‘Really? You think I should?’ And so I did. He probably thought I was really weird, he still thinks I’m really weird.”
Sharapova admits she only thought of it 15 minutes before her practice, and her team joked that “it’s not like you’re asking him out on a date, it’s just a few balls”.
“I was like listen, you’ve got to hit a couple of balls with Rafa on clay, it’s a check on the bucket list, definitely. I was so nervous. I was tight, really tight,” confessed the five-time Grand Slam champion.
Sharapova’s win over Barty was just her second against a top-20 player this season.
The ex-world No. 1 improved to 9-6 win-loss in 2018 as she continues to search for her top form.
Sharapova has struggled with lots of physical problems since her return from a doping ban a year ago, most recently suffering from a forearm injury.
It looked like she was feeling some pain during her battle with Barty on Tuesday.
“Yes I felt it a little bit. Definitely. She made me hit a lot of balls, that’s the type of player she is. That’s the reason why she’s been doing so well, and she’s seeded here, and has had the results that she has, a lot of low balls. Some of her slices were coming off, especially on that court, were staying so low. I had to work both of my hands today,” said Sharapova.
Meanwhile, defending champion and No. 4 seed made a strong start in Rome, defeating Petra Martic 6-1, 6-2 to reach the third round, having received bye in round one.
Greek up-and-comer Maria Sakkari, making her Rome main draw debut, avenged her defeat to Kiki Bertens from Madrid last week by ousting the Dutchwoman 6-2, 4-6, 6-3. She faces sixth-seeded Karolina Pliskova in the second round.
Denis Shapovalov could not believe it when he was told he will officially become Canadian No. 1 when the new rankings are released next week.
The 19-year-old, who is making his top-30 debut this week in Rome, is enjoying an astonishing rise that began with a semi-final run at the Canada Masters last August, where he toppled Rafael Nadal and Juan Martin del Potro en route.
Shapovalov then made the fourth round at the US Open – his second-ever Grand Slam main draw – and has reached two semi-finals this season, in Delray Beach as well as last week in Madrid, where he became the youngest semi-finalist in the tournament’s history.
His battling 1-6, 6-3, 7-6 (5) victory over 15th-seeded Tomas Berdych on a rainy Tuesday on his Rome debut means Shapovalov will surpass Milos Raonic in the rankings to become the highest-ranked Canadian.
“Oh yeah? Wow. I had no idea. Well, that’s cool,” he said when told about the new milestone he just hit.
“That’s pretty crazy actually. It’s something I’ve wanted to work towards all my life. So to actually do it – I had no idea I was able to reach it. To be able to do that is pretty crazy. Hopefully I could lead the country to Davis Cup victory one day.”
This time last year, Shapovalov was ranked No. 188 in the world. Today he is at 29 and will rise to at least 26 next week.
“It’s definitely happening extremely quickly,” he said of his ascent to Canadian No. 1.
“I had no idea so I’m a little bit in shock. But I’ve worked hard to try to achieve this one time in my career. It’s crazy that it’s come so early but that’s exciting for me. It’s great news, it’s a reason to keep working, keep staying motivated and hopefully I can keep going this way.”
Shapovalov’s rapid progress hasn’t come without its challenges. This year is his first full season on the ATP tour and there are so many firsts he is experiencing.
“I’ve gained a lot of experience. It’s my first full year as a tour player so I’m going to all these new events. This is my first time in Rome. Every week it’s something new for me. It’s extremely fun,” he says.
“Last year at the end of the year when I started traveling to all these ATP events, I got a bit of homesick. First of all I felt like I didn’t belong with these guys. Felt like, yeah I had two good tournaments but I don’t know if my level is there yet.
“So I got homesick, it was a long trip, didn’t enjoy it at all. But after the offseason I sat down with my team and I kind of knew what to expect this season. And with that mindset, I started enjoying it, I started enjoying all the media, everything, going to different cities every week, and to be honest now I’m really enjoying the tour, I’m loving it, and hopefully I could do this for as long as possible.”
Shapovalov next takes on Dutchman Robin Haase in the Rome second round and even though he only ever had one clay-court tour-level match win, his run to the semis in Madrid last week and his success over Berdych on Tuesday is a good sign that he’s finding his footing on the red dirt.
The conditions are considerably different between Madrid and Rome, and the turnaround was quick for Shapovalov, who played the semis in Spain on Saturday and opened his campaign in Italy on Tuesday. He barely had time to practice and he had to share a court with Jelena Ostapenko on Monday.
“I wasn’t tired. I just couldn’t find my footing in the first set,” he explained. “The clay is so different here. I haven’t had really a chance to practice alone on a court so couldn’t really get my timing.
“I just kept fighting, kept competing and I’m really happy I got to turn the match around. I just told myself, ‘Look I had a great week last week, try to find that game that you played, that confidence you have in yourself. I did a good job at just staying positive and keep on fighting. I’m really happy I got the win.”
March 2017 – Reaches first Challenger final and wins the title in Drummondville
July 2017 – Wins Gatineau Challenger
August 2017 – Defeats Nadal and Del Potro en route to becoming the youngest Masters 1000 semi-finalist in history in Montreal
September 2017 – Reaches US Open fourth round as a qualifier
October 2017 – Cracks top-50 for the first time
May 2018 – Reaches second Masters semi-final and becomes youngest semi-finalist in Madrid history
May 2018 – Cracks top-30 for the first time
May 2018 – Becomes Canadian No. 1
Daria Kasatkina admits she’s feeling confident this clay season but isn’t burdening herself with expectations ahead of the French Open.
The Russian No. 15 seed was unfazed by the rain and heavy conditions that struck Rome on Tuesday and was ruthless in her 6-0, 6-4 opening round victory over Australian-Croatian Ajla Tomljanovic.
“After years, three years on tour, you get used to this,” Kasatkina told Sport360 after her win, laughing at the idea of feeling already experienced on tour at the age of 21.
“I was ready, the forecast was expected since three days so I was ready, I was expecting the rain and I was sitting and relaxing before the match and trying to focus on the things that were important.”
Kasatkina, who made back-to-back finals in Dubai and Indian Wells, is having a stellar 2018 campaign and will be one of the ones to watch at Roland Garros this month.
She says that the secret to her good form against Tomljanovic on Tuesday was feeling freedom in her variety of shots in a way that reminded her of her junior days.
“Today I felt a little bit like when I was a junior, the way I was playing, like spin, drop shot, slice… because it was pretty slow today so I had a little bit more time. I didn’t have a warm-up before the match but I felt pretty good,” said Kasatkina.
Asked if she feels she can go deep at the French Open, she added: “When you think about these things it’s not really good. Of course I’m confident and I want to go further and further especially at such big tournaments like the French Open but I’m also not expecting from myself huge, huge things because then I’m under pressure.
“I’m just trying to go on court and enjoy every second. Like today, it was a little bit like juniors, because that’s the way I play. When I was a junior I didn’t have a good backhand, so I was slicing and drop-shotting, playing lobs, so I had to use my brain now. And now it’s even better because sometimes I can even hit the backhand, so I have more options.”