Caroline Wozniacki’s reign as Australian Open champion ended with a three-set defeat by Maria Sharapova in the third round.
The battle of two of the biggest names in the game did not disappoint but in the end Sharapova’s fierce hitting won the day as she surged to a 6-4, 4-6, 6-3 victory on Rod Laver Arena.
The Russian said: “I thought the level was quite high. I knew I was going to get a really tough match. I haven’t played a lot of matches in the last year, especially against top players. These are the matches you train for and it’s really rewarding to win the last point.”
Wozniacki is the highest-ranked opponent Sharapova has beaten since her first-round victory over Simona Halep at the US Open in 2017.
That was her first grand slam tournament back after her 15-month doping ban and at the time seemed to be a sign of the Russian’s impending resurgence.
It has not happened that way, though, with Sharapova struggling to find anything like her previous form and also troubled by injuries, with an ongoing shoulder problem prompting her to shut down her season after the US Open last summer.
The 31-year-old bristled a little at the suggestion she needed a statement win like this to kick her comeback into gear but there was no doubt she was fired up for this encounter.
There is no love lost between the two players. Wozniacki was one of the most outspoken critics of the way Sharapova was welcomed back to the game following her ban, prompting the Russian’s agent Max Eisenbud to brand Wozniacki a “journeyman player”.
The Dane began the match the stronger and moved into a 4-1 lead but Sharapova responded, showing how desperate she was to match Wozniacki physically by winning a superb, all-court rally that included a left-handed forehand.
She rode a wave of momentum to take the first set and then repeated the pattern by coming from 3-0 down to level the second.
Sharapova has been too error-prone over the last 18 months to make the kind of progress she had been looking for but this was a much more measured performance right up until she served at 4-5, when a double fault and two forehand errors allowed Wozniacki to level the match.
But Sharapova did not fold, the steel in her eyes showing just how much she wanted to win this one, and a series of ferocious forehands in the seventh game gave her the breakthrough.
She celebrated with a huge yell and then broke Wozniacki again to claim victory, finishing with a tally of 37 winners, compared to just 10 for her opponent.
On the men’s side of the draw, Roger Federer put on a performance to defeat Taylor Fritz and set up a mouth-watering fourth-round clash with Stefanos Tsitsipas.
Federer was pushed in the second set by 21-year-old American Fritz but pulled off a succession of highlight reel shots in a 6-2, 7-5, 6-2 victory, hitting 34 winners.
The Swiss will play in the fourth round of a grand slam for the 63rd time against a man through to that stage for just the second time in 20-year-old Tsitsipas.
The Greek is arguably the most exciting young star in tennis and he battled to a 6-3, 3-6, 7-6 (7), 6-4 victory over Nikoloz Basilashvili.
A resurgent Tomas Berdych is also through to the last 16 for the eighth time in the last nine years here after a 5-7, 6-3, 7-5, 6-4 victory over 18th seed Diego Schwartzman.
Andy Murray showed that his hip injury has not dulled his fighting qualities as he battled for four remarkable hours before falling to a five-set loss against Roberto Bautista Agut in what could be his last professional match at the Australian Open.
Murray tearfully announced on Friday that he is planning to retire this year, and maybe as soon as after this tournament. The 31-year-old threatened a miracle but was ultimately beaten 6-4, 6-4, 6-7 (5), 6-7 (4), 6-2 by the Spanish 22nd seed.
Murray’s hopes were not high given the state of his right hip but this was a remarkable performance for a man who admits he struggles to put his shoes and socks on.
A kinder draw and Murray might well have delayed the seemingly inevitable but Bautista Agut is one of the fittest and grittiest players on tour, and he fought off the Scot’s comeback.
The snaking queues outside Melbourne Arena of tennis fans wanting to see Murray was a sight to behold and he was greeted by a deafening roar as he emerged onto the court, which has seats available to holders of ground passes.
Murray waved and held a thumb up, no doubt determined to soak it all in.
His coaching team, Davis Cup captain Leon Smith, friend and former coach Dani Vallverdu, British players Katie Swan and Harriet Dart and mum Judy were among those in attendance and they were joined during the opening set by brother Jamie, who rarely watches Andy live because he finds it too stressful.
If that was an indication this was far from just another match, the early stages were encouraging, with Murray moving much better than he had in Thursday’s practice match against Novak Djokovic that set the alarm bells jangling.
He was striking his backhand well but movement to the forehand remained a major issue and the ever-present limp slowly became more pronounced.
It was a tough situation for Bautista Agut, taking on the crowd and an opponent who was clearly not at full fitness but whose capabilities on the day remained a question mark.
The Spaniard took the first set after breaking at 4-4 and Murray’s chuntering to himself was a reminder that he still very much wanted to win a tennis match.
There were flickers early in the second set with two break points but Bautista Agut went on to take that too. It would not be Murray, though, if he did not go down without a fight, and fight he did.
Broken for 1-2 in the third set, he hit straight back, pushing a backhand down the line to finish a vintage point and holding his arms aloft.
There were more celebrations when he fought off a break point at 4-4, and he forced a first set point in the next game. He would have taken it, too, but for an overrule from umpire Eva Asderaki-Moore on a second serve that was backed up by HawkEye.
But Murray was not to be denied in the tie-break, creating two set points when Bautista Agut shanked a forehand over the baseline and taking the second with a forehand guided into the open court.
Murray roared in delight and defiance, his fighter’s instinct drowning out the pain.
And the heroics did not end there. Murray matched Bautista Agut throughout the fourth set and was the better player in the tie-break.
But he was unable to maintain his momentum early in the fifth set, with Bautista Agut winning five games in a row.
Murray fought back tears as he served at 1-5 but there was still time for one more magic moment as he saved a match point by finishing a long rally with an angled volley winner.
The three-time grand slam champion must now decide on his next move, having said on Friday that his original plan to retire after Wimbledon is in jeopardy because of the amount of pain he is in.
That was echoed by the Scot’s surgeon, and Murray may well choose to have a second operation straight away to improve his quality of life.
Andy Murray will make his return to the Australian Open with a tough first-round match against Roberto Bautista Agut.
The Spanish 22nd seed defeated Novak Djokovic on his way to the title in Doha last week while concerns about Murray’s fitness grew as he struggled through a practice match against world number one Djokovic at Melbourne Park on Thursday.
Kyle Edmund, back at the scene of his semi-final appearance 12 months ago, was also given a difficult opener against former top-10 stalwart Tomas Berdych, who is unseeded following injury.
Cameron Norrie goes into the tournament as Britain’s form man and he faces a rematch with American Taylor Fritz, who he defeated to reach the semi-finals of the ASB Classic in Auckland on Thursday.
Defending champion Roger Federer takes on Denis Istomin in round one and is in the same half of the draw as Rafael Nadal, who has drawn Australian James Duckworth.
Djokovic, who like Federer is bidding for a record seventh title in Melbourne, will play a qualifier in round one.
Johanna Konta begins her campaign against Australia’s Ajla Tomljanovic, who she lost to in Brisbane last week.
Konta is in a loaded top quarter of the draw that also includes world number one Simona Halep, who faces a rematch with her US Open conqueror Kaia Kanepi, and Serena and Venus Williams.
British number two Heather Watson takes on 31st seed Petra Martic from Croatia while Katie Boulter, playing in her first slam main draw outside of Wimbledon, meets experienced Russian Ekaterina Makarova.